I recently discovered the joys of reading the Chinese stories of English author Ernest Bramah (pen name of Ernest Brammah Smith) in his first collection, The Wallet of Kai Lung, published in 1900. Delighted by his humor and erudition, I quickly purchased most of his subsequent collections, which I will read by and by. Bramah's stories are richly detailed and demand careful attention; one needs to savor the stories in an unhurried manner.
Curious about the evolution of his intricate writing style, I sought out Bramah's first book, English Farming and Why I Turned It Up, which was published in 1894, in the late Victorian period. The book is a slightly fictionalized account of Bramah's experiences during his attempt at tenant farming in England.
To get a sense of history, I find it helpful to place this publication date in the context of my own family history, counting back the generations on my father's side. In 1894, my great grandfather was still farming in eastern Iowa (prior to an unfortunate move right after the start of the new century to an expansive but hard-scrabble farm in northwest Missouri) and my grandfather's birth was still three years in the future. Iowa farming of that era was doubtless similar to English farming, although the Iowans had the advantage of richer soil and better equipment – the John Deere factory was just across the Mississippi River in Moline, Illinois.
English Farming had limited sales back in 1894 and is difficult to acquire nowadays. Good used copies from the UK run about $200. As I rarely wish to part with more than $25 to satisfy my literary curiosity, I was grateful that my local library could facilitate a loan from the Colorado State University library.
The book is no longer subject to copyright. Therefore, I am able to give lengthy excerpts of the good, clean prose of the young Ernest Bramah. I have added a few explanatory comments in brackets, as needed.
I can remember the time when people used to talk to me about farming and explain how I ought to go about it. Alas! I now know.
There are people who think that farming is an ideal occupation and just the one for which they are cut out – they are so fond of fresh eggs and animals and things. They know that farming is not a very profitable thing, but they do not mind that; all they want is just to make a living out of it.
The object of this book is to reconcile them to their present lot. It does not involve much reading – containing, curiously enough, just as many pages as Redeaves Farm did acres [i.e., 181] – and its perusal may save would-be farmers about five hundred a year.
Chapter 1 In a Farm House
One winter evening, some twelve months ago, Altera and I were sitting in the dining room at Redeaves. Like most English farm house dining rooms, it is a snug little place, cheerful in its homelike untidiness, and doubly so when the snow lies a foot deep outside and the east wind whistles across the fields and gains intensity from every icy barrier it sweeps over. Away from the high road everywhere is white and still, the fields are pure and trackless and the ice-bound streams are hidden under the levelling sheet that covers all the land. In the light of the shepherd's swinging lantern the buildings glitter and scintillate at every point, and from the unspouted eaves the water steadily drips under the thawing influence of the steaming cattle within. The sheep in the rickyard huddle together in the angles and under carts, or pull hay from the stacks and munch stolidly in philosophical indifference to the cold.
"Why doesn't Lydia bring the lamp?" I asked Altera, who sat, all mixed up with the rug, before a blazing wood and coal fire.
"Did you tell Billy to take the oil can to be filled?" she replied, with innocent dissimulation.
"Do you mean to say," I cried, jumping up as I remembered that I had done nothing of the kind, "that we are reduced to this, just because, with a thousand other things on hand, I forget to – well, this is lively!"
"Not quite so bad as that," and Altera threw a couple of logs into the grate, and immediately a million tiny sparks spurt out and die, and the white and lasting tongues lick out through and around the bars and up the chimney; "now there is quite enough light for you to read to me by!"
"Read what?" I asked. "Old Link brought the trap round ten minutes late for some reason or other. Kitty lay well down to it and we got there just in time to see the train go out. I didn't see the fun of waiting two hours in this weather and came back again."
It was Altera's turn to jump up.
"Does that mean that for a week, a whole seven days, we have absolutely nothing to read?"
"Mark Lane [i.e., The Mark Lane Express Agricultural Journal] comes on Tuesday," I said, reassuringly; "and I think – don't buoy yourself up too much, because I may be mistaken, but I think that there are some odd numbers of Chatterbox for about 1870 in the lumber room."
"I've seen them," she said, shuddering; "and they are full of spiders. Is there absolutely nothing else in the house?"
"Sutton's Permanent and Temporary Pastures, The Book of the Pig, Chemistry in some of its Relations with Agriculture, a few more of that sort, and – and the journals and diaries that I kept at Erith and Tudorlands."
"I'm not particularly interested in knowing how many quarts of milk make a pound of butter, or how many bushels or whatever they are of corn you ought to grow to the acre," mused Altera, "but I did rather want to know what it was like at Erith and Tudorlands. But in the first place, why in the name of wonder did you ever go in for farming?"
"That's what people always do ask one. Why does anyone go in for farming? Take a number of youths just from school, give them absolute freedom of occupation, and a certain proportion are certain to choose agriculture. Not that they are particularly enamoured of it, and of course they know nothing of the financial side, but because it affords some attractive recreation, because they will be their own masters and have their own time, and because there is nothing else that they particularly prefer. Things were not very bright when I began but they are ten times worse now, yet just cast your eye down the 'Farm Pupil' advertisements in the agricultural papers and you will see that it is still going on. What does a young gentleman know after a few years at a fancy college or with a practical man? He hear a lot about foreign competition, but besides that he has to compete with every other farmer in the neighborhood: with men who have been at it all their lives. Of course he has the pull of them in some ways, but the practical judgment of hand and eye can only be acquired, if it can be acquired, by constant and livelong association with matters agricultural."
"You seem to be pitching into [attacking] yourself generally," remarked Altera.
"No, I am defending myself – for failure. For almost inevitable failure, I might say. Now Mr. Keith knows what he is about, and he refuses to accept a man as tenant unless he has ten pounds an acre credit, and also unless he isn't a gentleman."
"And you think the same as Mr. Keith?"
"Much the same."
"You had ten pounds an acre, I think?"
"The agricultural definition of 'gentleman,'" I explained, ignoring the drift of Altera's insinuation, "is somewhat different from ours. A gentleman farmer is one who does no manual work. To the average farmer anyone who has a certain amount of money is a gentleman, but on the other hand, no farmer, be he rich or poor, who works, can be a gentleman. Nor is this rather narrow limitation confined only to farmers. The other day I was walking with some people, fairly educated, well brought up people, who wore orthodox and respectable clothes, doctors or lawyers or directors I should suppose them to be, and pointing to a house near, they made some remark about it, and asked me whether a farmer or a gentleman lived there."
"But what is all this tending to?"
"This: that in order to avoid losing money by farming – there is no such thing as 'successful farming' now-a-days – it is necessary that a man should only have so much land as he can personally directly supervise, and that he must do a fair share of actual work on the farm; that everything must be considered, nothing done merely experimentally, and yet nothing that would be of practical value ignored. And any previous education that he may have had that would make him indifferent of seeming trifles, careless of execution, or finical in any way, is detrimental to success. An acknowledged authority [Mr. J. Chalmers Morton], speaking before the Royal Agricultural Society of England, quoted the following opinion of a last-century Gloucestershire farmer as worthy of notice and as, to some extent, expressing his own opinion:--
"'I never know a learned man who was a good farmer, and therefore I never lamented the want of an education. The time of life to make men scholars is the time for observations in the farming line; and it rarely happens that a man can be a proficient in that business unless he be trained to it from his youth. I would take a man that can neither read nor write, to make a farmer, sooner than I would the most learned man. The former has no knowledge but what comes from nature, and of good natural parts. The latter prides himself on his reading and his education, by which he thinks of pulling nature out of her course, and of outdoing everybody.'"
"Then if you aren't farming well, I beg your pardon, I mean if you aren't farming successfully, you must be losing money?"
"Great Scott, woman! don't I tell you every day that I'm being ruined?"
"Ye-es, but farmers always say that."
"But they are; they really are now."
"Then why don't you give it up?
"I should have to give a year's notice before I could leave."
"And why don't you?
"I have done!"
"I have done!"
"Thank goodness for that!" said Altera.
Chapter 2 Gaining Practical Knowledge
"Having decided to farm," I continued, "the next thing was to get some practical knowledge of the way. My adviser took the trouble to inspect, personally, some of the well-known agricultural colleges, but coming to the conclusion that horses might be studied more economically than by keeping a stud of hunters, and that billiards were not an essential item of any except perhaps elephant farming, he gave up his previous intention and instituted inquiries among his country friends. Very soon we heard of a gentleman (I should say a farmer – he worked) who had a mixed farm of about two hundred acres in a good dairying country and who was willing to give me a trial though he had never had any pupils before.
"Before definitely settling matters we went down to Erith for an afternoon. It was a lovely day in July and everything was at its best. It is no exaggeration to say that neither of us knew a field of grass from a field of corn, so we were greatly interested in everything. Then, just as we were leaving, the dairy cows were brought up to be milked – thirty of them, in beautiful condition. We were charmed with everything we saw, and from that moment an arrangement was a foregone conclusion.
"A week later I again took the same journey, this time by myself. As the train neared the station I speculated whether anyone would be there to meet me, and if so how on earth we were to know each other, for we had quite forgotten to arrange about that. However, when I had seen the luggage taken out most of the people had cleared off, and only one vehicle, a neat trap in charge of a tall young man wearing fancy leggins, was in the yard. The tall young man eyed me for a few moments and I suppose I reciprocated the action. We approached, each mumbled a few interrogatory words and I found myself sitting in the trap and spinning along the highway. Half an hour later we turned up the narrow occupation road and jolted over the rough stones into the yard.
"'What was the house like?' In the front very much like a barn with the windows put in in excruciating regularity as an afterthought. The front face the manure heap, of course. An immense manure heap being the pride of every properly constructed farmer, it is only natural that he should like it directly under his eye at all times. The rear of the house was picturesque in angles and rich-toned brick work. As it only contained the dairy and the smaller bedrooms it looked out over a sweep of fine undulating country. The buildings formed three sides of a hollow square, the house being the fourth, with the yard enclosed. Directly opposite the house were the shippens, and behind these the large shed for hay and corn. The stables, chaff pen, granary, and cart sheds were on the left, and the loose boxes and pig sties, the latter near the house of course, on the right. They all had a painfully mathematical regularity. The orchard surrounded the house on three sides; a small plot directly in front being devoted – sacrificed I think Mr. Leigh considered it – to lawn and flowers.
"At that time Mr. Leigh was an eminently successful farmer. His operations and croppings were carried out with the greatest regularity, so that by a very slight calculation it would be possible to say what crop would be in any particular field, say, fifty years hence: theoretically of course. Potatoes one year, oats the next, and clover the third. Then the clover was plowed up and planted with potatoes, and so on again. That is called the three course rotation. Thirty acres of each of those three crops every year, so that you see there would always be ninety acres going on in that way. Then there were a few acres of wheat, a few of meadow land, and the remainder pasture and the usual 'waste' of woods, ponds, and swamp.
"There were generally between twenty and thirty dairy cows, half a dozen oxen, a score or so of calves, a flock of thirty sheep, which would mean about seventy head in summer with the lambs, and eight or ten horses of all kinds. Such were the accessories of a paying farm six years ago...."
... "There were five young labourers who, as I have already mentioned, slept in the house. These constituted the regular staff, but in harvest and potato-getting time as many as twenty extra men would be employed.
"Dick, the cowman, was the exquisite of the place, and he affected a pretty judgment in the Erith fashions. He always went about his work chanting in an aimless kind of way that never seemed to get to anything. He had a wonderful repertoire, but all I can remember is:
' – the triccer [trigger] she druew,
And her uncle she sluew!'
But how this dramatic situation was led up to has quite escaped me. Doubtless it was this Apollo-like gift that made him so much sought after, for every Sunday afternoon, and generally every evening, he had an engagement to 'walk out' with some fortunate but ever-changing charmer; 'regular slap-up ladies,' he described them, 'dressed to the nines.'
Chapter 4 Farm Owners and Farm Agents
Even the two years practical experience had made little change in my opinion of farming, and my adviser, being more of an optimist, talked about a long lease or even buying a farm. Some merciful power had prejudiced me against this, and I stipulated for a yearly tenancy and a holding not exceeding two hundred acres.
"Very well, Edward," he said, "just suit yourself; had you not better look round and select one?"
I looked round.
For a period of exactly twelve months I looked round the greater part of England, inspecting farms but selecting none. Sometimes I might be fortunate enough to work several from one centre; at others I had to take a long journey to see, perhaps, an utterly run down, villainously over-described, desolate waste of a land.
Estate agents' circular poured in from all sides, sheaves of agricultural papers accumulated, intimates began to get slightly sick of the topic, but the ideal farm was as far away as ever.
Obliging agents would make appointments and, either personally or by deputy, conduct the inspection. Others arranged with the tenants to show over anyone presenting a "card to view." A few were so careless or indifferent that they merely sent a view card without making any arrangement with the tenant, and as that gentleman did not regard any possible successor with much amity the reception was not always a pleasant one.
Once I found the farm house empty and the whole place deserted. All the buildings were locked up and everything looked so hopelessly depressing that I precipitously fled, haunted by the idea that the last tenant had certainly hanged himself.
There seemed to be some insurmountable objection to all the otherwise most eligible places. One, situated somewhere between London and Brighton, was very attractive, but it could only be had on a seven years' lease. Altera was greatly prepossessed by this one, chiefly, I think, because it had been an Elizabethan manor house. Failing that, she fixed on an out-of-the-way place on an island somewhere off the East Coast. Besides the romantic situation, there was another attraction in the shape of a barge that belonged to the farm. I pointed out that this was not a pleasure boat in the ordinary sense of the word, but a craft used for conveying manure from the mainland to the farm and taking produce back. Then that farm fell into disfavour and there was not more talk about Liberty draped cabins....
.... It was about this time that I came across Redeaves. Almost tired of the whole business, I was in a ripe mood to take any place that had no glaring drawbacks. The Redeaves house and buildings were good, a stations was within two miles, and an important town within ten; the land was as productive as much that I had already seen, and the rent was not out of the way. I wrote to Mr. Leigh telling him about it and asking him whether he could spare a day to run over. He very kindly did so, and on one bleak March afternoon we walked over every field on the place, looked at the stock, and saw samples of the produce grown.
Mr. Leigh's cautious advice was that he did not think it would be dear if it could be had for something less than the rent asked, the "something" to be as much as possible....
Chapter 7 Labour and Labourers
"A boy's a boy, two boys are half a boy, and three boys are no boy at all."
It sounds like the beginning of a riddle but it is an uncommonly hard, true fact, as anyone who has had much to do with the species can bear witness to.
I never had the three boys all at once, but the "half-boy" was an establishment at Redeaves. His component quarters were constantly changing, but the general effect never altered. There was always the same unhealthy craving for excitement that urged him to goad cattle into madness and to delight in turning a stable of quiet, well-ordained horses, into a rearing, plunging, kicking mass of confusion; the same rural instinct that would find vent in "smokin' a nes' of wapses," or drowning a hedgehog in preference to any appointed task; the same propensity to "work" in the vicinity of the kitchen, and the same habitual forgetfulness of anything beyond beer and club days.
His general terms were five shillings a week (for each quarter) and sundries, an elastic term embracing everything he could get. He was expensive and capricious. He would lose tools, smash implements, let cattle into corn, and play the bear generally. Then some fine morning in the busy season he would turn up and explain that having got a place elsewhere at sixpence a week more wages he wanted paying up to date.
At last, after I had reduced the number and thereby increased the capability, I found the ideal boy. He did not know anything about the work when he first came, but that was a trifle for he soon picked it up. He did what he was told to do, and if he wasn't told to do anything he did what he ought to have been told to do. Then he was always respectful and neat and clean.
I anticipated how it must end, and I knew that he was acting wisely and well when he told me that he was sorry to leave but he had decided to go to America....
... Scroggings was the most difficult to manage of the lot. He was a good rough workman for most things and a "one pace" man. But political agitators got hold of him periodically and worked him up to a rebellious point. Then he would talk socialism and equality and political economy, but it all meant the same thing: a shilling a week more wages.
"I don't know what things be a' comin' to, Marster," he would complain, as he sat on a batten of straw eating his bread and bacon in the barn, "but they can't go on like this for ever."
"You get fourteen shillings a week, Scroggings," I would say, "and that's the full rate of wages about here at present."
"It ai'nt enough, Marster, whatever it be."
"It's little enough for a man to work for," I had to admit, "but look here Scroggings; you get that fourteen shillings a week irrespective of agricultural fluctuations. You are independent of markets, of losses of stock, or of bad weather. By the act of becoming a farm labourer you make yourself dependent on agriculture and yet you want to be entirely independent of its evils. A farmer may be losing all his capital abut his men get paid just the same. Compared with the wages and the prices ruling in the gone times of good farming, you are infinitely better off than either landlord or tenant. For three months in the summer you get sixteen shillings a week and between seventeen and eighteen counting overtime. Then you have more privileges than most other classes or workmen; not a great deal to rely on perhaps, but you get agitating for reorganisation and hard and fast rules, and you probably are no better off and may even lose something you now have."
"That was all every well," he said, "but fourteen shillings a week wasn't much for a man to live on."
"I know it isn't," I again admitted, "but the point of the whole things is that you can't get any more. If I take a sample of wheat to the Exchange to-morrow I can't hope to get more than twelve shillings a bag for it, simply because as a wholesale commodity it isn't worth any more just now. You, Scroggings, are a marketable and fluctuating commodity and just now you are only worth fourteen shillings a week."
He said that I could keep the wheat till it was up again.
"Quite so, and you can keep your labour till it's up again. But if we both want money we are bound to sell at present prices; I, my wheat: you, your work. To go a step further, the price I get for the wheat is small in comparison with the price bread is selling at. The price you get for your labour is large and out of proportion with the value of the results of that labour."
He said that however that might be fourteen shillings a week wasn't much for a man to live on....
Chapter 11 Dissipations of the British Bumpkin
Rural festivals are generally a fraud. To see the country as it ought to be, one has now-a-days to go to a comic opera or a fancy bazaar. The modern Corydon would as soon think of learning Greek as of tying himself up with ribbons on May-day and even if he did he would probably be told to "take that tomfoolery off and lend a hand sowing soot." Phillis is a stout, moon-faced young person, whose highest ambition is to be a dressmaker. It is the exception rather than the rule for her to be the foster-sister of the Squire's daughter, nor does she interest the wandering artist by gazing rapturously at his glowing canvas and half-unconsciously murmuring an appropriate line from Tennyson, then blushingly explaining that she has had the run of the Rectory library but – this with a sigh – hitherto, no one to teach her. Instead, she giggles and if foolishly encouraged draws near and asks him to paint her "photograf." Not that this is her fault for instead of the mixture of Byron and the Young Ladies' Journal on which wayside beauties seem to develop, her literature is confined to the copy-books and "readers" of the village school. Here is a specimen taken at random from a collection enriching the walls of Pogstall school and the mind that can grow romantic on this fare is positively dangerous in its possibilities:--
Cats ran at Rats. Rats are not Cats. Are Rams Rats? Rats have not Mats to sit on. Cats sit on Beds. Cats have fed on Rats. A Ram met a Man. A Man sits on a Sod. Let a Man sit on a Sod. Can a Ram sit on a Sod?
Harvest suppers are another institution that it is misleading to write about in the present tense. Down at Tudorlands, Lang used to compromise with a Christmas dinner and that was the nearest I ever got to the traditional picturesque. It commence at about six o'clock on Christmas Eve and lasted till the room got so full of smoke that we had to lie on the floor to breathe. Then, when it was a question either of going or being suffocated, we dispersed. Furze and some of the other men knew a lot of old country-side songs, but the degenerate cow-boy, when his turn came, always broke into a music-hall ditty and accompanied himself on a wretched German concertina....
... The rising generation of labourers seems to prefer dancing and cocoa-nut shies to any other amusement. In most parts of the country a dissipated festival called the "Mop" comes round two or three times a year and provides these and other relaxations. The Mop is an ancient institution and not so very long ago it was a genuine hiring fair, but to-day it only exhibits the least favourable characteristics of a cattle fair and a Saturday night scene in the New Cut [the area by the Royal Victoria Hall aka "Old Vic"], while the only antique thing remaining to it is the ox which is roasted whole and which yields an oily and indigestible product that converts one to vegetarianism....
Chapter 13 Going! Going! –
It was not only that I was actually losing money: everything seemed so hopelessly the same in the future. What could possibly happen? Farming might "get better" in that ambiguous way peculiarly its own: legislature, even, might possibly do something. But nothing could alter the fearful casualness of the people; nothing remove the iron wall of uncommercial instinct, unscalable and impenetrable.
Disencumbered of its grosser associations it was a pretty enough existence. As a sober means of livelihood, I had tried it, I had given it a fair trial I believe, and as far as I was concerned – I distinctly speak from no other standpoint – it was a failure.
Having come to this conclusion there was obviously only one thing to do, and perhaps Mr. Hamilton was not altogether surprised to receive my notice.
Friends in town wrote their astonishment that we could leave such a charming place as Redeaves; they were sure that in summer it was a perfect paradise.
We knew better than ask them over in winter!
... Now that the small annoyances and greater evils are things of the past I find myself a little prone to look back instinctively to the sunny side of the landscape. I can even, once more, appreciate the enthusiasm of the city man who looks forward to the time of emancipation and, "a little place in the country, sir, where I'm going to put a few ideas to a practical test and show our farmers the right way to make things pay." For it is a grand life in itself. There is a straight simple dignity in its daily round, an exquisite beauty in its gradually unfolding life, and a direct honesty in its inviolable laws that raise it above all common considerations. It opens the portals of a world of new emotions that the dwellers in cities never feel; emotions that live and die in the fibre of the communicant and are untranslatable beyond. What pen or tongue can adequately describe the sense of aching rest produced by the contemplation of the perfect calm of a full summer day when nothing human distracts and the land stretches away into distant miles of green and gold and faint blue hills beyond? Who can do more than simply feel the wild rush of exhilaration as the midnight storm shrieks over the hill, and the clouds sweep across the sky, and the giant trees crack and split like reeds while the sudden strength of a madman runs riot through every tingling vein. These are the things which come back again in all their force when the human episodes have gone into oblivion or are only remembered with a smile.
* * * * * * * *
Yes, I can once more agree with the man in the train that farming is the most agreeable of all pursuits – to all except the farmer!