Snapshot: one working man’s clothing practices in 1840

The Corn Laws, in place between 1815-46, were, in brief, tariffs on imported grain and food, designed to give domestic producers better prices for their produce, but in reality causing food prices to rise and distress and hunger for working people unable to produce food for themselves. As protests against the Corn Laws gained momentum, a Corn Law Convention was held in London in 1840 to discuss if the Corn Laws benefitted agricultural labourers and to petition Lord Melbourne for their abolition. James Vickery (Vicary), a farm labourer from Great Torrington in Devon, gave evidence. His details also survive in the 1841 census, where he lived in Mill Street, the oldest street in the town, and so in poor housing conditions:

Pigot & Co.’s Directory of Berks, Bucks … , 1844. [Part 1: Berks to Glos], p. 300.

see photograph:

1841 census

From the newspaper report, the hard life of the agricultural labourer emerges, including the various clothing practices his family undertook to survive. He could earn from 7- 9 shillings a week for his family, his wife and four children aged from 18 to 3, with two older children from his first marriage living outside the home.  His eighteen-year-old daughter and wife earned money each week from gloving, that is making up gloves, a large industry for female outworkers in the area, working from home, with 11 manufacturers in the town in 1844, ‘the principal branch of trade carried on’. His daughter made around a shilling or 1s 6d, his wife only 6d.  His sixteen year old son was described as ‘a little simple’ and ‘could do nothing’, so most likely with a learning disability, which severely impacted on his wife’s earning ability, so their total income never exceeded 11 shillings a week.  James worked on a farm or helped to maintain the nearby Rolle Canal.  He kept a pig, to get bacon, and cultivated potatoes on some land he got in exchange for giving a farmer the pig’s dung and refuse.  After describing his rents, bread and coal expenditure, plus the rates he was liable for, including the poor rate, he then described his clothing practices.

‘He could not find much clothing’, having on his best jacket which he had owned for seven or eight years, as well as his secondhand breeches bought at the same time, both kept for Sundays and worn to the convention.  His ordinary clothes were ‘very mean’ and he had mended and patched his working breeches so much, putting one piece on top of another, that they weighed ‘nearly forty pounds’ (18kg).  This brings to mind the extremely patched clothing sometimes found stuffed in chimneys for example, where it is difficult to tell what is the original garment, see:

He had patched his clothing himself, as ‘he did not like to go ragged’.  The breeches were bought at around the same time as he married his first wife, thirty years previously, which also suggests a sentimental attachment to them and a determination to keep them wearable. 

James had bought some sail canvas trousers and a short smock frock a couple of years previously to supplement his working wardrobe. His shirt linen was bought from packmen, an itinerant door to door seller, as was the material for his wife and children’s clothing, both paid for in small sums, the clothing probably made up by his wife.  He had two shirts made-up from this linen. They paid for their shoes in weekly instalments and he needed a new pair of everyday shoes each year as they wore out. The family slept in two beds in their two bedroom house and he had made a grate, his only other possessions seemingly two chairs, some homemade stools, ‘three candlesticks, two pots, and a tea kettle’.  He suggested that life was easier previously, with lower barley prices, and they were more likely to have a ‘bellyful’ then although his wife’s clothing was now cheaper.  However, they were in debt with the house rent and barely had enough to eat.  The report concluded that his life was probably not typical as he was not a skilled labourer and gloving also was ‘perhaps the worst paid sewing work’.  With a disabled sixteen year old son, which compromised their wage earning potential as a family, they were deemed not representative and their case had no bearing on the Corn Law question, for the newspaper commentator anyway.[1]  

However, the clothing practices described by this one labourer, despite, or maybe because of, their limited income, underline the variety of methods which went into obtaining and maintain clothing, including smocks. Cobbled together, patched up, secondhand, bought for and paid in instalments from itinerant sellers, homemade and shop bought readymade, repaired by men and made by women, all within this one family.  In Torrington, tailors, drapers and a pawnbroker are listed in the contemporary trade directory but in reality, ordinary families relied on clothing strategies that went far beyond this to maintain their appearance.

[1] Birmingham Journal, 4 April 1840.

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