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The Scrivener: Bettering Their Situation

Brian Barratt's great-grandfather Joseph Armstrong was in the late 19th Century a higgler. To discover what he did do read the results of Brian's fascinating trawl in the deeps of family history.

My great-grandfather Joseph Armstrong was christened 14/11/1841. Before becoming a shopkeeper in South Collingham, Nottinghamshire, he is described in a Census as a higgler. Here is one of the definitions of higgler in Oxford English Dictionary:
An itinerant dealer; especially a carrier or a huckster who buys up poultry and dairy produce, and supplies in exchange petty commodities from the shops in town; haggler, cadger.

Higgling seems to be an occupation appropriate for the son of a Gypsy, given that it was by no means confined to the Rom. His father was Thomas Armstrong, about whose origins we know almost nothing but it is fairly certain that he was Roma (a Gypsy). His mother was Charlotte née Ordoyno, the runaway daughter of Thomas Ordoyno, property owner, benefactor, botanist, and author of the seminal work Flora Nottinghamiensis — in other words, she came from the upper level of Newark society. In 1881 Charlotte is described as the widow of an agricultural labourer. That puts both of them much lower down on the social scale.

This was a time of change for labourers and the poor. Open land where they had been able freely to mow for hay, grow vegetables and graze their own meagre livestock was being enclosed by landowners. In some cases, poor tenants were evicted. Here is an extract from White's Directory of Nottinghamshire 1864:

The enclosure of commons, though necessary with a rapidly increasing population, has had some effect in deteriorating the condition of many poor persons; and to remedy this the owners of land should make allotments of land, at moderate rates, to the poor; a practice, we are glad to observe, very much increasing. The wages of agricultural labourers seldom exceed 2s. per day, except by task work he has a chance to increase his gains; and the farmers let their jobs with an economic hand, workmen being generally plentiful.

We get a clearer picture of Thomas Armstrong's circumstances in this extract from White's Directory of 1832 which is in turn an extract from an earlier work, published in 1811, when an agricultural labourer's income was 'seldom more than eighteen-pence or two shillings per day'.

Let us now look at the state of the poor in Nottinghamshire, where large farms are fortunately, as yet, almost unknown. A very faithful picture of them has been drawn by Mr Lowe, who tells us ‘that there are few counties in England where the poor will be found better lodged, clothed, or fed, or better provided with fuel. Most cottages have a garden and potatoe garth [a small piece of enclosed land near the house], and few of them are without a web of cloth of their own spinning; many of them, particularly in the clays, have a few acres of land attached to their cottages, and are thereby enabled to keep a cow in addition their pigs; and here too the poor may be actually said to be industrious, for here they are often seen themselves, as well as their children, employed at their leisure hours in collecting the horse dung from the public roads, either for the use of their own gardens or to sell.’

Thus we are looking at a period when a farm labourer such as Thomas Armstrong would be earning around £31 per year. To put this in perspective, when income tax was introduced in 1799 it was not payable on incomes below £60. In 1842 the exemption rate was raised to an income of £150. The following is adapted from a website (which I acknowledge, but the name of which I failed to keep a note):

The enclosure of land between 1770 and 1830 changed English village life and resulted in vast estates being annexured by landowners. Some families could no longer grow vegetables or graze their animals on the common land. Their diet became limited to tea, bread and potatoes, supplemented by the inevitable poaching. 1829 was a year of low wages, a harsh winter and poor harvests. The average weekly wage for a labourer had fallen from 15 shillings in 1815 to 9 shillings, whereas the average expenditure for a rural family had risen to around 12 shillings and sixpence. The result was extreme poverty, bad diet and inadequate housing with little chance of bettering their situation.

At a later time, my great-grandfather Joseph Armstrong was able to better his situation. The son of a labourer, he became a higgler and eventually had his own shop. The building is still standing in the picturesque village of South Collingham and I have a few photographs of it to link me to this period of my ancestry. And I have visited the graves of Thomas and his wife Charlotte, and Joseph and his wife Mary, in the quiet, leafy, old churchyard at South Collingham. Requiescat in pace.

© Copyright Brian Barratt

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