Not long ago, or Little by little (3): scarcity and subsistence in rural Suffolk

[For those who came in late… Start with Not long ago, or Little by little (1)]

Not long ago, in a place not far away and directly connected to you, something like this was happening…

A village in Suffolk [in the east of England], circa 1900:

There were seven children at home and father’s wages had been reduced to 10 shillings a week. Our cottage was nearly empty – except for people. There was a scrubbed brick floor and just one rug made of scraps of old clothes pegged into a sack… Six of us boys and girls slept in one bedroom and our parents and the baby slept in the other. There was no newspaper and nothing to read except the bible. All the village houses were like this.


Our food was apples, potatoes, swedes and bread, and we drank our tea without milk or sugar. Skim milk was bought from the farm but it was thought a luxury. Nobody could get enough to eat no matter how they tried. Two of my brothers were out to work. One was eight years old and he got 3 shillings a week, the other got about 7s. Our biggest trouble was water. There was no water near, it all had to be fetched from the foot of a hill nearly a mile away. “Drink all you can at school,’ we were told – there was a tap at school. I always remember the bitter metal taste of the tap in my mouth; it was cold – beautiful!



There was no music in the village then except at chapel or the church and our family hurried from one to the other to hear all we could…



The school was useless. The farmers came and took boys away from it when they felt like it, the parson raided it for servants. The teacher was a respectable woman who did her best. Sometimes she would bring the Daily Graphic down and show us the news. I looked forward to leaving school so that I could get educated. I knew that education was in books, not in school: there were no books there. I was a child when I left but already I knew that our “learning” was rubbish, that our food was rubbish and that I should end as rubbish if I didn’t watch out.



[I gained weight when I joined the army] because it was the first time in my life there had been no strenuous work. I want to say this simply as a fact, that village people in Suffolk in my day were worked to death. It literally happened. It is not a figure of speech. I was worked mercilessly. I am not complaining about it. It is what happened to me… We were all delighted when war broke out.

“Leonard Thompson,” farm-worker – in Ronald Blythe‘s Akenfield

Akenfield is an oral history of a Suffolk village, written in the late 60s. It documents a way of life not far away, not long ago, but almost forgotten.

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