An Extensive Interview with a Georgian Thatcher

The Life & Times of James Sparshott, 1746-1837; in his own words

In the previous history page, on the Georgian Agricultural Reporters, LINK , some mention was made of the hardships faced by thatchers and others, if their health failed or work became scarce. But the thoughts of the working rural population were either not sought or recorded in these reports. This situation, regarding one thatching family, was remedied around two decades after the last agricultural reporter rode home...

This was the period when a new system of relief, under the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, was introduced. This forced various parishes into ‘Unions’, who then built the infamous Victorian and later ‘Workhouses’. In 1837 a select committee of MPs took evidence, to see how things were progressing.

Among many others they ‘examined’ was one James Sparshott, lately a Sussex thatcher, from near Chichester; who was 90 years old...

His interview took place on 22nd May 1837; less than a month before Queen Victoria ascended the British throne.

In answering the 160 or so questions the committee asked, James opened a unique window on his life and work, from the mid eighteenth century onwards...

(I have edited out quite a few repetitive questions; but many more relevant ones remain. Some helpful dates etc. are in brackets. The amounts of money mentioned are pre-decimal; with 12 pennies ‘d’ to a Shilling ‘s’ and 20 shillings to the pound. 2 shillings and 6 pence = half a crown. A loaf of bread cost over 4d)

The Thatcher... As depicted by George Moreland in around 1780. This dates to time when James Sparshott was in his thirties... As was common an assistant is shown working at the bottom of the ladder. In James' interview he states his son was employed ‘drawing straw’ that is yelming long straw, for James. This being the main thatching material used in Sussex. However James may have had access to reed beds, situated around Chichester harbour...

So, in your own words James....

'James Sparshott, called in; and Examined.'

What is your age?–If I live till the 6th of June I shall be 91.

Where were you born?–In Hunsted parish; I was carried from there, when an infant, to Oving.

Do you recollect what has been the condition of the labouring people during the greater part of your life?—Yes; when I was first married I could have a bushel of malt for half-a-crown, and every poor person could have a barrel of beer to drink instead of water, and it continued for some time, and then it got up to 3s.6d.; and another thing, the farmers used to keep a good many servants in the house. Then, another thing, the labourers who worked for those farmers used to breed pigs, for bacon at Christmas; and when they got fit for sale, those farmers would call the labourers up to the barn door, and say to them, “Choose your pigs,” according to their families, and they would have those pigs very cheap; and the farmer would say, “Let them run along with my hogs all the winter and summer till the harvest:” and that used to be the state of things at that time.

What county are you speaking of?–Sussex; I never lived in any other.

What has been your principal occupation?—A thatcher used to be my business.

Have you been anything else besides a thatcher?—I could do anything, any kind of farming work, because I lived in a farmhouse for years; I lived with one master for eight years; I could plough, sow, reap and mow ; I was very handy at everything; I never said, I could not do this, or I could not do that.

Have you lived near the same place all your lifetime?—Yes.

How many times have you been married?–Three times; but the last time I had no family.

What was your father?—He was a thatcher too; I was bred up from a child to the business.

Did your father fatten pigs? –Yes; he killed three or four a year.

Did he own a cottage?–Yes, he had a cottage before he died, because his master let him have money to buy a cottage.

Had he brewing tackle?—Yes.

Did he use to brew beer, and have some every day?—Yes.

What were the wages of labourers in the early part of your life?—At first they did not have more than 1s. a day.

Do you remember the beginning of the American peace (1783)? —Yes, very well.

Do you remember the beginning of the French war (1756)?—I think I do; I can remember King George II very well.

Do you know when the New Poor Law Bill began –It is going on for three years, I think.

At the early part of your life, did many of the labouring men with families own their own cottages?—Yes, a good many.

And kept hogs, as your father did —Yes.

And the single men and women used to be taken into the farmers’ houses —Yes, they were. At what age did the youths, the boys and girls, use to be taken from the cottages into service?—I went out at eight years.

Do you recollect the rate of wages at the time of the American war (1776-83)?—Yes; about 16d. a day, or 8s, a week, before the war began; then it got higher afterwards.

Will you describe the mode of living of the labourers at that time of day, what they ate and drank? —Everyone had a good tub of pork in the house, and lived very well.

Were there no poor at that time?—Very little; I remember one in Hunsted parish; they had no poor in the parish; an old gentleman that I know very well went to a man named Venn, and said, “You must have a fat hog,” and the man said, “I do not want one,” and he said, “You must have one, or we shall be obliged to pay something;” and he had it given him.

Did any of the labourers at that time drink water?—No.

Did many of them at that time drink smuggled French brandy?—I would not say that.

Do they do so in Sussex now? —There is not much of that now, I believe; I do not think they can get much of it; but it is a thing that I never used, and never had any hand in.

At the time when they ceased to have a pork tub in their house, did they run short of victuals and drink?–Yes, when it was so dear.

How long ago is that?–Going on for 40 years, to the best of my knowledge.

You have been married, you say, three times; how many children did you have by your first wife? Nine; six alive when she died.

At that time, what did you buy your malt for?–Two shillings and sixpence a bushel, nine gallons (of beer) to the bushel.

At that time you had always plenty of good bacon and pork in your house?–Yes, I had.

How much relief had you then from the parish? —None and had six small children.

What are the highest wages that you ever received in a day for thatching?–It was according to what the weather was; sometimes I had more than at others.

Did you ever work at day-work at thatching? —Yes, I worked a good many days at 1s.6d.

Did you ever earn yourself 12s, one day at thatching?—Yes, thatching hay-ricks by the square (100 sq. ft.).

How often?—I do not know how often, for I used to work for the farmers for 2s.6d. a day.

Did you earn 12s. a day very often?—No; only for thatching ricks up town, not very constant; I was paid Is. a square, what my father had.

How many days in the year do you think you might have earned 12s a day —I do not know, but at the same time I used to work night and day pretty well, because I had a family and was willing to maintain them when I could.

During the time of your first wife, you never thought of going for parish relief?—No.

How many children had you by your second wife?-Nine.

Have you not a daughter married to a man at Merstham?–Yes.

Is she one of the first family?—Yes; I have got none of the second alive now ; one got married, and had one child, and she died, and the other died about five years old, and the others died in infancy.

What is the Christian name of your eldest son?—The Christian name of my only son I have got is the same name as my own, James Sparshott.

What is he by trade?–Used to thatching.

Has he a wife?—A wife and six children.

Is his wife alive?—No, she has been dead a good many years.

How old is the eldest child?—The children are all grown up.

Is he in good health?–In tolerable health, but he cannot get nothing to do hardly; he is still half his time.

How old is he?–Between 50 and 60.

Do you know Mr. William Field?—Very well indeed; I have known him from a child.

Do you know that your son James proposed to sell a house to Mr. William Field lately? —Yes, he very likely has got one that he does not know what to do with when he has been near starving.

Do you live with your son?–No.

If you lived with your son James, do you think it would be necessary for you to apply for parish relief?—But my son James could not afford to keep me; he is as poor as possible.

Is not the house near Woolley-farm the house of your son James? —As far as I know; I cannot say whether he has mortgaged it or not.

What is the value of the house?—It was a granary he bought of Mr. Charles Newland, a wooden house like.

What did he give for it?—I do not know, but I think about £24

After he bought it, did he build a chimney to it?—Yes.

Is there any land to it?—Yes, a garden.

Do you live with your daughter?—Yes, I have, since Christmas, or just before Christmas it was.

When did you first think of applying for parish relief?—I had a very great fit of illness; for three parts of one year I was not able to do anything; I got better, and tried to work again, and was taken bad again, and I believe I lost three parts of that year.

Was that about the time when things began to get dear?—They were dearer than they had been, but not at the time that wheat was £40 a load.

Was that 30 or 40 years ago?—Yes; wheat was above £30

Was that when you first began to find that you could not get beer and meat enough for your family?—I could not; I worked for Mr Deering, who was high sheriff, for 49 years, as long as he was in business.

At the time that you have spoken of wheat being so dear, did the labouring men apply for parish relief generally?—Yes, they did; and they earned half-a-crown a day then, and had relief too.

When you first began to receive parish relief, how many children had you?—There were not less than a dozen or 13 of them at table.

Were any of your children at that time out at service?—I do not know that there were any of them, they were not big enough.

Do you mean that all those 12 or 13 were unable to work?—My son went drawing straw for me, I think.

You have mentioned working for Mr Deering?—Yes; I worked for them 49 years, his father and him together.

Did Mr Deering ever make any remark to you upon the manner of living among the working classes, as compared with their manner of living previously?—In the latter part of his time I used to work constantly, sometimes at farming work and sometimes hedging; and he told me, as long as I was able to walk up to his farm he would pay me just the same as other people; but just at that time he failed, and I lost it.

What is your own opinion as to the difference of the mode of living of the working people from what it was formerly?—It is wonderful.(!?)

What has caused it? —Because they have very low wages and the house rents are very high; and then there are taxes upon poor creatures, and they take the goods away for the money, and they have not got it.

What do you mean by taxes laid upon poor people?—The parishes tax all the poor now.

Have you ever been called upon to pay poor-rates?—I was, when I did not receive parish pay.

How long ago was that?—About four years ago.

Did Mr Deering advise you to apply to the overseers for relief?—He gave me a note to carry to them.

Was the relief granted?–It was.

How long have you received it?–Not a great while.

Did you receive it any longer than you wanted it?—No.

Having lost your second wife, and your family being very large, you married a third wife?—Yes; but my family by my first wife was grown up and got out.

What did you marry a third wife for?–For company keeping.

How old were you when you married your third wife?—Sixty.

How long has she been dead?—About nine years.

Did you have any children by your third wife?—No.

How much did the parish of North Munden allow you, after you became a widower the third time? –Three shillings and sixpence was the standard; I had 4s. for a little time, but that was very soon altered, and I had 3s.6d., and that continued till the Poor Law came.

What change has that made in your parish?–It is changed from 3s.6d. to 2s.6d.

Did you ever belong to a benefit club? –-I did a good many years together, but they turned me out very clandestinely.

How long did you belong to that benefit club?—Fifteen years; paid 15s, a quarter.

How long have you received this allowance of 2s.6d. A week?—Ever since this Poor Law, I cannot tell justly.

 Are you receiving 2s.6d. a week now?–Yes.

Did they offer you the (work) house?–Yes.

What was your objection to go in?–Because I know such a place as that would kill me in a little time; such an uproar and noise would not suit me; the stiller I am the better.

Are you aware that you would not have got sufficient diet there? —No, not at all; further than that I should have no beer; I drink half a pint of beer for dinner and a quarter of a pint before going to bed; I was always brought up to it.

Do you receive the half-crown in money, or partly in money and partly in kind?–Money.

Has every one who receives out-door relief received it in money, or partly in money and partly in kind?–No, they have it all in money; my brother the same.

How old is your brother?–Eighty seven.

What do you think was the most money you earned in one year?—I cannot tell, because when we had a very hard winter, we lay still for two or three months in frosty weather.

Did you ever earn a hundred pounds in any one year?–I cannot tell anything about that.

Do you know how many weeks there are in the year?—Fifty-two.

Was there any time in your life that you considered, by being very provident and careful, you could save £10 out of your wages in the year? —No, I never could.

Why not?—My family was too big when I used to earn money.

Do you consider that the malt tax is a great injury to the condition of the poor?—Yes; very great injury.

You have stated, that in your younger days, the poor were independent and lived well, and you have also stated that about 40 years ago, when things got dear, they received parish relief; in your opinion will the New Poor Law make them all independent again?—I do not know; they are got very hard-hearted. When I was young, a farmer and his wife used to ride both upon a horse with a pillion, but now they have got gigs and fine hunting.

So that, in your opinion, the farmers live a great deal better, and the labourers a great deal worse?—The farmers live very well, but they make out as though they did not.

Would not the labouring men be able to do a great deal more work for the farmers if they lived better?—To be sure they would ; they cannot do half a day's work. Some of them, poor creatures, sometimes will drop down when they have had a little hard work.

Since when have you observed that?–Last mowing time. Did you observe it before?–No, I never knew it till I was told it; John Westham told me.

Have you gone about the county yourself within the last two or three years, so that you are personally acquainted with the condition of the labouring people yourself?—I heard them tell; I do not know more than what they tell themselves, how bad they are off; that some have not a morsel of bread on their table.

All that you speak from is the conversation that you have heard in your daughter-in-law's house, where you live? —Yes, it is people that come in....

Above... One of James’ contemporaries from around 1800. Dressed for work with knee pads and carrying a trimming hook, to tidy the corn rick he’s thatching. Like James he’s working with long straw thatch; his side rake for combing out is partly visible by his ladder.

Famous for fifteen minutes... James was certainly not intimidated by his ‘examiner’ MPs; led by one Sir James Graham, later a Home Secretary. He offers no apologies for his present situation. His testimony came to the notice of the anti poor law campaigners. Being noted in several sources including The Champion, a radical journal published by Richard Cobbett, who stated ‘his evidence is the most important document produced by this committee.’ As James makes it quite clear that times were much harder now than in his youth...

James it seems avoided the Workhouse, dying a few months later. Had he lived much longer, his measly half crown would have stopped, leaving him with no option but ‘the house’, as all ‘outdoor relief’ was abolished...

James mentions thatching ricks; this aspect of the craft is covered in the final history page. LINK

The craft in James' home county  is discussed in Thatching in Sussex.

Ref; Parliamentary Papers: 1780-1849, Volume 17, Part 2