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John Upton of the Parish of Eythorne, Runaway Servant

On the 24th of August 1784, the following Public Notice was made: “Run away from Henry Belsey of the Parish of Coldred near Dover, John Upton of the Parish of Eythorne who had hired himself as Waggoner on the 5th August instant and was to have entered his service on the 6th. Whoever will give information of the said John Upton to Henry Belsey of Coldred aforesaid shall receive one guinea reward if proved to be his servant. John Upton lived part of the year with Thomas Gurney. Whoever harbours or employs him shall be prosecuted as law directs”. Like Henry Belsey, Thomas Gurney was a farmer and he resided at Cottingham Court Farm, Sholden, near Deal. One can only guess why John Upton decided not to honour his contact and run away, but it would not have been a decision taken lightly as there were a number of serious consequences.
Firstly, there was the punishment if caught. Early 18th century practice in London, and it was broadly the same elsewhere, was for committals of runaway servants to the house of correction to be short but severe. Almost three quarters of committals were for around two weeks and about half were whipped and put to hard labour. Imprisonment could, however, be up to a month or more, with hard labour lasting the duration. Masters could also resort to penal or pecuniary punishments, or both, in the case of absenteeism, misbehaviour, unfinished or shoddy work or failing to enter on contracted work. Anyone who employed or harboured a runaway could be prosecuted by his or her Master (it’s not clear if fines or imprisonment or both were the consequence of being found guilty) and any earnings made from the employment of the runaway legally belonged to the Master.
Secondly, was the fact that the runaway would be highly unlikely to find new employment were he was known and would have to move away. If he failed to find new employment, he faced the prospect of poverty and the workhouse.
As a waggoner, John Upton had a good position. A waggoner looked after the horses under his control and drove them in accordance with whatever work was to be undertaken, e.g. ploughing, harrowing, carting, etc (see illustration from 1800). The waggoner was frequently regarded as the most important worker on a farm. “If he is up to his duties” wrote Richard Jefferies in 1880, “he is a most valuable servant, if he neglects them he is a costly nuisance, not so much from his pay, but because of the hindrance and disorganisation of the whole farm work which such neglect entails”.
There were recognised advantages in being a waggoner. Along with the stockman and shepherd, he received higher wages than ordinary labourers. Waggoners and their mates were usually hired by the year (as they were needed all year), an added advantage to the job because they were guaranteed their level of pay each week regardless of weather or sickness. The labourer, on the other hand, expected to be laid off if, for any reason, the weather not excepted, there was no work for him. In a Royal Commission about a century later in 1881, it was estimated that each farm labourer in Kent and Sussex lost, on average, 85 days of work each year due to inclement weather.
The waggoner considered themselves to be the elite among farm workers. There were also definite career prospects which encouraged dedicated youngsters to take up the work. Each team of four horses would be cared for by a waggoner and his mate so that on a three team farm there would be a 1st, 2nd and 3rd waggoner, each of whom would be helped by a mate. Each job was rewarded differently in pay and status. For every boy who took up work with horses, therefore, there was an apparent straightforward promotion guaranteed from third, second to first mate and then to a waggoner in his own right. Unlike the labourer who would find it harder to obtain employment and more difficult to make up his income by piecework as he got older, a trained and experience horseman expected to be handsomely rewarded for his years of training and accumulated expertise. However a large minority, possibly even a majority, of the boys who entered the plough service stayed only a few years. Possibly this was due to the treatment they received from farmers and waggoners, some of whom could be over strict or even cruel to their young mates. Another probable reason for leaving however was the realisation that there were just not enough waggoners jobs to absorb them all. A mates pay was generally lower than that which he would have earned as a labourer. Since waggoners hoped to maintain their jobs for upwards of 40 years, it is obvious that since they were matched by an equal number of mates, there were too few openings for the younger men. The unwillingness of many old waggoners to part with their trade secrets, a trait which they were widely renowned, was soundly based. They were acutely aware of the fact that younger, stronger men were likely to be preferred by farmers if they knew as much as they did. Even expertise lost its value it seems when the waggoner got too old, or deformed, to work so that after a lifetime of unceasing and protracted labour, the waggoner was likely to end his day in the parish workhouse or be dependent on the munificent employer or kindly relative.
Few old men could have endured the long hours expected of them. The waggoner generally rose by 4am to bait (feed) the horses and get them ready for the days work, breakfasting himself at about 5:30 after also waking his mate. They were the expected to be out of the stable at 6am whatever the weather. Ploughing in the dark was not unusual. Work in the fields continued until 2:00 or 2:30 pm, possibly with a short break mid-morning for a snack or “bever”. After dinner the horses were fed , groomed and in summer their hay, clover was cut, the waggoner finishing his days work at 6pm while his mate had the privilege of baiting and racking up (securing a horse to a fixed object by means of a halter and lead rope) two hours later. These hours, which applied all year round, were considerably longer than those worked by ordinary labourers.
It was common practice for single men who worked with animals to be boarded in the farmhouse where their employer could keep an eye on them. The treatment they received varied between farms although, generally speaking, they will have been well fed even if their sleeping quarters left something to be desired.
For the married worker with a family the yearly contract provided highly valued security. However, the advantage to being a waggoner, in terms of greater security and guaranteed wages, have to be weighed against the loss of personal freedom and opportunity for piecework which the job entailed. Men dismissed unfairly were entitled to compensation. Those sacked with just cause could lose it all. A worker who was unfortunate enough to choose a farmer who liked to drive his men hard, however, was stuck with him for a year. His only recourse was to run away completely like John Upton. It would seem Kent, in the decade from 1780-1789, had around 180 noted runaways, a number fairly consistent in decades immediately before and after this one. This number includes not only servants, however, but people deserting partners in marriage, and military personnel deserting the armed forces.
Six years after John Upton ran away from Henry Belsey, another waggoner, this time along with his mate, also ran away. Thus a public notice of 3rd August 1790 stated “Runaway at Singledge near Waldershare Park on Tuesday last 27th July 1790, William Hopper, waggoner and David Halliday, second man. A couple of well made men, each about five feet eight inches high, … Whoever will give information that they may be brought to account shall receive one guinea reward and whoever harbours or employs them, after this public notice, will be prosecuted according to law by me, Henry Belsey.”
The Belsey family seem to have had a history of their servants running away. Apart from John Upton, William Hopper and David Halliday running away from Henry Belsey of Coldred (assumed to Henry Belsey born 7th September 1726, died 1792), his sons Henry (1756- 1836) and George (1765-1823), both born in Coldred, also had the same problem.
Thus on the 4th of November 1788, a public notice was published stating, “Runaway from Henry Belsey in the Parish of Eythorne near Waldershare, Pleasant Ralph, Servant Maid. Whoever will give information of the said Pleasant Ralph so that she can be brought to justice will receive one guinea reward and whoever harbours or employs her will be prosecuted according to the law. She lived last year with Wm (William )Bushell in the Parish of Ash and is supposed to be there or near that Place”. As the location is given as Eythorne not Coldred (where Henry Snr still lived), it is assumed this is Henry Belsey, the son. The Bushell’s were a well known and respected family in Ash at the time.
The other son, George Belsey (1787-1849) occupied a farm at Singledge. This may be the farm that his father held before him (see above run away from Henry Belsey). On 23rd October 1792 a public notice stated “Runaway from George Belsey, Singledge near Waldershare. Stephen Rogers, 2nd Ploughman, about 5 feet seven or eight inches high, thin made and pock marked”. Three years later on the 27th October 1795, George suffered yet another servant loss when “Henry Packman of Sellindge or Brabourne did hire himself as second ploughman to George Belsey at Singledge near Waldershare and has not entered his service, this is to give notice that if any persons harbours or employs after this public notice, will be prosecuted according to law.”
The family also held Coldred Court farmhouse as is apparent from a notice declaring that all the stock and goods and assets of that farm were up for sale on 6th October 1808, the farm then being run by Henry Belsey, the son (1756-1836).
Whilst its tempting to think that the number of runaways experienced by the Belsey family might been down to the fact that they did not treat its servants well, George, at least, was stated on his death in 1823 (reported 11th February) to be “a man of benevolent disposition, his wife children and relatives, with a large circle of acquaintances, will have sincerely to deplore the loss of a good man.”
Other local farmers suffered from runaways too. Thomas Gurney of Cottingham Court Farm, mentioned in the first paragraph, had a runaway in January 1771 when William Scarlet, a 3rd plough boy ran away. On 27th April 1790 it was pronounced “Runaway from Malmains Farm in the Parish of Waldershare, John Pay, Waggoner”. In this instance it would appear that the farmer was willing for him “to be received” (which I assume means the farmer would drop the matter if the runaway returned) and made up for lost time. “Any person who hires or who harbours him after this notice will be prosecuted. And a reward of one guinea will be given to any person who will inform where he is that he may be apprehended”.
It’s possible there may have been other factors at play, other than mistreatment, that caused the servants to run away as this was a time of marked change in agricultural (and industrial) practice which may have given rise to reasons to seek employment elsewhere.
Before the 18th century, agricultural practices in England were traditional. The farmers owned small pieces of land that they cultivated in three cycles during the year. Two of these cycles were dedicated to farming and crop production and during the third cycle the land was kept uncultivated so that the nutritional value of the soil is restored. The seeds were sown by hand as was weeding of the crop in the fields. Most farmers owned livestock but the majority of the animals were slaughtered before winter because of the shortage of cattle fodder over winter to feed them as well as to provide food for the farmers and their families over the hard winter months. The production of crops was also highly limited because of the limited markets and storage options. When the Georgian era began (1760) technological advancements made in many of the neighbouring countries to England were brought into this country (see illustration of agricultural implements from 1797)
The first major step that was taken was to cultivate the lands during all three cycles in a year. The Dutch used to grow turnips on their land in the third cycles which helped in restoring the fertility of the land. The practice was adopted by many farmers here because it not only helped them to increase their production but also provided fodder for their livestock. This allowed them to keep more stock all year round, to obtain more manure, and hence to enrich the land and increase its yield. Farms that adopted three cycle cultivation would presumably value the services of a waggoner more.
There were other changes to the crops grown. It may come as surprise to learn that in the 1770’s and 1780’s cabbages and potatoes were regarded as a “new-fangled” innovation. To some extent cabbages had been grown on farms for feeding to cattle, but it was the great increase in the urban demand for vegetables that caused farmers to begin the large-scale cultivation of cabbages. The same was true of potatoes. Until the last twenty or thirty years of that century, the potato was not regarded as a food desirable for human consumption. However, ‘their universal and increasing consumption at the tables of every rank… hath rendered the demand for them more considerable, and in consequence the price is greatly advanced; hence the farmer has been encouraged to attempt the cultivation of them in the fields’. This revolution in popular taste took place just in time as without the potato it is doubtful whether England could have fed herself during the Napoleonic war, when at times wheat could scarcely be imported.


To the memory of Edward Croud (1852-1895) and his son Walter Croud (1886- ?) who were a Waggoners and Waggoner’s mate respectively on Perry Farm, Preston next Wingham in 1901.

Vince Croud

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