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Passive and Impoverished? A Discussion of Rural Popular Culture in the Mid Victorian Years

  • GARY MOSES (a1)


This case study focuses on East Riding hiring fairs both as labour markets and popular festivals and considers the vitality of their internal interactions in the mid Victorian years, a time that has been associated with the erosion of traditional practices by urban influences and their reshaping into more orderly and passive forms. The article suggests that mid Victorian rural popular culture proved to be not only adaptive to the forces of urban modernity but robustly dynamic and informed by rural social forces.



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1. Goffman, E., ‘The Interaction Order’, American Sociological Association, Presidential Address, American Sociological Review, 48 (1983), 117, p.1. This article also draws inspiration from Goffman's earlier Behavior in Public Spaces: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings (New York, 1963).

2. Ibid., p. 2.

3. A. Armstrong, ‘The Countryside’, in Thomson, F.M.L., ed., The Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750–1950 (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 123–34.

4. Borsay, Peter, A History of Leisure: The British Experience Since 1500 (Basingstoke, 2006), pp. 177–91.

5. Cunningham, Hugh, Leisure in the Industrial Revolution c. 1780–1880 (Basingstoke, 1980), pp. 157–78 and chapter five passim; Cunningham, Hugh, ‘The Metropolitan Fairs: A Case Study in the Social Control of Leisure’, in Donajgrodzki, A. P., ed., Social Control in Nineteenth-Century Britain (London, 1977), pp. 163–84; Mitchell, I., ‘The Changing Role of Fairs in the Long Eighteenth Century: Evidence from the North Midlands’, Economic History Review, 60 (2007), 545–73; Roberts, M. J. D., Making English Morals: Voluntary Association and Moral Reform in England, 1787–1886 (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 147–8, 193–9.

6. Wild, M. Trevor, Village England: A Social History of the Countryside (London, 2004), pp. 7086

7. Cunningham, Hugh, ‘Leisure and Culture’, in Thompson, , ed., Cambridge Social History, pp. 279339; Reay, Barry, Rural Englands (Basingstoke, 2004), pp. 115–42; Griffin, E., ‘Popular Culture in Industrializing England’, Historical Journal, 45 (2002), 619–35; M. Trevor Wild, Village England; Alun Howkins, Reshaping Rural England: A Social History 1850–1925 (1991); Borsay, History of Leisure, p 181. For a fuller and more detailed consideration of many of the themes and details discussed in this article see: Moses, G., Rural Moral Reform in Nineteenth-Century England: The Crusade Against Adolescent Farm Servants and Hiring Fairs (Lampeter, 2007).

8. Yorkshire Gazette, 26th November 1870.

9. Malcolmson, Robert W., Popular Recreations in English Society 1750–1850 (Cambridge, 1973), p. 149; Kussmaul, A., Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 1981), p. 63.

10. Malcolmson, Popular Recreations, pp. 150–1.

11. Newspaper reports 1848–1880 indicate that servants were hired at thirty-two fairs at twenty-five venues in the East Riding between 2nd November and 2nd December. A decline in the number of fairs in the East Riding after 1850 did not include its hiring fairs. Two East Riding hiring fairs were actually revived in the mid nineteenth century. For the decline see M. Nobel, ‘Markets and Fairs’, in Neave, S. and Ellis, S., eds, An Historical Atlas of East Yorkshire (Hull, 1996), pp. 76–7. For a recent study emphasising the adaptability and survival of farm service in the Midlands and South see Howkins, Alun and Verdon, Nicola, ‘Adaptable and Sustainable? Male Farm Service and the Agricultural Labour Force in Midland and Southern England, c. 1850–1925’, Economic History Review, 2 (2008), 467–95.

12. York Herald, 14th July 1876.

13. Goffman, ‘Interaction Order’, pp. 4–5; Goffman, Behavior, p. 18.

14. Roberts, M.“Waiting Upon Chance”: English Hiring Fairs and their Meanings from the 14th to the 20th century’, Journal of Historical Sociology, 1 (1988), 130.

15. Driffield Times, 18th November 1871.

16. Ibid.

17. Yorkshire Gazette, 18th November 1854. During the mid nineteenth century, hiring was conducted primarily by farmers and their wives but by the early twentieth century foremen were significantly involved. See Reffold, Harry, Pie for Breakfast: Reminiscences of a Farmhand (Beverley, 1984), p. 68.

18. Yorkshire Gazette, 18th November 1854.

19. Kebbel, Thomas Edward, The Agricultural Labourer: A Short Summary of His Position (London, 1887), p. 173.

20. Hull Advertiser, 11th November 1854.

21. Caunce, Stephen, Amongst Farm Horses: The Horselads of East Yorkshire (Stroud, 1991), pp. 71–2.

22. Roberts, ‘Waiting’, p. 140.

23. Ibid., p. 139.

24. Ibid., pp. 138–42; Goffman, ‘Interaction Order’, p. 3.

25. Kitchen, Fred, Brother to the Ox (London, 1940), p. 60

26. Howitt, William, The Rural Life of England (Third Edition, London, 1844), p. 496.

27. Howkins, Alun and Merricks, Linda, ‘The Ploughboy and the Plough Play’, Folk Music Journal, 2 (1991), 197.

28. Caunce, Farm Horses, p. 69.

29. Kussmaul, Servants, p. 62.

30. Goffman, ‘Interaction Order’, p. 4.

31. York Herald, 20th November, 1876.

32. Kitchen, Ox, pp. 98–99.

33. Howitt, Rural Life, p. 496; Roberts, ‘Waiting’, p. 145; Jon Catt, Northern Hiring Fairs (1986), pp. 30–5; Day, Herbert, Horses on the Farm: Recollections of Horse-Farming in Yorkshire (Beverley, 1981), pp. 1112.

34. Caunce, Farm Horses; Roberts, ‘Waiting’, p. 37; Catt, Northern Hiring Fairs, p. 32; Day, Horses on the Farm, p. 11; Carter, Ian, ‘Agricultural Workers in the Class Structure: A Critical Note’, Sociological Review, 22 (1974), 276; Clarvis, T., in Blakeborough, J. Fairfax, Yorkshire: East Riding (London, 1951), p. 48.

35. Roberts, ‘Waiting’, p. 146; Joseph Horsfall Turner, Yorkshire Anthology: Ballads and Songs-Ancient and Modern (1901), ‘The Yorkshire Hirings’, p. 124.

36. Catt, Northern Hiring Fairs, pp. 30–5; Roberts,’Waiting’, pp. 145–6.

37. ‘Cowd Stringy Pie’ in Catt, Northern Hiring Fairs, pp. 32–3.

38. ‘Country Statutes’, in ibid., p. 33.

39. Goffman, ‘Interaction Order’, p. 7.

40. Howkins, Alun, ‘Structural Conflict and the Farmworker’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 4 (1977), 215–29.

41. York Herald, 8th July 1876.

42. Hull Advertiser, 9th November 1849.

43. Hull Advertiser, 9th November 1849; Hull Advertiser, 7th December 1849.

44. Hull Advertiser, 23rd November 1849.

45. M. G. Adams, ‘Agricultural Change in the East Riding of Yorkshire, 1850–1880: An Economic and Social History’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Hull, 1977), p. 32.

46. Adams, ‘Agricultural Change’, pp. 344–7; Hull Advertiser, 16th April 1852, 14th May 1852, 16th July 1852; Hull Advertiser, 17th November 1855.

47. Hull Advertiser, 18th November 1854.

48. Hull Advertiser, 17th November 1855.

49. Hull and Eastern Counties Herald, 18th November 1858; Hull Advertiser, 19th November 1859.

50. Hull Advertiser, 15th November 1856.

51. Driffield Times, 16th November 1872, 30th November 1872.

52. Driffield Times, 16th November 1872, 30th November 1872.

53. Hull and Eastern Counties Herald, 14th November 1872; Driffield Times, 16th November 1872; Driffield Times, 9th November 1872; Hull and Eastern Counties Herald, 5th December 1872.

54. Driffield Times, 18th November 1875.

55. Driffield Times, 18th November 1875; Hull Times, 2nd December 1876; Driffield Times, 2nd December, 1876; Hull Times, 26th November, 1876.

56. Goffman, ‘Interaction Order’, p. 9.

57. Ibid., p. 7.

58. Ibid., p. 9.

59. Yorkshire Gazette, 18th November, 1854; the festive dimension of East Riding hiring fairs is also discussed in Caunce, Amongst Farm Horses, chapter fifteen.

60. Eddowes, J., Martinmas Musings: or, Thoughts about the Hiring Day (London, 1854), pp. 34.

61. Morris, M. C. F., Yorkshire Reminiscences (London, 1922), p. 176; Hull and Eastern Counties Herald, 3rd December 1868.

62. Morris, M. C. F., Yorkshire Folk-Talk (York, 1911), p. 206.

63. T. Clarvis, in Fairfax-Blakeborough, Yorkshire, East Riding, p. 50.

64. The Yorkshireman, 30th November 1850. Farmers would usually advance part of the servant's wages during the year but the greater part of the wage was paid at the conclusion of the contract. See Craven, Martin, A New and Complete History of the Borough of Hedon (Driffield, 1974), p. 190.

65. Ibid.

66. Yorkshire Gazette, 18th November 1854.

67. F. Austin Hyde, ‘Old Time Martinmas Hirings’, York Times, Autumn, 1962.

68. T. Clarvis, in Fairfax-Blakeborough, East Riding, p. 50.

69. Driffield Times, 13th November 1873; Driffield Times 11th November 1876.

70. Austin Hyde, ‘Old Martinmas’.

71. Burnett, John, A History of the Cost of Living (Harmondsworth, 1969), pp. 214–15; Caunce, Stephen, ‘A Golden Age of Agriculture?’ in Inkster, Ian, et al, eds, The Golden Age: Essays in British Economic and Social History (Aldershot, 2000), pp. 4660; Beverley Recorder, 7th November 1860; Hull and Eastern Counties Herald, 4th December 1860; York Herald, 24th November 1876.

72. Hull Advertiser, 18th November 1854.

73. Beverley Recorder, 11th November 1871.

74. York Herald, 20th November 1876.

75. Cunningham, ‘The Metropolitan Fairs’, pp. 164, 170; Cunningham, Leisure, pp. 140–1, pp. 174–8; see also Addison, William, English Fairs and Markets (London, 1953), pp. 110, 184–8;

76. Cunningham, Leisure, p. 159; Cunningham, ‘Metropolitan Fairs’, pp. 167–70.

77. Ibid, p. 170; see also: Starsmore, Ian, English Fairs (London, 1975), p. 10.

78. Cunningham, ‘Metropolitan Fairs’, pp. 170, 180.

79. Cunningham, Leisure, p. 174.

80. Cunningham, ‘Metropolitan Fairs’, pp. 163–4.

81. By the late 1840s, the major settlements of the Riding were linked by the Hull and Selby line (1840), the York and Scarborough line (1845), the Hull and Bridlington line (1846), the York and Market Weighton Line (1847), the Scarborough and Bridlington line (1846) and the Selby and Market Weighton line (1848). By the mid 1860s, the few remaining gaps in this network had been filled by the Malton and Driffield line (1853), the Hull and Withernsea line (1854), the Hull and Hornsea line (1864), and the Market Weighton and Beverley line (1865). See MacMahon, Kenneth A., The Beginnings of the East Yorkshire Railways, East Yorkshire Local History Series: 3 (York, 1953) p. 31; Goode, C. T., The Railways of East Yorkshire (Usk, 1981).

82. Yorkshire Gazette, 27th November 1847.

83. Hull and Eastern Counties Herald, 19th November 1863.

84. Yorkshire Gazette, 18th November 1854.

85. The Yorkshireman, 30th November 1850.

86. Hull Advertiser, 17th November 1848.

87. Hull Advertiser, 16th November 1849.

88. Driffield Times, 22nd November 1873; Hull and Eastern Counties Herald, 17th November 1870.

89. Caunce, S., ‘East Riding Hiring Fairs’, Oral History, III (1975), 4552

90. Reverend Skinner, James, Facts and Opinions Concerning Statute Hirings, Respectfully Addressed to the Landowners, Clergy, Farmers and Tradesmen of the East Riding of Yorkshire (York, 1861), p. 21.

91. Ibid., p. 11.

92. York Herald, 27th November 1827.

93. Tillot, P. M., ed., Victoria County History of the Counties of England, A History of the County of York: The City of York (1961), p. 170.

94. Yorkshire Gazette, 26th November 1853.

95. Yorkshire Gazette, 25th November 1854.

96. Yorkshire Gazette, 18th November 1854.

97. York Herald, 20th November 1876.

98. Hull Advertiser, 19th November 1852.

99. York Herald, 24th November 1866.

100. York Herald, 26th November 1870.

101. York Herald, 20th November 1880; 23rd November 1880.

102. York Herald, 20th November 1876.

103. Driffield Times, 11th November 1871.

104. Driffield Times, 11th November 1871. The following year there were again many shows but ‘Very few, if any, servants were hired’, Driffield Times, 9th November 1872.

105. Cunningham, Leisure, p. 140.

106. Harrison, Brian, Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England 1815–1872 (Staffordshire, 1994), p. 55.

107. Ibid., pp. 43, 55.

108. Yorkshire Gazette, 11th February 1854, Letter, ‘A Rural Dean’.

109. Harrison, Drink, p. 42; Kitchen, Ox, pp. 98–9.

110. Yorkshire Gazette, 14th January 1854, Letter, ‘A Farmer Beverley’.

111. Chester, Hiring Fairs, p. 8.

112. Skinner, Facts and Opinions, p. 11.

113. Yorkshire Gazette, 18th November 1854.

114. Driffield Times, 15th November 1873.

115. Kightly, Charles, Country Voices: Life and Lore in Farm and Village (London, 1984), p. 42.

116. York Herald, 22nd November 1880.

117. Ibid.

118. Caunce, Farm Horses, p. 175.

119. Ibid.

120. Church Times, 22nd July, 1887.

121. Reffold, Pie for Breakfast, p. 27; Howkins and Merricks, ‘The Ploughboy and the Plough Play’, 194–8.

122. Goffman, ‘Interaction Order’, p. 7; Driffield Times, 20th November 1875.

123. Goffman, Behavior, p. 21.

124. Driffield Times, 13th November 1875.

125. Driffield Times, 20th November 1875, 13th November 1875.

126. Driffield Times, 20th November 1875.

127. Ibid.; Driffield Times, 4th December 1875.

128. Driffield Times, 20th November 1875.

129. Foster, D., ‘The East Riding Constabulary in the Nineteenth Century’, Northern History, XXI (1985); Foster, D., ‘Police Reform and Public Opinion in Rural Yorkshire’, Journal of Regional and Local Studies, 2 (1982).

130. See, for example, Storch, R. D., ‘The Plague of Blue Locusts: Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England, 1840–57’, International Review of Social History, Vol. 20 (1975); Taylor, David, The New Police in the Nineteenth Century: Crime, Conflict and Control (Manchester, 1997).

131. Eastern Counties Herald, 18th November 1858.

132. Bridlington Free Press, 13th November, 1875

133. Caunce, Farm Horses, p. 166.

134. Driffield Times, 15th November 1873.

135. For more detailed discussions of this campaign see Moses, Rural Moral Reform; Moses, , ‘“Rustic and Rude”: Hiring Fairs and their Critics in East Yorkshire c.1850–75’, Rural History, 7 (1996) and ‘Reshaping Rural Culture? The Church of England and Hiring Fairs in the East Riding of Yorkshire c. 1850–80’, Rural History, 13 (2002).

136. Goffman, Behavior, p. 19.

137. Reverend J. Skinner, ‘A Letter To The Masters and Mistresses of Farm Houses in the East Riding of Yorkshire’ Appendix II of Skinner, Facts and Opinions, p. 23. This address was circulated to farmhouses by hand; it also appeared in local newspapers, see, for example, York Herald, 10th November 1860.

138. Ibid., pp. 23–4

139. Ibid., p. 23.

140. Skinner, Facts and Opinions, ‘Appendix III, p. 25; see, for example, York Herald, 3rd November 1860.

141. Skinner, Facts and Opinions, ‘Appendix III’, p. 25.

142. Ibid.

143. Ibid.

144. Ibid.

145. Ibid.

146. Hull and Eastern Counties Herald, 18th November 1869.

147. Caunce, ‘Hiring Fairs’, p. 49.

148. For a discussion of the intended functions of rational recreations, see Cunningham, Leisure, pp. 90–107.

149. Yorkshire Gazette, 16th November 1861.

150. Ibid.

151. Ibid.

152. Hull and Eastern Counties Herald, 14th November 1872; Driffield Times, 30th November 1872.

153. Driffield Times, 1st December 1877.

154. Driffield Times, 30th November 1878.

155. Ibid.

156. York Herald, 29th November 1879.

157. York Herald, 28th November 1879.

158. For details of the efforts made elsewhere in the East Riding see Moses, ‘Reshaping Rural Culture’.

159. Goffman, ‘Interaction Order’, p. 11.

160. Best, Geoffrey, Mid-Victorian Britain, 1851–75 (London, 1971), pp. 218–28; Harrison, Brian, Peaceable Kingdom. Stability and Change in Modern Britain (Oxford, 1992), passim; Roberts, Morals, pp. 7–11.

161. T. Clarvis, in Fairfax-Blakeborough, East Riding, p. 49; Morris, Folk Talk, pp. 206–10.

162. York Herald, 29th November 1890.

163. The Times, 9th January 1873, Letter, F. O. Morris, ‘Statute Hirings’.

164. Randolph, ‘Social Condition’, p. 41.

165. Mitchell, ‘Changing Role of Fairs’, p. 571.

166. Goffman, Behavior, pp. 18–22.

167. For fairs as popular carnivals see D. A. Reid, ‘Interpreting the Festival Calendar: Wakes and Fairs as Carnivals’, in Storch, R. D., ed., Popular Culture and Custom in Nineteenth-Century Britain (London, 1982), p. 23.

168. Howkins and Merricks, ‘The Ploughboy and the Plough Play’, p. 199; Roberts, ‘Meanings’, pp. 152–6.

169. Storey, John, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction (London, 2001), pp. 108–11.

170. Howkins and Merricks, ‘The Ploughboy and the Plough Play’, p. 199.

171. Roberts, ‘Meanings’, p. 146.

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