THE BRITISH WORKMAN: Religious influences




The question has been sometimes asked by those unacquainted with the life of our Wold farm lads as to what extent they were affected by religious influences. The answer to that question is that their religious life was practically non-existent. The spiritual instinct was there, as it is to a greater or lesser degree in all men, but in this case it was dormant, except in comparatively few cases here and there. Taking the class as a whole they were little better than heathens. These remarks apply, roughly speaking, to the years 1840 - 60.

How was this pagan darkness to be accounted for? What were the clergy and other religious teachers doing to allow such a state of things to exist? Of all classes of the community the clergy found none more difficult to deal with at that time than the farm lads. It was wellnigh impossible to get in touch with them. They led isolated lives; they were at work from morning to night, and retired to rest early; but the greatest hindrance of all to gaining any influence over them was that they were only hired for a twelvemonth, and if by any favourable chance the clergy could in a few isolated cases bring them under their teaching, at the end of the year the lads had almost invariably gone to other and perhaps distant parishes, and they were no more seen.

With the exception of necessary labour, such as foddering the animals, no work was done on Sundays; and so the farm servants had most of the day to themselves. They seldom, if ever, read, in fact most of them were unable to do so, and they spent their time in wandering about from farm to farm, looking at each other's horses, beasts, and anything of interest to them about the place; or, if they were within easy reach of the villages, they would frequent them, and stand in groups at the corners of the streets, or hang about the church gates and watch the people as they went to and fro for public worship. They very rarely entered the churches themselves, and if they did, they would feel out of their element; for, as I said, most of them were unable to read, and the language of the Prayer Book and the generality of sermons at that time would be to them almost like a foreign tongue.

The farmers themselves, as a rule, took little or no interest in their servants' moral or spiritual welfare. Occasionally a God-fearing master would insist on his men attending church, and would do his best to exercise a good influence over them; but such instances were comparatively rare, and, generally speaking, the lads were left to their own devices, which often resulted in their getting into loose and careless ways.

The clergy, especially in later years, did what they could to humanize and christianize the farm lads; but, for the reasons already stated, they met with little success; and what added to the difficulty was the fact that the young folk were extremely shy, which was due, no doubt, partly to their ignorance, and partly to the isolated lives they led. And yet, something could be made of these boys and young men if only they could be got at. But who was to do it, and what were the means to be employed ? It needed some one with special gifts, heroic courage, burning zeal, and true Christian love to venture on a work like this with any hope of success; no missionary to the heathen in foreign lands needed stronger spiritual armour, and a more robust bodily equipment, than did those who attempted to humanize and christianize these rough and illiterate workers on the Wold farms at the time of which I am speaking. One such at least it was my happiness and privilege to know something of in the days of my youth, and of her I must now speak.

About the middle of the last century the Rev. Francis Simpson was Vicar of Boynton and Carnaby with Fraisthorpe, forming an extensive parish on the eastern side of the Yorkshire Wolds. The parish was a purely agricultural one, and similar in character to most of those on the neighbouring hills. Mr. Simpson was an excellent parish priest, but like many others in those days he was confronted with the usual difficulty of dealing with the farm servants under his spiritual charge. He did not, however, give up the task in despair. He had a daughter who was possessed of the true missionary spirit, and she, with her father's full sanction and cooperation, made a resolve to devote herself to the work of enlightening, if possible, the minds and hearts of the plough-boys of the farms in the neighbourhood of Boynton. This was a brave and noble venture indeed, and one that called forth all her powers, bodily, mental, and spiritual, to the utmost.

It often happens that where a man fails in a work of this kind a woman may succeed: it was so in this case, though, as I said, it needed one with very special gifts and qualifications. These endowments Miss Mary Simpson possessed in an eminent degree, as we shall presently see.

Missionaries to the heathen in foreign lands commonly find it necessary, before any impression can be made in spiritual things, to humanize the natures of those among whom they work. It was so here, and this was clearly the right line to take. The first attempt that Miss Simpson made to influence the farm lads was by means of a night school, where the teaching was entirely secular; and it was only by this means that she discovered gradually how gross the darkness was that covered the minds of her pupils; as she herself once said: 'The strange indifference to all that is good and beautiful that I could not but observe in many of them, I then attributed, and still do in part, to the want of education; that is, of the knowledge of men and things beyond their own narrow experience; and I longed by awakening intelligence, to call out the moral perceptions and emotions that were dormant in their inert minds.'

But before I proceed further I must say a few words about the personality of this good lady, for on this her success largely depended. It is not one in ten thousand who could have done what she did, even if they had the will to do so. If I remember rightly, it was about the time I went to Oxford that I had the pleasure of meeting her, which I did on one or two occasions at the house of another good lady who was then living at Whitby Abbey. Miss Simpson at that time appeared to be a middle-aged woman; she was strongly built, of medium height, and looked the picture of health, being freshcoloured, and full of vigour and animation. In disposition she was cheerful, and was possessed of a keen sense of humour. Her mental gifts were much above the average. But what struck one perhaps most was the deep interest she took in her work with the farm servants, and the interesting way in which she spoke of it. She seemed quite absorbed in her mission, as if her whole heart and soul were in it, as in truth they were. Of her it might truly be said that she was 'fervent in spirit', and devoted to the service of the Master.

In starting on her heroic work, one of her difficulties was not only the utter ignorance of the lads of almost anything beyond their own immediate farm work, but also their incapability of understanding many quite ordinary English words, especially those of Latin origin. In former days the clergy and others used to take far too much for granted in this way, and so their discourses were little better than Greek to many of their illiterate hearers. I myself once tested an elderly Yorkshireman who could neither read nor write on this point, giving him a dozen words of this kind, such, for instance, as dominion, fragment, doctrine, of only one of which he could tell me the meaning. And so when Miss Simpson used to tell these farm boys that they should attend the services of the Church, they replied that they understood nothing whenever by chance they did go. On one occasion, out of curiosity, she asked a considerable number of them if they knew what a heathen meant, but she only met with two who had any idea of it at all.

It was the same with all ordinary knowledge of the most elementary kind. Of geography, for instance, they only had the vaguest notions. On one occasion this good woman was trying to encourage a young ploughman under her instruction by telling him that one of the others learnt quicker than he did; but he only replied, ' He's a Linkishire man, isn't he? they tells me them off-men diz larn quicker than an Englishman' And yet I should say that our Wold farm servants were quite up to the average in intelligence naturally.

But it was quite touching to find how keen some of these young fellows were for instruction. Miss Simpson tells us that on one occasion a bright-eyed lad of seventeen came up to her in the fields to entreat her to get him a place in her own parish so that he might, as he said, 'have some learning', adding that, if this could be done, he would come for low wages. We wonder how many agricultural labourers at this time of day would be willing to sacrifice a considerable portion of their wages in order to gain higher knowledge of the kind that Miss Simpson imparted.

On another occasion she met with a boy of sixteen who had had only one quarter's schooling in all his life and he was one of a very poor family of fourteen. He could barely say the Lord's Prayer, and seemed to attach hardly any meaning to it: he did not even know who Jesus Christ was. This poor lad, too, was most wishful to come to Miss Simpson to be taught; but he never appeared before her, even though he had promised to come on a certain Sunday; and on inquiring the reason why, she was told by the others that his master had sent him to 'tent pigs'.

In a letter to one of her friends about this time this devoted teacher said: 'I believe few of the better educated would believe, without an actual knowledge of the facts, how nearly approaching to heathenism is the state of at least nine-tenths of the farming lads of this part of Yorkshire. Not only do they live entirely without prayer or any kind of worship, but most of them are in actual ignorance of the first principles of Christianity, and totally unacquainted with even the outlines of the Old and New Testament history.... One told me the other day he did not think he had ever heard of Adam ; he had heard of Abraham, and thought he was the first man.' On another occasion she was telling a lad the story of Adam and Eve, in the course of which he wanted to know if Adam was still alive. From these few observations it will be seen with what difficulties at the outset this stalwart missionary of the Wolds, as I may not inaptly call her, had to contend. There could be few who would not be dismayed at such a prospect. But she was in no wise discouraged, and she pressed forward in spite of every obstacle.

The week-day evening classes which Miss Simpson established in her father's parish succeeded very well as far as they went, and the boys reaped great advantage from them; still, there were many others who did not respond to her invitations, though they were in sore need of help and guidance. She therefore determined to go out to them in the fields while they were at work ploughing or harrowing, walk alongside of them, and by earnest entreaty try to induce them to come to her class on Sunday to receive some instruction in the Bible. She could not stop them in their work, else their masters would instantly have objected.

On one occasion she had a long conversation with a youth of twenty while he was harrowing. He confessed that he had no religion, although in his childhood his mother had tried to influence him for good. He had some knowledge of Holy Scripture, but seemed utterly hardened and disinclined to listen to her appeals; but she did not give him up; and after lending him books of various kinds, and continuing to take an interest in him, a great change came over him for the better. This was by no means an isolated case.

The evil influences to which the farm servants were exposed in days gone by were often very great. As a rule, much depended upon the character of the foreman. If he was a right-minded man, his influence acted as a restraint; but if he was of the contrary sort, it was very difficult for those under him to keep a straight course. A single instance will suffice to illustrate this.

There was a lad in service in her parish in whom Miss Simpson took a special interest. When first he came he was, as she described him, 'a gentle, intelligent well-disposed boy'. In his second year, however, a bad foreman came, and he got among evil companions. By degrees he deteriorated, and grew hard and careless. He gave up attending church and the evening school, and got into many bad habits. But there was still something to encourage hope in the boy, and she persevered with him.

The Martinmas season was now drawing on when he would be leaving his place, and so, as a final effort, Miss Simpson made an earnest appeal to him which touched his heart. His master wanted him to stay on another year; but he declined, and said to his kind friend and teacher: 'I hear and see nothing but wickedness: I can't be any better in a place like this.' He soon went to another situation, where he had better companions, and so was able to make a new start. Some weeks afterwards Miss Simpson received one or two letters from him in which he thanked her for all that she had done for him, and told her how happy his change of life and conduct had made him, and at the same time acknowledging his past grievous faults. This was indeed a joy and encouragement to her.

It was the habit with her to keep in touch with the farm lads who had left the parish, as far as possible, by correspondence, and many were the letters which she received from them, showing, as they did, the extraordinary influence which she had over them, and the affectionate regard in which they held her, especially when we consider that the writing of letters was generally a matter of great difficulty with the farm lads, partly through lack of time and opportunity for correspondence, and also because it was by no means easy for them to express themselves in writing.

One advantage that Miss Simpson had, in addition to her spiritual, mental, and physical qualifications for her work, was that she herself was Yorkshire bred; and so she thoroughly understood the ways, habits of mind, tastes and pursuits of the people, to say nothing of their vernacular. In this way she got to know thoroughly the characters of all those with whom she came in contact. As she herself expressed it: 'There is not one among the youthful labourers (numbering towards fifty) who live in the farm-houses at C. and B. with whose character, disposition, tendencies, and amount of knowledge or ignorance, I am not now perfectly acquainted, though they were total strangers to me when they came in November, and next November will be exchanged for an entirely different set; but with many of these young hearts I have this year formed a friendship which I trust will last for life.'

To show how strong the lads' attachment to Miss Simpson was, many of them when they had left her immediate neighbourhood for other farms would revisit her on Sundays, sometimes coming from places ten or twelve miles, or even farther away, and walking the whole distance to and fro. Bicycles were then unheard of.

We may well wonder how she got such an influence over these young folk by means of what may be called her field-work. On this point she explains in her diary thus: 'The first few months it is little more than making acquaintance with them; now for some time it has been exhorting, instructing, warning, counselling, consoling, encouraging, as the case may be. This is all by means of talk while they are at work; but this summertime till harvest began, there was always an hour's rest after dinner, and sometimes I have read to a group of them in a great empty barn half-way between here and C. . . When I go in they will be stretched out at rest on a great heap of chaff at the farther end, but rouse up, and G.M., who deserves to be signalized by name for his gallantry, will heap up the dry chaff to make a comfortable seat for me, and spread his great-coat at the top; and there I sit, reading and commenting on the words of life to listeners in various attitudes, generally ending with some hymns.'

This little episode is a good illustration of the kind of way in which Miss Simpson carried on her work of instructing, humanizing, and spiritualizing the minds and natures of the rough, ignorant, and aimless lives of the farm labourers on the Wolds who came within reach of her civilizing and religious influences.

I might here quote many more scenes to the same effect; but enough has, I hope, been said to show the character of her methods in dealing with a class which, it is on all hands acknowledged, is one most difficult to influence for good; and also what an immense influence one may have who possesses the power and the will to exercise it.

Such then was the general condition of religion on the Wold farms in the middle of the last century. We are well aware that there had been a revival of religion throughout the country in the early part of the century, not only in the Church, but also on the part of religious bodies outside her pale; but whatever these may have accomplished elsewhere, it would seem that very little impression had been made in this district on the class of which we have been speaking. It is true that revivals and 'camp meetings' were from time to time held in the villages, and these a certain number of the farm lads would occasionally attend, some from curiosity, others for the excitement of a great gathering, and some, it may be, from higher motives; but as regards any permanent deepening of the religious life of the farm lads, the results, it is to be feared, were, on the whole, transitory and disappointing.

If we compare the general condition of the Wold farm labourers of the present day with what it was threequarters of a century ago we find them, of course, much better educated; and I should say that, generally speaking, the moral tone is higher; but as far as the outward observance of public worship is concerned, there is still much to be desired. The allurements of pleasure, for the time being at all events, appear to prevail over the instincts of our higher nature with our younger agricultural workers on the East Yorkshire Wolds.

I inquired of William Blades if he had ever been brought in contact with Miss Simpson during his period of farm service; but it seems that it had never been his good fortune to come under the influence of her example and teaching. Had he been one of her pupils, she would have found him not only an intelligent scholar, but one who would have appreciated to the full her work among the farm lads, and would have done his best to influence in right ways those with whom he associated.

I should like here to record that after Miss Simpson's death a movement was set on foot to raise some fitting memorial as a tribute to her truly noble and self-sacrificing work. The matter was taken up warmly; and after various suggestions, it was ultimately decided that the restoration of the Chapel of Ease at Fraisthorpe in her father's old parish would be the most suitable form for the memorial to take, and one that Miss Simpson herself would thoroughly have approved of, the little Chapel then being in a very dilapidated state. The scheme met with support from many unexpected quarters; the first among the laity to acknowledge the claims of the proposal to the sympathy and support of Churchmen generally was the then Prime Minister, Mr. W. E. Gladstone. His example was followed by many other eminent laymen, including the Duke of Newcastle, Earl Nelson, Lord St. Oswald, Mr. Christopher Sykes, M.P. for the East Riding, with many others. And among the dignitaries of the Church the memorial met with approval and support from the two successive Archbishops of York, the Bishop of London, with several other of the diocesan Bishops; the Deans of St. Paul's (Dr. Church), York, Wells (Dr. Plumtre), Rochester, Lincoln, &c.; Canons Bright and Liddon, along with many more, both clergy and laity of varying degrees and shades of opinion, all testifying in a practical way to the work of this good Christian lady, who; as the then Vicar of Boynton truly said of her, 'worked with a heroism not excelled in the records of the Saints'.

The restored fabric of the little chapelry of Fraisthorpe will long stand to bear testimony to Miss Simpson's self-sacrificing labours in the surrounding district; and in generations to come her name will be held in grateful remembrance by all those who have the welfare of our agricultural labourers at heart. But a more abiding memorial of her devoted services will be found in the lives of many of the descendants of those who came directly under the spell of her teaching. Good work like hers can never be wholly lost. Influences whether for good or evil are far greater than is commonly supposed ; we cannot analyse their working nor trace them in their many ramifications; they extend in ever-widening circles, and penetrate often to recesses where we least expect to find them.

The present conditions of farm life in the East Riding Wold country are completely changed from what they were in the middle of the last century, and among the many changes is the greatly reduced number of hands employed on the farms owing to the increased use of machinery, and the shortage of labour.

We wonder what methods Miss Simpson would have employed had she been living in these days. That she would have adapted herself to the times there can be no doubt, and she would have discovered ways of winning the hearts and affections of her beloved farm lads. Would that others could be raised up to follow in her steps. The work lies open before us, and it is certainly worth while to strive to compass it; for when once the affections of these Wold lads are gained almost anything can be made of them. This was abundantly proved at the time of the outbreak of the Great War when a thousand of them at the instigation of the late Sir Mark Sykes enrolled themselves as a Wagoners' Corps for doing Army Service Corps work, and were in France with wagons and horses within a fortnight after the commencement of hostilities. This was a great achievement; and I make no doubt that these same farm lads and their successors would respond to higher influences if only the right agents and means were forthcoming for drawing out the best impulses of their natures.

Transcribed by Graham Metcalf © 2002