The Foxearth and District Local History Society

The Charismatic Charles Jay

The 1870s were a low point on the relations between Farmers and their Workforce in East Anglia, and Essex saw some of the greates militancy. It all ended in the farmers claiming complete victory in their organised campaign of 'Lockouts'. It was a hollow fictory, as farming was about to be plunged into a recession that was to last over fifty years. Out of these troubled times emerged a figure that now seems like the stuff of heroes. He appeared out of nowhere and disappeared just as quickly, the charismatic Charles Jay

The 1874 Lockout and the N.A.L.U.

Andrew Clarke

Charles Jay was a remarkable man. We first hear from him when he came to occupy Codham Hall, near Coggeshall, in 1869 to take up farming. He was nothing like the typical Essex farmer of his day. He had been an engineer in America and witnessed slavery first-hand. The Jays were an east-Anglian family, and one guesses that he emigrated to 'better himself' in America. He returned with a fortune and a determination to improve the welfare of farm workers. He started working for the Essex branch of the recently formed N.A.L.U. (National Agricultural Labourers Union) and subsequently inherited the leadership of the union when the current leader, an excise man, had left the district.

It was then that he met the remarkable Joseph Arch. Arch was a Lay Preacher, and a Methodist. He single-handedly founded the first union for Farm workers. He was a champion hedger and mower, working as a contract labourer throughout Warwickshire. As well as being a skilled farm-worker, he was a fine orator, with a turn of phrase learned from one of the few books he could afford to own, the bible. The National Agricultural Labourers Union had been launched in 1872, on a rainy day in February, when Arch spoke with passion and dignity to a meeting of the need for 'Defence, but not defiance' in the struggle for a better wage. He made a moving speech on the need for moderation, and proclaimed the dignity of the work of the farm labourer at a time when the trade was ill paid and undervalued.

Farm Workers in general suffered greatly at the time. Despite the fact that in a pre-industrial age, they had to acquire a number of skills, they were held in contempt by the popular press, who depicted the typical labourer as a caricature "In intellect he is a child, In position a helot, In condition a squalid outcast, he knows nothing of the past, his knowledge of the future is limited to the field he works in. … the squire is his king, the parson his deity, the taproom his highest conception of earthly bliss."

Even recent historians who have covered the plight of the rural labourers, such as the great A.F.J. Brown, have made the mistake of describing the farm-worker as 'unskilled'. In fact, the level of skill required for many farm jobs was remarkably high. When this workforce had proper opportunities in Canada and Australia, they showed themselves astonishingly ingenious and resourceful, often making fortunes in their new country.

Kent and East Anglia suffered the lowest wages for workers. Kent had been the focus for the 'Swing Riots' of the 1830s, when there had been a danger of the unrest turning into open rebellion. The disturbances had been put down ruthlessly, and the movement had been leaderless, a spontaneous reaction to the appalling conditions in the country. The hostility and discontent remained, but there was no further trouble for thirty years. Unionism started to emerge from Kent in the 1860s and spread quickly through the rural counties of Britain. These unions started with a new realisms and a Methodist distaste for violence. They concluded that, that at a time when there was shortage of work, they had little hope of improving wages or conditions. Their peaceful message was 'Emigration, Migration but not Strikes'. The result of their campaigns was to raise the pay of labourers by some two shillings a week in some counties.

The Union in Essex grew rapidly under Charles Jay's leadership. In July 1872 the Essex Standard reported that Mr. Jay had " done much to promote trade unions." Charles Jay believed in the logic propounded by Joseph Arch that workers should be prepared to move to where there was work. He also saw the futility of negotiating for higher wages when there was so much unemployment in the area. He therefore arranged for numerous workers from Braintree and district to move to the northern industrial towns, where they were to be employed as unskilled labourers. A few farm workers even found employment as constables in the Liverpool police force. They wrote to Jay…

We now take the Pleasure of thanking you for your Trouble you are takeing for us. Three of us revive at 3 o'clock, and 3 at seven o'clock. We had a good round the station and then we had the beef we should not have at home. Then see the Magor and he sent a man round the streets to show us about, on Tuesday we were swareing in as constables, and 2 suits of good clothes, and then the drill came, we can do that better than hopping over clods all day. we get a lb of beef every day and a good bed to lie upon, we had a grand set-out on Friaday. there were six or seven hundred policemen met together and a fine band play at. the march, which we should not have seen there, and we hope all that goe away may prosper as we believe we shall, as we seem to like it, so we are yours truly, POLICEMEIN"5

In January 1873, one of Jay's "police protégés" was brought before Liverpool borough police court on a charge of having stolen "a silver watch chain, a pencil case and other articles, and £2 belonging to several police officers." The incident was reported prominently in the local press to blacken the union's activities.

Charles Jay's ideas seem moderate and constructive today but were met with a great deal of hostility in the press and from the landowners. In 1872, an "East Essex Farmers' Defence Association" was formed "for the protection of the farmer against the labourers' union." Col Ruggles-Brise, for example, made a speech condemning the union, saying it 'abused employers, incited class conflict, and had leaders with revolutionary aims' though he later became a convert, telling a farmers' meeting that N.A.L.U. had done a service by moving surplus labour to places where employment was available. The Essex Standard, a 'farmers' paper, spun stories hostile to Charles Jay. They published the 'dictated' letter from a man who described how Jay had induced him to go to Newcastle, where he would be guaranteed employment. On reaching Newcastle he found no jobs available and he was forced to walk on to Hull, where he stayed four days working on a mud boat. He then journeyed on to Yarmouth to obtain work on a fishing boat, and when this employment came to an end he returned to his native Essex village. The 'Letter' ended with the remark that "all the statements which Mr. Jay made to me I found false. I have not joined the labourers' union, nor do I intend, for I have already had quite sufficient dealings with Mr. Jay". Charles Jay was heard to reply, "bad shillings are always returned."'

It is strange to read now of the hostility towards the moderation of Charles Jay and Joseph Ashe In truth, what worried the farmers was the increasing militancy of the farm workers This unrest was becoming obvious. On April 16th 1872, for example, the Bury and Norwich reported'

On Saturday last at Newton, about 80 men, being the entire adult labouring population, went on strike for a rise in wages.

For two previous days the land has lain idle and barley seed unsown. The masters complained of the manner of the strike and the time chosen more than the terms demanded by the labourers. During the winter months nothing is deducted from their wages although it is difficult to find work for them although some of the men earn only 2s 6d a week. Now the weather has changed they have ungratefully gone on strike for 2s a day.

The rector the Rev Charles Smith says of late years the wages were 10s a week and older boys could earn 3s 6d to 5s a week. The men take the harvest and the women can glean and there are a few extras such as beer or malt and horsemen receive 1s 6d a week extra. There is not much piece work now since the introduction of threshing machinery previous to which men worked in threshing for six months of the year. Rents are 4L per annum and there are gardens and small allotments. The men argue they don't know about capital but they should not be in poverty while the master's sons and daughters were riding and driving about in such style, they admit that the master's are kind and often put little things their way but they don't want charity.

In July 1872, Codham Hall bacame the scene " of a 'garden party ' of an unwonted kind . . . composed of agricultural labourers who were invited to the place for the purpose of hearing the advantages of unionism."

Charles Jay showed that day that he was not the hothead depicted by the farmers and a hostile press.

"Mr. Jay urged the labourers to join the union, urging that it would not harm the farmers who were fair and honourable masters. He stated that it was his desire to benefit the labourers and obtain for them higher wages. The rise in the price of coal and other commodities was because in the north of England there was not sufficient labour. In Essex it was too abundant, and he thought it would be well if a number of men were induced to go where they could better themselves in winter and come back to help the farmers in summer."

At the meeting, the imposing and dignified figures of Mr Joseph Arch and Mr Redsell spoke to the company. The local paper reported…

'Our readers will be interested to know what manner of men such phenomena as the labourer orators are. Both, then, had the general appearance of labourers, in truth and in deed, but labourers of the best sort. Perhaps the reader will understand what we mean when we say that they looked like a couple of farming foremen got up to take the 'missus' on a shopping expedition on a Saturday night. Arch's dress in particular was strongly suggestive of such a mission. He a black, felt billycock hat, rough dark coat and vest, and 'corduroys'. Redsell, who spoke first, has a ruddy intelligent countenance, with hard lines in it standing out like so many iron bands. Redsell spoke for about 20 minutes, Arch for about an hour, and very well they acquitted themselves. In each case the thought was sustained and well worked out, the language terse and vigorous, the illustrations homely and full of point, and the delivery lusty but well modulated. Both men quoted somewhat largely from Scripture, and now and then made use of a phrase leading to the belief that at some time or other they had preached in village pulpits."

(Chelmsford Chronicle July 1872)

Farm labourers flocked to join the union. During 1872 Charles Jay toured numerous Essex villages, and to audiences of agricultural workers, often numbering 300 or more, he spoke of the advantages from united action. At one meeting, for example, he and Joseph Arch (the chairman of the National Agricultural Labourers' Union) promised that he would guarantee to those who joined the union 13/- a week in winter and 15/- in summer. If they could not get these wages the Union would support them in the unfortunate event of a strike.

Jay's belief in migration of the labourers was reinforced in 1873 when he was appointed an agent of the Queensland Government to attract British workers to Australia. Jay and the Union toured the Essex villages preaching the benefits of emigration to Queensland. In 1874, they decided to fill a ship with union emigrants He spoke in meetings of higher wages and pleasant living conditions that could be found in Queensland, and at one meeting he gave an account of the assisted passages that were available "Promissory notes for £1 were given by the emigrants in exchange for a kit. This kit is necessary for life on board ship, and when they reach their destination the value is doubled. The promissory note is redeemed when the labourer can afford the money ; if not, Her Majesty's Exchequer is so much the poorer."

The union was besieged with applications and Charles Jay described the scene at Witham Junction when the trains left with the emigrants

'On the 14th inst. some of the finest peasantry of the Eastern Counties joined the Saint James for Queensland. It was a remarkable day in the Eastern Counties; every station from Woodbridge in Suffolk had passengers for Queensland. Kelvedon was rather a big gathering, but at Witham junction the largest party came together, some from Braintree, some from the Dengie Hundred and some from the neighbourhood around Witham ... It looked as if the Royal Family must be expected at Witham, for every available space was filled by people come to see some 200 working folks leave the country. Cheer after cheer came from the onlookers and the starters; for miles from Witham every cottage seemed to expect the train to pass, for someone was prepared to wave a parting flag; hedgerows seemed to contain human beings for the purpose; ploughmen stood still and waved their hats, and at farm houses the servant appeared either at the door or window and excitedly waved her flag. At the county town it will not be soon forgotten, and masters and parsons will be more persistent than ever in refusing to sign any emigration papers. Long streets in Chelmsford command a view of the rail; they were quite alive with women at the doors waving their parting flag",

On arrival in the " promised land," not all the emigrants were pleased with what they found. One Englishman, who had settled in Indah, near Maryborough, wrote home : " After landing we found things far from what was expected. Work was not so easy to be had, and wages much lower, and the house we had to live in being far from comfortable ... no married people who have a family should come here, places not being so easy to get and no comforts to be had like in Old England ... my wages are not much better than at home, beef, bread, and tea being our only living. Instead of the £2 or £3 a week Mr. Jay told us of, 15/- is as much as you will get at first and afterwards £1." Such letters home were quoted gleefully in the local press, despite the general success of the Emigration

Opposition grew. Even one of his own farming friends suggested that "my friend Mr. Jay ... has deceived-has rascally deceived-a great many of the labouring classes." On one occasion, when he was visiting Chelmsford market, Jay met with physical opposition from the farmers. In an attempt to avoid his opponents he took shelter in the Corn Exchange, but, as the Essex Standard reported, " an ugly rush was made at the Exchange by the crowd which had assembled outside, and Mr. Jay-was jostled about and successfully ejected, his hat, which had been knocked off his head in the melee, being kicked or thrown after him." In describing the scene, the newspaper stated that " Mr. Jay afterwards ' told them his mind ' in an oration from the steps in front of the Shire Hall."

In February 1874, it all started to go sour for the union. Labourers at Exning near Stowmarket demanded a rise of one shilling a week. The farmers were ready for them, and had formed themselves into the 'Newmarket Farmers Defence Association' and the great lock-out began. One farmer put it this way: " I shall let the horses stand idle in the stable and allow my land to run to grass before I will submit to be dictated to by an irresponsible body."

Quickly, the lock-out spread into Essex until in July up to 10,000 men were locked out, and many evicted from their cottages. Jay visited the farmers in an endeavour to persuade them to allow the labourers to return to work. Some of his visits were made incognito with the object of "interviewing the farmers and ascertaining from them their reasons for refusing to employ the men." Farmers spoke of the bad relations between master and man created by the agitators, especially "that blackguard Jay.". "There's that fellow Jay," one farmer told him, not realizing his identity. "It makes one's hair stand on end to hear what that rascally agitator says about us. He's been telling such an infernal lot of lies to these poor men, and has disturbed the good relationships which have so long existed." The local press,who relied on the financial support of the farmers and farming industries always suspicious of Mr. Jay's intentions, was to join the farmers in condemning his activities. "If Mr. Jay desires to do anything beyond stirring up strife," thundered the agricultural correspondent of the Essex Standard, "the best thing he can do is to keep out of the way."

The Union of Arch and Jay found it impossible to continue paying strike benefits. Despite widespread sympathy from politicians, journalists and the intelligentsia, the sum of money, £24,000, became too much, and on 27th July, the men were recommended to return to work.

With the end of the lock-out during the harvest weeks of 1874 and the consequent failure of the unions, an even greater gulf was created between labourers and farmers. Yet, in spite of the failures, Jay continued to advocate the need for unity among the workers, and in October of 1874 he went to the conference of the N.A.L.U. at Leamington, where it was decided that a land company should be formed to purchase land on which to settle labourers. Jay told the meeting that a number of gentlemen were "prepared to advance as much as £100,000 for the benefit of the labourers.".

Unfortunately, the voices of moderation and reason were doomed. The lockout and the resulting disaster to the labourers had cause more radical leaders to take over the union and at meetings a new group of speakers, prepared to adopt more forceful measures, came to the fore on public platforms. In September 1874, at a tea feast, described by the press as being " as much a beer-drinking as a tea-drinking party," a paid agent of the union for north-east Essex made " a wild speech which seemed to have been too much even for Mr. Jay." The agent spoke of estates built up on " the bones and sinews of the labourers " and told what the Essex Standard considered to be a " highly improbable story " of a Cambridge clergyman " whom he found living in great luxury while he preached contentment to the poor on small wages." After the speech, Jay pointed out that he did not believe a word of the man's story, for he had " been telling the greatest lies he could concoct."

In the face of falling union membership, depression and defeat, the Essex farm workers continued to press their claims but the union was broken and fell to recrimination. The membership fell disastrously. Charles Jay left to start a rival union, accusing union officials of lining their pockets. The agitator who had once been described by a farm labourer as "the greatest benefactor this part of the county ever knew" eventually departed from Codham Hall and is heard of no more in our local history. His manner of departure was curiously sudden and it would be good to know what happened to Charles Jay.