In February 1872 a meeting of farm labourers was held at Wellesbourne, Warwickshire. The meeting had been called to address the problems of the rural working poor. About 30 people were expected, but over 2,000 turned up, and this meeting led to the foundation of the National Agricultural Labourers Union. Its president was Joseph Arch, a farm labourer, activist and Methodist preacher, and 2019 marks the centenary of his death. He addressed the Wellesbourne meeting, and a series of similar gatherings, one of which was held in the Summer of 1873 at the Bowling Green Inn, Southam.
Joseph Arch was born in Barford, Warwickshire in 1826; his father and grandfather were farm labourers. He started farm work at age 9, and as a young man travelled widely becoming skilled in a range of farming tasks. He understood at first hand the harsh working conditions, poor health and poverty endured by many agricultural workers. He educated himself and became politically aware. The aim of the Union he founded was to try to improve conditions and wages for those who worked the land. At that time, farm labourers often suffered extreme poverty with low wages and terrible living conditions. In the words of the then Countess of Warwick: “In many a country village the condition of the labourer and his family was but little removed from that of the cattle they tended.” Furthermore, they had no political representation and were dependent on the landowning class both for their livelihoods, and for their homes. Whilst some landowners were benevolent, many were not.
Joseph Arch travelled to Canada to explore the opportunities for agricultural workers there, becoming convinced that mass emigration would improve the lot of all skilled farm workers. Access to land abroad was easy and skills were in short supply, hence emigrants would lead better lives, and by emigrating, would reduce the labour force at home, helping to raise the wages of those who remained.
The meeting at Southam’s Bowling Green was reported in The Leamington Spa Courier of 2nd August 1873 and includes almost verbatim the content of Joseph Arch’s speech. It started as a rather jolly affair, with 400 people sitting down to tea, followed by ‘dancing and other amusements’. The formal business and speeches followed, presided over by Mr Blackwell. After an impassioned speech by Joseph Arch, the resolution proposed by Mr E Haynes was passed unanimously supporting the National Agricultural Workers Union, as ‘the only means by which the farm labourers of this country can raise themselves socially, financially and politically’. The Courier report provides fascinating insights into the lives of the labourers and the relative status of the working and landowning classes at that time.
After founding the National Agricultural Workers Union, Joseph Arch turned his attention to politics, becoming an MP in 1885 and also serving on Warwickshire County Council. He assisted the passage of the Representation of the People Act 1884 which (along with the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885) extended the same voting rights to people in the countryside that existed in towns. Joseph Arch died aged 93, having returned to live in the same cottage in Barford in which he was born.
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