In 1843 the reports of special assistant poor law commissioners on the employment of women and children in agriculture were presented to both Houses of Parliament. This is the Statement provided by the Rev. Henry Austen, Curate of Pimperne, Dorset.
I have held the curacy of Pimperne 23 years. We have a school for the children of the labouring classes, with nearly 100 boys and girls. Each child pays Id. a-week, which is returned, with an extra shilling for good behaviour, at the end of the year. The boys are taken from school to go to farm-work from 11 to 12 years old. I think that is not too early to make them skilful labourers. We have had a few instances of boys kept at the school till they were seventeen, and it was found that they could not at that age, and after habits acquired in attending school so long, turn to that kind of labour. They continue to loiter about the village, and become idle. Girls generally leave the school at about 15 or 16, now and then remaining until 17.
Since I have been here I have had the opportunity of seeing children grow up, who were in the school; I find them always thankful for having received an education; and they are better fathers and mothers, and superior in all respects when compared with others who received no education, or with those who went hefore them. The parish has been extremely benefited by the school. I find the strongest desire always on the part of parents in the parish to send their children to the school; and I find a corresponding increase of attendance at church and at the sacrament.
Mrs. Austen, who has always given her personal attention to the poor, visiting their cottages, and watching over the conduct of the children, observes a considerable improvement in their habits, particularly amongst the women, which she cannot but attribute to their better education.
A few years since I established an evening school for boys and young men, whose time during the day was taken up by their work, and I have much reason to be satisfied with the result. They formerly paid 4d. a-week. I am happy to say that I am now enabled to let them come free, the expenses being made up by subscriptions. I observe that the young lads who were inattentive as children at the day-school now attend the evening school, and are most anxious for instruction. The school is open from six to eight, and the young people who come home tired at five o’clock from their work, take their meal and hasten to their school with manifest pleasure. This evening school is open for the four winter months, beginning in November; and I feel it has a most important advantage in one respect, it keeps the young man out of the beer-shop, and other mischief, and finds him a rational and instructive pursuit. It is held in the National school-room; and the scholars have the use of the books, desks, &c., supplied to the day- school, the master of which superintends for a little additional gratuity. They are divided into classes, according to their proficiency in reading; they read some chapters from the Scriptures, and other books of religious instruction, write, and those who have been at the day-school resume their arithmetic. The number of scholars of course varies; sometimes we have had between 40 and 50; another year not more than 30. Their ages from 11 to 20. Seeing the change produced by the schools in this village, I should consider it a most lamentable case for any parish to be without them.
I should say that the constant employment of women in field-labour tends to degrade them extremely. They get into the company of young men, and often hear improper language, and become very bold; indeed few if any of our younger females seek such employment, except in the hay and corn-harvest. The poor people have to struggle with the want of proper accommodation in their dwellings, which I tear is too general in our rural districts. A man and his wife, with a large family of children, have in most cases only two bed-rooms. There are instances of a man and wife, and several children, sleeping in one bed-room. But, as they grow up, neighbours, for their mutual accommodation, sometimes arrange so that the boys and girls of two families shall occupy separate apartments.
I think 11 years old a very proper age for boys to begin farm-work, and do not think that it need at all obstruct their religious or moral improvement with a punctual attendance at the Sunday and evening schools, both of which many readily avail themselves of after they are so employed : I do not think that even their mental improvement is too much interfered with by their being employed at that age.