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The Labouring Man

[ Roud 1156 ; Ballad Index PECS026 ; Bodleian Roud 1156 ; Wiltshire 131 ; trad.]

The Labouring Man was collected by the Reverend Geoffry Hill in Durrington and published in his 1898 book Wiltshire Folk Songs and Carols. The Wiltshire Community website cites him as:

This song comes from the same village [Durrington] as the former [The Taking of Quebec] and was sung by the same man.

It may surprise many to be told that there is a class of Englishmen so intensely patriotic as the farm labourer; and we can see the reason for their patriotism when we remember that their fathers fought for England, not by bearing an increased load of taxation, but with their own hands. The richer classes may well be patriotic, for their sons son by war promotion and reputation. But the labouring class won nothing; they only knew that they had met the French in fair fight and had beaten them. This, with their old English love of fighting, was enough; they loved England not for what England had done for them, but for what they had borne for England; if ever there was an unselfish love it was theirs. But if his love was unselfish, the English labourer was well aware at what cost he had proved it. Napier, in his Peninsular War, tells us that it was not English generalship that beat the French, but the doggedness of the English infantry; and if this fact was apparent to Napier, it was equally apparent to the men who had shewn the doggedness. How well then can we understand the bitterness with which Wellington's troops on their return from the Peninsular viewed the state of things then existing in England! They say that Protection and the French War had so raised the price of bread, that the men and women of their own class were almost starving; and they soon found that they themselves had to bear the pinch of poverty. Little wonder was it that men who knew that they had given England her proud position among the nations of Europe at the risk of their own lives, expressed themselves bitterly and extravagantly at the treatment which they received at the hands of their countrymen.

Brian Pearson sang The Labouring Man in 1968 on the Critics Group's Argo album Waterloo Peterloo. The album's booklet noted:

In the latter part of the 18th century, the old open field system of farming still predominated over large areas of the country. It was a system ill-adapted to the applications of the new agricultural techniques pioneered by such men as Coke and Bakewell. The Enclosure Acts, which were passed in increasing numbers after about 1760, provided a solution by bringing the commons under cultivation and consolidating the scattered strips of the old system into more compact holdings.

The result of this rationalisation were as splendid as had been forecast, or at least so the larger land-owners must have thought, as their crop yields increased and their live-stock and bank-balances grew fatter and healthier. Many small farmers, however, unable to meet the cost of hedging and ditching their new plots, were forced to sell out. The plight of the cottager, dependant for his meagre living on rights of common which had now ceased to exist, was even more desperate. An army of landless wage-labourers was created.

During the war years, under-employment was endemic. Men, working for starvation wages or trying to eke out a living on parish relief, could enjoy the spectacle of their masters coining huge profits from the the grotesquely inflated corn prices of those times. The post-war depression brought a further deterioration in conditions and the anger and frustration of the farm-workers found expression in such uprisings as the East Anglian riots of 1816. The Labouring Man probably dates from this post-war period.

Yorkshire Relish sang The Labouring Man in 1980 on their Traditional Sound album An Old Family Business.

Roy Bailey sang Labouring Man in 2005 on his CD Sit Down and Sing.

The Teacups sang Labouring Man on their 2015 CD Of Labour and Love, with a chorus of Gavin Davenport, Jamie Roberts, Katriona Gilmore, Stu Hanna, Cliff Ward and Jade Rhiannon. They noted:

Another song where the theme still resonates. Alex [Cumming] found these words in Wiltshire Folk Songs and Carols, by Rev. G. Hills. They were collected from an unknown source in Durrington, Wiltshire, and he coupled them with a tune called Bristol from the William Winters Collection.

Lyrics

The Critics Group sing The Labouring Man The Teacups sing Labouring Man

You Englishmen of each degree,
A moment listen unto me:
From day to day you all may see
The poor are frowned on by degree.
To please you all I do intend,
So listen to the lines I've penned;
By them, you know who never can
Do without the labouring man.

You Englishmen of each degree,
A moment listen unto me.
To please you all I do intend,
With these few lines that I do to pen.
From day to day you all may see,
The poor are frowned on by degree.
By them, you know who never can
Do without the labouring man.

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
Now let England do the best she can,
She can't do without the labouring man.
Old England always leads the van,
But not without the labouring man.

In former days, you all must know,
The poor man cheerful used to go.
Quite clean and neat, upon my life,
With his children and his darling wife.
And for his labour it was said,
A fair day's wages he was paid.
But now to live he hardly can—
May God protect the labouring man.

In former days, you all do know,
A poor man cheerful used to go.
Neat and clean, upon my life,
With his children and his wife.
And for his labour it was said,
A fair day's wages he was paid.
But now to live he hardly can—
May God protect the labouring man.

There is one thing we must confess,
When England find they're in a mess,
And has to face the daring foe,
Unto the labouring men they go
To fight their battles, understand,
Either on sea or on the land;
Deny the truth we never can,
They call upon the labouring man.

Some for soldiers they will go,
And jolly sailors do we know,
To guard Old England day and night,
And for their country boldly fight.
But when they do return again
They're looked upon with great disdain;
Now in distress throughout the land
You may behold the labouring man.

When Bonaparte and Nelson too,
And Wellington at Waterloo.
Were fighting both by land and sea,
The poor man gained these victories!
Their hearts are cast in honour's mould,
The sailors and the soldiers bold.
And every battle, understand
Was conquered by the labouring man.

When Bonaparte and Nelson too,
And Wellington at Waterloo.
Were fighting both by land and sea,
The poor man gained the victory!
Their hearts were cast in honour's mould,
The soldiers and the sailors bold.
And every battle, you must understand
Was carried by the labouring man.

The labouring man will plough the deep,
Till the ground and sow the wheat,
Fight the battles when afar,
Fear no dangers or a scar;
But still they're looked upon like thieves
By them who bide at home at ease,
And everyday throughout the land
They try to starve the labouring man.

Now if wars should rise again,
And England be in want of men.
They'll have to search the country round
To find the lads that plough the ground,
Then to some foreign land they'll go
To fight and dub the daring foe;
Do what they will, do what they can,
They ca'#t do without the labouring man.

Now, if wars do rise again,
And England be in want of men.
They'll have to search the country round
To find the lads that plough the ground,
Who harrow the ground and till the wheat,
And every danger boldly meet.
For England always leads the van,
But not without the labouring man.

Links

See also Mike Yates' Musical Traditions article ‘Awake and join the cheerful choir’: The Reverend Geoffry Hill and his Wiltshire Folk Songs and Carols.