Turvey in the 1850s

Hogs Lane. Home of Joseph Bell.
John Higgins
Cottages and Church Tower

We know something of life in Turvey in the 1850s, mainly thanks to Joseph Bell’s memoir, which covers the years 1846-1858.

Child labour

We know, for example, that children were obliged to begin work very young – boys were very often employed from the age of seven or eight. Families simply couldn’t manage without their wage, and education didn’t become compulsory until the 1880s. Often they would be given ‘light’ jobs on the farms, such as bird scaring or running errands, as was Joseph’s experience. He writes:

Starting work somewhere about the age of seven years, leaving my home at five o’clock in the morning, sometimes with nothing more substantial than a mother’s kiss and her scalding tears on my cheek – trusting to Providence to provide me with food for the day…I was to be thankful that God had, at my tender age, called me to work many hours a day for the munificent sum of 1/6 per week. I had to walk a mile or more to my work, leave off at six in the evening and I often had to walk a distance of two miles [to] Carlton and carry heavy chains or parts of machinery to the village Blacksmith… it was often quite late before I returned home. So you will see that I was in full marching order.

As a boy, Joseph often worked on the ‘gangs’ which did much of the work on arable farms. He describes the process of ‘dibbling in’ the corn – men went ahead and made holes with a dibber, and boys followed behind, dropping a grain of corn into each hole:

These boys were driven like cattle by a man called ‘the Ganger’. He was one of the best paid men on the farm, he walked behind the boys with a double rope bound with waxend, and woe-betide the boy who made what was called a ‘straight-back’ before he got to the end of the row. The rope would descend very sharply upon him.

Turvey Occupations

In Turvey’s 1851 census two words crop up again and again: ‘Ag Lab’, short for Agricultural Labourer. The fields would have been busy with people all year round, with almost all farm work done – often painfully – by hand. For this back-breaking work the Ag labs were paid ‘starvation wages’ (Joseph’s words). Part of their pay was in (weak) beer, brought out to the fields at intervals during the day; this was the norm for men and boys.

Agricultural wages in this area were depressed by the fact that most women were also working, so it was assumed that the men could be paid less. It’s well known that this is a lacemaking area. The  majority of women and girls would have been ‘at the pillow’ almost all the time, and this was the main source of income for Joseph’s mother and three sisters. His mother had to find the money to send the girls to one of the village lace schools, from the age of four or five. In theory (but not usually in practice) the schools also provided them with a basic education. The strictness of some of the lace mistresses was legendary. The girls were usually told to have bare arms so that they would really feel the mistress’s reprimanding slap. If they really provoked her, the mistress might push their noses into the pins on their pillows.

Joseph says the lacemakers were quite ‘in the power’ of the Tallymen lace dealers, who would hire out patterns and sell them thread, and then buy the final product back; they would also:

tempt them to purchase finery and trumpery things in which they used to deal and so get them quite in their power… In this way they would get this beautiful lace out of these poor people for a mere nothing.

Their eyes were strained by working in poor light, and they often suffered from respiratory problems caused by sitting hunched over their pillows. But when they could, they worked outside their front doors, gossiping with their neighbours, and they sang lace “tells” or rhymes to keep themselves going. These, and the inscriptions on their bobbins, which were often given as gifts or purchased as keepsakes, suggest that their minds might sometimes have strayed from their work:

 May I have him in my arms that I love in my heart
My boys if I am ragged my heart is true
If I love a lad in Ravenstone, that’s nothing to nobody
Kiss me, court me, hug me tight, don’t you crump my collar tonight
I do so love the lads

Despite their poverty, the lacemakers were proud of their independence, and thankful that they had more control over their lives than others, especially those in service.

Eating and drinking

It’s likely that in the mid 19th century there were four bakehouses in Turvey, which seems a lot for a population of a thousand, until you consider just how important bread was in people’s diets. Most poor people lived on bread with lard or dripping (occasionally cheese) day in, day out. To save money they probably would have made their own bread and taken it to the bakehouse to be baked. The diets of agricultural workers were highly dependent on bread; during the 1830s and 1840s, 75% of family income was devoted to food and 71 per cent of that spending went on bread, with the result that 55.5 per cent of all income was spent on this one item alone.[1] Meat was a rarity: Joseph says ‘if the butcher killed more than one sheep a week he was considered quite a wholesale purveyor’, and almost all of that meat would have been consumed by the better off. A bit of meat or suet pudding for Sunday lunch was all most could aspire to.

Joseph describes a terrible winter (probably in the mid 1850s) when a bread famine struck the village. He says that the fields were not properly cultivated because the village had lost so many men to the Crimean War; this was followed by heavy flooding (with men forced to walk the high street on stilts) and then deep snow. A whole flock of sheep was buried in a snowdrift, which would have been devastating, but more critically a lot of flour was lost, which led to a severe bread shortage. Joseph says ‘in those days there was no imported food such as Bully Beef, Bacon or Margarine’. 1850s Turvey relied on food grown within a few miles of the village, impressively low in food miles by today’s standards, but potentially catastrophic if the harvest failed or was otherwise lost.

There were at least four pubs in Turvey in the 1850s. The Three Fyshes had been serving beer since 1674. The Three Cranes (known at that time as The Chequers) had also been in existence since the 17th century (although it was knocked down and rebuilt in the second half of the 19th). The Kings Arms on Jack’s Lane existed in its older, smaller guise. The Tinker’s Inn (now John’s Central Stores) would have been the busiest, because in the days before the railway the village inn was an important centre of commerce. Travelling tradesmen would have stayed there, along with pedlars and packmen with goods to sell. It was the main coaching stop, where the carrier’s cart would depart to Northampton or Bedford. Most Turvey folk rarely left the village,  when they did it would be to walk to Olney market or Bedford, or to neighbouring villages to visit family.

Village environs

In 1847 there were four general stores in the village, two on the High Street, one on Bridge Street and one in Carlton Road (in the same location as the current Corner Stores). According to Kelly’s Directory from this time, there were two Blacksmiths and one Farrier, one Tailor, one Plumber, one Carpenter and several Bootmakers. Pretty much everything that the ordinary person needed could be found in the village, although Joseph does describe walking to Bedford every week to buy some port wine for his ailing mother. It’s hard to imagine now what it must have been like living within such narrow horizons. The Poor Laws meant that people often stayed within the bounds of the authority which knew them; if you moved away and became dependent on  poor relief, you could be returned if you didn’t carry a certificate saying your home parish would reimburse the parish where you had settled.

The High Street would have looked fairly similar in the 1850s, except the main road would have passed right next to the church and Corner Stores. Barncroft was known as “Kitt’s Alley”; Bakers Close and Tandys Close had the same names but were just fields at that point. Much of the stone for the new cottages was quarried from Baker’s Close. Grove Farm was a fairly large concern and its dairy and land would have covered many of the areas now filled with houses. The main village smithy was located at the bottom of Newton Lane, with another one on Carlton Road. Both would have been a major hub for village industry (and gossip). Further up Newton Lane are cottages which were probably used for one of the lace schools. Jonah and Eve had been in place since 1844, but Jonah would have stood right in the middle of the mill pond. It was a favourite game of the village boys to swim out to him and climb on his shoulders, but Joseph was strictly forbidden from doing so since a little boy drowned in the pond (of course, this didn’t stop him). The Village Hall was the newly opened school, under-attended until the 1880s when education became compulsory.


At the very beginning of the 19th century, living conditions in Turvey were pretty atrocious. When the Higgins family bought the village estate in the 1790s, the Mordaunts had been more or less absentee landlords for some time; they had another estate in Northamptonshire where they preferred to live. Little had been done to improve the living conditions of villagers for some time. Dozens of cottages to the south of the church were cleared when the new driveway to Turvey House was built in the 1850s, including the house where Joseph was born, which was right up against the wall to the south of the church. To compensate the Higgins family built more than 60 new houses between the 1840s and the 1860s. Church Terrace, Ladybridge Terrace, Abbey Square and others were all thoughtfully designed to improve the health of villagers (and, of course, the appearance of what the Higgins family determined should be a model village).

Still, a lot of poor housing stock survived. Wattle and daub walls, draughty windows and thatch in a poor state of repair was the norm. Joseph says that ‘coal was used but little in the village… many of the cottages had mud floors; for cooking and warmth they used to burn wood on the hearth’. The lacemakers were not even allowed this luxury, because smoke from the fire would have discoloured their lace, so the dealers would not buy. Instead they made do with ‘firepots’, ordinary terracotta pots filled with hot wood ash from the bakehouses, which they would put under their petticoats, regularly removing them to ‘wake the ash’ with bellows.

Joseph describes the house his family were forced to move to when they could no longer keep up with their rent after his father died. Mr Higgins found for them:

part of a house which was reputed to be haunted and which was certainly not fit for human habitation. There were no fire grates in it; large stone flags formed the floor of a large Hall. In this Hall was a large open hearth with old-fashioned pot-hooks and a large wood oven, heated with wood faggots and used for cooking purposes by us and two other families also occupying part of the house. A great part of this house was in ruins

Eventually this house was also pulled down, and something more suitable found for the family.


In 1828 there was a religious schism in the village. The popular evangelical (and rather famous) Rev. Legh Richmond had died in 1827, and his shoes were very difficult to fill. Many villagers felt the new incumbent wasn’t up to scratch and they voted with their feet, setting up two new chapels in 1828. The Methodist chapel (off Carlton Road) was local evidence of a growing wave of Methodism which was sweeping across the country, later aligned with the campaign against alcohol (the Temperance movement) and the campaign for voting reform and the extension of the vote to working men (the Chartist movement). The Congregational chapel, south of the High Street, was independent and run by its congregation for its congregation.

Many villagers stuck with All Saints, partly because the Higgins family were churchgoers; it’s possible that their charity flowed more easily to church parishioners. The church was associated with the state and the status quo, and most of the gentry believed that the Church of England was the only true church. In common with their peers the Higgins men would not have believed in social mobility, but they were certainly driven by piety and a genuine desire to alleviate suffering wherever they found it. You can read letters sent between Charles Longuet Higgins and his brother in the Bedfordshire Archives, and they are almost entirely devoted to concerns about the health and travails of villagers.


The villagers’ beliefs were not all of a religious nature. Joseph writes:

I think I should not be far wrong if I was to say that at that time [Turvey] was the most superstitious village in England… practical jokes, ghost stories and fairy tales kept the people in a continual state of fear. Several of the old women in the village were said to be witches, especially if they were lame or deformed.

Joseph’s friends the shoemakers were often behind the pranks, including the ‘mysterious tolling of the church bell at a given hour each night’. It was customary in those days for the church to toll a ‘passing bell’ when someone in the village died, striking a certain number of times to indicate whether an adult or child, male or female, had died. So a bell tolling at night without this striking was a ‘sure token of death’. Joseph knew, unlike others, that one of the shoemakers had ‘clogged the bell’ to fix the clapper, and by tying a ball of string to it and running it along the ground outside the church he could make it ring from a distance, causing ‘the yokels [to] run home in terror’.

In 1858 there was an event which really frightened the superstitious villagers. Donati’s comet, the second brightest comet of the century, blazed across the skies; without street lights and electricity it would have been really vivid. Joseph writes:

It was a grand sight but it filled the people with terror. It was said that on a given night, when its tail touched the earth, the world and all the people would be burned up… no-one thought of going to bed; the whole village [was] huddled together out of doors, speaking in whispers, some praying, some crying, others quite indifferent… The heavens were as red as blood… The comet looked like a large, beautiful planet with a tail a mile long and spread out like a fan. There was a tense silence as the hour drew near and the tail of the comet seemed to touch the horizon.

They seem to have been quite disappointed when ‘nothing happened. We all retired to rest.’


A six day working week was the norm for most people, and days off were unheard of for some (such as those in service). But there was some relief. Joseph mentions various village festivities: some were agricultural and typical of most rural areas, such as the Hay Home (celebrating the end of the hay harvest in early summer), and the Harvest Home “with its dinner, songs and country dances”. In Turvey, Largesse was also celebrated.  Before the Harvest Home, “the villagers would hunt up all the tradesmen who had done any business for the Farmer[s] during the year and ask them for money for Largesse which used to be pooled and spent on Bread and Cheese and Beer at the village public house”. The villagers would also go ‘gleaning’ after the harvest; they were allowed to take home any remaining ears of corn once the gleaning bell had been rung (until the 1840s in Turvey the church had a specific gleaning peal).

The lacemakers had their own holidays. Two were celebrated locally, the feast of St Catherine (Catterns day) and St Andrews (Tanders day). They both had significance in marking the first date of the year when the girls in the lace schools were allowed to light a candle to see their work by. Catterns was quite a tame affair – the lacemakers would ‘wet the candle block’ (take tea together) and eat Catterns Cakes made with caraway seeds. In the lace schools they would ‘jump the candlestick’ (as in ‘Jack be Nimble’) and would face a year of bad luck if they put it out while jumping. Tanders day sounds more raucous, probably because it revolved around the consumption of ‘metheglin’, a rich and potent mead. Mr and Mrs Cobb in Olney reputedly brewed it strong, and lacemakers from the villages around would turn up with their jugs during the day. Tanders Day was also Charles Longuet Higgins’s birthday, and he sent figs to everyone in the village by way of celebration.

The fair came to the village once a year. One year when money was especially tight Joseph was desperate to go. He decided to sell his much-treasured four-bladed knife to Billie Wooding, who cave him twopence and a stick of rock for it. It had been left to him by his father and in fact was the only possession Joseph had to remember him by. He knew his mother would be furious and he went to the fair full of remorse.

The merry company and the noise of the showmen soon banished care and sorrow from my mind. Was I not passing rich? Why indeed should I not mix with the others? I ventured a ride on the swing boats, which cost me half my capital. I became very sick and giddy and felt I was going to die. My sins stood like ghosts to torment me.

His sin did find him out, as his mother always warned him it would, she gave him a sound flogging when he returned home. But who can blame him for seizing a rare opportunity for pleasure?

[1] Emma Griffin; Diets, Hunger and Living Standards During the British Industrial Revolution, Past & Present, Volume 239, Issue 1, 1 May 2018, Pages 71–111, https://doi.org/10.1093/pastj/gtx061

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