Agricultural and social conditions

Social change in the nineteenth century

During the nineteenth century, Britain changed from being a largely rural country to being a predominantly urban one. Great cities sprung up, such as Birmingham and Manchester, and older cities grew enormously, Bleak House front coversuch as London, Liverpool and Bristol. People from the countryside were drawn to the cities in hundreds of thousands. Novels, such as Mrs Gaskell's Mary Barton or Charles Dickens' Hard Times and Bleak House depicted these new, often squalid urban conditions.

By contrast, Hardy's Dorset seemed mostly untouched by this change. It had no cities, and the population of its few towns could be numbered in thousands of inhabitants rather than hundreds of thousands. Most were small market towns, largely unchanged for centuries; with its courthouse and army regiment, Dorchester was the county town where business was conducted. Only Weymouth was a little different, a resort town made popular in George III's time at the end of the eighteenth century.


Throughout the nineteenth century, the prospects for those working in the agricultural sector remained difficult, as they sought to compete with the rise of urban industrialisation. As a result, the wages of agricultural labourers were often at subsistence level. In an attempt to standardise wages and relief for poorer workers, the old Speenhamland system was abolished. This had allowed for the supplementation of workers' wages by the parish in times of hardship. In its place, the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) instigated the Tolpuddle martyrs, photo by John Goodall, available through Creative Commonsrelief of the poor through workhouses; it was vastly unpopular, and resulted in protestations such as that at Tolpuddle, near Hardy's home. This had been severely suppressed, and its leaders, known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, were tried and deported as convicts to Australia.

The dairy business did well, particularly, when the railways arrived, which were able to get dairy produce to the cities quickly - vital when there was no such thing as refrigeration. We can see this in Dairyman Crick's relative prosperity in Tess.

Life for Tess

At the beginning of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, nothing in this rural way of life seems affected by Britain's urbanisation and the problems of modernity. Yet as the novel progresses, Hardy makes us aware that there are changes:

  • Increasingly there is greater movement of people in search of employment
  • The dispossession of country people becomes a common occurrence. For example, after Tess's father dies, the rest of the family are forced out of their cottage and have to find temporary accommodation
  • The growing use of farm mechanisation is depicted: Tess has to work on a primitive combined harvester.

Hardy is aware he is writing for city people, so he explains a lot of this but not everything.

Social divisions

Tess's life is dominated by economic factors, many of them determined by social class. Late Victorian society was very class-structured. In the novel, there are clear distinctions between:

  • Professional middle-class people (for example, Angel's family)
  • Farmers and liviers, like Dairyman Crick
  • Copyholders or freeholders (for example, Tess's father)
  • Skilled farm labourers
  • Unskilled labourers.
More on rural society: Rural society was very stratified in its classes. Among the farming community, there would be lifeholders, or ‘liviers', who had security of tenure as long as they lived. Sometimes, this right to lease could be passed on to the next generation. Hardy makes use of this law in The Woodlanders to show how suddenly fortunes could be reversed as a result of a lease not being handed down. Then there would be labourers who lived in ‘tied' cottages, so that when their contract ended, they had to leave them. By the end of the century contracts were typically for a year only. 

However, even while seeming very traditional, society was becoming more mobile:

  • Tess's family is downwardly mobile
  • Alec's family is upwardly mobile – the economic boom of Victorian industrialisation meant that there was a lot of ‘new money' in the hands of those who previously would not have been expected to possess so much.

Meanwhile, the employment options for agricultural workers were growing more insecure:

  • work was becoming increasingly seasonal and temporary
  • farming methods were being mechanised.


  • Does Tess benefit from any of these changes?
  • What hinders her from reversing her family's downward fortunes?
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