Early Edwardian Warwickshire pea-pickers

Found at Jot HQ a little volume of rural sketches by Herbert W. Tompkins, a specialist in topographical writing who flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His home ground was Middlesex and Hertfordshire and his best known book is arguably Highways
and Byways in Hertfordshire
(1902), which was illustrated by the visionary etcher F .L. Griggs, who hailed from Hitchin.

Jot 101 pea pickers Broom

By the time The Complete Idler appeared in 1905 Tompkins was living in Southend – on- Sea, but among the bucolic sketches in this collection there is nothing on Essex. Instead the author focused on places in his home territory with the odd venture out into Hampshire and Warwickshire. It was the latter that inspired one of the more enlightening cameos in the book—‘Warwickshire Pea Pickers’.


To say that Tompkins was inspired by the tradition of pea-picking in or around Clifford Chambers, near Stratford-in-Avon, is not quite true. Impressed by an account of this activity by the well-known American dramatic critic and leading light of the Pfaff Bohemians, William Winter, that had appeared in the pages of Harper’s Magazinearound 1870, Tompkins decided to investigate himself with a friend who owned a crop of peas. Looking back at this visit Tompkins admits that Winter’s account ‘might have been penned yesterday ‘. Here is Tompkins:


‘Our adventures began when we crossed the railroad at the swing gates and found our trap promptly surrounded by a dozen hungry-looking, half-clad wayfarers, as destitute in their appearance as those hunger-bitten peasants seen in sunny France by Arthur Young. They were pea-pickers—men, women, and children—and were eager to learn from my friend, who had bought the standing crop thereabouts, when and where they should next go picking. They were worthy of study.

I have rambled in many countries, and seen strange types of men, but remember none so destitute, so vagabond in appearance, as the Warwickshire pea-picker. I noticed particularly one dark-eyed girl, perhaps twenty of age, who seemed strangely anxious lest we should drive on before fully satisfying her associates. Tall and spare, her clothes hung loosely about her; her features , regular enough, were deeply browned by exposure to sun, rain, and wind. She was now at our pony’s head and now at its tail, like Wordsworth’s “Idiot Boy “; she regarded the writer with very evident suspicion as a stranger and a spy from a far country. I noticed, too, a man whose face was like the face of Theophile Gautier as I have seen it in a print—-a fat, sensual face, the lower part thickly covered by a dark, scrubby beard; a thick nose, prominent eyebrows, and retreating forehead…He seemed…like one fallen on evil days, who condescended to pick peas in lack of more lucrative employment…Presently we turned our trap into a large field in the centre of this high lying district, and, tying the reins to the splashboard, we left the pony to browse at will among the herbage near the footpath. In this field, very early in the morning—too early as we subsequently found—about sixty pickers had been busy among the peas….When we reached the field it was already afternoon, and several scores of pots ( i.e.) bushels had been gathered, and now lay in bags, ready to be carted to the nearest railway station, en route for London…We had come to pay these toilers of the field; and after a few enquiries as to the condition of the peas and their fitness for transit we extemporised a table, and our work commenced. Much of the picking is done so early in the day that the hands must perforce wait some time for their money. The paymaster, during the harvest, usually stays at some town from which he can visit the whole of his crop, an area which may comprise many square mile. If possible, he pays all his employees personally, driving from field to field as speedily as may be…The system of payment is admirably simple. The pickers bring their gatherings to a given centre, and the foreman gives to each a metal check showing the amount of his or her earning .Wages vary greatly; at the time of my visit they were fairly high, sixpence being given for every pot gathered. It takes an hour or two to pick one pot, according to the nimbleness and industry of the picker and the abundance and condition of the crop…Unless picked when dry the pods “ sweat” upon the journey, and an entire consignment may prove almost worthless, for the price paid by the London is based upon condition on arrival…

I should like to sketch that group of Warwickshire pea-pickers and the scene of their gathering. But it would take the pen of Thomas Hardy or the brush of Millet to do justice to the subject… Without permanent employment, and therefore with no fixed home, that drift from village to village, from county to county; they live veritably from hand to mouth; their care is wholly for the passing hour. Conspicuous in the foreground was a woman sitting on an upturned basket busily sorting some inferior pods. Her face resembled that of a Redskin; a hawk-like profile, keen, crafty eyes, and deeply tanned skin. A tiny child toddled among the litter of pea-straw and useless pods; several women gossiped together with their arms akimbo; one big fellow, of desperate aspect, pushed roughly forward to forestall his mates. I saw boys wearing coats strongly suggestive of that worn by the \Artful Dodger ; others wore no coat at all; a little string often did duty for braces…

When nights are short and hot they sleep under hedges or in the shelter of ricks, except when they are so fortunate as to find an open barn or shed…Sometimes, however…an effort is made to provide a rough shelter, if only for the women and children. As we drove towards the fields we saw several of their rude tents, consisting, so far as I observed, of some rough canvas supported upon sticks….Such a life has surely its romantic and picturesque side has its followers but the wit to perceive it. As yet the genuine tramp has not turned his attention to literature: there is much writing about him, but it is not from his own pen. Presently, this want will be supplied, for many a “ casual “ can write sufficiently well to record his experiences. There is still room for originality of style and freshness of outlook, and I will welcome the memoirs of a tramp in two volumes—if only I can feel sure that a tramp wrote them…’


Not too long afterwards, of course, W. H. Davies, a literary tramp,, began supplying the sort of memoirs that Tompkins wished to read. As for pea-picking, this is still practiced in parts of rural Warwickshire, though not by the class of “ casuals” described by Tompkins. [R.M.Healey]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *