Hunger and Mary Ferris

Written by Louise Ryland-Epton

The presence of a foodbank at Chippenham reminds me that some local families find it challenging to feed themselves adequately. This is, of course, nothing new. Historians sometimes call the 1840s, the ‘hungry 40s’.

At Bremhill, by 1844 low wages and high food prices had created a situation in which basic foodstuffs were increasingly out of reach of many working families. The Lord of the manor, the Marquis of Lansdowne, had made land available in the form of allotments which eased some of the pressure as families could grow their own vegetables and other crops. But the harvest that year was terrible, and by September, it was reported some local families had had no meat or dairy in their diet for two months and children were suffering for lack of food. With the prospect of increased deprivation through the winter, a meeting took place in the Weslayan chapel at Spirthill.

The chapel was fit to burst with around 150 inside the small structure. The choice of venue was unsurprising, much of its congregation and even its minister were agricultural labourers, and directly impacted. Some amongst the assembled gave personal accounts of their struggles. These included one provided by a Charlcutt labourer’s wife, Mary Ferris. The meeting became political, words were said against the aristocracy, and the discussion touched the role played by the State and Church of England. However, most of the blame for the distress was laid at the door of the ‘corn laws’- government tariffs on imported food, designed to protect British farmers but which also stopped the importation of cheap food coming into the country.

The Spirthill meeting was reported by newspapers as far away as Scotland and picked up by journals such as The Economist. Most did not publish the more radical ideas expressed, but all reported Mary’s account. The proceedings seem to have convinced Mary to become politically active in the cause of free trade, and she gave speeches at other meetings called to discuss local distress and the abolition of the corn laws. These included at Goatacre, Lyneham and Bremhill. She always focused on her struggles to provide food on her husband’s meagre wages.

Mary described how she lay awake at night, unable to sleep for the ache from want of food; how her husband trembled for the lack of nourishment and found it difficult to work; and how their children cried. Sometimes she called for other women to join her in speaking out, something which could have encouraged another woman, Lucy Simpkins, to come forward later and give a speech at a Bremhill meeting in 1846 which became immortalised in a poem by Charles Dickens.

It seems from Mary’s later account that on reading the reports of these meetings, some around the country were moved to send money. It was distributed throughout the neighbourhood and was something which she believed saved her own family (and one assumes others) from near starvation. ‘I hope the press [Mary is reported to have said in 1846] will make known to those kind gentlemen our gratitude.’ That same year the corn laws which she blamed for causing her distress were finally abolished.

Sources: The main coverage of the Spirthill meeting was provided by the Wiltshire Independent, Thursday 26 September 1844 from there the story was picked up very widely and included Worcestershire Chronicle, Wednesday 02 October 1844; Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette, Friday 04 October 1844; Leicestershire Mercury, Saturday 05 October 1844; Dumfries and Galloway Standard, Wednesday 16 October 1844. Other coverage of Mary’s speeches included from a Goatacre meeting in November 1844 Wiltshire Independent, Thursday 28 November 1844; Sheffield Independent, Saturday 07 December 1844; Reading Mercury, Saturday 07 December 1844; The Examiner (London), Saturday 07 December 1844 and at Lyneham in the same year coverage included Salisbury and Winchester Journal, Saturday 02 November 1844; Globe, Saturday 02 November 1844. In February 1846, Mary also spoke at a well-recorded anti-corn law meeting at Bremhill at which Lucy Simpkins made her famous speech. I have also used parish registers and census to gain some background information on Mary. See also Hampshire Telegraph, Saturday 06 June 1846.