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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
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Life in Our Villages (S439b: 1891)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor printed on page 3 of the Daily News (London) issue of 16 September 1891. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S439B.htm

     Sir,--In his delightful article last Friday, your Special Commissioner writes as follows: "Away to the left, the pretty cottages with their thatched roofs, their steps of unhewn rock, their windows full of geraniums and fuchsias, and their porches overgrown with autumn roses and canariensis, are hobbling down the broken pathway in a picturesque irregular line, their red chimney-stacks gently streaming out into the trees above the soft blue smoke of the wood fires." Compare this charming picture of an old English village--many of which still exist in every part of our country--with the modern cottages built by the farmer or speculator to pay five or seven per cent. interest. There are usually square brick boxes, built by contract in pairs or rows, and roofed with cold blue slates. The bricks are soft and porous, and the walls thin, so that these houses are cold and damp in winter, while to save timber and slates in the roof the eaves project only a few inches, giving an aspect of bareness and meanness that is absolutely oppressive. Such houses as these, which are spreading over the country by thousands yearly, destroy the charm of many a rural landscape; and so long as we act on the erroneous principle of providing dwellings for the people instead of allowing them to build for themselves in the manner most convenient for themselves, these ugly, inconvenient, and unhealthy productions of the jerry-builder will continue to increase.

     In order to find the true remedy for this evil let us ask ourselves, why are the old cottages so invariably picturesque, so harmonious with the surrounding landscape in form and colour as to be a constant delight to the artist and lover of nature? The answer, I believe, is, because they were the natural product of the time and locality, being built by the very people who were to live in them, with materials found in the district, and in the style which experience had shown to be at once the most convenient and the most economical. The first owners of these old cottages, the men who built them, were either freeholders or copyholders, or those who had obtained land on lease for several lives, and they were actually erected in part by the men themselves, with the assistance of their neighbours, the village carpenter and mason. The materials were obtained either from their own land or from the moors, wastes, and woodlands, which were then open for the use of all the inhabitants of the manor. The walls were of rough stone or of brick, or timber-framed with rough-hewn wood in the upper storey, forming those charming wood-framed houses of Surrey, Sussex, Hereford, and some other counties. In Dorset and Devon the walls were often of clay mixed with straw, called "cobble," and this makes a far warmer, drier, and altogether more desirable dwelling than the modern brick, as many of the old cottages, which have lasted for centuries, prove. The roof, framed with rough posts, and with poles for rafters, has a slight irregularity of outline very pleasing to the eye when compared with the rigid straightness, flatness, and angularity of roofs built with machine-cut timber; while the thick covering of thatch, broken by the small rounded dormer windows and with the broadly-overhanging eaves, is not only far warmer in winter and cooler in summer than any tiled or slated roof, but has the inestimable advantage to the labourer that he can repair it himself without having to pay a skilled mechanic.

     Of course so long as our labourers and country mechanics have no land they can build no houses; but if we so arrange that every labourer, young or old, can obtain an acre or two of land on a permanent tenure, the cottage problem, which so much disturbs our legislators and philanthropists, will solve itself far better than they can solve it by legislative action. It will prove as easy as the three-acres-and-a-cow problem. A friend of mine was once talking to a labourer, and, having heard it stated over and over again that even if the labourer had the land he would in most cases have no money to buy the cow, he asked this man how he supposed it could be done, and received this answer, accompanied by a smile at the questioner's ignorance of such a very simple matter--"Why, sir, we usually gets a calf, and her grows into a cow." Just in the same way the labourer will get a house. He will first build a hut or cabin of the rudest description, and this by continual additions will grow into a comfortable cottage. An unmarried labourer could put up a hut with walls of turf or clay and roof of sods or heather-thatch, which would shelter him till he got his land into cultivation and could invest his profits in materials to add to or build his cottage. Your correspondent "Agricola," who has lived for twenty years and saved money on a two-acre holding, shows how this may be done even while paying a high rent. The result of this system of letting the people provide their own houses would be that we should have, as of old, individuality and variety in our rural cottages, with that harmony and picturesqueness which results from the use of local materials and hand-work in place of machine-work. We should have stone, or brick, or clay, or timber walls, thatched or tiled or stone-slabbed roofs, one-storey or two-storey houses, porches or verandahs, fantastic gables and chimneys, and those pleasing irregularities which result either from individual taste or the growth of a small house into a larger one by repeated additions; the whole set in a groundwork of shrubs and fruit trees, and a foreground of vegetables and flowers.

     The man who had built such a cottage for his permanent home would love it as we all love our own handiwork, and would spend much of his time and savings in adding to its convenience, comfort, and beauty. With such houses of their own, and with their garden and orchard, their cow, pigs, and poultry to attend to, the labourer would have constant interest and occupation at home, the public-house would remain empty, and the great drink question would perhaps cease to be so serious as it is now. Everyone admires the cottages of past centuries, and regrets their rapid disappearance. If we give our labourers and village residents of all kinds a secure tenure of land suitable to their respective needs, there seems no reason why they should not build for themselves as cosily and picturesquely as did their ancestors. There are many and cogent reasons why we should do this as speedily as possible. By this means alone we shall be able to repopulate the rural districts and relieve the terrible pressure of competition in our towns. By this means also we may hope to destroy that deadly curse of poverty, the increasing amount of which may be estimated by the terrible statement of the Registrar-General that the deaths which occur in English workhouses have steadily increased from 5.6 per cent. of the total deaths in 1875 to 6.9 of the total in 1888. By this great reform we shall give our workers the best incentive to sobriety and industry--the sure prospect of a homestead of their own in which they may live in comfort and security relieved from the dread of ending their days in the workhouse. This, too, will enable our cottages to grow for their own use, or for sale, abundance of bacon, butter, poultry, eggs, and fruit, in the place of the many millions worth of these articles we now import from abroad. And, lastly, this will perhaps save us from the crowning disgrace of covering our beautiful land with the very ugliest of houses for our labourers' use, and of thus destroying, for some generations to come, much of the picturesque charm of rural England.--Yours, &c.,

Alfred R. Wallace.
Parkstone, Dorset.

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