Morpeth and the American underclass

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White Trash, by Nancy Isenberg, Professor of History at Louisiana State University, is about the American underclass. It came out in 2016 and was reissued with a new preface following Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election.

A tenet of American political discourse is that everyone in the United States is born free and equal, and can rise in the world by hard work. Another is that America is a classless society. Isenberg's thesis is that: “Class is as American as it ever was British.”

The removal of property qualifications for the right to vote was key. Between 1820 and 1840, the electorate grew from about 100,000 to 2.4 million, much of the increase being in poor white males.

Although urban poverty was real enough, particularly in the 1930s, extreme poverty was seen as a rural phenomenon. Two of the factors in it were hookworm and pellagra.

Hookworm is caught by walking barefoot on ground contaminated with human faeces. It thrives where there is no sanitation, which was usual in the rural South. Pellagra is due to vitamin B-3 deficiency.

They were known as “the lazy diseases”. Taken with rural isolation and lack of education, they account for the negative stereotype of the American rural poor: ragged, barefoot, illiterate, mouth agape at the sight of strangers.

It all goes back to earliest days of the British colonies.

In New England, the ruling elite were godly Puritan landowners. Many of their servants came to America under indentures — contracts of service which bound them to their master, typically for seven years.

In contrast, the southern colonies of Carolina and Virginia grew tobacco and other plantation crops using slave labour. They had a de facto gentry and aristocracy, much as in England.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), slave owner and author of the Declaration of Independence, was the third President of the United States. His house, Monticello, would not be out of place in England.

In all of the colonies, the ruling class took the best land, including vast tracts in the interior. The chance of a poor man becoming a landowner was negligible. He had little choice but to be either a servant or a tenant farmer.

In 1728 Colonel William Byrd (1674-1744) surveyed the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina in the Great Dismal Swamp. He gives a withering account of both the land and its inhabitants: “We observed very few corn-fields in our walks, and those very small... we could see no other tokens of husbandry or improvement.

“Both cattle and hogs ramble in the neighbouring marshes and swamps... and are not fetch’d home till the spring. Thus these indolent wretches, during one half of the year, lose the advantage of the milk of their cattle, as well as their dung (which is) why so many people in this province are markt with a custard (i.e. yellowish) complexion.

“The only business here is raising of hogs, which is manag’d with the least trouble... the inhabitants of N Carolina devour so much swine’s flesh that it fills them full of gross humours.

“It is certain many slaves shelter themselves in this obscure part of the world, nor will any of their righteous neighbours discover them. On the contrary, they find their account in settling such fugitives on some out-of-the-way-corner of their land to raise stocks for a mean and inconsiderable share.

"Nor were these worthy borderers content to shelter runaway slaves, but debtors and criminals have often met with the like indulgence.”

This brings us to transportation. It began in the 17th century with prisoners taken in battle in the Civil War. Others were criminals who escaped hanging by benefit of clergy, or were condemned to death, but pardoned on condition of being transported.

In 1717 the law was changed so that convicts could be transported without the rigmarole of pardons and benefit of clergy. Magistrates were quick to take advantage.

The following were all sentenced to transportation for seven years at the Quarter Sessions held at Morpeth at Easter 1719:

Margaret Wilson, of Morpeth, widow: Larceny of one woman’s gown, woman’s cloak and child’s frock.

David Black, of Morpeth, shoemaker: Larceny of a shirt.

John Jobson, of Morpeth, labourer: Larceny of one pair of shoes, jacket, man’s coat, pair of breeches, pair of stockings, etc.

Hannah Gibson, alias Franklin, of Morpeth, single woman: Larceny of a black Bambozott (probably a bombazine dress).

Sarah Armstrong, of Morpeth, single woman: Larceny of two gowns and two petticoats.

Jane Black, of Morpeth, single woman: Larceny of a red check cambric handkerchief and a corded dimity petticoat; sentenced to be confined in Morpeth gaol and then transported for seven years.

At the Easter sessions in 1724, a letter was received from Edward Grey urging the magistrates to sentence “unregenerate thieves” to transportation. His advice was hardly needed:

William Gilhespy: Theft of two bushels of barley and 14 sheaves.

Isabella Ellis: Larceny of a girdle.

Margaret Anderson, of Hexham: Larceny of an apron.

Elizabeth Davison, of Tynemouth: Obtaining a handkerchief and 2½ yards of ribbon by false pretences.

And again at Easter 1732:

Elizabeth Thirton, alias Walker, of Alnwick: Larceny of a gown.

Michael Charlton Ratchford, of Morpeth, labourer: Larceny of two shirts.

Elizabeth Ord, of Morpeth: Larceny of one woman’s gown, cloth cloak, apron, lined cap, satin ribbon, silk hat, pair of shoes, handkerchief and pillow slip.

Transportation to America ended in 1775 with the beginning of the American War of Independence.

Acknowledgment: Picture of Monticello by Ward Stolk, used under the Creative Commons Licence.