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Sylvia Pankhurst – The potato pickers

September 12, 2010 3 comments

S. Pankhurst, Votes for Women, 28 January 1919, in K. Dodd (ed.), A Sylvia Pankhurst reader (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), pp. 34 -36

Let us not look at ourselves, but onwards and take strength from the leaf and the signs of the field. He is indeed despicable who cannot look onwards to the ideal life of man. Not to do so is to deny our birthright of mind. – Richard Jeffries

It was a fresh, bright, autumnal morning, with the sun shining, and the patches of strong, clear, blue sky showing bravely between the driving clouds. A lark was singing overhead, and the ploughman was driving his team across the field. The man whistled, and the sides of fat, well-groomed horses glistened, and every time they went up and down the field the ploughshare cut straight through the heart of one of the weed-covered ridges where the withered stalks of the potato plants were growing, and left behind it in their place an open furrow, where the potatoes could be seen lying amid the moist dank earth.

And following in the wake of the plough there was a long line of women stooping and bending, bending and stooping, over the furrows, groping with their hands in the loose soil, and gathering up the potatoes as they came.

There were three or four men in the field also, the overlookers, who stood talking and smoking by the hedge, and from time to time carried away the filled potato baskets that the women had placed ready, and emptied them into the potato ‘pit’.

Hour after hour the women went on toiling with bent backs and eyes fixed on the ground, until at last one of the men shouted to them to stop, for it was half-past twelve.

Then the potato pickers rose, and straightened themselves, and came towards me where I sat watching them, and I saw them clearly for the fist time. They were poor, miserable creatures, clad in vile, nameless rags, sometimes pinned, sometimes tied round them with other rags or its of string. There were old, old women, with their skin all gnarled and wrinkled, and their purple lips all cracked. There were young women with dull white sullen faces, many with scars or black bruises round they eyes, and swollen, shapeless lips. Their hair was all matted and neglected, and every woman’s eyes were fiery red.

They came and squatted on the piles of straw laid ready for covering the potatoes, and began each one to eat her meal of bread and jam or bread and cheese, or of dry bread alone. As they did so they shouted to each other, in loud harsh voices coarse, ribald jokes and oaths, and then laughed at them with awful laughter. When they had finished eating, the elder women sat talking together more quietly, and smoking short clay pipes, whilst the younger women either lay about half-asleep in the straw or chased each other across the field with rough horseplay.

At one o’clock the men called them back to their work again, and so they went on till five, when they gathered together their tagged shawls and outer garments, and noisily left the field.

Beside the three straw-covered lorries on which they were driven back to their homes in Berwick-on-Tweed, I saw them standing huddled together, these poor, degraded creatures lower than the beast of the field.

I left them, and turned away down the quiet lane between the woods, where the red light of the setting sun shone upon the tree trunks and the moss and the pine needles at their feet, but as I came upon the open road again they overtook me and drove away past me shouting and singing as though to make the sweet country-side around them hideous with their noise.

The sky was diffused with a glorious pale gold, and silhouetted against it the leaves and stems showed with delicate distinctness the beauty of their myriad shapes. All the hush and awe of the evening was around me, but still my thoughts were busy with those poor, dreadful women, and my heart ached.

They had gone back to the slums where they stay except when there is potato or fruit-picking or some other work of the kind for them to do. The town of Berwick is very sordid. It has more than its share of tramps and vagabonds. This is partly because it is a great centre for the potato merhants, who give casual employment to these poor waifs and strays, and partly too, they say, because it is a garrison town.

Oh, can it be that we women would have let so many things go wrong in this world, and should we have let it be so hard a place for the unfortunate, if we had had the governing power that men have had?

The light faded, and the stars began to show, and as I climbed up the steep hill between the dark and overhanging trees there came a swinging, marching tune with a wail behind it into my ears, and the words of an old folk-song:-

Oh cursed be the cruel wars that ever did they rise.

And out of Merry England pressed many a lad likewise!

They pressed young Harry from me, they pressed my brothers three,

They took them to the cruel wars in high Germany.

The little house at the top of the hill looked warm and cosy as one came in out of the darkness , but the woman who sat knitting there by the fire was sad, because the children she had loved and worked for had gone out into the world, and left her. She was lonely, and had not enough to do to occupy her thoughts.

Yet if she could realise it, they great Woman’s Movement calls her as it calls all other women, and out in the world there is a work that waits for her,

And endless succession of labour, under the brightness of summer, under the gloom of winter. To my though it is a sadness even in the colour and glow of this hour of sun, this ceaseless labour, repeating the furrow, reiterating the blow, the same furrows, the same stroke – shall we never know how to lighten it, how to live with the flowers, the swallows, the sweet delicious shade, and the murmur of the stream? – Richard Jeffries.

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