Dibbling kids and sparrow dumplings

PUBLISHED: 13:31 20 April 2006 | UPDATED: 13:23 04 May 2010

AS the Littleport riots showed, the provision of enough food for the families of rural labourers was literally a matter of life and death. Fluctuations in the price of corn would greatly affect the ability of a family to maintain their subsistence lifest

AS the Littleport riots showed, the provision of enough food for the families of rural labourers was literally a matter of life and death.

Fluctuations in the price of corn would greatly affect the ability of a family to maintain their subsistence lifestyles.

Poaching was frowned upon by the authorities and sheep rustling merited transportation, but for many this was the only means of survival. Those with large numbers of children obviously had numerous mouths to feed, yet these children could also supply the family with wages provided by the local landowner.

Cheap labour was always a bonus and for the easier more mundane tasks, why hire a labourer? School registers show that during the school year there were peaks and troughs in the attendance of children. Harvest time being a prime example, but there were also many other seasonal jobs that could earn a family extra income.

In November, boys would be employed to go out brushing for the partridge shoots. Then in January both boys and girls, particularly in Suffolk and Norfolk, would be picking up stones and flints from the fields to be used in road building. In February and March, they would be out again in the fields, this time scaring away birds such as rooks, crows, magpies and pigeons trying to feast themselves on the newly planted spring corn.

The same happened in June when the corn was just beginning to ripen. The children were often given a wooden rattle or clapper to scare the birds, although in many instances they simply had to shout at the birds to scare them away.

Children were also employed early in the year, usually late February, to dibble the beans and peas. They literally had to make the holes using a dibbler stick and drop in the seeds. It must have been back-breaking work and the children often sang rhymes to cope with the monotony. One such rhyme goes like this:

Four seeds in a hole: One for the rook, and one for the crow; And one to rot and one to grow.

It seems perverse that with our present problems of child obesity, children living in the 19th Century had an insufficient diet that was greatly lacking in protein. Meat was too expensive for those on low incomes to buy. Some were fortunate enough to have a pig that provided a wonderful source of meat, others went sparrow hunting.

Some villages had a Sparrow Club. At night, the youngsters would go out with a net and arrange it in trees. They would then shine a lantern on the net to attract the birds which flew into the net. As they were trapped the lads would kill them and they would be divided amongst them to provide a meal for the following day.

It all seems pretty unappetising today, but as George Ewart Evans quotes in his book The Crooked Scythe

"Those were hard times, they were: get what you could get and eat what you could eat. There was no picking this and picking that like there is today".

However, I am not convinced that children of this generation could be persuaded to go out dibbling or eating sparrow dumplings. It might make a good reality television programme though - I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of The Fens?

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