Gleaning was a right of the poor up to the late 18th century, under common law. After a farmer had harvested his crops, local people could gather any leftovers, providing a useful supplement to a family’s income or providing additional food.
As the local poor had the right to glean, it being a long established practice, Richard Burn made no mention of it in his legal handbook The Justice of the Peace, and Parish Officer.
It was so accepted that in villages, a church bell might be rung each day to signal the time period in which the gleaners could operate.
In a society where common pasture and fields were being steadily enclosed, restricting the land that labouring people could use to keep animals or grow their own small crops, gleaning was a much needed source of income.
This much needed right was substantially eroded in 1788, when the case of Steel versus Houghton was determined in the House of Lords. The case centred around a Suffolk woman, Mary Houghton, who was sued for trespass by a local landowner, James Steel, after she gleaned on his farmland. However, the case had followed increasing tension between landowners and farmers and the local labouring population in East Anglia.
The case’s verdict stated that gleaning was not a right of the poor, but a privilege – and so to glean was to trespass on another’s land. Lord Loughborough, who gave the judgement, argued that charitable acts by individual landowners should not be seen as legal obligations, and that the creation of any such obligation would make the poor more ‘insolent’.
In such a way did the gleaning case mark the gradual change in attitude toward the poor that occurred in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, prior to the creation of the 1834 New Poor Law.
Yet gleaning did not die out altogether as a result of the 1788 case. The following year, in Northamptonshire, Mary Tebbutt, a married woman, appeared before local magistrate George Spencer – the 2nd Earl Spencer – to complain that another woman, Elizabeth Loucke, had taken some gleanings off her. Mary had been gleaning in a field belonging to local farmer George Buttons, when Elizabeth – believing she was entitled to glean in the field but Mary wasn’t – assaulted her and grabbed the gleanings.
Spencer was obviously aware of the 1788 precedent, and did not regard either woman as having the right to glean. Instead, he argued that George Buttons had the right to decide who – if anyone – could glean on his land, and that therefore, both women were wrong. He made them acknowledge this, and after they promised to behave better in the future, he dismissed them [1. The papers of the second Earl Spencer, British Library, Add MSS 76337-76340].
But even into the nineteenth century, in rural England, gleaning continued to be debated over in justicing rooms. Samuel Whitbread, dealing with cases in Bedfordshire, dealt with three cases – two in 1811 and one in 1813.
The first two cases again suggested some conflict between local people when it came to the individual’s rights to glean. In the first case, a local farmer came to Whitbread to get his advice on whether the local poor had the right to ‘glean on a farmer’s land without his leave’. Whitbread made clear that they did not. [2. Alan F Cirket (ed), Samuel Whitbread’s Notebooks (Bedford, 1971), 36]
In the second case, this time, a gleaner approached the magistrate. Elizabeth Kilby ‘complained of abuse in the field’ whilst she was gleaning, and Whitbread quickly dismissed the case. [3. Alan F Cirket, Samuel Whitbread’s Notebooks (Bedford, 1971), 44]. The final case, heard two years later, involved a Biggleswade woman, Ann Thomas, who complained that a local shoemaker, James Pope had not paid for her gleaning, owing her over three shillings. [4. Alan F Cirket, Samuel Whitbread’s Notebooks (Bedford, 1971), 89] This shows the value that gleaning had for poor people – often women.
Ann was reliant on selling her gleanings to improve her income, and the fact that she had visited Samuel Whitbread at Southill – a four mile walk away – suggests that the owed money was an important part of this income. She got little satisfaction from the magistrate, though, with Whitbread simply referring her to the local constable for help.
These cases show the continued tension between landowners and the labouring poor after Steel v Houghton had been determined. The poorer members of rural societies clearly continued to glean, and to see gleaning as a valuable source of income and as their right. Conversely, landowners, encouraged by the 1788 case, believed that the poor no longer had such a right – but to ensure that they were within their right to stop them from gleaning, they would seek legal advice if necessary.
Long-established habits died hard, and gleaning took a while to die.
For more on gleaning and the Steel v Houghton case, see Peter King’s article, ‘Legal change, customary rights and social conflict in the late eighteenth century: the origins of the Great Gleaning Case of 1788’ (Law and History Review, 10:1, Spring 1992)