Book Review: Rural Britain, Then & Now by Roger Hunt
What's it About?
This book presents a selection of vintage photos from the Francis Frith collection and compares these with contemporary images of the same places in order to offer a visual description of the changing face of rural Britain.
Born into a Quaker family in Derbyshire, in 1822, Francis Frith established a green grocery business in Liverpool. Having become very wealthy he sold this in the mid-1850s. Already a founder member of the Liverpool Photographic Society, Frith embarked upon a new career as a photographer.
His new business enterprise was named F. Frith & Co, and was the allegedly world’s first specialist photographic publisher. His aim was to make a visual record of as many cities, towns and villages in the British Isles as possible. These images were then widely sold as postcards and prints.
He went on to travel across Africa and the Middle East. The publication of the resulting images in small books raised over, in today's value, three million Pounds sterling.
The photographs taken by Frith and his team are now stored in an archive which can be viewed online, and which has become a valuable resource for social historians.
Frith employed and trained a team of others to help with this huge project. He was determined they were to select viewpoints and lighting conditions to show each subject to best advantage, and to treat photography as an art.
Frith died in 1898, aged seventy-six, at his villa at Cannes in the south of France.
While Frith's photography project had expanded to photographing other countries, this book, Rural Britain, Then & Now, is concerned solely with the British Isles.
Many of the historical photographs in this book are accompanied by modern photos of the same place, hence the Then & Now in the title. Obviously these offer the reader an immediate comparison, and show just how much has changed over the last 100+ years. Interestingly, a small number of locations seem hardly touched by change at all.
Romanticism vs. Reality
The text expands on the historical context of the images, and describes in detail the sociological transformations which have taken place in Britain's green and seemingly pleasant land.
Popular romantic and fanciful ideas about picturesque rural cottages and tranquil country lives are often at complete odds with the grinding poverty, hard labour, squalor and low life-expectancy of past times, as this book clearly depicts. People often wax lyrical about an imagined simpler lifestyle within a rural idyll. The reality was often quite another story.
Photos of Great Britain by Francis Frith
What's to Like?
The photographs featured in Rural Britain: Then & Now are accompanied by an engaging and informative text which helps to set the images within historical context. There is enough information to keep social historians interested, while avoiding the temptation to view the past through a rosy haze of misplaced romanticism.
For example, while the oldest village school in Britain is believed to have been founded by Chaucer's grand-daughter in 1437, most country children were considered too important a part of the rural workforce to grant them time for any formal education, even if they had the opportunity for it or if they could have afforded to pay for it.
The eighteenth century saw the introduction of so-called dame schools, which were private enterprises run by educated women who charged pupils to attend. However, due to poverty and the need for children to work, mass illiteracy did not end until the introduction of free Sunday schools, the first being established in 1780 by Robert Raikes, in Gloucester. A national and non-denominational organisation, the Sunday School Society, began in 1785 and this aimed to teach basic reading, writing and arithmetic to its voluntary pupils.
The Three R's
By 1818, only 25% of English children received any education and half of all adults could not even sign their own name. This sorry state of affairs continued until 1870, when William Edward Forster's Education Act introduced full-time education for children aged between five and eleven, yet even this was neither compulsory nor free. The poorest simply could not afford to educate their children, and many of those who could afford it were withdrawn from all schooling during harvest time.
Only in 1902, with Balfour's updated Education Act, did the state finally recognise the need to educate the workforce properly, in order to benefit the nation's changing economy.
Today, England currently ranks 23rd out of 23 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations for teenage literacy. We are the only OECD nation where the literacy of 16-24 year olds is below that of people aged 55+. This unfolding tale of social politics is clearly still unfolding.
Throughout Hunt's book there are similar accounts of the changing countryside. He discusses the exodus of rural workers into the expanding cities in search of work and a better quality of life, and the out-flow of the well-healed in search of second homes and...a better quality of life than our crowded, noisy, polluted cities can offer.
It's an unending story of social change and adaptation, and brings together a fascinating series of photographs which chart the lives of ordinary British people.
What's Not to Like?
This book was first published in 2004, which means that the contemporary photos accompanying the vintage ones are at least 16 years old (in 2020).
The obvious problem with this is that during the last decade-and-a-half there have been many changes to rural life, such as farm, shop and pub closures, gentrification, and the seemingly endless encroachment of new-builds devouring once-green pastures. Consequently, many of these 'contemporary' photos are already out of date.
Nevertheless, this book remains interesting and would be a handy reference for anyone with an interest in the social history of Britain.
The biographical, bibliographical and statistical information in this article came from:
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© 2020 Adele Cosgrove-Bray