The Local Context

Convict Connections - Chapter 5


It is often noted that the East Riding of Yorkshire stands slightly apart, both geographically and culturally. Unlike the historic North and West Ridings of Yorkshire, the East Riding is a predominantly low-lying arable district, dependent on grain production rather than hill farming or industrial manufacturing. In this respect, the county has more in common with Lincolnshire to the south; however, the wide River Humber operates as an effective barrier to any significant integration of the two.

Geographical and economic distinctiveness informs the culture and attitudes of East Riding residents - many of whom feel little in common with either the surrounding Ridings of Yorkshire or the counties that lie to the south. The only city in the East Riding, Hull, is a port, traditionally looking out to the sea and the wider world beyond for its livelihood rather than the countryside that surrounds it.

Please note: The online exhibitions are best viewed on a desktop PC or laptop. Some images have been removed for mobile and tablet devices.

Image: Earthworks at Garton-on-the-Wolds, East Riding of Yorkshire, remains of large open fields that were replaced with smaller, enclosed fields during the Agricultural Revolution. Photo by John Phillips. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The agricultural revolution

In the 17th and 18h centuries, the East Riding, like much of Britain, was undergoing remarkable and rapid social and economic change. As a predominantly rural and agricultural county, it escaped the more dramatic changes associated with the industrial revolution and urbanisation. However, at the same time as the industrial revolution transformed towns and cities in the West Riding of Yorkshire, Lancashire, the North East, the Midlands and the South East, the English countryside was also being transformed. What is known as the 'agricultural revolution' began in the middle of the 18th century and continued into the 19th century.

The agricultural revolution was the process by which landowners brought scientific and rational principles to bear on farming; these changes included consolidating land holdings in order to concentrate new farming techniques - including new approaches to crop rotations, fertilisation and mechanisation - on larger plots of land. This rationalisation contributed to longer term economic processes forcing smallholders off their land. Poorer villagers usually became either employees of larger farmers or moved away from the countryside altogether to seek employment in the growing cities. With more of the population dependent on wage incomes, the coincidence of rising food prices and stagnant wages could push many into crime in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The East Riding countryside before the agricultural revolution

The East Riding had long been dominated by arable farming, although on the higher ground of the Wolds (a low range of chalk hills running down the county's spine) sheep farming had also been important.

In the medieval period, villagers farmed arable land divided into strips within two or three large open fields; each villager was allocated strips scattered across these open fields in order to ensure a fair allocation of productive and less productive land (villagers had rights to their land but did not own it). Villagers grazed their cattle on common land, often on the thin soil of the wold tops or in low-lying areas prone to flooding.

This system had been changing over many centuries, with some villagers buying their land and consolidating strips into larger holdings; but by the 18th century, the East Riding was one of those counties in which a large amount of land was still farmed by villagers in the old, open field system dating back to the Anglo Saxon period.

Because this system had survived in arable counties like the East Riding and Lincolnshire, the changes which took place in the space of a century from c.1750-c.1850 were particularly dramatic.

Image: A plan of the East Riding village Burton Pidsea in 1762, showing the large open fields as well as the common grazing ('ing carr') prior to enclosure. From Hull History Centre, UDDKG/218.

Image: Section of the Spurn and Kilnsea Enclosure map showing the individual strips allocated to each farmer prior to enclosure (ERALS DDX92)

Image: This enclosure map of Holmpton in the East Riding (from 1800), shows how the enclosure commissioners divided the old open fields into small consolidated plots. From the East Riding Archives and Local Studies collection (ERALS DDX 92).

The impact of the agricultural revolution on the East Riding

In order to take advantage of new techniques of land fertilization, crop rotation and mechanization, larger landowners wanted to abolish the open-field system so that they could farm a single consolidated area rather than scattered strips of land. The process of reorganizing open fields into private farmsteads was known as 'enclosure'; to undertake enclosure required consent from other landowners in a particular parish, which was often difficult to obtain.

To get over this problem, landowners from the mid 18th century began to seek individual Acts of Parliament to force other landowners to accept enclosure. If the main landowners within a parish consented to enclosure, they could sponsor a private Act of Parliament to obtain an 'enclosure award' that would enforce the reorganization of the parish's land on the rest of the landowners.

Across the mid18th to mid 19th centuries, some 70% of parishes in the East Riding obtained enclosure awards and reorganized land into individual holdings - this is known as 'parliamentary enclosure'. As a result, the East Riding landscape changed dramatically - smaller, square, hedged fields replaced the old irregular and sprawling open fields.

Though this did not immediately spell the demise of the smaller landowner, it undoubtedly contributed to the process by which smaller landowners eventually found that they could not make a living from their land. Particularly important was the enclosure and parceling out of the common land which villagers for hundreds of years had relied on to graze their animals. Enclosure in the East Riding should be seen as part of the processes which brought farming into the capitalist market economy.

The move to a wage economy

Whilst some were able to profit from the new commercial farming, many more rural residents became dependent for their survival on selling their labour rather than on growing crops or rearing animals. The removal of common lands meant that villagers no longer had places to graze animals for free; the new factories of the industrial revolution competed directly with many cottage-industries; game laws were enforced more aggressively so preventing villagers from supplementing their diet with what they could trap or shoot. Selling your labour was not always a reliable means of keeping body and soul together, as food prices fluctuated and a rising population helped to keep wages low.

Nationally, the population doubled between 1801 and 1851 (from nine to eighteen million); the population of the East Riding of Yorkshire (excluding Hull) across the same period rose from 80,000 to 136,000. Nevertheless, it should also be noted that East Riding agriculture boomed in the first half of the nineteenth century. The rapidly industrialising towns of the West Riding were hungry for all of the grain the East Riding could produce, and farm workers' wages were not forced as low as in many southern counties.

Image: In the 18th and 19th century a network of canals helped to convey the agriculture produce of the East Riding to various markets. Most of these canals are now derelict, like this one at Leven. 'Leven Canal Lock' by Paul Harrop. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Poster for a Martinmas hiring fair in Pocklington in 1863. (Female servants were often required to attend separate hiring events to men because of concerns about propriety). ERALS: DDPY/20/31.

Image: Newspaper notice about hirings of farm servants in Driffield. From Beverley Community Museum image archive

Image: Farmworkers on the Routh estate, early twentieth century. ERALS: DDX 1149/2.

The farm servant system

Before parliamentary enclosure, most farms were situated within villages. After enclosure, farmers built new homes in the midst of their newly consolidated fields, which might be some miles from the village. These farmers needed onsite labour, particularly to care for the many draught horses needed to work the land. Therefore, from the age of twelve, many East Riding boys would spend several years living and working on farms. These boys and young men, known as farm servants, were engaged to live on farms for a year at a time. They worked for their board and lodgings and a small sum payable at the end of their year's engagement. They were often known as 'horse lads' because the most important of their duties was looking after and working with the farms' heavy horses.

At the end of each year, farm servants were free to either to seek a further year's employment or move to a new farm. This was therefore a highly mobile young male workforce; Snowden Dunhill's memoirs suggest that this mobility brought a certain freedom from moral supervision, and a casual approach towards petty theft.

Under the new agricultural arrangements there was also a need for girls and young women to work as servants cooking food and keeping house for the farmers and farm servants. Like the young men, girls were employed yearly, seeking placement at the November 'hiring fairs' which were held in all East Riding towns until well into the twentieth century. One of our transportees, Sarah Ann Sharpe, is listed as a servant from the village of Brandesburton, and may well have been employed on this basis.

Once they were married, perhaps in their mid 20s, farm servants usually became labourers; rather than moving each year to a new farm, they might rent a cottage in a village, seeking whatever work they could find on local farms.

Agricultural change and crime

The crimes of petty theft for which East Riding residents were transported to Australia should be seen in the context of these shifts: the impact of the Agricultural Revolution in creating an East Riding rural working-class, earning low wages; the rapidly expanding population which led to a young and geographically mobile agricultural labour force no longer subject to the social controls of the village community. Certainly, some of the transportees we profile in this exhibition were young East Riding farm workers.

Image: Hull stands at the confluence of the smaller River Hull and larger River Humber. Image from the Gott Collection, A1.91 8/30.3.

Image: By the early 19th century the old town of Hull was surrounded with docks which has helped to preserve its medieval street plan intact. Image from Gott Collection, A1.91 9/29.1.


The city of Kingston-Upon-Hull (usually shortened to 'Hull'), is situated on the north bank of the River Humber at the point where it widens before joining the North Sea. Hull is named after a small river which drains into the Humber; for many centuries the merchant ships docking at quays along this river brought prosperity to the city. As elsewhere, a rising urban population during the age of industry helped fuel crime and fear of crime.

Maritime trade - with other parts of England, with Europe and with the wider world - is a thread of continuity running through Hull's history. In the 18th and 19th century this trade expanded as Hull became the port through which industries of the West Riding and the commercial farmers of the East Riding did business with the outside world; new docks were built flowing the line of the town's walls. Although the city has long since expanded beyond the line of these docks, their construction helped to preserve the shape and integrity of the medieval city. Today, a walker entering the narrowed, close-packed streets of the 'old town' will immediately notice its distinctive atmosphere.

Urban expansion in the age of industry

Across the period in which criminals were transported to Australia, cities in Britain expanded rapidly. 'Push and pull factors' meant that people left the countryside and migrated to towns. Enclosure of open and common fields made it more difficult for the poorest to make a living in the countryside, and employment opportunities in new factories provided an incentive to move to urban areas. In 1801 already one third of the population of England and Wales lived in urban areas, and by 1851 about half of the 16.9 million inhabitants of Britain lived in a town or city [1].

With its position on the Humber estuary, facing eastwards to the North Sea and Europe beyond, Hull had long been an important port, and during the late 18th and early 19th centuries the port prospered, serving the expanding industries of the West Riding of Yorkshire and the increasingly productive agricultural hinterland of the East Riding of Yorkshire. In 1778, a new dock was opened to ease congestion in the old harbor in the River Hull, and in the early 19th century two more docks were added. With the population expanding from 21,000 in 1801 to 57,000 in 1851, and an increasingly wealthy merchant class looking for more spacious and stylish accommodation, the urban area of Hull pushed out beyond its medieval defensive limits.

References cited: [1] Edward Royle, Modern Britain. A Social History 1750-1985 (London: Edward Arnold, 1987) p.21.

Image: The first Hull Dock was opened in the 1778 and at the time was the largest in Britain. This engraving of the dock is from 1786. This image is licensed under Creative Commons BY NC SA.

Image: The first Hull dock became known as Old Dock or Queen's Dock. This photo, from Hull History Centre (UDX337/32/14.) shows the dock in the early 20th century.

Image: In the 19th century, working-class housing in Hull became densely packed in 'courts' like this one in the historic centre of the town. The photo shows 'Providence Place', which is Theatre Court on the map below, tucked behind Finkle Street. The walls of these dark courts were painted white to magnify any available light. (Hull History Centre, image 1360.)

Image: The Ordnance Survey map of 1853 shows densely packed working-class housing, arranged around courts joined to the main streets by passages. Theatre Court, from the photo above, can be seen off Finkle Street.

Worsening conditions for the urban poor

Conditions for the urban poor got worse in Hull during the later 18th and early 19th centuries. As the population expanded, living quarters became cramped, and the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century brought high taxes, rising food prices and had a negative impact on trade.

In 1792, 1000 Hull residents were receiving outdoor relief (subsistence payments for the destitute), and 276 were living in the Charity Hall. In 1799, soup kitchens were set up in the city. Persistent poverty and poor living conditions helped fuel an outbreak of cholera which killed 270 people in the town in 1832. [1]

References cited: [1] 'Hull, 1700-1835', in A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 1, the City of Kingston Upon Hull, ed. K J Allison (London, 1969), pp. 174-214 [accessed 24 November 2015].

Maritime employment in Hull

The maritime industry was an important source of employment for Hull's young men in this period. One of our convicts, William Dring was a 'tidesman' in the Humber, boarding the ships heading for the port of Hull to collect excise. Another, Charles Drewery, was a mariner from Hull. Not only were ships trading from the city's ports with all parts of the world, particularly with Northern Europe, the Baltic and Scandinavia, but there was also a large whaling fleet sailing from the town in the first half of the 19th century.

Image: Painting by John Ward (1798-1849) showing Hull whaling ships in the Arctic. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Corn milling remained an important industry in Hull until the later twentieth century, and large mills lined the banks of the River Hull. 'Riverside Mills' by Andy Beecroft. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

New industries

New industries grew up in Hull during the 19th century, most of which were connected in some way to the processing of goods that came into the city through the docks - for example, corn milling and seed crushing.