By Karen Sayer
These are plaster casts of Joseph Arch’s (1826-1919) hands. Joseph Arch worked as hedger and ditcher in Barford, Warwickshire and went on to found the National Agricultural Labourer’s Union (NALU) in 1872. There were other, regional unions representing farm workers at the time, but the NALU was the largest, and at its peak in 1874 the membership stood at 86,214.
Though the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) archive has other holdings relating to Arch (some personal diaries and ledgers) and the NALU (collecting boxes) they haven’t been able to find anything out, so far, that relates the casts or their production. All that is recorded is that they are on permanent loan from the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers (NUAAW), Headland House, and that the casts were produced in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The only additional information in the accession file at MERL is their dimensions: their length is 18cm, their breadth (across the knuckles) is 12cm.
No one seems to have any information about how or why the casts were made. They were made during Arch’s lifetime, and perhaps they were made in preparation for a sculpture or statue, but if this is the case no other element survives, and neither does the final product. If they were made to represent him for posterity, which would seem right for the period of manufacture, it is also odd that they neither hold the tools of his trade, nor seem posed to represent a moment of political performance, such as a speech.
Arch began his political career as a radical at a time when farm workers had no vote. Following franchise reforms, Arch eventually became the first labouring man to enter Parliament. First elected to Parliament as the Liberal candidate for North-West Norfolk in 1885, losing his seat with Gladstone’s defeat in June 1886, he later served as Liberal MP for North-West Norfolk from 1892 until his retirement in 1900.
Arch’s own version of his story, which he told in his autobiography From Ploughtail to Parliament (1898) – edited by the Countess of Warwick – is somewhat overblown. And, by the end of his career he had lost touch with those he had initially sought to represent. But, his role in trade unionism, as an agricultural labourer who spoke with and for other agricultural labourers, is nonetheless important. If the hands were made to remind us of his worth as the first labourer to be elected to Parliament, or his significance to agricultural trade unionism, then so let it be. Certainly Arch was prone to self-aggrandisement, and by the end of his career had become detached from the interests of agricultural labourers, but he had also come a very, very long way. Despite his tendency to pomposity, his achievements are not to be dismissed.
But, what is perhaps most striking about the plaster casts is that they do not fit our expectations of what the hands of an agricultural labourer ought to look like. Somehow, we would expect a labourer’s hands to be heavy, calloused and weather-beaten, but these seem quite small, almost delicate. This may be because, by the time that they were made Arch had already been working as a representative of labourers, rather than as a labourer himself. Men, especially from the labouring class, were also smaller in his day than our own. The plaster itself is a material that smoothes roughness, and makes its subject seem statue-like, rather than real. But, it is also quite probable that Arch’s hands are simply typical of those of an actual labouring man, not stereotypical examples of heroic rustic strength. It is this that makes the objects more striking for me. They do not simply record the passing presence of a radical man, but they also make us think about what it was like to work as a labourer at a time when there was no choice, when the work involved was hard, physical labour, regardless of capacity.
Karen Sayer is Professor of Social and Cultural History at Leeds Trinity University
The Designated collections of the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) can be explored on their website.