How did Tremeloners made a living in those days?

From the stories of people who lived at the turn of the century
we can learn a lot about life in those days.
Last revised on Oct 31st, 1999. Your comments and suggestions would be appreciated.

    The daily life of Jef Wouters was like that of many ordinary people in that time. Poverty was universal and no work could be found. Jef belonged to the small army of mussel peddlers 'mosselleurders'  who went to Mechelen (20 km) in the afternoon and slept there overnight so they could purchase mussels when they arrived by train and begin their rounds early in the morning. In the photo one has just loaded his cart with mussels delivered in sacks to the railway station. Jef often went as far as Wijgmaal (15 km) and, in addition to mussels, he sometimes also peddled shellfish and small boxes of herring. The peddler's carts 'winkelwagentje or kar' were often pulled along by a dog. Some peddlers might sell vegetables and, as told in another story below, potatoes. Those who were not affluent enough to owe such a cart might need to push a wheelbarrow 'kruiwagen' many kilometers. One of the mosselleurders, Riekes Pachter was one of the many enterprising 'characters' in Tremelo.

   As a child of eleven Jef contributed to the family income by picking pine cones. These were sold in the cities as kindling for lighting stoves. Alder catkins and linden tree blossoms also were picked and sold to pharmacists for a 'centime' per kilogram. A 'boterham' (a slice of bread, spread with bacon fat or lard rather than butter, which was too expensive) was taken up into the tree by the pickers because time was too short to allow descent from the tree to eat on the ground. Such pickers and peddlers did not mind walking a few extra kilometers if it might add to their meager income. Some even went as far as Tienen (about 40 km) on foot to pick cones and catkins or to peddle goods.

   Such rural poverty gradually appeared early in the 19th century as the industrial revolution got under way. The Walloon part of Belgium fared better because it was quick to invest in the new industrial technologies in coal mining operations and other heavy industries. But in Flanders people clung to labour-intensive agriculture and poorly paying cottage industries, such as spinning and weaving. Before the industrial revolution spinning and weaving in the homes contributed an important part to the peoples' incomes, supplementing their earnings from farm work. But poverty increased as these cottage industries moved into factories in towns and was further aggravated by the increasing difficult of providing adequate amounts of farming land because the population doubled in 19th century.

   In a system that continued from the previous centuries, a 'landbouwer' owned part of the land which he farmed; more typically he was a tenant 'boerderijpachter' who, with his family and perhaps a farmhand 'boerenknecht' and his family, lived on a small plot of land leased from a large landowner. The tenant paid the landowner a fixed amount, usually in money, but sometimes in "kind". In the latter case the rent depended on the prevailing market prices of wheat or rye or both. But the price was fixed, often as high 50 to 60% of the value of the crop and was collected even if the harvest had been poor. In addition to such 'rent' for many centuries under the 'ancien regime' until the French occupation in the later 18th century, 'landbouwers' had to 'tithe', that is, give one tenth of this income to support the local church and priest. The life of these farm folk was not easy! Making a living by farming was exhausting!

   This arrangement began to change when an excess of workers became available as the population grew. Large landowners now tended to lease land to fewer 'boerderijpachters' and began relying on seasonal day-labourers 'daglooners'. They worked for whoever offered a job and their earnings were calculated on summer working days from 5 am till 7 pm; they lived daily on the edge of poverty. Gradually more and more of the rural population worked as daglooners, doing the sowing or harvesting on farms in summer and working as weavers during the fall and winter.

   However, with industrialization of the textile industry in cities such as Gent, the modest cottage industries of spinning and weaving began to close down in in the first quarter of the 19th century, thus aggravating the severe poverty in Flanders. Then the winter of 1844-1845 was extremely severe and lasted from September till the end of March. Later in the same year the harvest was lost. This was followed by potato blight in 1845. "The fields were black and the smell blew over the roads" wrote Karel Van Isacker in his book "Mijn land in de Kering"1. The undernourishment had heavy consequences for the people's health. Three successive years of famine had weakened the people so much so that helpless people died as flies from cholera and typhus in the years 1847-48-49.
   Then in 1846 there followed a third disastrous year: the harvest of grain and again, potatoes, was reduced to 30% of normal. The loss of potatoes was particularly tragic. As Van Isacker says: "Before 1713 the potato was not used, but by 1740 it was traded on the market, and by 1775 the potato had become the main food of the poor." Grains such as wheat could be afforded only by the rich (see
story of the potato peddler). In some districts poverty was extreme and village policemen made frequent visits to the remote farms to check that people were still alive! Eventually when conditions had become really bad, food was distribute to the destitute by the municipalities. The picture shows women and children collecting free bread at a food dole.2

  West Flanders did not recover from this until after WW II. Large contingents of seasonal agricultural workers left each season for France. Even as late as the 1930s such summer workers went as far away as Ontario, Canada to harvest tobacco and sugar beets. However, some agricultural workers moved permanently to France and many emigrated overseas. This overseas emigration to the USA and Canada began slowly in the 1850s and rose to peak just before WW I. The movement to go overseas was partially due to "push" factors. An important one of these was the pressure on the land because of rapid population growth which could not be absorbed by a rural economy. Events in the province of Brabant is a good example of what happened. In the 1850s and 1860s many people left because a family could no longer properly survive on the 1-2 hectares of farm land that had been distributed over too many sons and daughters. Later in the century the emigration virtually stopped because these same sons and daughters readily found a job in the developing heavy industry in Wallonie 

1Karel Van Isacker: "Mijn land in de Kering", Volume 1, Uitgeverij Pelckmans, 2950-Kapellen, Belgium
2Painting by Frans van Leemputen

Read about some
'characters' in Tremelo