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Poverty in Flanders1

Revised March 22nd, 2001. Your comments, corrections and suggestions would be appreciated.

   Rural poverty gradually appeared early in the 19th century as the industrial revolution got under way. The Walloon parts of southern Belgium (Liege, Namur and some of Hainaut) tended to fare better because they were quick to invest in the new industrial technologies in coal mining operations and other heavy industries. However the rural economies of Flanders remained dependent on labour-intensive agriculture and on poorly paying cottage industries, such as spinning and weaving. Before the industrial revolution spinning and weaving in the homes contributed an important part to rural peoples' incomes, supplementing their earnings from farm work. But poverty increased as the work of these cottage industries moved into factories in towns and the effects of this were further aggravated by the increasing difficulty of providing adequate amounts of farming l and because the population doubled between 1846 and 1947 and grew from 4.3 to 8.5 million people.

   In contrast to what was happening in neighboring countries, Belgium was still characterized by small unproductive farms that continued to use primitive methods which were not always able to ensure an adequate food supply. An ongoing fragmentation of the farms meant that the farm size became smaller and smaller and the variety of the crops larger. Many members of large farming families could no longer find employment on the farm, thus causing a considerable labor surplus. As a result, between 1846 and 1947 the agricultural population dropped by 62% from 1,075,031 to 412,026. Some of these moved into towns to work in new factories. Others moved to work seasonally in France and Holland, usually at the time that the sugar beet crop needed cultivation. And may thousands emigrated permanently to the United States and Canada.

   Some of the consequences of these changes are reflected in the map below that shows that in mid-1800s a high percentage of households in East and West Flanders and in Walloon Brabant required financial help from their municipality. By this standard, conditions were not as bad in the district of Leuven in which Tremelo is situated. In comparison to conditions in Flanders, poverty was less severe in the northeastern provinces, Antwerp and Limburg because population density was lower and because the soil was sandy and less fertile than in Flanders. The people there had long been accustomed to surviving by small-scale, self-sufficient, subsistence farming.
  However, in West and East Flanders and in parts of Brabant many of the unemployed sought financial assistance as shown below.

  In addition to the gradual loss of income from the move of cottage-based spinning and weaving to factories in the towns, effects of the industrial revolution were aggravated by a gradual decrease in the size of family farms. This was the result of two major factors: The population increase caused a progressive decrease in the size of parcels of land inherited by farmers' sons. From about 1830 to 1870 the number of holdings under 0.5 hectares (under 1.5 acres) rose, reflecting the progressive subdivision of the land into less-and-less viable farming lots. Thereafter there was a gradual consolidation of the land by the land owners into more profitable larger farming units. 

   In order to survive, additional income had to be found and the rural population tried to earn extra money by working in their homes. However, spinning in cottages disappeared as it moved to large factories such as that of Lieven Bauwens in Gent. This was further aggravated by the subsequent loss of weaving of fine woolen goods. Then in 1842 linen weaving in Flanders became mechanized and this last of the major cottage crafts gradually ceased.
   2Very, very
few farmers owned land they cultivate. They were mostly tenants of large land owners who demanded high rents for land, based on their expected crops' value. This rent, averaging perhaps 30% of that value, was determined by agreement long before the crops were harvested and the rent remained fixed regardless of yield or prices at market time. On top of that they had to pay in peacetime tax of 5%, and this rose to 10 to 20% in wartime. A further 10% of their income went to support the priest and maintain the church, amounting to a total of around 50% of their farming income, leaving barely enough to live on. Many could not survive on this and hired themselves out as farmer laborers ('boerenknechte' or 'dagloners'), doing the sowing or harvesting on farms in summer and working as weavers in their cottages during the fall and winter. Most of the weaving of linen cloth in cottages was done by the men. They typically lived on the edge of poverty. People made do with clothing. This gradual degradation of the poor is reflected in the changing occupations of bridegrooms on marriage records and of the fathers on birth certificates. Beginning early in the century the occupation 'landbouwer' (farmer) on these documents changed to 'dagloner'. Such families saved as much as possible money earned as laborers for essential purchases. Even the cheapest pair of shoes cost 5 days' labour. They grew much of their own food, especially potatoes, in a small garden and pastured a cow on grass along public roads for milk. A pig fed on food scraps was slaughtered in the autumn and its meat smoked or salted down for use in the winter. Their monetary income was supplemented by weaving or spinning during winter season. For our ancestors, life was always lived on the edge. Economics and the prevailing social structures of their time combined to keep the tenant farmers and their helpers ('boerenknechten') firmly in their 'place' in the world.
   If you were poor, the realities of life were cruel and you had to be totally dedicated to the mere act of survival. In the cottages women did lace work and handiwork at home by candlelight or kerosene lamp. Here the middlemen merchants who supplied the raw materials and 'bought' the products benefited more than the cottage workers. Such lace makers and seamstresses often went blind in the process. Often the only furnishings in the cottages such the one to the right might be a table, bed, trunk or a couple chairs and some kitchen utensils.
   The gradual overall deterioration of life was aggravated by the population explosion that coincided with industrialization and many country folk were uprooted and forced to seek employment in factories in the towns. Note in the photo the the farmer's wife ('landbouwster') peeling potatoes, the mainstay of life among the poor.
   By the 19th century potato had become the staple food of poor people as it helped to fill empty stomachs better than bread and the poor had become
<--potato eaters. But in 1845 the harvest of potatoes and grain was reduced to 30% of normal. The importance of the potato had grown: In 1713 the potato was not used, in 1740 it began to be traded on the market, by 1775 the potato was the main food of the poor.
   In the months of July and August 1845, aided by damp weather, an extremely virulent form of the fungus Phytophtora Infectans, resulted in a very unpredictable harvest, first in Belgium (around Kortrijk ?) and in the Netherlands, followed by the rest of Europe. Estimated losses due to this
potato plague amounted from 1/4 to 1/2 of the crop. In the provinces of West and East Flanders this figure reached more than 90%. The disease reared its head again in July 1946: "The fields were black in two to three weeks time and the smell blew over the roads"3.The disaster became complete when the barley crop also failed.
    But famines never occur in isolation. Poorly fed people living in closely packed little houses under unhygienic conditions encouraged infestation with lice which often carried the typhus organism. These conditions resulted in frequent epidemics of
typhus. Cholera due to poor sanitation combined with poor nutrition resulting from semi-starvation diets, particularly after a crop failure, and endemic typhus produce periodic disasters. It became a routine duty of the local 'veldwachter' (policeman) to visit frequently each cottage in the community. Often he might find everyone dead4.



However, with time incomes slowly increased:

Why was there so much poverty?

Poverty has also been describe in detail, including the life of the "Wild Beggars" (bosgeuzen) in the town of Korsele. That information was originally mounted by Dirk De Ruyver at: and has been copied here with his permission.

1 "The Structures of Everyday Life - Civilization and Capitalism, 15th - 18th Centuries", Volume I, by Fernand Braudel. English translation from the French "Les Structures du Quotidien: Le Possible et L'Impossible" 1979.)
For a nostalgic look at life about 50-100 years ago in southern Holland, see the beautiful picture book: "In My Grandfather's House" by Rien Poortvliet, published by Henry N. Abrams, New York.

Henrietta Diehl and Arthur Hgen helped edit this page.
2 Personal communication from Jozef Smits.
3 Mijn land in de Kering" by Karel van Isacker, 1980
4 Described in Dutch as "The population died quietly from the "Flemish sickness'' starvation and exhaustion" at <>.

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