More on the Rural Economy

Updated Sept 16th, 2000. Your comments and suggestions would be appreciated.

   Another place for which there are good historical accounts1,2 is Zwevezele which lies between Wingene and Lichtervelde. It went through the same problems during the "hunger years" ('hongerjaren') between 1846 and 1850 as other places in West Flanders, largely due to impact of the failure of the home-based linen industry. The steady growth of its population was stopped in those years, as it was throughout Flanders. Earlier, between 1830 and 1846 the population in Zwevezele had risen from 4433 to 5014. It dropped to 4701 by 1846 and did reach 5000 again until 1876. This decrease during the "hunger years" was due to a decrease in the births and a rise in the death rate seen elsewhere when the potato crop failed. This was serious since 13% of cultivated land in West Flanders was used for potatoes and 92% of that crop was lost due to a combination of an extremely virulent form of the fungal disease, Phytophtora Infectans, that also was producing a disaster in Ireland and also the appearance of the Colorado beetle that ate the remaining leaves of the plants. In the years 1846 though 1848 the yield was remained only 50-60% of normal and the price of potatoes, the staple food of the poor, rose steeply from 3.58 Francs per 100 kg in 1844 to 15 Francs in 1848. Similarly the price of rye used to make 'roggebrood' rose 3-fold. It was rumored in Antwerp that people in West Flanders were slovenly, pale and thin unfortunates who prayed for death to free them from their misery. Malnutrition was rampant and followed by the often fatal scourges of typhus and cholera.

   An attempt also was made to improve the production of linseed oil production, an important but often forgotten part of the flax industry. In 1843 Jan Van Renterghem began building a new windmill made of stone at an enormous cost of 15,000 Francs. However, a number of windmills from the 18th century and from the time of the French regime which ended in 1815 were still in operation. Here is a restored linseed mill, powered by a horse!

   Further attempts were made to improve the economy by training the population in better ways of working in the home-based flax industry. However, another solution was tried by King Leopold I; he encouraged emigration. In 1840 he started the "Belgian Company for Colonization". The first couple left Zwevezele in 1844 via Antwerp on the three-masted sailing ship "Emma" to Santo Thomas, Guatemala. Others followed but some soon came back. But by autumn of that year there were 871 people in the colony in Guatemala. However the climate and tropical diseases attacked 211 people had succumbed by autumn 1845. By January 1845 the colony had shrunk to 345 and was considered a failure. Others went from Zwevezele to Argentina that year and Henri Van Renterghem went to Detroit and was followed to the U.S.A. by many others. However, more commonly others made the shorter trip to France, some staying permanently to work in factories, others working in France seasonally in the sugar-beet fields. These men were called "Fransmans"; a museum is dedicated to them in Koekelare, West Flanders. Of course there was a large contingent that emigrated to the USA and Canada. Among the first was P.Dirkx from Eeklo who, with support from the Belgian government, started a farming community near Jefferson City, Missouri in 1847. The next year he also bought land near St.Mary in Pennsylvania.
   But there was more to life in Flanders than misery and suffering.2 Even the winter had its charms, with skating on the Sasput (a small lake) or on the castle's moat, if it froze hard enough, of course. And this was the occasion in the winter of 1844-1845, a very harsh winter, which preceded the five terrible hunger years, starting with the crop failure of the winter wheat followed by the loss of 94% of the potato crop. Now on the 18 of March 1845, three days before spring, it was still freezing hard. Secretary of the town, Desiré Callens went to check on the ice conditions on the castle moat and organized an ice party on Tuesday 18 March. The Town Secretary wrote a touching short note of this occasion which was saved by his children and grandchildren to this day about how these people were able to party and have a good time, unaware of the hard times that were about to descend on them.
   Desiré Callens described the event in his 'Memories': "On the 18th of March 1845 , on the castle moat, there were rides with horse and three wheeled wagon, ice skating, sledding, bow and arrow contests, '
krulbollen', dancing, baking, playing of drums, flute and violin, done and attended by: Callens Desire secretary, Maryssael the tax collector's son, Louis Houttekier the baker and drummer, Ivo Van Quathem, F. Demeulenaere, Louis Deblaere, Bruno Jansens, Petrus Demets and son Francois, Jan Vanden Berghe policeman, Goethals H. teacher, Petrus and Louis Verduyn and many more."

   The history3 of Pittem is much like that of other places in West Flanders during the "hunger years" (1845-1848). Census findings showed a population peak of 6178 in 1840, reflected a 47% increase since 1786. This peak was followed in 1846 by a rise in the total death rate from an average of about 22% to 30% per year and fall in births. (This included the 15-30% of children dying during their first two years, which continued until 1890.) The population had dropped to 5174 by 1848, and this decline continued until 1885 when it reached 4575. Then by 1890 a slow recovery had started but by 1950 there still were only 4676 people living living in Pittem. Some of this was due to emigration to France and to North America. The latter increased after 1850, especially between 1890 and 1914, when three families per year moved overseas.
   The high birthrate persisted until 1845, dropped during the "hunger years", and then recovered slowly. The earlier rise in population between 1800 and 1849 probably was helped by free inoculations against smallpox enforced by an 1818 law.
   Farming was the chief occupation of the people of Pittem. Garden and orchards for home-consumption partially made up for the poor nutrition associated with the impossibly high prices of staple foods including rye bread and potatoes. More land was dedicated to pasturage and the growing of mangels, a beet to fed animals, rose despite the fact that the local light sandy soil was rather unsuited for this crop and for sugar beets which were cultivated elsewhere in Flanders. As in other municipalities men, in groups of 6-10 went together to France for seasonal field work. In March they would go to cultivate beets, in August they went as grain harvesters and again in September and October for the beet harvest.
   However, not only farmers but some specialized workers, including artisans, lived in 1849 in
Pittem: 11 cobblers, 8 bakers, 8 carpenters and three journeymen, 8 barrel makers (coopers), 7 tailors, 7 painters, 6 bricklayers, 5 smiths, 5 carters, 4 porters, 3 veterinarians, 3 wagon makers, 3 candle makers, 3 midwives, 2 butchers, 4 harness makers, 2 surgeons, 2 coppersmiths, 2 brick makers, 20 commercial middlemen, 25 barmen and 51 shopkeepers and 1 each: bailiff's assistant, wood carrier, silversmith, lawyer.
   The history of
Pittem has an account of the role of a ('Weldadigheidsbureel'), "Welfare Office" also called the "Poor Directorate" ('Armbestuur'). It was first set up after the "Holy Ghost's Table" ('Heilige Geesttafel') operated by the Church was closed after the French conquest. After that it became the financial responsibility of the local civil administration although the clergy continued to operate it. In 1836 about 30% of its funding went to support indirectly the old and the poor, another 25% paid the rent of the poor, 6% was used to provide them with food, 9% for their clothes and 4% provided their fire wood. Free bread was distributed, strangely enough, at funerals, and on 15 other days through the year. In 1836 it established an "Old Folks' Home". By 1865 it operated a Hospital and had 15 houses, which provided free housing for 19 families, totaling 110 people. Its activities must relieved or ameliorated the suffering of the many laid low by the failure of the family-based flax industry that coincided with crop failures and the appearance of typhus and cholera in the malnourished.

   The history of Egem resembles that of other places in West Flanders during the "hunger years" (1845-1848). As elsewhere the harvest failed in 1846 due to wheat rust, the price of bread soared and the finances of the municipal administration were inadequate to offer the help needed. In February 1847 the administration asked all property owners for help to enable it to continue running the village's soup kitchen which was providing 130 families, i.e. 40% of the population with a daily bowl of soup. Typical of the times a heading in this account is "Hunger, Sickness, Poverty and Funeral Bells". The statistics in the table to the right reflect of the severity of the population's problems. Note how the births fell and the deaths rose, the most severely affected years were 1847 and 1848.
   Eventually things got better but as elsewhere in Flanders the age-old flax industry based on spinning and weaving by hand in peoples' homes never recovered. Although begging was forbidden it continued to grow until 1853 and in that year the Welfare Office help 52 families pay their house rent; 109 families received food. The insolvent administration also was expected to support beggars from
Egem who were admitted to the "Work House for Beggars" in Brugge! It is no wonder that the previously sporadic emigration began to increase to a steady flow.
   Many became seasonal workers in northern France ('Fransmans'). However
Egem became well known for the emigration of its people to North America. In the 1850s it was direct to the Kansas City and Detroit, where a few became rich, starting the rumor in Belgium that "In Amerika the streets are paved with gold"! The outflow was steady but around 1900 became directed more towards Canada: to Ontario where the immigrants were successful in farming sugar beets and later, tobacco. Another group settled in Manitoba (MB), farming grain around Swan Lake, St.Alphonse, Mariapolis and Bruxelles. Others moved from farming there to establish dairies in St.Boniface and Winnipeg MB.
   In the later period 1880-1914 about half the working population of Egem, about 450 people migrated to 'Amerika'.

1 "Zwevezele Deel II : De Gemeente Zwevezele tot 1940" by André Vandewiele, 1984. Drukkerij, Zwevezele 461 pages.
Provided by Jules Vanhaelemeesch <vanhaeju@bmts.com> and Paul Callens (see below).

2 "Geschiedenis van Pittem" by Volére Arichix , Published by Drukkerij G.A. Veys - Pittem, 1951, 256 pages. Provided by Paul Callens (see below).

3 "Geschiedenis van Egem, Part II : Egem since the French Revolution" by Valère Arickix. Published with the collaboration of the municipal adminstration of Pittem, 1982. 600 pages. Provided by Paul Callens <paul.callens@ping.be> vice-president of the Historical Society "De Roede van Tielt" and "Vlaamse Vereniging voor Familiekunde, Afdeling Tielt".

The preceding descriptions of the difficulties of rural life were related to the failure of the cottage-based flax industry. As boeren and their families were squeezed out of their centuries-old life style many tried to find work in the textile industry that had moved into the towns and cities.

Read more about the textile industry