The mystery of Joseph Arch’s plaster hands

One hand forms a light fist – the other relaxed, as though sleeping. The passing of years has given the plaster almost the colour of skin, the fingers looking almost nicotine-stained.

The plaster-cast hands of Joseph Arch (10/11/1826-12/02/1919) are very personal objects. One theory for their existence is that they were cast in place of a death mask, to reflect Arch’s agricultural background.

To a labourer, life is lived through their hands.

The fact is, we do not know why they were cast. While the hands remain a mystery, however, the man does not.

Joseph Arch started life as an agricultural labourer in the village of Barford, Warwickshire, getting his first job at the age of nine as a bird-scarer, working 12-hour days for a wage of 4d. a week.

A photograph of Joseph Arch.
By Elliott & Fry – Notables of Britain.

When his father died Arch inherited his home, qualifying him for the vote through the 40 Shilling Freeholder Franchise, and in February 1872 a group of local labourers invited him to speak at an event in the village of Wellesbourne. The union formed on that day there went on to become the National Agricultural Labourers Union (NALU).

Prior to the forming of the NALU, the agricultural labourer faced many difficulties such as underpayment, malnutrition and little to no education. While the condition of workmen in other industries improved, the condition of agricultural labourers remained the same.

This discontent led to the establishment of the NALU, which helped to improve the conditions of the agricultural labourer such as gaining the right to vote and so become a free man. The union, which started with small numbers, eventually reached a peak in membership totalling 86,214 in 1874, mostly due to Arch’s leadership and inspiring speeches which encouraged people to join the union. This was no small feat considering many labourers did not own their own homes (increasing risk of eviction for their politics), moved around the country and had little money for union funding.

The union, although it collapsed in 1896, was resurrected as the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers in 1906, which represented farmworkers until 1982. After merging with other unions, over time, it eventually formed the Unite the Union in 2007.

We hold Joseph Arch’s personal diary in our archives, and the plaster-cast hands also inspired our poet-in-residence Jack Thacker’s volume Handling.

While Arch began as a labourer, his hands do not have the heavy, calloused and weather-beaten appearance of a working person’s hands, indicating that these casts were made when Joseph Arch was no longer a practising labourer. In fact, Arch was the first agricultural labourer to become a Member of Parliament, and was elected twice by voters in North West Norfolk. As an MP Arch agitated for extending the voting franchise, but in time people began to view him as out of touch, leading to songs such as:

Joseph Arch he stole a march,

Upon a spotted cow.

He scampered off to Parliament,

But where is Joseph now?

Chris Bryant, Parliament, the Biography, London 2014, vol.2, pp.198-9

The plaster hands do somewhat resemble hands when they are used to write something, however. Therefore, it could be possible that a statue of Joseph Arch where he wrote one of his inspiring speeches was planned, with a pen inserted into the hand once the sculpture was being made.

For now, though, they remain a mystery…

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