Agricultural labourers

Almost everyone has an ag lab or two in their tree, so we thought that they would be the logical place to start for our new OCCUPATIONS section of the magazine.

What exactly did they do? Did they stay in one place or did they move around to find work? How were they paid and where did they live? Lots of questions to be answered which we hope will bring your ‘humble’ ag labs to life.

In the 18th and early 19th century the vast majority of the population worked in agriculture. In general, at the beginning of this period, life for the smallholder and the land-less labourer was pretty good. Common land was still plentiful allowing the ‘commoners’ to grow their own vegetables, raise and graze their animals and to gather fuel for their fires. However, with the continuation of enclosure, the common land was gradually being handed over to single landowners who rented the land out to tenant farmers, who in turn hired casual labourers to work for them. This, combined with a down turn in the economy at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, along with the surplus of agricultural labour generated by the return of the ex-servicemen, meant that life was becoming more precarious for our ag labs. Increased mechanisation, in particular the introduction of threshing machines, which took away valuable winter work from the labourers, made matters even worse.

In the 1830s, the ‘swing’ riots broke out in the southern counties of England which had been most affected by enclosure. The rioters were demanding a minimum wage, the end of rural unemployment, and tithe and rent reductions. The riots took the form of machine breaking (the hated threshing machines), arson, meetings and general unrest. These riots were the first demonstration of agricultural unrest and this unrest continued particularly after the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

So, bearing in mind that their situation was not an easy one, how did our ancestors find work?

Hardy paints a very colourful scene but it must have been a little overwhelming for the youngsters, some as young as 12, who were hoping to find work.

The farm workers hired at these hiring fairs, if they were single, might be taken on as farm servants, usually for a year, meaning that they would ‘live in’ on the farm and share the farmer’s table at meal times. Hired casual labourers from the neighbouring parishes would supplement their work. This system of travelling to the hiring fair and from there to the farm, helps explain the sometimes surprising mobility of our ancestors.

Once at the farm a worker might meet and fall in love with a farm servant from another village and decide to get married. Married farm servants were obliged to live out and so had to find lodgings in the surrounding villages.

Hiring fairs and the system of ‘living in’ gradually died out during the 19th century and by 1900 it was virtually unheard of for a farm servant to share the farmer’s house.

Agricultural labourers with families to support and no specialised skills to offer were hired on a casual basis for specific tasks. They would be paid only for the work they did and received nothing if they were sick or if the weather was too bad for them to work. Wages were, in general, very low and unemployment due to a surplus in the labour force was high. Many agricultural labourers had to depend on poor relief to help them through the difficult times, but even this couldn’t be relied upon as changes in the poor laws took place during the 19th century.

Before 1834 poor relief was dealt with at parish level. It had its basis in the early 17th century when it had been introduced as a way to alleviate distress and to ensure public order. It was up to poor law guardians to decide who was eligible for help, and as they often knew the recipients, it could be a fair system. Labourers could ask for ‘outdoor’ relief to supplement their loss of wages due to illness or unemployment.

By the early 19th century, however, public attitudes to the poor had changed. Being poor was now seen as the person’s fault and the old system of poor relief was believed to only encourage people to ask for help rather than to work harder. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 aimed to do away with outdoor relief and make the workhouse the only way of accessing help. It was hoped that this would act as a deterrent and make sure that only the genuinely destitute would apply.

As the 19th century wore on the condition of our agricultural labourer ancestors and the way they were perceived by the more fortunate parts of the population deteriorated. They were badly paid and their ‘cottages’ were often small and in a sorry state of repair. They were seen as idle, unskilled and unintelligent, however the range of farm work that these ‘unskilled’ people were expected to undertake, shows just how little the perceived view of the time was justified.

In the summer they were employed to do harvesting. This was done by hand with a sickle at the beginning of the 19th century and with a scythe in the second half of the century. The wives of the harvesters would be employed to rake the cut corn into rows ready to be tied into sheaves. Before the advent of threshing machines at the beginning of the 19th century, winter work would consist of threshing the corn and sieving it to separate the cavings from the grain and chaff. They would sow and tend to the various crops on the farm as well as caring for the farm animals, milking cows, feeding pigs, herding and shearing sheep and looking after the poultry. Their work also consisted of trimming and layering hedges and maintaining the farm buildings, fences, gates, farm tracks, ditches and ponds.

Many agricultural workers moved to the new industrialised towns where, although the living conditions were difficult and life expectancy much lower due to the insanitary conditions and over crowding, work was plentiful and wages higher. In 1840 average life expectancy at birth was 45 years in rural Surrey compared to just 26 years in Liverpool. Emigrating to America or Australia was popular from the middle to the end of the 19th century. Land grants in America were generous and passage to Australia virtually free with the assisted passages scheme.

There’s no doubt that life for our ag lab ancestors was difficult but this passage from ‘Jude The Obscure’ by Thomas Hardy reminds us that amongst all the hardship there was place for happiness.

“…though to every clod and stone there really attached associations enough and to spare – echoes of songs from ancient harvest days, of spoken words and sturdy deeds. Every inch of ground had been the site, first or last, of energy, gaiety, horseplay, bickerings, weariness. Groups of gleaners had squatted in the sun on every square yard. Love-matches that had populated the adjoining hamlet had been made up there between reaping and carrying.”


© Georgette 2007


Rural Unrest in the 1830s: the ‘Swing’ riots
A great site full of useful information about the period, including a more detailed description of how poor relief worked and an interesting piece written by Joseph Arch about life for agricultural labourers in his village.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs
The six Tolpuddle Martyrs were all farm labourers, paid 9 shillings a week and lived in dreadful poverty. Their leader George Loveless, decided to set up a Union in Tolpuddle to give the labourers bargaining strength. The landowners, led by James Frampton and supported by the government, were determined to squash unions and to control increasing outbreaks of dissent.

The Ascott Martyrs
Robert Hambidge of Crown Farm, Ascott-under-Whychwood, Oxfordshire sacked his men for joining the Agricultural Workers Union. Local women protested in what was reported as “Rioting in Chipping Norton”.Editor’s note: Robert Hambidge was the husband of Caroline’s great x3 aunt, Rose-Hannah Godfree.

My Ancestor Was an Agricultural Labourer 
Available online from the Society of Genealogists, Ian Waller’s book in the ‘My Ancestors’ series helps you to understand the social and economic context of your ag lab ancestors’ lives, as well as providing details of the resouces available for your research