Agricultural Labourers

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A study of the migrant lifestyle of English land workers since the seventeenth century


1st June 2012

Agricultural Labourers

Addressing the NALHS Family History Group on this fascinating theme, Dr. Simon Pawley made the point that all are, to some extent, descended from agricultural labourers. England was a land of farmers from the beginning of its history, and it is only since the eighteenth century that capitalism and industrialization have effected a gradual change in society.

There is a myth that the peasantry of bygone ages remained in what might be called a ‘pocket community’, each born, living and dying in the one place; never experiencing broader horizons. Certainly this might have been so in the Middle Ages, days of a thriving peasant community. The poor labourer would live and work under the manorial system, whereby a parish would be under the auspices of the Lord of the Manor, and, in return for ongoing work on the land, the latter would allow rights of sustenance, paying his workers largely in kind, that is sufficient of the land's produce to eat, clothe, and provide a roof over the heads of each person or family. There were also rights to use the common land for grazing livestock, hunting, fishing, growing and picking of herbs, or the collection of wood for fuel. Gravel and stone, too, were  available for taking, which enabled a man to build a simple dwelling should he seek something more than residence in the manor hall. All in all, this enabled a living sustenance. Some rustic inhabitants had even moved in as what would today be termed ‘squatters’, and lived on the facilities of the common land. But the arrangement for those who farmed the land, usually divided into ‘strips’ under the open-field system, was that a proportion of its bounty was returned to the lord in exchange for this privelege. A blind eye was often turned to the squatters, who lacked this benefit. By this mode of living, the land was a way of life rather than a means of employment, and families tended to pass their responsibilities on to their offspring. Thus was a family tied to the land, and, yes, it was a commitment to the one community and environment, from which the peasant farmer would never depart in his lifetime.1 Nor would his succeeding generations. It was, when all is said and done, a security, albeit one of dependence and trust. Relationships to one another, and with the lord, tended to be more brotherly than hieraechical.

But the succeeding system of land enclosure, more profitable to the progressive farmer, changed all that. Almost overnight, a peasant could be made into a so-called ‘landless labourer’, and consequently a migrant All rights were lost in one vicious stroke, leaving many a devastated rural dependent. Dr. Pawley's research affirms that stability of residence in one parish ceased to be the norm; thereafter there would be vast movement around the land to find work and a means of earning a living, preferably on the land, the only known way of life. But such work would be terminable, and movement for some distance might have to be undergone in order to replace a lost job. The speaker revealed an image of a Deed of Settlement. This was the legal document that gave a final registration of a person's right to belong to a particular parish, and had to be issued by the parish authorities, each parish being dependent on its own local resources alone. A parish would be reluctant to accept ownership of a labourer if that meant payment towards poor relief. Consequently a labourer, who would certainly be in need of such relief for a meagre living, would often drift from place to place in search of secure employment, on the land or otherwise. Stability of tenure for a period of more than one year, and a fixed place to call home, would bring the right to claim a deed of settlement.2 Employing landowners, anxious that their charges should not be a burden on the rates (towards which they, the landlords, had to pay), would seek excuses to discharge hirelings before completion of the one-year period. Sickness, marriage, or distance between the labourer's home and work, might all give him such an excuse. The last of these may seem puzzling, especially when most hired hands boarded with the employer, but where there was distance involved, it gave the employer reason to fear lateness to work, and to cite this as having happened; lateness impeded productivity and hence profitability. More realistically, he was aware that daily travelling would itself invoke costs upon the parish. An early dismissal would alleviate the parish from any obligation to issue that essential deed of settlement – and it would refuse to do so, even if the worker had served for 364 days of the year! The employer could not, however, exercise this right in the case of a hireling to whom he had offered, and given, an apprenticeship, for this afforded different and more lasting rights of status. Consequently, the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1662 imposed a period of tenure on anybody taken on as a labourer, after which the parish's responsibility for his upkeep would lapse, and he would need to seek new hiring, usually elsewhere. This he would usually do by by presenting himself at a ‘hiring fair’, an annual activity at a set place in the town or village, usually a market-place. In the case of Newark, potential and hopeful hirelings would parade on the Town Hall steps, each perhaps wearing a token to indicate his preferred line of employment (for the problem extended to those whose skills lay in jobs other than farming. Tradesmen, such as blacksmiths, would also hire labourers as cheap options). Many people of the more fortunate social classes approved of this system, feeling that it was fair to both aristocracy and worker, presenting the former with help and the latter with a meagre existence. Others, though, denounced it. In 1860, Reverend Winter of Lincolnshire condemned it as ‘degrading’ towards the poor, who had no choice but to grasp at straws if they, and their familes, were to eat and clothe themselves. Yet the process went on unabated. True, the revised Poor Law of 1834 gave access to the workhouse as a last resort, but what consolation was that? Condemning oneself as a pauper was, to say the least, humiliating! It made one just a part of a herd, and open to mistreatment. This same Act abolished all new rights of settlement, for it came at a time when unemployment was on the increase, and farmers said ‘no’ to any new hirings of labour. At the same time, relationships between employers and hirelings were changing shape. The fraternal ethos that had marked the manorial system was giving way to the more modern ‘them and us’ atmosphere, whereby the men who paid the wages appeared in an air of superiority of class. The practice of mingling at the table, for example, lapsed. Hostility began to breed, exacerbated by the rise in unemployment together with the appearance of bailiffs to deal with resistant departees, and labourers feared for their own livelihoods. Finally, the formation of the Agricultural Servants' Union in 1875 signalled that a class system in England had become a reality.

A few facts about the new system and the records that can be traced, must now be noted. Firstly, the mobility of the labourer makes it difficult to trace the records of any one particular individual if research is going to begin by travelling to the district or county library. To where does the researcher go? Family links with one particular geographical area may well prove irrelevant. Moreover, the erosion of distinction between servant and labourer makes for confusing and sometimes inaccurate records. Whilst Dr. Pawsley could not offer an answer to this problem, he did share his strategy for narrowing the field. Begin, he said, with the birthplace, or a place of known employment by the worker in question. The nearest hiring-fairs should then be located. Investigation of any sizeable places of significance within the ‘catchment area’ of that fair, places from where farmers might have travelled to hire there, may well yield results. If that proves fruitless, Dr. Pawley suggested an approach that he called a ‘conventional wisdom’, for want of a better term. Move outwards onto a circle with a radius of, say, five miles, where the birthplace is at the centre. Now investigate places of seeming significance that lie on or near the circumference. Next, extend the circle outwards, and repeat. Continue to move outwards in concentric circles until, hopefully, the information is found. Migration to distant parts was still less usual, although the age of the coach in the eighteenth century, and that of the railway in the nineteenth century did render this more practicable. Desperate working-class men also had a right to join the Forces, if this seemed more attractive, and doing so increased the mobility enormously. Geographical location, as well as differing duties, revealed inequality of wages, just as it does today; although it was then the north of the country that the payments were 33% higher than the south. There, fewer labourers were there to be hired, For an adult worker, the monetary returns were meagre: seven shillings in the eighteenth century, when bread cost a shilling a loaf, meant that families must live on a diet of mainly bread and ale. ‘Generous’ employers would offer perks of cheese, onions, bacon, potatoes or flour to make bread. Some workers were still paid in kind, in the form of ale (water being polluted, and drawn from insanitary sources such as a pond). Children were used, quite legally, as cheap or unpaid labour; so school holidays were of necessity dictated by harvest. The months from June until October saw extended school closures or badly-depleted rolls. Twelve-hour days were observed in summer, when daylight was at a premium, for harvesting had to be done by hand until 1900 brought gradual mechanization. There was no security of tenancy following the death of a landlord; all rights ceased. At this stage, unscrupulous speculators built houses for labourers to rent; these were decrepid and insanitary from the point of building! Few were repaired or rebuilt, and the rental charges were unjustifiable. By the nineteenth century, the return of seven shillings had risen to £2 5s 6d, but inflation would have meant that workers were no better-off.

This theme is rich in interest for the social historian, aside from any local or family interest, and undoubtedly Dr. Pawley could have expanded it in much more detail. However, the time factor was not to be ignored, and nor is the concentration span of the reader of this article. Many changes have evolved by 2012, including big reductions in working-hours or retirement-ages, but the element of dependency remains paramount for all.

© Roger Peacock for NALHS: 7th June 2012

APPENDIX:         Country Statues


The farmers and the servants together used to dine,

But now they’re in the parlour with their pudding, beer and wine.

The master and the mistress, their sons and daughters all alone,

They will eat the meat and you may pick the bones.


A roaster goose for dinner, likewise a leg of lamb,

With soups and potatoes and everything that’s grand,

While servants in the kitchen they do both sport and play,

Speaking about the fun they’ll get on the hiring day.

 But I could tell you of a better plan without any fears or doubts,

If you would only kiss the mistress while the master he is out,

You may kiss her, you may squeeze her, you may roll her round about

And then she would find you better grub without any fear or doubt.


So good lads, stand out for your wages

When to the hirings you do go

For you will have to stand all sorts of weather

Both cold, wet and snow.3

1The illustration at the top of this article shows an overhead impression of a mediæval parish, thought to be that of Feckenham, Lincolnshire. It is reproduced by courtesy and permission of Dr. Simon Pawley. Its origin is uncertain, but may be contained in Mediaeval England: an aerial survey (Cambridge University Press, 1979) by M. W. Beresford & J.K. S. St David. (second edition)

2The deed was that of a certain Benjamin Bishop, labourer in Wendover where his Deed of Settlement was finally issued. The record reveals that Bishop was born in Winston, near Aylesbury, in 1813, and took on his first employment at the age of thirteen, as a ploughboy at Wing. It then records him as having served other masters in nine different locations, including a number of military posts, before finally finding a legal home at Wendover. It also shows a gradual rise in the payment that Bishop received for each successive position, beginning at four shillings and sixpence, 4s/6d (worth about 22p today!) and rising to five pounds and five shillings, £5/5s/0d or £5.25 today. NB: the ‘d’, traditionally written above the line, stands for the Roman ‘denarius’. 12d = 1s; 20s = £1.

See Eve McClaughlin (1990): Annals of the Poor: Federation of Family History Societies publication.

3 The Oxford Book of Traditional English Verse (1983): edited Frederick Woods

This page was added by ROGER PEACOCK on 14/06/2012.

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