Farm Labor

The Lowest Class.

      Agricultural Laborers were unskilled farm laborers who didn�t operate their own farm; they worked for a �farmer.� They were the lowest class in rural English society at a time when there was a large emphasis on class distinction. There were several classes in England. Those in the lowest class associated with and married others in their same class.

      Today, we live in a relatively classless society. For example, in August 2001, the prince and future King of Norway married a single divorced mother who use to be a heavy partier and drug user (Associated Press). We go to schools where kids socialize with others from very different racial and economic backgrounds. It is not uncommon in America for people to advance economically from little or no assets to becoming a millionaire within twenty years or even less. This wasn�t possible in Victorian England.

      Nineteenth century England was a very different world. Status was very important in English society. England had a strict class hierarchy. There were five distinct classes (Pool 163-165). You married and socialized within your own class. At the top, there was the nobility or aristocracy. Examples of nobility were Dukes, Earls, and Marquises. The principal landowner for a village was often a noble. Nobles normally didn�t have anything to do with village life. The next level was the �gentry�. It included the Clergy (Church of England), Baronets, and Knights. These are small landowners with thousands of acres. They were more involved in village life. The next class down was the farmers (�yeomen�) and bankers. Some farmers worked on their farms but many were sufficiently wealthy to live like the gentry. The next class was the tradesmen or skilled workers. Examples are carpenters, shoemakers, blacksmiths and surgeons. Although the farmer was not at the same social position as the gentry, he was much superior to the tradesmen and shopkeepers (Mingay 60). The lowest class was the working poor. In the countryside, these were the agricultural laborers.


      The wealthy had servants. The more they had, the more they could show their wealth and gain status in society (Pool 219). It was common for farmers to have servant girls (Parker 214). They cost less and a male servant was taxed. However, having a male servant gave one much more status. Besides the domestic servants, there were coachmen (maintained and drove the carriage), the groom (took care of the horses), gardeners, and gamekeepers (to protect the game-rabbits, pheasants, etc. from poaching). Being a servant was a very difficult job. A maid might work from 6AM to 11PM at night. She received just 11 to 14� per year (Pool 221).

Old Currency System.

      In this book, the old English currency system is used. The largest unit of currency, the pound, is abbreviated with a ��� symbol. There were twenty shillings, abbreviated with an �s�, in one pound. There were twelve pence, abbreviated with a �d�, in one shilling or two hundred forty pence in a pound.

      According to Pool, a shilling of a hundred and fifty years ago is worth, after inflation, roughly between one and ten dollars today (Pool 20-21).

      As we refer to currency amounts, we suggest comparing it to what a typical agricultural laborer made annually, which was about 20�. For example, a maid�s salary was about 55 (11�) to 70% (14�) of the salary of an agricultural laborer.

A Laborer�s Relationship with The Farmer.

      There were two types of agricultural laborers in England. The first worked for one farmer. The farmer would own or control many cottages or houses. His agricultural laborers lived in these cottages. Typically the cottage was free or leased at a small rent to the laborer (Pool 76). A family might live in the same cottage for more than one generation. The relationship was stronger between the farmers and these laborers. However, the farmer did not have a legal obligation to the laborer. He could drive the laborer out of the cottage at any time. The farmer frequently let the laborer plant a small vegetable garden near the cottage (Pool 77).

      Other laborers contracted their services. In the 17th century, it was typical to contract for a one-year period, starting at �Michaelmas� (September 29th). There would be a large fair that would be attended by the farmers and prospective employees. The prospective employees would be corralled within an enclosure or on a platform. The employers observed the prospective employees from the sidelines. The prospective employees - agricultural laborers, domestic servants, etc. - would wear something to show their desired type of work. A domestic servant might hold a broom. A shepherd would pin wool to his shirt. The farmers would observe the health of the worker. They would then interview the worker to determine liabilities, such as a family. Finally, they would negotiate a wage, perhaps agreeing to provide a cottage as part of the deal. After the bargaining, they would have a celebration. In the 19th century, it was more common to contract for one week for a given wage (Cambridgeshire, Agriculture & the Laborer).


      People who owned land controlled England. The government was very different from what we expect from a just government. Taxation was substantial and it was complex. There were national taxes on land, income, the practice of law, newspaper advertisements, glass, candles, beer, malt, carriages, menservants, coats of arms, newspapers, paper, bricks, stone, coal, windows, wheat, barley, oats, soap, horses, dogs, salt, sugar, raisins, tea, coffee, tobacco, playing cards, timber, and silk.

      In the US, everyone eighteen and older has the right to vote today. All men didn�t get this right in England until the early 20th century. To vote, you needed to own land, and just a small garden plot by the cottage wasn�t sufficient. The large landowners controlled parliament until after the �Secret Ballot in 1872� and the �Corrupt Practices Act of 1883�. Before 1872, even if you did have a right to vote, the most powerful landowners always knew how you voted. It wasn�t until 1884 that skilled workers like carpenters, blacksmiths, or shoemakers could vote. Farm laborers couldn�t vote for another generation, until the 20th century (Mingay 19).


      When we traveled in England, we saw lush green fields everywhere in the rural countryside. Most often tall hedges bordered these fields. The hedges we saw separating these fields are called hedgerows (Pool 160). Prior to the 17th century, the fields in England were open and divided into narrow strips. Starting in the 17th century and accelerating into the 18th and early 19th century, these fields were �enclosed.� After enclosure, the village was divided up so that the landowners had the same proportion of land that they had before enclosure. However, previous to enclosure, there were common areas that belonged to everyone. The poor used the common areas to gather wood and grow a few crops. The commoners did not have legal ownership to these common areas. Most often, these common fields without legal ownership became part of larger land holdings after the enclosure process was completed. They were no longer available for the poor to use (Parker 211). Enclosure was beneficial for farmers, large landowners, and the urban population. It increased hardship for the rural poor (Enclosure, The Hutchinson Family Encyclopedia).

Laborers Leave Farming.

      Farm laborers became increasingly upset as the nineteenth century progressed. About 1870 there was a revolt of agricultural laborers called the �Revolt of the Field�. A hedge cutter called Joseph Arch led the revolt. It led to the formation of the National Union of Agricultural Laborers (Blythe 20). The farmers, at the same time, used new machinery to replace laborers. The laborers left England or moved to the cities to take more desirable jobs.

      One new job for farm laborers was policeman. There weren�t police early in the nineteenth century. London started its first police force in 1829. Parliament funded police for rural areas in 1856. Many descendants of ancestors of Mary Annie Jacklin, which stayed in England, became policemen.

Justice and Crime.

      There weren�t prosecutors, like the district attorneys we have. Often the prosecutor would be the victim. In other cases, the victim employed a private-practice lawyer. The accused was not permitted to testify, even on his own behalf, until after 1898. A lawyer working for the accused in a felony was not permitted to cross-examine witnesses until after 1837. You were not guaranteed a prompt trial, but when the trial was held, the trial progressed very fast. The executions were required to take place within two days of sentencing. It was normal to have a crowd of people who would watch the execution. Public executions ended in 1868. Some criminals were �transported� for a sentence. Before the American Revolution, they were shipped to America. Between 1810 and 1852, 140,000 criminals were sent to Australia.


      The farmers in England grew crops that we are familiar with; such as, wheat, barley, and oats. These grains were collectively referred to as �corn�. Corn, as we know it, did not exist in England. Wheat was the most profitable crop and very common. Farms were plowed in the late fall or winter. After plowing, the soil was �harrowed� to break it into smaller chunks. Sheep were grazed throughout the field to fertilize the crops.

      The wheat was cut by hand with the sickle, or old-fashioned cradle, and then carried to the barn. A team of five men working all day would harvest about two acres using a small sickle. The wheat was threshed during the winter by walking in a circle and beating the wheat with the �flail� until the grain separated from the chaff. The grain was then �winnowed� (sifted) into bags (Pool 154-155).

      It was long hard work. The hours during the summer were 6AM to 6PM except during harvest time when they worked until 8PM. In winter they worked from 7AM to 5PM (Mingay 75). There weren�t many holidays either. There were just three: Good Friday, Shrove Tuesday, and Christmas Day (Mingay 82). There were a few benefits. Sometimes the worker received a free or low rent cottage. Sometimes they were allowed to use a small garden plot to raise vegetables. While working in the fields, they were provided free beer (Pool 77). Another benefit was the women and children were allowed to glean the fields after a harvest (Blythe 36).

The Cottage of A Laborer.

      In the 18th century, the normal farm laborer�s house was one room on the first floor and one room above it. They didn�t spend anything on sanitation, hygiene, entertainment, or transportation (they walked).

      The roofs of the cottages were thatched. Although thatched cottages today are quaint, the homes of the 19th century and before weren�t so inviting. The wealthiest rural poor lived in a four-room cottage (Pool 190). The roof and walls leaked water. Dirt and bird droppings oozed from the roof (Mingay 86). Many floors were earth, sometimes damp or even flowing with spring water. The standard flooring in the mid-18th century was �clunch�. This was crushed rock, perhaps dug out of the road in front of the house. By the 19th century, bricks were sometimes laid over the clunch (Parker 129).

      Sparrows were a problem in the thatched roof used for cottages. Because of this, there was a bounty for sparrows in Foxton (Foxton is a village near Whaddon, where the Jacklin family lived) near 1800 of one half penny per sparrow. After catching the sparrow, the head was decapitated and taken to the parish for payment. The sparrow�s body was sometimes used to make pie. This was a special treat at the time (Parker 197-198).

      Near the turn of the century, the old cottages became vacant. The government built new houses, called �Council Houses�, after World War I. Villagers didn�t want to live in the cottages with damp floors, dark rooms, leaky roofs, no toilets, no running water, and no electricity (Le Quesne 162).

      The cottages became popular in the late 20th century when they were modernized with utilities but kept their quaint antique charm. Today, the government places restrictions on how these cottages can be modified, which means that, in some cases, cottages occupied by our ancestors centuries ago still exist.

Meat and Hunting.

      The rural poor seldom ate meat. They didn�t even eat a rabbit meandering near their cottage. Rabbits and other small animals, like partridges, pheasants, and grouse, were �Game�. From 1671 to 1831, you had to own land that generated a large rent to hunt by law. Because of this law, only the gentry and nobility could hunt game. The penalty was �5 (about three months of wages) or three months in jail. It was also illegal to sell or possess dead game unless you met the qualifications of the law. Some landowners had gamekeepers who would watch for poachers at night. Some would use gun traps that would blow the head off whomever sneaked into their land to get a pheasant at night. They also had man traps with teeth about 1.5 inches long that would clamp on the leg. Man traps and gun traps were both completely legal through 1827 (Pool 173-174).

      The gentry sometimes stored their pheasant or rabbits in a small building called a �Game Lodge.� The meat would spoil and maggots would infest it. The spoiled meat was considered a delicacy (Jeevar 14).

      According to Collett-White, �Labourers working near the hunt hallooed on sight of the fox with as much enthusiasm as the huntsman � Hunting, superficially a great divider of rural society, in fact provided an important point of contact (32).�

Food and Drink.

      In 1864, the average farm laborer had one cooked meal per week. They didn�t have ovens. There was almost always a small garden in which they would grow vegetables, keep chickens, or even raise a pig. Bread, milk, cheese, eggs, and beer were staple foods. They almost never had meat, sugar, or tea (Parker 187). Cheese and bacon were favorite and rare foods for the poor (Pool 204). Pudding was a favorite lower class dish. Pudding frequently contained blood and spice and it was smoked well to give it a strong taste (Pool 207).

      Bread made from wheat was a common food. The bread was baked at the community bake house. The bake house oven was built of brick with an iron door. It had a grate at the bottom. Wood was burned below the grate to get the oven hot. After it came to temperature, the bread dough was placed on top of the grate. When the bread was baked, the ashes were picked out of it (Wilson).

      Boiling food was more common than baking it. Leonard Thompson, a farm laborer, recalled that, �One of our great desires was to have cake. Nearly all our food was boiled on account of there being no oven in most of the cottages. A �treat� was any party where you could eat cake (Blythe 35).�

      Drinking water was obtained from a well or stream and brought to the cottage in pots. Water pumps replaced wells in the early 19th century (Jeevar 34). Water was often contaminated so people drank tea and beer instead. Beer was provided free to the laborers working in the fields. Stopping at �sevensies, ninesies, elevensies, dinner and foursies� they would drink a pint of beer at each stop according to Robin (Blythe 66). It was home-brewed beer. The beer, according to Robin, was strong, ��if punk rockers had it you would need a machine gun to control them (Blythe 66).� According to Le Quesne, if a laborer wanted to drink after work, he went to the pub. ��the pub was distinctly disreputable and disapproved of, not only because it was the resort of the poor, but because it led them out of the peculiarly strait and narrow way that was all that Victorian respectability permitted them (177).�


      For transportation, people walked. Sometimes they would walk 10 miles, do the day�s business, and then walk the return 10 miles to home at the end of the day. Wealthy people had horses. In 1848, out of a population of 18 million in England, 100,000 people had horse drawn carriages. Kilvert, a pastor with an income about five times that of our agricultural laborer ancestors, could not afford the luxury of a horse and would only occasionally take the train. He almost always walked (Le Quesne 51). At best, the poor used donkeys. They were cheap compared to horses and required less care. In part because transportation was limited, people lived in the same small area. In the first half of the 19th century, most newcomers to a village came from within 20 to 30 miles of the village (Mingay 13).


      In 1800, there weren�t any public schools in England. In 1811, some members of the Church of England were appalled that lower-class children could not read the Bible. They started Sunday Schools first. Gradually Sunday Schools became weekday elementary schools. In 1839, they became so popular that these Church of England schools were supported with public funds. Initially, there was a student teacher ratio of 500 to 1. The teacher would train student �Monitors� who would do the actual training. Later, these students would go to a �training college�. This was the only possible way for the poor to get a higher education in England in the 19th century (Pool 126).

      In 1862, the government required standards. Boys and girls were required by the end of the �sixth standard� (test) to read and write simple passages and to do arithmetic. As late as 1871, more than 19% of men and 26% of women getting married could only make an X next to their name in the parish register. By 1891 these percentages dropped to about 7% each (Pool 127).


      Today, the village Church is viewed as a public building with a history. Although many Englishmen get married, christened, or buried there, very few attend Church today (Le Quesne 33). In the 19th century, the Church of England was a required part of life (Le Quesne 68). Today, we hear the word tithing and we think of a voluntary payment to a church. In England, the tithe was a tax imposed by the church that was mandatory and paid to the local clergyman, called a rector or vicar. Until 1840 it was paid with wheat or other farm goods, �in-kind.� After 1840, it was paid with money. For a farmer, the tithe was one tenth of the value of a year�s harvest (Pool 88).

      The Church of England began in the 1530s when King Henry VIII declared himself to be the head of the Church of England and all ties with the Catholic Church and the Pope in Rome were severed. The Church of England is also known as the Established, Anglican, or Episcopal Church.

      There are a lot of small villages with a Parish Church in England. The buildings are huge when you consider the small number of people who could attend, even if every single person in the Parish went to church. If you tried to build these churches they would be very expensive relative to the number of people they handled. When an English tour guide was questioned at the huge Selby Abbey she smiled and said the huge structures were built with �slave labor.� Today, over 85% of the English regarded as Christian belong to the Church of England. Most Englishmen do not attend church today.

      The Church of England was the only sanctioned religion. Only its pastor was authorized to perform baptisms and marriages. In 1837, LDS Missionaries started preaching in England. Englishmen practicing other religions, such as Methodists and Mormons, were called nonconformists and their meeting place was called a chapel, not a church (Blythe 62). The Anglican clergy disdained Mormons or anyone else who professed to be able to baptize (Le Quesne 68).


      When not working, which wasn�t often, there was a little leisure time. Leonard Thompson recalled, �People were strict. Parents were strict. All the village children thought of was how to get away, how to �get on�. But we had our games and treats. We had a game called �Hudney�. A stone was placed on a brick and had to be knocked off by another stone when it was aimed at it. When you ran to retrieve the stone a boy would try and hit you with a ball and if he did you were out of the game. We played this for hours on end. We had no toys, no books and we didn�t play cricket or football (Blythe 35).�

      Another activity they enjoyed was singing, Fred Mitchell remembered, �I never did any playing in all my life. There was nothing in my childhood, only work. I never had pleasure. One day a year I went to Felixstowe along with the chapel women and children, and that was my pleasure. But I have forgotten one thing � the singing. There was such a lot of singing in the villages then, and this was my pleasure, too. Boys sang in the fields, and at night we all met at the Forge and sang. The chapels were full of singing. When the first war came, it was singing, singing all the time. So I lie; I have had pleasure. I have had singing (Blythe 51).�


      Only a few holidays were celebrated. May Day (May 1) was an important holiday. It was on May 13th before 1752. The calendar was changed in 1752 because Britain was several days behind the rest of Europe. The Gregorian calendar was adopted at that time. It was then the 14th. There were riots by people who thought they were cheated out of a �fortnight.� �In the old days the activities of May Day started before dawn with �May-Birching�, when sprigs or branches were put on cottage doorsteps to show how neighbors viewed the occupants. To get hawthorn, lime, apple, or pear, was good, brambles or blackthorn was bad, whereas if a woman found elder, it meant that her morals left something to be desired. Many people went out at dawn to kiss the dew, which was said to bring them luck. While if young girls washed themselves with May Day morning dew, it was thought to make them more beautiful, and many even believed that it would improve their complexions � (Page 61).�


      With the lack of plumbing, bathing was infrequent and a luxury. Leonard Thompson remembers, �But all the boys and young men swam naked in the river in the summertime. It was our biggest happiness. Boys were washed until they were about two, then their bodies didn�t see water again until they learned to swim. We didn�t look dirty (Blythe 35).� When they did bath, the water was cold. Kilvert, a young pastor with about five times the salary of a farm laborer, wrote in his journal, �1870 25 December. As I lay awake praying in the early morning I thought I heard a sound of distant bells. It was an intense frost. I sat down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke in the middle into large pieces whilst sharp points and jagged edges stuck all round the side of the tub like chevaux de frise, not particularly comforting to the naked thighs and loins, for the keen ice cut like broken glass. The ice water stung and scorched like fire. I had to collect the floating pieces of ice and pile them on a chair before I could use the sponge and then I had to thaw the sponge in my hands for it was a mass of ice (Le Quesne 222).�


      Disease was common and many died young leaving spouses and children. Most families started out large, but the children often died young because there were so many diseases. It is difficult for us to envision what sickness was like then. Kilvert wrote in his journal about a sick farm laborer, �1870 7 October. Poor Edward very ill. What a scene it was, the one small room up in the roof of the hovel, almost dark, in which I could not stand upright, the shattered window, almost empty of glass, the squalid bed, the close horrid smell, the continual crying and wailing of the children below, the pattering of the rain on the tiles close overhead, the ceaseless moaning of the sick man with his face bound about with a napkin. �Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy upon me,� he moaned. I was almost exhausted crouching down at the little dirty window to catch the light of the gloomy rainy afternoon (Le Quesne 172).�


      Death was accepted with ease for many because it was so common (Le Quesne 182). When someone died, the church bells were rung. Robert Palgrave remembered, �The bells tolled for death when I was a boy. It was three times three for a man and three times two for a woman. People would look up and say, �Hullo, a death?� Then the years of the dead person�s age would be tolled and if the bell went on speaking, �seventy-one, seventy-two�� people would say, �Well, they had a good innings!� But when the bell stopped at eighteen or twenty a hush would come over the fields. People were supposed to pray for the departed soul, and some of them may have done (Blythe 81).�

      William Russ was a gravedigger in the early 20th century. We will conclude this section on what it was like in rural villages for farm laborers, with an interesting recollection of Russ. �So far as funerals are concerned, we�ve gone from one extreme to the other. Bodies used to be kept in the house for twelve days. Everyone kept the body at home for as long as they could then; they didn�t care to part with it, you see. Now they can�t get it out quick enough. They didn�t like hurrying about anything when I was young, particularly about death. They were afraid that the corpse might still be alive � that was the real reason for hanging on to it. People have a post-mortem now and it�s all settled in a minute, but there�s no doubt that years ago there were a rare lot of folk who got buried alive. When a sick man passed on the doctor was told, but he never came to look at the corpse. He just wrote out the death certificate. People always made a point of leaving an instruction in their wills to have a vein cut. Just to be on the safe side. There was an old man near Framlingham, old Micah Hibble, he was laid out for dead three times. The last time he was actually in his coffin and waiting for the funeral to begin. When I asked, �Anymore for a last look before he�s screwed down?� there was the usual nuisance pushing his way through the mourners and saying, �Yes, I do!� Trust somebody to get you fiddling about and making the funeral late. The bell was going, so you know how late it was. Anyway, when this man looked in the coffin he saw that Micah had moved. Well do you know, he recovered! And what�s more, he is supposed to have written a book about what he saw, although I�ve never set eyes on it. � And there was this old lady at Wickham Market and she was in three different coffins. They called her Cheat-the-grave at last. �Village folk have been buried over and over again in the same little bits of churchyard. You have to throw somebody out to get somebody in � three or four sometimes. I always put all the bones back so that they lie tidy-like just under the new person. They�re soon all one. � Dust to dust they say. It makes me laugh. Mud to mud, more like. Half the graves round here are water-logged. Foxton is a terrible wet place; the moment you get the grass off, you�re in the water. I float grass on the water so the mourners can�t see it but when the coffin is lowered it has to be held under with a pole until you can get a bit of heavy soil on top of it. At Dearburgh the graves fill up to within eight inches of the top. I�ve drawn as much as fifty pails of water out of a grave at Dearburgh, the last when the funeral was coming up the path. And still the coffin had to be held under three feet of it (Blythe 313-315).�

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