England Agricultural Occupations (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Agriculture[edit | edit source]

Types of Work and Lifestyles[edit | edit source]

The world of agriculture encompassed a huge variety of types of work and lifestyles, from:

  • Primitive labour of man and oxen to highly mechanized methodology.
  • Gentleman farmers and landowners to day labourers not paid a living wage.
  • Breeding and raising of animals and birds to cultivation of staple and specialty crops.
  • Knowledge of how to manage soil, water, forest and fen.
  • Traditional methods and conservative views to new crops and scientific methods.
  • Open fields and use of commons to enclosed fields.
  • Local markets to worldwide distribution of agricultural products.
  • Terrain that varied from mountainsides unsuitable for mechanical operation to newly reclaimed flat alluvial land.
  • Size of holdings varying between a meagre 5 acres to over 2,000 acres.
  • Farming as a sole occupation to those who held another trade as well.

There is therefore no typical farm, farmer or agricultural worker. Information about farming lifestyles needs to be sought not only in general texts but in ones specific to the county and to the type of agricultural enterprise in which your ancestors were engaged. These can be found through county archives and in bibliographies. Amongst the general references a good place to start is Eveleigh’s The Victorian Farmer which has chapters on the farmer at work and at home, and a third of the volume devoted to the farmer’s wife whose partnership was essential to the enterprise.

The classic books by the Fussells (The English Countrywoman. Her Life in Farmhouse and Field from Tudor Times to the Victorian Age. Bloomsbury Books, London, 1953 and The English Countryman. His Life and Work from Tudor Times to the Victorian Age. Bloomsbury Books, London, 1955) discuss the English countryman and countrywoman’s life from the Tudor to Victorian eras and are an excellent source. Armstrong’s (Farmworkers: A Social and Economic History 1770-1980. Batsford. FHL book 942 H6a, 1988) social and economic history of farmworkers, and Horn’s work (Victorian and Edwardian Farm Workers. Genealogists Magazine page 173-189. [Revised text of a talk given at the Society of Genealogists Day Conference, 2 November 1985], 1986) are to be recommended. Five Victorian views in one volume on the Old Squire, Young Squire, Farmer’s Daughter and English Peasant (all by Howitt) and on the Farmer (by ‘Alice’, The Farmer in Portraits of the English Vol VI: Country Lives edited and published by COLLINS, Audrey. 1999. Original published by Robert Tyas, London.) are most enlightening. Farming in the Lincolnshire fens has been described by Woods (Old Occupations: Farming in the Lincolnshire Fenlands. Family Tree Magazine Vol 15 #7, page 62).

Almost 90% of farmers were tenants of the great landowners, but there were independent yeomen who owned their own home and sufficient land for a good lifestyle. There were also small farmers who made a very meagre living from tiny plots, and others who combined a small farm with another trade such as butcher, carter or weaver.

Most farms were in the 100-300 acre range, but larger ones existed in the south and east, whilst pastoral farmers, for example dairy farmers in the west, had smaller holdings. The farmer with 500 acres would be considered prosperous and at the lower end of the upper middle class, typically employing all the labour he needed, progressive and having the wherewithal to try new farming techniques. Those having fewer than 100 acres were those who worked in the fields alongside their labourers and lacked resources to embark on improvements.

Every farmer was dependent upon the weather and market conditions. The price of corn (wheat) dominated the 19th century agricultural scene from the increased acreage brought under cultivation during the Napoleonic Wars, to the Corn Law of 1815 (modified in 1828) aimed at protecting the British farmer. Poor harvests in 1829-30 and consequent high prices for wheat, poor wages due to a surplus of workers, and the hated threshing machines which destroyed precious jobs in the difficult winter months, brought about the southern Swing Riots of 1830-32 (Chambers 1990, 1993, Hobsbawm and Rudé, Pateman, Vokes, Wotton) involving machine breaking and arson.

The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 resulted in free trade and two subsequent decades of prosperity for farmers. The last quarter of the 19th century was marked by severe recession for them after several bad harvests due to poor weather and the effects of growing imports of cheap grain from North America after the end of the U.S. Civil War. The railways opened up markets over the course of the century, but also took away the best labourers ‘who were attracted by better prospects in the towns’ (Eveleigh 1991).

The wealthier farmers can be found in county rural directories and as suppliers to institutions such as hospitals, workhouses, gaols, barracks etc. that may still have records. There was no early guild of farmers, nor was there a trade union or professional society, perhaps because they were a fiercely independent bunch not given to co-operative endeavours. A guild of farmers was started in the second half of the 20th century when the necessity of co-operative measures were more adequately understood.

Agricultural Labourers[edit | edit source]

A large proportion of the population of earlier times were agricultural labourers, but these were not the dull clodhoppers lacking intelligence or aspiration of popular myth. Even the very small tenant farmers of under 10 acres might call themselves thus. Countrymen had to be extremely knowledgeable about many aspects of agricultural practice in the area in which they lived. Not necessarily masters of every trade but certainly capable of tackling a wide variety of tasks as well as reading the weather, improvising solutions to problems, and using natural resources to feed their families.

The farm labourer had considerable skill if his tasks included ploughing, harrowing, rolling, sowing seed, tending and weeding a variety of crops, harvesting with scythe, sickle and spade, and laying up and threshing during the winter. The animals had to be herded and milked, and the shepherds needed skilled help at lambing and shearing times. There was cutting, drying and stacking hay, as well as trimming and laying hedges or building drystone walls, fencing and making gates, making or mending roofs of thatch, tile or slate, and pointing brickwork. Ditches, culverts, drains, ponds, farm roads and tracks all had to be made and maintained. In autumn stubborn invasive weeds needed to be skillfully eradicated by fire, and every item needed in his home had to be constructed on days when the weather was too poor to work outside. Not every agricultural labourer possessed, or needed, all of these skills but the seasonal nature of most work demanded that he be versatile and, naturally, the more capable he was the better wages he could command.

Some ag labs moved around at different seasons, with or without their families, perhaps for fruit picking in summer in Worcestershire, hop-picking in the autumn in Kent and threshing in winter in Sussex. Others stayed for generations in the same parish and they were most likely to be those that were firmly attached to the land, especially copyhold tenants (Jolliffe).

Traditional Duties and Clothing[edit | edit source]

The Hammonds (The Village Labourer 1760-1832. Alan Sutton. FHL film 0924233 item 3, 1987) have written a worthwhile treatise on the village labourer. Talbot-Ashley (Old Occupations: The Agricultural Labourer. Family Tree Magazine Vol 11 #9, page 5-6. [See comments by CREW and JOLLIFFE], 1995) has an excellent article on conditions for the ag. lab, but the subsequent comments by Crew (Wage Slip in Readers’ Letters. Family Tree Magazine Vol 11 #11, page 39) on wages, and Jolliffe (Don’t Give Up on Ag. Labs. Family Tree Magazine Vol 11 #11, page 47) on movements and other topics should also be noted. Talbot-Ashley notes that the whole family’s efforts were required to gain even a subsistence living. The labourer’s wife was traditionally responsible for their own poultry, brewing and dairy produce and she would accept paid work of this kind outside her considerable domestic duties whenever she could. This might also include picking stones, weeding vegetables, fruit picking or binding sheaves and stooking at harvest.

The children would scare birds, pick stones, plait straw, and weed fields. The older girls were expected to assist their mother in handicrafts, cooking, cleaning, raising chickens and other household chores, whilst boys from about the age of seven would work beside their father in the fields. Schooling, except for an hour of Sunday School, was almost unheard of for labourers until at least 1870, as even if a charity school existed they could not be spared to attend it.

Men working on the farm traditionally wore linen smocks, a dress-like garment with plenty of fullness allowing movement. They were made in a number of colours, and often had elaborate embroidery on the sleeves and neck openings (Arnold 1970, Filbee, Hall). The smock was an outer garment worn over a shirt (which doubled as a night shirt), waistcoat and breeches fastened with a button, buckle or tape beneath the knee. Stockings, boots, sometimes gaitors and a hat completed the ensemble. Until about 1840 long trousers were only worn by sailors and very poor shepherds.

The fame of your ag lab ancestor may have consisted solely of entries in the parish registers, but you can seek out some of the many descriptions of the kinds of agriculture practiced in his geographical area, including those included in fiction. Copyhold tenants will feature in the manorial rolls that can produce a treasure trove of information on their relationships. Make good use of maps, parish chest records and rate books, as well as newspaper reports of such items as ploughing matches and steam machine accidents and even local folk songs. It does not surprise us that there are few first hand accounts of labouring life, but Goddard (Stephen Duck. Family Tree Magazine. Vol 17 #9, page 22-23, 2001) tells us about Stephen Duck, an accomplished poet who started life as a Wiltshire agricultural labourer and wrote from his heart. Works of fiction should not be ignored, for there are many which were well-researched or composed from raw experience. Thomas Hardy’s works come to mind, as does Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard, so strongly evocative of the labourer’s lot in life. Wade (Old Occupations: Working on the Land: Harvest Home. Family Tree Magazine Vol 4 #3, page 15-16, 1988), Dudley (Old Occupations: The Victorian Agricultural Labourer. Family Tree Magazine Vol 4 #4, page 19-20., 1988), and Camp (Sources for Labourers in an Agricultural Community. Family Tree Magazine. Vol 17 #1, page 51-52, 2000) give further sources for agricultural labourers.


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