Farm labourers came under a general umbrella, but the range of talent and skills from man to man varied considerably. Good labourers were able to do most jobs on the farm – ploughing and sowing, harvesting and threshing during the Spring and Summer, and maintenance work such as fencing and hedging during the Winter. These men were valuable and were retained from year to year, however others with few skills would find themselves frequently looking for work.
In the nineteenth century many women and children were also employed by farmers to do such work as weeding and stone picking, harvesting vegetables and dairy work. However, in spite of the whole family working from dawn until dusk, the combined wages were simply not enough and very often they had to turn to the Parish for help. One commodity that was freely given in large quantities was cider! The exceptions were perhaps Waggoners and Cattlemen who generally earned rather more.
Hiring time was generally in May, and it was at the Mop Fairs were labourers were looked over by the farmers……skilled labourers would hold whatever item best told the farmer what they were good at – hoe; bridle etc. etc., but if the chap had no skill worth broadcasting then he held up a mop……hence Mop Fair.
Description of the Agricultural Labourer as supplied by Mike Walsh, Dilwynian and researcher
The Times, that ever ready remedy for all wrongs, has, from time to time exposed the many hardships which the rural labourer has endured. Many reporters cited “high colouring” when arguing that Labourers were the worse fed; clothed; housed, and worst of all worse taught than anyone else. This was not strictly true, but there was indeed a grain of truth and it was enough to induce the Clergy, Landlords and Tenants to try to change things.
Charity and private action coupled with Legislature ensured some progressive movement especially the amendment of the Poor Law, brought about when labourers rioted destroying thrashing machines in an attempt to obtain bread on cheaper terms.
In 1832 a labourer was usually dependant on the goodwill of the overseer, and legally bound to the parish where he lived, and from which if he left in search of better employment he was liable to be sent to prison as a rogue and a vagabond.
Entering the Navy was not a good idea either, because there he faced hardships greater than at home – the home being a timber framed cottage with walls of wattle and daub; one room up and one down, with no flooring downstairs and no ceiling to bedroom or kitchen. Schooling was out of the question for the labourers’ children.
Following the passing of the amendment to the Poor Law there was a steady improvement; Labourers were taught to save and invest their hard earned wages, and Penny Clubs, Savings Banks and Benefit Societies were established in rural villages.
Parliament extended money grants for education to small village schools, and boys who obtained full tuition beyond the age of 10 were able to find work as railway clerks or porters – positions way above that of their fathers.
Gradually the lot of the Agricultural Labourer improved – they could never expect to be paid as well as skilled artisans but their lot became a great deal easier.
News – 19th century Labourers
17th June 1878
“A man named Stringer, described as a Farm Labourer from Herefordshire, has been arrested at Kidderminster on the charge of being concerned with the murder of Miss Jane Hannah Jay aged 32, whose body was found some weeks ago in Dinmore Wood, about seven miles from Hereford, in a state of advanced decomposition. The cause of arrest was certain statements which Stringer made in a public house. At the inquest, Miss Jay’s brother, Edward (a farmer) said that Miss Jay was rational if a little flighty, and that she had had an affair with a farmer. She had been staying at the Kerry Arms Hotel for some months, and it was said that she sometimes stayed out all night and was “strange in her habits”; she also owed the proprieter a large amount of money. On the night of her disappearance, she was seen walking towards the wood.”
“At Weobley police court, Robert George Galliers was charged with impersonating a policeman and entering premises without lawful authority. Mr. Pritchard, a farmer, deposed that the defendant came to him after dark stating that the local policeman being away, he had been telegraphed for to search for a person who had stolen some eggs and dripping fat from the shop of Mrs. Watkins, Bush Bank, and that he was on the scent of a hop-picking woman. He said that he was a policeman, and asked for the witness to accompany him with a light…which he did. They went into a building where some hop pickers employed by a neighbouring farmer, Mr. H. Parry, were sleeping. The defendant assumed a gruff and imperious air, and proceeded to question the women, then removing the headwear from one of them saying that she must be the one. He then said she was not the woman he wanted and left, dispensing with the services of the farmer and his light. The Bench imposed a fine of 28s.”