9 Fascinating Facts about Ag Labs


The 1851 census records 1,460,896 people working as ag labs – farm servants or shepherds – more than in any other field of employment, [1] so it’s highly likely that some of your ancestors worked the land to earn their living. But what did they actually do and how did their lives compare to ours now? Here are 9 facts and figures about the humble agricultural labourer:

1. There were two types of agricultural labourer:

  • Labourers who worked for a particular farmer, and who stayed on the same farm or estate for long periods of time, often for many generations. They usually lived in a tied cottage, which was passed on to the eldest son of the family. Because of their permanency and greater knowledge of the farm and its workings these labourers had the opportunity to become more valued farm workers, such as herdsmen or ploughmen.
  • Hired men’ and ‘hired women’, who were more mobile and were given a temporary contract on a farm. Hiring normally happened once a year on 29 September (Michaelmas), at a country fair, or market. The fairs were called ‘hiring fairs’ and the labourers would stand on a platform, or in an enclosure, to be ‘looked over’ by the prospective employers for features such as strength, general appearance and character. [2]

2. The children of agricultural labourers would often start work as soon as they could walk. They would become bird scarers, gleaners, or cow boys. As they grew up the young girls would go into the dairies, or the farmhouse itself and undertake tasks such as butter-making and looking after vegetable and fruit plots.

3. A ‘lad’ got more money than a ‘boy’. While he was still at school he was a ‘boy’ until he was seventeen or eighteen, when he would be called a ‘lad’. A lad who had not long left school would be taken on at harvest time as a half-man. That is, he received half a man’s wages.

4. The typical weekly expenditure of a farm labourer, his wife, and three children in 1874 was:

  • Bread 6s 3d
  • ½ lb butter 8d
  • 1lb cheese 6d
  • 1lb bacon 8d
  • ½lb sugar 2d
  • Pepper, salt etc 1d
  • 2oz tea 4d
  • ½lb candles 3½d
  • Soap 2d
  • Soda, starch and blue 1d
  • Coals 2s
  • 1 faggot (bundle of sticks) 2½d
  • Rent and rates 1s 6d
  • Man’s sick club 6d
  • Boots 7d
  • Children’s schooling 3d[3]

This was a total of 14 shillings and 3 pence and didn’t include clothes or any luxuries.

5. The average wage for an agricultural labourer in 1874 was 13s 11½d[4]

6. Free beer was included as part of a farm worker’s salary until an Act of Parliament amendment in 1887.

7. There was no social welfare available for agricultural labourers. Work contracts could be ended at any time if the farmer fell on hard times, and if the labourer lived in a tied cottage, he would lose his home too. There were no pensions for the elderly or sick pay for the invalid.

8. Traditionally, the method of harvesting the grain crop was by hand, using a sickle. By 1850 the scythe had replaced the sickle.

9. Apart from the obvious tasks of ploughing, sowing, hoeing and reaping a crop, agricultural labourers would also be tasked with stacking, thatching, hedging, ditching, and looking after the horses.

Fascinating stuff, eh? And certainly not easy work. Our relatives will have worked hard all their lives, raising children and earning money to clothe and feed the family. Their jobs may not have been glamorous, but they certainly deserve our respect.

[1] http://www.whodoyouthinkyouaremagazine.com/tutorials/jobs/best-websites-agricultural-labourers

[2] http://www.cambridgeshirehistory.com/People/agriculturallabourers.html

[3] The Cornhill Magazine, Vol. 29 (1874)

[4] http://historyofwages.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/agricultural-labourers-wages-1850-1914.html

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