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Agriculture & the Labourer


The soil in Cambridgeshire generally is fertile, corn has been raised in the uplands as well as in the lowlands, and there has been grazing in the latter. The produce has consisted of wheat (the Burwell wheat having a high reputation as seed), and other corn crops, cattle, sheep, Cottenham cheese, the production of which has diminished, butter, fruit, hay, coleseed, osiers, cabbages, beans, potatoes, asparagus from Ely, reeds for thatching, chalk, lime and turf for fuel (which was much used); mangold wurtzel and carrots were grown in large quantities on the fen lands; the produce was chiefly sent to London from the ports of Lynn, Ely and Wisbech, and from Cambridge and other towns by railway. In the Cottenham and Willingham districts and around Wisbech much fruit was grown, especially strawberries, gooseberries, apples and plums, and sent to London and Manchester markets.

Land Reclamation

The northern part of the county, including the Isle of Ely, is for the most part fen land, and comprises nearly half of the Great Level of the Fens, called the Bedford Level, which covers in all 680,000 acres of rich land; the remainder of it is in Norfolk, Lincoln and Hunts; this area, which was drained in the first instance by Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutchman, about the year 1629, and subsequently reclaimed and drained by successive engineers, is still only preserved by great care and watchfulness; in place of hedges the fields are separated by ditches which communicate with wider cuttings, and these again flow into the natural water-courses of rivers, which carry off the drainage; steam engines have largely taken the place of windmills for pumping the water from ditches into larger drains, and these are provided with sluices to regulate the supply of water for navigation, as the great drains are used as canals; in parts provision is made for excess water in rainy weather by what are known as washlands, notably those some 20 miles in length from Earith (Hunts), across Cambridgeshire, to Denver sluice (Norfolk), situated between the Hundred-feet (or New Bedford river), constructed after 1649, on the south and the Old Bedford river (dating from 1630) on the north : these washlands are flooded when the upland waters come down too fast to be discharged by the rivers and cover about 5,000 acres, affording rich pasture land. Sedge-cutting was one of the industries, and at certain seasons the gathering of the couch-grass (Triticum Repeus), which grew abundantly; in latter years a large acreage was devoted to potato growing which afforded considerable employment.

Much of the fen drainage of the 16th & 17th Century (as opposed to Roman drainage works) followed changes in the ownership of the land during the Reformation with larger estates such as those owned by the church being broken into smaller holdings . In turn this led to more demands for land and the draining of the fens. For example many areas such as those around Soham in the Isle of Ely had been communities isolated by the Fens until the drainage systems of the Bedford Levels and the main Denver Sluice began to reclaim more land for agriculture whereas the fenland had previously supported grazing animals in the main. This in turn created the need for labour. The mills and drains of the areas were maintained in later years by drainage commissions with officers drawn from the landowners adjacent to the drains (or dykes). The Cambridge Record Office has material on the Commissions. The pattern was similar with other areas adjoining the Wash.

Agricultural Employment

The majority of the population of England were employed Agricultural Labourers before the Industrial Revolution. Agricultural work provided many different types of employment for labourers but they could be categorised into groups:

  1. Those labourers who worked for a particular farmer, and who stayed on the same farm or estate for long periods of time often all their working lives. Frequently, they were born on the farm in a tied cottage (belonging to a particular farm), and never left, the house being passed on to the son on the death of the labourer. These labourers tended to become the 'elite' of the class because they had (relative) stability of employment, and because of their permanency and great knowledge of the farm and its workings could rise from mere farmhands to become more valued farm workers, with tasks such as herdsmen or ploughmen. Their families were born and raised there, and from an early age both sons and daughters would work on the farm, initially as bird scarers, gleaners after the harvest, cow boys and similar. As they grew up they would enter the more 'advanced' jobs, and the women would go into the dairies, the house itself and the tasks such as butter- making and looking after vegetable and fruit plots. This was not always the case but was common practice.

    It is worth emphasising that the work wasn't contracted in the modern sense; there was absolutely no guarantee of employment. If the farm fell on hard times, or the farmer decided that he could dispense with the services of a particular labourer, then he could and would dismiss him and turn him and his family out of their cottage without compensation. This was more likely when people grew old and infirm, and so, less useful to their employer. A good employer might make provision for a worker such as this, giving him or her easier or sedentary jobs, and perhaps a certain amount of charity; a more ruthless one would just turn them out.

  2. Those labourers who were more mobile, and contracted out their labour usually every year. These were the 'hired men' and 'hired women', who crop up frequently in novels about the period (e.g. those of Thomas Hardy). It was the normal custom for hiring to be done once a year, at Michaelmas (29 September), the place of hiring almost always being a country fair, or, less often, a market. The fairs were frequently called 'hiring fairs' (although other business and sales would also be transacted), and they were common throughout the county (eg. 25 were held in 1762). 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 (and, in the case of girls, probably their attractiveness as well!). They would then be questioned about their skills and abilities, their previous employment and their liabilities (which might well include wives and children).

  3. Finally, there would be a bargaining of sorts regarding a wage - with the obvious proviso that in hard times the labourer had no bargaining power, but in good times, or in areas where labour was scarce, they were at a premium.

In the early decades of the 19th century, agriculture was frequently depressed and rural poverty great, so bargaining was less feasible. Skilled workers with a particularly useful trade or experience would often hire themselves on this basis because they could demand good wages, and farmers might vie with each other to get the worker they wanted. This was the case quite often with people such as plough-team leaders and very experienced cowmen. It seems that some of the most highly valued jobs (those involved in handling livestock the teamsman who looked after the horses, the yardsman who cared for the cattle and the shepherd) often had a cottage made available to them.

However, during the latter part of the 18th century and into the 19th century, the trend was away from the annual 'hiring fairs', towards a more casual engagement of workers. This was usually on a daily or weekly basis, with no pay on wet days. Later, during the Victorian era, with farm sizes increased, farmers could no longer manage with just family and some yearly engaged 'live-in' servants. Farmers needed more labour and greater flexibility in employment, and agricultural labourers (like their industrial counterparts the factory workers) found themselves entirely at the mercy of their employers, who could reduce their pay whenever prices for their farm products dropped.

Wages for the least secure, most poorly skilled or least experienced farm workers were very low. The struggle for existence can best be illustrated by the loss in value of wages. In a fifty year period in the late 18th century, wages rose by only 25 per cent but the cost of living increased by 60 per cent.

Labourers were in a weak bargaining position due to the over-population from which Norfolk was suffering. Wages were usually low, and were not infrequently paid in the form of goods or food, or the labourer was allowed a small plot of land to raise vegetables and perhaps to keep a pig or two. The pig was fattened and then killed in the late autumn, to he salted or smoked as a source of meat through the winter and early spring. Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure gives a very vivid and convincing account of such a pig-killing, and this was one of the major events in the calendar of most rural families. Everything would be used skin, bristles, bones, every scrap of meat, blood (made into puddings with oatmeal and herbs), etc. Wages also varied enormously between periods of plenty and periods of scarcity, and the 1820s and 1830s were, in general, a time of low wages in East Anglia. This was particularly so in these counties because the woolen industry was in a state of rapid decline, as the great textile areas of northern England flourished. With alternative employment not readily available, it led to an excess of agricultural workers.

The conditions of the agricultural labourer reached a very low ebb by 1815, but things got worse. The end of the wars meant that many ex-soldiers were unemployed. Grain prices fell and farmers lowered wages; a landowner-dominated Parliament passed the Corn Laws, which prevented the import of grain until the price of English wheat reached 80 shillings a quarter.

It is not surprising, therefore that discontent, fuelled by steep rises in the prices of bread and flour during the post-Napoleonic wars depression, led to violence. Rioting occurred in 1816, (see the Littleport Riot page), with the anger directed at property, machinery in particular. Ricks (stacks of hay, corn or peas, often thatched [roofed with straw] for weather protection) were burned and threshing machines broken. The latter were depriving labourers of valuable winter employment and consequently were much hated. Further rioting broke out in 1830 as again farm workers demanded rises in wages and the abolition of threshing machines, twenty-nine of which were smashed.

Steadily an outward movement, abroad, occurred, generally the more able and younger people who emigrated. On estates where the demand for labour exceeded the cottage accommodation, gangs of workers were brought in from elsewhere. They came from other villages, which were not controlled by the one landlord where speculators erected rows of poor cottages and charged exorbitant rents because of the shortage of housing. Labourers from these villages would often travel quite a distance to where the work was offering and be formed into work gangs by 'gang masters'. These organisers could offer such gangs for hire to farmers to do various types of work such as weeding, potato digging and turnip hoeing.

Farm Work

While the steady introduction of an increasing range and quality of machinery was an irreversible trend from the early 1800s, there was resistance to their use (as previously described), by the large numbers of farm labourers who feared the inevitable loss of work and income. But the work they had using the traditional methods was arduous, long, repetitive and not always regular. For example, before the drill method of sowing turnips became the norm, they were sown broadcast or fleet on the ground. When the seed was sown by hand the sower had a small seed-bowl on his chest: this was secured by a leather band which went round his neck. He took the small seed between his finger and thumb and sowed in step; that is, as his left foot came up, his left hand dipped into the seed bowl and scattered the seed. It was a skilled job to sow with both hands and keep in step, as the rhythm could very easily be broken. If this happened the sower would have to stop and start again as a break in the rhythm meant a blank patch in the sowing. Few men, too, could judge the amount of seed to sow at each pinch of the thumb and forefinger. Turnip seed was sown at the rate of half a pint an acre and if the sower dug too deeply into his bowl with his thumb and forefinger he would not make his seed last. Not more than one or two men on each farm could sow at the necessary rate with two hands. Most men were only able to sow with one. This was necessarily slower, but the sower who used one hand only was able to carry a seed-hod - a bigger container - on one side of his body. Clover and mustard were sown in the same way as turnips. When the turnips came up, it would be some time during the harvest; and the men would be set to hoe in the early morning before breakfast when the dag or dew would still be on the corn. They would likewise hoe turnips when a damp or wet day compelled them to make a break in the harvesting. It was a hard job hoeing plants that grew from broadcast seed, and they would have to hoc twice; the second time to cut out the knots or concentration of plants and the weeds that had grown since the first hoeing.

Traditionally, the method of harvesting the grain crop was by hand, using a sickle. By 1850 the scythe had replaced the sickle. An 1843 description of harvest describes the activities and methods:

    Thirty-four men mow the wheat and in order to lay it evenly their scythes are fitted with cradles made of iron rods. These men are each followed by two women ...... and a boy or girl to gather up the corn into small sheaves. Eight teamsmen ..... follow to shock up the sheaves of which they place ten in a shock ...... 300 acres of wheat is cut in six days. Carting takes a further eight. Eighteen to 20 days are needed to complete the harvest.

The women mentioned previously, were usually the wives of the harvest workers and were called gavellers. Their job was to rake the mown corn into gavels or rows ready for tying into sheaves, or for carting if left loose. Barley was often left 'on the gavel'.

The stubbles are dew-raked by men drawing a long iron-toothed rake. A tool called a shack-fork a fork with curved tines and an iron bow at the shoulder was used to gather the swathes of barley into gavels ready for pitching onto the wagons. A gaveller worked behind each wagon feeding the corn to two men one on each side of the wagon who did the pitching while another two men on top of the load received the corn and arranged it evenly. The man paid the gaveller about a shilling a day: if she had a young child to look after at the same time, she would have to manage as best she could.

Men, women, lads, boys and girls all worked in the fields and each had certain jobs and set wages.

'What was the difference between a boy and a lad'? ...... the lad got more money than the boys: he was, in fact, older and would not he called a lad until he had left school. While he was still at school he was a boy ...... until he was seventeen or eighteen 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. He did very light jobs during the harvest: taking the loaded wagons to the stack yard; or (drag-work, leading a horse with the drag-rake. The horses he handled would he the staid old jobbing horses that had lost all their sprightliness after long years of hard ploughing. When a lad was sixteen or seventeen he was taken on as a three-quarter man, getting three-quarters of a man's wages. He did all the Jobs a full-man did except pitching, the handling of the sheaves of corn from the ground on to the wagon the heaviest job of all. A three-quarter man was usually stationed on top of the load. Boys and girls who were still at school were usually taken on at fixed wages. They had various jobs: they helped with the turnip hoeing. They carried the elevenses and fourses - the men's snacks at eleven in the morning and four in the afternoon into the fields; some of the boys would lead the wagon horses and both boys and girls would be employed as bind pullers. The bind-puller worked with a tier-up, the man or the woman who came after the reaper and tied the corn into sheaves. When the cradle or horns attachment was used with the scythe it would leave the wheat or oats, that had been cut, leaning against the standing corn; the tier-up put his foot underneath a bunch of corn to help him lift it into his arms. The boy or girl who was acting as his bind-puller would, in the meantime, have pulled out three or four ears of corn from a bunch lying somewhere near and would be ready to hand these to the tier when he was ready to make his knot ...... Boys, moreover, meant a lower wage bill.

After the corn was cut and carted it was stored in huge wooden eighteenth-century barns for storing and processing. Farmers liked to keep most of their crop indoors rather than stacking it in a yard. In spite of constant improvements to the design of threshing machines and its increasingly widespread use, on many farms in the 1840s the crop was still being hand-flailed, a handy activity for otherwise idle hands in the winter. The threshing was done on the middle-stead, the middle of the barn, the floor of which was paved with clay-daub (dab) which was clay beaten down until it became as hard as concrete. The threshing was done with a flail, or frail, which had an ash handle with a swivel on top. The part that struck the corn was called the swingel and was made of tough wood, like holly or blackthorn. It was attached to the swivel on the handle by thongs of snakeskin, or eel-skin using a knot of special design.

When using the flail the thresher swung the handle over his shoulder and brought down the swingel across the straw just below the ears so that the grains of corn were shaken out without being bruised.

Great skill was needed to use the flail consistently effectively - it was very easy for an inexperienced thresher to hit himself on the back of the neck. While the threshing was being done the big double doors at one end of the barn and the single door at the other end were opened to allow the through draught to blow away the dust. After the threshing was completed the sievers job was to separate the cavings from the grain and chaff, the grain being piled at one side of the middle stead. A scuppit (a wooden casting shovel) was then used to throw the grain high in the air, the heavy grains falling furthest away and the lighter ones dropping short forming a kind of tail.

One of the skills that had the highest acclaim in the East Anglian countryside under the old farm economy was the ability to draw or plough a straight furrow and lay a level stetch (a section of ploughed land) so that it looked like a well-made length of corduroy. ...... So great was the interest in ploughing a well-finished stetch with mathematically straight furrows, ..... and, so keen was the rivalry between various horsemen that, even after they had spent most of an autumn day ploughing an acre or so in the field, they would spend the rest of it ploughing the land over once again in the cosiness of the inn bar . . . All farm workers were labourers with that term's implication of unskilled and unintelligent toil; and that label stuck to them until recent years. And it must be admitted that the low level of wages the farm-worker received appeared to the uninformed, justification enough for not changing their image of him. But the farm-worker was practised in numerous skills as well as ploughing and drilling...

These other skills included stacking, thatching, hedging, ditching, and looking after the horses (with no vet to call on).


The inn was the social centre of the village. In the clubroom members of the local benefit society held their monthly club night and their annual dinner. In the skittles yard adjoining there were amusements for those whom enclosures had deprived of large open spaces. Farmers and tradesmen met in the bar to discuss political, social and economic questions with each other and with the landlord who, since he had seen service in gentlemen's houses, spoke with an authority that must have been annoying to the less pretentious among his customers. Here there was contact with the world beyond the village, through travellers' gossip over a glass of beer and, later, through the newspapers that appeared on the table. Labourers, who could talk more freely in the absence of their masters, preferred the taproom or the kitchen unless they went to a more humble establishment, the beershop. This was brought into existence by the Beer Act (1830); it was a room in or attached to a cottage - small, ill-ventilated, and probably not very clean. The landlord was frequently an ambitious man with few ideas beyond making money out of his customers, who were poor and not too critical of their surroundings. On the edges of commons, in remote hamlets, and on the outskirts of villages, wherever a few cottages made trade in beer seem profitable, there appeared a beershop.

Beershops were believed to be the cause of wretchedness and crime among the agricultural population. It is unnecessary to describe the misery of the habitual drunkard's home. There were ne'er-do-wells in most open villages, and more in the hovels that clustered round the commons. The beershop provided an easy way of escape from the difficulties of life for those ruined by economic conditions, or by their own psychological weakness, but was not in itself the cause of their ruin. Poachers, thieves, and incendiaries were believed to resort there for the purpose of corrupting the labourer's morals. This may have been true, but the labourer did not go there to be instructed in crime. He went, as his betters went to their clubs, for good company. Unfortunately beer cost more than he could really afford. A bundle of wood, a few turnips, a hare, or a rabbit helped reduce his debt to the landlord. In the eyes of the magistrates, these may have been stolen goods, but the labourer considered that custom gave him the right to prerequisites, and he refused to consider ground game the property of the landowners. Unless he were convicted of theft or poaching and suffered the degradation of imprisonment in the county gaol, it is unlikely that the average man developed any further criminal tendencies.

Owners of Land

The holder, and the size of the holding, of land can be found in the various Returns of Owners of Land. The 'extent of lands' refers to the size in acres, roods and perches. The UK now officially uses hectares to measure agricultural land, but most of us who work in the agricultural field still think in acres. (1 hectare = 2.471 acres).

A standardised rood was 40 square rods or perches, a rod or perch being a measure of 16.5 feet/5.5 yards. The names rod and perch derive from a standard rod or pole used for marking out. There were 4 roods in an acre. These very small measures are a remnant of medieval farming, where everyone cultivated very small strips within large open fields, and very accurate reckoning of small plots was essential. The cash amount listed is the (estimated) gross annual rental value of the land. It should be remembered when looking for small farmers and husbandmen in these lists that very few of them owned their own land in the nineteenth century, the great majority being tenants of the larger land owners.


The average agricultural worker was itinerant and relied on work being available. As the Industrial Revolution hit and mechanisation crept in it was necessary for these workers to seek alternative employment. The appeal of the new lands mainly in America and Australia lured many workers overseas.

This migration was at its highest from the mid to the end of the 19th century.

Land grants in America were very attractive aimed at opening up the centre of the country.

Travel to Australia was almost "free" in so much as the fare paid for emigrating was so subsidised it was minimal. Agricultural labourers were in great demand in Australia at the time and were encouraged to emigrate at relatively low fares. Some were indentured to land holders who paid the fares in exchange for a certain period of labour. Employers preferred single men but even those with many children readily found work at vastly improved wages to England. They could also live off the land - hunting at will; in England this would have been classed as "poaching". They often selected land of their own which would have been impossible in England.

There are records of many voyages - usually the Doctor, Matron, Captain, School Master, etc. made reports at the end of the voyage; conditions varied. Newspapers often carried accounts of the voyage shortly after the ship's arrival.

Another cause of dissent and division was religion. There was a lot of feeling against the Established Church which, to labourers, seemed to support those in power. The local minister was often also the magistrate! For this reason, the lower classes flocked to the dissenting religions (eg. Methodists) which promoted a more equal lifestyle. Various branches of my family were divided over this and Weston Colville experienced various religious disturbances around the 1850s.

Within the England a further lure was to the new, industrial areas of the Midlands, North West and West Yorkshire. Whole families packed up and left for a new life in these areas. Many families in East Lancashire originate from the Fens. There are examples of agents representing the cotton interests of Lancashire actively negotiating with Parish officials in Cambs to arrange for workers to be shipped to the mill towns which then took them off parish relief. These journeys were made possible by an improved railway network, the push of desperate conditions for the poor in and the pull of regular work in the North.


Another cause of dissent and division was religion. There was a lot of feeling against the Established Church which, to labourers, seemed to support those in power. The local minister was often also the magistrate! For this reason, the lower classes flocked to the dissenting religions (eg. Methodism) which promoted a more equal lifestyle. Many areas experienced various religious disturbances during the 19th century.

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Last Updated on: 16 August 1999
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