Sunday 15 June 2008

Working Conditions For Farm Labourers

Thomas Davis,
author of The General View Of Agriculture, published in 1811.


Barbara Smith has been researching her family tree and has discovered that most of her ancestors in the villages around Warminster in the late 1700s and early 1800s were farm labourers. She has contacted us to say that although she has, through parish records, been able to find baptisms, marriages and burials, for them, she would like to know something about the working conditions for farm labourers at that time. "Anything you could possibly tell me, would be greatly appreciated," she says.

Danny Howell has replied:

The Warminster And Wylye Valley Society For Local Study has in its archives some printed extracts from The General View Of The Agriculture Of Wiltshire, by Thomas Davis (1811 Edition). The following extracts may help you paint a picture of what it was possibly like for your ancestors:

"The price of labour in agriculture varies considerably in different parts of this county [Wiltshire], and is chiefly affected by proximity to, or distance from, the manufacturing towns. In a great part of South Wiltshire, where the inhabitants are very little influenced by the manufacturers, the prices of labourers in husbandry are nearly uniform; but these prices have been gradually on the advance. Thirty years ago the common winter price was 10d. per day; from that it gradually rose to 18d. per day, which now may be called the general price, though in many instances it has risen to 20d. per day."

"The hours at which labour commences and ceases, vary but little in the two districts. In winter the labourers work, of course, from day-light till dark; in summer, usually from six to six, except in hay-making and harvest, when they are expected to work early and late."

"But the hours of rest are very various. In some parts half an hour is allowed for breakfast, and an hour for dinner; in others, an hour for each meal; and in a few, one only meal of an hour, is allowed (from eleven to twelve) during November, December and January."

"The ploughmen go out at eight o'clock, and return at four, except in times of emergency. The distance of the lands of a Wiltshire farm from home, prevents the custom that is adopted in some counties, of making two journeys a day, and dining between them."

"Wiltshire labourers in general are strong and robust, and not deficient in expertness in what they undertake; in some branches (hurdle and hedge-making, for instance), very engenious; but there is a remarkable slowness in the step, not only of the shepherds, whose laziness is proverbial, but also particularly of the ploughmen, and which they also teach their horses, that is noticed by every person who has seen the labourers of other counties, particularly of Norfolk. The common step of a ploughman and in his horses in the last-mentioned county, is often three miles and an half in an hour. In South Wiltshire frequently little more than two."

"If the quick step of the Norfolk ploughman proceeds from the dryness and cleanness of the sands of that county, it is possible that the dirtiness, and in particular the 'clinginess,' if I may be allowed to use the word, of the Wiltshire white lands, may tend to slacken the step of the Wiltshire ploughman; but on whatever sort of soil this slow step was learnt, it certainly is now practised equally on all."

"Farmers are great sufferers than they imagine by this habitual indolence of their workmen; and it is not only at plough, but in all other kinds of employ, that this indolence is visible; it seems instinctive in the whole district, even in the children."

"Another great cause of the distress of the poor in many parts of this county, and particularly on the Downs, is the scarcity of fuel."

"It is a melancholy fact, that without any particular acts of oppression on the part of the farmers, or of the dissoluteness on the part of the poor, the labourers in many parts of this county, and of the South-east District in particular, may be truly said to be at this time in a wretched condition. The dearness of provisions, the scarcity of fuel, and above all, the failure of spinning-work for the women and children, have put it almost out of the power of the village poor to live by their industry, and have unfortunately broken that independent spirit, which in a very peculiar degree formerly kept the Wiltshire labourers from the parish books. The farmers complain, and with reason, that the labourers do less work than formerly, when in fact the labourers are not able to work as they did at a time when they lived better."