Audio Recordings: Life of the Farm Worker 1780-1940

Life of the Farm Worker 1780-1940

This is a recording of a talk given to the society in October 1986 by Richard Garne. [ Programme here ]

Though the material in Dick’s talk is occasionally quite shocking and a depressing reminder of the lot of farmworkers in England over time, it starts and ends on jocular notes with illustrations of a perhaps typical knowing, self-deprecating humour.

We start with the premiss that agricultural work is never simple and has always been skilled. The talk concentrates on the Cotswold area, as there are national differences, beyond the scope of a talk which concentrates on the Midlands and the South.

The arc of the talk follows the changing status of the farm labourer, who, though always poor in terms of income and assets, was fated by history to become alienated and victimised by the changing economic model in English agriculture over time.

We start with the time before enclosures. There were enormous fields, roads were tracks, fewer trees. No separate farms, no farmhouses and cottages dotted about. Life centred around the village. A mere 9 million population, with little travelling between villages. This obtained till around 1780. In those previous 60 years development was gradual. There were “agriculturalists” and “peasants”, with a mutually beneficial hierarchy. There was no real connection with the class structure in towns. Young men took on work for board and lodging, and not necessarily money. There was poverty, but there was a settled social system, which became turned upside down with the arrival of enclosures.

Enclosures were a solution created by the agriculturalists and landowners who could see that no economic improvements were possible with huge fields being shared in a system which had an efficiency ceiling.

The talk reminds us that by 1850, through gradual Acts of Parliament, the whole of England was split by landowners into individual farms with tenant farmers and labourers with their own few acres in a monetised system. It was the individuals who were accustomed to handling money who gained most from these changes.

The big difference was that there was no longer common grazing land – the loss of common rights for looking after animals. Labourers – “peasants” – now had rights only to a few acres, which could not provide a sustainable living without the rights to common land. Inevitably this meant the sale of these smaller acreages, and so the loss of the old structures into a new world of hire and reward for the vast majority.

This was happening at the time of the French Revolution, and there was fear in the ruling classes on the possibility of revolution, and meantime food prices were increasing as wages were kept low. Efforts to enforce a national minimum wage met with problems of enforcement, eventually driving people to poaching as a necessary means of survival.

Harrowing stories of examples made of hangings and transportations, and observations of the increasingly class-based social hierarchy caused by these changes during these years, including the government actions to create the institution of workhouses.

Further alienation of the labouring class came with the invention of the threshing machine. This meant that winter work in threshing barns was threatened. Resistance came as individual banded together to smash the machines as an act of defiance, such defiance which was of course brutally suppressed by threat of transportation and hanging.

The talk covers the depression from 1875 onwards due to easy imports of grain, and later of wool, which was not helped in by changes in weather patterns in the late 1870s, causing disease in livestock. This, coupled with a continued laissez-faire attitude to the governing classes which stymied the wages of farm workers as late as the 1940s, bringing a state of decay in the landscape.

In the context of these developments, the talk also covers the developments towards the creation of the Agricultural Workers Union in 1872, in particular the story of Joseph Arch, the Wesleyan preacher who was able to create a pushback against the Landowning class as he himself was a freeholder, and skilled craftsman with his own income. We learn that it was men such as this who were able to effect political, if not economic changes, to protect the rights of the English farm labourer.