Farm labourers

Extracts from “Rural Life in Victorian England” by G.E. Mingay, Futura Publications 1979. Copyright 1976 Land Humphries publishers Ltd.

[p72/73] “The first men to arrive for work at the beginning of the day were the carters and milkers. They had to be up while the moon still cast a shadow, and at four or five made an early start on feeding the stock and preparing the teams for work before the day labourers came on the scene at six or seven. The carters generally ate their breakfast in the stable, while the milkers, having completed their first work of the day, might go back to their cottages for some hot tea by the fire. The milkers advantage was offset by the conditions in which the milking was often done, squatting on a three-legged stool, in the middle of a puddle in a draughty yard after having brought in the hay through the mud and wet of the fields. The carters often left off work before the day labourers in order to get the horses back and make a start on their feeding and grooming, On the other hand the carter might have to be up in the very early hours if there was an extra load to be taken to the mill or fertilizer to be fetched from a town some miles away. Then he was on the road by two, walking on the near side of the wagon, whip in hand, in his smock and his breeches tied up with whipcord, and a boy or under-carter with him to help… …to load and unload. In severe weather the teams might not go out for fear of poaching the soil, but the horses, like the cattle, had to be fed and attended to every day of the year, holidays not excepted. The extra shilling or two which the carter received at the end of the week hardly compensated for his extra hours and lack of holidays. The shepherds, too, had no regular hours but might be about their flocks at all times of day and night, especially in the lambing season. Perhaps the best-off of the farmworkers was the single day labourer. He enjoyed the shortest hours and the least responsibility, and had his money, little as it was, to himself.

Monotony was the main characteristic of the labourer’s day in the fields, and of course he was always exposed to sun, wind, rain and snow. He might have to walk a mile or two from his cottage, and arrived at work in wet clothes which had to be kept on till he got home. The women engaged in field work were equally exposed to the elements, though their numbers were gradually falling off. Already by the 1880s it was becoming fairly rare to see women at field work in the winter, although some helped tend the threshing machine, spread manure in the meadows – hard, unpleasant work this – or sat long hours in a corner of the field trimming roots from a newly-opened clamp.

[p86] …in the pastoral North it was still common for the farmworker to live in the farmhouse with his master, sharing his table, and sleeping in a garret in the roof.

[p92] Labourers’ usual hours were from six to six in summer with an hour and a half off for meals, and from seven or first light to dusk in winter. Farm servants put in extra hours fetching hay, preparing teams, and tending to the horses and cows, often starting at four or five a.m. These tasks had to be done every day of the week, and Sunday work occupied three or four hours. Whether day labourers were paid in bad weather was a variable matter. In long periods of snow or frost they might not be required at all, but on the occasional days of heavy rain they were often employed in the barn at threshing or other jobs. Part of Sunday, and meal hours in the week if the allotment were handy, would be spent in raising vegetables, but often the allotment or potato ground was as much as a mile or more off and many hours were spent in tramping to and fro.

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