Agricultural Labourers: stepping out from the shadows

Ploughing 20th century photo

Three decades or so ago, many family historians would have felt a tinge of disappointment to discover their ancestors were agricultural labourers. Possibly because those working within the farming industry of the 18th, 19th and to some extent the early 20th century, were thought to have barely left a footprint in the available records.

Today, we still acknowledge it is true there are very few personal records left by ancestors, who did not have access to education until the end of the 19th century, and at best Sunday school learning from the early part of the Victorian era.

We now know that we can expect to find them in estate records if they worked on a large farm, should those records still exist, and that we may find them in the Bawdy Courts for ‘sinful’ misdemeanours from 17th century to the end of the 18th century, or in depositions in the chancery courts. Perhaps above all else, they are some of the most likely candidates to appear in poor law records.

Many family historians though are guilty of ignoring context, demographics, and social studies when trying to picture their ancestors. They should be asking ‘if my ancestors’ lives are not covered by the available documentation, what about other people’s ancestors? And if I discover them, what do they tell me about my own ancestors?’

Choosing your context carefully

It is a method which needs great care, for we can say for certain that not all life experiences are the same.

The life and times of one farm worker from the North Riding with a wife and five children may not be exactly the same as another from Suffolk with a wife and three children. If journal articles inform us of possible nutritional deficiencies in a late 19th century worker’s diet, with the susceptibilities to certain illnesses, then we must make allowances for environment and genes. If they describe a family in two-room accommodation and our ancestors lived in a four-room cottage, then we must adapt our thinking and be flexible about how we perceive our ancestors’ lives based on studies. It is necessary to use those studies though, if an image of a time gone by is to be drawn.

Further to this, is the oft repeated idea that the situations of live-in single farm workers were all the same. They were not, there were regional differences, sometimes within the same county. On larger farms in Northumberland and Durham, it was often the practice to hire all members of a family who would then live on the farm, though not in the farmhouse. In Lancashire, farmers with smallholdings hired sons and daughters of social equals and they would share the farmhouse ‘as part of a life-cycle movement.’ This system was probably the most prevalent and seen in other regions and one could possibly argue that despite Northumberland and Durham having their own system, it may not have been unknown in those counties too.

In the East Riding, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, and North Wales there was a system of hiring young, unmarried men to live ‘either in ‘barracks’ on the farm, over the stable or sharing with the foreman.

The Northumberland and Durham practice engendered a feeling of closeness and being part of a clan between the farmer, his family, and the worker. The East Riding system led to loose morals and a lack of respect ‘for the social order and one’s betters.’

‘Life-cycle’ workers

These single ‘life-cycle’ workers were hired annually at hiring fairs and their board was part of their annual wage. It gave some individuals the opportunity to save for the next stage of their life:

‘He is often better housed and fed than his own father and mother. But it must be remembered that his comparative comfort only lasts while he is single. Marriage is a desperate risk. It is risky even when he has saved something towards the furnishing of a cottage or the purchase of a pig – and is allowed to keep a pig and fortunate enough to find a cottage. But as one north-country labourer put it, ‘the farm man who marries without having saved anything is done.

And how could he save when he had to send money home to his indigent parents and assistance for his younger siblings? It would have been with great difficulty. As his parents aged, they would have become less useful to the farmer and his father may have been ‘let go’ because of advancing years or sickness. His mother may have only worked occasionally and probably during the hay harvest which lasted less then two weeks. To survive they may have been reliant on assistance from their children and charitable gifts.

Starting young…

The live-in farm servant, trying to save for his rainy day marriage and offspring, may have begun his farm working life with his family from the age of five (depending on when he was born in the century) and it may have finished when he was in his 80s. He would have reached his peak at around thirty to thirty-five years of age when he was strong enough for shepherding, ditching, hedging, and thatching etc., skills he may have learnt from his father and not by formal training.

If he had other skills such as gardening, husbandry, or working as a woodsman he would have been paid more, and if he lived in the northern counties he would have been paid more due to the industrial drain from the countryside to the cities where there were better paid factory/mill jobs. Not only that, but Rowntree and Kendall observe ‘there are scarcely any labourers not in charge of animals’ in Northumberland and Durham. To be skilled with an animal brought healthier returns.

‘Haymakers’ by George Stubbs courtesy of Tate Britain


The wages of farm workers were periodically recorded throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Figures can be found on many an Internet blog, but rarely with caveats. It is necessary to consider there were differences between live-in wages and the pay of casual day or seasonal labourers. The former may have lived in a cottage on the farmer’s land and the rent may have been deducted from their weekly gross pay. They may have received extra wages during harvest time (about 3s. of their average weekly wage was harvest payment) and were often given payments in kind for beer, milk or meat on a weekly basis. Early in the 20th century, Rowntree and Kendall noted that men who were often given beer (frequently offered during the summer months), took a cash payment instead.

As well as taking into consideration any deductions or extras included in the average wage, wages differed from county to county and within a county. It was found that the range could be from 14s. to 17s. per week. In Durham and Northumberland the range was higher at 21s. 6d. to 22s. 6d.

A further caveat to consider is that the quoted average wages only apply ‘to able-bodied male adults in regular employment and excludes bailiffs, foremen, and stewards, as well as the old, sick, casual labourers, women and young persons.’

When looking at how far such a wage would go, Rowntree and Kendall came to the conclusion that it was not enough ‘to maintain a family of average size in a state of merely physical efficiency.’ And for his wage what was expected of the agricultural labourer?

Quoting the Board of Trade, Rowntree and Kendall notes ‘the hours of labour of ordinary labourers during the summer months are usually 11 or 12 per day, with intervals of 1½ to 2 hours for meals; in a few cases the working time on Saturdays is slightly reduced, but this in not general. In winter the working time is generally limited by the hours of daylight.’

It was not always possible to make the most of the daylight hours. In August 1912, Mr. C. Roden Buxton observed, ‘I have recently been down to Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire, and I found that in many villages the wages of the agricultural labourers were 10s., 11s., and 12s. per week, and they have to lose time in wet weather. Hundreds of them have gone home at the weekend during the winter months with only 8s. for the week…’

Sketch by George Morland © The Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

In such circumstances, families had to rely on charitable gifts or apply for parish relief.

If they were fortunate enough to have a garden or land to work, they benefited from produce which could be served at the dinner table. However, following the parliamentary enclosures of the 1830s, common land was in short supply and the development of allotments was a slow process. While there were very few for the first half of the 19th century, by 1848 there were approximately 2000 parishes with allotments, but this was still less than one-sixth of the parishes in the country.

Testimonies from the shadows…

For their 1917 work, Rowntree and Kendall interviewed a number of working families in England. While they did not speak to those in the far north, there were several case studies of interest for the North and East Ridings. In particular the Arthurs who lived in two ‘comfortable’ rooms with their three children. Aside from the living areas, a kitchen and bedroom, they did have a washhouse and a pantry-cum-scullery. The main rooms were without carpet save for a hearthrug and a small rug made of of clippings and sacking by Mrs Arthur. The house was clean and the walls were papered. The kitchen was furnished with five wooden chairs, including a high-chair, a stool, and a wooden cradle. And the mantelpiece had two old vases and a clock.

The bedroom, which was shared by all, contained two large bedsteads. The first was occupied by the parents and baby, the second by two children. There was no privacy for the parents.

The father had worked for the same farmer for nine years during the winter and summer and received 9s. a week, paid fortnightly, and his food. The latter comprised of three meals with bacon for breakfast and tea, or supper, at 6pm; beef or mutton for dinner with apple pies, dumplings, and ‘sad-cakes.’

The father works hard for his wage, from 6 am to 6 pm, and also on Sundays. He has an hour off for dinner, but under a quarter of an hour for breakfast. ‘In summer he has to milk twice a day, and “fodder t’ stock” at dinner-time. In the winter there is a sheepfold to look after, and Sunday is nearly as hard as any other day.’ According to a sympathetic villager, Arthur had taken just three days’ holiday in 9 years and one of those days was because he was sick.

Mrs Arthur worked hard, ‘making, mending, washing, cleaning, and baking,’ but as all wives were meant to be consummate house-keepers, she was regarded as somewhat less talented at budgeting and planning her household.

If the grocery budget was in arrears, she baked more bread and used fewer vegetables; alternatively, the family lived on turnips, carrots or potatoes which Mr. Arthur grew in their garden. He often worked into the long evenings on the garden after a full day’s work.

Mrs Arthur found life a strain due to their debts: £1 1s. 6d. for shoes, 5s. at one grocers and about 4s., at another; 2s. for towels acquired during her last pregnancy and doctors bills for 26s. She was 26 years old, overworked and undernourished:

‘But I isn’t a rogue, look yer, an’ if I had t’ money I wadn’t get things wi’out payin’. I ain’t bowt meat nor bacon for weeks an’ weeks. I get a bit o’ lard and meeak some sad-cakes for t’ childer an’ mysen. I feel as if I mun hae sumethin’ I can eat, an’ it saves t’ butter. He [Mr Arthur] never bites at home – nobbut a drink o’ tea – he’d think it would be takkin’ it oot of our mooths. But t’ kids is that ‘ungry, I tell yer, they’d eat me up if I was meat an’ bread an’ stuff – they would, I’se sewer! I told a man I owes two shillings would ‘e take five kids instead. But he said he niver took ’em by less ner t’ awf-dozen!’

For the harvest they received £1, but it was not enough to wipe away their arrears. Some money went to the farmer for insurance and other money for the weekly half-pound of butter; 12s. went for rent, but nothing was left for clothing – they had to make do with other people’s ‘cast-offs.’

They received gifts from family members and acquaintances. Curds from Mrs Arthur’s mother, 2s. from her brother. An acquaintance paid for a pint of milk daily.

The Arthurs’ weekly expenditure in the winter of 1912:

s. d.
1 lb. Sugar . . . .0 2
½ lb. Butter . . . .0 6½
1 cwt. Coal . . . .1 3
¼ lb. Tea . . . .0 4½
1 lb. Treacle . . . .0 2½
1 ½ stones flour . . . .2 7½
2 oz. Yeast . . . .0 1½
Salt . . . .0 0½
¾ lb. Lard . . . .0 5½
Soap, soda . . . .0 2
Matches . . . .0 0½
Paraffin . . . .0 1½
Baking powder . . . .0 1¼
¼ lb. Ground rice . . . .0 0¾
Rent (weekly) . . . .1 11
Tobacco . . . .0 5½
Insurance . . . .0 4
9 0

Home produce consumed during the week

8 lbs. potatoes and 7½ lbs. of turnips

Gifts consumed during the week

¼ lb. butter, 7 pints of whole milk, 1lb. curds, cod’s head


SUNDAYTea with milk (no sugar), sad-cakes, cheesecake, bread and butter.Turnips and potatoes.Tea and milk, curd cheesecake.Tea, bread and butter, sad-cake.
MONDAYTea and milk, cheesecake, bread and butter.Turnips and potatoes.Tea and milk, bread and butter, sad-cake, cheesecake.Tea, bread and butter, cheesecake.
TUESDAYBread and treacle, tea with milk, cheesecake.Tea, bread and treacle.Tea, sad-cake and treacle, cheesecake.Tea, bread and treacle.
WEDNESDAYTea, bread and treacle, sad-cake and treacle.Turnips and potatoes.Tea, bread and treacle.Tea, bit of dry sad-cake.
THURSDAYTea, milk-powder cakes.Cod’s head and potatoes.Tea, dry powder cakes.Tea.
FRIDAYTea and cakes with butter.Sad-cakes with butter, tea.Tea and milk, hot sad-cake and cheesecake.None
SATURDAYTea and milk, bread and treacle, cheesecake.Sad-cakes and treacle, tea.Tea, bread and treacle, curd cheesecake.Tea, bread and butter.

The father never ate at home, just a cup of tea at supper, and on Sundays a piece of bread and butter.


A contemporary study of the Arthurs’ diet found they were deficient in protein. Further to this, in 2013, authors Gazeley and Horrell, studied Rowntree and Kendall’s general findings for England and Wales. Taking into consideration how food was prepared, they estimated anaemia and fatigue was endemic among young and pregnant women which would have affected their ability to work and resistance to disease.

Scurvy, while no longer as widespread as it once was, would have still been present, as well as vitamin D deficiency, the latter potentially causing complications for women in delivery at childbirth. Those susceptible to vitamin D deficiency were individuals living in smoggy industrial cities and working in mills and factories. The rural out-door worker was less likely to suffer vitamin D related illnesses such as rickets.

Such was the problem with vitamin D deficiency, ‘the infantry was forced to lower the minimum height for recruits from 5ft 6 inches to 5ft 3 inches’ in 1883. Eighteen years later the height was reduced to 5 ft. During the Boer War, it was noticed that the better nourished middle and upper class officers were on average a full head taller than privates from the working classes.

Vitamin A deficiency was also probably prevalent with the first symptom being night blindness, which later turns to complete blindness. It is also another factor in maternal mortality, and in a child’s susceptibility to childhood illnesses such as measles.

The genealogist, familiar with infant mortality and causes of death, is aware of the condition known as ‘marasmus’ seen on childhood death certificates. This illness, associated with wasting and poor muscle development was caused by protein deficiency.

When comparing the Arthurs’ situation to other North Riding labouring families, there are some differences: a few instances of higher levels of protein in the diet (though not clear if this was purely for the father); the use of additional ingredients for meals including cocoa, syrup, beef, sausages, eggs, liver, dumplings, porridge, and coffee; more work opportunities, most notably because the farmer was a better businessman and required piecework for other projects; and the ability to work for other farmers, once work for their regular farmer was completed. Such differences may have meant better lives and better health for one family than for another.

For genealogists, attempting to contextualise our ancestors using the available background sources, it seems it is necessary to acknowledge that not all agricultural labourers had begun their farm service as live-in labourers. That those who did, would not have experienced the same system across the country; that there were skilled individuals, but not everyone had the same skills. That diet, housing, and work opportunities differed from family to family and from village to village.

While acknowledging the differences, there is a noticeable thread that runs through all the accounts of labouring life and all the surveys, which is, that for most of the 19th century, the labouring family’s cross was a heavy one to bear, and life for the individual consisted of doing whatever they could to survive.

(C) 2011-2022 Mish J Holman. Do not reproduce without permission.


Bowley, Arthur Lyon. (1900) Wages in the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. : accessed 19 July 2019.

Burnette, Joyce (2006) How skilled were English agricultural labourers in the early nineteenth century? Economic History Review, 59(4). pp. 688-716. : accessed 19 July 2019

Clayton, Paul and Rowbotham, Judith. (2009) How the Mid-Victorians Worked, Ate and Died. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 6(3). pp. 1235 – 1252. : accessed 19 July 2019.

Eden, Frederick Morton. (1797) The state of the poor… London: J. Davis, for B. & J. White [etc.]. : accessed 20 July 2019.

Gazeley, Ian and Horrell, Sarah. (2013) Nutrition in the English agricultural labourer’s household over the course of the long nineteenth century. The Economic History Review. 66(3). pp. 757 – 784. : accessed 20 July 2019.

Howkins, Alun. (1990) Labour history and the rural poor, 1850 – 1980. Rural History. 1(1). p. 113 – 122. : accessed 20 July 2017.

Rowntree, B. Seebohm. and Kendall, May. (1917) How the labourer lives, a study of the rural labour problem. London: T. Nelson and sons. : accessed 20 July 2017.

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