Family History

These jottings have helped me to understand my many ancestors who were ag labs. I would welcome any corrections or additions. Pleas e-mail

Harvest In farming communities there has always been celebrations connected with bringing in the harvest. The present Anglican harvest festival was it is believed started in 1843 by Revd Robert hawker of Morwenstow Cornwall in order to bring sobriety to festivities which go back to pre-Christian times associated with the equinox. This would be the second harvest or Lammas – the first Lammas being when very first corn crops were cut early August. It could have involvde sacrifice of best stock (then salted for the winter) and blood spread on the earth as early fertiliser. The green man was venerated and his image occurs in many medieval rural churches. By the Middle Ages lords of manors rewarded workers at harvest, the reapers were given a full sheaf for each half-acre harvested but those who bound bales were only paid for each individual bale bound. As they could reduce the size of the bales in order to do more the landlords began regulating the length of string for each stook (see for more information on this). The final sheaf cut was known by a variety of names – the neck, the dolly, the mare, the old woman, the young wife. Supposedly it gave the person cutting it bad luck so to avoid this one ritual was for all to throw their sickles at the same time.

One common medieval custom was ‘calling the mair’ – teams competing to finish first – the last sheaf would be bound in ribbons and tossed over into field where others were still working – calling mair mair (more more). This continued until one team was left who would have to display the sheaf for a year. Many rituals associated with harvest continued until World war I including appointing a lord of the harvest to oversee celebrations and bring in the last stook. Another custom was gleaning whereby the poor were allowed to pick up any loose ears etc which they turned into flour by using primitive grinding stones called ‘querns’

During harvest the farmer would usually provide refreshments for his workers and at the end of harvest give them a big meal, which frequently lead to much drunkenness!

Working conditions

An agricultural labourer might typically work 12 hours a day in summer and all daylight hours in winter, in fact sun up until sun down. The average wage in 1911 was14s a week. Boys started 10 throughout most of the 19th century and even after compulsory education was introduced could be released from school early to do a bit of bird scaring etc. My great grandfather in the 1850s in the Sussex village of Heyshott started work at 8 or 9 bird scaring, sheep watching and stone picking. It was common for ploughboys to be aged around 10.

Into the 19th century work was obtained at annual hiring fairs, the bargain sealed by a small sum known as ‘fastening money’. Single men and women were usually hired for a year or six months and lived in. Some married men did this too, and I have an example John Steer in my own family. They might be hired for a day less than a year, so that they couldn’t claim the right to settlement (and therefore be able to claim relief) in the parish they had moved to. In the north of England and Scotland the term ‘hind’ applied to a married man in charge of pair of ploughing horses. He would be given a cottage rent free for a year – so was well interviewed!- usually work began Whitsun or Michaelmas (27/9) the wife and children were expected to assist with harvest, potato picking, herding cattle , milking etc. Most received perks too, it could be coal or some livestock for the labourers own use, though any calves born remained the property of the landowner. I do not think in the south such a system applied, although much of the practice would be similar. I would like to know more about hiring practices, especially in my own county of Sussex.

The fairs could be boisterous; a time for enjoyment especially for the young, who took advantage of being able to meet the opposite sex. A person looking to be hired would often carry something denoting their particular skill, a milkmaid a milking stool, shepherd a crook etc.


Most farms usually had an upper hand or chief servant sometimes called bailiff, shepherd or cowherd and perhaps a dairy maid. Other agricultural labouring specialists were hurdlers, sheep shearers, stone pickers, dry stone wallers and carters.

Smaller farmers used threshing machine communally and hired local labour when needed, often these farmers themselves had a second profession such as running a public house, which was also a job for many farmers’ widows

During the 19th century the cottages of agricultural labourers improved, for example they came to have permanent floors covered with rugs rather than dirt floors. Many estates in Sussex built new estate cottages for their workers. However outside privies and no bathrooms were still the norm.



My farming ancestors had to adapt to change throughout the ages. Some of the highlights

Roman Britain – new crops including carrots, parsnips, walnuts, vines. The Normans introduces rabbits and of course the potato which became a staple crop in the 18th century

Up to mid 1700s the main equipment was sickles, bill hooks, twine and scythes

Medieval farming system was based on crop rotation & keeping fallow lands

Industrial revolution in the 18th century introduced automation such as Jethro Tulll’s seed drill

Early 19th century land enclosures deprived many agricultural workers of the lands where they could graze their own animals and grow their own crops. Riots took place as steam was introduced. In Sussex these were led in the 1830s by Captain Swing

Victorian era saw the use of steam increased and there was a big movement of agricultural labourers to towns especially during the years of agricultural depressions such as the 1850s and 1870s. Although more than a third of agricultural workers had left land in the last quarter of the 19th century it was still the second highest occupational group in 1911 census. It paid to specialise as the ordinary labourer saw a decline in his income and employment opportunities whereas that of the specialists in say horses and cattle had improved.

Early 1900s was marked by the decline in mixed farming. There was a big demand for milk; nurseries growing market garden crops; potatoes in Lincolnshire, Hertfordshire, Lothianshire & other areas; soft fruits in East Anglia; specialist crops in fens and neighbouring land. My ancestors living in Lancing and Sompting in Sussex changed from being agricultural labourers to market gardeners in the late 19th century

World War I saw the end of many traditions

During the 1940s and 1950s tractors replace horses

Late 20th century saw new crops such as rape oil seed and problems like Dutch elm disease

[Information mainly from Agricultural labourers by Neil Storey Family History Magazine7/09]


The smock which was the typical uniform of the agricultural labourer, certainly in Sussex, in the early 19th century was only seen on a few old men by the end of it.

By 1900 the typical agricultural labourer’s clothing had become a cap with wide crown, heavy cotton collarless shirt, neck scarf, waistcoat and trousers of heavy material like serge, heavy woven worsted or corduroy in shades of green or brown. Leather & canvas buskins were worn but most men fastened their trousers with binder twine to keep out dust dirt and mice. There was always a jacket to hand

Typical day

The day started with dew – cold tea or spring water,bread & cheese occasionally bacon or a boiled egg

The workers reported to the farmyard or an agreed location. The work was often repetitive like chopping out (hoeing a field) but variety came with the seasons from ploughing & spring sowing, sheep shearing to harvesting & lifting roots and over the winter grubbing up hedges, hedging, mending fences gates & walls, banking up roads.

The workers knew their traditional rights for refreshments & breaks and made sure they had them!

‘levenses – cold tea which may even have be taken standing

Nonins – The oldies would chew tobacco kept in their hats, the food would be bread, cheese & onion and apple or pear if in season followed by roll-up fags

Fourses – children might come with billycan of milk sop, milk with bread sometime heated up. At harvest time the farmer would provide beer in stone jar

Pub was frequented in the evening for dominoes & other games etc.