11.11. Types of Work Contract in Different Counties

In some counties, the financial conditions between the farmer and the labourer, or between the landowner and the labourer, were different from the norm in England. In Northumberland many of the better segment of labourers or servants received nearly all their income in kind. 

“Through the greatest part of this county, and especially upon the large farms, there are very few servants kept in the house; seldom more than two men and two maids; but the ploughman, carters, barnmen, shepherds, &c. have each a house and garden, or yard, to themselves, and are generally married. The conditions of servitude for one year are: 

 L. s. d.
2 Cows kept, or money en lieu, at 3l. each  6    0   0
3 Bushels of wheat, … at 5s. per bushel0  15   0
33 Ditto of oats, ……. at 1s. 8d. ditto2  15   0
12 Ditto of barley, …. at 2s. 6d. ditto1  10   0
12 Ditto of rye, …….. at 3s. 4d. ditto2    0   0
10 Ditto of pease, ….. at 3s. 6d. ditto1  15   0
24 lb. of cast wood, … at      6d. per lb.0  12   0
One Bushel of potatoes planted, a pig tethered, 
keeping hens, &c.      2    4   0
Carriage of coals, six cart-loads1    0   0
                                                               In all18  11 0

They are bound to find a woman labourer to work for the following wages; for harvesting 6d. per day; for hoeing turnips, hay-making, scaling, weeding corn, &c. used to be 4d. per day, but was last year raised to 6d. per day.

In addition to the above conditions, the shepherd generally has as many sheep kept as are worth four or five pounds per year; but, if has any under-shepherd to keep to assit him, the number is increased accordingly. In the hilly districts, their sheep sometimes amount to hundreds, besides six or eight neat cattle.

An overseer, or head servant, has, in addition to the above, as much money as to make his place worth from 20l. to 30l. a year.            

Thrashing is mostly done by the piede; a twenty-fifth part of the corn thrashed being the general custom, if the straw be taken away unfolded; but if the thrasher folds the straw, ha has a twenty-first part, and finds a woman to dress the corn, and to work at all other work, for the same wages as the others; he has straw for his cow in Winter, but pays for her Summer’s grass.

The yearly wages of house-servants are, for men, from 8l. to 12l.; for women, 3l. to 5l.

The wages of day-labourers, without victuals, or any allowance of beer, are,

s.  d.      s. d.

For Men, in Summer                                                             1   2 to  1  4 (+)

                   Winter                                                                 1  0  to  1  2

                    Harvest                                                              1   6  to  1  9

      Women, ditto                                                                   1   0  to  1  3

                    For other work                                                  0   6  to  0  8”

(+) (footnote in the original text) “In 1796, the wages got up to 2s. and in harvest to 2s. 6d. for men; and for women, to 1s. 9d.”

(Board of Agriculture / J. Bailey and G. Culley, General View of Agriculture of the County of Northumberland, 1797, Rural Economy, pp. 145-147) 

In Dorset some costs were absorbed by the farmer or by the parish:

“Medical assistance is dispensed of course when needed, and Mr. Goodenough says it sometimes costs 30l. per annum at Frampton. In some places, surgeons are engaged to attend the poor at a fixed salary.” 

(Board of Agriculture / William Stevenson, General View of Agriculture in the County of Dorset, 1812, p. 429)            

“Mr. Park of St. Giles, believes the state of the poor is much altered for the better within the last twenty years, and principally by the introduction of potatoes, which were scarcely known thirty years hence. At the former period, the labourers had very little beside bread and cheese and water, but at present they have the important additions of potatoes, pork, and bacon. Almost everyone keeps a pig, which is fed on potatoes, and sometimes finished with a small quantity of pease and barley. 

The custom of allowing the labourers to grow potatoes on the fallows otherwise intended for turnips, appears to be a distinguishing merit in the upland farmers of this county; and in the villages that are purely agricultural, the greater part of the poor have a house, a garden, a potatoe-ground in the field, and medical aid, all free of expense, and wheat at a cheap rate. The price of labour and the poor-rates are so intermixed and altered by these circumstances, that it is almost impossible to ascertain what belongs to each separately.     

The portion of the fallows allowed to labourers is regulated by the number in the family, and it is sometimes as much as one-third of an acre. The produce is from 50 to 100 bushels or more, and the labourer is expected to find a sufficiency of manure for the land he occupies, and by means of keeping a pig, it is said, this may be effected.

Many of the poor keep two or three fowls; and they have generally ovens and plenty of fuel, to enable them to make use of the economical method of baking their own bread.

In these respects their situation is much superior to that of the poor of Bedfordshire, &c. amongst whom home-baked bread is little used, as such as have families cannot purchase the corn, and are much in the habit of stealing their firing, or begging it, together with their house-rent and clothing, of the parish officers. Many are become indebted to the village shop-keepers in the late seasons of scarcity, and so much are their morals depraved by this circumstance, that it is said they frequently make it their study to increase their debts rather than to lessen them.” (Ibid., pp. 454-455)

The system in Lincoln of cottages and land being given at a low rent, has been described above. 

From the above examples we see that the sole figure of weekly winter wages does not necessarily indicate correctly the standard of living of the the labourer and his family.

Rich counties, poor counties

Arthur Young gives us a table of the prices of food in different counties in 1795, which show a considerable variation. He also shows a table for cottage rent and fuel.

(Young, Annals of Agriculture, Vol. XXIV, 1795, Recapitulation of the Editor, p. 336-338)

We have a number of descriptions of the good life in the richer counties:

“The sober and industrious labourer in Kent, unless he has a large family, cannot with propriety be called a poor man; because, by his industry, he can always procure a comfortable maintenance, equal, if not superior, to the little farmer (usually called peasants) of some foreign countries; or perhaps to some small tenants of this.

Those who are doubtful of the truth of this observation need only step into the cottages of this class, at their hour of dinner at twelve, when they may see the superior comforts of the husbandry labourers of this agricultural community. Very few of the sober and industrious but what have a pork-tub [small wooden barrel, which contained the salt pork pieces] to go to for dinner; and many of them, by their own earnings, with that of their wives and families, including what they get in harvest, hop-picking, &c, have an income of from forty to sixty pounds per annum.”  

(Board of Agriculture / John Boys, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Kent, 1805, p. 206)

“The labourers near London provide for themselves, and every branch of their family, the very best wheaten bread, and the richest new milk cheese, ….”

(Board of Agriculture / John Middleton, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Middlesex, 1805,  p. 594)

“The quantity of pork eaten by the labourers of this county is very great, and in the quantity of animal food of all sorts, which is consumed in Middlesex, is amazing. Even, regard being had to the population, I apprehend it is much more considerable than the average proportion per head of all England.

Suppose a family which consists of six persons, viz. a man, his wife, a female servant, and three children, to be a fair average sample of the better regulated families in the country part of this county, such a family consumes of animal foodabout 4 lb. per day; which amounts to thirty stone and a half (of 8 lb. each) for each inhabitant per ann. In a section on supply and consumption [pp. 643-644], I have endeavoured to shew, that on an average of the inhabitants of all ages in this county, including the luxurious and wateful cities of London and Westminster, each person consumes near 39 stone of animal food.

The quantity of wheat used, where bread is entirely made of it, as it is in the south of England, and including the other applications of fine flour, in pies, puddings, &c. and the waste is, about eight bushels for every inhabitant. A family of five persons, eating much animal food, consumes seven quartern loaves per week, and as much flour for other purposes, as would make another quartern loaf, which together is equivalent to eight quartern loaves per week. This is a small fraction more than six bushels per annum to each inhabitant.” 

(Board of Agriculture / John Middleton, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Middlesex, 1805,  pp. 510-511)

“Respecting cottages, the master manufacturers, have supplied habitations to what workmen they wanted; and every kind of food is in abundance at an average price; the district is well peopled, but has large quantities of animal food to spare; the county is certainly healthy, as any part of the kingdom; but the greatest mortality is in towns, as the above table will show, in which the number of deaths approach the births, much nearer than in the country parishes, though Loughborough upon a gravelly, sound, dry soil, seems an exception.

The modes of living are good, and rather inclined to be luxurious. Wheaten bread, with beef, mutton, cheese, and butter of the best, are the principal diet of all who can raise it, as well as vegetables and beverage in perfection; and the want of which is only known by those in poverty and distress, and whose feelings prevent their applying for relief.”

(Board of Agriculture / William Pitt, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Leicestershire, 1809, pp. 337-338)    

However there are bad news on occasion from some counties:

“I am afraid the state and condition of the poor, every where, are bordering on misery and famine.”

(Vol. XXVI, 1796 (1), Letter XX, Yorkshire, p. 6)

“The state and condition of the poor is truly pitiable, and has been greatly increased by the scarcity and dearth of potatoes in the last spring, as they were not able to procure seed to till their gardens.”


 “Though the wages of agricultural labour are increased at least one-fourth within the last ten years, they are still inadequate to support a family, without driving a man, on every emergency, to the parish for assistance.”

(Board of Agriculture / William Mavor, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Berkshire, 1809; p. 414)

“It must, however, be admitted, that with a large family, no fair and reasonable wages will enable a labourer to acquire even the bread necessary to support life;” 

(Board of Agriculture / William Mavor, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Berkshire, 1809;  p. 476)

“The labouring part of the community in this county, live upon bread made of grey pease and barley, in the proportion of two parts barley to one of pease; and though coarse, is a most hardy food and wholesome; Though, I own that wheaten bread is more used than formerly.” 

(Young, Annals of Agriculture, Vol. XXIV, 1795 (1), Letter XV, Northumberland, p. 107)

“The poor of this county are, I believe, in as good a situation as others of the same class elsewhere, yet when we come to consider it, and calculate particulars, it must be pronounced rather pitiable. If a labouring family consists of a man, his wife, and four children, they will consume in bread per day, if they can get it, 1s. 

S. D.

Which is, per week                                                      7  0

Rent per week 1s. 6d., milk suppose 6d.              2  0

Cheese or butchers’ meat 2 lb. per day 1s. 

Per week                                                                       7  0

Per week necessaries                                             16   0

but the gains of a labourer and his wife will seldom exceed upon the average of 15s. per week, whence it appears that the above allowance must be curtailed, and privations sustained; potatoes from the garden must be substituted in part for bread, and the cheese and meat allowance lessened, for which a pig should be substituted, fed on the premises from the garden and from gleanings; hence will appear the necessity of furnishing labourers’ cottages with sufficient gardens and a hog-stye, if the family is to be kept from starvation.


The gains of a manufacturers’ family are more, and may be put at a guinea a week; but even then, if we make the above allowance for necessaries as stated, there remains only 5s. per week for fuel, candles, soap, and cloathing, for the whole family, which are equally necessaries; to say nothing of tea, sugar, butter, and beer, which if not necessary to existence, at least necessary to comfort; the labourers’ family is placed more on a level with the latter, by an allowance of beer from the farmer, as well as coals drawn, and sometimes other privileges.”   

(Board of Agriculture / William Pitt, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Leicestershire, 1809; pp. 327)

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