12.7. Conditions of the Labourers 1834-1860

Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners were sent in 1843 to report on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, in a number of counties in England.

The four commissioners visited a) Wiltshire, Dorset, Devon, and Somerset, b) Kent, Surrey, and Sussex, c) Suffolk, Norfolk, and Lincoln, d) Yorkshire and Northumberland. It is clear that this series of regions shows an increase from South-West to North in the monetary wages and in the amount of food consumed.

In the first group of counties, the average men’s earnings were:

  • Wiltshire, 8s. to 10s., yearly average including piece work 9s. 6d.;
  • Dorset, yearly average including piece work 11s., cottage often free, many with potato allotment;
  • Devon, yearly average 12s. 6d., including the profit from keeping a pig, which the majority of the families have (pp. 15-16);
  • Somerset, less money payment than Wiltshire, but three pints cider per day;

Many families rented a half acre allotment (15s. to 25s. a year), which gave 160 lb. of potatoes per year, or 3 lb. per week. Gleaning of the fallen grain brought 3 or 4 bushels a year, that is 25 to 30 shillings savings in food. In the part of Dorset investigated, nearly all the women and some girls were engaged in button making, which brought in from 3 to 5 shillings a week.

“In conversing with women accustomed to work in the fields, I found, nearly generally, that there was no complaint of a deficiency of food; in some cases the appearance of the cottages, of the women themselves, and of the children, proved that there could be no such deficiency.” (p. 17)

“The number of women employed in agriculture, either absolutely or compared with that of men so employed, must be to a great extent matter of mere conjecture, until a more minute and accurate inquiry than I had the means of executing, be made. From the information I was inclined to pay attention to, and from the looser statements of the farmers and other persons with whom I conversed, it would appear perhaps that in the hay-harvest about as many women and girls as men and boys, and that at other times of the year during which women are employed their number does not exceed one-third or one-fourth of that of the men, except at the corn-harvest, when their number may be nearly equal.” (p. 27) 

“Generally speaking the labouring population is healthy; but it appears that when grown-up women are attacked by diseases of certain descriptions, the low quality of their food is unfavourable to their recovery. It would appear, also, that when the quantity of food is sufficient, any effects from its quality are less felt by women accustomed to out-door labour than by those who keep at home. In Wiltshire the food of the labourer and his family is wheaten (*) bread, potatoes, a small quantity of beer, but only as a luxury, and a little butter and tea. To this may sometimes be added (but it is difficult to say how often or in what quantities), cheese, bacon, and in the neighbourhood of Calne, a portion of the entrails of the pig,- a considerable trade being carried on at Calne in curing bacon. I am inclined to think that the use of bacon and those parts of the pig only occurs where the earnings of the family are not limited to those of the husband; or, if his wages form their sole means of support, then it depends on the number of his family. In more than one cottage, where the mother went out to work, or two of the boys were earning perhaps 3s. or 3s. 6d. between them, I saw a side of bacon hanging against the wall; but nothing of the kind was visible where the only earnings were those of the husband, or the family was numerous and young. Where, from poverty, bacon cannot be obtained, a little fat is used to give a flavour to the potatoes. In Dorsetshire and Devonshire, in cases where the labourer is in constant employ, and possesses the advantages  he frequently enjoys in those counties, the consumption of bacon would appear to be more constant, with now and then a little fresh meat. …. But in Somersetshire the food appears to be much the same as in Wiltshire,- bread and potatoes, with bacon and cheese at times.”

(*) (footnote in the original text) “Barley bread, universally eaten by the labourer at the close of the last century, as I was told, has everywhere given place to wheaten bread.” (pp. 18-19)            

“With reference to the question of clothing and linen for the family generally, a great change has been effected for the benefit of the labouring classes within these few years by the clothing clubs, which are excellently contrived for aiding the poor, and at the same time making such assistance depend on their own exertions and good conduct, and for avoiding all the mischiefs of indiscriminate charity. I had an opportunity of examining the clothing club at Blandford, in Dorsetshire, and its arrangements and working appeared equally excellent. Any labouring family of good conduct was allowed to belong to it, subscribing 1d., 2d., of 3d. a-week, according to its size and other circumstances. At the end of the year, Christmas, these subscriptions are doubled by the donations of persons in a better position of life living in the neighbourhood. The subscribers are then entitled to purchase of the tradesman appointed to supply the club, to the amount of their respective shares of the funds, any plain articles of dress or of household linen. ….. The effect of these clubs has been very great in increasing the linen and clothes of the labourers’ families since their establishment.”

(see also Kent, benefit societies, p. 144)

(pp. 22-23)

Conditions in the West of England in 1846

The Poor Law Commissioners in 1846 required from Mr. E. Carleton Tufnell, a report on the Conditions of the Agricultural Population in the West of England. His questionnaire to farmers and magistrates gave the following results:

Weekly wages 8s. to 9s.7s. 7s., plus 3 pints cider day; thrashing 15 p. day
Summer wages more?
Employment during whole year
 1s. to 2s. more. All seasons8s. 2s. more. Great proportion are employed during the year
Earnings wife and Children Women 7d. to 10d. day. Children 3d. to 1s. dayWomen 6d. day. Children 3d. to 4d. dayWomen 6d. day
Rent for cottage and garden 2 l. to 3 l. per annum2 l. if of landlord; 4 l. if of farmer1s. to 1s. 6d. week
Variations in wages in past years 1836 to 1846, varies from 8s. to 9s.Impossible to know; many non-cash benefitsNo great variation
Variations in wages affected by priceof food Wages vary approx. with wheat priceNoneVariation in price of corn impacts in amount of labour employed
Ordinary food of agricultural workers Bread, potatoes, bacon, cheese, butter; little meatWheat (8 lb./pers/wk), potatoes, one pig eaten per year Bread, cheese, bacon, potatoes, vegetables from their gardens 
If income less than 10s., how is food + rent + clothing paid for? Little left over“A problem not to be solved by human calculation”Man + wife + five children consume 3 / 4 bushel p week (4s. 6d.).  

(Tufnell, 1846, pp. 122-139)

The professional classes had their doubts that the agricultural labourers told the truth about their total earnings:

“It is chiefly on the score of earnings that the labourer confounds all enquiries, either by taciturnity or misrepresentation. He calculates himself, or endeavours to persuade those who examine him, to calculate his yearly income from the average price of day labour in his parish. But as work is now very generally done by the piece, it is obvious that statements, formed upon such data, must be extremely fallacious; they however, are not without their use, and I have therefore inserted them; but the reader will, I trust, often be inclined to draw the same conclusion which I have drawn from them, that if the expenditure is not exaggerated, the income is, in most instances, considerably under-rated.” (italics in the original text)

(Brereton, 1825, Practical Enquiry into the Number of Labourers, p 101, quoting Sir Frederick Eden)

“The omissions in this calculation of expences are very considerable. It is well known that the peasantry do consume tea, sugar, tobacco, and they sometimes eat meat, and occasionally, as our village public-houses and the prosperity of brewers testify, drink beer. They do not indeed obtain these two comforts so freely as every poor man’s friend must desire, but they do consume no inconsiderable quantity of these articles.”

(Brereton, 1825, A Practical Inquiry…, p. 91) 

“The greatest and commonest vice of the agricultural labourers is drinking, to which may be ascribed much of the extreme poverty and wretchedness which is met with amongst them. Were it not for the money spent on drink, I believe that the majority of them could command more commodious dwellings, and more animal food for themselves and families, than they have at present. The effect of the habit of drinking is to counteract any benefits from increased earnings. The labourer, whose family has the most limited means of subsistence, does not drink, he cannot afford it; but the frequenters of the beer-shops are the labourers, the aggregate earnings of whose families, if properly spent, would not only secure them from want, but even place within their reach many comfoerts now nearly unknown to the labourer’s cottage. Drunkenness practically renders higher wages of no avail; for the surplus of wages, above what is absolutely required for the lowest state of subsistence of the family, is spent at the beer-shop.”

(Ibid., pp. 35-36)

“Formerly my husband was in the habit of drinking, and everything went bad. He used to beat me. I have often gone to bed, I and my children, without supper, and have had no breakfast the next morning, and frequently no firing. My husband attended a lecture on teetotalism one evening about two years ago, and I have reason to bless that evening. My husband has never touched a drop a drink since. He has been better in health, getting stouter, and has behaved to me like a good husband ever since.”

(Evidence of Mrs. Britton, Calne, Wiltshire, wife of farm-labourer, pp. 66-67) 

“But during the “forties”, at any rate, the provision of work by the farmers in many districts for surplus labour for which they had no need, in order to keep the men off the rates, tended to keep the wages low.

“The “Report on the Burdens on Land”, 1846, states that “in order to reduce the Poor’s Rate, the farmers in many parishes employ more hands than the economical working of the land requires. 

Farmers on large holdings in Beds, Essex, Norfolk, Surrey, Wilts, Devon, Kent, Hunts, Cambs, Rutland, Herts, Bucks, Oxford, Hants, Suffolk, gave striking evidence before the Committee as to their practice of employing considerably more men than they required, finding it more economical to have them doing some work on the land than doing nothing, and being supported with their families out of the poor rate. Consequently preference was frequently given to the men with large families, who might not be the best workers, both by the farmers, and also by the local authorities, for employment at road work. Some of these witnesses stated that they did not use machinery, in order to be able to employ those men. Threshing with the flail was often resorted to for the sake of giving employment. As a Huntingdonshire farmer said to the Committee, they had “either to employ or maintain”.”

(Fox, 1903, p. 278)            

“John Woollas, a Herefordshire labourer, aged 75, said to me in October, 1902: “Fifty-six years ago there were more allowances. A man could get a bag of wheat at market price from the farmer, and if he wanted a pig he could buy it from the farmer and pay for it in installments. Broth and milk were given to the children “graciously” in the old days, and if a man was kept late he was given supper. The men had as much supper as they liked then.” An old farmer in the same county, who had farmed for fifty years, and was once a waggoner, said: “In the old days men bought wheat from the farmers, ground the grain, and used the offal for the pigs. They all had ovens then, and now they are not used. After Arch came they had more money and less perquisites. When bread was dear the labourers often got dinners from the farmers, say twice a week. Farmers gave food rather than raise wages.”

James Bullock, 82 years of age, said: “In the old days farmers used to give a can of broth or some victuals, and you could fetch a drop of milk when you wanted it, and a bit of fuel sometimes. You were bound to get a bit of summat extra over if you had seven or eight to feed. Farmers also gave more potato ground then.””

(Fox, 1903, p. 289, footnote)

“The condition of the Dorsetshire labourer has passed into a proverb, not altogether just, as compared with the counties adjoining. The large farmers are anxious to vindicate themselves from the imputation of underpaying their labourers. Exceptional cases, they affirmed, had been taken as examples of the whole, and from these they had been unfairly believed to be heartless grinders of the poor. The labour books we examined showed that on the large farms the usual rate of wages for a labourer is 8s. a week, a piece of potato ground, fuel, beer in harvest time, with extra wages, and in some cases the principal servants have a house rent free. The fuel is brushwood and turf, which each labourer prepares for use himself, and which the farmer’s horses carry home for him. The allowance of beer is a gallon daily for each man, which is usually consumed in the following manner:- a quart to breakfast at ten o’clock, a pint at half-past eleven for luncheon, a quart during dinner between one and two o’clock, a pint at four, with something to eat at five, and the rest when the work is finished. On a large farm the consumption of beer occasions a cost of 70l. or 80l. for malt in a year. The supply commences with hay harvest, and ends when the corn crop is secured. Women are paid 6d. a day, and boys 2s. 6d. to 3s. 6d. a week. On the smaller farms, where the tenants are poorer, and the population in proportion to the means of support denser, the weekly wages are as low as 7s., and even 6s.; and we were told that even that small sum was in many cases paid in inferior wheat, charged at a price which the farmer could not realise in the market. Low as the rate of wages is, it has not fallen in the same proportion as the price of provisions, and the Dorset labourer is therefore at present more content with his circumstances than he was in times when the farmers enjoyed a prosperity in which he did not participate.”

(Caird, 1852, Dorset, p. 72)            

“The wages of labour are lower on Salisbury Plain than in Dorsetshire, and lower than in the dairy and arable districts of North Wilts. An explanation of this may partly be found in the fact, that the command of wages is altogether under the control of the large farmers, some of whom employ the whole labour of a parish. Six shillings a-week was the amount given for ordinary labourers by the most extensive farmer in South Wilts, who holds nearly 5000 acres of land, great part of which is his own property; 7s., however, is the more common rate, and out of that the labourer has to pay 1s. a-week for the rent of his cottage. If prices continue low, it is said that even these wages must be reduced. Where a man’s family can earn something at out-door work, this pittance is eked out a little, but in cases where there is a numerous family, great pinching must be endured. We were curious to know how the money was economised, and heard from a labourer the following account of a day’s diet. After doing up his horses he takes breakfast, which is made of flour with a little butter, and water “from the tea-kettle” poured over it. He takes with him to the field a piece of bread and (if he has not a young family, and can afford it) cheese to eat at mid-day. He returns home in the afternoon to a few potatoes, and possibly a little bacon, though only those who are better off can afford this. The supper very commonly consists of bread and water. The appearance of the labourers showed, as might be expected from such meagre diet, a want of that vigour and activity which mark the well-fed ploughmen of the northern and midland counties. Beer is given by the master in hay-time and harvest. Some farmers allow ground for planting potatoes to their labourers, and carry home their fuel – which, on the downs, where there is no wood, is a very expensive article in a labourer’s family.             

Both farmers and labourers suffer in this locality from the present over-supply of labour. The farmer is compelled to employ more men than his present mode of operations require, and, to save himself, he pays them a lower rate of wages than is sufficient to give that amount of physical power which is necessary for the performance of a fair day’s work. His labour is, therefore, really more costly than were sufficient wages are paid; and, accordingly, in all cases where task-work is done, the rates are higher here than in other counties in which the general condition of the labourer is better. We found a prevalent desire for emigration among the labourers themselves, as their only mode of benefitting those who go and those who remain behind.”

(Caird, 1852, Wiltshire, pp. 84-85)

“Do you remember the condition of the labourers at that time [during the war]: were they pretty well satisfied?” “They used to say they should be satisfied if they could earn a gallon of flour a day [8 pounds a day]; now they can earn two.”

(Select Committee on the State of Agriculture, 1837, Mr. John Neve, Land agent, Kent, p. 250)

“If the staple articles used by the labourers have fallen so much during the war, and his wages have fallen so little, is not his condition better than it was?” “I think it is rather better; the labourers in my part of the country are very well off; we always give them employment; I employ a great many in different ways. Lord Kenyon and other gentlemen in the neighbourhood have desired me not to let any man want work, and I do not if I can help it. Where the farmers have been in that state that they were not able to employ them so extensively as they had done, the gentlemen have come forward and drained, or otherwise improved their estates, which has caused a great deal of labour.”

(Select Committee Agriculture, 1833, Mr. Joseph Lee, Land agent and valuer, Cheshire, p. 271)

“Have you brought in aid of your system a small quantity of land added to the cottages?” “Yes: I consider that quite essential to the well-being of both classes, but I should prefer the land being provided by the proprietors rather than the parish. The quantity of land should vary from what is sufficient for a garden to employ the spare hours of men constantly employed to a quantity which will find occasional employment for a few day days or a week. These men contrive as much as possible to do their own work when they are least wanted by the farmer, and to apply to him at times when they get better wages, and their labour is necessary. I know several labourers who, having got an acre of arable land, and a little grassland for a cow, are actually saving money, and daily raising in the scale of society. We let such labourers as can raise a cow pasture in the lanes, they paying a small sum, and clubbing to find a person to take care of them. ……”

(Select Committee on Agriculture, 1833, Mr. Smith Wooley, Farmer, Nottingham, p. 576)

A certain number of agricultural labourers had the inclination and the money to visit the Great Exhibition in 1851 (obviously they had travelled by train):

The Illustrated London News, July 19, 1851

Dr. Edward Smith, the expert on nutrition, was requested by the Government in 1866, to audit the amounts and quality of food in the workhouses, and give suggestions as to how these could be improved to give a better level of health. As a part of his report, he inserted data taken from an earlier study made by him on the food of the working classes, showing the real consumption of food by inhabitants of rural areas in the North of England.  

“Among country populations, bread, either bought or home-made, rice, potatoes, and sugar, are consumed universally. Oatmeal is eaten in Lincolnshire, Notts, and Yorkshire; and muslin in certain parts of Yorkshire only. Treacle is consumed by about one-half of the cases; butter by nearly all; dripping by a large majority; suet by about one-half; bacon by about one-half; meat by nearly all; fish by very few; new milk by about one-third; skimmed milk by about one-half; butter-milk by a few in Lincolnshire, Notts, and Yorkshire; cheese by about one-half, as Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, and Notts, but scarcely by any in Yorkshire; eggs by three-fourths in Yorkshire, one quarter in Cambridge, and one-half in Notts and Lincolnshire; tea universally, and coffee by all in Notts; one-half in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, and two-thirds in Yorkshire. 

The following table shows the average quantities per adult of the different classes of food consumed weekly in the houses of the labouring classes in the several counties. The quantity of garden vegetables which are consumed, varies much at the different seasons of the year, and cannot be satisfactorily estimated.

 Bread Stuffs,
Bread, Flour,
Oatmeal, Rice, &c.
Sugar and TreacleButter,
Lincolnshire12 ¼ 73 ¼ 21458 / 1035 / 100
Notts13 ¼ 83 ½ 24549 / 10 45 / 100
Cambridgeshire14 ¼ 7 ¾ 61791 1/337 / 100
Yorkshire12 ¾ 10 ¼ 72675 60 / 100 

As a general expression it may be stated that the food obtained by the labouring districts in my district consists of from 1 ¾ to 2 lbs. of bread-stuffs daily; ½ lb. of sugar or treacle weekly; ¼ to ½ lb. of butter or other fats weekly; 1 lb. to 1 ¾ lb. of meats weekly; ½ pint to 4 pints of milk weekly; 1 oz. of cheese weekly; and ½ oz. of tea weekly.”

(Smith, Dr. Edward, Dietaries for the Inmates of Workhouses, 1866, The ordinary Food of the Labouring Classes, pp. 55-57)

It should be noted that these figures refer inhabitants of country districts in the North of England; the amounts of consumption in, as the extreme example, the South-West of England, were considerably less.


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