The daily life of the farm labourers was made easier by the introduction of many implements and simple machines made of iron: scythes, forks, billhooks, hedgeslashers, ploughshares, clod-crushers, harrows, lightweight iron ploughs, horse-drawn butter churns, horse-drawn hay rakes and cheesepressers.
The picture shows a horse-drawn hay rake and the traditional hand held wooden rake. Obviously the new hay rake is more efficient and saves work for the labourer. But it could only be built if the iron parts were cheap.
The Museum of English Rural Life, Reading University; http://www.reading.ac.uk/merl/interface/schools/windmill/work/work_land/work_land_8.html
The presence of a steam-engine made many “muscular” tasks unnecessary: threshing machines (early versions powered by horse), winnowing / blower machines, elevators for hay, self-binding reapers.
These machines were in general introduced, starting in the 1840’s. While they made life easier for the labourer, they also gave the farmer leeway to reduce the payments for task-work, as there was no reason to pay for work which was not more difficult than daily field-work. Thus the percentage of “total yearly income” against “weekly winter wages, multiplied by 52” went down.
The use of the flail for threshing continued, because the farmers were obliged to give more paid work to the labourers. We can see this in the following discussion from the London Farmers’ Club, “The best and most economical mode of threshing grain crops”, Monthly Discussion, November 2, 1846, The Farmer’s Magazine, Vol. 14, July to December 1846, pp. 529-535. The farmers were all conscious that the threshing machine had advantages against the hand-flail, but they also saw that could not just diminish the income of the labourer.
“… The point will resolve itself into two heads, namely, the “best mode” and the “most economical mode” of threshing; and they will be found to be perfectly separate parts of the question; for that mode which is the best is not always the most economical, neither is that which is the most economical always the best (Hear, hear). …..
“It must be remembered, also, that in Essex we have a greater redundancy of labour than in other counties; the labourers have not been absorbed by railways and other works in this county as in some parts of England.
“The employment of horse-labour has in many instances deprived the labourers of their ordinary sources of employment in the winter months; and, in consideration of this state of things, many farmers have discontinued the use of the horse-power machine, by which, with two men, they can thrash from four to six quarters of corn a day, with as much advantage to themselves as when they formerly used the horse-power machine.
At the same time, I admit that it is our bounden duty to employ the labourer as much as we can.
We must, nevertheless, come to this question at last, “How are our labourers to live?” and in order to apportion the labour to the mouths which have to be fed, we had better use machinery as little as we can, if we consider the general good of society.
If you have labourers on your hands, and have no other or better employment for them, it is very desirable that they should have threshing to resort to, as in certain seasons the poor man is very awkwardly situated (Hear, hear).”
All this gives the impression that the agricultural labourers in the period 1840 to 1860 lived well, or at the very least, that they went to bed with a full stomach. But there are a number of general reports that there was a lot of poverty in the countryside. The difference refers to that part of the rural population without a permanent job with an employer. These were the poor and very poor people. They are not included in the calculations of movements in income, because there are no statistics of the time as to their incomes, and particularly because in many cases they did not have a fixed occupation (or anything that would bring them money). We shall meet the poorest cases in the section about the Underclass.