The farm labourer in 1872

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The farm labourer in 1872  (1872) 
by Baldwyn Leighton






Publishers in Ordinary to Her Majesty,

"True, it must be owned, we, for the present with our Mammon Gospel, have come to strange conclusions. We call it a Society, and go about professing openly the totalest separation, isolation. Our life is not a mutual helpfulness, but rather cloaked under due laws of war, named fair competition, and so forth, it is a mutual hostility. We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that Cash-payment is not the sole relation of human beings; we think, nothing doubting, that it absolves and liquidates all engagements of man … Cash-payment never was, or could, except for a few years be, the union bond of man to man—cash never yet paid one man his deserts to another, nor could it, nor can it now or henceforth, to the end of the world."—Carlyle's 'Past and Present.'


Well Oldsort, what do you think of this movement amongst the labourers?" asked his landlord one day of a West-Midland farmer.

"I don't know what to think, I don't," answered Oldsort.

"How many men do you employ?"

"Why, four regular. But I'll tell you what; I and that Edward Sharpe there, can do as much work in a day as I and all those other three, Tom Careless, Jack Shirk, and William Slow."

"How's that?"

"Why, you see, if I tell Sharpe to do a thing, it's done well and quickly, and I need never think about it again. But if I tell any of the others, I've almost got to do it myself, or it will be done wrong."

"And what are they earning?" "Why, twelve shillings a week all round, besides allowances and privileges. But Sharpe would be cheap at three shillings a week more."

"And the others?"

"Well, they'd be dear at ten!"

"But, Oldsort, why don't you classify them a bit, and pay them what they are worth; or give them a little interest in their work? How does Newstyle manage?"

"I don't know, I'm sure. I don't like Newstyle."

"Why not?"

"Because he gets all the best labourers from everyone else to work for him."

"Does he give higher wages?"

"He doesn't seem to; but somehow they earn more. He's got some trick of making them work. Why they look as if they was working for themselves!"

"Perhaps they are, Oldsort. Perhaps they are."

And his landlord rode quietly on from Oldsort's to visit Newstyle, who lived two or three miles oft. Now this Newstyle was a Yorkshire man, lately come into the district,—an active, energetic, intelligent farmer, who certainly had the knack of getting round him all the best labourers in the neighbourhood, and inducing them to work for him in a way they would work for no one else, as Oldsort had said. This was Newstyle's explanation of his system (a very simple one) which was fast making him one of the wealthiest and best to do farmers in Westshire.

"You see, when I first came here five years ago, I found wages at eleven shillings a week, and the men doing about two-thirds of a day's work for it, and though cottage rents were certainly low, the gardens were very inadequate. The first thing I did, was to pick out the best labourers I could find, and give them an extra shilling a week, which afterwards sent up wages all round a shilling a week; but, however, that's neither here nor there. One day my men (I employ eight on my farm) came to me, and said, quite respectfully, they wanted me to consider if I could give them a rise in wages. Well, I said, we'll talk about it. How much do you want? 'Fifteen shillings a week, and we think we can do more work on that than on twelve shillings.' Very well, suppose I rise you to fifteen shillings a week, then you'll be able to pay me a full rent for your cottages, and you'll be able to pay for your own beer and potatoe ground; and subscribe to clubs, so that when you are sick you'll require no help from me. And then I shall be able to do with one or two men less, so that the worst will be knocked off. 'If you please. Sir,' they said, 'we should like to talk this over amongst ourselves first.' Next Monday morning then we'll have another talk.

"Next Monday morning they came with a different story. 'If you please. Sir, we've thought better about the rise in wages, but could you let us each have a bit of ground, for our gardens are very small, so that we cannot keep a pig, nor grow vegetables for our families.' That I will," I said, "and a good deal more I've got to say to you now. I've been thinking of our last conversation, and this is what I propose to do.

"1. To give you all a piece of ground, besides your present gardens, of a quarter to one-third of an acre, as conveniently as I can make it, for which you shall pay the same rent as I do. I've settled it with my landlord, who is quite agreeable.

"2. To give you as much task work as possible, so that you'll be able to earn two shillings or three shillings a week more. Turning manure and many other things we've hitherto done by day work, we'll do by piece work.

"3. To give you all an interest in my profits. You know the shepherd already gets so much on each lamb: now I mean you all to be able to earn something in your separate departments in this way. I divide you into two gangs, the men that attend chiefly to the stock, cowmen, shepherds, pigmen; and the men that attend mostly to the crops, ploughmen, waggoners, &c. For every lamb that is reared after the first fifty I shall allow sixpence; for every lamb after the first 150 I shall allow one shilling. I expect about 200 lambs this year, so that the shepherd may get about one hundred sixpences and fifty shillings, that is £5, if he raises 200 lambs. Then for every calf born I shall allow the cowman 2s. 6d.; for every litter of pigs reared, threepence a pig, and for every pig fatted something more. Then for the fat stock, for every beast sold, I shall allow the man who looks after them one shilling in the pound on the profit. If I buy ten beasts for £200 and sell them for £300, that will be exactly one hundred shillings, or £5, for the man who looks after them.

"Then as to the crops, that is white crops (I don't reckon the others), my land on an average produces twenty-five bushels to the acre. Now for every extra bushel which by good cultivation, deep ploughing, or extra carefulness and labour it may be made to give, I shall divide one shilling per bushel among the crop-men. Thus, if on my 100 acres of wheat next year, I get twenty-eight bushels instead of twenty-five that will be three hundred shillings, or £15 to divide among those four men; and as I believe with better cultivation and care it may be made to produce nearly thirty bushels to the acre, there would be five hundred shillings, or £25 to divide among the four men, or £6 5s. each.

"4. But besides these profits, which I do not consider will come out of my pocket, but out of your increased labour and work, I propose to allow to one or two of you who have saved money (say £20) the run of a cow on my farm at 2s. 6d. a week, as they do in Northumberland. (This was received with very strong expressions of approval.)

"That is my scheme: I have since made one alteration in giving to the pigman every year the least fat of all my bacon pigs, instead of allowing him to keep one for himself; the consequence of which is that they are all so fat it is impossible to select the leanest. The system has been going on now for three years come next autumn, with the most satisfactory results. I have only lost one calf in that time, whereas I used formerly to think myself lucky if I only lost two a year; lambs and pigs in the same proportion. My land, that before never produced more than twenty-eight bushels to the acre, and generally twenty-five or twenty-six, last year gave thirty-one, and will, I believe average that for the future. I believe I am making money twice as fast as any farmer in Westshire; and I never knew before that it was possible for farming to make such profits. My men are perfectly satisfied and do double the work they did before, getting in addition, more than half their former income. I reckon that without raising wages above what I raised them when I first came, namely, from eleven to twelve shillings a week (and leaving privileges and cottage rents as they were) my ordinary labourers are getting from eighteen to nineteen shillings a week in this way:—

Per week
s. d.
Allotment of land = about £4 of profit, or 1 6
Task work during half the year at 3s. or 1 6
Industrial profits in the farm, £5 to £7 say 2 6
Weekly wages 12 0
Harvest 50s., or 1 0
18 6

"Besides this, they have beer and cheap cottages, gleaning, privileges and carriage of coal. Sunday men get an extra shilling, and those that keep a cow get five shillings a week more out of it, so that my head-waggoner, who keeps a cow, must be getting over twenty-five shillings a week, including all allowances, and yet I have never raised his weekly wages directly.

"The other day there was a meeting to form a Union in the next village, and my men attended at my request. They were hooted for refusing to join, but when they explained what they were earning they had the laugh on their side; and some London agitators who had come down to speak, declared publicly that if all the farmers acted as I did, their occupation would be gone. I believe no union or agitation, or strike would have any effect on my men. I overheard one say to another a few days ago, 'We want no strikers here.' As for the labourers with cows, the offer of another three or four shillings a week beyond their present earnings would not tempt them to go elsewhere. The men seem very grateful to me for what I have done, though except in treating them kindly and intelligently, I am doing nothing but consulting my own interests, and they certainly work harder on my farm than anywhere else this side of the Trent."

"Well, Newstyle, I hope the other farmers will soon do the same as you, and then we shall have no more discontent and agitation. I think I can do something to forward your system by letting some of the best men about here have a few acres of land to keep a cow. There's a small place of twenty acres at the other side of the village, which will fall in this next year at latest, for they tell me the old man will never get out of bed again. If I can find four or five labourers on the estate who have saved money I'll parcel it out among them as cowland, instead of reletting it as a farm."

"I'm sure," said Newstyle, "it will be a great boon to them, and a great advantage to the estate; if you're careful in the selection, it will be the means of keeping our best men in the district, and except on my farm, we are fast losing all our best workmen; the old ones are getting past their work, and the young ones go elsewhere."

"Do you think your men are equal to Northumberland labourers?"

"They're fast becoming so; my best men are quite equal to them, and getting as high wages. I have just introduced another mode of payment (consequent on the rise of wheat), by allowing one shilling per week extra when wheat is quoted in the county paper at seven shillings per bushel or over. When wheat is high, you see, the farmer benefits and the labourer suffers. And yet he is the only employer of labour who is affected by the rise and fall, so I consider such an allowance only a fair one."

"But how is it," said his landlord to Newstyle, "that other farmers do not follow your example?"

"Well, they don't seem to like to alter anything; and they can't believe but that the extra money comes out of their pockets, whereas in reality it is coming in."

"Why not make known your system more widely at some farmers' club, or chamber of agriculture?"

"Well you see, sir, it's my trade. I don't wish to make any particular secret of it, but I don't see why I should go about telling every one how to rival me in my own business."

The dumb instinct, not yet formulated or expressed (but behind which, may-be, lurks some law of God himself,) the natural craving that is moving the labourers, when traced to its cause, will be found to be this—want of Hope and Prospect, want of opportunities of rising, or means of laying by for old age. One great means of producing contentment and offering a means of investment was formerly land, say enough to keep a cow on, or the run of a common even; but during the last fifty years the policy of high farming has been to do away with all these places, either by absorbing them into farms, or on the grounds that they made the men idle and worthless; and allotted as they sometimes were to thriftless improvident families there was some truth in the statement. But, meanwhile, although education, progress and prosperity went on, no compensation for the land taken away has been offered, no alternative means of rising for the best workmen was introduced, such as a general application of piece-work, or some sort of industrial partnership, giving the men an interest and profit in their work. Their interest in the soil is taken away, and no interest created in its stead except the hard and fast one of Cash-payment. What wonder if the men try and improve on that? What wonder if they follow blind guides, whose plausible arguments would not be so easily overturned even by some educated men? But if it can be practically demonstrated that the application of some intelligence and sympathy, to the question (such intelligence as the manufacturers now constantly bring to their business, and such sympathy as refuses to regard any labourer as a machine or an animal), if it be practically shown that not only the solution and settlement of this question, but also the interest of employers will be promoted by such a course, surely reason and moderation will not be on the side of those who can leave this matter to be settled by banded unions of contending employers and employed.

In some of the southernmost counties, considerable care will have to be taken to prevent a collision between capital and labour. For there other incidents have been aggravated by a vicious system of poor law acting upon a superabundant and immovable population, and it is probable that the quality of the labour has been unnaturally depressed by the quantity being unnaturally maintained, namely, through low wages supplemented by out relief. The application of the same remedies, namely, a concession of an interest in the soil to those it is desirable to retain, and an interest in their work to all will be found even here effective, but seeing that the case is an aggravated one, the remedies must be more carefully applied. The highest intelligence and sympathy will be required to educate the labourer back to even a normal standard, and side-by-side with it, probably, a large migration. Happy will those districts be, where, by wise regulations and intelligent action the best men are retained, and the lower stratum only migrated to where labour is in greater demand. Happier still are those districts where a wiser and more far-sighted policy has made the evils of modern Unionism unnecessary, or innocuous. For the most intelligent of the labourers have all along declared that this was not altogether a matter of direct wages, though the action of landlords and farmers in some parts was fast driving it to become so. They value land more than wages, and the opportunity of earning more by increased zeal and care is worth more than a dead wage level, or a direct rise. "We want no strikes or agitation here," said the Assington men to a visitor the other day at the co-operative farm, "our wages are eleven shillings a week, but we can do without agitators." And a few weeks ago some Dorsetshire labourers, whose far-sighted employer had re-adjusted their wages, and put them in the way of earning what they were worth, were hooted by their fellow-labourers for refusing to join a union.

Up to the end of the last century, or even within fifty years past in some towns there were associations of trades called Guilds, partaking of the nature of trades-unions, but differing from the modern aspect of trades-unionism in these important particulars; first, they were associations of employers and employed, both working harmoniously together to their mutual advantage; secondly, the condition of fellowship in the Guild was that a workman should do his work well and truly; and thirdly, the workman took some share in the profits of the trade.[1] The objects of modern unionism, on the contrary, seem to be to array employer and employed against each other, thereby causing enormous waste and loss to them chiefly, and to the world at large indirectly, instead of all sharing the profits of increased demand; and furthermore, to encourage bad work for what is erroneously called the good of trade. You cannot compare an old house, or an old piece of furniture, or even an old brick, with its modern substitute, without perceiving what we have lost in good workmanship, which means Truth and Honesty, and something more than mechanical skill.

Our whole art of construction is a hideous sham and lie, ill-concealed by a bastard and meaningless ornamentation. If the history of a generation as of a nation is written in its works, the story of Mammon-worship and its antithesis Trades-unionism, Dead Truth and Living Lies, is written in the work of the last fifty or one hundred years. If wrong-headed Harry Brougham and his dupes could have lived long enough, they might have perceived that civilization and progress, and even the material advancement of the people was not altogether comprised in more pay and shorter hours, strikes, paralyzation of capital and dead levelment of man; but that there are such things as industrial partnerships and co-operation, individualism and the workman's higher elevation, to be thought of, besides migration and the extinction of pauperism.

It is possible that the Co-operative movement, that "Spirit of the years to come," which threatens to absorb some day half the trade of the country will (if it come with Truth and Wisdom) correct these modern falsities and fallacies, and restore to us somewhat of the spirit and the work of those earlier Guilds. Meanwhile the occasion offers for the Land Industries to profit by the Trade errors, and to correct them. Here is an opportunity for landlords, farmers and labourers to form such associations (by farms, estates, districts, or counties), as shall correct the fallacies of the Present, and the mistakes and wrongs of the Past.

The good ship Agricola, with half the fortune of the State on board, is nearing narrow straits, through which she must surely pass: and where are the charts? where are the pilots? What wonder if when the captain and warrant officers hold back, the boatswain and ship's-carpenter take the helm? But we shall want something more than their skill and navigation to steer between the reefs and swirls ahead:—to tack and sail between those Rocks of Pauperism, Degradation and Despair, and escape that blind Charybdis of Communism!

  1. See History of Guilds, published by Early English Text Society.
This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.