Agricultural labour

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Agricultural labour  (1872) 
by Baldwyn Leighton






September 13th, 1872,



"O fortunati nimium sua si bona norint

The West of England Agricultural Labourers' Association is composed of employers and employed, and was formed many months before the Warwickshire Union, under the Presidency of the Rev. Rodney Murray, Brampton Bryan Rectory, Herefordshire. The address of the Secretary, who will give any information, is Mr. Thomas Strange, Adforton, Leintwardine, Herefordshire.


THE way in which it is herein proposed to discuss this subject is by stating first some of the causes and conditions of the question; then pointing out the natural remedies, and illustrating these by practical examples.

Leaving to others such generic facts, if they may be so called, as revival of trade, influx of gold, rise in prices, education, and the demand for colonial labour, it will be of more practical use to call attention to two specific causes; one of which, however, may appear to some paradoxical, and the other remote: for one is the progress of improved Farming, and the other is Poor Law Administration, Results of these two causes respectively: a tendency to nomadism, where there should be permanency, and a tendency to stagnation where there should be locomotion. Further consequences: want of permanent relations between employer and employed, and want of prospect and outlet for the employed.

Now it would be wrong to suppose that improved farming or development of agriculture in any direction can be anything but beneficial to the labourer and all connected with the land in the main; but during the process from the old to the new system, that is from the comparatively small farmer without capital, machinery, or science, to the manufacturer of beef and corn who makes the land produce double, in the march of improvement the human part of the system, the labourer, requires a little reconsideration and readjustment in regard to his land and his home.

(1.) His land. Improved farming has merged many of the small holdings of twenty or thirty acres which although not always maintainable economically were still of great value to the thrifty rising agricultural labourer, and created a grade in the social ladder which had its use. (One word here to improving landlords and agents. Don't be too hasty in improving away all these small places, especially on indifferent soil. Be careful whom you put into them; let the tenant be a rising energetic man, and always have some other mode of living than starving on the place; such for instance as keeping a machine, hauling, contracting for road making or draining, or some trade.) But a more serious oversight in agricultural improvement was the doing away with those two or three acres of meadow land or common attached to cottages, and devouring "the poor man's bit" in our green lanes, which gave the labourer the opportunity of keeping a cow. One reason for merging these was that the tenants were so ill-selected that they were constantly getting ruined; but these places should be held out as prizes to the thrifty and hard-working labourers, and such people never get ruined.

(2.) Then as to his home: (and altogether apart from improved cottages, the necessity for which need hardly be dwelt on here). It was formerly the custom as it still is in many parts for the labourers to live mostly in the farm houses, boarding with the farmers; and this has the advantage of providing them with better food, without their feeling the cost of increased prices, it also makes the service more permanent, generally lasting for a year at least. But the want of a separate home has its disadvantages, and probably a well regulated cottage with a longer engagement and a fair notice to quit is on the whole the best, except for the boys and young unmarried labourers; but the system of the capitalist farmer with all his men living in cottages has caused some special difficulties. It has sometimes produced overcrowding and early improvident marriages, with a state of general nomadism; and the boys now getting no proper apprenticeship or discipline the young generation have not the skill of the older men; they cannot thatch or even lay a hedge, much less sheer a sheep in many parts, for their youth was one of roving and change, and no employer found it worth his while to teach them. Then we have the difficulty lately discussed in the Spectator (and also in Oxfordshire rather practically) of how far the tenancy of the cottage should be dependant on the employment. Now it is very desirable in every point of view, economic as well as humane, that the agricultural labourer should be attached to his cottage. The spirit of permanency and attachment will be found a most valuable one to preserve. On large farms, therefore, the better way to meet the tenancy and employment difficulty, to combine permanency and freedom, may be this. To allot some two or three cottages, or more in some cases, to go with every large farm for waggoners and stockmen with a fair notice to quit, the labourer paying rent to the landlord who accepts the farmer's nomination on a change of tenancy, (and if these cottagers were well selected and had the run of a cow on the farm, there would not be much change of tenancy.) To let the rest of the cottages on the understanding that the labourers worked on the estate: this is frequently done, and combines the freedom of the market as it were with the necessary supply of labour. Where boys or single men do not board in a farm house, there may be attached to the cottage of some permanent and trustworthy workman on the farm, a boarding house or second cottage for boys or unmarried men, who might be changing every year without affecting the permanent cottagers. It must be borne in mind that the progress of farming has made the relative difference between classes greater than before; the better way to meet this difference is by some system of cooperation or industrial partnerships referred to later, giving all the labourers some sort of interest in the farm.

Then as to Poor Law Administration, too large a subject to go into here; for years past the system adopted in some unions, of employers administering the rates directly or indirectly as a supplementation for low wages has been regarded by far seeing men with the gravest concern. Degradation, physical to the labourers, and moral to the farmers has been the result, and it is probable that the only real difficulty in meeting and arranging this labour question, will be where such a fatuous system has left its permanent traces. Now on most boards the chairman and officials are well able to administer the funds on a sound principle; but they are overruled by the other guardians, who would substitute for broad economic views such suicidal motives as supplementation of wages, private interest, penny wise policy, or misdirected charity. The difficulty of the remedy is that even when right principles of discrimination are adopted, the change must be exceedingly gradual: you cannot unteach dependance in a day; self-reliance and thrift require more than a single winter to learn. Let guardians give their confidence more freely to able and competent chairmen, and let the central board help instead of hindering. The present system as administered in some unions has almost destroyed self-reliance in the poor, and farmers, labourers and landlords, in those parts have become the victims of a vicious circle, that will need a very careful correction.

It has been said, and with individual exceptions, it may in some parts be true, that the farmers are rather hard on the men. Having lived among farmers and labourers most of my life, I wish to take this opportunity of saying that such is not at all my experience. The kindly relation between master and man, the care and sympathy shown for old workmen or their widows for instance, to which I can personally testify, entirely belie that accusation as one of general fact. It may be that in our part of England we are a little old-fashioned and still believe with Carlyle that "Cash-nexus" is not the sole relation between man and man. I confess that I, for one, have yet to learn that the present teachings of political economy, competition, and cash payment, have improved the honesty of work; or that the dismal science, as it has been called, fulfils entirely the highest aspirations and purposes of humanity. Future relations should be less feudal and more federal, but not less human.

Now for the practical remedies of this question. In every case they will be best applied by individual farmers and landlords on their several farms and estates: and it will be for the distinct interest of both to improve the status and quality of their workmen. Permanent improvement must be gradual, there is room for a little in most cases, and that apart from the question of direct wages, which is by no means the most essential element in this matter as S. G. O. says in the Times of the 4th inst. And the best of the men acknowledge this: "I would sooner have ten shillings a week, with the chance to keep a cow, than fifteen shillings a week without it," said the spokesman and leader of some labourers at a meeting in North Herefordshire the other day, and he was applauded by his fellows to the echo. This man was considered the best workman for many miles round, and had saved over fifty pounds:—his opinion is worth having.

The means of practical improvement then, are chiefly these:

1. Classification, such as is in use with contractors, creating as it were two or three grades of workmen, according to their efficiency, and paying them accordingly.

2. Piece work; more of this can be done on a farm than is generally supposed, if a little management is used; for instance turning and carting manure by the yard.

3. Industrial profits or payments by results; in a pamphlet entitled the "Farm Labourer in 1872," published by Messrs. Bentley, I have endeavoured to set this out in detail; and latterly many practical men, including the present Speaker of the House of Commons, have turned their attention to this point.

4. Good cottages and large gardens with fruit trees, or allotment, which will go far to pay the rent for the cottage, and improve the quality of the workman by teaching him to work on his own account: "good homes are more than high wages," says Lord Sydney Godolphin Osborne, in the Times, and practical experience entirely bears him out.

5. Land to keep a cow, say two or three acres attached to some of the cottages as a prize for thrifty workmen who have saved money: or the run of a cow on a farm, as in Northumberland, and other parts, will be found equally advantageous, and more practicable for the farmers in some cases. But this cannot so well be done where grass land is scarce.

6. A co-operative farm for the labourers. This would be a great advantage for the farmers as well as the men, if only to regulate wages, and to retain the best labourers. It would require a little care in starting it, and the men should be selected for having saved a few pounds. At Assington, in Suffolk, the amount of three pounds without interest was successfully worked, but great personal care was exercised. The two farms there have entirely succeeded: and it is proposed to start one or two in Herefordshire and elsewhere next year.

7. Migration and emigration. This is greatly required in some of the southern counties, but farmers and landlords should be careful to retain the best men by attaching them, in some of the above ways to the district, and letting only the inferior ones go. This will of itself legitimately raise wages.

8. An improved administration of Poor Law, one aspect of this whole movement is a protest against the present degrading administration; and one distinct object of the West of England Labourer's Association is to gradually exterminate rural pauperism as it has been shown to be exterminable (see their programme.)

Then here is a short description of the way in which this movement has been practically met in three places in West England, distinguished as Districts X. Y. Z. Although one only of those districts was in connection with the West England Association, yet the same moderate far-sighted principles which have guided those Western Pioneers, exercised a wholesome influence in the two other neighbourhoods, as no doubt has been the case in many other counties where intelligent men have come forward and set an example. And note here the great value of the presence of one or two intelligent employers, who understand some of the conditions of labour apart from actual farm operations, and know the relative value of a good and an indifferent workman. In one instance the man who took the lead was a farmer who dealt in timber, and employed occasionally thirty or forty men; he introduced a system of classification for his labourers just as he had worked his timber-men, which was adopted by others. In another case, a leading farmer of large intelligence and capital who had come from a distant country as a stranger to the local residents, set about a system of piece work in a low wage district, and with the help of an active landlord induced the surrounding farmers to do the same. In another place a farmer set the example who had been the manager of some Scotch estates, and understood something of draining and road-making: what struck me about that man was his extreme intolerance for a bad or idle workman, and his great patience for a really good one. He wouldn't have a bad workman at any price, because he cost so much in supervision.

District X.—An average low wage agricultural district with an absentee landlord, and great want of prospect and outlet for the labourers, as is not uncommon. But here was a parcel of first rate workmen who had saved considerable sums of money, whose legitimate aspirations no mere rise of wages would have met, but who asked temperately and patiently for some means of improving their condition, some interest direct or indirect in the soil. At one time it seemed as if emigration was the only way open to them, but these are not the sort of men that England can afford to lose. Under the guidance of the West of England Association migration to the North was promoted, and sent up wages two or three shillings a week. Then landlords were appealed to in a quiet friendly spirit to let allotments and cow land, and even under some favourable conditions a co-operative farm to the labourers. The consequence has been that gradually and without any serious ill-feeling a comfortable and satisfactory relation between employers and employed has been established; the men have not taken advantage of the farmers at the harvest, and the wages have been satisfactorily settled without any pressure. Several landlords are considering how to give the labourers some more interest in the soil, by way of gardens and grass land, and some have already done so; besides expressing their willingness to help with a co-operative farm, and next year one if not two such farms are about to be started. The labourers are content and feel now that there is a chance of rising before them, and a very general or satisfactory change has come over the district without any loss or ill-feeling.

District Y.—In an average agricultural county distinguished, however, by two special conditions. Pauperism had been virtually exterminated by a wise administration of Poor Law and by setting, and premium on thrift, and the interests of the labourers had been for forty years past intelligently cared for, more especially in selecting the most thrifty to hold small plots of land where they could keep a cow. There was little or no difficulty here in readjusting matters satisfactorily, the rise in wages being chiefly met by a system of classification and the principles of industrial partnerships were to some extent adopted. It would be incredible to some of those who have never offered to the labourers a means of rising by holding land, to see the way in which men will slave and save to obtain these small prizes: and the amount of self-respect, education and comfort which their acquisition wisely conceded will produce.

District Z.—In a low-waged, pauperized, typical south-western county, a resident landlord pointed out last year to his tenants the desirability of raising the condition of the labourers, and thereby sowed the seeds of what he afterwards was enabled to accomplish. One of his most intelligent tenants set about a system of piece-work last winter, by which in a district where ten shillings a week was the normal standard of wages, his labourers earned about fourteen shillings, and he found the labour by no means expensive; (one consequence of that intelligent policy was to give him a great command of labourers in the last harvest, for the men hoping to be set on again at piece-work for the winter, naturally preferred to work for him in the summer.) He also added considerably to their gardens by allotment ground with the consent of his landlord, and now many of the neighbouring farmers are following his example. The landlord, too, is making arrangements for letting some of the best men keep a cow. But further than this landlords and tenants have joined together to start a co-operative farm for the labourers, the farmers themselves offering to take up the shares to help the men to start it, allowing the labourers to buy them out by degrees as they acquired capital. This is rather a different story to what reaches us from Oxfordshire and Warwickshire.

Now as regards the concession of land for a cow to labourers (which many philanthropic men seem never to have heard as yet), I have letters of evidence from correspondents in many counties of England showing the advantage of such an arrangement; but it ought not generally to be more than an exceptional privilege, granted on the proof of money actually saved by the labourer. If one quarter or one-third of the cottages in a district were gradually allowed the privilege as a prize, practical experience, including the testimony of many farmers, shows it is advantageous; but considerable care should be used in selection.

Instances will be found recorded in the Report of the Agricultural Commission in Derbyshire, Cheshire and Shropshire, in Lincolnshire, Northumberland and Yorkshire and elsewhere, of such a system, if it may be so called, for in many parts it appears to be entirely unknown. The advantage of it is that the wife attends to the cow, and does almost all the labour required, leaving the man to attend to his daily work. Out of six of my own farm labourers four have a few acres of grass and keep a cow, and have done so for years; there never has been the slightest difficulty in their wishing to be at home when they were wanted by me, and their nett profit from the cow will be equal to five shillings or six shillings a week at least. The same system obtains in these other places, and the results are thus recorded by eye-witnesses.

A.—On the Duke of Rutland's estate in Nottinghamshire, a tenant farmer says: "It is quite remarkable what effect the possession of a cow-gate has upon a labourer; he seems quite a different person; he does his work much better, in an honest, cheerful way, as if conscious that he was not forgotten by those who employed him."

B.—On Lord Harrowby's property the same system obtains. It was the opinion of one well qualified to judge of the results of this when speaking of the present movement, that "the concession of cow land was the solution of the whole question of the agricultural labourer."

C.—In a certain district in an eastern county (as also in many parts of Yorkshire), most of the labourers keep a cow with the approval and to the advantage of the farmers. One eye-witness says of the men: "Although they get higher wages, they work far harder, and are cheaper workmen than those in the south, where I came from twenty years ago. We have no pauperism or 'poor people.' About two-thirds of the labourers keep cows. The cow club, of which I send you a copy of the rules, is managed by themselves, and prevents their being ruined by the occasional loss of a cow, which was of frequent occurrence during the time of the cattle plague. I wish I could see the same state of things in the south." Another eye-witness says: "The consequence (namely of keeping a cow) is the splendid fellows, fine intelligent men there are about here, and the farmers consider them the cheapest sort."

D.—In Scotland, on the estate of Mr. Hope Johnson in Dumfrieshire, the system of letting some of the most thrifty labourers have land to keep a cow is thus described in the Report of the Highland and Agricultural Society:—

"What we value chiefly in the system is its marked effect in producing and perpetuating an orderly, respectable and well-conditioned peasantry. The problem which is generally looked upon as difficult of solution, is here solved with eminent success. It has been shown to be quite practicable, to elevate the labouring man, not only without burdening the farmer and the landlord, but to the manifest benefit of both, to foster small holdings without depressing agriculture or retarding improvement, and to combine permanence with progress." Mr. Charles Stewart, under whose management this state of things has been brought about, writes to me thus, speaking of the present movement: "Those having cows kept as part of their wages, rarely proposed any addition to their wages, so much is the appreciation of this increased."

But there are many districts where, owing to the absence of grass land or other causes, such an arrangement as letting the labourers keep cows is attended with difficulty. Here it is just as easy to give him an interest in the soil by allotments and co-operative farming. The pages of the Agricultural Commission Report teem with instances of garden allotments and their good results. But here are three instances where something more has been done.

E.—In a West Midland county a clergyman a few years ago found a certain undefined feeling of discontent among the labourers of his parish. After taking counsel he set about a system of allotments of about one-third of an acre, which he is now extending in some cases of active thrifty men to as much as an acre. Thus giving an encouragement and way of rising to the most capable. There was little or no difficulty in this district in meeting the rise of wages, and no ill feeling or trouble. The same might be done elsewhere at the cost of a little trouble, exterminating improvidence and Pauperism.

F.—In a certain Midland county, the clergyman of which was also a landlord and farmed as well, a most enviable state of things has been brought about, and is thus described by an eye-witness: "Most of the farmers pay by piece-work, and every man has land, varying from a rood to an acre: that is the limit. They always cultivate the land; cows are unknown, and Mr. T—— said he had known men get fifty bushels of wheat from their acre. I asked him if the farmers had objected as usual to the land being given, and he said they had, but that they had begun to discover that the men who worked best for themselves, worked best for them, and that the feeling of wishing to do what was best for the labourer had strengthened very much lately. The T——'s (that is the landlord's family) are very splendid in every way, while living most simply themselves. I saw some magnificent farm buildings, nothing cheap or contract-looking about them."

G.—At Assington in Suffolk, forty and twenty years ago respectively, Mr. Gurdon, the landlord, let two farms to the labourers to be rented on the co-operative, or more strictly, the joint stock system. The results have been very remarkable, and would require a separate paper to describe, but suffice it to say that fifty-seven labourers, out of a parish of six hundred, or perhaps about two-thirds of the workmen are shareholders, and thus have an interest in the soil; the shares have increased in value between 1,000 and 2,000 per cent. A general spirit of content and comfort exists; Pauperism is virtually extinguished, and the undertakings are succeeding admirably.

H.—Then there is the power of establishing a cooperative store, which might save a labourer's family one or two shillings a week, and encourage habits of thrift, subordination and federation. A gentleman farming in Leicestershire writes to me that he has established a co-operative store, which began with £13, and turned over £2,000 last year; and they have lately taken seventeen acres of land, the rent of which is paid by the profits of the store, and let out in allotments by them. He is shortly going to publish his experience in the form of a pamphlet.

In all these instances there are two constantly recurring features: the presence at one time of some Individual Sympathy and intelligence; and as a result, the absence and virtual extinction of Rural Pauperism.

In conclusion and caution it should be repeated that this question will everywhere be best settled by individual farmers and landlords in their respective farms and estates, according to the conditions of the locality. In most places only a little re-adjustment of present relations is required; in some parts hardly that. But where congestion of labour and bad Poor Law have aggravated the conditions, something more may be required. Even here the leading employers or a few intelligent landlords in the county might easily direct the movement right. There are two courses plainly open before the farmers and landlords of this country and of every county or district in it: either by intelligent sympathy and the means herein practically described to make this movement an opportunity of advantage and security to themselves and all connected with the land, or to let it be a source of ill feeling, harm and loss. And one word of advice to those districts where the labourers have pressed unduly on the farmers, and taken undue advantage of the harvest to demand extortionate wages. In reducing the number of men after harvest, let there be no spirit of angry retaliation. Remember that if these men have been misled, they looked for the most part in vain to those who should have been their natural leaders. From some of the southern counties there may have to be a large migration; but let the men go with a God speed them; let landlords and others come forward where they are wanted to direct this exodus. The machinery is ready in the West of England Agricultural Labourers' Association: and more or less under the auspices of that Association there exists already in the Western counties of England a nucleus of intelligent landlords and farmers, practically persuading the rest, the effect of whose moderating influence and far-sighted policy may be seen even now, but will perhaps be more fully felt hereafter.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.