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Working on the farm

An analysis of KILKIE occupations in the 18th and early 19th century show all but one of them listed as “agricultural labourers”  The one non ag-lab was listed as a farmer owning less than an acre of land which was rented from a landlord (Griffiths valuation 1859).


At this time the vast majority of the population worked in agriculture. In general, at the beginning of this period, life for the smallholder and the land-less labourer was pretty good. Common land was still plentiful allowing the 'commoners' to grow their own vegetables, raise and graze their animals and to gather fuel for their fires. However, with the continuation of enclosure, the common land was gradually being handed over to single landowners who rented the land out to tenant farmers, who in turn hired casual labourers to work for them. This, combined with a down turn in the economy at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, along with the surplus of agricultural labour generated by the return of the ex-servicemen, meant that life was becoming more precarious for “ag labs”. Increased mechanisation, in particular the introduction of threshing machines, which took away valuable winter work from the labourers, made matters even worse.

In the 1830s, the 'swing' riots broke out in the southern counties of England which had been most affected by enclosure. The rioters were demanding a minimum wage, the end of rural unemployment, and tithe and rent reductions. The riots took the form of machine breaking (the hated threshing machines), arson, meetings and general unrest. These riots were the first demonstration of agricultural unrest and this unrest continued particularly after the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

So, how did our ancestors find work?

Many of them will have been born in tied cottages on farms where their parents were already working. They grew up on the farms and graduated from jobs suitable for children, such as bird scaring, to more skilled jobs as they grew older. They may even have taken over the tied cottage from their fathers at they died and been able to raise their own families on the same farm. Their wives and daughters would have worked in the dairy, vegetable plots or in the house. Although their lives may seem secure and comfortable, they were at the mercy of their employers who could, without any notice, lower their wages or even turn them out of their cottages if they felt they could no longer afford to employ them or if they had become too old or too sick to work.

Last modified onThursday, 22 December 2016 08:21

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