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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, March 2003
Berkshire Family Historian
March 2003

Farm service or servants in husbandry
by Walter Townsend

Most of us will have discovered farm workers somewhere in our family history as the majority of those who lived in rural areas were employed in some way in the agricultural economy. Some of us will have come across ancestors described as farm servants’ (or simply ‘servants’) by census enumerators. Farm servants were usually young, single and hired on a yearly contract. Here Walter Townsend describes, from family memories learned at his mother’s knee, the life of farm workers at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Both my parents, in their youth, were farm servants, my father working outdoors and my mother employed indoors helping the lady of the house with all her chores: the dairy, the poultry and looking after other servants.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, farm service was a common, perhaps the most common, way of dealing with rural youngsters when they reached working age and became too big and too hungry to fit into the crowded cottage of the agricultural worker. Children of farmers often went into service, so it was not only an institution catering for the labouring poor. The youngsters benefited from being housed and fed by the farmer whilst learning the skills needed to carry them through their working lives. They gained freedom from parental control and were able to broaden their horizons and mix with other workers within the system; they also received an annual wage from which the thrifty would save towards the future and marriage and which the not-so-thrifty would spend on beer and tobacco. They might, in their time as servants, work on several farms, usually within a radius of 10 or 15 miles of home.

In times when labour was scarce and wages consequently high, farmers were all in favour of a system that enabled them to hold a captive workforce throughout the year at relatively low cost. As farming became adversely affected by the importation of large quantities of Canadian grain and other foodstuffs towards the end of the nineteenth century, labour became plentiful and cheap and the system gradually died out in most parts of England. Then it was more profitable for the farmer to employ full-time only those workers essential for the day-to-day running of the farm, such as carters, shepherds or cowmen, and to engage casual labour when the seasonal workload made it necessary.

Farm Servants

Farm service ensured that few village children were without a job when they reached working age, and remained an established institution in a few areas of England until well into the twentieth century. My father, Charles Townsend, was a farm servant until 1929 and my mother, now 96, started her working life at the age of twelve as an indoor servant. This was in the East Riding of Yorkshire where, on the large scattered farms, farmers thought it prudent to keep their workforce near at hand. Because there was a shortage of men to work the land after the depredations of the First World War, boys of my father’s age were allowed to leave school early and could start work at the age of twelve. My father went into service, earning £8 for the first year as ‘third lad’ or 'Tommy Nowt’, the very lowest in the hierarchy of farm workers. The notoriously hard regime has been well documented: working from dawn to dark, often seven days a week (except when the master insisted that his workers attended church on Sunday), 51weeks a year for eight pounds. The horses had it easier, finishing work at 2.30 in the afternoon, while the lads laboured on. The youngsters did not go into service ignorant of what awaited them. They were fully versed in the ways of labouring life, having been engaged in it from a very young age, helping out on the farms whenever they could. By the age of twelve or thirteen they could manage a team of heavy horses. Going into service marked the start of their adulthood, an event they had been looking forward to as their escape route from the confinement of the schoolroom.

The hirelings lived with the farmer or farm foreman, whose wife looked after them and on whose cooking skills, care and consideration their wellbeing depended. Living conditions were basic and on the rough and ready side; sleeping in crowded attic rooms, sweltering in summer and waking to frozen-stiff clothes in winter, they had no bath or washing facilities except a cold tap in the yard outside the kitchen door. My father spent his first £8, paid in gold sovereigns in 1919, on a second-hand bike, a pair of strong boots, working clothes and a best suit — all made by village craftsmen — and gave the balance to his mother for her to use on his behalf as necessary. The large farms on the Wolds may have employed a dozen or more servants, so there was always plenty of company and friendships were forged for life.

Although they were engaged for a year, the servants were dismissed one week before the working year ended, a hang-over from the times of poor law settlement when a full year of residence in one place put the responsibility for their support in times of need on that parish. In the East Riding this dismissal took place at Martinmas, officially in the second week of November, but for agricultural purposes celebrated on or near the 23rd with the hiring fairs (something to do with the loss of twelve days when the calendar changed from Julian to Gregorian in 1752, I believe). As they were handed their lump-sum wage for the year, those favoured by the farmer would be asked if they would stay for another year. Whether they stayed or not depended on how they viewed their treatment during the year, for some farmers were bad masters. Those that left took themselves off to the nearest market town where the annual hiring fair was held. Dressed in their best they paraded to show themselves off to the farmers, who walked up and down assessing and questioning those offering their services. A servant was engaged for the coming year, after a bout of bargaining had settled the wage, by a handshake and the acceptance of a fastener or ‘fest’ of a form (10 pence) or half-a-crown (12fi pence). If the coin was accepted a legal contract had been drawn, which could not be broken.

Hiring fairs allowed the farm worker some scope for bargaining with his masters and it has been observed that agricultural wages in areas where they survived were far better than in those where they had died out. My grandfather, Henry Townsend, migrated to the East Riding in the 1890s because there were too many agricultural workers chasing too few jobs in his native Oxfordshire and wages were too low to sustain a family — 8 to 10 shillings a week. At the same time, on the Yorkshire Wolds farm wages were as high as £1 (20 shillings) a week and attracted many workers from the south of England. However, the introduction of a national minimum wage for farm workers sounded the death knell for the hirings and they gradually petered out in the East Riding, one of their last strongholds in England, to be replaced by annual funfairs, which continue to this day at the same time of year.

So the system of Servants in Husbandry persisted in Yorkshire until the 1930s generally and even into the 1940s on a few isolated farms. In the main it involved the young of rural areas and provided almost certain employment in their early adult years, with bed, board, training and a small income. When marriage came along a house and a weekly wage became a necessity and the erstwhile servant’s life-style changed dramatically. Many men who did not marry stayed in service for much of their working lives.

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created 30th May 2003