Who worked the Edwardian farms?



When Edward came to the throne in 1901 the number of farmers in England and Wales was about 225,000 according to the census of that year, a small fraction of the total population of 35.5 million. There were 620,000 agricultural labourers, and, taking into account the members of the farmer’s family, the concrators and others engaged in agriculture, a total of about 1.2 million is reached. Farming was now a small part of a larger industrial, commercial and urban economy: no more that 8% of the labour force of Great Britain, having fallen from 15% in 1871. Numbers were falling as well: in 1871 there had been 962,000 labourers and 249,000 farmers.

Agricultural mechanisation in the early 20th century

Agricultural mechanisation in the early 20th century

Those farmers embraced a wide range of people. Probably the majority had been born into farming and followed in family footsteps. Others came into farming from outside. Some of these were drawn from the ranks of farm labourers, but most entered farming from another line of business.

Some farmers were highly successful businessmen. Mr Street, with his 600 acres in Wiltshire, was one of them, but there were some who farmed on a scale larger than that. George Baylis, who farmed a total of 10,000 acres on the Berkshire Downs, was at the top of the scale.He had built up his enterprise, taking advantage of the opportunities presented by farmers who had fared badly during the depression, leaving farms available for him to take over, one after another.

The most farmers still used good old horses

The most farmers still used good old horses

Those who had the large farm holdings were the elite of farming society, and often wealthy with it: although in a small minority, they had a disproportionate influence, for their farms occupied nearly 30% of the agricultural land of England, and in the eastern counties nearer 80%.

However, most Edwardian farmers operated on a small or medium scale. Of the 340,000 farm holdings of more than 5 acres in England and Wales in 1908, more than half (58%) were smaller than 50 acres; 37% were between 50 and 300 acres. The very small farmers under 50 acres were in a special category in many ways. Many were part-time holdings, but there were small diary farms and small horticultural farms of the Fens or Vale of Evesham that could provide a living for a family. The ‘typical’ farmer, if one may be found, was the farmer of 100-200 acres or so.

Early Edwardian farmers

Early Edwardian farmers

What nearly all Edwardian farmers shared, whatever their background or scale of business, was that they were tenant farmers, as their fathers and granfathers had been before them. In broad terms about 90% of the farms were tenant farms. Farmers rented their farms from landowners: some of them aristocratic and greater gentry owners of many thousands of acres; others the local squire with smaller estates; and some corporate owners, such as the Crown Estate or Oxford colleges.

Many of the farms recorded as owner-occupied were in the landowners’ hands because they could not get a tenant. A few lanowners had made a positive decision to farm their own land. Lord Wantage took this step in the 1890s, taking 10,000 acres into direct management at Ardington and Lockinge in Berkshire. Lord Rayleigh ran some of his land as an estate enterprise managed by his brother, Edward Strutt. These were rare examples. Of greater effect was the sale of surplus land that some estates were embarking upon, and farmers were among the purchasers. Quite a few of the farms George Baylis took over were freehold. The result of these developments was that the balance was starting to change, so that by 1914 there was more owner-occupier farming. This was a movement that gathered pace after the WWI.

Milk transport by train in early 1900s

Milk transport by train in early 1900s

The Edwardian farm was predominantly a family farm. Most farmers were married, theirs being something of a partnership in the land. Single farmers were mostly widows or widowers. Even those with large farms will have thought of themselves as family farmers, although they were in a position to act as managers of a large numbers of employees. On A.G.Street’s father’s farm there was a ‘crowd of men about the place’. There were seven carters in charge of the horses, six milkers for the dairy cows, two shepherds, six day labourers, a foreman and a groom – twenty-three people in all. Those were a regular employees; at hay-time and harvest there was additional casual labour. There was a distinct hierarchy: the horsemen and shepherds were at the top of the tree. They were usually employed by the year, on a contract starting at May Day or Michaelmas, depending on which part of the country they were in. Some were still taken on at the annual hiring fairs, but this was a practice in decline. Below these men were the general labourers – the day labourers, so called because they were employed on terms that offered them only the day’s work at a time.

The Manor Farm team at harvest time

The Manor Farm team at harvest time

It had been common for the young single men in the jobs hired by the year to live in the farmhouse. This was less usual in the Edwardian period, but by no means unheard of. However found, accomodation was often provided at no cost or subsidised; there were other allowances in kind for fuel and food which added to the basic cash wages. Even allowing for all that, wages were not high – less than a pound a week for the best paid, the shepherds, when a clerk in town could earn nearly half as much again. The general labourers were paid on average about 16s 6d a week, including allowances, to the 19s 7d of the shepherd. Low though these figures were, the Edwardian farm labourer – this was still the general term, although the name of the National Union of Agricultural Workers founded in 1908 indicated a new word was creeping in – was better off than his forebears. He was the beneficiary of the fact that prices had fallen since the 1870s by more than his wages, enabling him to afford more and better food. The quality of the cottages had also risen during the previous half-century, although there were still many who had to live in housing of a low standard.

Hay rake Dudmaston area 1909

Hay rake Dudmaston area 1909

Smaller farms needed fewer employees. For a sizeable minority, the only people in regular work on the farm were the farmer’s wife and children, additional help being drawn in as required from neighbours and the pool of casual workers. The general report to the 1851 census had noted that a third of all farmers in the country employed no labour. 50 years later nothing had changed in this respect: about 41% of the farm workforce in 1908 were relatives of the farmers. Dependence on the family was most common in the pastoral west of the country, where many a small dairy farm could work without employing additional labour, but even in some parts of eastern counties many of the smaller farms employed no regular labourers.

 

Guernsey cow breed

Guernsey cow breed

There were a number of independent agricultural workers who went from farm to farm doing such jobs as hedging, for which special skills might be required. Among these skilled itinerants were the sheep shearers. By the Edwardian years many of these were from New Zealand and Australia, who came to Britain to work during the antipodean winter.

The Edwardian farmer was in general better educated than his predeccessors. The young man entering farming would have passed through the national elementary education established during 1870s. He might also have attended one of a new agricultural education classes and colleges. The Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, founded in 1845, was still the most prestigious establishment, drawing its students mainly from the larger farmers and landowners.

Sheep shearers

Sheep shearers

A movement to encourage technical education at the end of 19th century led to the foundation of a number of new colleges for agriculture, such as Wye College in Kent (1894), The British Dairy Institute (1896) and Harper-Adams College, Shropshire (1901). There was a new textbook for a new age: William Fream’s ‘Elements of Agriculture’ had first been published in 1892. It sold well and reached its seventh edition in 1905, the last one to be written by Fream himself.

from Jonathan Brown’s “The Edwardian Farm”

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