Thursday, November 02, 2017

To "plough and to sow, to reap and to mow..."

As indicated at the end of yesterday's post, a little about the life styles of English farm workers - "agricultural labourers" of the past. Many of my own ancestors were part of this group, in Yorkshire and in the south-east and south-west of England. Information following comes from writings of someone who must be a distant relative of mine, in Yorkshire, her website is HERE. (Illustrations added by me).

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.

Farm servants were different from other agricultural workers in that they were hired for a year at a time. These workers found employment through the annual hiring fairs, which were held in the market towns of East Yorkshire during Martinmas week at the end of November. Hiring fairs were held in places like Beverley, Bridlington, Driffield, Hedon, Hornsea, Howden, Hull, Malton, Patrington, Pocklington, and York. Here the agricultural servants – male as well as female – would gather in order to bargain with prospective employers and, hopefully, secure a position for the coming year. If a bargain was struck, the farmer would seal the transaction by giving the hired lad or man fest, or fastening, money – a small sum – in recognition of the hiring. In the late nineteenth century the amount was usually 5s[hillings] for a wagoner and 2s[hillings]& 6d[pence] for other workers. Once the fest had changed hands, a legal contract had been entered into.

Local newspapers reported on these colourful and sometimes rowdy gatherings.

The Driffield Times, 15 November 1873:
Early in the morning the great stream of humanity rolled into the town, conveyed thither in every conceivable appliance that could be obtained for the occasion; but conspicuous among the rest were the heavy wagons with their living freight, which were deposited amid the greetings of those who had chanced to outstrip them in the drive to town. Other vehicles, from heavy wagons to the humble donkey and cart were to be seen threading their way through the streets to their several destinations. The railway Company, too, brought hundreds into the town by special and regular trains, which were literally packed. At nine o’clock the bustle was commenced in earnest, for by that time most of the servants had congregated …
One former Farm Servant described the fair -
"We lined ourselves up on one side of t’road and farmers on t’other. They looked you over, talked to one another, and asked each other if they knew you and what you were like. They’d discuss you among themselves. Then they’d come across and say, “Noo, lad, dos’t thoo want takin’ on?”"

This tradition continued right through into the 19th century. The hirelings lived with the farmer or farm foreman, whose wife looked after them and on whose cooking skills, care and consideration their well-being 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
An old rhyme about Martinmas:

"Come all ye dames arise
and let the maids lie still
They've risen all the year
It was against their will"

“Martinmas" [Note from Twilight: pronounced in East Yorkshire as "Mart'mas"] on the twenty-first of November, was when the farm servants would go to the Hiring Fairs in places like York and get hired by a new farmer if they didn’t want to remain with the farmer they were with. If they were "stopping on" they had to stay at home and do a days work. I remember hearing the workers talk about Martinmas.
"Is 'ta stopping on Jack?"
"Nay. I've packed me box. I'm off to the hiring's tomorrow. Bert."
"If you get taken on Jack, don't spend your fest all at once. Tha could get drunk for a shilling!"

The fest refers to when a man was taken on by a farmer, he was given a shilling to seal the bargain. The fest was probably a corruption of feast -a chance to go and treat yourself.”

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