Georgian Agricultural Labour: “Men as Machines”


During the eighteenth century, England’s agricultural lands and economy changed from yeoman and peasant subsistence farming to something not too different from what is with us today: professional, commercial, market-oriented production, relying on sufficient inputs of capital to sustain ever-increasing levels of productivity. Just as now, ‘progressive’ farmers were turning more and more to ‘genetic modification’ (via the new technique of selective breeding) and the growing use of what was, for the time, expensive, ‘high-tech’ machinery.

It’s quite likely that the country would never have been able to support a rapidly increasing — and increasingly urban — population without the changes which took place. Nor could there have been the expansion of the middle class and the steady improvement in living standards, at least for the better off. Of course, there were losers as well as winners. The greatest losers were the rural poor: those who had once been peasants with access to common lands. They were now landless day-labourers, existing on poorly paid work, which was both seasonal and open to unexpected competitive pressures. The greatest winners were the moneyed elite. Plus ça change …

The rural labouring poor were essential, but that did not make them valued. A Swedish visitor to England in 1748 noted the prevalence of day-labour, especially in those parts of the country where enclosures had proceeded fastest.

In this place, it is the custom that a farmer does not keep many servants, but always employs day-labourers, for which reason in every village there live a great many poor, who wore themselves out to work for pence.

(Account of his Visit to England, P. Kalm, tr. J. Lucas, London, 1892)

Amongst those who thought and wrote about social conditions in England, such as Gregory King at the end of the previous century, the view was already common that the ‘labouring poor’ made no positive contribution to the country’s wealth at all, since their earnings were so meagre they could not support themselves most of the time. At regular intervals and in old age, almost all became dependent on poor relief. Taken as a whole, so the argument went, they and their families spent more time receiving parish support than contributing to the economy as a whole. Add to that the prevailing view amongst landowners, tenant farmers and almost everyone who had to pay rates to support the meagre handouts given under the Poor Law that poverty was self-inflicted — the result of idleness and feckless living.

What was going on?

Many writers and historians, especially those with a left-leaning view of social history, have placed the blame firmly on the shoulders of the ruling elites and the wealthier elements in the society of the time. There’s definitely a degree of truth in that, but it’s far from being the whole story. What it ignores is the novelty of the situation. The so-called Agricultural Revolution of these years was entirely unprecedented in scope and impact. I suspect few people understood the likely outcome of what seemed plain common sense: fresh ways of organising and delivering food production; ways that offered massive improvements in crop yields, animal husbandry and the supply chain from farm to market to final consumer.

Let’s return for a moment to my earlier comment that the new style of eighteenth-century closely resembled today’s agriculture, but without the use of machinery. Lacking suitable machines, manpower — and woman and child power — had to be used instead. Even when primitive versions of suitable machinery were invented, their take-up was slow. Not until mid-Victorian times were items like seed drills in common use. Why bother with machinery when there were people ready and eager to do the work?

Men (and Women) as Machines

The trouble with agricultural work is that it is intermittent and highly seasonal, depending on varying crop yields and even more varying weather. Harvest time requires all available resources, yet may occur on almost any days over a period of a month or more. Today’s high-tech farmer uses contractors with vast machines to hoover up his crop in a matter of hours. He doesn’t own the machines himself. If he did, all that capital outlay would lie idle for maybe 350 days a year or more.

Now translate the same problem to Georgian times. The farmer needs large numbers of labourers for short periods. He doesn’t want to employ them at other times. That would be money wasted, even if he could afford it. Instead, he hires them as and when he needs them, paying them by the day, and lays them off as soon as he can. It’s simple business sense. It’s not his problem if they have no work at other times.

Those few skilled agricultural workers needed all year — shepherds, stockmen, wagoners and perhaps ploughmen — would be hired via the annual hiring fairs, contracting their labour at a set rate for the 12 months to come. They had some job security. The day labourers had none.

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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