Notes of 3rd October 2016 Meeting Main Topic – The Lives of Agricultural Workers Shirley Morgan

Geraint opened the meeting to another full house and welcomed , in particular the ‘throng’ from New Radnor – Marion’s Team of Jennifer, Robin and Susan. Rachel, who came from Kerry, is new to the area and to the group. Geraint also pointed out that Elizabeth had: ‘brought her husband along’! Peter. Peter mentioned that they were settling in to the Old Rectory in Dolau and that they were still setting up their Book-selling business’, Castle Books.  Reference was made to the ‘Walking the Old Ways of Radnorshire’ which is available at the Thomas Shop.

Geraint indicated that it is time to draw members attention next year’s diary. He, Mary and Derek, are looking for suggestions.  The next meeting will feature Derek who will be talking about the history of the Post Office.  The Meeting on the 5th December will be at Penybont Hall when there will be a focus on ‘extreme weather conditions’.

Mary confessed that she and Richard have ‘retired’ from the village and they are currently staying in a Bed and Breakfast facility in Llandrindod before moving into their new house as soon as it is ready for occupation.

Geraint has been talking to Frank Morgan about showing some of his ‘movies’ of Penybont alongside some of the new slides that Geraint has had given to him over the last year. This will be an additional session on  15th November .

Lynda has opened a Facebook page for PenybontRadnorshire, and it is hoped that this will provide a better way of managing the numerous pictures that are now in Geraint’s collection.

Main Topic – “The Lives of Agricultural Labourers” – Shirley Morgan

Most of us have an Ag Lab as an ancestor. Who were they and where did they originate. Shirley wondered whether we looked back at a ‘romantic age’ and mourned the loss of a rural cultural identity as in the books of Thomas Hardy.

They emerged with the Enclosures, where cottagers with land and common rights were powerless to prevent exploitation by wealthy landowners. Up to that point there was a culture of co-production on the common land that was managed by the community in strips that were prone to disease and were not as productive as farm management systems that were coming in.  After the Enclosures Act of 1801, families who had lived for generations on their small-holdings with commoner’s rights were deprived of their holdings and forced to become a landless working class employed by the landowners who created large farms. The Agricultural Revolution saw the rise of capitalist farmers who adopted better farming processes – drainage, crop rotation, animal husbandry, machinery, increased production of winter fodder – (turnips), leguminous plants: based on the principles developed by Jethro Tull in the early 18th century. All these needed labour, so that by the time Victoria came to the throne farming had in many places had become a business instead of a means of subsistence. Villages came to have a hierarchy – squire, tenant farmer, and the landless labourer, who was at the bottom of the social scale.

The general social unrest of the 1830’s was felt among agricultural workers. The harsh workhouses instituted by the Poor Law had a marked effect in the country areas and combined with low wages and fear of increased mechanisation, riots and rick burning, and the destruction of threshing machines broke out in many areas. 1834 saw the protest by the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who founded ‘The Friendly Society of Labourers’. Their sentence of transportation was reprieved and their courageous actions  helped pave the way for the creation of trade unions and the protection of labourer’s rights.

As the century progressed agriculture saw increasing prosperity. The period up to 1870 has been described as the ‘golden age’ of Agriculture. The Crimean War and the increase in the number of urban dwellers caused the price of agricultural goods to rise sharply. The development of the railways provided quick transportation. The Great Exhibition of 1851 showcased the wide variety of machinery, wages rose and social unrest declined.

However, it was short-lived as from 1873 inwards the long depression in agriculture set in. Animal diseases and wet summers took their toll, but it was the cheap imports of American wheat caused the price of wheat to fall. Refrigeration ships brought Argentinian beef and Australian lamb and canning processes improved. Labourers suffered, many left to work in urban jobs, and again there was an attempt to form unions .Joseph Arch, a farm labourer, founded the National Agricultural Labourers Union which encouraged striking. He visited Presteigne in September 1874 and spoke

He was the first labourer to be elected an MP in the election of 1885. He visited Presteigne in September 1874 and spoke for an hour to a crowd of 5000. The demands for higher wages were considered outrageous by the farmers, but public opinion forced them to make concessions and wages rose by one to two shillings. Emigration was very high among agricultural labourers, in Radnorshire in 1869 a liver fluke epidemic caused wholesale destruction of the sheep flocks so there followed a wave of emigration to the USA.

The beginning of the new century saw moderate prosperity for farmers with the introduction of new breeds of cattle – Friesian, Shorthorn; and new grass strains, but this meant nothing to the labourer.

The landslide victory of the Liberals in 1906 brought a large number of changes, Old Age Pensions took away the fear of the Workhouse for agricultural labourers who had made up a large proportion of the elderly occupants. It was the threat of the Incremental Value and Underdeveloped Land Bill of 1909 which caused the massive changes to the way of life in the countryside. It started a flood of sales of the larger estates. Many land-owners, including the Severn’s and Ormathwaite’s, saw their land as poor investment so they unburdened themselves of their vast estates. In many cases it was tenants who bought a farm; often employing family members and perhaps one or two hands. Shirley’s Great Grandfather was one such farmer who took  advantage of ‘cheap’ farm land prices but had to raise a mortgage of £900 – equivalent to £1,000,000 at today’s prices!

The 1901 Census shows that within 10 years 50% if farm labourers had left the industry. Move to the increasing opportunities in towns and cities was one factor, but education was undoubtedly another. There were the adults of working age who benefitted from the 1870 Education Act. Indeed some critics blamed education for destroying country life. One farmer lamented that ‘boys kept at school to 13 years of age became accustomed to a warm room and dry feet and showed no liking for a cold north east wind with sleet and rain, and mud all over his boot-tops carrying turnips to the sheep.

In the eve of the Great War Britain was only producing a fraction of the nation’s food – 4 out of 5 slices of bread were made of imported wheat, and 3 out of 5 spread with imported butter. One of the first things that happened was the establishment of War Agricultural Committees. The drain of young men to the forces has been well documented and must be one of the saddest things to impact on farm labourers.  Civilians from all walks of life were drafted in to the industry – farmers complained about having chocolate makers and piano tuners, etc.; prisoners were also used for agricultural work; but the Women’s Land Army made its first appearance, sometimes romanticised they were useful in the land.  The War Years are remembered for the first appearance of farm tractors, many of them home produced, but their influence was limited due to the lack of operating and maintenance skills.

Farm workers experienced a decline in wages during the War, returning soldiers were reluctant to return to the land. For some there was no alternative and possibly  with new confidence they returned optimistically thinking that the new found strength of the unions would enhance their prospects. Unions experienced a revival possibly because of the radical attitude among returning soldiers, but fragmentation of workers and bonds between employer and worker calmed it down. The 1921 Census shows a huge reduction in the number of agricultural labourers. There was mourning for the passing of a way of life and a realisation of how precious and skilled agricultural workers had been. – Thomas Hardy.

The thirties saw the fastest decline in the labour force than in any other decade. Wages were lower, there was little job security, hours were long and holidays were rare.

At the outbreak of the 2nd World War, Britain found herself again relying on foreign imports, but this time she was more prepared in other areas. – War Agricultural Committees were in place, there was a reserve of fertiliser  and machinery and targets were set. Experienced farm workers  were exempt from conscription and industry was prohibited  from employing agricultural workers.  Three months before the outbreak of war the Women’s Land Army was rushed into existence and by 1943 it had reached 100,000. They had distinctive uniforms and received 28 shillings a week. We must not overlook the part played by prisoners of war who in 1946 formed one sixth of the labour force.

How Did Agricultural Labourers Find A Job?

The Hiring Fairs were very common in Radnorshire, and were generally held in May. Farm servants who lived in were generally hired in this way. Girls wore aprons and the boys and men wore smocks or had an emblem of their trade; e.g. cow hair or sheep’. The agreement was clinched with a shilling known as ‘earnest money’. Hiring Fairs continued to be held in Rhayader, Knighton, Builth  and Penybont well into the 1940’s. Newspapers and word of mouth also played a part in advertising a vacancy.

Wages have always been a cause for contention. Children put out to work on farms sometime got nothing for their first year and £1 for their second.  In 1868, a strong capable girl could be had for £3 per year. Servants were completely at the mercy of their ‘masters’, their terms of employment had to be completed. Until 1875 absconders were punished with heavy fines or imprisonment. Very often it is hard to calculate a labourer’s wage as perks were often included; e.g. buttermilk, potatoes, or meals at the farmhouse in busy times. If a cottage was provided it would probably be cramped and basic. The idyllic view of a farm labourer returning home to a picturesquely furnished house and glowing log fire was false.

Sime idea of the wages paid by a farmer is shown by the diary of John Stephens who kept a pocket book covering 1895 -1905. No record of wages for his housekeeper Evangeline Jones. John Williams was recorded as receiving £41 per year; but other Agricultural workers got just £14 and Lizzie only got £6.

Food was basic – potatoes, bread and flummery were staples. Beef and mutton didn’t appear on the labourer’s table.

Clothes saw smocks disappearing throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. Men’s clothes had to be serviceable in all weather. Moleskin, corduroy and Derby tweed were used for trousers and waistcoats with collarless flannel shirts. Waterproof clothing was invented in the 1820’s and wellingtons in the 1850’s, but they didn’t become affordable or generally available until the 1940’s. George Lewis says that the common wet weather coat was a Gopsil Brown sacking slung around the neck and fastened with a piece of wire called a ‘bad uck’. Rubber wellies were preceded by hob-nailed boots and gaiters or trousers simply tied with a bit of string. Boots would have to be checked regularly and repaired at home.

Jobs were many and varied. A general farm workers life would be characterised by  hardship and lack of opportunity. Young boys  known as ‘lumpers’  were expected to assist  in  the whole range of tasks, lifting and carrying, and all the time learning until they were able to do all the labours of a man. The trademark of a good labourer was versatility, he would sow seeds, hoe, weed, mow, make hurdles, cut chaff spread dung, thresh, hedge, ditch, and mend roads.

Horsemen (waggoners) were expected to take a pride in their animals. Their day would begin at 5 a.m. when they had to feed and harness the horses  for work by 7.00 a.m. Work would vary with the seasons – ploughing, harrowing, muck spreading, general carting, and harvesting.  They would be expected to feed and bed down the horses after the long day’s work. Chaff had to be cut the night before and soaked to make it more digestible. The coming of mechanisation meant that this lovely partnership of horses and men rapidly became a thing of the past. Scenes remain poignant.

Cowmen had an early start. Milking was dine inside and outside. Calving had to be supervised  so this meant long unsociable hours were worked. Foddering, watering, and mexing had to be done whatever the day.

The Shepherd’s role was often romanticised by artists, but it was a hard one. Lambing was done out of doors and lambs often needed help to survive. Sheep washing, dipping, and shearing were hard work.

Harvest was a hard time for labourers.

The hay harvest moved from being wholly manual to mechanised – one of these could do the work of 4 labourers with scythes. It was turned by hand or horse rake, put into cocks and loaded onto a gambo. The years after the war saw the gradual mechanisation of hay making – balers.

Oats were harvested mostly in the area. Again it was cut by scythe and hand tying of sheaves before the introduction of reaper binders after WW1. The building of ricks for hay or straw was a skilled one which died out with the advent of French barns in the 50’s. Again a precious labourer’s skill was lost.

Local Agricultural Labourers

In the Penybont / Llandegley area the only farms independent from the estate were those owned by the Duggan and Watkins families. These employed several labourers that might include: Waggoner; Agricultural Labourer; Sheppard; Servants – Often about 8 people.

Most of the farms in the area were small and rented from the Penybont Estate and these employed at least one or two  farm servants. But as we have seen  the 1909 Land Valuation Act which heralded the break-up of the Ormathwaite Estate. Tenants were given the opportunity to buy their farms  and so tenants became owners. If there were no family members to work the farm then help was employed.  This was often a young boy – lumper, who lived in and was paid minimal wages with keep provided. The lot of these young people varied greatly depending on the generosity of the farmers and their wives. The social position of these farmers  was no higher than their servants. Lots of evidence to suggest there was a happy, respectful, co-existence between  the boss and the labourer. Refer to George Lewis  being taught to read by the waggoner, Emrys and Emlyn living as part of the family in the Elan Valley. However there are stories of harsh treatment – Nantmel and another labourer now nearly ninety who started work at the age of 15 years in 1943, earned £50 a year and never ate with the family.

We are going to look at the lives of some local labourers, obviously I have not been able to talk to anyone older than ninety. Hopefully this will reflect some of what has gone before.


Norah Morgan

Norah was born in Salford, Manchester in 1926 and cane down to Crossgates with the Women’s Land Army. Based at the hostel she worked on numerous farms around the area. She recalls never having seen a cow or sheep and remembers a farmer putting her on a , and after she had fallen off, he slapped its backside and off she went. As the war progressed she learned to drive a tractor, plough, and do the work that men could do. She even sang with a band in Rock Park. A parade pf the Land Army young ladies caused quite a stir.

Richards Family

Evan, born 1915, went into service around the Clungunford area when he left school, and as you will hear worked with horses. His parents, our grandparents,  bought Baileyshonllwyd just before the war and he spent his working life  there before retiring to Baileymawr in 1986. We listened to a tape of Evan speaking of his life as an Agricultural Worker. Starting in 1936 he worked with sheep, cattle, and poultry. They made milk and butter.

Evan was able to tell us that he worked for a cousin who farmed at Cornhill. The work included sheep, cattle and poultry. They were also involved in milk and butter. Work over the years also included ploughing and growing mangels; cutting turf for the winter. He worked a lot with horses – this involved very long hours from 5.30 a.m. to 10.00 p.m., for pay that was just 10s per week. He did manage to save up the buy a car for £3 which was equivalent to 3 heifers and a calf. The farm was 85 acres. When he moved to Bailey Mawr this was just 14 acres and not enough to provide a loving. One of Evans favourite duties was to break-in horses at about 18 months old. Horses were generally bought at Newbridge or Radnor sales in October and November. Evan lived well, keeping busy and taking his luck until he was 95 years.

Tom born 1928 worked Old Castle, but later worked for the Davies Swydd and he received his long service medal from the Queen. Tom is Carol’s Dad, he lived on the Common, here in Penybont, where he kept sheep dogs. Tom enjoyed telling people that he had a hand that shook hands with the Queen!

Ann and Les Davies

Les started work for Lord Ormathwaite in 1950 and after their marriage in 1950 they moved to the newly built Waindu Cottage. Lord Ormathwaite had just inherited the title of Vl Baron Ormathwaite and what remained of the once large estate. Ann think that he had been involved in the aircraft business in Bristol. In 1973 Les was promoted to Farm Manager when the moved to Waindu. She recalls work as being hard with irregular hours, but fondly remembers Lord Ormathwaite as being a kind and thoughtful employer who treated them as though they were his own family. Lord Ormathwaite was Godfather to their youngest son, Clive on the condition that he didn’t have to make a speech! Les received his long service medal on 1986 from Cledwyn Hughes and retired in 1993. His catch phrase was: “What are we going to do today?” Hours were long but he found the work to be very rewarding.

John Abberley (Unfortuantely John was not with us today to add to his already colourful picture)

Born at the Ffaldau to Bill and Margaret, they rented the farm and they concentrated on milk production. Milking, bottling, and delivery were all done by the family. John did deliveries on his bike. John worked at home but found that neighbouring farms needed help occasionally, so be became an itinerant farm labourer at 10 shillings a day. It became evident that there was no future for him at the Ffaldau as it was rented, so he took employment at Pritchard’s Garage. This was the time when the farm labourer was becoming a thing of the past. John’s working life is a good example of how so many far

John Bufton

One of a rare breed as he spend his whole life on the one farm. He started work in 1957 moving between Dolau Farm, Tyddu Farm, and Tanhouse Farm. He lived in as one of the family even though his home was nearby. Wages were £1 10s a week plus his keep. He worked there for 10 years and wages rose to £9 10s. The day would begin at 7.30 a.m. and would go on as long as was necessary. One perk was that he could sometimes go home on Saturday and they didn’t believe in working on Sundays.

A Year on the Farm with John

Jan             Hedging – he learned to hedge with YFC

Feb            Laying Roads

Mar             Lambing

April            Lambing and sowing oats and mangolds

May            Spreading manure and slag, turn cattle out and washing sheep

June                    Shearing, harvest

July            Dipping

August                 Sheep sales

Sept           Knighton Sheep sales, sheep taken by train

Nov            Cattle in

Dec            Cattle cleaned by hand

1966 married Carol and took a job in a Herefordshire Farm. Life was a bit different here, the farm produced potatoes, milk, beef, corn, sheep, and he drove the trailer with loads of apples into the city for Bulners. Here, Carol and John had a house and 2 weeks holiday. But he cannot h explain why he came back! By the took a job with a house in Llanbadarn Fynydd and there he stayed for 38 years, John received his long service medal in 2007.

Geraint thanked Shirley for her talk and insight into the changing rile of Agriculture and the lives of Farm Labourers.

Gwen was able to give us additional insights as she grew up a farmer’s daughter and was expected, and did, much the same work as her brothers.  She had a hand in milking, making butter, salting bacon, picking fruit, making pickles, cutting corn, making sheaves. Then binders came on and she took a hand in this too.

As a Land Girl and mother she had to make ditches by hand – a dreadful job.

Tom was a waggoner and cowman late into the 50’s.

There was discussion of the practice on Sundays  – Particularly at harvest time. Crops could be ruined if they did not work on a Sunday. Some did and some didn’t. Some, as Jennifer had found out, gave the appearance of not working, but did work where they could not be seen from the road.

In another family ‘Father’ would not work on Sunday until the Vicar came to tea and declared when asked: “Why not!”


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