Alan Crosby's blog: All the fun of the hiring fair

By Jon Bauckham, 24 March 2016 - 5:22pm

Before job centres, young people across rural England could find work on local farms by attending a hiring fair. In this week’s blog post, Alan Crosby reflects on this strange, bygone tradition...

Dr Alan Crosby is the editor of the Local Historian and a columnist for WDYTYA? MagazineThursday 24 March 2016
Alan Crosby
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Hiring fair 1900 High Wycombe

Farm hands waiting to be taken on by new employers at High Wycombe's Michaelmas Hiring Fair, 1900 (Photo: Getty Images)

My highlight of this week was attending a fascinating talk about hiring fairs in northern England.

Every year or half-year the lads and lasses, from their early teens to their late 20s, went to the well-thronged local market town and offered themselves for farm service.

They were inspected by the farmers – and, in turn, they assessed the farmers, for it was a two-way process. On acceptance of the hiring penny (a token “down payment” on their year’s wages) the young people were taken on.

It was a remarkable institution, governed largely by custom and tradition, and it went on from at least the early 17th century until – astonishingly – as late as the 1960s.

But farm servants were not mere labourers. They were valued and highly regarded, proud of their calling and given some status. The employees lived with the family and were treated as such, eating with the farmer and his wife and children, and having lodging in dormitories or outhouses.

This was their right, though their wages, sometimes as much as £20 a year in the early 19th century, were not paid until the end of their one-year term. There were no written contracts, but the arrangement was legally binding and readily upheld at law.

The hiring system had disappeared in the southern counties in the 18th century and in much of the Midlands soon after. But in the north it was tough and durable – and, crucially, in the north there were good wages.

In Lancashire in the 1850s, farm workers’ wages were roughly twice those received by labourers in counties such as Wiltshire and Hampshire, with board and lodging on top of that.

Victorian writers made much of the destitution and near-starvation of the rural poor, but their evidence came mainly from the south. In the north, it was a quite different picture!

Alan Crosby lives in Lancashire and is editor of The Local Historian. He is an honorary research fellow at Lancashire and Liverpool universities.

 

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