Most of us will have an ancestor who worked as an agricultural labourer at some point. In fact, the 1851 census records 1,460,896 people working as an “ag lab”, farm servant or shepherd – more than in any other field of employment. Only in 1871 did domestic service overtake it to the top spot.
Before the Industrial Revolution, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many of our forebears would have toiled in Britain’s fields, but there are no websites devoted to studying them, says Ian Waller, author of My Ancestor was an Agricultural Labourer. “Data-wise, there’s nothing. But there’s a fair amount of commentary and historical information available, which is very useful because it will give you a better understanding of what an agricultural labourer did.”
Much of what has been published on agricultural labourers has been printed in paper form, so Waller recommends downloading academic articles in the form of PDFs. These documents – and other helpful sites – can be difficult to unearth, so on the following pages, we’ve done the hard work for you.
The Museum of English Rural Life
Founded by the University of Reading in 1951, the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) houses objects, archives, photographs, film and books, recording changes in the countryside and the lives of people in farming communities.
The museum’s website is excellent – attractive, easy to use and navigate, with plenty of useful information presented in a visually- stimulating, digestible way. It almost makes up for the paucity of other sites on this research topic.
From the home page, check out the online exhibitions. Most useful for family history purposes is the Collections section, which gives an introduction to MERL’s collections along different themes.
You can also search the museum’s catalogue online to find out if it’s worth a visit. The database covers the main MERL collection (library, photographs, archives and objects) and the Bibliography of British and Irish Rural History. This can be used to discover more about the contents of material held by the library.
A Web of English History
Beginning life as a student reference tool called Peel Web, this site has grown into a valuable resource on later 18th and early 19th century English history. It’s Ian Waller’s favourite site, with “lots of information on the rural unrests, up to and including the Swing Riots”.
The way the website is laid out is rather uninspiring – pages are presented as short articles punctuated by illustrations, tables and lists. However, key terms and individuals are hyperlinked so you can easily extend your reading as you go. “If you wanted information on, for example, the Poor Law, you can click through to that,” Waller explains. “It can lead on to lots of other things.”
Rural Museums Network
The daily toil of a Welsh hill farmer shepherding sheep would have varied enormously from, say, that of an East Anglian agricultural labourer harvesting grain. Taking your research to a local level will help you better understand your ancestor’s experiences, and this is a good place to begin.
Use the online map to find links to obscure museums all over the British Isles, from a historic farm in Shropshire to a museum of rural life in Usk. A visit to one in the relevant area could be a real eye-opener. The Somerset Rural Life Museum, for example, features the life story of a local farm worker, John Hodges.
Agriculture and the Labourer
Although concerned mainly with Cambridgeshire and containing some information specific to that county, this is one of the most accessible introductions to the life of an agricultural labourer available online.
In accessible language, it explains the different types of employment, the nature of agricultural work, the tools used, the jobs that were allocated to women and children, community customs, leisure pursuits, and the impact of war and legislature on quality of life.
Also look out for…
One of the most fruitful online sources of information on agricultural labourers is academic articles – either posted in full or as downloadable PDFs. Here are five of the best you can read for free, but be warned – they can be rather hard going!
The Village Labourer
A digital copy of celebrated work The Village Labourer, by J L and Barbara Hammond, originally published in 1911.
Farm Servant vs Agricultural Labourer
Farm Servant vs Agricultural Labourer, 1870-1914, by Richard Anthony, examines the socio-economic structure of rural society.
Article on agricultural labourers taken from an 1874 edition of The Cornhill Magazine.
Article about agricultural labour in Ceredigion, Wales.
A more accessible overview of agricultural change in England from 1500 to 1850, by Professor Mark Overton, can be found here.
Those who wish to take their research to the next level should visit the website of the British Agricultural History Society, founded in 1952 to promote the study of the history of agriculture and of rural economy and society.
The Family and Community Historical Research Society (FACHRS) conducted a project aiming to determine the true extent of the Swing Riots, a spate of agricultural uprisings that occurred in parts of England between early 1830 and spring 1832. Find out more about the project here. You may also wish to buy a £10 copy of the Swing Unmasked CD-Rom, which includes the names of 3,521 people documented as taking part in the protests.
Forums are a great place to share information and ask questions. Rootschat.com has a lively forum on agricultural labourers. Based in rural Britain, but not strictly speaking agricultural labourers, millers, millwrights and their kind are well-served by The Mills Archive. The site has records and history relating to traditional mills and milling and contains thousands of digital images, documents and other databases.
Photo © Hulton Archive Getty Images