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How to research ag labs

What does ag lab mean? And what records of ag labs remain? Here's how to break down brick walls in your family history and research rural ancestors

Ag labs pitch hay into a cart on a farm near Whitby, c. 1880

What is an ag lab?

The term ‘ag lab’, short for agricultural labourer, is a common profession given in the 1841 to 1911 census records. Indeed, 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 servants overtake it to the top spot.


Almost of all of us will have ag labs in our family tree, since many of our ancestors originally lived in rural areas before emigrating to the cities as the Industrial Revolution drew on. Many family historians greet the discovery of an ag lab ancestor with cries of frustration, however. Because there were so many ag labs and they were often impoverished, it can seem like a dead end trying to find out more about their lives.

Many family historians greet the discovery of an ag lab ancestor with cries of frustration

How to research ag lab ancestors

However, you needn’t despair – you can apply the same family history research techniques used elsewhere to discover more about an ag lab ancestor. First, try to find them in as many census returns as possible, and look for their baptism and marriage parish records, or civil registration records.

Next, use the website Victoria County History or British History Online to find details of the manors and landed estates in the area, so you can begin to investigate available records held locally. Many ag labs worked for tenant farmers of the landed estates, so researching estate records is paramount. You may also find them in trade union records, or in the local newspaper records available on Findmypast.

Other records worth looking at include workhouse records, tithe maps, old maps and legal records. Some ag labs even left wills.

The Rootschat forum is also a good space for discussing ag lab ancestors with fellow family historians.

The best websites for ag lab research

1. The Museum of English Rural Life

Museum of English Rural Life ag labs

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 ag labs.

The museum’s website is excellent – attractive, easy to use and navigate, with plenty of useful information presented in a visually-stimulating, digestible way.

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, old photographs, archives and objects) and the Bibliography of British and Irish Rural History.

2. A Web of English History

A Web of English History ag labs

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. Despite the somewhat old-fashioned layout, it has useful information and primary resources on lots of political and social events relevant to our ag lab ancestors’ lives, such as the Corn Laws and the Swing Riots.

3. Rural Museums Network

Rural Museums Network ag labs

This website provides a map of rural museums and information on aspects of ag labs’ work such as beekeeping, dairy-keeping and ploughing.

4. Agriculture and the Labourer

Agriculture and the Labourer ag labs

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 ag lab available online.

In accessible language, it explains the different types of employment, the nature of ag lab work, the tools used, the jobs that were allocated to women and children, community customs, leisure pursuits, the impact of the Napoleonic Wars and the growth of emigration to America and Australia.

6. British Agricultural History Society

British Agricultural History Society ag labs

Founded in 1952, the BAHS is the next step for those interested in ag lab ancestors, with a twice-yearly periodical, an online forum and a programme of talks.

7. Family and Community Historic Research Society

FACHRS ag labs

In the 1830 Swing Riots, ag labs across southern and eastern England destroyed the new farming machinery that they feared would rob them of their livelihoods. The FACHRS have published Swing Unmasked, a 320-page book based on their research into the extent of the riots. It’s on sale for £12 along with a disc containing the names of 3521 ag labs associated with the events.

Online articles for ag lab research

One of the most fruitful online sources of information on ag labs 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!

1. The Village Labourer

A digital copy of celebrated work The Village Labourer, by J L and Barbara Hammond, originally published in 1911.

2. Farm Servant vs Agricultural Labourer

Farm Servant vs Agricultural Labourer, 1870-1914, by Richard Anthony, examines the socio-economic structure of rural society.

3. Agricultural Labourers

Article on ag labs taken from an 1874 edition of The Cornhill Magazine.


4. Agricultural Revolution in England 1500 – 1850

A more accessible overview of agricultural change in England from 1500 to 1850, by Professor Mark Overton.