Wigtownshire Pages, Articles, History

The Wigtownshire Pages

Farm Servants and Agricultural Laborers

by Crawford MacKeand
Which is which? And is there a difference? Yes, there is quite an important difference, and while the main points here are from C.S. Orwin's book "The History of Farming in England", I have a few data examples saying that the same terminology and practices applied in Galloway.

Firstly, an agricultural laborer is not a farm servant & vice-versa. In the 1851 Census, my family members in Sorbie, Wigtownshire were

John Head Farm Servant
Elizabeth Wife  
Mary Dau Ag Lab
Anthony Son Servant in Dairy
Elizabeth Dau Ag Lab
Anna Dau Scholar
The Farm Servant was just a little further up in the pecking order. Maybe quite a lot further if you were at the bottom! If single, he "lived-in" and bed and board were part of the contract for hire, and if married, he was provided with a house or a cottage, with possibly some grazing rights or strip of land to use and some provisions for the family. Cash wages were maybe less than 40% of total income. Hiring could be a continuation of existing employment or a new contract established at a "hiring fair", and was normally for a one year period, or at least six months.

The worker looking for a new post, and the farmer looking for a new hire attended one of the many "hiring fairs" where men and women advertised their availability for work; men in their trade by a traditional "badge", a piece of whipcord for a horseman, plait of straw for a thatcher, crook for a shepherd etc. Women were often hired in a hall set aside for the purpose, men on the streets.

In some areas the Farm Servant was also known as a "confined man" and this was a desirable status to be aimed at. He, almost always he, was skilled typically in horse or other livestock care (mine seem to have been horsemen) and was therefore employed continuously year round.

The Agricultural Laborer on the other hand was paid day wages, hired on a short term as and when work was needed, and therefore much more characteristic of arable farming, for planting, hoeing, reaping etc. He or she was given no accomodation, often operated as part of a gang under a contractor, and received only wages. In the example above, it is clear that youngsters, who could still live at home with parents or other close family, would get a start, some experience, and maybe some training as agricultural laborers. In the fullness of time, the usual pattern was that a boy would finally obtain the coveted "Farm Servant" position, and when a house became available would marry a girl, and so the cycle of life continued.

This system prevailed well into the 20th Century and could only be superseded by a modern mobile society able to "commute" to work. For the period most of us are interested in, census distinction between the two "grades" of employee may help clarify who was where & when.

Crawford MacKeand
Greenville, Delaware USA, Feb 2002