By Haydn Brown.
During the first half of the nineteenth century many acres of waste land throughout Norfolk and East Anglia were brought into cultivation as part of a national development which followed in the aftermath of the French wars when the price of grain was high. This was a time of need land owners of light uplands cleared them of gorse, thistles and coarse grass and ploughed them to plant such crops as wheat and barley. Later in the century Fen landowners did something similar by using steam pumping engines to drain hitherto intractable marshlands, such as Deeping Fen a few miles north of Peterborough, and made them fit for cultivation.
However, most of this ‘new’ land was some distance from existing settlements, and farmers working it found themselves short of labour. They were reluctant to build permanent houses for their farm workers, because they feared that the inhabitants might later qualify for poor relief, and so become a burden on the rates. In similar circumstances in the 18th-century, farmers might well have found room in their own homes to accommodate their labourers, but by the middle of the 19th century the social gap between master and worker was far too wide for this to be an acceptable solution. Feelings on the subject were, in 1865, expressed more fully by one particular farmer’s wife whose husband was employing four young labourers:
“It is very objectionable having these men in one’s own house…. it is so bad for the female servants.”
The Establishment of Gangs:
Apparently, this particular wife overcame the problem by making the foreman take in the labourers – but many farmers favoured a more radical solution. They, in fact, dispensed with full time labourers as far as they could, and relied instead on the labour of agricultural ‘gangs’ which were established to satisfy the demand for labour.
Where local population numbers allowed, some farmers organised their own private gangs by recruiting women and children from the nearest village to be employed at busy times to work for a few days at a time. Others employed so-called ‘gangs’ which were organised by ‘gang-masters’. In many instances these ‘masters’ were usually unemployed farm labourers who recruited between ten and maybe forty women and children to work for them at a fixed rate of pay, after which they contracted with local farmers for their gangs to tackle specific jobs. The gang master had to be able to accurately estimate how long a given job would take. If he overestimated, then he would probably be too expensive to get the contract. On the other hand, if he underestimated, then he would charge too little and he would lose money on the deal.
It was the seasons which dictated the type of work done by the gangs. In winter, when there were few of them, they were employed to clear stones or sort potatoes. In spring, their work became more varied; some cleared such growth as couch grass by hand, whilst others spread muck, hoed, or planted potatoes. In early summer their work increased to include clearing fallow fields, hand-weeding grain and root crops, and helping with the hay harvest. Strangely perhaps, gangs generally disbanded for the main grain harvest in August and September, in favour of whole families coming out to work together. Then, by October, gangs re-formed for the potato harvest. In 1866, it was calculated that some 6,400 people worked in gangs in Norfolk, East Anglia and the East Midlands at some time during the year.
However, agricultural gangs had a bad reputation. Some of the masters were said to be unscrupulous by accepting contracts at rock-bottom prices, and then forcing their gangs to work for long hours to fulfil them. Some were considered immoral by taking, according to many, advantage of their status by demanding sexual favours from the girls and women in their gangs. Many gangs were noisy, unruly and regularly disturbed the peace on their way to and from work. It was also said that they tempted children away from school into what seemed too many to be a totally unsuitable environment.
It was Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury KG, who persuaded the Government, in 1865, to order an investigation into agricultural gangs. The Children’s Employment Commission was subsequently formed to take evidence from about 500 witnesses before presenting its report in 1867. In it they condemned the gangs and maintained that most of the masters were ‘men of violent and drinking habits’ whose influence was ‘very pernicious to the moral principles and conduct of the children and young persons of both sexes under their management’. It concluded that the manners of older members of the gangs were ‘coarse and irregular’, and that young people brought into contact with them were ‘hardened by early association with vice’.
The Commission also found that gangs usually worked about eight hours a day – perhaps an hour more in summer and less in early spring and late autumn. But these hours did not include travelling time and the commissioners quoted the two children, aged eleven and thirteen, who had to walk eight miles to work, labour for eight hours and then walk eight miles back home – all for 7d. a day. At the end of six weeks work they were said to be ‘good for nothing’.
The commissioners’ report also concluded that working in gangs seriously damaged both the physical health and the moral well-being of the children and young people involved, and they proposed various regulations to deal with the situation. A bill based on their recommendations was introduced into Parliament on July 29th, 1867, and given the royal asset on August 20th.
The ‘Agricultural Gangs Act’ sought to eliminate unsuitable gang-masters by setting up a licensing system. It also forbade the employment of all children under the age of eight, prohibited men and women working in the same gang, and made it illegal for even a licensed gang-master to take charge of a female gang unless he was accompanied by a woman license holder.
However, it may be somewhat surprising that the commissioners had, in some respects, painted a much blacker picture of gang work than was justified by the evidence they had collected, and on which their report was based. Though they were able to point to some cases of brutal or inconsiderate treatment, few witnesses seemed to agree with its assertion that gang work adversely affected the physical health of those involved. The scepticism of the witnesses was backed up by the evidence taken from boys and girls who themselves worked in gangs. For instance: one commissioner interviewed a sixteen-year-old Georgiana Rowan from Great Gressingham in Norfolk; she said that on her return from a day’s work near her home:
“We topped and tailed this morning for one farmer, she said, and forked docks this afternoon for another. We left the ground this afternoon at 5. Tomorrow morning, we shall start at 7. I take dinner with me to work, bread or bread with cheese or butter, but take no drink at this time of the year. [It was autumn] ……I don’t know what kind of work was hardest but we’re used to it now, and don’t mind it”
A Norfolk villager at the time felt that many young workers agreed with such a view, along with others:
“The children often come home wet,’……. but I believe they are fond of the work. They reckon to have some fun.”
Even a local magistrate, who believed that the gang system was ‘attended with much evil’, had to admit that children in gangs usually looked ‘happy and cheerful both in going to and coming from their work’. This positive attitude of many gang children was probably due to the fact that it was usually temporary and they welcomed outdoor gang work as a change from the classroom. Hannah Staff of Downham Market also gave a parent’s view. ‘My girl aged fifteen works in the gang. It is a deal healthier than the flax factory.’
But when the commissioners asserted that gangs damaged the morale of those who worked in them, they were faithfully reflecting the opinion of the majority of their witnesses. A Norfolk doctor came down to basics by saying:
“It is most indecent with boys and girls of that age out all day always together, and with no hedges or concealment of any kind. Nature must be relieved, and the workers drop out for this, and then the boys laugh at the girls.”
Another witness had reported that during their dinner time girls would take off ‘their petticoats etc’ and hang them up to dry, while a third had seen boys ‘bathing in a pond, while the girls were sitting round on the bank.’ Certainly, the sexual morals of the rural poor seemed unconventional when judged by respectable middle-class standards. One vicar said:
“I seldom marry any of them without being obliged to see the bride to be of larger dimensions than she ought to be.”
A more moderate, and perhaps more realistic view, came from several clergymen who probably knew more about the living conditions of the rural poor than did many other witnesses. They felt it was easy to exaggerate the pernicious influence of the gangs compared with other aspects of rural life. For instance, a vicar of Terrington in Norfolk painted a detailed picture of most cottages in his parish having only two or three rooms; where there were three, one was frequently let to a lodger, so that the family had to squeeze into the other two. Some cottages only had one room, and the vicar mentioned a case where one family, consisting of a father, mother, three sons and a grown-up daughter, all living in just a single room. He concluded:
“I fear that much immorality, and certainly much want of a sense of decency among the agricultural labouring classes, are owing to the nature of their homes, and the want of proper room: more so probably to this than to gang or field work.”
Many witnesses were particularly vehement about the bad effect of gang labour on the attitude of the girls involved. ‘They get so bold and know too much’, said one farmer. People seemed to take it for granted that the daughters of the rural poor ought to go into service in some respectable household where they would do useful work, be imbued with a proper sense of respect for their betters, and learn enough domestic skills to be able to keep house for their future husbands. Gang labour did not fit into this scheme of things. Indeed, it disrupted it.
The Rector of Stilton certainly had no doubts; he thought gang work was ‘most objectionable’ for girls. ‘It makes them rude, rough and lawless, and consequently makes them unsuitable for domestic duties; this, consequently would disqualify them for a future position as a wife and mother’. A prosperous farmer agreed. ‘Field work renders them unfit for service’, while another remarked that:
“A love for unhealthy liberty sets in, untidy habits arise, they turn aside from service in farm or other houses, know little or nothing of sewing, washing, making or mending, and entering upon marriage are generally untidy, slovenly and bad-managing housekeepers.”
Overall, it seems that the commissioner’s report did not represent the views of everyone, and certainly not those witnesses who thought gangs were subversive, teaching girls ‘independent habits’, and giving them ‘a love for unhealthy liberty’. Instead, the commissioners preferred to base their case against gangs on the damage they inflicted on the health and welfare of those who worked in them. Thus, their report highlighted parts of the evidence and played down the rest.Most gang workers interviewed did, in fact, present evidence in fact, calm and matter-of-fact manner. Ellen Collishaw of Metheringham, in Lincolnshire, was typical. She told a commissioner:
“I am going on 13. I have worked at weeding. I worked all the year to gleaning (harvest). I have been working since harvest too. I have been singling turnips and weeding turnips. I went with Mr Hutchinson. He is a labourer. I was all the time with him. There were twenty besides me, girls as well as boys. There were many girls younger than me… We worked on Mr Greenham’s on the heath, we weeded wheat and barley. We picked up twitch after harvest. The corn was high when we weeded it. We used to get wet. Our dresses got wet as well as our feet. We got them dry by next morning. We got home about 6. We left the field at 5. When we got home, we washed and changed our clothes. I never caught cold.”
Elizabeth Wilson, a labourer’s wife from Exning, near Newmarket in Norfolk, gave much the same impression:
“Both my girls, now at service, worked in a gang. Sometimes they would be wet from rain or dew, and some girls, I believe, take a great deal of cold from this, but mine didn’t go a deal. There was nothing I minded as to language or anything in the gang for girls, though I would sooner have kept them at school if I had not been obliged to let them go out.”
This is not to say that agricultural gangs needed no regulation. There were abuses, and perhaps the commissioners had to paint a uniformly black picture if Parliament was to be persuaded to do anything to control gangs. Certainly, there is no indication that interested MPs looked beyond the evidence quoted in the report itself – they had left the commissioners to carry out the burdensome task of sifting and assessing the bulk of the evidence. Historians could not afford to be so trusting.
As it was, Gangs gradually faded out towards the end of the 19th century, with two developments hastening their demise. The first was the increasing use of machinery, particularly on light soils, and the other was the spread of compulsory education after 1870 which hit the gangs even harder. In 1870 school boards were given the right to make education compulsory for all children under the age of thirteen in their areas. In 1880 Mundella’s Act made it compulsory to enforce attendance without naming a leaving age. In 1893, however, the minimum leaving age was fixed at eleven, and in 1899 it was raised to twelve, thus bringing the whole country into line with the practice adopted by some boards as early as 1870.
Though many country children still took time off school to work on farms from time to time, compulsory schooling made it impossible for masters to recruit them into gangs without falling foul of the law – as they would say “the game was not worth the candle” and they gave it up. It was then only during school holidays, usually considerately fixed to coincide with busy times on farms, that gangs of women and children went to work in the fields – a tradition which survived almost to the present day.
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