Researching your agricultural Labourer ancestors

I cannot be the only person who has been disappointed in finding another agricultural labourer in their family tree, thinking that it must be a dead end.  It is true there is no single set of records that allow us to find out directly about our agricultural ancestors, but there are, however, a range of other sources that may give us an insight into their lives.

Local newspapers can be a rich source of information especially from the early 19th century onwards.  They may carry reports of the Agricultural Labourers Trade Union meetings, agricultural society dinners and other social events.  There may also be reports of ploughing matches and agricultural fairs.  Your ancestor could have won a prize for his large onions or the straightest furrow.  If you know the farm they worked on, there may be a farmer’s letter talking about the conditions and/or the good or bad harvest. 

Estate records can be very useful but it is a case of good luck if they have survived.  Larger estates tend to be the ones that did and the Victoria County histories can be used to identify the big landowners in the local area.  In some places however, smaller farms’ records have survived.  In Herefordshire Archives there are day books from the Garnons, Hampton Court and Moccas estates.

Rent rolls are a list of landlord’s lands and buildings with the rents due from them.  This may be in cash, kind (such as a certain percentage of produce), or labour.  These can range from just a name and a figure to more detailed descriptions of the tenant and the property they leased.  HARC has a wide range of these rent rolls and although you may not find your specific ancestor, it does give you a good idea of the community they were living in.  There may also be lease and tenancy agreements which will give you more information about the type of property your ancestor was living in.

Surviving wage books are rare but can be essential for discovering more about the work your ancestor undertook.   Agricultural labouring was not a single trade.  There were many different skill subsets within it which all attracted different wages.  Mostly seasonal tasks such as hedge laying, would have been noted in the account books.  For example, in Herefordshire in 1794, basic wages were a shilling a day, but hedge laying was paid at between 4d. and 6d. a perch (seven yards, or 6.5 metres) and an expert might lay three perches a day, thereby earning up to 18d. a day.[1]  There were also other seasonal variations.  According to an 1804 Report, Herefordshire agricultural wages averaged six shillings a week in winter, seven shillings in summer (for a longer day) but harvest wages were nearly double this. [2]  HARC has wage books from the Biddulph family estate near Ledbury, recent wage books from Gallimore and Parry Hop farm, wage books from the Garnons and the Pateshall family from Allensmore.

Hiring Fairs, for both farm and domestic servants, lasted in Herefordshire until the late nineteenth century.  At Bromyard, for instance, traditional ‘Mop Fairs’ were still held on May 1st and September 29th in the 1860s.[3]  Records of some hiring fairs are also available in local record offices.  For example, Chippenham Hiring Fair records at Swindon History Centre include a register of persons hired, where born, ages, duties, wages, last employer, and other details.  Some fairs have more detailed records than others depending in the how efficient the market clerk was.  Hiring fairs often were a little rowdy so your ancestor may have been named as being drunk and disorderly in the local press!

Farmers union records also exist and include minutes, lists of members, annual reports etc.  Agricultural reports made for the government such as Duncombe’s General View of the Agriculture of the County of Hereford (1805) can give a great background into working conditions and type of work undertaken. 

Tithe Maps of the 1830s and 1840s will give you information about the land use where your ancestor may have worked.  The Herefordshire Field-Names and Landowners Database (https://htt.herefordshire.gov.uk/her-search/field-names-and-landowners/) based on these tithe maps lists the field names  and landowners of each parish and these have been made into maps by Geoff Gwatkin http://www.geoffgwatkinmaps.co.uk/.

The National Farm Survey of 1941, held at The National Archives, can provide information on:

  • farm land
  • farmers and farm owners
  • life on a farm
  • the wider community within the parish where a farm was located

Every farm and holding of five acres and more was surveyed, including those of market gardeners, horticulturists, and poultry-keepers.  The survey also included a set of maps which showed the land belonging to each farm or smallholding.  Unfortunately, these records are not available online so you will need a trip to Kew or order copies online which can be expensive.

Further Reading:

(available free online) Lack, Katherine Joan (2012) Family dispersal in rural England: Herefordshire, 1700-1871.  Thesis for University of Birmingham

Waller, Ian. (2008) My Ancestor Was an Agricultural Labourer. (SOG)

Brown, Jonathan (2011) Tracing Your Rural Ancestors: a guide for family historians (Pen & Sword).

Hammond, John & Barbara (2005) The Village Labourer 1760- 1832(The History Press).

Reay, Barry (2004) Rural Englands (Palgrave MacMillan). 

Fussell, G E (1949) The English Rural Labourer; his home, furniture, clothing & food, from Tudor to Victorian times(Batchworth Press).


[1] Lack, Katherine Joan (2012) Family dispersal in rural England: Herefordshire, 1700-1871.  Thesis for University of Birmingham. P. 42.

[2] Lack, Katherine Joan (2012) Family dispersal in rural England: Herefordshire, 1700-1871.  Thesis for University of Birmingham. P. 43.

[3] Lack, Katherine Joan (2012) Family dispersal in rural England: Herefordshire, 1700-1871.  Thesis for University of Birmingham. P. 41

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