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close this bookCERES No. 148 - Working out the links: labor in sustainable agriculture (1994)
close this folderCentrepiece
View the documentLow-input farming: Is it worth the work?
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View the documentThe toilers of the field

The toilers of the field

A glimpse of farm labor in England circa 1892

More than a century ago, Richard Jefferies turned a sharp, often acerbic eye on the rural society of Britain. In a series of closely drawn portraits-in-place he described the daily lives of ordinary farm people, proprietors and hired hands alike, taking careful note of their interrelationships with each other, with England's national economy and with the natural environment.

At the time Jefferies wrote, the rural people he chronicled were already under siege from the effects of the Industrial Revolution, and within a few decades of his death, their world had largely disappeared. But their stories remain instructive, particularly in an era when so many other rural worlds in so many other societies are in the grip of similar change.

The following excerpts - both dealing with the question of labor - are taken from The toilers of the field, published in 1892. First, a partly tongue-in-cheek Jefferies describes the foibles of "hired hands" who, lacking the incentive of working on their own land, also lack enthusiasm. Then, in frank sympathy, he recounts the effects of a life of hard physical labor on farm women - a familiar theme in developing countries today.

The toilers of the field was first published in Great Britain by Longmans, Green & Co. It is now out of print.

The agricultural laborers, both men and women, are a slow set, never in a hurry; there is none of that bustle characteristic of the town people, even of the lowest class. They take every opportunity of leaning upon the prong-handle, or standing in the shade - they seem to have no idea of time. Women are a sore trial to the patience of the agriculturist in a busy time. If you want to understand why, go and ensconce yourself behind a hedge, out of sight but in view of a field where 10 or 12 women are hoeing. By and by a pedlar or a van comes slowly along the turnpike road which runs past the field. At the first sound of footsteps or wheels all the bent backs are straight in an instant, and all the work is at a standstill. They stand staring at the van or tramp for five or six minutes, till the object of attention has passed out of sight. Then there is a little hoeing for three or four consecutive minutes. By that time one of them has remembered some little bit of gossip, and stops to tell her nearest fellow-workwoman, and the rest at once pause to listen:. After a while they go on again. Now another vehicle passes along the road, and the same process of staring has to be gone through once more. If a lady and gentleman pass, the staring is something terrific, and it takes quite 10 minutes to discuss all the probabilities as to who they were, and where they were going. This sort of thing goes on all day, so that, in point of fact, they only do half a day's work. The men are not so bad as this; but they never let slip an opportunity for pausing in their work, and even when at work they do it in a slow, dawdling, lack-energy way that is positively irritating to watch. The agriculturist has in consequence plenty to do to keep his eye on them, and in the course of the day he walks over his farm half-a-dozen times at least. Very few ordinary working farmers walk much less than 10 miles a day on the average, backwards and forwards over the fields.

Half-past eleven used to be luncheon time, but now it is about 12, except in harvest, when, as work begins earlier, it is at 11. This luncheon hour is another source of constant irritation to the agriculturist. He does not wish to bind his men down to an exact minute, and if a man has a distance to walk to his cottage, will readily make all allowance. He does not stint the beer carried out either then or in the field. But do what he likes, be as considerate as he will, and let the season be never so pressing, it is impossible to get the laborers out to their work when the hour is up. Most of them go to sleep, and have to be waked up, after which they are as stupid as owls for a quarter of an hour. One or two, it will be found, have strolled down to the adjacent ale-house, and are missing. These will come on the field about an hour later. Then one man has a rake too heavy for him, and another a prong too light. There is always some difficulty in starting to work; the agriculturist must therefore be himself present if he wishes to get the laborers out to the field in anything like a moderate time.

Men as well as women, "take every opportunity of leaning upon the prong handle..." - Detail from Hereford, Dynedor and the MalvernHills, from the Haywood Lodge, harvest scene, afternoon, by G. R. Lewis, The Tate Gallery, Millbank, London

The nuisance of mowers must be gone through to be appreciated. They come and work very well for the first week. They slash down acre after acre, and stick to it almost day and night. In consequence, the farmer puts on every man who applies for work, everything goes on first-rate, and there is a prospect of getting the crop in speedily. At the end of the week the mowers draw their money, quite a lump for them, and away they go to the ale-house. Saturday night sees them as drunk as men can be. They lie about the fields under the hedges all day Sunday, drinking when the public-house is open. Monday morning they go on to work for half an hour, but the fever engendered by so much liquor, and the disordered state of the stomach, cause a burning thirst. They fling the scythes down, and go off to the barrel. During all this week perhaps between them they manage to cut half an acre. What is the result? The haymakers have made all the grass that was cut the first week into hay, and are standing about idle, unable to proceed, but still drawing their wages from the unfortunate agriculturist. The hot sun is burning on - better weather for haymaking could not be - but there is not a rood of grass cut for them to work on. After a while the mowers come back, thoroughly tired and exhausted with their debauch, and go on feebly to work. There is hope again. But our climate is notoriously changeable. A fortnight of warm, close heat is pretty sure to breed a thunderstorm. Accordingly, just as the scythes begin to lay the tall grass prostrate again, there is a growl in the sky, and down comes the rain. A thunderstorm unsettles the weather, and here is perhaps another week lost. The farmer dares not discharge his haymakers, because he does not know but that he may require them any day. They are put to turn dung heaps, clean out the yards, pick up the weeds in the garden, and such like little jobs, over which they can dawdle as much as they like. All the while they are on full pay. Now, what manufacturer could endure such conduct as this? Is it not enough to drive a saint out of patience? Of course the larger farmers who can afford it have the resource of the mowing-machine, but there are hundreds and thousands of farms upon which its sharp rattle has not yet been heard. There is still a great divergence of opinion as to its merits, many maintaining that it does not cut so close to the ground, and therefore wastes a large percentage of the crop, and others that the action of the scissor-like knives bruises the grass, and prevents it growing up into a good aftermath. Therefore many farmers who could afford it will not admit the mowing-machine into their fields, and the mowers may still be seen at work over miles and miles of meadow, and are still the plague of the agriculturist. The arable farmer has just the same difficulty to keep his laborers at their work, and unless he is constantly on the watch valuable time is lost daily. In the harvest, however, he has an advantage. The corn is reaped by piecework, and the laborers therefore strain every nerve to do as much as they can. But then he must be on the look-out to see that they do not "scamp" it....

In their latter years, these women resemble pollard oaks...

It cannot be said that agricultural women are handsome. In childhood they are too often thin and stunted; later they shoot up and grow taller, but remain thin and bony till from 18 to 20, when they get plumper, and then is their period of prettiness, if at all. Bright eyes, clear complexions, and glossy hair form their attractions, for their features are scarcely ever good. The brief beauty of the prime of youth speedily fades, and at five-and-twenty the agricultural woman, especially if married, is pale or else burnt by the sun to a brown, with flat chest and rounded shoulders. It is rare indeed to see a woman with any pretensions to what is called a figure. It would be wonderful if there were, for much of the labor induces a stooping position, and they are never taught when young to sit upright.

Growing plainer and plainer as years go by, the elder women are wrinkled and worn-looking, and have contracted a perpetual stoop. Many live to a great age. In small parishes it is common to find a large number of women of 70 and 80, and there are few cottages which do not contain an old woman. This is hardly a result in accordance with the labor they have undergone. The explanation probably is that, continued through a series of generations, it has produced a strength and stamina which can survive almost anything. Certain it is that young couples about to marry often experience much difficulty in finding cottages, because they are occupied by extremely aged pairs; and landlords, anxious to tear down and remove old cottages tumbling to pieces, are restrained from doing so out of regard for the aged tenants, who cling with a species of superstitious tenderness to the crumbling walls and decayed thatch. At this age, at 75 or even 80, the agricultural woman retains a strength of body astonishing to a town-bred woman. She will walk eight or 10 miles, without apparent fatigue, to and from the nearest town for her provisions. She will almost to the last carry her prong out into the hayfield, and do a little work in some comer, and bear her part in the gleaning after the harvest. She lives almost entirely upon weak tea and bread sops. Her mental powers continue nearly unimpaired, and her eyes are still good, though her teeth have long gone. She will laugh over memories of practical jokes played at harvest-homes half-a-century ago; and slowly spells over the service in a prayer-book which asks blessings upon a king instead of a queen. She often keeps the village "confectioner's shop," namely a few bottles of sweets and jumbles in the window, side by side with "twists" of whipcord for the plowboys and carters, and perhaps has a licence for tobacco and snuff.

But long before this age they have in most cases been kept by the parish. The farmers who form the guardians know well the history of the poor of their parishes, and remembering the long years of hard work, always allow as liberal a relief as they can to these women. Out of all their many children and grandchildren, it may happen that one has got on fairly well in life, has business as a blacksmith, or tinker, or carpenter, and gives her a shilling or so a week; and a shilling goes a long way with a woman who lives upon tea and sops. In their latter days these women resemble the pollard oaks, which linger on year after year, and finally fall from sheer decay.