Agricultural Gangs

'Rude, rough and lawless' was one view of the women and children employed on the land in Victorian England. But was theirs a harsher fate than work in the factory system?

The Earl of Shaftesbury, instigator of the government investigation which produced the 1867 Agricultural Gangs ActOver much of Britain during the first half of the nineteenth century many hundreds of acres of waste land were brought into cultivation. The East Midlands and East Anglia were no exception. During the French wars, when the price of grain was high, the owners of light uplands such as the Lincolnshire Wolds cleared them of gorse, thistles and coarse grass, ploughed them and planted wheat and barley. Later in the century fen landowners used steam pumping engines to drain hitherto intractable marshlands, such as Deeping Fen a few miles north of Peterborough, and render them fit for cultivation.

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 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 eighteenth century farmers might well have found room in their own homes to accommodate their labourers, but by the middle of the nineteenth century the social gap between master and man was far too wide for this to be an acceptable solution. Mrs Hesseltine, the wife of a Lincolnshire farmer employing four young labourers, explained her feelings on the subject. 'It is very objectionable having these men in one's own house', she said in 1865, 'it is so bad for the female servants.' Mr Hesseltine overcame the problem by making his foreman take in the labourers, but many farmers favoured a more radical solution. They dispensed with full time labourers as far as they could, and relied instead on the labour of agricultural 'gangs' which were established to supply their needs.

Some farmers organised their own private gangs, recruiting women and children from the nearest village to come at busy times and work for a few days on the farm. Others employed so-called 'public gangs'. These were organised by 'gang-masters', who were usually unemployed farm labourers. They recruited anything between ten and forty women and children to work for them at a given rate of pay. They then contracted with local farmers for their gangs to do specific jobs. The gang master had to be able to estimate very accurately how long a job would take. If he overestimated he would charge too much and not get the contract. If he underestimated he would charge too little, his wage bill would amount to more than the contract price, and he would lose money on the deal.

The work done by the gangs varied according to the season. In winter, when there were only a few of them at work, they were employed to clear stones or sort potatoes. In spring their work was more varied. Some painstakingly cleared couch grass, pulling out every root by hand. Others spread muck, hoed, or planted potatoes. In early summer the demand for their work reached its peak. The gangs cleared couch from fallow fields, hand-weeded grain and root crops, and helped with the hay harvest. Paradoxically the gangs disbanded for the main grain harvest in August and September. Instead whole families went out to work together. However, some gangs re-formed in October for the potato and marigold harvest. The number of people involved in gang labour varied according to the demand, but it was calculated in 1866 that 6,399 people had worked in public gangs in the East Midlands and East Anglia at some time during the year.

Agricultural gangs had a bad reputation. Some of the masters were said to be unscrupulous. They accepted contracts at rock-bottom prices, and then forced their gangs to work for cruelly long hours to fulfil them. Some were immoral and, it was said, took advantage of their status to demand sexual favours from girls and women in their gangs. Many gangs were noisy and unruly, and disturbed the peace of the countryside, particularly on their way to and from work. What was more, they tempted children away from school into what seemed to many to be a totally unsuitable environment.

Lord Shaftesbury was one of several politicians concerned about the effect of these gangs on the children who worked in them, and in 1865 he persuaded the government to order the Children's Employment Commission to investigate. The commissioners took evidence from about 500 witnesses, and presented their report on agricultural gangs in 1867. They condemned the gangs root and branch. They 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'. They said 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'.

They 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 case of Mrs Adams of Denton in Huntingdonshire whose two daughters, aged eleven and thirteen, walked eight miles to their work, laboured for eight hours, and then walked eight miles back home – all for 7d. a day. At the end of six weeks work they were, said Mrs Adams, 'good for nothing'.

The commissioners thought that much of the work undertaken by gangs was unsuitable for women and girls. They compared weeding a field of growing wheat after a shower of rain to wet spinning. Both jobs quickly saturated women's skirts. For this reason females were forbidden by law to wet spin, and the commissioners thought that weeding wet fields ought to be prohibited in the same way.

So the commissioners' report was unequivocal. They 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.

It is an instructive exercise to read the evidence on which the commissioners based their report. It soon becomes clear that in some respects they painted a much blacker picture of gang work than is justified by the evidence they collected. For instance, the commissioners made much of the case of Mrs Adams' daughters, and the two girls also figured prominently in Shaftesbury's speech when he commended the report to the House of Lords. But their case was unique. According to the evidence two miles was the average distance gang workers had to walk to work, and some of them were able to take turns riding in a cart or on a donkey for part of the way.

Similarly, though the commissioners were able to point to some cases of brutal or inconsiderate treatment, comparatively few witnesses seemed to agree with their assertion that gang work adversely affected the physical health of those involved. Many dismissed the suggestion out of hand, and their scepticism is backed up by the evidence taken from boys and girls who themselves worked in gangs. One of the commissioners interviewed Georgiana Rowan, who was sixteen, on her return from a day's work near her home at Great Cressingham in Norfolk:

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].

Georgiana did not know what kind of work was hardest. 'We're used to it now, and don't mind it', she said.

Joseph Smith of Scopwith near Lincoln was only ten. He had an even more positive attitude than Georgiana. He had worked for twelve hours a day from May 22nd until harvest with a ganger named Edward Jackling. 'We were weeding corn, mangold and carrots', said Joseph. 'I went with him all the time. There were 13 with him then. There were nine girls and four boys. Some of the boys were younger than me.' But some were fifteen or sixteen. Sometimes there were more than thirteen in the gang. 'There were sixteen at one time. We hit sometimes when we were idle', Joseph went on. Nevertheless, 'I should not mind going again. It was good fun.'

A Norfolk villager, Mrs Lavender, seems to have felt that many young workers agreed with Joseph's view. 'The children often come home wet,' she said, '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'.

The positive attitude of many gang children to their work was probably due to the fact that it was usually temporary. Joseph Smith had been at school all the winter, and perhaps welcomed outdoor gang work as a change from the classroom. He could read and write a little, do some simple multiplication, and when asked what the sea was replied, '(after hesitation) "Wet."'

The commissioners interviewed teachers. They complained that gang work took pupils away for too long periods, and so disrupted their schools. The commissioners were sympathetic, and proposed a scheme of part-time education for children working in gangs, but Parliament did not act on their recommendation. It was natural that in areas where gangs were common teachers would blame them for poor attendance, but in fact all schools in rural areas were plagued by seasonal absenteeism, and there is no obvious evidence that it was any worse in 'gang' areas than in other parts of the country.

From the point of view of health and happiness gang workers often seemed better off than their contemporaries in full-time employment elsewhere. Matthew Hardy of Lincoln lived near Joseph Smith. He could neither read nor write and told the commissioner simply: 'I am thirteen. I have worked in the brick yard ever since I can remember'. One feels he would gladly have changed places with Joseph. Hannah Staff of Downham Market gave a parent's view. 'My girl aged fifteen works in the gang. It is a deal more helathy 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. Most agreed with the sweeping condemnation given by the woman who took it for granted that gangs 'must be bad, because the boys and girls are together'. A Norfolk doctor came down to brass tacks, 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 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 in a gang in Suffolk 'bathing in a pond, while the girls were sitting round on the bank.'

There were also a few reports of violent horse-play, and sometimes even criminal assaults by gang masters on girls under their charge, but the commonest complaint running made against gangs was that they corrupted the young by introducing them into an environment where coarse, indecent language and behaviour were taken for granted. Respectable countrymen and women professed themselves shocked by the 'most obscene' language they heard when passing gangs on their way to and from work, and were quite prepared to blame gangs for most, if not all, rural immorality and vice.

Certainly the sexual morals of the rural poor seemed unconventional when judged by respectable middle-class standards. 'I seldom marry any of them', said one vicar, 'without being obliged to see the bride to be of larger dimensions than she ought to be.' One is, however, entitled to question the extent to which gangs could be held responosile for the sexual mores of the labourers.

A few witnesses questioned by the commissioners swam against the tide of outright condemnation. One or two even claimed that gangs were a positive influence for the good:

As to the moral condition of the children [said one magistrate], I should say they are kept in much better order and discipline under a proper ganger than when running about the streets and yards and supposed to be under the eye and control of their parents.

A more moderate, and perhaps more realisitc 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 influecne of the gangs compared with other aspects of rural life.

For instance, the vicar of Chatteris in Cambridgeshire described the standard of working-class housing in his rural parish. 'The cottages of the poor are most indecently and disgustingly crowded, so that grown-up boys and girls sleep in the same rooms, and sometimes even in the same bedrooms as their parents.' The vicar of Terrington in Norfolk painted much the same picture, though in more detail. Most cottages in his parish had two or three rooms, but where there were three one was frequently let to a lodger, so that the fmaily squeezed in the other two.

Some cottages had only one room, and the vicar mentioned one family, consisting of a father, mother, three sons and a grown-up daughter all living in one 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.

The Catholic priest of Louth in Lincolnshire thought that the same line of argument applied to the bad language used by gangs. 'Coarse language will be used by them I dare say', he remarked. 'This class of people do use coarse language.' Emma Garrod of Great Cressingham agreed with him. She was seventeen when a commissioner interviewed her, and had not worked in a gang for several years. She remembered that 'almost all of them in the gang spoke bad language, the little and big too. The master stopped it if he could, but often he didn't hear. You see', she went on, 'most of them used to use it, so they didn't tell.'

In their report the commissioners noticed these moderating opinions, but discounted them, saying: 'We do not think that these views are likely to prevail against the great mass of testimony of a contrary description.'

In one interesting respect the commissioners' report did less than justice to the adverse comments appearing in the evidence. Many witnesses were particularly vehement about the bad effect of gang labour on the attitude of the girls involved. 'They get so bold know too much', said one farmer. People seemed to take it for granted that the daughters of the rural poor pught 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 had no doubts. He thought gang work was 'most objectionable' for girls. 'It makes them rude, rough and lawless', he said, 'and consequently unfits them for domestic servants and domestic duties, and consequently disqualifies them for their future position of wives and mothers'. A prosperous farmer agreed. 'Field work renders them unfit for service', he said, 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.

These witnesses clearly claimed to have the best interests of the girls and their future husbands at heart, but others obviously had an axe to grind. 'Such is becoming the scarcity of domestic servants', complained Henry West of Upwell in Cambridgeshire, 'that people have to put up with such as they do not at all like. I generally keep two maid servants, but have been without a housemaid some two or three weeks, and do not know at all where to get one.' He blamed this situation on the gangs, which employed 'many young girls from 14 to 21 years of age, who would be much better at service, but the field work (they say) is more healthy than service, but I think the main thing is that they have their liberty more'.

In fact many witnesses, including the redoubtable Mrs Hesseltine, complained that gangs contributed to a shortage of suitable domestic servants. Yet the commissioners did not mention this issue in their report. Nor did they represent the views of those witnesses who thought gangs were subversive, teaching girls 'independent habits', and giving them 'a love for unhealthy liberty'. The commissioners preferred to base their case against gangs on the damage they were thought to inflict on the health and welfare of those who worked in them. 

Thus in their report the commissioners highlighted parts of the evidence, and played down the rest. They were expected to condemn certain aspects of gangs, as they did. Those who seek a rounded assessment have to go beyond the report itself and study the detailed evidence, which reveals a much more complex picture than that painted by the commissioners of innocent children exploited by drunk and unscrupulous masters.

Most gang workers interviewed were calm and matter-of-fact. Ellen Collishaw of Metheringham, south of Lincoln, 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 sicne 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. Ou 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, gave much the same impression. She said:

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 left the commissioners to carry out the burdensome task of sifting and assessing the bulk of the evidence. Historians cannot afford to be so trusting.

Gangs gradually faded out towards the end of the nineteenth century. Two developments hastened their demise. The first was the increasing use of machinery, particularly on light soils. This was already having an effect when the commissioners published their report. One farmer told them: 'I used to have children for the twitching [i.e. clearing couch grass], but now I use the chain harrows. They do as much work as fifty children'.

The spread of compulsory education after 1870 hit 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. The game was not worth the candle, and they gave it up. Henceforward it was 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, particularly during the potato harvest, almost to the present day,