I recently wrote an article for Genealogists.com about my love of all things 'country' and about my genuine happiness and gratitude at learning that so many of my ancestors were 'country folk', but it got me to thinking about what life would have been like for so many of our ancestors who did live quite rurally, and what the contrast would then have been in making the move to 'the city' — London.
Though quite complex, the answer to that is really quite amazing.
Looking at some of the documents in my possession that relate to my own family, I have found quite a lot of rural occupations listed. I have a grandfather who was a shepherd, and another whose occupation was listed as a hay and straw dealer, but the majority of my country ancestors (like so many other people's family members) were listed as agricultural labourers — an occupation that at one stage employed up to approximately 50% of the population of England.
So what was life like for our agricultural labourers and with what activities would their typical days have been filled?
I have read some fantastic articles about 'ag labs' over the years, which have helped so much to learn about what their lives might have been like, but my very favourite was published in a family history magazine several years ago, which described a typical day in an agricultural labourer’s life. The article explained that the agricultural industry was both labour intensive and seasonal. Not all of those employed had a secure job and many had to supplement their incomes by becoming involved in cottage industries, like straw-plaiting or lace-making.
Life for agricultural labourers was not at all easy. Most would have lived in tiny little 'two-up two-down' rented or tied cottages, and families often had upwards of nine or ten children, so the farmer and his wife would often sleep with the younger children in one of the bedrooms, while the older children would sleep in the other. In some cases though, children would also sleep downstairs, or were boarded out with elderly relatives, or people in the village. Downstairs in the cottage was a parlour, which would have been the hub of the home, and the centre of all of the family's activities, and then to the rear there would have been a workroom for keeping tools. Most cottages also had a small allotment attached too, where the family could grow some vegetables.
An agricultural labourer’s day might begin at about 5 am, often with breakfast and then a 2–3 mile walk to the farm, where work would begin at about 6 am, with all of the workers gathering in the courtyard to be instructed by the farmer on the day’s work.
Most labourers were employed on an annual basis, but some were lucky enough to stay with the same farm, or estate, for a few years. Those who were employed on an annual basis though, were regular visitors at hiring fairs in order to find work for the next year, and often wore an emblem on their clothing representing their skills so that farmers knew their specialties. If they did not find work though, they would invariably find themselves in receipt of parish relief and inevitably have to move around to try to find casual work as a general labourer.
By contrast, life in the city was fast-paced and a hive of activity. With the coming of the railways, London saw an influx of people travelling in to the capital and a new wave of people — of families — hoping to make their livings and their lives there. It was exciting and the opportunities were plentiful, but with the dramatic increase in the population also came an enormous amount of hardship, poverty and filth, with many of the parts of London being extremely poverty-stricken.
Health issues too, were of particular concern, where illnesses like tuberculosis were spreading at almost pandemic proportions — some estimates hold that in Victorian England alone, almost a third of the population died of tuberculosis.
Sadly these times too would most likely have meant that each and every one of our ancestors would have faced the possibility of losing a child. Infant mortality especially, was at an all-time high, where 15% or so of children would die within the first few weeks of life, and 30% or more would have lost their lives by the age of 15.
It is almost too much to bear thinking about, so it is incredible really to think that our ancestors actually lived through that and that they raised their families in those conditions.
Tina Alsford is an English born professional genealogist and probate researcher, who now lives in Australia. Tina has a particular interest in nineteenth century England and specialises in London family history research. She is currently also a start-up blogger for Samara Magazine (an Australian online magazine for women in business).
by Tina Alsford © 2014, Genealogists.com. All rights reserved