Friday, 6 November 2009

The way of life for the Ag. Lab. - Part 1

Looking down my family tree, many of my ancestors were Ag. Labs. Some had specific jobs such as Carter or Ploughman. One or two made it to Groom up at the Big House, but most of them were just employed at the nearest farm. Some of them started work at 10 years old - literally "farmed out" in the hope that they would have better nutrition at the farmer's table than their own - and of course, one less mouth to feed and perhaps even a little money for their parents when they began to earn a wage.

One of the books I have bought this year is one I've been hoping to find on a bookshop shelf for quite a while: Hodge and His Masters by Richard Jefferies. I believe the book was the ultimate result of a letter to The Times, although his "take" on the labouring rural poor was somewhat derided . . .

Here is what he wrote about the life of the carter:

"Another man who has to be up while the moon casts a shadow is the carter, who must begin to feed his team very early in order to get them to eat sufficient. If the manger is over-filled they spill and waste it, and at the same time will not eat so much. This is tedious work. Then the lads come and polish up the harness, and as soon as it is well light, get out to plough. The custom with the horses is to begin to work as early as possible, but to strike off in the afternoon some time before the other men, the lads riding home astride. The strength of the cart-horse has to be husbanded carefully, and the labour performed must be adjusted to it and to the food, i.e. fuel, consumed. To manage a large team of horses, so as to keep them in good condition, with glossy coats and willing step, and yet to get the maximum of work out of them, requires long experience and constant attention. The carter, therefore, is a man of much importance on a farm. If he is up to his duties he is a most valuable servant; if he neglects them he is a costly nuisance, not s much from his pay, but because of the hindrance and disorganization f the whole farm-work which such neglect entails."


  1. I get very confused over 'carter'as an occupation. I have seen it as a person who works with horses ... woking with horses on a farm (which fits with your discription) .... some one who uses a wagon to transport goods (with or without a horse) .... ?????? How can we work out which one our ancestor was ??

  2. Farm work is so easy nowadays compared with the hardships of earlier generations - working out in all weathers . My husband has an air-conditioned, centrally heated cab with a built in radio - I must say he does appreciate how lucky he is. My father in law used to go out and milk the cows before he went to school in the 1930's.

  3. Follow this link Angie, and it is a mine of information about Victorian jobs. As for carter - depends where living - on a farm/rural area, then working the land. In a town, then deliveries are more likely. A drayman, specifically, would be working with the big heavy horses, usually used by breweries.

    WG - an easier life for your husband. I still feel very sorry for the pair of Lithuanians working for Next Door, when they are up before dawn to bring the herd down for milking and sometimes in the filthiest weather. Miserable work.

  4. My beloved Grampa Mac was well known for his skill with work horses. [I'm sure he would have Pebbles sorted in no time!] He sometimes took in a horse that had been misused by a cruel or negligent master--and had a name for being able to restore them to health and usefullness. He told me once that one should be wary of a horse, a dog--or a man--with "small, mean eyes"--in his experience none of them were any good.
    He went to work in the local lumbering industry of upstate New York as a lad, when his father's health began to fail from laboring in the graphite mines. This was essentially winter work when logs could be "skidded" out of the woods on frozen ground and hauled to the lumber mill in town. He thought of himself as a "teamster"--a man who drove a team of horses for hire. He never would take his team to the horse pulls at the fair. He felt that the creatures were frightened by the roaring crowds and whipped or urged to move too heavy a load, all for a moment's glory.

  5. MM - more wonderful memories from you. I agree with your Grampa Mac about horses (or dogs) with a small - mean - eye. I also dislike horses that show the white of their eye - often shows a difficult temperament/ mean-spirited. He was right about the horse pulls too - that puts SUCH an incredible strain on a horse - pulling a dead weight from a standstill. He was a man of integrity, your Grampa . . .

  6. I loved all the details of the carter's work. I was a child when they were still using horses on the farms. I was afraid of the big cart horses, as we called them. They were so big and strong. One day a couple of them chased my brother and I down a hill and we just barely got through the barbed wire fence in time. They were probably only looking for a treat but we didn't know that.