Saturday, 7 November 2009

Life of an Ag. Lab. Part 2

My photo of a prize milker as our local show is the closest I could get to a cow being milked without infringement of copyright!

Anyone who has ever seen "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" - or read the book - will remember Tess milking the cow out in the meadow on a beautiful spring day, and Angel watching her:

"All the men, and some of the women, when milking, dug their foreheads into the cows and gazed into the pail. But a few - mainly the younger ones - rested their heads sideways. This was Tess Durbeyfield's habit, her temple pressing the milcher's flank, her eyes fixed on the far end of the meadow with the quiet of one lost in meditation. She was milking Old Pretty thus, and the sun changing to be on the milking-side it shone flat upon her pink-gowned form and her white curtain-bonnet, and upon her profile, rendering it keen as a cameo cut from the dun background of the cow."

How different it could be in winter for the foggers and milkers in her time and throughout the Victorian period:

"Foggers and milkers, if their cottages are near at hand, having finished the first part of the day's work, can often go back home to breakfast, and, if they have a good woman in the cottage, find a fire and hot tea ready. . . . . . The fogger and milker, on the other hand, are often exposed to the most violent tempests. A gale of wind, accompanied with heavy rain, often reaches its climax just about the dawn. They find the soil saturated, and the step sinks into it - the furrows are full of water; the cow-yard, though drained, is a pool, no drain being capable of carrying it off quick enough. The thatch of the sheds drips continually; the haystack drips; the thatch of the stack, which has to be pulled off before the hay-knife can be used, is wet; the old decaying wood the the rails and the gates is wet. They sit on the three-legged milking-stool (whose rude workmanship has taken a dull polish from use) in a puddle; the hair of the cow, against which the head is placed, is wet; the wind blows the rain into the nape of the neck behind, the position being stooping. Staggering under the heavy yoke homewards, the boots sink deep into the slush and mire in the gateways, the weight carried sinking them well in. The cattle must be attended to whatever the weather, Sundays and holidays included. Even in summer it often happens that a thunderstorm bursts about that time of the morning. But in winter, when the rain is driven by a furious wind, when the lantern is blown out, and the fogger stumbles in pitchy darkness through mud and water, it would be difficult to imagine a condition of things which concentrates more discomfort."

Note: a fogger was one responsible for feeding the cattle - cutting the hay from the stack with the hay-knife, etc.


  1. These two posts are really interesting, like you I have many Ag Labs among my ancestors. There's a big difference between the rosy picture drawn y Thomas Hardy and the reality of an Ag Lab's work in winter though there must have been days when life was pleasant. Generally though their days were long and hard I think. Glad you said what a fogger is - I haven't come across that term before.

  2. I'm having to admit that I struggled for a few minutes with the term "Ag Lab" before I got it. In the US census these workers were usually referred to as "farm laborer" or simply "laborer." I think the designations for occupation were rather flexible according to the interpretation of the enumerator.
    In New England if a year round "hired man" was married, with a family, a "tenant house" was often provided at some little distance from the main farm house. They were often small and rather shabby. Between hired men the farmer's wife would sometimes go in and do a thorough scrubbing and fresh paint and wallpaper.
    Western ranches provided communal bunk houses for "cowboys". There were several on our property here, tumbling down, when we bought it. They were small and would have housed only one or two people. Iron bedsteads, a tiny wood burning stove, no running water. Bleak!

  3. Until I escaped from rural Ireland I was an Ag. Lab - on icy mornings I stood in a bucket of hot water in the parlour to thaw out my feet when the cows were milking.