Harvest Wages

Two sides of those engaged in nineteenth century farming are sharply contrasted by an article that appeared in the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette in September 1826.  It centred on the activities of the second Lord Huntingfield around the village of Huntingfield, in the county of Suffolk.  With George III nicknamed ‘Farmer George’ for his interest in farming and agriculture, and Thomas Coke, the first Earl of Leicester at Holkham Hall, Norfolk, known as a reformer of agricultural practices, an interest in farming, both arable and pastoral, was not unusual for the landed aristocracy.

Joshua Vanneck, Lord Huntingfield, was a Tory MP until 1819, although by 1826, ‘he had given himself up to such occupations’ as a farmer, cattle dealer and cattle doctor as his main interests, and for whom, it was said, he might easily be mistaken in his appearance.  He sold his own cattle and corn, riding his horse up to Smithfield in London for a day to attend the sale of his cattle.  He rode about the fields of his estate and inspected his farms, ‘to see what the men are about’, taking an interest in ‘his farming concerns’.

However, although his interest in his land was admirable as was his keenness to reform agricultural practices and animal breeding for example, like many of the elite, there seems to have been less focus on his workers and the often abysmal living conditions for agricultural labourers and their families. The correspondent noted forty or fifty agricultural labourers in their smocks or red sleeved waistcoats, standing still outside Huntingfield Hall, a Georgian mansion in Gothick style,  on a Sunday morning, during ‘church time’, that is between 11 and midday.  When enquiring in the village why they were there at that particular time, he realised that the men were settling up for their harvest work.  Those in the village were anxiously awaiting their return with the money to pay off bills to shopkeepers and other tradesmen. Harvest pay at this time of year was perhaps the best pay packet of the year, and could relieve debt and set families up for the winter.  As the correspondent noted, ‘I mention this to show how closely run the poor agricultural labourers appear to be’.  Harvest pay was more important than church attendance. There was no room for error or mishaps in the household economies of labourers, and harvest wages kept everything going.  Without them absolute poverty was likely.

Playing at being a farmer with the thrill of riding to London and back in a day with a relay of horses was all very well, but for the smock frocked agricultural labourer who did the day to day hard manual labour for Lord Huntingfield, harvest wages were necessary for survival or there was the very real threat of going hungry.