Working Life in the 1900s

Working Life

At the beginning of the 20th century daily life in the country did not differ very much from how it had been at the beginning of the 19th century. Although the demands of industry and, from the 1880s, falling markets for British goods abroad, had led to a continuing exodus from the country, the kind of work available to the workers remaining on the land seemed as unchainged as the social background of their lives.

By the mid-century, everything had changed. Many traditional forms of husbandry, practised in Britain for centuries before the Romans, had all but disappeared. Horse and oxen-drawn ploughs, harrows and oxen-drawn ploughs, harrows and other cultivators, already competing on more forward-looking Victorian farms with steam-powered machinery, had by the reign of George VI, virtually disappeared, replaced by petrol and diesel-driven machines.

At the outset of Edward VII’s reign, agriculture had still not recovered from the great depression that began in the 1870s and led to a great exodus of workers from farming life. The two million or so people working on the land throught Britain in 1902 included many in desperate poverty. Only low cottage rents and the produce of the labourers’ gardens, which often included keeping a pig in the yard, were all too often all that stood between whole families and real starvation.

Things improved only slowly for agricultural labourers. It was not until the mid-1930s that they were included in the National Insurance scheme and their wages began to climb. The farms they worked on saw many changes in the first half of the 20th century. Dairy farming changed markedly in a comparatively short time. Cows were milked by hand until the 20th century, and milking was carried out in the field as often as in the barn or farmyard. The milk for the farm’s own use, including making butter and cheese, having been set aside, the Edwardian farmer was responsible for getting what was left to the local factory or delivering it to local people. At the factory, it would be turned into cheese and butter, and delivered to nearby villages or towns.

The arrival of electricity in the farmyard, at first by way of generators or turbines, allowed dairy workers to use a new invention, the milking machine. The machine meant that large herds of cows could be milked by just a couple of workers. There was no need for a farm worker to load the milk into a cart and take to the factory, because soon the factory’s own milk tanker was being sent out to pick the full milk churns up from the farm gate. Back on the farm, it was unlikely that the farm hands ate much of the wonderful foods made from the milk that they had helped to produce. ‘Blown milk’ – the thin, blue milk left when all the cream had been separated off – was often the milk they were given to put on their poridge or in their tea.

Dairy farming in Britain got a boost in the 1920s when the government began combating malnutrition among the urban poor by arranging for schools to provide their pupils with fresh milk and low-cost meals.

Much changed, too, in the first half of the century in animal husbandry. Even the humble chicken got the large-scale production treatment from quite early the century. Although it remained common for farmers’ wives to keep poultry for their own use, often selling surplus eggs locally, along with those chickens no longer wanted for egg production, most of the eggs and chickens bought by town dwellers came from large-scale poultry farms. Britain was not yet into battery farming, and the birds kept by the large-scale poultry farmers were still kept outdoors or loose in barns or the farmyard.

Until well into the century, pigs were kept as much by the agricultural worker in his cottage or allotment garden as by the farmer. A good hog, well fed on scraps and properly killed in the autumn, often by a travelling pig-sticker, ensured a whole winter’s supply of good meat for a rural family. The head would be boiled for brawn and the rest of the animal salted for hams and sides of bacon. Once they had been properly cured, they were usually hung in the cottage kitchen, covered in muslin to keep flies off them. The meat was cut off the salted in chunks, as it was needed. It was a far cry from the neatly sliced rashers that the town grocer’s slicing machine would provide for his customers.

Sheep farming, for both wool and meat, was big business early in the 20th century. Large weekly markets like Wrexham and Whitchurch would see as many sheep brought in for sale. When a survey of the numbers working in agriculture was carried out early in Edward VII’s reign, it showed that, while numbers of general workers had been greatly reduced by the exodus from country to town during the late Victorian agricultural depression, the number of shepherds at work in the country had actually increased. Like most agricultural workers, shepherds were not well paid and they worked long hours all year round, tending their sheep. Most of the shepherds’ tasks – tailing, trimming, lambing, dipping and shearing – were done largely out-doors in the field until well on into the century.

As with milking, electricity made a big difference to one aspect of sheep farming – shearing. By mid-century, most large flocks of sheep, apart from some special breeds on speciality farms or sheep being prepared for showing, were machine-sheared. Large flocks would be brought into the farmyard and penned up before being taken into the shearing shed. Smaller flocks could be sheared in outdoor pens or in the field.

Source: Working Life in Britain 1900-1950 by Janice Anderson, Omnipress Ltd, Time Warner Books; Wrexham History.

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