While it’s hard to track down ref­er­ences to the work­ing lives of your ag lab an­ces­tors, writes Jonathan Scott, it’s al­ways pos­si­ble to re­search the wider ru­ral com­mu­nity

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While agri­cul­tural ar­chives are patchy and ref­er­ences to in­di­vid­ual work­ers are rare, es­tate and fam­ily col­lec­tions may present a good po­ten­tial source for find­ing proof or fur­ther in­for­ma­tion about your fam­ily’s work­ing life and living ar­range­ments.

The wealthy landown­ers and es­tates that em­ployed them tended to leave be­hind huge pa­per trails, and lots of th­ese ar­chive cat­a­logues are now search­able via The Na­tional Ar­chive’s Dis­cov­ery web­site.

This month’s se­lec­tion also in­cludes more gen­eral web­sites that can help you find out more about the wider com­mu­nity, work­ing con­di­tions, pay, diet and the his­tory of their in­dus­try or craft. The rise of the or­ganic move­ment and an up­surge of in­ter­est in tra­di­tional living, means that there are also many web­sites which fo­cus on the tech­niques of coun­try crafts and trades.

1 Mu­seum of English Ru­ral Life read­ merl

The Mu­seum looks af­ter ob­jects re­lat­ing to all kinds of ru­ral crafts and com­mu­ni­ties. Its unique archival col­lec­tions in­clude records of ma­jor agri­cul­tural man­u­fac­tur­ing firms, or­gan­i­sa­tions and co­op­er­a­tives, col­lec­tions of per­sonal records and jour­nals of farm work­ers, plus com­pany ac­counts from farms across Eng­land. To ac­cess the Ar­chive and Mu­seum data­base, go to read­ adlib, or you can ex­plore ex­am­ples from the Mu­seum’s im­age li­brary at read­ merl/imagelibrary –cur­rently di­vided into the cat­e­gories that in­clude crafts, gyp­sies and the Women’s Land Army. You should also ex­plore the Re­search & Projects page for news of cur­rent and com­pleted projects.

2 The Bri­tish News­pa­per Ar­chive british­news­pa­per­ar­

From obit­u­ar­ies and farm sales, to prize win­ners at county fairs, ru­ral news­pa­pers can be a mine of in­for­ma­tion about farms and the peo­ple who worked in them. You can search di­rectly us­ing the name of your ag lab an­ces­tors, but it’s also worth search­ing us­ing the name of the farm and the farmer if you know where they worked. If your an­ces­tors sud­denly up sticks and head for the city, then lo­cal news­pa­pers can some­times lead you to their rea­sons. If you have a sub­scrip­tion to find­my­past. then you can ac­cess the same news­pa­pers from that site.

3 Con­nected His­to­ries con­nect­ed­his­to­

This fed­er­ated search hub al­lows you to trawl ma­te­rial from Bri­tish His­tory On­line ( bri­tish- his­tory. This in­cludes the Vic­to­ria County His­to­ries, which pro­vide re­veal­ing his­to­ries of parishes and town­ships, some­times de­tail­ing the for­tunes and prac­tices of in­di­vid­ual farms. The site also has lots of vol­umes of lo­cal his­tory writ­ings from the 17th cen­tury on­wards – although the an­ti­quar­ian au­thors tended to be more in­ter­ested in the for­tunes of the landed gen­try than farm work­ers.

4 Vi­sion of Bri­tain vi­sionof­bri­

Type the place where your kin lived into the search box and you will be pre­sented with an his­toric map of the area, with ac­com­pa­ny­ing lo­cal his­tory ex­cerpts taken from sources such as John Mar­ius Wil­son’s Im­pe­rial Gazetteer of Eng­land and Wales (1880). You can then ex­plore var­i­ous his­toric maps of the same area, back to 1805, or click on the side menu to view his­toric pho­tos of the town or vil­lage, and read statis­tics drawn from cen­sus data. Although not spe­cific to ru­ral re­search, it’s a very use­ful tool for quickly find­ing out more about an area.

5 Black­smiths In­dex black­­gen­

Ann Spiro’s Ge­nealog­i­cal In­dex of Black­smiths, which is drawn mainly from UK cen­sus data, is a great ex­am­ple of the kind of web­site re­lat­ing to in­di­vid­ual trades and crafts that you can find on­line. It records not only black­smiths but also re­lated crafts­men such as cartwrights, wheel­wrights, far­ri­ers and iron work­ers. The data is or­gan­ised by county and in­cludes, as a min­i­mum, the name, birth­date and ad­dress of the in­di­vid­ual, as well as de­tails of the source ma­te­rial.

Farm hands pitch hay into a cart on a farm near Whitby, c1880

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