From dairy­maids and millers to shep­herds and yeomen, Jonathan Brown shows how to un­cover your rus­tic roots

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Ex­plore your rus­tic roots from dairy­maids to yeomen with Jonathan Brown

Sooner or later, as we go back into our an­ces­try, we are likely to find a line of fore­bears liv­ing in the coun­try – and it may be much closer than you ex­pect. My fa­ther left the Lin­colnshire vil­lage where his fa­ther was a baker. He went into the army dur­ing the Se­cond World War and ended up set­tling in Lon­don.

Vil­lage peo­ple

When you first meet fam­ily his­to­ri­ans, it can seem as though they have their own se­cret lan­guage as they chat about ‘ag labs’, but ‘ag lab’ is just the cen­sus enu­mer­a­tor’s ab­bre­vi­a­tion for agri­cul­tural labourer. He had so many to en­ter in the re­turns for ru­ral parishes that he needed a short cut! There were more than a mil­lion agri­cul­tural labour­ers in Eng­land and Wales in the mid-19th cen­tury.

The agri­cul­tural labour­ers once con­sti­tuted the largest sin­gle group of a vil­lage’s res­i­dents. In many vil­lages, nearly half the adult male pop­u­la­tion worked on farms. Most were agri­cul­tural labour­ers, but there were a small num­ber of spe­cial­ists in the farm work­force – the shep­herds, cow­men, dairy­maids and oth­ers. In the cen­sus, they were of­ten classed as ‘ farm ser­vants’ who might be ‘ in­door’ (liv­ing on the farm) or ‘out­door’ (liv­ing in the vil­lage). These spe­cial­ists were nor­mally em­ployed on a yearly con­tract, strik­ing a new deal with an em­ployer at the an­nual hir­ing fair.

Their em­ploy­ers – the farm­ers – made up an­other sub­stan­tial part of vil­lage so­ci­ety. They of­ten made up ten per cent or more of a vil­lage’s pop­u­la­tion, but that var­ied. In a 19th cen­tury par­ish with only two or three large farms – which might be a thou­sand acres or more – they were a smaller pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion. At the other end of the scale were those who farmed just a few acres. In some places, such as the Fens, small-scale farms were a prom­i­nent fea­ture. Look out for terms such as ‘small­holder’, ‘nurs­ery­man’, ‘gar­dener’ and ‘cot­tager’ which re­fer to those who farmed smaller parcels of land. If we go back through the 18th cen­tury and be­yond,

In many vil­lages, nearly half of the adult male pop­u­la­tion worked on farms

farmer is a less com­mon term and you’ll usu­ally find them de­scribed us­ing terms such as ‘ hus­band­man’ or ‘yeo­man’ in­stead.

Most of the other peo­ple who worked in and around the vil­lage sup­ported farm­ing – the prin­ci­pal eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity. These were the trades­men and crafts­men, such as shop­keep­ers, bak­ers, car­pen­ters, black­smiths, shoe­mak­ers and millers – and their em­ploy­ees.

Un­til the mid-20th cen­tury, most farm­ers were ten­ants who rented land from an es­tate, which ranged in size from a few hun­dred acres to the great es­tates of the aris­toc­racy. Es­tates were owned by in­di­vid­u­als and by in­sti­tu­tions, such as the Crown, the church and Ox­ford col­leges. The in­flu­ence of landed gen­try and aris­toc­racy on vil­lage life was wide-rang­ing. As well as rent­ing out land, they em­ployed many es­tate work­ers and ser­vants, in­clud­ing gar­den­ers, grooms, cooks and house­maids. Landown­ers kept fuller records which have sur­vived in rea­son­able quan­tity. These ac­counts and cor­re­spon­dence are in­valu­able for re­search­ing not just the landown­ing fam­i­lies, but the fam­i­lies of em­ploy­ees and ten­ants as well.

There was a small but grow­ing pro­fes­sional group in the lat­ter half of the 19th cen­tury, which in­cluded cler­gy­men, the school teacher and the lo­cal sur­veyor. The vil­lage po­lice­man prob­a­bly hadn’t at­tained pro­fes­sional stand­ing by the 1860s-70s, but the force was still present in the com­mu­nity, along with rail­way com­pany em­ploy­ees.

Not many res­i­dents of mid-19th cen­tury vil­lages were de­scribed as ‘re­tired’, but you can find a mid­dle class in the di­rec­to­ries as ‘pri­vate res­i­dents’ – re­tired army of­fi­cers, ladies of in­de­pen­dent means and oth­ers.

Dig­ging up records

Agri­cul­tural labour­ers didn’t leave many per­sonal ac­counts be­fore the age of uni­ver­sal ed­u­ca­tion – though such things as union mem­ber­ship cards, or cer­tifi­cates awarded at ploughing matches have sur­vived. Farm­ers, although no­to­ri­ously bad at record keep­ing, did pro­duce some and so did the landown­ers.

There are many other sources to tap – di­rec­to­ries al­ways are a good start­ing point, es­pe­cially for trac­ing peo­ple in busi­ness and the pri­vate res­i­dents. If there are no sur­viv­ing farm or es­tate records, these may help to track a worker’s move­ments from farm to farm. Many happy hours can be spent read­ing lo­cal news­pa­pers in the hope of find­ing a re­port in­volv­ing a farm­ing an­ces­tor. The Bri­tish News­pa­per Ar­chive, avail­able at bri­tish news­pa­per ar­chive. and find­my­ can be a rich source of in­for­ma­tion even if your an­ces­tor is not named in per­son. Try search­ing on the name of the farm or vil­lage where your an­ces­tor worked. The Na­tional Li­brary of Wales of­fers its free news­pa­per data­base at news­pa­pers. li­brary. wales. The spe­cial­ist farm­ing press, such as the Farmer’s Weekly (founded in 1934), Agri­cul­tural Gazette (19th cen­tury) or Ire­land’s Farmer’s Gazette (19th cen­tury), can be in­valu­able. Spe­cial­ist li­braries, such as the Museum of English Ru­ral Life have hold­ings, but apart from the Farmer’s Gazette, which is avail­able to search on­line at bri­tish news­pa­per ar­chive., these jour­nals have never been in­dexed so be pre­pared for a long hunt.

Agri­cul­ture and the ru­ral poor were the sub­jects of of­fi­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion. There were Royal Com­mis­sions and par­lia­men­tary se­lect com­mit­tees on agri­cul­ture and farm labour avail­able to search through Pro­quest ( par­li­pa­­

par­li­pa­pers), for which you’ll need to go to a ref­er­ence li­brary.

Even fully em­ployed, the labour­ers were among the poor­est of ru­ral so­ci­ety, and the records of the poor laws ( be­fore and af­ter the new Poor Law of 1834) and laws of set­tle­ment are po­ten­tial sources, as well as the mano­rial court rolls in which ad­min­is­tra­tive and le­gal mat­ters af­fect­ing them were recorded. Labour­ers were as likely as any­one else to find them­selves be­fore the mag­is­trates, mainly for petty mis­de­meanours such as be­ing drunk and dis­or­derly, but oc­ca­sion­ally on a more se­ri­ous charge. Poach­ing was a com­mon of­fence. Most of­ten this was of a ca­sual na­ture – sys­tem­atic poach­ers were more or less pro­fes­sional. The records of quar­ter ses­sions and other crim­i­nal courts, there­fore, can be ad­di­tional sources for our labour­ing an­ces­tors and The Fam­ily His­tory Part­ner­ship

has a use­ful on­line guide ( the fam­ily his­tory part­ner­ship. com/ hints-tips ).

Ten­ancy agree­ments are use­ful for trac­ing your ru­ral an­ces­tors too, as they record the de­tails of the prop­erty be­ing rented. These ten­ancy agree­ments were drawn up for prop­er­ties of all sizes, so even an­ces­tors who held the small­est cot­tages can be found here as well as the big farmer.

Look out for mano­rial records too – copy­hold and other forms of mano­rial ten­ure con­tin­ued to be used well into the 19th cen­tury, and es­tate pa­pers con­tain many doc­u­ments list­ing the ten­ants of the in­di­vid­ual manors within the es­tate. Most record of­fices will hold some es­tate pa­pers and the best start­ing point on­line to un­cover these is the Na­tional Ar­chives Dis­cov­ery cat­a­logue ( dis­cov­­tion­ For Scot­tish records, the Scot­tish Ar­chive Net­work ( is a good place to be­gin your search.

Where to go

The coun­try­side is all around us, which means that use­ful sources for ru­ral an­ces­tors can be found any­where – in lo­cal stud­ies li­braries, county and lo­cal record of­fices and mu­se­ums.

The Na­tional Ar­chives and its Dis­cov­ery cat­a­logue pro­vides a quick in­tro­duc­tion to the wealth of ma­te­rial avail­able in lo­cal col­lec­tions. The equiv­a­lent for Scot­tish ge­neal­o­gists is the Na­tional Records of Scot­land ( cat­a­logue.nrscot­ uk/scan­cat­a­logue) and Ar­chives Wales ( ar­chives. wales) per­forms a sim­i­lar func­tion for Wales. The Na­tional Li­brary of Wales ( llgc. in Aberys­t­wyth keeps an ex­cel­lent col­lec­tion of es­tate records.

The ma­jor spe­cial­ist col­lec­tion worth ex­plor­ing is the Museum of English Ru­ral Life (MERL) at the Uni­ver­sity of Read­ing ( read­ Due to re­open on 19th Oc­to­ber af­ter an ex­ten­sive re­fur­bish­ment, MERL is a com­bi­na­tion of museum, ar­chives and li­brary and has the largest spe­cial­ist col­lec­tion of books, doc­u­ments and pho­to­graphs on the ru­ral his­tory of Eng­land to be found any­where – a real trea­sure trove for so­cial his­to­ri­ans. Farmer’s Weekly and other farm­ing mag­a­zines are held there along with records from about 1,100 farms, a fas­ci­nat­ing spe­cial col­lec­tion of evac­uee records and half a mil­lion pho­to­graphs.

An­ces­tors who held the small­est cot­tages can be found as well as the big farmer

An 1851 en­grav­ing of “The Vil­lage Smithy” by Ge­orge Dodg­son

York­shire work­ers ‘rape thresh­ing’ in 1814

Cot­tage scenery at Am­ble­side painted by Julius Cae­sar Ib­bet­son in 1803

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