FOCUS ON: RURAL ANCESTORS
From dairymaids and millers to shepherds and yeomen, Jonathan Brown shows how to uncover your rustic roots
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.
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. co.uk and findmypast.co.uk 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. co.uk, 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 ( parlipapers.proquest.com/
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 ( discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk). For Scottish records, the Scottish Archive Network ( scan.org.uk) 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.nrscotland.gov. uk/scancatalogue) and Archives Wales ( archives. wales) performs a similar function for Wales. The National Library of Wales ( llgc. org.uk) 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 ( reading.ac.uk/merl). 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