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The farm servant system

Before parliamentary enclosure, most farms were situated within villages. After enclosure, farmers built new homes in the midst of their newly consolidated fields, which might be some miles from the village. These farmers needed onsite labour, particularly to care for the many draught horses needed to work the land. Therefore, from the age of twelve, many East Riding boys would spend several years living and working on farms. These boys and young men, known as farm servants, were engaged to live on farms for a year at a time. They worked for their board and lodgings and a small sum payable at the end of their year’s engagement. They were often known as ‘horse lads’ because the most important of their duties was looking after and working with the farms’ heavy horses.

At the end of each year, farm servants were free to either to seek a further year’s employment or move to a new farm. This was therefore a highly mobile young male workforce; Snowden Dunhill’s memoirs suggest that this mobility brought a certain freedom from moral supervision, and a casual approach towards petty theft.

Under the new agricultural arrangements there was also a need for girls and young women to work as servants cooking food and keeping house for the farmers and farm servants. Like the young men, girls were employed yearly, seeking placement at the November ‘hiring fairs’ which were held in all East Riding towns until well into the twentieth century. One of our transportees, Sarah Ann Sharpe, is listed as a servant from the village of Brandesburton, and may well have been employed on this basis.

Once they were married, perhaps in their mid 20s, farm servants usually became labourers; rather than moving each year to a new farm, they might rent a cottage in a village, seeking whatever work they could find on local farms.

NEXT CHAPTER: Agricultural change and crime.

Poster about hiring fair
Poster for a Martinmas hiring fair in Pocklington in 1863. (Female servants were often required to attend separate hiring events to men because of concerns about propriety). ERALS: DDPY/20/31.
Notice about hirings
Newspaper notice about hirings of farm servants in Driffield. From Beverley Community Museum image archive
East Riding farm lads
Farmworkers on the Routh estate, early twentieth century. ERALS: DDX 1149/2.