“In June 1862, my daughters, Harriet and Sarah, aged respectively 11 and 13 years, were engaged by a ganger to work on Mr Worman’s land at Stilton. When they got there he took them to near Peterborough; there they worked for six weeks, going and returning each day. The distance was 16 miles in all and they had to walk this distance 6 days a week in addition to working in the fields.” Mrs Anthony Adams, a labourer’s wife of Denton, Huntingdonshire informed the Children’s Employment Commission which subsequently mentioned it in its Sixth report in 1867.

During the nineteenth century agricultural labourers had little land of their own to boost wages and for those that were married the only way to increase the family’s income was to send them to work. Boys as young as six were therefore sent out carrying out such tasks as bird scaring or stone picking. Often they were hungry as were their mothers who sometimes neglected the home to try and earn a few pence by weeding or harvest work. Part of the bargain some of the husbands had with the farmer was for their wives to work too.

Agricultural gangs were established in several of the Eastern counties of England to make use of the women’s and children’s labour. Two kinds of gang existed, one generally called the public gang while the other was called the private gang. A gang master controlled the public gangs and he entered into a contract with a farmer to undertake a certain amount of work. He was responsible for recruiting and subsequently paying the women and children under his supervision. On the other hand. the private gang was under the direct employ of the farmer with control being delegated to a farm servant. In the east of England where the gangs were predominant most of the land was newly farmed and in order to save payment of poor rates a few cottages were built for the workforce. These cottages were available for the labourers who were hired by the year while casuals came in from miles away like Mrs Adams’ children.

Work was hard and dreary, and this was not helped by the fact that some of the gang masters were brutal. Talk of immorality soon became widespread. Public opinion which had originally been with the wellbeing of the children now turned to the mothers as well. Since 1862 the Children’s Employment Commission had been sitting and it was instructed to extend its scope. In 1867 it published its report on the public gangs. In the following three years Reports were produced on the private gangs and women and children in the agriculture industry generally.

The public gangs gave employment to some 7000 people, each gang having between 10 and 40 members. Of these about half were children. For many life must have been a misery as most of the gang masters were not of a good temperament. The Report of 1867 went as far as to describe them as “men whom the farmers are not willing to have in their regular employ. In most cases they are men of indolent and drinking habits, and in some cases men of notorious depravity. As a rule they are unfit for the office they undertake.”

Such tiring and back breaking tasks as weeding, picking stones, picking potatoes and spreading manure were amongst the type of jobs undertaken by the gang members. Payment was generally by the piece and paid to the gang master. As a result they were kept working hard. In some instances the journey to and from work and a day in the fields may have accounted for 14 hours. Mrs Adams’ daughters left home as early as 5am and were seldom home before 9pm. Harriet and Sarah Adams earned 7d (3p) a day for their efforts and from these meagre wages they had to pay for meals as well as tools such as hoes. The girls were part of a mixed gang but despite this there was no impropriety. The ganger at one point requested the services of six year old Susan and Mrs Adams agreed to her joining the gang. Mrs Adams told the Commission ‘Susan walked all the way – 8 miles – to Peterborough to her work, and worked from 8am to 5.30pm and received 4d (11/2p). She was that tired her sisters had to carry her the best part of the way home, and she was ill from it for three weeks and never went again.” It was not long after publication of the report that its recommendations were passed into law as the Gangs act 1868. The main provisions were that no child under eight was to be employed, and the women and girls only when a licensed gang mistress went with the gang. Justices of the Peace had to license gang masters after having been satisfied as to their character.

The Act was fairly effective, by the next year many of the worst gang masters were no longer licensed. Gang mistresses were appointed where necessary. Although public gangs tried to avoid the act by turning into private gangs their numbers declined. Of those that did remain most were on larger farms and were well organised involving the labourer in no more hardships than his agricultural work would normally entail.

As a result of the Gangs act 1868 and the introduction of other legislation we no longer have the unsatisfactory and unhealthy working conditions on farms that were endured by our forebears of three generations ago.

My First Day At Work

I went yesterday for the first time. I joined my sisters Harriet and Sarah working on the farm. Mr Worman’s foreman said to Mummy that he needed me to help pick up stones and clear the land. I didn’t want to go but Mummy said “Susan, you have to go as we need the money you will earn. We need it for clothes and food.”

Reluctantly I set off with Harriet and Sarah. It was scarcely light when we left at 5am for Mr Worman’s farm. My older sisters had already been working there for several weeks and therefore knew the way, all 8 miles of it. I found it very hard trying to keep up with them. As I was much younger I couldn’t walk as fast but they slowed down for me.

We reached the farm and were given hoes and told to go into a field with other workers. They were clearing the ground of stones to enable seed to be sown. Fortunately it was not too hot a day as we toiled in the field which had no shade from the sun. Lunch was bread and cheese but we didn’t get long to eat it before we were back at work again. “This is very hard work,” I told Harriet “I want to go home.” “You can’t,” she said “we will lose our jobs and Mummy and Daddy won’t have any extra money.”

I carried on with my task and eventually it was time to go home. I was very tired so my sisters took turns to carry me most of the way home. It was nearly 9pm when we arrived home. I was so exhausted I had to be carried to my bed.

In the summer of 1862 Harriet and Sarah Adams aged 11 and 13 respectively worked for six weeks on a farm near Peterborough. The distance was 16 miles in total and they had to walk this distance 6 days a week in addition to working in the fields. They worked in a gang of labourers on a farm doing a variety of tasks such as weeding, picking stones and picking potatoes. The ganger, the man in charge, had requested the services of six year old Susan who worked for one day. After arriving home that evening she was ill for three weeks and never went back.

Later in 1868 an Act of Parliament called the Gangs Act was set up. The main point of it was that no child under eight was to be employed, as Susan had not been, by any means, the only six year old to have worked in an agricultural gang.