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January 2018

Working the landA history of the Farmworker in England from 1850 to the Present Day
Nicola Verdon


This is the most comprehensive account so far written of the history of agricultural workers since the 1850s, when farmworkers, at the height of the industrial revolution, were still numerically the biggest group of workers in England. Today, with under 100,000 in total, farmworkers account for under 1% of the employment totals. Many of their roles though remain essential.

Dr Nicola Verdon is a history lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. Her previous book, published in 2002, was on Rural Women Workers in Nineteenth-Century England. This showed the vital role women, often overlooked, played in the many developments in farming through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. Her findings have been used to contribute to radio and TV programmes. Sadly, the book was only made available to an academic audience.

Verdon hopes — and is pushing to make — her second book more widely available via ebook and paperback. She would welcome opportunities to address trade union and labour movement gatherings about its contents. Unite branches can contact Nicola to discuss how to organise a visit by her to their meetings. It should prove a fascinating event as she certainly knows her subject.

An economic explanation of the forces shaping the countryside is combined by Verdon in Working the Land with the history of rural labour markets, employment pattens, the farm workforce and rural households and daily family life.

The author grew up in the countryside and has dedicated the book to her grandfather whose employment trajectory is typical of many agricultural workers. Born in a small Derbyshire village he was part of a large family and he left school soon after becoming a teenager to become a farmworker on a number of farms over the following years. He then went to live on a Nottinghamshire farm before quitting the sector to become a lorry driver and earn considerably more than in his previous jobs.

Verdon’s grandfather was one of a number of former agricultural workers interviewed. Getting today’s farmworkers to speak openly about their experiences is difficult. “They are reluctant to talk. Farmers are also wary if someone wants to speak to their employees, who in engaging with a researcher would reveal they are thinking about pay and conditions. Farmworkers worry this would lead to a loss in employment and so, like in previous generations, it is better to remain silent.” Verdon has found it especially difficult to make contact with migrant workers, the most exploited section of farmworkers today.

In order to overcome some of the silence, Verdon has also for two decades plus ploughed through official and Parliamentary papers and has sought, I believe successfully, to capture the thoughts of farmworkers, male and female, about their work.

There are a number of things in the book that would shock many members of the public that surveys show know very little about how much of their food is produced on a farm.

The first is the high skill levels of many farmworkers since 1850 onwards. Whether it is working with horses or a sheep dog, ploughing a field to driving — and often fixing — heavy vehicles and harvesters it is apparent that many tasks require a real talent and ingenuity. That includes making an objective assessment of whether weather conditions might rule out particular tasks at certain times.

“Many people think that farmworkers have and are badly paid because they are not skilled, but that is simply not so,” said Verdon.

The relatively high numbers of female farmworkers is also revealed in Verdon’s book. “There is a misconception that agriculture is only masculine. I wanted a front cover that included men and women as the latter need to be fully recognised,” said Verdon who also explained that it was a popular myth that the Women’s Land Army had been significant in improving farming outputs during WWI. “Really it was those that always worked on farms, combined with an input from local men and women, that helped ensure our survival at the time.“

What WWI - and later WWII - did do was bring about a general recognition that the products being produced by farmers and their employees was essential for life. There was a genuine optimism that things would change for the better after the 1917 Corn Production Act introduced the first minimum wage for agricultural workers. The retiring Tory Government knocked it out of existence but once the first ever Labour Government re-introduced it in 1922 it was here to stay until the more modern Tories, combined with their Lib Dem friends, scrapped it in England at the start of this decade.

Guaranteeing better wages and conditions helped farmworkers with their drive to produce  quality food but the numbers doing so continued to fall. The Labour Government after WWII maintained guaranteed prices for farming products. Generous grants for farm equipment — especially tractors — led to a continuing fall in employment totals.

Some farmworkers left the industry reluctantly but others welcomed the opportunity to take up jobs with better pay and less hours needed to earn it. Verdon admits that she did not want the book to become — as it could have — very depressing. “Many of those who left, either voluntarily or forcibly, the land have done well.”

What is undoubtedly depressing is that farmworkers still need to be better organised and represented. “The ending of the AWB in England under the basis that farmworkers are covered under minimum wage legislation was viewed by many of the farmworkers I interviewed, even those paid more than the AWB rates, with disquiet. They understand that the legislation provided a framework for all round better conditions and they worry that there will be, like after legislation was scrapped after WWI, wage deflation amongst groups of highly skilled farmworkers. They are right to be concerned,” said Verdon.

At this point it would be great to report that farmers - and politicians who they work closely with - really care about those farmworkers, of all nationalities, who play such a vital role in helping feed all of us. Verdon was the guest speaker recently at The Farmers Club in Whitehall. Tory MPs were present. Verdon found that there was a real interest in farming policy but hardly any concern about workers except for the need to ensure a plentiful supply of cheap migrant workers in the future. Nothing changes.  

Interviewing Verdon then it is clear that she shares a passion for the history of landworkers and how this might aid their current struggles. “I look forward to being contacted by readers to discuss me speaking at their trade union branch meetings. I am also pushing the publishers to bring down the cost of my work so that is available in paperback,” said Nicola.

To contact Nicola send an email to n.verdon@shu.ac.uk or ring 07402 867472