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Labourers - agricultural and urban

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Unsentimental journeys or byways of the modern babylon - on the Victorian London site you will find a long passage about the British Navvy written by James Greenwood in 1869 - follow the prompts - Professions and Trades/Building and Construction/Navvies.  Somewhat romanticised but interesting.

The proceedings of the Old Bailey - A most wonderful resource which now covers all the court cases from 1674-1913 with lots of additional information about various apposite social history topics.

London lives 1690-1800 - An associated site that gives access to documents about the lives of the poor in the Metropolis.  Searchable by name.

The workhouse - Absolutely everything you could want to know about the Workhouses, including what records can be found and where.  A most wonderful site.

The museum of english rural life - An initiative of the University of Reading which has photographs and documents about rural life, though with an emphasis on the early twentieth century.

Discovery - You never know what you might find at this national archive initiative.  It’s basically a catalogue of all the holdings of most of England’s Record Offices and Archives.  You might not find your ancestor here, but you might find his employer’s records.  You never know your luck.

The British newspaper archive - A British Library initiative.  They are continuing to digitise a huge number of regional English newspapers.  You might find something about infrastructure projects here.  Name searchable.  Now on Findmypast.

I am willing to bet that every family tree has at least one labourer or agricultural labourer - most likely a whole host of them.  I’m not talking about the specialists here - the bricklayers, ploughmen, shepherds, plasterers, carpenters etc. but the ordinary labouring man who did all the hard work - the guys with the picks and shovels.  The ones who dug out all the canals, and dams, and roads and railways, the ones who carted all the materials for the specialists, the ones who laboured all year to put food on everyone’s table.  These are the men (and women too - at least on the farms) who built the British (and every other) Empire - on whose backs many grew rich but who did not grow rich themselves.  They were tough - they had to be, but nevertheless many of them died early from injuries sustained at work or illnesses obtained from the harsh working conditions, and if they did live to be old they most likely died in penury as there were no pensions for them.  No work - no money.

And it was always thus.  Back in ancient history of course there were slaves to do the menial tasks - indeed there were slaves, sometimes called serfs until well into the nineteenth century.   And in some of the less ‘civilised’ parts of the world there are still slaves, not to mention those people who might as well be called slaves in more enlightened societies - the illegal immigrants, the peasant labourers, the sex slaves, the backpacking fruit pickers - I’m sure you can think of many examples.  Technically, of course, slavery was abolished in the nineteenth century and there are now many labour laws and wage conditions to protect the unskilled worker - at least in the West.  But even so there are some that slip through the net.  However, slavery is a whole other issue that I do not intend to address here.

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I had hoped to perhaps point you to places where you can find out more about these humble ancestors of ours, but I am not sure that I am able to enlighten you (or myself much).  So, briefly - a history of labourers.

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As I mentioned before - it began with slaves - ever since man has gathered together in groups, fought other groups and tried to feed their own people, then the conquered were used as slaves.  As time progressed slavery was sort of replaced by serfdom in some places - a system in which the poor laboured for their lords in return for protection, although in the process they most probably gave most of their goods to the lord and their lives too when called to war. Eventually the peasants revolted.  There were revolutions - there continue to be revolutions, but after the uprising the system of somebody labouring for somebody else always seems to return, although each time, hopefully, the lot of the working man is improved.

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The labourers and agricultural labourers we come across in our family histories are mostly from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries - particularly the nineteenth when the colonial empires were established and the industrial age transformed the continents.  Massive infrastructure works were undertaken and most of the work was done by people.  Machines did some of it, but it was really not until the twentieth century that large earth moving machinery came into its own.  For moving earth was mostly what labourers did, be it on the roads, railways, canals, in towns or on farms.  And every major project has a death toll.  For it was risky work.  So you may find newspaper and coroners’ reports of accidental deaths.


It was also not a secure job.  I have no doubt, although I confess I have not researched this, that virtually all of the labour on major infrastructure works, and also on construction sites in general, was casual, and at the very best, short-term contractual work.  The fact that you had a job today did not mean that you had a job tomorrow.  All of these factors, led eventually to the trade union movement and to reform of labour practices.  Maybe your ancestor was a mover and shaker, a unionist.  If so you may also find some record of him in union records and newspaper accounts of labour action.

We find these labourers in the censuses, often living in just a few rooms with large families, whose structure changes from census to census as children and, sometimes, wives, and husbands die.  If they are truly desperate we sometimes find them in the criminal courts and records of transportation - one Dearman ancestor at least, ended up this way.  In some ways you are lucky if you have a criminal ancestor as there is likely to be much more on record about them.  If your agricultural labourer worked on a large estate, you may be lucky enough to find records kept by the lord of the manor which make reference to the people who toiled in their houses and their fields.  Try the local county records office, or the estate itself, or even the local library.  You never know what you might find.  


Ancestry now has some railway employment records for the years 1833-1963, so you may be lucky and find something here.


Then there are newspapers which give accounts of major disasters and accidents at work, accounts of major infrastructure projects, and even the occasional social analysis, not to mention advertisements.


Last but not least there is always Google.  There are now numerous learned and academic sources online for all to read - some in book form, some simply articles, although some will cost you money to read.  For example there is JSTOR - an online library of academic journals on every conceivable subject.  Many is the time I have found the perfect article - read the abstract but cannot go further because you have to subscribe.  If you are a student though, you will be able to access the goodies through your institution’s library.  But don’t despair there is plenty of learned material available for all to read on the net.  Just keep looking.  Good luck.

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