April 22, 2018

Northumberland farming history - The hirings

By Clive Dalton

The days of the horseman have long gone

When we were young ‘daft laddies’ on farms in the North Tyne and Rede valley, the ‘old codgers’ who kept a close eye on us (so we did 'nowt daft') would often tell stories about ‘the hirings’, or the ritual of farmers hiring staff in their days around the13th of May (called ‘the term’) and then in 13 November each year.  These days were also called the ‘flitting days’ when folk moved from job to job.

It certainly seemed like a well-run ritual where farm workers with different skills would stand around in Bellingham village waiting to be approached with an offer for work. There was no need for a printed CV and most prospective employers would know their previous employer if they were local.

It seemed to be much more convenient than advertising in the newspapers, which many folk on 'outbye' farms would not have got in any case.

There was an annual  hiring at Alwinton Show which is still held in the first weeks of October.  It would be a great opportunity to recruit new labour when so many farm folk were together.  As my old North Tyne mate Clive Davidson says - Imagine having a few drinks at the show, seeing the industrial tent and a few games of quoits, then trekking to some farm at the top of the Couqet knowing only too well that you would see precious little daylight or home comforts before you heard the first cookoo next spring!  Hopefully the farm or the nearby one would would have hired a bonny servant lass that could have helped you through the winter.

Different jobs
Shepherds wore a bit of wool in their lapel, and on many farms they and their demands had the top status, in the eyes of the boss.  Maybe this was because sheep were the main enterprise on most farms, and certainly on the hill farms where the sheep were ‘hefted’ and were never moved off that farm.  You took the sheep over with the farm.

Horsemen work a leather lace in their lapels but there was no mention of how general workers (referred to as loose men) identified themselves.

Job descriptions

This was the 'general hand' or the farm who had the skills to do all the jobs required.

Hired to look after the horses on the farm and do all the work that required horse power.

·      Lambing man.  Hired just for the lambing starting in March on an ‘inbye’ flock, finishing in time to do a ‘hill lambing’ starting in April.  There was no indoor early lambing in those early days which can now start in February.
·      Hay man.  Hired mainly to help with hay followed by corn harvest.  Before any hay was cut there would be work helping the general farm hind to hoe turnips and pull weeds in any other arable crop like potatoes. But the main work was to harvest the hay and corn (oats and barley).  An ability to build outside stacks and thatch them was an essential skill needed.  This work ended before the November term and could include helping with threshing some of the stacked corn, and maybe helping lifting the potatoes in October.
·      Byreman or cowman.  Hired in November for when cattle came indoors for winter.  It would include cutting kale left growing in the field, and feeding hay from the hayshed or stack outside and carried to the housed stock.  Cleaning ('muckin oot') byres, hemmels and loose boxes was a big part of the job and dealing the product into middens at various places as the muck increased over winter.  Spreading it on hay fields was a part of this responsibility – which meant horse and cart work before tractors and mechanical muck spreaders arrived in the 1950s.

 Employment conditions
There was certainly no Farm Workers’ Union to specify working conditions or wages, and even in later decades, farm workers were never keen to join unions like in other industries.  So there would be no written contract listing any conditions of employment.

It would be a case of bargaining between both parties, if either was in a bargaining position!  Farm workers were noted for their regular moving from farm to farm, as there was (and still is today) plenty of reasons why things don’t work out between parties.  One of the main ones is that workers live with or beside their employers and so do their families where problems often arise with the many people involved.

I remember Harry Thompson who drove a wagon for Hugh Thompson in Bellingham saying that he had shifted one farm worker every year for so many years, that he knew where every box went on the deck of this wagon.

It was only from the 1940s that road transport was available to move people and for decades before that it would be horse and cart moving.

The bargaining would have been interesting to hear.  The accommodation offered for farm laddies was often in the hay loft above the stable where the horses would have provided so element of warmth, along with aromas.  Other farm lads would have lived in the house with the farmer.

There was often a dedicated ‘shepherd’s cottage’ on a farm and a pair of cottages on larger farms for permanent staff such as the hinds.  Seasonal workers often lodged with these staff or in a shed or ‘bothie’.

Enticements by employers to get staff to stay on would be very limited.  My father who worked on a farm on the Chesters estate at Humshaugh told the tale of the boss offering the horseman a set of bright hames for the horse’s collar if he stayed on.  The standard ones were unpolished rusty metal.

A friend I worked for during weekends and school holidays told me that when he left school at 14 and went for a farm job, one of the questions he was asked was whether he ate much!

Women workers
I can’t remember hearing that women like ‘servant lasses’ or housekeepers were hired like the men, and would be employed  more by word of mouth or recommended by friends and relatives.  But any shepherdesses or 'landgirls' (who would be single) would presumably be hired like men.  There would be no specialist dairy maids on North Tyne farms as there would only be at most a couple of cows on each farm.

Wages were never paid weekly.  Board and lodging would be provided and any cottages would be rent-free.  Wages would be paid on a monthly basis at best, but more likely at the end of the job. There would be no advance payment unless the worker came with no money to buy basic essentials like clothes or boots which were very expensive. Even in my Daft Laddie days, hobnail boots were a week’s wages.

The wages at best would be a few shillings per week, and we think not as high as five shillings.  Out of this the worker would have to buy his tobacco as most smoked a pipe, and any liquid refreshment when they did get to the nearest pub.  There would be little chance of saving.

There were many tales of farm workers taking off to town at the end of their time and blowing large parts of their wages in the nearest pub.

There would certainly be no signed contract - the best would be a hand shake and maybe a drink at the bar of the Railway hotel, Black Bull or Rose and Crown in the village.

Clive Davison tells this story.
I remember being told of one old lag that after getting his pay and going to the pub. Whiskey was apparently sold in 3-gill (852ml) bottles but not with a screw cap and must have been the ones where you needed a bottle opener. This old boy didn't go in for any finesse and didn’t have time to waste. So he knocked the top off on a stone 'cape' on the wall, and got stuck in. The broken edges cut his mouth and lips and blood poured down his chin. After finishing that he no doubt went back to be hired again! 

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