Website of the Laceby History Group

Hard Times: Life in Laceby 1800 - 1914

As we saw in volume three, life in Laceby in 1800 must have been as good as anywhere else in England. People lived independently, in good quality houses in a pretty village, and the average wages were amongst the highest in the country. George Young, writing of Laceby in 1797, said the village had "much air of comfort".

In 1835 the Laceby overseer of the poor received an anonymous threat which mentioned setting fire to farm property. In 1875 Laceby was a centre for emigration to New Zealand for many members of the Lincolnshire Labour League who saw no further point in remaining as agricultural workers in this country. What had gone wrong? Why were Laceby people driven to such desperate measures? To answer these questions requires that we look beyond Laceby to what was happening in the country as a whole.

In Lark Rise to Candleford Flora Thompson recalled her childhood in North Oxfordshire in the 1880's. She remembered an eighty year old woman called Sally who told her what life had been like when she was a girl:

"Country people had not been so poor when Sally was a
girl, or their prospects so hopeless. Sally's father had
kept a cow, geese, poultry, pigs, and a donkey-cart to
carry his produce to the market town . He could do this
because he had commoners' rights and could turn his
animals out to graze .... Everybody worked; the father
and mother from daybreak to dark. Sally's job was to
mind the cow and drive the geese to the best grass
patches. It was strange to picture Sally, a little girl ,
running with her switch after the great hissing birds on
the common, especially as both common and geese had vanished
as completely as though they had never been."

Flora Thompson contrasted this golden age of the past with the reality of her own childhood:

"To go from the homes of the older people to those of
the heseiged generation was to step into another
chapter of the hamlet's history. All the graces and
simple luxuries of the older style of living had
disappeared. They were poor people's houses rich
only in children ..."

This eyewitness account of how the difference between the generations felt, confirms the picture given by Lincolnshire people to the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children, Young Persons and Women in Agriculture in 1867:

"John Woolley labourer" ... I consider children are
fit to do ketlock pulling at 7 years old. And how are
we to live if they don't go? I pay 6s 8d a week for
flour for ourselves and five little children; and if
a wet day comes, or two or three, how are we to get

"Mr Cawthorn, labourer's wife "VWomen do more work now
than they did. The farmers get them for less wages .
There's often ten men out of work. Many farmers don't
employ a man all the summer, not a labourer at all
only women ... I've known my husband to be five or six
weeks without work ..."

These comments illustrate how the attitude of the landowner or farmer to his workers had ceased to be one of duty and responsibility, and had become a purely economic attitude. So long as there was a plentiful supply of cheap hard-working people readily available to meet the different needs of the farming season, then the farmer need not concern himself with how those people kept body and soul together. In 1800 the use of common land rights and patches of land attached to cottages enabled people to be reasonably self-sufficient. But c:ommons became enclosed and rights were bought out, oheaply by the landowners . The independence of the labourer and his family came to be seen as a threat to his employer and there occurred a steady reduction in the use of land as payment in kind .

"The custom of cow- keeping ... by 1850 survived in only a
few areas of Lindsey . Farmers did not object to pig
raising and potato growing , but cow-keeping was thought to
take up too much of the men's time and make them too
independent . When John Cragg valued the parish of
Metheringham in 1802 he advised its owners to turn the
cow-common into a few fair-sized closes: the cottagers
could easily obtain wood from elsewhere on the estate and too
much land interfered with their usefulness as labourers."

In the nineteenth century there was a distinction between labourersemployed day by day, but paid by the week, and farm servants who were hired for a year at a time. In Lincolnshire on average a farm employed four labourers for every farm servant. While the farmer contracted with his farm servants a regular wage and conditions (which often included a tied cottage) he took no responsibility for the conditions under which his labourers lived. The parish had to be responsible for its inhabitants and as the relationship between farmer and labourer changed , the parish system of relief became a more regular part of everyday life .

Fred Hewis' Father


Leslie Blakey                                                           Fred Hewis

The farm servants of one farm would typically consist of shepherdsforemen, stock-keepers, waggoners and women house servants. A wolds farm of 1,000 acres near Binbrook had a larger than usual farm staff in 1867 . There was a foreman, a shepherd, a stockman, a carpenter, a blacksmith, a seedsman and a head waggoner. In addition there were five unmarried waggoners who boarded with the foreman. Ten casual labourers from Binbrook were employed by the day. Farm servants were employed year by year, and the statute fairs, or "hirings" existed in the area up to 1914. Laceby had such a fair and a Swallow man can remember agreeing at the fair to go to a farm at Immingham for £9 10s 0d a year. The next year he got £5 more (less £1 for washing) . The statute fair at Laceby was a fun fair as well as the official hiring day.

'l'he statute fairs show that the wages of farm servants were also affected by the rise in wages in the 1870's, and by the hard times from the late 1870's to 1914.

1873 May 15th Barton . "Servants were in great demand at
the highest rate of wages .. waggoners £24 to £28 per year;
second waggoners £17 to £22 ; boys £12 to £18; girls £10 to

1884 May 16th Barton. "There was a large attendance of
both masters and servants at the statute. Foremen or first
waggoners obtained from £18 to £22; second waggoners
£12 to £16; and boys £6 to £10. Girls got £4. 10s to £10;
superior £11 to £12."

1887 May Louth . " .. the supply of labour exceeded the demand.
Waggoners £14 to £18, plough boys £9 to £13; farm lads £4 to
£6; strong dairy girls £8 to £12."

For those who had no wage, in the early part of the nineteenth century relief would consist of a dole to either supplement or replace wages . But from the depression of 1815 onwards, the ratepaying sections of the parish began to object to the level of rates and various devices were used. In Laceby the most frequent tactic seems to have been the creation of parish relief work paid at a wage level well below that of a labourer. We know that there were two overseers of the poor in Laceby and that fish-box making, crushing bones for fertilizer, and drainage work were some of the tasks . Relief was by far the biggest item of expenditure for the parish although some curious items were supplied to the poor; cheese, rice, treacle, oatmeal and soap were bought as well as the paying of coal, bedding, footwear and funeral expenses. This rather enterprising approach was changed by the introduction of the workhouse system in 1837 which, in theory, ended relief to people in their own homes and required them to either struggle through on their own resources, or to accept the indignity of having to enter the workhouse with all its carefully worked out methods of degradation. The workhouse was meant to deter. In practice many parishes could not bring themselves to administrate the full rigours of the workhouse system, and various elements of relief were still available. However, the total effect was to further reduce the living standards of the poor.

Such was the desperation of the country poor, that in hard winters when little work was available, outbreaks of fire-raising spread throughout the Country .

"The labourers deeply resented their plight; they
blamed it upon the unfeeling behaviour of their
superiors; and when their resentment erupted into
action, as it did in periods of extreme hardship,
it took a violent form. The characteristic
expression of discontent, in Lincolnshire as in
the eastern counties was the incendiary fire ...
The miserable winter months were the usual season
and the stackyard the common target. Here the
farmer's harvest produce was assembled in the form
of unthrashed corn . Thrashing was one of the few
occupations available for the day or casual
labourer at certain times during the winter; and
the anger aroused at such times by machines or
imported labour was correspondingly intense.
Fires were sometimes preceded or accompanied by
threatening letters."

The winter of 1830/1 was very hard and 28 fires were reported in Lincolnshire. The winter of 1834/5 was also bad, and a low price for corn led farmers to cut wages.

"At Laceby, the overseer reduced the wages of
labourers employed by the parish from one shilling
to tenpence, and received the following note:
'Firing is no warning to you at Laceby, you must
not try the poor any longer, for they will not
submit to work for 1s 0d per day, young men are
fools to stand it any longer.'"

The threatening note refers to a previous fire which presumably failed to have its intended effect. One shilling a day meant a weekly wage of six shillings, reduced to five by the
overseer's decision. This would be below half the normal low wage of a labourer, so the resentment is understandable.

Although the living standards of many of Laceby's inhabitants must have been miserably low at this time, it is striking that this period sees a rate of population growth that is difficult to reconcile with the standard of living available.

Obviously there was a general increase in population, but Laceby's growth is exceptional and unlike the other Viillages it retains its increase through to 1901.

Houses built in Seed Close during Laceby's rapid growth


We know that Laceby was an "open" village with no central control exercised by a large landowner. It was common for open villages and towns to grow in population and retain that population while "closed", less free villages shrank.

"It seemed obvious to many contemporaries that the
owners of the closed parishes were to blame for this
imbalance of population and its consequent, social
evils. Not content with failing to build new
cottages on their estates, it was said they let existing
cottages fall in to decay or even pulled them down .
They did these things partly to exclude undesirable
people from their estates, but mainly to keep down the
poor rates and thus preserve the letting value of
their farms. The result was that the local labour
supply was crowded into the neighbouring open parishes,
which became notorious for poor housing and lawlessness."

One unpleasant consequence at this process was that a walk of several miles was often added to an already long working day. Caistor was an extreme example. Mr Kirman, the relieving officer, in his evidence to the 1867 Royal Commission, said:

"Down this hill I see hundreds of labouring people pass
at night, coming back from Swallow, Thoresway, Cuxwold,
and so on. Some of them go four, five, or even six
miles. There is a great want of cottages in the surrounding

The total picture is of a largely ill-housed, low-waged, barely literate, population incapable of exerting any effort to better their situation. (Illiteracy was 30% amongst men and 50%
amongst women in the 1840's in Lincolnshire). The contrast with the employers could not have been greater. Landowners and farmers had become relatively richer and more remote and used their collective influence to consolidate their gains and to discourage all opportunities to their employees which might result in their greater independence. Schooling for the children of agricultural workers was seen as a luxury dangerous to the well-being of the society. Bare literacy was a sufficient goal. In the end the vicious down-ward spiral was halted from the least expected source - the agricultural workers themselves

'l'he "Revolt of the Field" started in 1872, mainly in South Lincolnshire but by the winter of 1873/4 branches of the Lincolnshire Labour League were well established in the large villages and the towns of Lindsey. Many of the leaders were lay preachers in the Primitive Methodist sect and there is an affinity between the more independent democratic kind of Methodism and the union spirit of the 1870's.

The Primitive Methodist Chapel built in 1839 and rebuilt in 1877 is now the Youth Club in Caistor Road. The size of the building shows that it rivalled the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in the High Street. The emphasis of services was on the spoken word, on preaching, in prayers without books and in hymn singing. This emphasis obviously would have been a great help to farmworkers in giving them the self-confidence to construct their own organisations. The attendance at Primitive Methodist services in Laceby on Sunday 30th March 1851 was morning service 40, afternoon service 60, evening service 100. (Compare with the population figures above).

Note Wesleyan Chapel same day - morning service 130evening service 220.

Certainly the participants in the Labour League recognised that they were taking part in a spiritual as well as a social change. One of the delegates to the 1879 annual conference of the League at Peterborough, was W Camplin of Laceby. A year later the same man gave the Good Friday "sermon" to the League branch at Ulceby.

The combination of religion, social movement and self-interest proved irresistible and by August 1873 the Labour League had 20,000 members (out of about 50,000 farmworkers in the whole county). In 13 disputes where the farmer locked the men out, the League was successful at the end of the day. Buoyed up by this success there was a general resistance to the usual drop in wages for the winter period, and then in the spring of 1874 the farmworkers sought to raise wages everywhere to 21 shillings a week. Recognising the threat posed by the Union, the farmers and landowners c.ombined. On the 13th Marc.h 1874 at the Yarborough Hotel, Grimsby, it was agreed to set up the Grimsby and Neighbouring Parishes Farmers' Association. They were united in their decision to lock out anyone who became a member of the Labour League. Among the founding members were William Coates and William Youhill of Laceby, William Torr, C W Tindall and F Sowerby of Aylesby and William Williams of Irby. The lockout lasted from March until August, and Laceby must have been one of the last parishes to resolve the dispute since the Labour League's balance sheet for the quarter ending 30th September 1874 shows the sum of £7 2s 9d for the costs of disputes at Keelby and Laceby. The result of the lockout was a compromise (no wage increase, but recognition of the Union agreed), but the trial of strength was followed by the whole country, with demonstrations of support in the industrial areas, and the rural issue was never the same again.

Farmworkers were not given the vote in 1867, unlike their equals in the towns. This injustice meant that the farmworker could not express his political opposition to his master. The Revolt of the Field ensured that the vote would inevitably be given to the farmworker. Much of the energy generated among the workers was channelled into other activities. At Keelby the League branch treasurer, W Newmarch, was elected to the School Board. At Laceby the League branch ran a sick club as an insurance for members against loss of earnings. At other places the League set up its own co-operative shops. But the most dramatic illustration of the Labour League's determination to better its members' lives, was the policy of assisted emigration, and in this aspect Laceby was to play a prominent part.

Emigration became the official policy of the Labour League for a number of reasons. It was felt that if enough farmworkers emigrated there would be fewer men seeking work so wages would go up. If this did not happen the men would continue to emigrate until the labour shortage became so great that the farmers and landowners would have to raise wages to persuade men to stay. There was also a deeper reason. Emigration to New Zealand or Canada meant the possession of land, and this meant a return to the earlier days when the ordinary cottager had rights to the common land. The possession of land took on an almost religious significance:

"... we have to recognise the temporary necessity of emigration
as a safety valve, and likewise that the labourers will
have to combine to get wages revised. But emigration and
combination are not ends for us, or the English labourers,
to pursue. They are themselves evils, burdensome and

grievous. But, unfortunately, they are now necessary evils,
to keep down, or under control greater ones, and so long as
they are required ... But when the disease has left the
doctor is not wanted; and when our English labourers have
land to labour on and can reap the profits for themselves,
then they will not want union combination, or sick clubs, or
for ages - if ever":' emigration."

The Labourer 1st January 1876

In 1874 Henry Tomlinson, the Secretary of the Laceby Branc:h of the Labour League led the party of emigrants from Laceby and the surrounding area to New Zealand and the "Grimsby Observer and Humber News" gave the following account on 7th April 1875:

"We have received a copy of a pamphlet just pUblished by
Mr Horace Watson, Laceby. It embraces the diary of
Mr Henry Tomlinson, late Secretary of the Labour League
at Laceby, on his passage out to New Zealand with an account
of the reception of himself and a number of fellow emigrants
in that country, extracts from letters, and general remarks,
on New Zealand emigration. Mr Tomlinson, with several
other emigrants from the Neighbourhood of Laceby, give in
this pamphlet glowing and encouraging accounts of the
country, the rate of wages, the cost of provisions, rent and
other necessaties of life, holding out strong inducements
for others to follow their example."

Not all the emigrants from Laceby were of the same opinion, howeverThe "Grimsby Observer and Humber News" seems to have wanted to discourage further emigration, and it made much of an account from an unnamed Laceby agricultural labourer, who felt he had been misled:

" ... take warning from me never be led away with such fine
tales, for a lot of those emigration agents come to Laceby
and surrounding villages, and make it appear as though you
were insane for stopping in England to work for the farmers
about you, but, ah! I have found it out, and I fancy a
good many more too have done the same who don't like to
own it. What can I do? My money is almost spent, but I
hope by God's help to have a better year as soon as summer
sets in, as I can see nothing but starvation for my wife
and children unless things soon alter."

The main English agent for emigration was J H White and he lived in Laceby.

He appears to have been the agent for the Lindsey area and toured villages together with a Mr W H Burton who was from New Zealand itself. Emigration was of major proportions at the time of the union struggles. 29,000 people emigrated from Lincolnshire between 1871 and 1881. Not all of them were agricultural workers but a fair proportion would have been. When you consider that the number of agricultural workers in Lincolnshire in 1851 was 58 ,000 (out of a total population of 407,000), the reduction in that number must have been great. Unfortunately the Labour League's aims were not fulfilled. They lost many good local leaders through emigration and Lincolnshire's higher wages attracted workers from the less fortunate areas south of Lincolnshire, thus reducing the bargaining power of the farmworkers.

The farmworkers got the vote in 1885, but by then the Labour League was finished as an effective force. The 1880's were a period of agricultural depression, and wages dropped. At the same time, the United States of America began exporting wheat to this country and farming declined. Between 1879 - 1929, four million acres of farmland went out of cultivation. Some idea of the misery of the period can be gained from the description of Caistor Workhouse in 1885 (Caistor was the Workhouse for Laceby until 1891).

"Agricultural labourers' wages in this neighbourhood have
this week been lowered to 2s per day, with only three days'
work per week guaranteed at that! Farmers are absolutely
unable to afford the labour they want, and it is generally
feared wages will further decline to 1s 6d per day before
Christmas. The Caistor Union-house is already overcrowded
and needs a considerable increase of sleeping
accommodation for pauper inmates. If it were not that women,
the wives of labouring men, were not the better men as bread
winners, which in a majority of cases they really are, by
means of hard worlk at charring, washing and ironing, and
plain sewing, pinching poverty would soon become
intensified into destitution under many a humble roof.
Heaven send a mild winter, and incline the hearts of
all to deeds of kindliness and charity."

Despite getting the vote in 1885, and being able to participate in local politics, the farmworkers' position was so depressed that they were unable to gain any relief through their own efforts . Right up to the beginning of the First World War the level of wages scarcely kept up with prices.

The introduction of Old Age Pensions in 1909 enabled many older people to avoid having to enter the Workhouse when their wages ceased.

The First World War itself, however, was the main factor in changing the position of the farmworker. Farmworkers volunteered for the Army in such great numbers (243,000 by July 1915) that a labour crisis occurred. Children had to be released from school to work at 11 rather than 13 years old. The government had to guarantee farm prices, and had also to fix farm wages through the establishment of Wages Boards. The minimum wage for 1917 was fixed at 25/-, and in Lincolnshire in 1918 it was 34/- .

The aims of the Labour League were thus achieved not by emigration but by enlistment in the Army in such large numbers that conditions at home were improved. Sadly the price paid was a grievously high one.

"Laceby Headlands" before the turn of the Century