‘1895 Four Lane Ends Farm, Whitby’ Courtesy of the Yorkshire Museum of Farming

Seen from a railway carriage

Roundabout 1851, a passenger who had been travelling from York to London on the Great Northern and Eastern Counties Railway wrote a letter to the Times. At Shelford the author of the letter had apparently seen some girls/women clearing weeds in the fields ‘and a man overlooking them who held in his hand a large stick’. The man it was said looked like ‘a slave driver’. Comment was passed that he would never use the stick, but ‘[j]udge what was our astonishment’ the letter went on,

"When we actually saw the man beat one of the girls for neglect of work, and that so severely, that the poor creature fairly winced under the infliction! We could scarcely believe the evidence of our eyes, that such means of compelling women to labour were used in our own country." [1]

On a literal level, the letter seems to describe an agricultural gang. If so, in terms of location, Great Shelford in Cambridgeshire, on the Eastern Counties Railway, opened in 1845, fits the ganging model better than Shelford in the Trent valley, east of Nottingham, given the largely eastern distribution of gangs, with a few further north, [2] and given that the nearest railway line to Shelford in Nottinghamshire is about a mile away. And, either the train passengers were local, or had access to a railway guide for reference. [3] But, though much of this isn’t quite clear, what we can say for sure – if this is a genuine source – is that these girls/women were being watched from a train. The train may have been stationary or moving, [4] but there were apparently several observers and they could see well enough to make out some ‘female agricultural labourers’ clearing weeds and a man holding a large stick. Finally, these observers could see a girl being beaten.

However, beyond the literal, what the passengers on the train saw confounded their expectations – they talked amongst themselves about the stick and believed that it couldn’t be used to beat the girls/women. The response – to the ‘poor creature’ – resulted in an unusually sympathetic portrayal of field women. [5] At the same time, finding such a thing incomprehensible, the author of the letter was drawn to a rhetoric that, as a literate Times correspondent, they were already familiar with, one which had already contributed to the formation of British middle class identity, and one which could help them understand what is observed: the language of slavery. This in turn was linked in a characteristic fashion to the language of the animal other – ‘the poor creature’. So, what we see here is the (white) female field worker objectified through application to an aspect of the discourse of ‘race’. In this instance, the women’s respectability was maintained because they were infantilised (note the slippage between ‘girl’ and ‘women’) and depicted as susceptible to the infliction they suffered (the ‘girl’ winces and so remains feminine).

‘Slave drivers’ in the English landscape

What the passengers saw – a woman/girl being physically belaboured – coupled with what they already knew of slavery, distorted their view of the place through which they were travelling, so that it no longer seemed to be a part of their ‘own country’. An alien geography was suddenly dropped over what was/had been an essentially English space. In this way, the material/experiential was interpreted through the ideational re-mapping of the land and the nation. [6] The transformation of women field workers into beaten, pseudo-enslaved, creatures – an unstable, shocking vision – made the proper, bounded, and normally static/unchanging English landscape suddenly unfamiliar. At the same time, the penetration of that landscape by the train, increasingly ever-present symbol of modernity, had created the opportunity to see these women and their ‘slave driver’ moving almost in slow motion, as if fixed in/pinned to the landscape for the passengers to see, thereby creating a new geography of labour.

Ganging itself was not widely discussed in the 1850s. As the Times itself noted in May 1865, though ‘twelve years ago this very subject was fully investigated by a commission, and a report was published in which all the vices of the system were plainly and uncompromisingly set forth…’ still ‘nothing was done, and the matter was soon forgotten.’ [7] But, through it, the language of slavery, the metaphor of the alien, gradually emerged as a commonplace for those who wanted to raise the issue of women’s field work over the next decade. By April 1867, while Lord Shaftesbury was arguing for immediate legislative intervention on the issue of ganging, the Times was reporting on ‘a state of things we should hardly expect to find even in the cotton plantation or the cotton factory as they were thirty years ago.’ The system of ganging, it warned, ‘must be stopped like an invader’ as it was ‘at variance with every notion of regular life in a well-ordered country’; those in the gangs had no more choice about their work than ‘the African Negro’. ‘Necessity’ it continued ‘is necessity everywhere, whether it be called slavery or not, whether the victims be white or black, whether its full sway be in Norfolk or South Carolina.’ [8]

Change and continuity in the country

In other words, England was damned by comparison with the USA as that country was coming to terms with emancipation. Not that this kind of rhetoric went unquestioned in the UK. The Farmer – reported by the Hexham Courant in August 1867 – noted of the argument that ‘we have no right to point the finger of scorn at slave-owning countries so long as women and children are’ employed in the fields, that it was ‘utterly absurd.’ [9] The problem, it believed, was with factory work not field work – a neat deflection back onto the urban – and lay not ‘in the nature of the employment, but in the manner in which it has been conducted in some parts of the kingdom’. [10] In other words, as Verdon has argued, complaints about ganging far outweighed its use. [11] But, such an argument, an argument that brought in agricultural expertise and rationally explained that the system was in fact geographically specific, lost out to the wider condemnation. What the ‘country’ connotes, following Raymond Williams, has changed over time. Such ideas, he observed, ‘express…human interests and purposes for which there is no other immediately available vocabulary.’ [12] Where the country retains its imaginative power its persistence relies on pastoral, but the exact images, forms and ideas within that pastoral change over time, and their function is to interpret different kinds of experience in and to different eras. [13] ‘Old England,’ he therefore proposed, ‘settlement, the rural virtues---all these, in fact, mean different things at different times’. [14]

Today, agriculture is just as busy and pressured an industry as it ever was, and the ways in which gangs are organised, in terms of the flexibility of their working day, method of payment, transport arrangements, and the role of the gangmaster, have not altered since their instigation in the 1820s, even though the underlying reasons for the use of these structures have shifted. (In the 1800s flexibility of the working day, the ability to turn labour on and off, was dictated by the weather rather than by the needs of the consumer.) The two things that have endured are the systematic removal of children from the land due to the education acts of the late nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, and the hostility directed to part-time, casual and seasonal labourers (now because they are Eastern-European ‘immigrants’, back in the 1990s because they were a highly-casualised and feminised work force). The old Agricultural Gangs Act was repealed in 1967, but agricultural gangs are still very much in evidence, picking flowers, fruit, salads and horticultural produce that cannot be (or is too costly to be) picked by machine. Only very briefly highlighted in 2004 by the Morecambe Bay disaster, which highlighted the dangers of some forms of gang work and briefly elicited sympathy, it continues mostly unseen unless glimpsed briefly from a train.

Karen is Professor of Social and Cultural History at Leeds Trinity University, and Co-Director of the LCVS. Her research focus is the rural rural communities, landscapes and environments, human and animal relations, agricultural life and labour. To find out more about Karen’s past and present research interests and projects, visit her PURE research profile​

1 Eliza Cooks’ Journal 9th August 1851, No 119, Vol 5 (April – Oct 1851, London) p. 225a

2 See Nicola Verdon ‘The employment of women and children in agriculture: a reassessment of agricultural gangs in nineteenth-century Norfolk’ Agricultural History Review Vol. 49, Part 1, 2001 pp. 41-55; Verdon, Rural Women

3 The early railway companies initially published detailed local guides for travellers.

4 Great Northern trains would not have run faster than 40 miles per hour over the 191 miles between London and York at this time. Charles H Grinling, The History of the Great Northern Railway, (George Allen and Unwin Ltd, London, 1898), p.276

5 I should stress here that though girls did work in agricultural gangs, so did women and boys, and it’s not quite clear whether the travellers can actually see children (girls) and women, or simply women who are then infantilised.

6 For a C20th example of the politics of this see K. J. Oberdeck ‘Class, Place and Gender: Contested Industrial and Domestic Space in Kohler, Wisconsin, USA, 1920-1960’ Gender & History Vol 13, No. 1, April 2001, pp. 97-137

7 Times 18th May, 1865, p. 13 b. This report reiterates key points from the Pall Mall Gazette

8 Times 13th April 1867 p. 9 c-d

9 Hexham Courant 28th August 1867 p. 8 f

10 HC p. 8 f

11 Verdon ‘A Reassessment’ p. 55

12 Williams, The Country and the City, p. 291

13 Williams, The Country and the City, pp. 9-12, 289-91

14 Williams, The Country and the City, p. 12; The unvarying grief of nostalgia, in his view, is therefore never a matter of ‘historical error, but historical perspective.’ Williams, The Country and the City, p. 10

Image details: ‘1895 Four Lane Ends Farm, Whitby’ Courtesy of the Yorkshire Museum of Farming, Murton Park, York http://www.murtonpark.co.uk/



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