Farming not such a lark

Recently, in the splendid BBC Lark Rise to Candleford series, a measles outbreak resulted in the harvest being put at jeopardy. While I have always known that women laboured in the fields ‘gleaning’ in the Victorian/Edwardian era, I do not have any knowledge of how the village harvest system operated. Did they have village co-operative ownership of the crops?

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Lark Rise to Candleford is indeed a great series, set in the late 19th century. At this time, much of the land was owned by large landowners, who then rented farms to individual farmers to work – though there were also farmers who owned their land. These farmers hired workers, usually on an annual basis, who were paid weekly.

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There were large hiring fairs in most market towns each autumn where farmers and workers met to agree terms. At busy times of year, farmers would also employ casual labour on a daily or weekly basis. These were very often members of the family of their staff.

The long school holidays in August were brought in to allow children to help with the grain harvest. There were also casual workers who moved about the country seeking temporary work. The crops that were harvested belonged to the farmer, who took all the financial risks. In a bad year he still had to pay rent and wages and would make a loss.

So in short there was no joint ownership of crops. The rural economy was cash-based by the time of Lark Rise to Candleford. The character Robert Timmins expresses some forceful views on the system in the show – though the system he criticises would soon be overwhelmed by social changes that took place in the early 20th century.

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Answered by: Rupert Matthews, historian and author