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From the NS archive: Seasonal workers on the land

31 January 1925: The reality of life for poor town dwellers spending their summers picking fruit in the countryside.

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In 1925, a writer initialled SLB cast his eye over the conditions faced by the hordes of poor town dwellers who would decamp to the countryside each year to help with the harvest. The general image was of a sun-kissed bucolic holiday in which men, women and children could escape the smoke of cities for hearty and happy labour picking peas, fruit and flowers in the fields. The reality, said the writer, was very different: few farmers took care of these seasonal workers or provided decent, clean accomodation, fresh water or sanitary facilities. While, in the face of ineffective legislation, too many a farmer treated seasonal workers “with something of the consideration that he shows to his pigs”.

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Memory, travelling back some 30 years, recalls the pageant of the pea-picking in the Hundred of Dengie, the closing of the schools, the exodus of the children for a fortnight or more. The June fields were full of happy little workers, supervised for the most part by their mothers. Sunshine and sunbonnets, “levens” and dinner under the hedgerow in the shade, great sacks bulking by slow degrees and dragged to the check table, where they are passed or criticised: these things still fill the picture.

A holiday for one and all, if the weather held, the more welcome because by long-standing custom the children retained a part of their earnings for the fair, so that every sack to which they made a contribution represented something in the way of entrance tickets, swings and roundabouts, fireworks and sweets. All this was idyllic enough, there was no sense of compulsion. But some of the old men, long since gathered by way of the workhouse to a hard-earned rest, eyed the business askance; it was for them a reminder of the old ganger system, of which they retained all too vivid a recollection. They could tell of the days when a contractor from a distant town supplied men, women and children to do all the extra work on the land. How those unfortunate folk were housed and fed, what shift they must make to maintain the elementary decencies of life – of all these things it was possible to learn much that was unpleasant. But the local arrangements for pea-picking were harmless enough in my time and are, I believe, maintained to this day. Women prepared food over night, reached the fields early with their children, and, leaving about four o’clock in the afternoon, cleaned up the house and laid the tea against their husband’s return.

Seasonal employment on the land is a much bigger thing than it appears to be, for the details are only known in the localities concerned. It would surprise many people to learn that 2,000 gypsies were engaged in picking strawberries at Swanwick in Hampshire last year. They have replaced the local workers in Worcestershire and on the pea and fruit farms in Herefordshire. The gang masters still exist, though their activities have been curbed by legislation, and some of them are women whose organisation is called upon for the fruit farms of Lincolnshire and the hop fields of Kent. Labour Exchanges, which, in theory at least, should be of great value, have not worked well in this regard, but in some cases when they are called upon by farmers for seasonal recruits, the workers, chiefly women and girls, are collected from the great industrial centres. The advantages of the service of the Exchange is that it involves a system of inspection of premises and, where a certain standard  not a very high one by the way  cannot be reached, the Exchange refuses to help.

In a recent report prepared for the Council of Agriculture we may read that one large class of seasonal worker is often “badly and in some cases scandalously badly housed”. Indeed, the gypsies who travel in their vans are said to be better off. There are farmers who have bought army huts and even supply blankets and palliasses. But, when we remember that the water supply in many country districts is not adequate for normal needs, no large measure of imagination is required to realise the conditions under which some of the “foreigners” are required to carry on. Where Employment Exchanges are called in, something in the way of a sitting-room must be provided, in addition to proper sleeping places, but the ordinary provider of gangs cares for none of these things.

The seasonal work done by women on the land is varied; apart from pea picking, they have vegetable, potato and bulb growing, hop picking and fruit gathering. The hop harvest is, of course, a considerable one, and it is said that 100,000 adults and 50,000 children migrate to the fields, while the agricultural returns show that there are upwards of 40,000 casual women workers on the land. In addition to the growing of vegetables, much of the hoeing and weeding, gathering, bunching and picking of flowers is done by women. These are growing occupations in Lincolnshire, Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, but a recent report by Miss Pratt, an Inspector of the Ministry of Agriculture, shows that only in exceptional cases is any provision made on the scene of temporary work for the taking of meals, for shelter, ablution or sanitation. In certain of the Kentish hop gardens there is an absence of provision for drinking water and latrines. Over-crowding is of constant occurrence, while the foul conditions in bad hop gardens are made worse by the week-end visits of friends of the pickers. Another evil that seasonal workers must face is that the special trains for pickers leave London late and land them in the country in the small hours of the morning.

The local authorities have, of course, power to regulate the provision of accommodation both under the Public Health Act of 1875 and the Fruit Pickers Lodging Act of 1882. There is also a set of model by-laws, which we owe to the Ministry of Health, but those who know the country, the Rural District Councils, the preponderance of farmers, and their aversion to any measure that may affect their pockets, will not be surprised to learn that very many rural authorities ignore their powers, and that where they make regulations these are not enforced.

Suggestions placed before the Council of Agriculture to deal with the situation are not drastic. They are that drinking water, shelter and sanitary arrangements should be provided, and that, against seasons of pressure, the supplies should be increased. Adequate light, ventilation and cubic space for sleeping compartments, water for drinking and cooking, sanitary and ablution huts, cookhouses, inspection and repair of premises, a camp supervisor, some provision for medical and nursing services, betterment of transport conditions – these are all that are asked for. Undoubtedly something could be done if provision were made that all seasonal workers should reach the farm by way of the Labour Exchanges, which are more concerned with the health of the worker than with the profits of his employer, and consequently demand the necessary minimum of decent accommodation.

The public has an interest in the matter, too, because if it did but know the facts, there would be very little appetite for fruit picked by people who are living under insanitary conditions. Reasonable inspection of farms where this class of labour is employed would undoubtedly be good for the public health.

It goes without saying that if any such proposals are put forward the farmer will declare that ruin stares him in the face, and we may admit that ruin has this habit, but on the whole the farmer manages to survive this form of inspection as he has survived others. There is no need, however, to believe that the grower cannot deal satisfactorily with this question if he is forced to do so, or that he will become insolvent if he treats his workers with something of the consideration that he shows to his pigs. Where the conditions are worst  ie, in the hop fields  the profits are highest.

The Local Authority of the Eastern district of the county of Perth made by-laws, 28 of them, relating to the provision of proper housing for potato workers, harvesters, fruit pickers and others employed on farms. They are reasonable in scope, but sufficiently comprehensive to ensure that the dignity of manhood and womanhood shall not be sacrificed. Before a farmer can receive or allow any of his people to take in workers on his farm, he must give one week’s notice to the clerk to the local authority and satisfy him as to the nature of the accommodation provided. Buildings must be watertight, free from damp and with dry floors. Separate sleeping room must be provided for each sex. The local authority must be satisfied with the light and ventilation. The standard of 200 cubic feet per person is a minimum. The farmer must clean the premises used before the workers arrive, and keep them clean; he must provide fresh straw or other material and a sufficient number of blankets, which are to be washed; he must provide tables and washing facilities and cooking utensils and sanitary conveniences and receptacles for refuse and a water supply. The premises must be open to inspection at all times, and a copy of the by-laws must be displayed in the building.

There is nothing sensational here, but simple though these regulations are, they enforce a standard considerably higher than that which obtains south of the Tweed. We have recognised the need for clean milk, and those who produce the certified grade “A” kind find the work is profitable. Why should clean production not be extended to fruit and vegetables? In all probability we pay in much sickness and some mortality for the indignities suffered by the class of landworker whose plight is hinted at here.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)