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1843: The Womens' lot on our farms

The 1834 Poor Law Act resulted in the setting up of an enquiry into the conditions of employment of women and children in agriculture. Witnesses from 12 counties gave evidence probably in 1841/2.

Several worthy members of society in Cuckfield were called to testify under oath in 1843 on matters concerning the health, well-being, lifestyle and financial circumstances of the local community. Today this gives us a valuable insight into living in Cuckfield at the time of when Charles Dickens was annually churning out works such as the ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’.

The report from the Commissioners included an insight into life in Cuckfield from the village doctor, the vicar, a farmer, a publican and an apprentice and also gave a detailed account of how women and children were employed to do in agriculture.

Most significantly, nationally the new law resulted in further workhouses to be built. And while the story is more complex, the new wave of social reform was the first step towards a more considerate caring society and the first steps towards the modern day NHS.

This account was compiled from the evidence of several witnesses. Mr Vaughan was responsible for collecting the evidence from Kent, Surrey and Sussex and he does a very good overview of his findings on the South East area, which we haven't included - but is available from the link below on page 127..

In the neighbourhood of Cuckfield, in Sussex, Women are employed in Agriculture at the following Works:

Couching [Ed: clearing land from couch-grass]

There is very little couching here, either at spring or Michaelmas. Women do it when necessary. [Mr. Wileman]

Hours of work, eight to six

Wages, 10d

Pulling Weeds, and Spudding Weeds in the Corn

Hours of Work, Meals, Wages 10d - see above.


Hours, See above.

Wages, l0d to 1s

Corn raking

Hours, See above

Wages, 1s and some food

Reaping and Binding

They sometimes assist their husbands, and occasionally bind for them.

Hours, discretionary. See above.

Wages, husband's task.

Potato-picking; Stone-picking

Hours, as above.

Wages, l0d.

There are very few turnips in this country.

In the same neighbourhood Boys are employed at:

Couching [Ed: clearing land from couch-grass]

Rarely practised.

Age, 8 to 12

Wages, 3d. to 6d

Hours of Work, Daylight during winter, and 12 hours at other times.

Meal Hours. Half an hour for breakfast, one hour for dinner.

Pulling and Spudding Weeds

Boys are not commonly permitted to weed corn, but only clover and grass. [Mr. Wileman]

Age, 12.

Wages, 4d. 10 6d

Work and Meals. See above.


In the hayfield boys are seldom hired: occasionally they are taken at 12 or 13. [Mr. Wileman]

Age, 12 or 13

Wages, 3d.


Boys are taken to assist their father at about 10 or 11 years old. He is paid about 10s an acre. The cutting begins at four: it is all reaped.

Age, 10 or 11.

Hours of Work, 4 am-8 p.m.

Cornraking and Stacking

Age, 10 or 11.

Hours and Meals, as above.

Wages, 6d, or a trifle more.

Driving Team

Age, 10, at plough; older at harrow.

Wages, 6d.

For harrowing he ought to be rather older, as he goes alone. [Mr Wileman]

A boy is eight hours in the field, and spends four more in waiting on the horses.

The hours for meals are not strictly settled. He takes them out of the twelve hours. [Mr Wileman]


Very little of this.

Age, 7 or 8.

Wages, 3d. or 4d.


Occasionally assist the father. It is not uncommon for children as early as 8 or 9 years to assist their father at threshing. The father works at from 3s 4d per quarter.

Hours, daylight.

Meals, discretionary.

Wages, task

Hedging and Ditching

At about 10 or 12 years a boy will often accompany his father at hedging and ditching.

Age, 10 or 12.

Hours, above

Wages, father’s task

Cow-keeping, Turnip-getting. Stone-picking, Potato-picking, Potato-planting

There are very few turnips here.

Age, 8.

Hours, six to six.

Meals, one hour and a-half

Wages, 4d. and 6d

Girls are employed occasionally in the same neighbourhood in

Stone-picking, Potato-planting, Potato-picking, Bean-dropping, Hay-making

Age, 9 to 14.

Wages, 4d to 6d


Notes: 1 shilling = £11, one pence = 4 pence today


Reports of Special Assistant Poor Law. Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture by Great Britain. Poor Law Commissioners, 1843

Photo: Haymaking, Agriculture in Britain in the First World War. This image was created and released by the Imperial War Museum on the IWM Non Commercial Licence. The photograph was taken by a member of the forces during their active service duties in the First World War.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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