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Life of an Agricultural Apprentice

This first hand account of the live of an agricultural apprentice was read to the Devonshire Association in Totnes in July 1880 by William Gamlen. He had been a gentleman farmer.

Almost every part of farm management has so much altered during the last half century that the author thinks it may be interesting, if he records some recollections of what he saw, and knew done, around 50 to 60 years ago.

Farms and fields were usually not so large then as now and more of the work was done by the farmers, indoor servants and apprentices; every householder being obliged to take from one to six of these latter in proportion to his rental. These boys or girls were the children of persons receiving parish relief, or likely to require it, and were bound, at the age of seven or eight, to live with their master till they were twenty-one; he having to provide them with food and clothes, and medicine if required, and they worked without wages in return.

It frequently happened, when they were sixteen or eighteen years old, and had learned ploughing, hedging, reaping, mowing and threshing, which their masters were bound to teach them, that they ran away to try to get work for wages, and advertisements were often seen in the newspapers describing the fugitives and warning persons not to employ them. In other cases they misbehaved and got sent to prison for short terms, and so annoyed the master that he applied to the magistrates to cancel the indenture, after which they could do as they pleased.

Where the master could work with them and keep them till of age, they usually made good workmen, and often married and continued to work for him for many years. |t has been often observed that these workmen were far superior to their successors, who did not learn their work so thoroughly, nor take so much interest in it.

The boys' dress was usually a fustian jacket and waistcoat, leather breeches and shoes - boots were never worn. Pieces of bag were tied between the ankles and knees as a sort of gaiter; these were called "kitty-bats" and were to keep the earth out of the shoes. These shoes, made of hide leather, were washed every Saturday night and well greased after being dried and in time became almost as stiff and hard as wood."

"Kitty-bats" continued to be worn throughout the 19th century. Both of these young men are wearing them although it is not so easy to see this on the man on the left because they are canvas-coloured as are his trousers. Those on his friend on the right are made of leather which gave some protection against a miss-aimed swipe with a well-sharpened scythe as well as keeping mud out of his shoes.

The village tailor used to go to the farmhouse and make and mend the boys' clothing with materials kept for the purpose, and received eight pence and sometimes a shilling a day and his food for doing this. He sat on the kitchen table at his work and kept the mistress employed in supplying his requirements of more cloth, thread, buttons etc. till her patience was well worn. On one occasion in hot weather, an apprentice girl whispered "Missus, Missus, the tailor is asleep!" and received for answer "Hush! for patience sake don't wake him - I've had plague enough from him already. " In some places the shoemaker went to the house and mended what required repair from a stock of leather k ept for him. The apprentice girl milked and tended the pigs and calves; if these were too many, the boys helped her. She also helped to make butter, scald the milk and make cheese, which was consumed in the house or sold for threw or four pence a pound, being so poor in quality that now it could scarcely be sold at all. The boys helped to feed and bed the horses and bullocks night and morning and while young, drove plough and assisted in any other work they were fit for.

They, and the servant man, had broth or milk with bread for breakfast a little before seven a.m and took some bread and cheese in a bag to eat with their cider for "forenoons" about 10.30. The whole family dined in the kitchen together at one o'clock, the man and boys at the lower end of the long table using pewter plates or wooden trenchers; the master and his family at the other end using plain white earthenware. Cider or home-brewed ale was the usual drunk by all. In some places the apprentices were worked very hard, roughly treated and beaten for trifling faults or awkwardness in doing their work. Teaching them to read and write was rarely thought of.

Seven shillings a week were the usual wages for men with three pints of cider a day (£15 in today's money). In harvest time, food was given or extra pay in consideration of the longer hours of work, and generally grist corn was supplied at less than the market price of wheat, but often of very inferior quality. Sometimes the run of a pig in grass was added, or some ground allowed for growing potatoes.

For weeding corn, hay making, binding corn, digging turnips, picking stones, picking apples etc., women were paid eight pence a day, with one quart of cider. If not apprenticed, boys were paid sixpence a day for similar tasks or for minding cattle and sheep or scaring birds off growing crops. A fire in the hearth was universal so they were needed to make thorns and brambles into faggots which produced a blazing fire for drying clothes by or for baking.

The hay was all hand-made by women and boys, the men helping too after ending the mowing. Mowing was done by hand, with each man being expected to cut an acre a day. Neighbours helped each other, two or three sending their servants to help one and getting similar return from each other. In this way, fields were quickly cleared one after another.

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