Share this story Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

Farm servants and the hiring fairs


Genealogist Margaret Hubble explores the history of hiring fairs, lively events where farm and domestic servants could be hired, and men and women could advertise that they were available for work.

Many of us have ancestors who were farm servants, ploughmen, and dairymaids and although it may be difficult to find out about the individuals themselves, we can discover more about how they were hired at the feeing or hiring markets.

In October 18621, for instance, an autumn feeing market at a village twelve miles from Edinburgh – “an old weather worn place that has seen better days” featured sweetie stands, itinerant theatres and peep shows, but basically it was a place where farm servants - men and women - came into the streets to sell themselves to the highest bidders. Such a curious and sad sight was reminiscent of the American slave markets, although the servants here presented themselves with smiling faces and a general air of bravado in order to be employed.

An injustice to agricultural servants?

There was a distinct similarity between the origins of these fairs and the slave markets, insofar as servants were compelled by statute to go there to be hired out at the price those engaging them chose to pay. This injustice to agricultural servants was first perpetuated, it was said, around five centuries ago, arising when the Black Death had decreased their population, resulting in the surviving servants being able to demand higher wages.

QUICK LINK: Five resources to find your Scottish ancestors for free on Ancestry

The law was subsequently changed so that all able-bodied persons under age 60, not having the wherewithal to live on, should be bound to serve any who required them, on pain of committal to prison, and that ploughmen and other servants should “carry openly in their hands, in market towns, their instruments of labour, and be hired in a public place, and not privately”. For carrying into effect these provisions, it would be necessary to have certain days, and a fixed place set apart for the hiring of servants.

Waiting to be hired

Hundreds of women, generally aged between 14 to 22, mostly fine, fresh faced, strong limbed, good looking lasses, standing close together like herrings in a barrel, on one side of the street, with the men in the middle of the road opposite, would stand for inspection, to be hired by the year or half year.

The women, some of very modest character, were forced to speak up brazenly about their qualities – sometimes even having to “stick up for theresels and gie as gude as they got” (sometimes having to return coarse banter) in order to obtain the best possible wage. The farmers, sometimes even those who weren’t looking for servants, would jostle around them, making rude comments about their figures, whilst calculating their strength and stamina for work. “You’re a stout looking hizzie, what wage are you wanting?” they would remark, with many shouting out “£4 or £5”, with haggling taking place afterwards and the final offer accepted or rejected.

The farmers would not, of course, have allowed their delicate wives or daughters to mix amongst the crowd at the fair! The men were similarly inspected for their competence and strength.

After the hiring fair

What happened afterwards? The public houses and inns nearby would be full to overflowing, downstairs and upstairs, improvised furniture in the way of planks laid across tubs, pails etc would seat the huge number of customers. Lads and lasses would be smoking and drinking ale and whisky, whilst enjoying vulgar songs and course jokes.

Agricultural Register offices also gave facilities for procuring a good servant not secured by attendance at the fairs (which were more for locals). Generally the servants could not afford to pay for this registration, however, although it appears that they could afford the “apres fair” celebrations afterwards! In Lincolnshire, for instance, in 1859 935 female servants had been engaged through these offices and the following year the number had increased to 1596.

As for payment, in 1825 at the Carnwath Hiring Fair2, good ploughmen could earn £6 to £7 (per half year) and young lasses, their first year after herding, from £2 to £2 10 shillings. There were, of course, additional benefits for the servants, such as accommodation, free allowances of meal and potatoes, coals carted free, food and drink during harvest and sometimes milk.

By 18623 it was reported that man servants (superior) were earning half yearly from £12 to £13 10 shillings; second class £10 to £12; young lads £3 to £4 5 shillings; dairy maids from £4 10 shillings to £5; girls from £1 to £2. In 1898 at the Hiring Fair at Bathgate4, where there was a large attendance, ploughmen (who were somewhat scarce) were being paid for half year’s rates £10 to £12; dairymaids were in great demand and received from £7 to £9 10 shillings; and young girls unable to milk from £3 to £5.

By 1908 the position regarding milk maids was changing.  Country girls were reluctant to undertake any work connected with a farm.  It was difficult to find girls who wanted to act as indoor servants and at the same time to milk a cow.  Apparently, they absolutely refused to undertake this duty and it was said that not one in fifty would accept a situation where milking was required!

Finally, in 1914 at the Bathgate half yearly hiring fair6, the younger men were not so prominent, because huge numbers of farm workers had enlisted.  Experienced men were requesting higher wages than usual, whilst women and girls were very scarce.  By this time, experienced ploughmen could earn £18 to £20; those less experienced from £12 to £18; lads £6 to £10; byrewomen £8 to £12; girls £4 to £6.  Large numbers of those present attended the shows afterwards at the showground where there were motors, “flying machines”, boxing booths, rifle shooting and stalls and in the evening various amusement caterers, with a dance being held at the Corn Exchange.

QUICK LINK: Top tips for tracing your Scottish ancestors


  1. Scotsman of 25 October 1862
  2. Scotsman 9 November 1825
  3. Caledonian Mercury 31 October 1862
  4. Linlithgow Gazette of 4 June 1898
  5. Linlithgowshire Gazette 19 June 1908
  6. Linlithgowshire Gazette 4 December 1914

About the author

Margaret Hubble is a professional genealogist and a member of the Association of Scottish Genealogists and Researchers in Archives. Her research covers the whole of Scotland and you can find out more about her work on her website, Your Scottish Family Tree: www.yourscottishfamilytree.co.uk.

Back to "Features" Category

12/06/2017 Share this story   Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

Recent Updates

HMS Vanguard was accepted for sea trials - On this day in history

On 25 April 1946 the battleship HMS Vanguard was accepted for sea trials by the Royal Navy.

On this day in history - Mary Queen of Scots married Francis Dauphin of France

Mary Queen of Scots married Francis, Dauphin of France at Notre Dame de Paris on 24 April 1558.

Did your ancestor sign the Declaration of Arbroath? New project aims to discover descendants through DNA testing

The University of Strathclyde Genealogical Studies Postgraduate Programme has launched the Declaration of ...

Rediscovered film shows footage of a 'lost lifestyle' in the Hebrides in the 1930s and 1940s

A new film celebrating the footage collected by Margaret Fay Shaw will premiere at an event in South Uist on ...

Other Articles

Where was Mary Queen of Scots born?

Discover facts about Mary Queen of Scots, who became queen of Scotland at just six days old, with our guide ...

King Charles II was crowned at Westminster Abbey - On this day in history

King Charles II was crowned at Westminster Abbey in London on 23 April 1661.

Ancient marine reptile fossil findings influenced sea serpent sightings, new research reveals

Sea monster sightings in the 19th century were influenced by the discovery of ancient reptile fossils, new ...

Politician Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman died - On this day in history

Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the first politician to be officially called Prime Minister, died on 22 April ...