07 April 2023
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.
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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.
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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.
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Scotsman of 25 October 1862
Scotsman 9 November 1825
Caledonian Mercury 31 October 1862
Linlithgow Gazette of 4 June 1898
Linlithgowshire Gazette 19 June 1908
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.
Originally published June 2017. Reviewed April 2023.