Working Lives

The Fenland agricultural worker in the 1920’s and 1930’s

Location: Huntingdonshire

Robert talks about conditions for agricultural labourers and village life in Fenland during the 1920’s and ’30s.

They were usually called Agricultural Labourers. This was a very derogatory title, as they are very skilled workers. Labourers normally `laboured` doing unskilled menial work for a Journeyman, who was only skilled at one trade. Agricultural Workers worked on their own at a number of skilled tasks. The title may have been a ploy to keep wages down at the very low existence level. The normal wage was £1/10s per week if they worked 6 days from 7am to 4pm, with 45 mins for the midday break (probably 48 hours total). If the weather was too bad to work they did not get paid for the lost hours.

The break was called `dockey`, eaten in the field, probably seated on a bag of `spuds`, or on the side of a drainage ditch, with the legs over the edge of it. It typically consisted of half of a 2 pounds bread loaf, with a lump of cheese or pork perhaps. A small hole was cut into the top of the loaf and filled with butter and the plug used as a lid. This lid was used under the dirty thumb to hold the cheese firmly on top of the loaf. A `shut knife` was used to spread the butter and to cut pieces off the loaf, and impale them for eating.

They were normally expected to be competent at the following tasks: ploughing, harrowing, muck spreading, fertiliser application, sowing, planting, hoeing, weeding, spraying, irrigation, harvesting, gleaning, band making, carting, threshing, stacking, thatching, tending livestock, maintaining machinery, building stables and barns, repairing, and painting, tractor (tracked and wheeled) and lorry driving (including to markets and factories), loading and unloading, excavating buried trees, straw burning, rat catching, mole catching and skinning, shooting (vermin and for the pot). Also land measuring irregular areas for payment by the acre (proficient in arithmetic and mensuration).

Most wives worked slightly shorter hours to supplement the family income, often accompanied by their children under school age. School children, often from the age of five, were expected to work in the evenings, Saturdays and school holidays.

The only annual holiday from work was Christmas Day and Boxing Day. All other bank holidays were normal working days.

Village life in the 1920`s and 1930`s.

There was no piped water, so the only supply was from that collected from the house roof into an outside steel tank, with a wooden cover and a bucket tap. This was drunk unboiled and was used for washing and laundry. If you were very careful and you had a sufficiently large tank you might be able to cope, but if you lived in a small cottage you would probably have to walk a mile to the canal. Then I think most people boiled the water before drinking.

Personal washing water was used more than once. It was often done outside even in bad weather, when ice had to be broken first. Family bathing in the kitchen would be done once a week (whether you needed it or not), with the cleanest going in first, using the water that had been used for the laundry.


This was basically `bucket and chucket `. The lavatory, which was outside, with no lighting, had a bucket and pieces of newspaper. There was usually no bolt on the door so if you heard someone coming you sang or whistled to let them know it was occupied.

The resident dug a hole in the garden to receive the contents. This filled with the `sock water` before it was completed, so sound Wellington boots were a necessity. All other refuse (tins, bottles, garbage) was put in the hole, so you needed a large garden.

In the house

Our house had two rooms downstairs. One was a kitchen/ dining/ living room with a pantry and a cooking range, which was the only means of house heating. This had a suspended wooden floor, with air bricks underneath it. The economic flooring was linoleum, and when it was windy this lifted up in waves. The wind also blew dust and even soil through the closed pantry window, which settled on the food if it was not adequately enclosed. The other room was a scullery with a laundry copper and an integral coalhouse.

There was no fixed lighting, as there was no electricity or gas. Usually portable paraffin lamps were used.

Upstairs were two double bedrooms (one with a clothes` cupboard), and one single bedroom. A chamber pot was kept under the bed, but this was only for emergencies. One was expected to go to the outside lavatory, in the rain, wind and cold.

The family went to bed early, as they had to rise early, and anyway there was little in the way of entertainment. In the Winter a hot water bottle was almost a necessity and was probably the only time that you got warm. The ladies did a lot of knitting, and the family sometimes made rag rugs.


Farm workers normally could not afford to purchase property. They were often in `tied` cottages owned by the farmer, so would be evicted if they changed their employment. Otherwise they might find a cottage to rent or qualify for a council house.


For young children this was normally by walking, sometimes along very muddy droves, say a mile or two to school. For younger children, if they were not in a pram, it might be on the back of a parents’ bicycle. Older children either walked or rode bicycles if they could be afforded. Most men rode a bicycle, but many ladies did not.

Many people did not venture outside the village. Those that did normally had a bicycle, but later it was possible to go to a local town by bus. There was a weekly Carters Horse drawn van to a local town that would deliver and collect goods and do some shopping. Also some local vendors with a van would call weekly to provide food, drink, paraffin, candles.and other household necessities.

There were no holidays away, but the Sunday School organised an annual one-day excursion to the nearest Seaside by train.

In the 1930`s a few private cars began to appear, and some owners would help with lifts (sometimes by sharing expenses, which was illegal, and infringed insurance protection).


The village school usually had infant classes and elementary classes up to 14 years. Grammar school at a local town was available if you passed a competitive scholarship examination, and your parents could afford your keep until you were 16.Going to university was possible but usually could not be afforded by the parents. The second World War disrupted much education by the influx of evacuees.

Schoolboys wore short trousers and did not wear long trousers until they left school. Females all wore skirts, even in hard winters.


In the run-up to WW2, there was an increasing need for workers in the factories in the towns and in military establishments such as aerodromes. The larger wages attracted workers to leave their land jobs and cycle long distances to new employment. Teenagers leaving school would start these jobs, which promised a better future than the arduous environment of agriculture. A penalty had to be paid first if a 5-year apprenticeship was involved. A typical day would be leaving home to cycle 13 miles to the workplace. Working normal hours until 5.30pm. Working unpaid overtime until 7pm. Going to Technical Evening Classes in the Winter until 9pm. Cycling home 13 miles, arriving there about 10.15pm.

Home Guard duties had to be fitted in as well after WW2 started.

Social life

This was usually centred on either the Church/Chapel or the public house/ mens` social club. This included cards, dominoes, darts, and billiards. There was usually a village cricket team, although in an arable area there was a shortage of grass. Consequently it was a real man`s game, not a soft gentlemans game like County cricket is now. Matches were normally on a Saturday afternoon after the cows had gone to be milked. The grass was long and to score runs the batsman had to lift the ball, as it would not roll. Consequently all scoring had to be run unless he could lift the ball over the boundary for a six. Cow `pancakes` were numerous and extra runs were often possible whilst the fielder dodged them or had to wipe the ball on the grass.

Some ladies joined the Women’s Institute or Mothers’ Union. They had occasional `Socials`, where there were party games and dancing to piano playing. This is where many youngsters picked up some dancing routines and girlfriends.

The Chapel had a Harvest Festival, when there would be some solos by local adults and poetry recitations by children. There would probably also be an occasional concert of local talent.

The local town normally had a cinema, Showing films on Wednesday and Saturday evenings, There was a matinee on Saturday. Prices were 6d (2.5p) and 1s 3d (6p), Children paid 2d (1p) or 6d (2.5p).

Very few people could afford a radio (wireless), and the batteries and accumulators and recharging involved.

There were no swimming pools so practically no-one had entered water deep enough to learn to swim, and those that fell in would probably have drowned.

Some Winters the local drainage waterway froze thick enough for skaters. As working in the fields became impossible, competition ` Fenland Speed Skating` over long distances developed. This sport is included now in the Olympics and Commonwealth games.

Children rarely got pocket money, sweets or birthday presents. They probably had friends round for a party where jelly and cake was a treat. Most got one present of some sort at Christmas, and an apple or orange or perhaps some sweets.

For the Silver Jubilee of King George Fifth and Queen Mary in 1935 most villages had monetary collections to pay for celebration parties, fancy-dress competitions and children`s races with prizes.


Breakfast was probably porridge, usually made with water. Prepared cereals did not exist until the latter 1930`s and were too expensive. A boiled egg with toast would be an alternative. School children would take a packed lunch, probably jam or lard sandwiches and an apple perhaps. The main meal would be homegrown potatoes and vegetables, with some meat, especially if they kept chickens or a pig, prepared for 4pm by the wife when she got back from work.

A pudding or pie using homegrown fruit would follow this.

In the daylight evenings the family might go back to work or tend the ample garden.

Milk was delivered in bulk from the village dairy if you could afford it. Otherwise you fetched `skim milk` for 1d a jug (this had the cream skimmed off, and was usually fed to pigs) from the dairy in your own jug. Some people had a goat, which was chained to graze the grassy road verge. One occasional affordable Saturday night treat, was the weekly visit of the mobile fish and chip van. Fish was 2d (1p) a piece, and chips were 1d (1/2p) a portion. If you lived at the extreme of the route, late at night, after the pub had closed, you might be lucky and get a large serving, and scrapings of batter from the bottom of the fryer were free. These could be kept overnight and warmed up for breakfast on Sunday.

Most people were lean and healthy, and obesity was very rare.

Prospects of a farming business

The local council usually had allotments to rent but there was normally a waiting list. This could give good returns of market garden produce if the weather had been favourable and right crops had been planted to suit demand. Things could go wrong though if there was a glut and then the produce had to be dumped and there was an overall loss. The council usually had larger fields to rent to approved tenants. The choice of tenant by the local councillors was heavily biased. This could depend on whether you went to the right church or chapel. If your employer was on the selection committee he would be likely to blackball you as he did not want to loose a good worker. Therefore you might have to change your religious house or try to change your employer. This could be very risky if you were in a house tied to your employer. If you were known to be a good reliable worker you could approach a wealthy farmer for a loan at a better rate than he was getting in the bank. He would have the security of the deeds of any land purchased and there was a prospect of the loan being repaid in a reasonable time.

Robert talking to WISEArchive in 2007.

© 2020 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved.