I'm asking, more specifically, three things:

  1. What might the leadership of a typical farm look like in terms of job titles and responsibilities?
  2. Within a given farm, how were workers divided into teams, and who led those teams?
  3. How did farm personnel, with their varying levels of seniority and experience, fit into the social hierarchy of the time?

Simplifying somewhat, one might say that, in the British Army (then and now), a company was organised as follows:

  • The company was commanded by a captain, assisted by a sergeant major.
  • The company was split into several platoons, each commanded by a lieutenant, assisted by a sergeant.
  • Each platoon was split into several squads, each commanded by a corporal, assisted by a lance corporal.
  • The ordinary soldiers were often known as privates.
  • Captains and lieutenants were usually from privileged backgrounds, and ate and slept separately from their subordinates; but it wasn't unheard of for men from less privileged backgrounds to work their way up to those ranks.
  • The other ranks were usually from less privileged backgrounds; but it wasn't unheard of for a gentleman in dire straits to join as a private.

A similar analysis to the above, but for a Victorian farm, would be wonderful, although of course I realise that such a tidy division may be very difficult.

  • 5
    The Book of the Farm: Detailing the Labors of the Farmer, Steward, Plowman, Hedger, Cattle-man, Shepherd, Field-worker, and Dairy Maid (3 volumes, 1844) is freely available and should have plenty to keep you going. Jun 13, 2020 at 1:05
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    With "Victorian England" are you removing Scottish, Welsh, and Irish farms from the picture? The book by Lars is from 1844 so seven years into Victoria's reign—is that the time period you were interested in?
    – gktscrk
    Jun 13, 2020 at 8:52
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    As far as I know, a lot of farm labor was preformed by landless laborers hired by the farmer or by the farm manager. There were many farms owned by the farmer, but a lot of agricultural land was part of large estates. The farms in those estates would be leased for long periods of time by tenant farmers from the owners of the estates. A large country estate would have many farms run by tenant farmers plus a "home farm" run by the estate, plus gardens, lawns, and parkland around the mansion.
    – MAGolding
    Jun 13, 2020 at 15:55
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    @gktscrk Yes. I know enough about Scotland and Ireland to know that agricultural practices were quite different in those countries compared to England; Scotland was and is much less densely populated, and Ireland suffered from famine and absentee landlords on a scale which the rest of the UK was spared. Wales, agriculturally, was and is close enough to England to make no difference. And don't get me started on the Isle of Man! Jun 13, 2020 at 16:06

1 Answer 1


This is a difficult question to answer as farming changed a lot during the Victorian era. There was increasing mechanization and farmers specialized more and more (dairy, cereals and so on). Some farms were very small, others were very big so they would be organized in different ways. A small farm would work alongside his family - with maybe a few laborers - and they would do everything. A large farmer would need a farm manager or foreman or bailiff and, depending on his other interests or his social status, would sometimes not have anything to do with directly running the farm. A farm bailiff managed the farm and also collected rents from tenant farmers.

He was also required to be proficient in book keeping and knowledgeable about all things farm related – right down to the milking of a cow. Many estate owners wanted their Bailiffs to be able to work on their own initiative as well as coming up with new money saving ideas.

Farming is very seasonal so they needed lots of labor for short periods of time. Wages would go up to get people to come from far away. Laborers didn't usually specialize, they did lots of different menial tasks, and children were used a lot too and would do more physically demanding tasks as they got older and stronger. One way of getting labor was with agricultural gangs. There's an article here which has quite a lot on this.

Some farmers organised their own private gangs, recruiting women and children from the nearest village to come at busy times and work for a few days on the farm. Others employed so-called 'public gangs'. These were organised by 'gang-masters', who were usually unemployed farm labourers. They recruited anything between ten and forty women and children to work for them at a given rate of pay. They then contracted with local farmers for their gangs to do specific jobs. The gang master had to be able to estimate very accurately how long a job would take. If he overestimated he would charge too much and not get the contract. If he underestimated he would charge too little, his wage bill would amount to more than the contract price, and he would lose money on the deal.

The work done by the gangs varied according to the season. In winter, when there were only a few of them at work, they were employed to clear stones or sort potatoes. In spring their work was more varied. Some painstakingly cleared couch grass, pulling out every root by hand. Others spread muck, hoed, or planted potatoes. In early summer the demand for their work reached its peak. The gangs cleared couch from fallow fields, hand-weeded grain and root crops, and helped with the hay harvest. Paradoxically the gangs disbanded for the main grain harvest in August and September. Instead whole families went out to work together. However, some gangs re-formed in October for the potato and marigold harvest. The number of people involved in gang labour varied according to the demand, but it was calculated in 1866 that 6,399 people had worked in public gangs in the East Midlands and East Anglia at some time during the year.

Some farmers still had farm workers because there was always something to be done but by Victorian times there was a more obvious social gap.

in the eighteenth century farmers might well have found room in their own homes to accommodate their labourers, but by the middle of the nineteenth century the social gap between master and man was far too wide for this to be an acceptable solution. Mrs Hesseltine, the wife of a Lincolnshire farmer employing four young labourers, explained her feelings on the subject. 'It is very objectionable having these men in one's own house', she said in 1865, 'it is so bad for the female servants.' Mr Hesseltine overcame the problem by making his foreman take in the labourers

Specialist labor (e.g. carpenter, blacksmith for horseshoes and so on) could be hired in the nearest village or town - only very large farms might have their own.

Here are some other sources I used






  • I had just finished watching Far from the Madding Crowd (2015) when I asked the question, and they mentioned a bailiff as a kind of prime minister (my analogy!) of the farm. Obviously, it's a work of fiction, but Thomas Hardy was pretty in touch with rural life. Could you elaborate? Jun 13, 2020 at 16:10
  • 1
    I added something about farm bailiffs.
    – bonzo-lz
    Jun 19, 2020 at 10:10

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