Agriculture has always been important to the community, with rich soil that supports diverse crops such as turnips,
beans, and a variety of grains.
The following information has been reproduced with permission and grateful thanks to the authors
THE RURAL HEIRARCHY
GRIEVE or STEWARD was the ‘foreman’ who gave the farm servants their daily orders and
supervised their work. Especially on the very large farms, the servants might often see little of the farmer
who used the grieve for passing on all instructions and for receiving reports of how work was progressing.
Many grieves worked alongside the servants to ensure a proper pace of work. Not surprisingly, many grieves
were not much liked by the farm servants!
PLOUGHMEN were the most highly skilled of all farm servants and so can be seen as being at the pinnacle
of farm servant society. Ploughmen also had their own internal hierarchy so that the best, most experienced man
was the first ploughman (who usually had the best horses as well), then the second ploughman and so on down
the line. Ploughmen tended to be quite a proud breed and often felt aggrieved if given work not involving their
horses. Ploughing took up a lot of their time since fields were usually ploughed multiple times each season.
Each ploughman looked after his own horse pair.
The cattlemen also saw themselves as skilled workers and some would have put themselves on a par with the
ploughmen - although the latter would have disagreed! When cattle were indoors or in farmyard cattle courts
in the winter, there was a lot to do - mucking out (which some farmers insisted on being done every few days),
putting in fresh straw for bedding, feeding the beasts hay and chopped turnips and, sometimes, having to go
out to the fields themselves to fetch turnips. And they were always alert for illness among the beasts.
Cattlemen would sometimes need help from the orra-men at busier times.
SHEPHERDS were usually quite independent figures, especially if their cottage was somewhere out in the
hills, well away from the farm. Even the grieve might have only occasional contact, trusting the shepherd to
get on with the work. When sheep had to be clipped or dipped, the shepherd needed extra hands but, otherwise,
he tended the flocks out on the hill pastures in all weathers, watching out for predators and disease and
moving the sheep around as required. On farms where the sheep were in fields in closer proximity to the farmyard, the
shepherd’s work would be not so demanding.
ORRA-MEN ‘Orra’ means ‘other’ or ‘extra’ and so the orra-men were the servants who did all the other,
mainly unskilled jobs. Their work was vital at the busy times of year - hay cutting, grain harvest, potato and
turnip lifting - but there was an endless round of other tasks. There were dry-stane dykes to be built or repaired,
hedges to be cut (using the hedge knife), ditches to be dug or cleaned out, manure or lime to be spread on the fields,
buildings to be kept in order. The list would be endless. Where a horse and cart was required for any such work, they
spoke of the ‘orra’ horse; one of the ploughmen’s horses would hardly be used for such menial jobs!
BONDAGERS It was universal practice throughout Northumberland for farm servants -
especially if they were living in one of the farm cottages - to be required to supply a ‘bondager’. This was a woman,
often the servant’s wife or an older daughter, who worked in the fields on any days when the farmer/grieve required
that extra labour. On many farms, the bondagers would find themselves out on at least half the days in the year and
sometimes more than that.
The young woman bondager would be paid a lower wage than the man. She worked on many labour-intensive tasks, hoeing
turnips, harvesting potatoes and helping with the hay and corn harvests as well as the other farm chores. Typical
bondager clothing was a long woollen skirt (a drugget), worn with a blouse and pinafore. In winter there
would be warm underwear, leggings and a coat. Laced boots were worn plus a headsquare and lined straw hat with a
black and red ruche (a frill of lace or some other material)
The bondager system was controversial and was phased out in most places by the 1860s and 1870s.
HINDS There is confusion about the meaning of this word. Sometimes it refers to all farm servants and sometimes
only to skilled workers.
Farm servants were often only employed for one year. To get another job on a different farm,
they had to attend the annual March Hirings on 12th May in places like Wooler, Alnwick or Berwick.
The workers and the farmers gathered together in the market square. The workers would stand around waiting to be
approached by a farmer when, hopefully, they would make an agreement. The farmer would then pay the worker a small
sum to start work with him later in May
The servant's chances of being hired were greatly increased if he could offer a bondager too. At the hiring fair, work hours
and a wage would be agreed for both, as well as accommodation, potatoes, corn and other perks.
After the March hirings, came ‘flitting day’when the servant and his family might move home. The
new employer would provide carts and horses and the family would pile all their belongings, children, pig, chickens
and pets to move to the new farm
Most servants and their families lived rent free on the farm often living in the rows of farm cottages that can still
be seen in most Northumberland villages today. Families in the 19th century were usually large and there were wall
beds in the downstairs room and some more upstairs, if there was an upstairs. Water had to be carried in pails from
a well and there would be a dry toilet outside in a hut. Cooking had to be done on an open fire. Later there may have
been a hot water tank and an oven on either side of the fire. The families usually kept a cow, a pig and some hens.
They would be supplied with potatoes and grain from the farmer and would be able to grow vegetables.
The hours were long and the work often back-breaking and needed to be undertaken in all weathers but, mostly, they
were healthy and well-fed.