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Book Title:

The Good Old Days: Then and Now


The Good Old Days: Then and Now by S. Box

Published by: S. Box, The Firs, Marden, Hereford

Printed by: Reliance Printing Works, Halesowen, Worcs.

Chapter 1.



Like all movements for the uplifting of the workers it began in a humble way and was the outcome of the continual degradation of the Agricultural workers during a period when the industry was on the upgrade in quantity, quality and prices; one thing remained stagnant, wages and working conditions of those doing the essential work.


In 1901 the average wage of Herefordshire agricultural workers was 13/11, which had increased to 14/2 ½  in 1912, an advance of 3 ½ d. in eleven years. The hours of labourers were from 6.0 a.m. to 6.0 p.m., one-and-half hours for two meals, breakfast and dinner. Waggoners' hours were generally from 5.0 a.m. to 7.0 p.m. during the Winter to enable the horses to be fed and cleaned ready for work at 7.0 a.m. This class of workman was paid 1/- a week extra, but this is included in the averages quoted. There were certain per­quisites valued at 2/- plus the wage. Not until the Spring of 1913 did any appreciable advance in wages take place and then only where branches of the union became established. In most districts where branches were, wages rose from one to two shillings a week, in many cases with the object of keeping the men out of the union. As one farmer told his men: "I can rise your wages oothout you jinin' the union," one man retorting, " Why duynt you do it afore then? We be all sticking to our union now."


In May 1912 Mr. W. R. Palmer, a working bailiff, supported by Mr. Stanford, a railwayman, and Mr. Alfred Ruddel, a cabinet maker and a member of the Independent Labour Party, held a large meeting under Ledbury Town Hall to create interest in the workers’ cause.

The second meeting was held at Bosbury, when the writer addressed the meeting, himself being a farm worker, but had worked as a miner in South Wales and on the railway station at Worcester. He also spent two years working as a milkman at West Kirby, in Cheshire. This had broadened his outlook on life. A further open-air meeting was held at Ledbury, the writer having made a banner with this inscription: " The Herefordshire Agricultural Workers' Union," the fact being we had no organisation, not a halfpenny stamp to carry on with. The crowd, a large one, made a collection to enable us to carry on, and a few Ledbury tradesmen gave financial assistance. Several farmers came out of the nearby hotels with the intention of silencing us. One, jeering, asked: "What is that fellow going to do?" The others laughed, but the writer, pointing at the group, roared: " We will make you laugh the other side of your faces before a year's time."

Charles Duncan

Charles Duncan (1865-1933), Workers Union and Labour, Member of Parliament

This was accomplished, as fifty branches of the union were created within the year and wages began to rise, as already stated. We got into touch with Mr. Charles Duncan, Secretary of the old Workers' union, who sent us cards, rule books, etc., to commence organising.

The President of this union came from headquarters (Alderman Robert Morley, of Halifax), and we held meetings at Hereford, Ledbury, Withington, Leominster, Tramm Inn, Dymock, Bromyard and Sellack. He was delighted with the enthusiastic reception, the ball was set rolling, meetings continued to be held, the first branch being opened at Ledbury, the second at Fromes Hill, where the writer lived.

The General Secretary, upon the advice of Alderman Morley, wrote to me in the Autumn of 1912 urging me to accept the position of organiser for the area at a salary of 25/- per week and expenses, which were small as I travelled on a pusbbike, getting home at midnight, usually, unless someone offered to put me up. It was no joke, as I usually went to a village, visited the cottages during the day announcing the time and the place of the meeting that evening. In this connection I wish to state frankly that licensees throughout the whole district willingly gave us a room at the inn or hotel, mostly free, with just a small charge for fire and lighting where special halls or rooms existed. In contrast to those controlling village schools or halls, where we were banned, except in a few noble cases.

We were very fortunate with the Press, particularly the " Hereford Times " and the " Hereford Journal," both covering Herefordshire and the adjoining counties. Each week they allowed us to report meetings held and to be held— free, and published volumes of correspondence from supporters and opponents.


Our work was now very effective, arousing widespread interest, as will be seen by the list of branches opened by me and as a result of my work as an organiser. I was assisted by our good friends the railway workers, many undertaking the duties as branch secretaries, when it was impossible to get members to do so, due to fear of the employer and the curse of the tied cottage system.


The farmers at that period, in many cases, were bitter, not understanding the real objects of the Union. They did everything possible by cajoling or threatening the men, or giving small advances in wages. This stimulated the workers to greater efforts, an effect not in accordance with their inten­tion. As the Union grew, so did the independence of the men who began to rid themselves of their grovelling attitude to the parsons, squires or landowners, as will be shown later.


The workers were awakened to a sense of their power, if wisely used, while the employer began to realise the day of domination was passing and gradually ceased to interfere in the moral and legal rights of their employees, inasmuch as they agreed to meet delegates from the Farmers' Union and the Men's Union, which was held at the Shirehall, Hereford, the Mayor of the City, at the invitation of both parties, taking the chair.

At this meeting we lost sight of the fact, while men of good will were anxious to obtain a solution of the problems confronting us the vast majority of the employers were still obsessed by self interest, and the verbal agreements made were not put into practice as there was no legal force to sup­port them. This so annoyed the workers and the officials of the Union that they determined to take drastic action to enforce justice by every legitimate means in their power.


It should be recognised that as organiser I had for a considerable time prior to the attempt to establish a Union, been writing to the local Press drawing attention to the injustices in the different treatment of the ordinary workers and people in good positions, and by local authorities.

To give an example: — I contracted to raise a quantity of stone for the Ledbury Rural District Council from a local quarry. I engaged two men to assist me, paying them 18/- each per five and a half day week. I could have supplied a poor quality stone from one end of the quarry where the working was easy, but determined to give satisfaction I supplied the stone from the other end of the quarry, where the quality was better. By doing this I lost £7 on the contract. This was a large sum for a workman to lose in those days. But my application for an increase in the price was refused by this council of landowners and farmers. In contrast a farmer supplying Ledbury Work­house with milk that Summer (a hot, dry one) applied to the same authority for an increase over his contract price, obtained an increase of twopence per gallon for all he supplied. This injustice, a glaring one, I exposed in the local Press. Fortunately gifted with a fearless nature, fearing none, however wealthy or powerful, proved useful in my public work later.


After the establishment and consolidation of branches in the county, the members were clamouring for a request to be made to the Farmers' Union for a definite advance in wages of all farm workers.


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