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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 6.



At this stage it would be wise to draw the attention of the reader to the attitude of the respective political parties to the Minimum Wage Bill in Parliament, introduced by Mr. G. H. Roberts, Labour M.P. for Norwich, with the object of improving the lot of the agricultural workers.   This Bill sought to provide: 1—A Minimum Wage.  2—Regulation of a Labourer's  Hours.   3—A Weekly  Half-Holiday.  It also asked for a 60-hour week, with certain exceptions at hay-time and harvest.   In putting the Bill forward Mr. Roberts explained that a certain amount of latitude would be allowed the County Boards because it was recognised that it would not be possible to enact that the wages of the Norfolk workers should be increased from 13/- to 20/- all at once; he said that according to the Board of Trade reference the average weekly wage, including allowances, etc., of the agriculture worker in 1907 was 17/6, but that figure was supplied by the employers only and was probably an overstatement.  It was common knowledge that the hours of labour in rural districts were inordinately long. The Bill provided for a weekly half-holiday for agricultural workers, and as for wages, the Trades Board Acts dealing with wages in other industries created a precedent.  He did not suggest that a flat rate should apply to the whole of the country, but there were provisions in the Bill for variations, if conditions in flat rates would not be practical. The Bill proceeded on the assumption that it would be possible to determine the National Minimum of a real wage—that was a wage that would equalise the local variations in the cost of living.


Sir Frederick Banbury, Conservative M.P. for the City of London, said the objects of the Bill were bad. He had always opposed interference by Parliament with wages of adult workers in this country; the attempts at legislation in the Coal Mining industry had by no means been successful and he preferred that the question of wages should be settled by the laws of supply and demand. The only result of bringing in Acts of Parliament, he thought, would be to recoil on the people they were intended to benefit. Would farmers be asked to pay the minimum to old men, and to keep them on? They proposed the regulation of hours; he would like to know if they could control the weather? because much corn and hay would be lost if the Bill was passed. Who was going to milk the cows if a half-holiday was allowed? He said that if there was one industry to which proposals of this kind should not be applied it was agriculture, and he would oppose the Bill. There were cries from the Labour benches of: " Will you divide on it? " but leave to bring in the Bill was granted without a division. The reply to all Sir Frederick's fears was found in the fact that the Act was not acceptable, but satisfactory to all sections of the industry. This is exemplified by recent proposals agreed to by the Farmers' Union and Unions representing Farm Workers, and the better spirit created between them since the passing of the Act. Both parties now meet on terms of equality, notwithstanding the fact that wages and conditions have still to be discussed and decisions arrived at by the sane and sensible system advocated by the new Act. This Act, the child of the Trade Union and Labour movements, met with several difficulties, one serious one being that mean and selfish men and women were quite prepared to accept all the benefits and safeguards won by the Unions and through the sacrifices of the old pioneers of their organisations, but would not contribute to the upkeep of their Organisation. Possibly this was due to the ignorance of the workers, many of them thinking that the rise in wages and better conditions were granted by the Government, instead of being fought for by the Unions over a long period.


In Herefordshire the scale for agricultural wages was:—


Herefordshire scale for agricultural wages

per week.

hours per week.





No. Wage Board.








Fear of Strike.



56 Summer

Government Rate
as per Bill.



48 Winter
54 Summer

By Order of the Board.



48 Winter
50 Summer


1920 part


48 Winter
50 Summer


1921 part


48 Winter
50 Summer



Often as I walked through the Hereford Cattle Market in those days I could hear the sneers of the passing farmers, which I smilingly ignored. One day, after we had obtained an advance of one shilling a week in wages over Worcestershire, under the newly-formed Agricultural Wages Board, a group of densely ignorant farmers met me in the market, one remarking: " This is the little b------ who is making us paiy a shillin' a wick mor'n Houster (Worcester)." They cursed and threatened me. I turned on them at last and told them their threats did not worry me. I asked them if they could see those pigs in the pen over there? They said: " Of course we con, we byunt blind." " Well," I said, " If I put my hand on one of them they would squeal, and you are like the pigs you rear. We have only to put our hands on you for justice for your workmen and you squeal like your pigs." A quiet-looking man standing by (he was a large farmer) listened to all this and said: " I don't know this little man, but his arguments are sound, the Herefordshire rate of wages are 31/- per week and some of you know I have not a man working for me under 40/- per week. I find it profitable to pay good wages and obtain the co-operation of those you employ. Try it, gentlemen, you can afford it." No more was said, the gentleman walking quietly away. The farmers did likewise, looking quite ashamed of themselves.

Another evening as I was returning from a meeting on my cycle, someone fired two shots at me from behind a thick hedge; this was about four miles from Hereford. Talk was going on around the county that I was going to be shot, and foundation for this was to be seen in the abusive letters and post­cards I received in those hectic days.

One or two samples stated:

" You would make a good target for the Germans. I can't think why they don't send you out there for all the good you do,"


" You upset us poor men by writing to the papers.  You'd be better dead,"

from a Waggoner. Another card I received stated:

" You shall be shot for your wickedness before twelve months is up,"

and a further one:

" You lazy old b-------, it would be a good thing if your old head was blown off; mind something doesn't happen to you before long, you old b------. Hell is too good for you.
If I could get at you I would put a bullet through thy old nut."

I regarded all these threats as tributes to my work, because they came from certain stupid farmers, when in drink, who had boasted of doing so. Abusive letters were also written in the Press, but these I ignored, knowing that the people who wrote them had no experience outside the craze to make money.


In contrast to all this, many of the more tolerant and intelligent farmers were in favour of their employees being organised and advised their men to join the Union.


Charles Bathurst

Bathurst worked as a barrister and conveyancer and in 1910 entered parliament representing the Conservative Party as MP for Wiltshire.

Mr. Charles Bathurst, M.P., of Lydney Park, Gloucestershire, speaking at a farmers' dinner at Ross-on-Wye in May 1914 stated that the agricultural labourer was the most pathetic figure in the body politic. During the last 15 years wages had risen in all industries except agriculture; the most serious period was during the last 10 years, when the cost of living had gone up 12 per cent. The labourer was being underpaid at present, but in any case he should be given a greater measure of independence than he now had. This would help to improve his fettered outlook and convert the slouching, cringing and reluctant slave, all too common in our rural districts, into a self-respecting, keen and capable workman, upon whom his employer could rely for conscientious and efficient work.


The question of farm labour had suddenly leapt into prominence and must be answered. Statements made by large farmers and politicians, prove without doubt the crying need for the organisation of both employer and employed, and this proved the value of the work done for the workers by their Trade Unions.


One can ask—Was this worth while? In 1922 the Coalition Government returned to power, and as stated previously, promised an Agricultural Bill guaranteeing a continuation of the subsidy to farmers and the Wage Boards for the labourers for a further four years. Within six months they repealed this section of the Bill, betraying both farmer and worker. The farmers took the line of least resistance and reduced the wages of the men by 11/- a week within six months, thus compensating themselves at the expense of their employees. There was little opposition from the workers, because many members of the Union had been in the army. Others became downhearted and failed in their support, as 4 ½ d. per week was too much to pay out of their reduced wages.


To save their face, the Government set up a Coalition Committee. The agreements made had no legal standing, and the employers violated all of them, and the committee practically ceased to function before it was in being very long. All the benefits the Union had fought for and gained were fast disappearing, wages were reduced, hours were increased and the half-holiday ceasing. The workers were driven by this betrayal right back to the 1912 conditions. The Organiser of the Union was suspended, but he, with a large number of members, remained loyal to the Union. Meetings were held on Saturday and Sunday afternoons to keep the men together, the organiser having to return to manual labour again.


In 1924 a Labour Government was in office and reconstructed the Wages Board. This was opposed by the Conservatives, but it was carried through with the assistance of the Liberals and a few Conservatives. The constitution of this Board comprised an equal number of employers and workers' representatives. The employers' representatives were nominated by the National Farmers' Union, and the workers by the Trade Unions catering for agricultural workers. One quarter was nominated by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, who appoint all. The County Committees were a similar set-up, and they were given power to grant permits for less than the minimum wage to be paid to aged and medically unfit workers. All orders of the Boards were binding on all employers engaging male or female workers in agriculture, woods or market gardening. Arrears of wages were enforceable by law, and Judges and Magistrates could heavily fine those violating the orders.


It may surprise many to know that whilst organising in and around Herefordshire cases of arrears of wages and such like were settled by our efforts and amounted to considerably over £5,000, and these were exclusive of the cases taken up by the Board itself, who, in some instances, took the claim to the Magistrates, where the offender was ordered to pay the arrears and heavily fined. Efforts were made to avoid this unpleasantness by suggesting that if they were members of the Farmers' Union they should meet their Secretary and myself with the workman and try to come to a settlement. This method proved highly successful, and claims were admitted and paid, employer and employee being well satisfied and usually good friends afterwards. In this connection I was obliged to take a claim before the Judge at the Leominster County Court, this was for arrears of pay for two farm workers, but unfortunately the claim was dismissed.


To be a successful organiser of a Trade Union it is essential for one to be fearless, truthful, honest, and rely upon facts; stick to sound principles and regard all with respect, without cringing to any.


After the second Board was formed I returned as organiser to rebuild the movement in the countryside, as we had established strong branches at the quarries, the road workers, gas workers, electric light, Corporation workers, Government factories, tile works, etc.


During 1920 a huge demonstration of labourers from all parts of the county marched with bands and banners from the Labour Club to St. Peter's Square, in the centre of the city, supported by other Trade Unionists, headed by a large banner and many smaller ones from the branches, held up by farming tools, bearing the inscription: "We Want 50/-," the amount the workers' side of the Wages Committee were instructed to demand.
Here we can give credit to the two independent members, whose fairness to both farmers and workers was beyond reproach—their office being a thankless and difficult one. After hours of discussion they suggested a 46/- minimum for 60 hours in Summer and 48 in Winter, which the workers' side accepted, the employers' side holding back. The independent Chairman put it to the vote, and with the independent members voting with the labourers, the vote was carried. This had the effect of greatly increasing the membership of the men's Union, the employers settling down with good feeling all around.


On August 4th, 1914, the Great War broke out.   For three years little propaganda was carried out, as many of the Union stalwarts had patriotically volunteered, prior to conscription, which acted unjustly against the workers.   Men in one-man businesses and those deemed necessary to agriculture were spared and not called up.   This caused bitter feeling; some farmers sacked men and put their sons in their place as waggoners, stockmen, etc., which they had not previously done; some of the old farmers retired and gave their farms over to their sons, and other farmers purchased farms to put their sons in to prevent them being called up, which meant in effect—that whilst the labourers and their sons were fighting and dying on the battlefield, these shirkers were at home making money and purchasing land. 

When the boys came back from the war there was no land for them, but they still had to fight for a meagre pension.

We had to fight for many months for my son's widow and her three children. He had died through contracting tuberculosis as a result of war service, and being a prisoner of war in Germany.  In connection with conscription, tribunals were set up to decide cases of appeal for exemption.  I happened to serve on one at Hereford and I can give personal evidence of how privileges crept in.

Fred Bulmer

Fred joined Percy in his fledgling cider business.

A working man with 5 children appealed; and a   gentleman  from   the   same   district  (Kingsthorne)   was opposed to granting him an exemption; I asked him the reason for his attitude in this case, and he replied—this man works in the woods, and always wants the biggest penny for what he does.  I said, that is the man we need nowadays— one who knows his own value.   If there are 5 children he should be at home to look after them.  If he went to the war and was killed, what an expense the country would be put to  in keeping his family.   The  Chairman, Mr. Fred Bulmer, agreed with me and the exemption was granted. At our next meeting a young man 19 years of age, employed by a friend of the gentleman in the previous case, appealed for exemption. Asking the reason why, we were told this young man was servant to the Master of the Foxhounds. No exemption was granted, the gentleman being told the country could not afford to keep men at home to clean boots, they must clean them themselves or wear them dirty.


The Corn Production Act was passed, guaranteeing against losses to landlords and farmers, but ignoring the farm labourers, who had not received any appreciable advance in wages, notwithstanding the rise in the cost of living from 60 to 80%. The farmers were reaping a rich harvest, prices of produce had nearly doubled in that period. A few gentle­men interested in the agricultural workers, together with all the Labour members, insisted on a Wage Board for the industry. A minimum wage of 25/- was inserted in that Bill and Labour members attempting to get 30/- were defeated, only one Conservative voting in favour, and a few Liberals.


During the years 1918-19-20 and 21, the numbers of members of the Workers' Union in this county rapidly increased, the organiser opening many branches in Worcester­shire, Brecon, Radnor, Monmouth and Gloucestershire. Wages were increased from 25/- (Government wage) to 46/-, hours reduced from 60 to 48 and 50, Saturday half-holiday established, overtime and Sunday pay obtained through the persistent efforts of the workers' representatives upon the County Committees and the National Board. They had a strenuous time with opposition from many quarters.



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