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Book Reviews

Two book reviews for 'Bondagers'

From 'Local Population Studies No. 82 Spring 2009'

The Bondage System was a form of employment contract once common on farms in Northumberland and south-east Scotland. A regular male farm labourer – a hind – had to supply a female outdoor worker as part of his employment bond. She could be a relative (such as wife or daughter) or an unrelated independent woman. This female worker – the Bondager – was normally hired by the hind for a year (or sometimes six months) and lived in his cottage, but she was paid directly by the farmer for the days she worked in the fields. Although the precise origins of the system are not known, it probably dated back to the seventeenth century and guaranteed a labour supply in regions where farms were isolated and the local population was scarce. Although the system had undergone considerable change by the end of the nineteenth century, it did not finally die out until after the Second World War. In recent years, with increasing interest amongst historians in the gendered nature of the labour force in agriculture, the Bondage System has received some academic attention. Both Karen Sayer and Judy Gielgud have provided interesting perspectives on the working lives and representations of this class of female farm worker in the nineteenth century.

Dinah Iredale’s new book is a welcome addition to previous work on Bondagers, although it is trying to do something slightly different, being written in an accessible style for a popular but knowledgeable audience. It is an attractively packaged book, full of reprinted primary source material taken from official enquiries, local newspapers, farm account books, hiring agreements, and a wide range of contemporary comments, and it also includes some wonderful photographs and illustrations. The author sets out to provide ‘a comprehensive picture’ of the Bondage System, the women workers and the farming world in which they lived (p. 3). It does so by firstly providing an overview of the development of the system and the impact of changing farming practices from the late eighteenth century onwards. This was an area of outstandingly fertile agriculture and progressive farming and Iredale notes the incongruence between forward-thinking agricultural practices and the bondager system of hiring labour, which was firmly rooted in the past. Later chapters go on to detail how the workers were hired at the local fairs, their terms and conditions, the state of their accommodation and work practices. The Bondagers were physically strong women, often praised for their dexterity and speed. Their work consisted of a range of tasks including planting, tending and harvesting root crops, haymaking and harvesting, threshing, and dung spreading, and these could often cover the whole of the annual farming cycle (although there was no guarantee of constant work). In the nineteenth century she usually received between 8d. and 10d. a day for such work, although harvest payments were higher at 1s. a day. Towards the end of the century, day wages for women had risen to around 1s. 6d. a day for ordinary work and 3s. a day for harvesting (p.29). Chapter 10 includes personal reminiscences from bondagers and helps to illuminate the working life of these women at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Bondage System aroused considerable attention by the nineteenth century and the book is strong on the various perspectives offered, not only from official enquiries, parliamentary commissioners and the clergy but also from among the farming community itself. Many commentators were complimentary about the health and decency of the women workers, with one parliamentary reporter for example praising them as ‘a fine race of women’ in 1867. However, many Victorian moralists raised concerns about the system, which often took young women away from their own families to live in the house of strangers, and many drew parallels (incorrectly) to slavery. Chapter 6 includes some fascinating material on the grievances against the system articulated by the hinds themselves and attempts to overthrow the practice at two key dates in the nineteenth century, 1837 and 1866. Their arguments tended to centre not on morality but on practicalities: the inconvenience of having to find a Bondager, the necessity of having to provide extra labour even if the bondager fell ill, and the drain on resources in having to house and feed a bondager. Although the farm workers were not successful in their attempts to get rid of the bond, from the 1870s the system, and the language of the system, was modified: bondagers were more usually described as ‘women workers’ or ‘outworkers’ and family contracts, usually deploying daughters of the hind, became more common. Although the voice of the Bondager is absent from these debates, the source material is very rich.

This book will appeal to a wide audience: to those interested in local history, rural society and regional farming practices, gender and labour. It is based upon a wide bibliography and is packed full of interesting primary source material, which will be of use to teachers at both school and undergraduate level. It does not provide an in-depth academic analysis of its material but it certainly delivers on what it sets out to do, providing a broad, interesting picture of the life and work of the Bondager.

Nicola Verdon - University of Sussex 

From 'Family & Community History, Vol. 14/1, April 2011'

In studying the Bondage System in Northumberland and South-East Scotland we get a strong sense of connectedness between these regions. The land that shaped the agriculture of Northumberland, the Scottish Borders, East Lothian, West Lothian and Mid Lothian also shaped the organisation of labour. The system (dating back to the seventeenth century) referred, in the nineteenth century, to a woman taken on by a hind at an annual hiring to fulfil his contract to the farmer. The hind had a cottage as part of his contract, and the Bondager lived with him and his family. This enabled farmers on scattered farmsteads to have a supply of regular labour throughout the year, and access to additional labour at times of shortage, such as June and July for turnip hoeing, and during harvest. Though the formal version of the contract died out during the late nineteenth century, it was later still common to refer to female field workers as ‘bondagers’ with women continuing to be employed in agriculture throughout the region into the twentieth century.

Iredale explores many aspects of Bondagers’ lives (and those of agricultural labourers and their families) over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including work, housing and housework, clothing, customs, forms of hiring, the process of moving(flitting), and contemporary commentary on women’s employment and morality. She also contributes to the history of farm service, and provides valuable evidence of girls’ agency in negotiating their terms and conditions. Particularly interesting is attention to resistance of hinds to the system in the 1830 and 1860s, before emergence of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union. She draws on a collection of material gathered over thirty years with primary sources including memoir and personal testimonies; contemporary commentaries and parliamentary papers; newspaper articles; correspondence; hiring contracts and farm accounts; and watercolours, photographs and line drawings illustrating women at work, housing, tools, and costume. In total there are 129 figures.

This is a narrative account and sources are largely left to speak for themselves without being placed in context. For example, agricultural women’s work was highly contested in the mid-nineteenth century, originally in response to extensive use of agricultural gangs in the East of England, and gave rise to parliamentary reports cited here. However, we are not told why these reports were commissioned despite evidence that commentators were influenced by the growing hostility to women’s work in agriculture. Despite the impressive range of material, sources are missed; for example, the Museum of English Rural Life holds a photograph of women working in Glendale, c. 1900, comparable to material used; and Ian MacDougall, who is cited, has published additional oral testimony on the experience of women farm workers in Midlothian. Arthur Munby’s diary, which discusses the geographical extent of the Bondage System in Northumberland and through ‘the vale of the Tweed’, based on his own research during 1863, is not cited. These omissions probably reflect the fact that there is little recourse to the wider historiography of rural or women’s history within the secondary sources, which include Judy Gielgud’s excellent study on bondagers ‘Nineteenth century farm women in Northumberland and Cumbria: the Neglected Workforce’ (PhD thesis, University of Sussex, 1992).

Nonetheless, the book provides a rich resource that, rather like Sue Glover’s play ‘Bondagers’ (1991), complements the broader historiography. Through the interwoven pattern of the many sources cited, it gives a very detailed, localised and immediate picture of the past as it was lived day to day, so we find a deep impressionistic and very human understanding of rural society and social relations, and of the shape and experience of the agricultural year, as determined by the land – the place itself having little to do with formal borders. Moreover, and more importantly, it provides a coherent picture, not only of what outsiders and local commentators said about the women who went afield, but also of what the women themselves thought about their work, and their response to it.

Karen Sayer - Leeds Trinity University College