The harvest contract
The harvest altered the nature of the rural labour market and the circumstances of competition. It provided work for all; it restored family earning power. The labourer did not have to beg for work; he was badly needed and could state his terms. Even the hired men - the regular farm servants - were affected as the harvest month approached. ‘The holy time was the harvest’, an old labourer in Akenfield recalled, ‘the farmer would call his men together and say “ Tell me your harvest bargain.” ’66
The change of mood and social relationships can be seen in the making and carrying out of the harvest contract - the agreement under which the day labourer undertook his harvest work. The contract was in the nature of a bargain, in which the labourer stood face to face with the farmer, on terms of rough equality, using his strength and skill to get a good price for his work. Basically the harvest contract was a system of organized piecework. Sometimes it was made by individuals, sometimes by harvesting companies, but in either case the element of bargaining remained. If the farmer did not pay a decent rate they could take themselves elsewhere. There is a sense of this transformation in the labourer’s status in the following description of a harvest agreement:67
We were alius hired by the week . . . except at harvest. Then it was piece-wukk. I dessay your’ve heard of the ‘lord’, as we used to call ’im? Sometimes he was the horseman at the farm, but he might be anybody. His job was to act as a sort of foreman to the team of reapers - there was often as many as ten or a dozen of us - and he looked after the hours and wages and such-like. He set
the pace, too. His first man was sometimes called the ‘lady.’ Well, when harvest was gettin’ close, the ‘lord’ Id call his team together and goo an’ argue it out with the farmer. They’d run over all the fields that had got to be harvested and wukk it out at so much the acre. If same as there was a field badly laid with the wather, of course the ‘lord’ would ask a higher price for that. ‘Now there’s Penny Fields’, he’d say - or maybe Gilbert’s Field - or whatever it was; ‘that’s laid somethin’ terrible’, he’d say. ‘What about that, farmer?’ And when the price was named he would talk it over with his team to see whether they’d agree. The argument was washed down with plenty of beer, like as not drunk out of little ol’ bullocks’ horns; and when it was all finished, and the price accepted all round, ‘Now I ’ll bind you’, the farmer ’Id say, and give each man a shilling.