This is a review of the revised 2010 edition. The book was bought because, when tracing my family tree, the occupation of agricultural labourer is probably the most common for my male ancestors. The author is a professional genealogist and a trustee of the Society of Genealogists.
In his introduction, Ian Waller relates how he kept coming across records of his agricultural labourer ancestors when he did not expect to find very much at all: "How many times have you read in the ... census return the description `ag lab' and thought that there was little else to find out about him? How wrong you are."
The book is split into two parts. The first looks at the life of an ag lab, the second at suggestions for research. I was disappointed by the first part. Whilst Waller clearly knows a great deal about his subject, there are presentational problems. The whole opening section on the national state of agriculture in the nineteenth century, its recurrent cycles of plenty and of depression, is muddled, lacking a clear chronological narrative. I found the creation and development of unions also to be confusing. (And I write as someone with a degree in history.)
He fails to adequately explain, for example, why the Swing Riots were not replicated in the north of England. He grasps at straws, suggesting that many ag labs failed to move to the supposed better pay and conditions there "because they did not know about the wage differentials". This is fanciful, when the figures show that an ag lab in Suffolk could earn twice as much in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Despite quoting someone (he doesn't say who) that labouring "is mostly work and bed", I was nevertheless surprised when Waller writes, "For the average labouring family, social life was almost non-existent." The surprise is due to Waller spending the next few pages contradicting this very statement.
But there are also some good nuggets of information in the text of this first part, such as that censuses held at lambing time resulted in shepherds being omitted. And Waller has much of interest to say on a whole of host of issues, from details about the ag lab's working day to the matter of child labour and on to the kinds of funeral an ag lab might expect.
The author tells us that part two of the book "is not a `how to use' the records but merely a guide to tracing an agricultural labourer and his family." I found this second part to be more useful.
Waller first looks at the standard and basic set of records that those tracing their family tree use, but even here there is something to learn. For instance I did not know that the Stamp Act reduced the number of records of births, marriages, and deaths 1783 to 1793, so that when the act was repealed bulk entries were made to catch-up. Also, double-entry baptisms usually indicate that the first was done by the midwife because she thought the child would not survive. Waller also has some insightful things to say about parish rate books, "which can act as a kind annual census for the parish" and can go back to the seventeenth century.
But none of these, of course, are specific to ag labs. Yet I also learned that, because the 1841 census was held in June, many were away from home haymaking. Waller also informs us that we are wrong to assume that ag labs did not make wills: "This is a misconception which only the foolhardy researcher would accept." For those who worked for an estate, the wealth of records could be prodigious. And Waller tells us that there is much to be gleaned from workhouse records too, especially since "a spell in the workhouse was often inevitable" for him and his family.
Surprisingly no references are given to sources for claims and words quoted in the text. So we must take the facts as stated without being able to check what is meant when, for example, Waller writes that, "crime increased by about 30%". Waller also fails to be objective on occasion, for example writing that demands by ag labs were "wrongly reinforced by violence". This reviewer was also annoyed by the almost constant inclusion of an apostrophe when using figures as shorthand for decades (1870's etc).
But despite my criticisms, it has to be said that Waller brings to our attention a cornucopia of sources to be researched, including court books and school records. The range of sources is almost demotivating in their sheer abundance! I am therefore glad to have bought it and it will no doubt be well-thumbed in the years of research to come. The book ends with a brief summary, a bibliography, and an index.