The National Agricultural Labourers Union
Extract from a Report to the Union by Edwin Russell in 1872
Condition of Farm Labourers
ON THURSDAY, October 18th, we proceeded from Pembridge to Dilwin where, outside the Duke public house, in the pouring rain, we held a very good meeting. The poor fellows did not get together so well as they do at most places; they seem a little bit timid and fearful. The wages in this district are very low, about 8s., 9s., and 10s. per week is the stile [sic.] of things. Surely the men need a Union to push them up. Well, we proceeded with the meeting, about 300 getting together, and although it rained hard at times, the men stood well together, and listened to the arguments advanced in favour of the N.A.L.U. Mr. Strange paid a visit to this place months ago, and after raising the hopes of the men, left the thing to die out. But we must take it up and stick to it, and I have no doubt this part will yet become a stronghold of Unionism.
FRIDAY, still on and on from Dilwin to Weobley, which is about the most singular looking place we have yet seen in this old county. Most of the houses are built in the most quaint and singular-looking manner possible. This used to be a town of much importance; a castle once stood in its feudal pride and glory here. Street upon street used to wind their lengths along, but now the glory has departed, and nothing is left but the glory of its former self; whole streets, living men can remember, being taken down. In this old town, amid the pouring rain of a very wet night, we took our stand and raised our voices on behalf of suffering humanity. About 300 stood while the rain pelted down, and the people and the speakers got a thorough soaking. The men arranged to go to Dilwin and meet the labourers there next Monday, and form a branch called the Dilwin and Weobley Branch of the N.A.L.U.
CONDITION OF FARM LABOURERS .-- This county is certainly in better condition just now as regards the farm labourers than Dorsetshire. I cannot hear of any of those heartless, short-noticed evictions, which are now disgracing the upper and middle classes of the latter shire. The truth seems to be that in Herefordshire both farmers and landowners are well aware that they are working the soil with the very smallest amount of manual labour possible, and see more plainly than their brethren of Dorset the very suicidal nature of the policy of a general discharge. This county, too, is very near to the great centres of industry, that the farmers find that the men, whose spirit is just awakening, will not stand any reduction of wages, but quickly take themselves elsewhere. Since the Union agitation reached Herefordshire, the wages appear to have risen on an average about 2s. per week, or rather less; and the men are still receiving, in many instances, 12s. per week. I had, however, some conversation today with two women, who lived within three miles of Ross, and in both instances, although their husbands were receiving, nominally, 12s. a week (of which 1s. 6d. went in house rent), I found that the day's wage was invariably deducted throughout the winter from every day that it was too stormy or wet to stand out-of-door work. But what, forsooth, are twelve shillings a week for the support of a family, even without any reduction, in the days when hour by hour the necessaries of life are rising in value, and when luxury rides its wanton race unbridled and unchecked? Correspondent of Birmingham Morning News .
On Thursday, November 28th, from Withington to Hereford, where I arrived about eight o'clock, got a bit of breakfast, went to the post for letters, then took train for Pembridge, via Leominster, where I arrived in due course and saw the secretary of that branch, and then walked on to Dilwyn, a distance of five miles, through the wet and dirt: it was raining hard, but I am pleased to say that it cleared up about five o'clock, and came fine for the meeting. We had a first rate affair, although it was said we should make no impression on the people at Dilwyn (vain talk) for we not only made an impression, but the men appreciated it, for after the meeting we enrolled 25 new members, making nearly 50 in this branch. We met at the Duke public-house, but in future all the meetings are to be held at the Primitive Methodist Chapel, which will be thrown open for that purpose. Hearty cheers both loud and long were given, and the people separated. -- On Friday, November 29th, after entering the names of the Dilwyn branch members in the book which I had taken for that purpose, and explained how they were to be kept, I proceeded to Pembridge.
About the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union:
Following the legalisation of unions through the British Trade Union Act of 1871, the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union was formed in May 1872 under the presidency of Joseph Arch (1826-1919). Its aims were to improve the general condition of agricultural labourers and to encourage the formation of branch and district unions. Members paid a joining fee of 6 old pence, and 2 old pence weekly. The union's aim was to raise wages to 16s a week for a 9½ hour working day.
Within two years of formation, the National Agricultural Labourers' Union had over 86,000 members representing over 10% of Britain's farm workers. However by 1889 this membership had declined to just over 4000 and in 1896 the union ceased to exist.