Nostalgia: Life and labour on the land

Leading to Newborough, Scarborough ... servants used to put themselves up for annual hire at a market.
Leading to Newborough, Scarborough ... servants used to put themselves up for annual hire at a market.

Four centuries ago, there were three main types of farmers, yeomen, husbandmen and grassmen. Yeomen were farmers of substance who owned freehold land without any obligation to gentry landlords. “Better head of the yeomanry than tail of the gentry,” went a saying of the time. Like the gentry above them, some yeomen were proud and protective of their family names. In his will, a yeoman of Robin Hood’s Bay wrote that all his beneficiaries should be of “the blood of Staynerigge”.

Yeoman had several domestic and household servants; they sent their sons to neighbouring grammar schools or even universities in some rare cases. Edward Robinson of Cloughton was a yeoman, so privileged as to be buried in the chancel of Scalby parish church. In his will he left a “whie” (heifer) to Lady Etherington, whose husband was the Crown steward, but nothing to his son should he be so disobedient as to marry Elizabeth Bigging, a local Catholic girl, or “papist”, as he called her. Yeoman were famously jealous of their rights as well as their surnames: when Sir Richard Cholmley threatened to enclose common land in Horcum, his fences were burned down by Pickering’s freeholders.

Husbandmen held tentanted farms. Some of them might also work on the land of their lords, but most had an oxgang or even only half of one of their own in the open arable fields. Their tenants might be for life, several lives, or 21 years. The tenants of the Cholmleys paid heavy entry fines and light rents on land for which the lease might run for 999 years. But in these unusual cases, the Cholmleys retained their manorial rights such as court attendance. Annual rents were nominal: for instance, two fat hens at Christmas or their “country urine” for the local alum works! Rents were known as “fines” and often remained fixed for centuries, dating back to feudal times when farmers were required to work without pay on the lord’s land. This was known as “boon work” and in years of inflation more valuable than fines in depreciating coin.

Grassmen farmed only pasture. They held no arable land of their own, but were more than mere cottagers or labourers but less than husbandmen.

Farm labourers were of different kinds, though the working day, from 5am to 7pm in the summer months and from dawn to dusk at other times, was much the same length for all of them. The most fortunate and secure were the servants, male and female, domestic and field, who were hired for a whole year every Martinmas, November 11. These were the cooks and kitchen maids, milkmaids, plough boys, shepherds, cowherds and waggoners, who lived at the farms of their employers. Every year, at market towns and villages, they offered themselves to masters and mistresses for the next whole year. At market place hirings, such as in Newborough Street at Scarborough, masters and servants struck bargains for wages, accommodation and even clothing. The bargain was sealed with “god’s penny”, a sum that might be as little as sixpence or as much as three shillings. Yorkshire farm labourers were notorious for their hard bargaining, often insisting on free clothing such as breeches, hats and shirts.

Finally, there were the day labourers, hired to dig ditches, mend fences and hedges, thresh corn, cut grass and repair walls. Without “meat and drink”, a labourer might earn as much as ten pence a day or as little as fourpence. A Scarborough bye-law of this time limited wages to twopence a day for “daubers” (plasterers) and a penny a day for haymakers.

“Cottagers” were landless: they had no more than house, garth, yard and garden; but they kept pigs and chickens and took whatever wildlife they could poach. The vast Percy estate at Leconfield and Wressle in the East Riding bought chickens, hens, mallards, pheasants and even “seagulls”, when they were “good and in season”, from their tenants.

And 400 years ago locally there was plenty of edible wildlife to poach. Some geese were so numerous on greens that such places were called “goose villages”. The marshy carrs and ings meadows of the vale of Pickering attracted huge flocks of ducks, swans and waders. The earl of Northumberland had kept duck decoys on Seamer Mere.

Village communities varied greatly from one farming area to another, both in size and situation. One with a resident lord’s mansion and plenty of arable, such as Settrington on the chalk Wolds, could be heavily populated.

Many middle-sized villages were like Scalby which consisted of house plots called “tofts” sited in rows on both sides of a central green or thoroughfare. Behind them were long, narrow back yards called “crofts” facing the open fields of arable and pasture beyond a back lane. Burniston and Cloughton, which shared the same common with Scalby, were laid out in much the same way on both sides of the road running north and south.

First mentioned in 1304, but possibly much earlier, the great, walled manor house at Seamer was a dominant presence in the village, even after the Percy family ceased to occupy it in the 1540s when John Leland saw and described it as “a castle”. An account written in 1548 of the demesne of the manor, “houses, edifices, orchards and gardens”, within one acre and two roods, in addition includes a long list of closes and 16 oxgangs of land and “all that watercourse...called The Mere”. In Seamer’s case, the tofts and crofts stood in a row running north and south on the east side of the roadway, the “castle” and St Martin’s church on the west and between them an extensive green, the site of Sir Henry Gate’s market which so vexed Scarborough’s burgesses. The parish of Seamer, which then encompassed six other townships, Irton, East Ayton, Deepdale, Crossgates, Osgodby and Cayton, was then said to house 380 people.