Issue date
12 Mar 2001

Uniting farm workers

Joseph Arch

Joseph Arch, the inspired Warwickshire farm labourer who, in 1872, established the National Agricultural Labourers' Union, which enrolled 100,000 members by the end of the following year.

". . . TO ELEVATE the social position of the farm labourers of the county by assisting them to increase their wages;

"to lessen the number of ordinary working hours; "to improve their habitations; "to provide them with gardens or allotments;

"and to assist deserving and suitable labourers to migrate and emigrate."

Such were some of the declared objects of the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers' Union, the immediate forerunner of the National Agricultural Labourers' Union-both of which were founded in 187' by the farm labourer and Primitive Methodist lay preacher, Joseph Arch.

On the wages front, Arch's union, working towards the same ends as the Lincolnshire Labour League and the Kent and Sussex Labourers' Union, made spectacular but short-lived advances. In 1870, the average weekly wage of a farm labourer had stood at 12/- a week, a rise of 2/6 on the 1850 level. By 1875, after three years of union pressure, the average wage had risen to some 55 per cent above the 1850 level.

Then, farm-produce prices slumped. Farmers became ruthless in the use of the lock-out. Wage-levels fell back. And, in spite of the support of trade unionists like Odger and Potter, and Radicals like Herbert and Dilke, and eminent churchmen like Manning and Girdlestone, the influence of Arch's union was gradually but decisively broken.

  • Arch's union and its activities infuriated the squires, who raged "with indescribable bitterness" against these "meetings of rural labourers -meetings positively where men made speeches".
  • The Roman Catholic Cardinal Manning (above) and the Church of England Canon Girdlestone both came out staunchly in favour of Arch's union.
  • Dr Ellicot, Bishop of Gloucester, came out with the un-Christian recommendation that agricultural union agitators should be thrown into the village horse-ponds. Most country parsons also fell in behind the squierearchy.

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