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Agricultural labourers – there is more to research than you realise


Don’t miss your chance to attend one of our most popular courses!

Have you ever secretly thought that your agricultural labourer (“ag lab”) ancestors were a little bit boring? Perhaps you’ve struggled to find out more about their lives? Or are unsure about the sorts of activities your ancestor would have been employed to undertake? This study day will help you to see that your ag lab ancestors are fascinating and that it is possible to discover more details about their lives. By the end of the study day you will better understand your ag lab ancestors’ daily lives, and where and how to use historic records to uncover their stories. Plus you'll be learning in the company of a community of people just as passionate about getting to know these seemingly humble ancestors as your are!

What you will learn:

  • Discover the sources that'll tell you what day to day life was like for your ag lab ancestor(s)
  • Learn how to identify the farms your ancestors worked on
  • Understand how the poor were treated and how Poor Law records can reveal clues about our rural ancestors
  • Understand events that impacted upon your rural ancestors lives, such as The Swing Riots and natural phenomena

Programme of Talks

All four talks will be recorded and available for two weeks. 

Sons of the Soil (Janet Few) 

Every family has them, ancestors who worked on the land. How can we find out more about them, the farms where they worked and the lives that they led? This session covers a range of sources, many of them under-used, which will help to shed light on the working lives of our rural British ancestors.

The Rural Parish Poor under the Old Poor Laws (Else Churchill)

The Tudor Poor Laws or Old Poor Law set down the template for the treatment of the deserving poor for the next 250 years. This talk will look at the records generated by Parish Overseers of the Poor and later officials  who were  appointed by the Vestry  to Collect poor rate that enabled the infirm Poor to be maintained and able bodied set to work. The 1662 the Act of Settlement sought to remedy the previous unsuccessful attempts to define where responsibility lay for the poor based upon the Parish in which they were resident and thereafter created cases and documents that give clues about and occasionally voice to our rural ancestors.

The Swing Riots 1830 – 1832 – the last mass rising of agricultural workers (Judy Hill)

The Swing disturbances began in 1830 and swiftly spread across the counties of southern England. The unrest was marked by attacks of arson against farmers and others, by the breaking of threshing machines, the sending of anonymous letters, marches demanding higher wages and relief, and the exaction of customary “doles”. The Swing Riots  reflect the resentment felt by agricultural labourers and their desire for vengeance against local landed interests, notably their employers and those who controlled the vestries and made parish poor law decisions. The attacks struck at the very roots of social cohesion.  The trauma and sense of insecurity produced by the riots affected both central and local government.

Natural Phenomena and Their Effects on Our Ancestors  (Wayne Shepheard)

The lives and livelihoods of our ancestors were controlled or affected as much by natural conditions and events as by political and societal constraints. In many cases the latter were strongly influenced by the former. Natural phenomena directly affected the environment in which people lived and worked affecting both the physical health as well as the economic well-being of people.

Panel Discussion and Q&A

All four speakers will be available at the end of the day to answer any questions you have about agricultural labourers and the lives of your rural ancestors. 

About the speakers:
Else Churchill

Else Churchill is the Genealogist at the Society Genealogists in London and a has over 30 years of experience as a genealogist. Formerly a professional genealogical librarian and researcher, Else has worked for the SoG since 1994. She is the Society’s subject lead, working across the organisation and runs the publishing programme.

Janet FewJanet Few is an experienced family, social and community historian who has presented throughout the UK, overseas and at sea. She has written several books of interest to genealogists and contributes to local and family history journals. She also writes historical fiction. Janet is currently serving as  the president of the Family History Federation. She is heavily involved in the work of family history societies and was awarded the Society of Genealogists certificate of recognition in 2020 for her work.

Judy HillJudy Hill has lectured in adult education, for the WEA, various historical societies in the UK and overseas, and taught history at the University of Surrey. In 2007 she was awarded her PhD researching poverty and unrest in Surrey 1815-1834.  She has published several articles on emigration to Canada, the agricultural riots of 1830 to 1832 and 19thcentury cholera in Britain. Judy is now a freelance lecturer and researcher.

Wayne Shepheard has pursued family history research for a number of decades, on his own behalf and for others, exploring families in North America, Europe and the United Kingdom. He is active in expanding his interest in and writing about natural phenomena and their impacts on people and communities. He has published a book, Surviving Mother Nature’s Tests, that relates many of the situations observed in nature to the lives of families who experienced or endured them, primarily over the past several centuries. A second book, Genealogy and the Little Ice Age will be released soon.



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