|Agricultural Hiring Fairs in Northern England, 1890-1930: A Reconsideration|
|British agricultural labourers between 1890 and 1930 have interested few historians, and those who studied them mostly opted for either a romantic, passive, conservative view or else a firmly Marxist tone of incipient class war, views which are hard to reconcile. In northern England industrial competition led farmers to continue hiring many paid employees on traditional yearly or half-yearly service contracts, which were arranged at hiring fairs. Regional demand for food ensured that northern agriculture remained prosperous and expansionist down to the 1920s, employing very large numbers of farm workers at wages that were often twice as high as those paid in stereotypically rural counties of the south.
Northern agriculture and patterns of urbanisation were also both very diverse, and the reliance on farm servants varied from almost total in Northumberland to virtually none in south Lancashire. The actual terms of contracts also varied from area to area, but overall half of northern farmworkers may have been hired as servants at fairs. The argument here is that far from being either an archaic institution or else a sort of slave market, northern farm servants were able to use them both to drive up wages and to build cultural solidarity as a clearly-defined group within northern society. Sometimes they were combined with conventional trade unionism, but often they substituted for it, not due to opposition or indifference to combination but out of a well-grounded sense that the fairs did a better job for them at no cost. Farmers also perceived clear and practical gains from participating, so the undoubted difference in their basic interests was generally (but not always) kept out of sight by this highly effective bargaining framework.
The fairs were also not embedded in localism, but actually formed a remarkably coherent and articulated network which covered most of the north, and which unconsciously adjusted wages and the local supply of labour in line with economic conditions with the full consent of all participants. Oral testimony and extensive newspaper reporting both prove that they actively flourished well into the 1920s, despite assertions from most historians that they were either already defunct in 1890, or else were in steep decline after 1890. When the interwar depression ruined many farmers wages declined sharply and fairs lost ground, but they were still operating in 1939 and despite a surge of trade unionism, there was no sense that they should be swept away to free workers from ancient shackles.|