Still reading about rural life, I was interested that the history of nineteenth century Lincolnshire that I have just completed and a more general book about farm labourers both mention gang labour. Gangs were self-assembled groups, sometimes of both sexes, sometimes consisting entirely of men or of women, who hired themselves out to farmers as an entity. The advantage to them was that, as a group, they were less likely to be exploited; some gangs also contained children (I suspect that, although the gang may have saved these minors from exploitation by the farmer, it was probably less punctilious about appropriating their wages!). However, they were often troublesome and, in Lincolnshire in the later nineteenth century, by-laws were introduced to attempt to curb their excesses of behaviour and to set out clearly the terms under which they could be employed.
Both books say that the practice of developing and employing gangs had become obsolete by the turn of the twentieth century. However, when I was a student in the 1970s, taking summer holiday jobs working in the local canning factory, gangs were certainly still being employed there. They were of three kinds:
A group of twenty or so Maltese women was taken on in the key fruit and vegetable harvesting months of June, July, August and September and they lived in trailers on the factory site. I remember that when I was cycling home in the evening, having worked the four hours’ overtime allowed, I would sometimes meet two of them carrying a crate of beer to share with the others.
Then there was a group of Irish women of all ages, many of them well-educated and some also students. They were boarded with regular factory workers who were prepared to take them in, their keep being paid for by the company.
Finally, there were local agricultural gangs, I imagine of exactly the kind that these history books refer to, who, like other local casual labour, turned up each day and were not provided with accommodation.
The gangs I knew consisted entirely of women. They were extremely rough and foul-mouthed and were usually put to work together; they were shunned by everyone else on the factory floor because they would pick a fight at the drop of a hat. One year, the forewoman (whose name was Dulcie – she had a voice like a squeaking gate) made the mistake of hiring two rival gangs. I vividly remember a woman from each of them fighting one Friday lunchtime, thrashing it out on the concrete floor. It was the most vicious event I have ever witnessed. They tore out handfuls of each other’s hair and scratched faces with fingernails, as well as landing punches. Eventually they were rolling on the ground, pulling at each other’s clothes. One of them ended up shirtless, her white bra bloodied and dusty. Dulcie and one of the male supervisors eventually succeeded in separating them and both gangs were dismissed. I guess that they spent the rest of the summer working on the land: at the time it was still possible to turn up at most farms and work at bean-pulling, potato-picking or bulb-cleaning for cash in hand at the end of the day. With hindsight, my guess is that most gang members were the virtual slaves of a single gang-master, or perhaps a few ‘élite’ overseers. I hope that the practice of gang employment has finally ceased now, but I suspect that the recent influx of immigrants to the agricultural communities of East Anglia may mean that it has ‘enjoyed’ an ignominious revival.