The cotter system was really slavery under a different name, that of bondage, and existed well into the last [19th] century. The main difference between bondage and slavery is that the employer, usually a farmer, did not own the bondsman as with slavery, which was known as chattel slavery. The cottier and the farmer entered into an agreement, a bond, whereby the cottier agreed to be bound for a set period of years, which automatically included his wife and family, as they became capable of working.

The bond included the use of a dwelling, called a cottar, or cotter, (definition: 'a cottage belonging to a farm, for which the rent is paid by labour'), a small one-roomed cottage of poor quality, usually mud walled and thatched and known as a cottar house, the dimensions of which were no more than ten feet square and in which usually a large family was reared. A large garden was always part of the house. In it the cottier grew potatoes and vegetables for his family. All seed and manure was supplied by his master. The cottier would have his meals at the farmhouse with the farmer, and would be given milk and oatmeal for his family. If they were called out for work they too would be fed at the farmhouse.

If the cottier's wife was for any reason unable to work when required, the cottier had to supply a substitute, called a bondager, who was employed by the cottier as part of his bond agreement. This bondager was most likely to be a close relation, perhaps a sister of the cottier, or his wife. It mattered little to the farmer so long as the obligation was fulfilled, and he got his work done.

These cottiers were not highly placed on the social scale, and were much looked down on. At one stage farmers started putting their cottier jobs up for competitive offers. The worker who offered the best service would get the job. This practice was considered unfair, and was declared illegal and abolished.

Cottar houses were largely replaced with stone and lime masonry built replacements of a similar size during the famine period, when landlords and the churches were encouraged, and quite possibly subsidised, to start famine relief schemes. Even though they were late in starting, they must have saved a lot of lives. The schemes were used to build roads, bridges and cut hills by cutting off the top and placing the spoil in the hollow. Barns, byres, and full farmyards were built, as were demesne walls, and farmhouses, provided the farmer provided the roof. Men were employed, quarrying and gathering stone from the land and from rivers, making mortar, carting, labouring, and building, all for food and a few pence to maintain their wives, and dependants. Bondsmen must have fared better than their counterparts who were free and had to provide for themselves and their dependants.

Bondage must have got more popular for a time after the slavery act of 1833. But it later appears to have given way to hiring. Hiring fairs continued until the 1939-45 war. Hiring has been in practice since the reign of Edward the III - 1327 to 1377 and must have existed in parallel with bondage. Hiring was, for most of those employed this way, an experience they were never to forget. Most of them went to good farms, and were properly fed and treated but others were poorly treated, given a very meagre diet, and asked to sleep with the cattle.

Young girls were most pitiful, some were as young as 14 years and as well as being poorly treated, they were almost certainly homesick. But they had to stay and honour their bond for six months. The bond was usually verbal, with a small payment of earnest, called arles-money, or arles-penny. This payment legalised the verbal bond, which was usually for six months. Some men liked their work, and employer, and stayed; indeed it has been known for the hired man to marry the farmer's daughter and eventually inherit the farm.

Wages were one pound per month, less for inexperience, their hours being dawn to dusk.

There are few qualifications connected with bondage or hiring, but hind is one, (definition: 'an agricultural labourer who could be entrusted with a team of horses, in other words a horse- man'). Ploughmen were much sought after and when they became competent they were the elite among their workmates, and were often placed in a position of stewardship. A coachman was also a trusted worker, and paid more than ordinary farm labourers. When driving a team, be it a pair, tandem, or four in hand, they wore a coachman's soft leather apron, white gloves, and a tall hat. Both hind coachman and ploughman were paid more than a ordinary farm labourer, but less than a foreman.

Another branch of bondage was the articled student of most of the professions, and indentured apprentices to a craft or trade. Both article and indenture were legal documents binding on both apprentice and student. Both required a parent or guardian to pay a premium of up to twenty five pounds, perhaps more for the professions, both being bound for seven years. The master was bound to teach his apprentice his whole art and mystery, connected with his chosen craft and treat him properly. In sickness he must provide him with proper medical attention and medicine. The apprentice was to be of good behaviour towards his master and the public, also to be obedient, diligent, and respectful and behave decently and honestly at all times. Any misconduct could mean dismissal, but the infringement must be gross to justify it.

An articled or indentured boy not carrying out his duties properly under the provision of the Employers' and Workmen's Act of 1845 could, by a court of summary jurisdiction, be ordered to perform properly. In default it could fine him or cancel the article or indenture and order repayment or retention of the premium, and award damages up to ten pounds against either boy or master. Articles for the professions were similar to those of apprentices. Young students spent some time with their master before proceeding to college or university, returning at end of term to work with their master. After passing their examinations successfully, they returned finally to the master, to work for a qualifying period, to fulfil their bond, and have their master sign the articles releasing the bond which completed their qualifying period. They became an accountant, doctor, solicitor, etc and could then apply for acceptance to the guild, association, or other body controlling their chosen profession.

Craft and trades appendices were governed by the London Guilds System and could only become members on production of a satisfactory completed indenture, signed by their master, who had to be a member of a guild. This stated that the bond had been completed to his satisfaction. They were then qualified for acceptance to the guild, which allowed them to practise their chosen craft or trade and, after suitable experience, set up in business.

Another little known apprentice was the parish apprentice. These boys were usually orphans and were in parish care. From the age of twelve to the age of twenty one they could be apprenticed to a master. A ruling before 1844 could require a master to take a boy whether he wanted him or not. Two justices could make the order. After 1844 a new ruling empowered two guardians from the board to make the order. They were to see that the boy had reached the age of twelve, was of sufficient height, and that he agreed to be bound and to see also that the master was a proper person to train the boy. Imagine the torture a child could have been committed to if an employer or master did not want an apprentice but had to accept one. The arrangement was liable to be an unhappy one. Who says the old days were good?

Sources

  • The Doomsday Book.
  • Chambers Encyclopaedia 1923.
  • Hutchinson Encyclopaedia.
  • Various old dictionaries.
  • Memory recall of related incidents by old men to me in my youth.