Agricultural Labourers

Agricultural labourers on a Cambridge farm, 1909 (AOT, PH30/1/4245)

Among early agricultural labourers in Van Diemen's Land were convicts. The first land grants to settlers were made in 1804, and grants steadily increased until the 1830s by which time the best agricultural land had been alienated. Landowners were assigned one convict for every one hundred acres granted to them. Unfortunately, many convicts had no knowledge of agricultural or pastoral work. Wages were low and working hours long, especially in summer. The relationship between employer and employees (convicts and emancipists) was controlled by the restrictive English Master and Servant Act. Many landowners with families had the bonus of wives and children contributing to the running of their farms. In 1825 the pastoral company, the Van Diemen's Land Company, introduced its own indentured servant scheme as a means of attracting tradesmen and labourers to its large north-west land grant. In 1847, a third of the Tasmanian workforce were agricultural labourers.

With the cessation of transportation in 1853, immigration schemes were established in an effort to attract suitable agricultural workers to Van Diemen's Land. They were employed as ploughmen, sowers, reapers, threshers, shearers, shepherds and herdsmen. They also built fences, collected firewood, dug drains and removed weeds. Generally, the life of the farm labourer was one of poverty and movement, roaming the countryside in search of work which often came as short periods of employment during the planting and harvest seasons. His only possessions were his clothes and tools. Rural workers also included the domestic servants, mostly female ex-convicts. They were employed as housekeepers, maids and cooks; the males as grooms, coachmen and storemen.

During the twentieth century, increasing mechanisation meant far fewer agricultural labourers were needed, though gradually their pay and conditions improved. In 1998, agricultural labourers formed less than 2 percent of the workforce.

Further reading: S Morgan, Land settlement in early Tasmania, Cambridge, 1992; S Breen, 'Farm labour, petty law and idle vagabonds', Australian Studies 16/1, 2001.

Margaret Harman