Worthy of his Hire

As one who has spent her professional life preaching good recruitment practice to managers the Martinmas Hirings of the East Riding piqued my interest. I know I’m a bit late for Martinmas but at least I’m just in the right month.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, one annual recruitment event was the week of  the Hirings where those looking for work on farms gathered to be looked over by those seeking workers.

Farm work provided employment for many youngsters; both boys and girls could start their working lives from as young as twelve or thirteen. Farm servants’ contracts ran for one year from Martinmas Day. Wages were not paid until the end of the year and as they were handed out anyone well-regarded by the farmer would be asked to stay on for another year. Mostly the lads moved on to gain experience.

Those lads that did leave their “spot” took themselves off to the nearest market town where the annual Hiring fair was held. All spruced up and dressed in their best, they stood in the market place, preening, parading and grinning self-consciously whilst the farmers  walked up and down assessing and questioning them.

After a bout of bargaining settled the wage the lads “fastened” themselves for the coming year by accepting a coin, usually a shilling. If the coin was not returned by the end of the day, then a legal contract had been established which could not be broken.

The Hirings were the only time the farm servants had a holiday and once the main business was done, they were ready to rumble. The Hiring towns were crowded with folk, especially young people, all ready for some action. With a year’s wages rattling in pockets, there was shopping to be done, friends to catch up with, debts to be paid and old scores to be settled in the back alleys. After a year, isolated on the farm, seeing the same faces day in, day out, the opportunity to let off a bit of steam was too good to miss. The town’s shopkeepers did a roaring trade as did the pubs and a funfair usually came to town as well to add to the week’s excitement. Providing things didn’t get too far out of hand the local law had the sense to keep away but the week was a sore trial to the local clergy.

The Hirings system continued into the early years of the twentieth century until changes in farming practices brought the system to an end and ended a way of life which, on the whole, had served communities, families and individuals well.


2 thoughts on “Worthy of his Hire

  1. Interesting little piece of social history. As someone who’s worked in recruitment, do you think there’s a lesson in this for modern professionals? It seems like giving a functional event (pay and recruitment) bigger cultural significance probably built up people’s enthusiasm for work, but might also have made it harder to change practices as people locked into traditions. I don’t know what a modern equivalent would be, but it feels like there might be one.

    • I suppose the nearest parallel would be the apprenticeships but with far more legal protection. the whole Hiring system depended on mutual trust and it worked in the ERiding so long because of the high demand for labour and the willingness to evolve the system to suit local conditions. The commitment, rights, responsibilities were mutual and the employer had no power to dismiss or alter the agreed wage. Fairs were effective and efficient – I suppose the equivalent of an assessment centre but they were much more than that. The Hiring system broke up family life yet assisted the transition from child to adult. It gave a whole bunch of adolescents structure, shape, purpose and discipline and channelled their energy. When the Labour Exchanges tried to muscle in on the Hirings, they did no business at all and it wasn’t until the legal regulation of wages together with a number of other factors that the system began to die out .

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