Agricultural gang

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Agricultural gangs historically, groups of women, girls and boys organized by an independent gang-master, under whose supervision they executed agricultural piece-work for farmers in certain parts of England. They were sometimes called "public gangs" to distinguish them from "private gangs", consisting of workers engaged by the farmer himself, and undertaking work solely for him, under his own supervision or under that of one of his men.

The system was long prevalent in the counties of Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, and in a much modified form in The Fens, which lies within some of those counties. The practice dates from the latter years of the reign of George III, when the low-lying, marshy lands surrounding the basin of the wash were being rapidly drained and converted into rich alluvial districts.

The unreformed condition of the Poor Law, under which the support of the poor fell upon each individual parish, instead of a union of parishes, made landlords reluctant to erect cottages on the reclaimed land for the benefit of their tenants. Labour had to be obtained for the cultivation of these new lands. Women, girls and boys, being cheaper than men to employ, consequently made up the majority. The tendency to moral and physical ruin resulting from this nomadic life was so great that an inquiry into the condition of agricultural child labour was included in the reference to the commission on child-labour appointed in 1862, and the results were so startling that the "Agricultural Gangs Act" was passed in 1867, forbidding the employment of any child under eight years old, and of any female under a male gangmaster, unless a female licensed to act as gangmistress were also present.