The Ag. Labs. Union

The National Union of  Agricultural Labourers & Rural Workers

Nesda Gray remembers (in letter to Radio Norfolk about village memories):
The first Sunday in July every year was a big day called Demonstration Sunday. The New Buckenham Band would play and march from the Swardeston Dog [pub] to Mulbarton Common for a big meeting. Mr. Emms and his three sons all played in the band - they lived in Birchfield Lane. At 8 o'clock most of the crowd would drift to the World's End or Tradesman's Arms.

When I was a lad things were bad for everyone engaged in agriculture and it was at this time that George Edwards was active in forming the 'Agricultural Workers Union'. Unemployment was rife and if a farm worker spoke up for his rights he was victimised - often by his workmates - with the result that he would more often lose his job and worse still be turned out of his tied cottage..... George Edwards rose from being a farm worker to a Member of Parliament. I well remember going to his meetings on a Sunday on Mulbarton Common and Burston Green as well as other places. This poor, undersized man was very religious; he was a Primitive Methodist and always opened and closed his meetings with a prayer and a hymn with a local Silver Band providing the music and in this area it was mostly the New Buckenham Silver Band (above).           Roy Riches in his book on Harleston  

Cynthia Goward adds (on Radio Norfolk Village Voice, 25 July 1982):
A 'Labour Conference' (sic) was held every year on the Common for farm labourers for Sunday afternoon and evening. I remember George Edwards spoke there once.

These rallies seem to have continued for many years: the Mulbarton branch had its own banner (now in the Norfolk Rural Life Museum, Gressenhall - see below) and the County banner was also paraded. These marches were certainly held in Mulbarton up to the 1960s.

During World War I farm-workers were in a strong position to negotiate for better wages and conditions. Both labour and farm horses were in short supply due to the war and there was had been a series of poor harvests. Bringing in soldiers and POWs to help with the harvest was very unpopular - especially as it kept wages depressed. A strike threat in 1915 led to an historic meeting between representatives of the Union of Agricultural Labourers and farmers, resulting in a wage rise and union recognition. 

George Edwards, from Fakenham, was leader of the Union, and Norfolk was particularly heavily unionised. In 1916, Mr. Edwards appealed to women to help with the harvest - though farmers were not particularly keen to employ women. The women themselves were not keen on agricultural work - those who could get to towns or cities could get better-paid work in factories, transport and hospitals.

1917 was a year of shortages because of poor harvests and the German U-boat blockade. The Board of Agriculture tried to improve supplies through its Food Production Department by encouraging new crops (such as sugar beet) and mechanisation with tractors from the USA. In August 1917, the Corn Production Act led to guaranteed minimum prices for 6 years, minimum wages for farm-workers and an Agricultural Wages Board with representatives of both employers and worker. These measures helped to stabilise prices. To help with labour, farm-workers were among the first to be demobilised in 1918, along with mineworkers and transport workers.
(Information based on 'Land and Labour' by Nicholas Mansfield in 'Norfolk & Suffolk in the Great War', Gerald Glidden (ed), pp.74-7. Norwich: Gliddon Books 1988)

George Edwards was nicknamed 'the farm worker's friend'. He was founder and President of the National Union of Agricultural Labourers until 1928, when he was succeeded by his agent, Edwin Gooch of Wymondham. He campaigned tirelessly on behalf of farm-workers during World War I. He frequently toured South Norfolk, speaking at workers' rallies (above and below, on Mulbarton Common 15th July 1917).  He won the South Norfolk by-election as a Labour candidate in 1920, and was re-elected at the 1923 general election to become part of the first Labour Government. He supported farm-workers in the 'great strike' of 1923, when he was aged 73.