Kirknewton's fascinating history
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In the 18th, 19th and early 20th century many female agricultural workers could be seen working in the fields in South East Scotland and Northumberland. They were part of the Bondage System and were known as bondagers. The workers made an agreement or bond to work for a year and this gave a stability not seen in other parts of the country where workers were often day labourers. The quality of the work they did was admired by people from other areas. Each hind (a married ploughman) was expected to provide a female worker to shear the corn at harvest and do other work on the farm. She could be his wife or daughter, another female relative or a stranger from the hirings. It was quite a burden on the hind as he had to pay her wage in advance and then recoup the cost from the work she did. The system had its roots in feudal times but the fact that it lasted so long suggests that it worked reasonably well. The growth of towns, the industrial revolution, improved education and voting rights all contributed to the questioning of the system in the mid 19th century. The work was physically very hard for everyone before mechanisation and the bondagers were particularly appreciated for their skills in reaping and in singling turnips. Above all they were memorable for the costume they wore. This included skirts of hardwearing material, blouses, shawls, wimples or head cloths and most magnificently a decorated black straw hat. Donald Scott of Caistron, after visiting Glendale in 1939, referred to the costume as 'the last remaining peasant costume in England'. Although the full system was no longer in place the costume was retained by the field workers. In Kirknewton and the surrounding area there were many women wearing the costume into the 1920s and 1930s. Bella Lockhart (nee Hall) who started school in 1924 and her sister Nancy Collins who started school in 1933 both remember the bondagers. They walked to school from Lanton Mill over a plank bridge and then through the fields to Post Office Lane and along to the school. They both said 'if there were workers in the fields there would be as many bondagers as men. They had a special sort of "funny hat" as it seemed to us children and a long skirt'.
A documentary about the Bondage System was filmed locally with West Newton farmsteading providing a stable yard and cottage settings and West Kirknewton Farm providing a quiet lane. A photograph taken at Kilham, 2 miles from Kirknewton shows the number of bondagers working on the farm there in the early part of the twentieth century. Further information can be found on www.thebondagers.com