Bondagers in Berwickshire and Roxburghshire


One of the fascinating things about looking at old censuses is the glimpse that you get into a world which has entirely disappeared. Return to around 1860 and large numbers of rural women and girls were working as bondagers in a system peculiar to the Eastern Borders and Northumberland. A married ploughman (known as a hind) would require to engage another person willing to work long hours in the fields in order to get a contract of employment with a farmer. This was normally a woman. It could be his wife, daughter or a complete stranger. In the case of a stranger being taken on, the hind was required to provide bed and board for the woman and pay her for work done. This ancient feudal system was deeply unpopular with the hinds who felt they got a raw deal. They often only had one room for the whole family and the bondager to live in and were expected to provide her with food and clean her clothes too.  After much unrest in the middle of the 19th century, matters came to a head in 1866 and finally the system of bondage started to be done away with, with the woman continuing to work hard outdoors, but with a direct contract of employment with the farmer. They were then normally referred to as ‘out workers’.

One notable feature of the bondager was the distinctive costume that they wore with extravagant hats and often colourful skirts and wraps. The costume continued beyond the end of the bondage system and could be seen in Border fields up until the period between the 2 World Wars. More information on The Bondagers website.

If you had ancestors who were agricultural labourers in the arable fields of Berwickshire or Roxburghshire in the 19th century then its quite likely that they will have been involved in this system. The census enumerator doesn’t always use the term ‘bondager’ but when you find a record of a family of agriculural labourers apparently with an unrelated servant girl living with them, then that is very likely to be a bondager household.

[photo shows bondagers and hinds in Lowick, Northumberland from]

9 thoughts to “Bondagers in Berwickshire and Roxburghshire”

  1. As the son of a bondager I very much appreciated looking through your website I found it most enjoyable. My mother was I think a bondager for her father at Berrington farm near Ancroft Berwick-upon-Tweed Don’t think she was one for my father though a hind at mardon near Branxton where I was born may 1937 I know that she did not seem to think much of the position as she was reluctant to talk about it one thing I do know is that she hates working in the summer months as it gave her a tan hence the bonnet’s !

    1. Dear Jim,

      My name is Miwa, I live in Hawick and am currently working as Musician in Residence with Alchemy Film and Arts. As part of this I am hoping to write a piece of music inspired by local agriculture so am doing research about food growing and agriculture traditions in the Scottish Borders.

      I am researching Bondagers at the moment and have just come across your comment. You’re the first person I’ve found who has a direct family connection with a Bondager and I’m wondering if you’d be available to meet either online or in person so that I could hear what you have to say about it!

      Look forward to hearing from you!

      All the best,

      1. Dear Miwa
        I have recently moved to Northumberland and saw a small exhibition about Bondagers in a church we visited.
        I am an artist working with Textiles and would like to explore Bondagers for a new project I have in mind.
        Just starting out with the research I came across your message on this site and wondered how your research went and if you are prepared to have a conversation with me.

        Kind regards
        Barbara Powell-Jones

  2. Jim I’m very pleased that someone like yourself with a real connection to a bondager has found this site. Although, as your mother apparently felt, it was not something to be celebrated,it certainly deserves to be remembered as a unique and tough way of life for a young girl.

    1. My father was bonded to his uncle in Lauder by his parents as my grandfather was very ill. It was September 1928. He ran away home but was returned, by the police my aunt told. He eventually ran away to Northumberland where the bond was not enforceable.

  3. I was speaking to the East Lothian cousin of my step-fathers’farmer boss the other day,and he informed me I was a bondager
    in the sense that an informal agreement was made between the two parties that then 9years old me should work
    in the fields and Bob as dairyman(his ‘caree’started as a bothyboy Rora by Peterheid,and he had applied for this job as a step up from a Perthshire job.
    I worked on Satudays and all school holidays,often with the women wearing their Uglys to protect from the cauld harsh climate.This work continued till I was 14 0r 15.I happy to talk to art project folk.

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