Employers’ practices of labour discipline can be regarded as a means for limiting workers’ freedom, insofar as they seek to dictate how and when particular tasks are done. Following on from E.P. Thompson, analyses of labour discipline in early modern England have examined how, from the late 17th century, particular employers or firms adopted novel and comparatively impersonal managerial techniques — fines, timesheets, incentive payments, and so forth — to instil a sense of discipline in their workers. Yet notwithstanding such developments, many workers’ experiences continued to be shaped by personalised, hierarchical relations of power and authority well into the 18th century (and beyond). This had implications for labour relations and violence’s role in them. In early modern England, disciplinary violence was not simply an aberration that was inflicted upon some workers by a few ‘cruel’ employers. Rather, it was a structural feature of labour relations, which involved both continuity and change over the course of the period.

The law gave employers considerable latitude to use ‘corrective’ violence against their labouring subordinates — provided such violence was not, in the words of one early 17th-century legal commentator, ‘outrageous.’ I’m currently compiling examples of fatal disciplinary violence: instances in which employers across various sectors, including agriculture and industry, were accused of killing subordinates for their work-related infractions. Workers could be disciplined for various forms of ‘negligence’ — including failure to perform a task correctly; working too ‘slowly’; ‘insubordination’ (verbal or otherwise); working ‘shoddily’; ‘wasting’ material; and using tools in the wrong way. From the 16th through the 18th century, cases of fatal disciplinary violence were prosecuted in criminal courts across the country (although not always successfully).

George Morland, Set of Five, Studies of Labourers (c. 1791 – 1795). Held at Yale Center for British Art. Public Domain.

Here, I’ll give a few examples of disciplinary violence that employers used against agricultural servants and labourers. In each of these cases, statements that were allegedly made by the employers offer revealing insights into their thinking about labour relations. Some cases suggest that masters had a clear sense of when in the day workers should have finished eating and were willing to use violence to enforce time discipline. In May 1654, a Kentish yeoman found that his two agricultural servants had not yet eaten breakfast (the precise time of the morning was not specified). When he told them to hurry and eat ‘for they should goe to worke,’ one replied that ‘it was a holy day and [they] would not worke.’ The other gave no response at all. The yeoman then – by his own admission – told the pair that he would ‘make [them]’ work and proceeded to strike them both with the handle of a pitchfork. Neither of these servants were killed, but they did strike their master after he hit them — which resulted in their being prosecuted at the quarter sessions.

Agricultural workers who attempted to keep their ‘idle’ peers out of trouble could also be disciplined. In 1596, an adult labourer who did agricultural and rabbit-catching work was fatally beaten by his master, Thomas Thoresby, a member of the Norfolk gentry. One day, Thoresby was looking for some of the other labourers he employed and asked the labourer in question where they were. According to multiple witnesses, the labourer knew that his peers were idling — specifically, that they were ‘playing at scales’ in the barn. After the labourer repeatedly told Thoresby that he did not know where they were, he was beaten with a hunting pole and, when this broke, with a ‘crooked pece of wood used for breaking’ mortar, before being struck with a rock that was ‘the bignes of a penny loafe.’ In the midst of this beating, Thoresby made clear the full range of benefits to which he felt entitled as a result of paying the labourer. He rhetorically asked: ‘Doe I geve the bread & drinke & wilt thou not tell me where they are?’ The labourer died a few days later. The outcome of this case is unclear, but Thoresby’s prestige does not appear to have suffered much: a few years later, he was still serving on various county commissions in Norfolk.

Other agricultural servants who displayed a lax sense of time discipline were also punished. In autumn 1764, Nathaniel Simpson had been hired by a farmer in Yorkshire to work for a year, but only lasted five months before a series of beatings culminated in his dismissal from service and, shortly thereafter, his death. The farmer first beat Simpson when he discovered that, at eight one evening, the servant had not yet fed the cattle. A few days later, the farmer beat him again for ‘carelessly’ carrying hay and allowing a ‘great quantity of it to blow away.’ In the second incident, the farmer struck Simpson with a ‘foddering band’ while announcing his intention to ‘take the pennys worth he still wanted in work out of [Simpson’s] skin.’ When the farmer was examined in court, he denied having beaten Simpson in an ‘outrageous manner.’ Rather, like other employers who found himself in this position, the farmer claimed that he beaten him ‘no more than what any master usually gives his servant by way of correction’ and that Simpson’s death could be credited to an unspecified (if conveniently timed) illness.

Examining cases of disciplinary violence and their outcomes offers an alternative way to consider how the early modern English legal system mediated relations between workers and employers. Regarding some aspects of labour relations, historians have demonstrated that the law provided workers with tools to assert their interests. For instance, when workers sought to claim withheld wages, mechanisms were in place to provide them with relatively inexpensive and efficient means to do so. However, although disciplinary violence was another feature of labour relations, I would argue that its status was — in comparison to wage disputes — more ambiguous by contemporary legal standards. By examining disciplinary violence on its own terms and in relation to other genres of labour disputes, we can better appreciate how the legal system could serve workers’ interests in some instances, while reinforcing existing hierarchies and the power relations that went along with them in others.

Hillary Taylor recently has held a Research Fellowship at Jesus College, Cambridge, and a temporary Lectureship in the Cambridge History Faculty. Taylor’s work to date has focused on language and social relations in early modern England; an associated article, which explored the role that socio-economic coercion played in compelling members of the labouring population to testify for their superiors, was published in Economic History Review. Taylor is beginning a new project on ‘workplace’ violence in early modern England and received a PhD from Yale in 2016, supervised by Keith Wrightson.