Story of nineteenth century farm workers is brought to big screen

Doddington based production company Shadowcat are making a film about the Bondagers based on a story by Dinah Iredale it is being directed by Alysoun Sharpe
Doddington based production company Shadowcat are making a film about the Bondagers based on a story by Dinah Iredale it is being directed by Alysoun Sharpe

THe gruelling day-to-day grind for nineteenth century female farm workers is being brought to life by Doddington-based film production company, Shadowcat.

Filming for ‘Bondagers’ is now complete with the final product set to hit big screens locally later this year. The script is based on a book by Doddington’s Dinah Iredale, which was published by the Glendale Local History Society in 2008.

Dinah had spent years researching the historical Bondage farming system that was prevalent in this area in the nineteenth century. Elements of her research revealed dramas of the day which she felt would lend themselves to film, and she adapted the story into a script. Financial backing from the Northumberland National Parks Fund helped her get the project off the ground.

“All the filming is finished and it’s in editing now, that will take some time but we’re hoping it will be done around the end of May,” Dinah said. “We will have a premier for the people that have taken part and then we are going to screen it after that.

“We filmed in some fantastic locations; Kirknewton, West Newton and Paxton House. And the actors have been a great group, so it’s been wonderful for me to see it come to life.”

‘Bondagers’ tells the story of the women workers in the days when farming relied on hard manual labour. The bondager system was a form of employment contract once common on farms in Northumberland and south-east Scotland.

Agricultural improvements in the early nineteenth century resulted in large, labour-hungry farms. To guarantee a labour supply, a regular male farm labourer, known as a hind, had to supply a female outdoor worker as part of his employment bond. She could be a relative, such as wife or daughter, or an unrelated independent woman.

This female worker – the bondager – was normally hired by the hind for a year and lived in his cottage, but she was paid directly by the farmer for the days she worked in the fields. Bondagers often had the worst of all worlds - the hardest work for the least return - and were poorly regarded by the hinds, who saw them as an encumbrance which had to be paid out of their own small wages.

The system guaranteed a labour supply in regions where farms were isolated and the local population was scarce, and although it had changed considerably by the end of the nineteenth century, it did not finally die out until after the Second World War.

Dinah began researching the bondagers and their way of life back in the 1970s when, as a young teacher in Coldingham, she was first introduced to the concept. “I was interested then and have been researching this way of life ever since,” she admitted. “This is my passion, it’s sort of turned into a life work because I have known about these ladies back to the 1970s.

“I find it fascinating - I was brought up on a small farm in Yorkshire and we were expected to help, so I feel a great empathy for these women. I’ve always been hooked by the clothes they wore too, I worked hard to source the right costumes for the film,” she continued. “I got some of them from the Northumberland Theatre Company, some from Kelso and some from The Maltings. It took quite a while but the end result was worth it.”

By the mid 1800s the bondage system had come to be seen as iniquitous: protests were loud and largely carried out through the medium of the local press. Described in detail in Dinah’s book, the press coverage of bondagers displays many facets of nineteenth century life and attitudes. She began to think it would make a good subject for a film in early 2010.

“In 1886 there was a big push by the hinds to get rid of the bondage system. It was quite a dramatic time in the countryside on both sides of the border, which I felt lent itself to drama and film,” she said. “There was a lot about it in the press at the time and we have a Gilbert Turnbull and William Campbell who were quoted then in the film, speaking the lines that were in the newspaper. The film is basically a day in the life of those involved in 1866.

“We have got gentry talking about the situation and we have got hinds and bondagers too so there’s lots of takes on what was happening.”

Dinah is now looking forward to the release of the film, which is directed by Alysoun Sharpe and stars actors from both sides of the border.

“We put out feelers to every drama group we could find and we ended up with actors from Eyemouth, Kelso, Wooler, Belford and Alnwick,” Dinah said. “We gathered them all together, there’s about 20 actors in it all together and they’re a great group.

“People seem to have really enjoyed the project, which is a credit to Alysoun Sharpe who directed it,” Dinah said.

“I don’t know anything about filming so she has guided me through this project - I have great admiration for the way she’s organised it, everything ran extremely smoothly.”