Turnip Shepherd

Among last month’s stories was a list of unusual occupations noted in the 1881 census. There was an interesting response to this, with some readers suggesting the occupations were not real. One particular job drew the most attention - that of the turnip shepherd.


Surprisingly enough, turnip shepherd was a genuine occupation. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives a rare definition of ‘turnip’ as a verb: ‘Feed or fatten (sheep) on turnips.’ A turnip shepherd was thus someone who prepared turnips and fed them to sheep while attending to other shepherding tasks.

There are a number of references to shepherds, sheep and turnips in agricultural texts from the mid-19th -early 20th centuries. The term ‘turnip shepherd’ is rare, but does appear in newspaper advertisements of this period.

Turnip roots

The above reference to a Turnip shepherd appeared in an advertisement in the Driffield Times of 20 December 1890 (page 1).

The Driffield area seems to have been notable for the existence of turnip shepherds. A 28 year old Frank Dobson was indeed recorded in the 1881 England census working as a turnip shepherd. Coincidentally this was in the Driffield area - in Tibthorpe Wold, Tibthorpe, Driffield, Yorkshire East Riding (ref. RG11/4795/65, page 14). Frank had been born in Tibthorpe.

He was working for 57 year old William Piercy, a Farmer of 300 acres employing 5 labourers & 2 boys. Frank Dobson was given accommodation on the farm and was recorded with William, farmer's wife, Judith Piercy, their children (William H Piercy, Eliza Piercy, Michael H Piercy, Louisa F Piercy, George H Piercy), servants (Clara Smith, Mary Wharram, John Clark, Frederick Wilkinson, Tom Shepherdson, James Hart, and James Spenceley).

Another reference can be found on page 3 of the East & South Devon Advertiser, 25 January 1902. Although it is clear that there was an occupation of turnip shepherd, there is more that could be learned about the role and its occupants over the years.

  • The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary
  • Driffield Times, 20 December 1890 
  • East & South Devon Advertiser, 25 January 1902
  • 1881 Census entry of Tibthorpe Wold, Tibthorpe, Driffield, Yorkshire East Riding (ref. RG11/4795/65, page 14)
Notes and comments

Please contact Emma Jolly for more information about this article

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