With almost all farms now mechanized, electronicized and industrialized to a very great extent, there are few who remember that as little as a century ago, they required constant, back-breaking labor from the owner and his farm workers. Only after World War II did automation begin to relieve the burden to a significant extent.
In his book "Life on the Old Farm: From Edwardian Times to the Coming of Mechanization", Tom Quinn brings us interviews with many who lived and worked on farms in England in the "bad old days".
Obviously, social customs and lifestyles differed to some extent between Britain and the USA, but working conditions on farms were often very similar. It's an intriguing insight into a long-forgotten time. Here's a lengthy excerpt from an interview with Will Constance, 92 years old, who'd been a plowman, dairy hand and (later) farm manager.
I’d learned to plough two horses side by side, which is the way we did it in Norfolk, and we used a two-furrow plough. At the ploughing time we were up at six o’clock every day, which is hard on a young boy; but we knew nothing else and got used to it, I suppose. So, we fed the horses first, on chaff and corn ground up and mashed together. That was in the stable, but when we turned them out we fed them hay which was put in the iron ricks for them. At night they were turned out into a walled yard which isn’t done any more and I don’t know why we did it then. But they were always put in the yard rather than in the field or kept in their stalls.
‘I would calculate that in the Scole area there would have been four horses and four men to every one hundred acres of land. That’s a lot of men and horses. And you imagine those numbers going right across Norfolk and probably Suffolk, too – you can imagine how many people there were in the countryside. Not like now, where each farm is lucky if it has one man, and everyone else gets in a car and dashes off to the nearest town to work. The countryside is empty today, compared to what it was when I was a young man, anyway.’
Every point was emphasised with a wave of Will’s great gnarled hands, the hands of a man who had spent virtually every moment of his working life on the land. Horses had been his great love and he was keen to describe exactly how the horseman’s day was organised because, as he said, ‘we shan’t see them no more’.
‘After feeding the horses at six o’clock we’d have our own breakfast in the house – we’d never feed before the horses – and then it’d be time to tackle up. We had different kinds of harness for different jobs. Mostly they’d be leather, of course, but for ploughing we put chains on. I suppose the extra weight helped, although the nature of ploughing depends on the nature of the land. On the right kind of land the horses can walk away with it; on heavy clay land, though, they’d be all of a tremble, and winded halfway up a field. Often they’d stop halfway, and they’d be shaking and blowing, and you’d have to let them rest then. It was hard work even for a great strong horse on these lands. Hard work for the man, too, in all weathers, perhaps with only a sack over his shoulders to keep the rain off and miles to walk behind that plough in a day. Only on light land could you plough an acre a day; on heavy land you’d be put to it to do half or three-quarters, and a man walked fourteen miles with his horses to plough one acre. It was hard work, but I never thought much of it because it was what I had to do. You just had to keep walking and you didn’t think much about anything as you went along.
‘Mind you, if you weren’t skilled at it, your arms would be aching from holding the plough and trying to keep an eye on the horses and keeping straight and level at the same time. A good man would hardly touch the handles or the horses; they’d be a real team and know what they were about, with the horses turning on the headland at a word from the ploughman, and he’d be as straight as a die up the field.’
The skill of the ploughman was a great thing in Norfolk when the horse still reigned supreme, and men would travel miles to enter a ploughing match or to compete against a known champion. Ploughing matches were partly a chance to test one’s skill against all comers, but they were also important social occasions, as Will recalled.
‘Ploughing matches were a great thing round here, here and all over Norfolk. They were judged by men we called “stickers”, who got the name because they carried sticks to mark the furrows. In a drawing match you’d draw one furrow only and the stickers would judge you on that, not on a whole field.
‘We used old Shire horses when I was young. They were fine to work with, but in the 1920s they were gradually replaced by Suffolk Punches. Now they really were powerful great animals, though good-tempered, most of them. They were also cleaner than the old Shire horse, which was all hair, and if you didn’t keep his hairy legs cleaned regularly he got all sorts of problems and went lame. And in the field while he worked he could get so bogged down with mud that he almost couldn’t move, and we’d have to stop in the middle of the field to hack the mud off him to keep him going. So the Suffolk Punch was bound to take over. Yes, they were a big improvement.’
Ploughing was just one part of the horses’ work: there was also carting; harrowing and sowing, though these tasks were less arduous than ploughing, as was hoeing which was also done with horses.
‘We used horses to hoe the corn when it had just come up; with horse-hoeing, the man led with the horse coming behind. The main crops in my youth were wheat, barley and oats, and oats were very important because we used them for feed for the cows, sheep and horses. We also grew beans and peas. Today, of course, the farmers grow what the European Union tells them to grow and nothing else, and there’s little skill in it. Plenty of chemicals, plenty of machines and that’s it; not much skill at all. And not much effort either, though I suppose that has to be a good thing.
‘There were a lot more cattle here in the twenties and thirties, too. When I moved to Denton in 1942 there were twenty-two people working there; now there are three. Then I was at Street Farm, a name I always thought rather funny because there was very little in the way of a street running by the farm then. It had just forty acres, and we kept sixteen cows and a hundred pigs. I was married by this time, and when my son and daughter had grown up a bit they helped me. Farmers never took holidays in those days, they just couldn’t, and it was a hard life by today’s standards, I suppose. I took five weeks holiday in total in my ninety-two years.’
There was no bitterness or envy in Will’s account of his early farming days; as he said himself, he grew up at a time when you accepted your lot, when Church and state and everything you knew or came across emphasised the impossibility of avoiding your fate. If your father was a land worker or a farmer, then ninety-nine times out of a hundred that’s what you would be, and it was almost sinful to think of anything else. And a boy would learn the rudiments of agriculture as they had always been learned, not in any formalised way, but simply by watching and doing simple tasks until he was ready for more. It was a system honoured simply by long usage.
‘Yes, I learned how to farm mostly by watching other people. When I was very young I remember my father gave an old farm-worker sixpence to look after me and show me what to do. But all my family had been farmers or farm-workers for centuries and I suppose I was born to it. It just seemed to come natural to me. My father managed four farms in all, and we lived at one of the four, Rose Farm where I was born. When the owner died he wanted Dad to take over Rose Farm, which reluctantly he did. My mother died in 1924, but death was an everyday occurrence then, with little medicine and few doctors and no science; I don’t think the doctors knew much at all about anything much. When the man I worked for died in 1922 I went back to work for my father. Then I got a job as a cowman at Stanton, where I got a house with the job and had about twenty cows a day to milk. It all seems very small beer now, I know, but all the farms then, like the fields themselves, were small and a man made a living, not a fortune, on a farm.’
Once he was living in his own house, Will took stock of his situation and resolved to raise enough money to rent his own farm, even though it was a rare thing in those days for a farm-worker to earn more than the absolute minimum necessary for survival. And even as he dreamed of his own farm, the long working days continued; his overriding memory of winter was always of ploughing and of the harshness of the weather.
Summer memories were very different.
‘My strongest memory of summer is of milking the cows and the heat, the sweat in my eyes and the flies everywhere. And of course the cows in a mood and spinning about and kicking when you tried to milk them. I was the cowman at Denton for about three years, after which I seem to recall I was much in demand, for some reason. Whatever was behind it, there were plenty of farmers willing to offer me a job – they all seemed to want my services!’
Will laughed: ‘I chose the farmer at a place called Dickleburgh, not so far from Scole, where the job was to manage about a hundred acres owned by a butcher. Part of my pay was the chance to work an allotment of land, free of rent. That was a real chance then, because in the thirties farming had no money in it at all, and if I’d had to pay anything to have that bit of an allotment there’d have been no point in taking it. I cleared it of weeds – it hadn’t been touched in years – and I got a little money by cultivating it in my spare time. I used to work all day on the butcher’s farm, and then pull up my own beets at night by hand; I’d be at it all night with often no sleep for a week. I was there from 1922 until 1942, when I was able to take Street Farm.
‘I was always very much a one-man band, and a very small farmer by today’s standards, and, as I’ve said, I only ever had my son and daughter to help. My rent in my first year at Street Farm was £28 for the half year – farm rent was paid in April and October, at Lady Day and Michaelmas. I had nothing much at all when we moved to that farm, a few sticks of furniture, a bed and little else. But my wife was able, and soon got what little we had into manageable shape.’
Although it was clearly a hard life, Will at last had a place of his own, and there was just a little more time for the pleasures of life. ‘When we were young and first married it wasn’t all work, and although there was no television or radio and we never went anywhere, everyone else was in much the same boat – except the toffs, of course – so it didn’t matter much. I remember we played dominoes and draughts as children, but none of the houses had much light then, or heating, just a big old fire and a few candles or oil lamps a bit later on, so it was cold and dark; but I don’t remember being particularly uncomfortable, and you had to go to bed early anyway, to be up early to work.
My father and mother were "city folk", born just after World War I in England; but they were both familiar with the countryside that Will Constance describes. My father, who served in the Royal Air Force during World War II, used to describe military airfields laid out among the farmlands in eastern England. Due to the war effort, and the scarcity of land to devote exclusively to military use, farmers often used to work the land immediately adjacent to airfields, and sometimes even actually on the airfield. Every crop that could be harvested in England meant that less food had to be imported through the U-boat blockade, so it was literally a matter of life and death for the farmers to be as productive as possible. My father described draft horses standing patiently with their farm implements, waiting for a stream of heavy bombers to take off or land. As soon as the aircraft movements ceased, the horses went back to work alongside the runways.
It's sobering to read accounts of that way of life, and then to consider those who boast of their "independence" in their survivalist redoubts far from cities. "If the SHTF, we'll be all right - we'll hunt for meat and grow our own food!" Trouble is, to grow a reasonable amount of food requires either a tractor or horses, to pull farm implements (not to mention fertilizer, a ready supply of workers, and so on). Fuel is likely to run out, and draft horses are now an object of curiosity in "living history" museums. Injuries were frequent on old-fashioned farms, with little in the way of hospitals or medical care facilities to help; and death at a relatively young age was not uncommon. Conditions were so demanding that farmhands used to literally work themselves into an early grave! I somehow suspect that many ardent survivalists haven't thought this all the way through . . .