I started work at 15 years old and I had to cycle seven miles from my home to my workplace and to be at work at 7 o’clock in the morning, and I sometimes didn’t finish until seven at night and then had to cycle back home again. So for the first year it was fairly hard in all sorts of weathers. Unfortunately at the end of the first year the owner of the business died and the business collapsed so then I was asked to go and be a farm mechanic, which I did, until the farmer sold the farm and moved to Devon and wanted me to go as well. But I declined the offer – at 16 coming up 17 I didn’t really fancy moving down to Devon and sort of looking after myself. So then I got an apprenticeship at an agricultural engineers and general engineers and I did a five-year apprenticeship.
After that I then moved into pure agricultural engineering, and I worked with a big firm of manufacturers. We made all sorts of agricultural machinery. But in my first year, when I was starting to learn about being an agricultural engineer and blacksmith, we split our time between the machinery workshop and the blacksmith’s forge, and the horses I didn’t mind some of them but some of them I disliked intensely (laughs). It put me off being a farrier. We went to a stud at Pinner, I think it was, and they kept Arab horses and the oldest stallion was a fairly gentle old chap, but one of his offspring was a real mean little perisher. And when we got there he had actually kicked out the side of his loose box. And so I declined to go anywhere near him. But the cart horses were the gentle ones. The only trouble with the cart horses was that if they were in their loose box and you got in alongside ‘em to push them out, if they leant on you, they sort of knocked the wind out of you a bit! But they were lovely horses, they were. We had several farmers round and about who still kept Shire horses and we used to shoe them regularly.
So when was this in time?
1956. Almost opposite the agricultural place, the blacksmiths and agricultural engineers, was a girls’ school. And they used to keep oxen. They had, I think they had four or six oxen, and they used to have to be shod. They were actually thrown on their side to be shod. They wouldn’t lift their legs up like a horse does and they had to be thrown over.
Who threw them over!?
The under-blacksmith. He was about six foot six, and twice as broad. He’d grab hold of their horns and twist their necks until they fell over (laughs). I never seen anybody as strong. He could hold a 14-pound sledge hammer out at the end of the handle and hold it there for about 10 minutes. A 14 pound sledge hammer is fairly hefty, without being on the end of 3 and a half foot handle. He was immensely strong.
From there I went to work on farm. He had been a customer of ours and he wanted a sort of farm mechanic, general help about the place. And I worked there until, as I say, he actually sold the farm, moved down to Devon. His father owned a chair-making factory, in, I think it was Watford and they used to make seats for aeroplanes. But he was not into that business, he was just a farmer. He wanted me to go down to Devon with him, but I didn’t really want to, at sort 16 and a half, 17 years old I really didn’t fancy moving down there and looking after myself. So then I got an apprenticeship at an agricultural and general engineers and I did a five-year apprenticeship, went to college in the evenings, got my indentures, passed some exams, which did me no good whatsoever, as people just wanted experience, not qualifications.
Travelling for the agricultural machinery manufacturer
I did that for a number of years. And then I had the opportunity to go and work for a big agricultural machinery manufacturer and it was a totally different world. We had a factory where we made balers and muck-spreaders and mowers, and we brought in combines from America and after a few years they were eventually made in Belgium. We had a factory in Belgium as well, and one in France at Dijon. They used to make balers, but they weren’t very good. Ours were the best balers where I was.
We used to travel all over the British Isles and some of the things that we encountered on the way were humorous, some of them downright dangerous, but the humorous ones, one of my colleagues, he was over in Ireland, and he was driving down this Irish road in southern Ireland, and there was a combine coming down towards him, and the driver of the combine was frantically on the steering wheel turning it to the right, as if he was going to crash into my colleague in his car. So he without any second thoughts put the car in the ditch and this combine carried on straight past. So after a bit they managed to get the car out of the ditch and my colleague was so irate he turned round and followed this combine until it went into the field. He was going to have a go at him. So he said to the driver, he said “you were steering at me.” And the driver said, “Oh no,” he said, “the steering went wrong on the combine,” he said, “So took this one off the lorry and he said, because the steering is at the back and on the lorry it’s at the front,” he said, “you have to turn the wheel in the opposite direction. So when I turns it right I am going left and when I turns it left, I’m going right.” So that was quite humorous, but I don’t think I should have wanted to have met him!
Were there any dangerous cases?
Yes, there were. I went to several. One of our chaps actually lost an arm in a forage harvester. A forage harvester is a very very dangerous piece of equipment. It’s a piece of kit that cuts grass very short to make silage. The cutting mechanism of it consists of anything from three up to a dozen very very sharp knives. They revolve at very very high speed. Unless you stop the thing from revolving it’s still revolving when you try to unblock and because of the way that the machines are designed it is very easy – the idea is to drag the grass into the cutter head – and this chap foolishly enough, put his arm there and got it dragged in. and that is the end of that.
And another time I went to a farmer down in, I think it was in Hampshire somewhere, and we’d not long had round balers, they’d come from the States. We produced a smaller version. The ones that came over from the States only made one-ton bales, which were very very difficult to manoeuvre, to lift about because there wasn’t the specialised equipment then. So we came up with the idea of making a smaller one, a half-ton baler, which worked very well. Much easier to move, particularly silage bales, they used to make silage – they still do, round bales and wrap them in plastic bags. But the object of the round baler really was not to make silage but for straw bales. The trouble was, and I think this was in 1976 when we had a very very dry year, and the barley straw had never grown really tall. It was quite short and after a week or two in the field it got very brittle. And it was a very difficult job to try and make the baler start the bale off, to actually make the bale dense enough. We came up with various modifications to improve the core of the bale. Anyway we had a call from this farmer down in, as I say, I think Hampshire, to go and see what we could do with his baler to make it bale this barley straw. And when I got to the field I could hear the baler still going, but it was stationery in the field. I thought, “That’s strange.” I drove into the field, pulled up alongside the baler looking for the operator and the chains were still actually going inside the baler, although the tailgate was open. Couldn’t see the operator anywhere, I jumped out the car, and he was in the back of this baler. I did no more, but jumped on the tractor and killed the engine dead. When he got out, he asked me what I was doing, and I told him in no uncertain terms while his boss was there, exactly what I thought of him. He could have been killed. A few weeks beforehand, a chap had actually been killed in one. He’d done exactly the same thing and the tailgate had closed and trapped him inside with the baler still going. He was in there about four hours until the tractor ran out of fuel. And then the people back at the farm wondered where he was and when they got there, there he was mangled up in the back of the baler.
So yeah, there were several cases like that. Agricultural machinery is very very dangerous. As I say, the forage harvesters with their very very sharp knives on are particularly dangerous. We had several people losing fingers and half a hand. I say the one chap lost his whole arm. But they did a good job. The only trouble was that on some occasions, particularly where you’d got a farm that was close to a town, all sorts of rubbish was thrown into the field and the forage harvesters then chopped this rubbish up. You know, even quite thick metal pieces – they were so powerful they would chop it up and then, of course it went into the silage bale and we had one farmer and he’d got a dairy herd and he’d lost seven of his cows because of wire that was chopped up in these bales and of course it had perforated their stomachs and with the cow with their numerous number of stomachs it killed them. And he’s lost seven. So we came up with a metal detector which actually stopped the cutter head as soon as metal got anywhere near it. That was brilliant – I went to one farm where I was so pleased the operator had got two buckets up on the driving platform full of metal. He said, “I have to stop every five or ten feet, but look what I have collected.” He had two buckets full of wire and all sorts of old bits of bicycle, that had been chucked in the fields. So that was a very very good thing to do.
We used to do demonstrations, too, when we got a new machine, we used to take them all over the country. With the forage harvesters, we used to start them in somewhere like Somerset and then gradually work up the country and they were quite good events.
You must have jammed the roads a bit – or were you taking them on trailers?
The forage harvesters usually went on trailers, but we had the biggest combine in the world at one time. That came over from America and we were demonstrating that, we started off in Wiltshire. Then we went up into Gloucester. I always remember that we had a cavalcade coming through the centre of Gloucester with this combine. We had a police car at the front, police car at the back, we had the combine, a land-rover with the trailer behind it, and another car with a caravan which we used as a sort of an office and base, and then a van with all the spares in, all through the middle of Gloucester. I don’t think people were very pleased about that!
We used to do the shows as well, the Royal Show, the Royal Highland Show and the Smithfield Show, and this big convoy we couldn’t actually drive it into London, not on the trailer. We had to take it off the trailer at the end of what was the Western Avenue and then drive it to Earls Court.
How long did that take?!
That was exciting, that was. We did have a police escort though, front and back. (Laughter) That was good fun, that was.
So yes, it quite exciting, the only problem with the job was that I was away a lot, so my children’s birthdays – I don’t think I saw my daughter’s birthday until she was about twelve years old.
That’s not good is it?
No. When you were away, you were away for two, maybe three weeks at a time. We used to do a lot of promotional work as well, like farmer’s evenings when we’d go out round the country and the local dealers would get the farmers to gather in the village hall or the local pub and then we’d give them a talk and a bit of a slideshow on all the new machines, and answer questions about the machines that they’d got. That was quite interesting. Sometimes they could be a bit lively – particularly where some of the farmers had got a machine that hadn’t gone right, and the local dealer didn’t fix it properly. It usually ended up with a visit from us the next day to try and fix his machine for him. It was good public relations.
Yeah, it was a good life in some ways. Wasn’t very well paid, I must admit.
So, how much were you paid when you started working at 15?
I can tell you exactly. Twenty-two shillings a week.
Twenty-two shillings. In fact I think I earned more before I left school than I did when I left school. Before I left school I had a paper round and then I used to work at the bake-house in the evening clearing up all the mess, and on a Saturday morning. I think earned something like 30 shillings a week doing that and twenty two shillings a week when I went to work.
The factory I worked at, the company I worked for, they were an American firm and for some reason best known to themselves, we were the only plant in Europe that actually made a profit, they closed us down. We all went into work one morning and were told to meet in the spare parts department, which was a vast building, and I can remember now, there were seven hundred chaps that worked there.
That’s a lot.
And we all assembled in the parts department, and this yank came in; he stood on a bit of a box and he just said, “You’re all sacked.” Turned and walked out.
Imagine the uproar that there was. I mean some people had worked there thirty-odd years and they were just chucked on the scrapheap. Really good engineers. Yeah.
Is that before they really had unions that fought for them?
Yeah. I in some ways was very lucky because the department I worked in, they needed to keep the service side of it going, to keep what customers we’d got. So I was kept on for another year or eighteen months after all the others had gone. But it was a desolate place. When we went in there in mornings – no more factory work, no more trucks in and out, it was very sad, very sad.
So when I actually finished there, I was lucky enough to get a job at the local agricultural college. They were looking for lecturers in agricultural machinery at the time. I applied and because of the experience I had had – although I’d never been in teaching as such before – I got the job. We used to do teaching. We used to have courses during the winter for our dealers’ people. We used to do machinery courses then back at the farm.
So I got the job as a college lecturer! I couldn’t believe the sort of money I was paid and the sort of money I got. It was absolutely amazing. Seven weeks holiday in the summer and another, I think it was four weeks at Christmas. I couldn’t believe it.
And you still got paid?
You still got paid, yeah. So it was a totally different world. I must admit it was very hard at first, because it was totally different teaching 15-16 year-olds to teaching grown men. Some of the little angels that came I could have got quite cross with. In fact on one or two occasions I did. And I fell short of actually striking anybody, but I did get to learn their pedigree on several occasions. Some of these children they were a total waste of space, total waste of space. It was only because their parents were well off they could afford to get them out of their hair. “We’ll send you to agricultural college. Don’t bother to learn anything while you’re there, and just disrupt everybody else who is learning.” A terrible shame, terrible shame, total waste of people they are.
So which agricultural college was it?
It was at Hampden Hall in Buckinghamshire, near Aylesbury.
I worked there for about nine years, I think it was. Because we were part of the Aylesbury College for some reason that I could never make out, Aylesbury College ran into huge financial troubles. We never did, at Hampden Hall, but for some reason their debt was transferred to us, and we had to close down.
They actually closed the college down, which was a shame because it was the only agricultural college in the area. The nearest one then was in Berkshire. A lot of their equipment actually went over to Berkshire, which I thought was a shame.
At that time I was just over 50 and I thought, well, it’s time for a change of life. So we decided, my wife and I, that we’d move. And because I’d done quite a bit of work in East Anglia we decided to move up here and I got a job at Easton College and I worked there part-time for several years until such time as I deemed it time to retire. That’s how it sort of ended up.
I thought you did quite a lot of travelling abroad at some time?
Yeah. We used to go to Belgium a lot, where we had another factory, and to France. There was another factory there at Dijon, and occasionally into Holland and Germany, Italy.
Were you mending machines then?
It was more of a teaching position. Occasionally we’d take a brand new machine across, especially to somewhere like France or down to Italy, where they grew different crops to what we grow in England. And then the machine would be tested on farms down there. For instance, one of the combines went to Italy, where, strangely enough, they grow rice. The combine was adapted to working rice fields – paddy fields.
In France, one of the combines there was adapted to cut maize instead of where we over here use the forage harvester to cut maize; they actually use a combine to cut it. It wasn’t that successful I don’t think. I think they went back to forage harvesters. Belgium, as I say, we had a plant there where they used to make the combines. They were originally made in America, but then machinery and everything was transferred to Belgium and they made the combines there. They also made round balers. We made the conventional balers in Aylesbury. The balers were actually very successful. One of the best was one of the fastest small balers that’s ever been produced and even today I can still listen out the back here and I can say to my wife, I know exactly what baler that is, what model it is. I can tell by the number of strokes it’s doing how many bales it’s making.
I went to a place down in Wiltshire I think it was, or Gloucester, one of the two. And it was in 1976 again. It was a very very hot year and it was very difficult to make bales with barley straw and we’d adapted the baler to actually do the job. This farmer had bought one of the new balers and they tried it, couldn’t make it bale, and he was bitterly upset about it. The local dealer couldn’t do anything with it and he’d actually left it in his yard. He didn’t want it – he wanted us to take it back. So I went down there and took this modification with me, saw the farmer. He said, “I’m not interested. You can take it away. We’re still using the old one, that’s doing the job.” I said, “Well, look, I’ve come all this way, can I actually give it a try?” “Do what you like,” he said, “there’s a tractor over there”, he said. “I’ll show you when you’ve done. Down the road”.
So I put the modifications on this baler, hitched up the tractor. I followed him down the road to where this old baler was still working, plodding round the field very slowly. So the chap on the tractor, he said he was just going to have his sandwich. It was just about one o’clock.
So I said, “You don’t mind if I give it a go, then.” “Do what you like,” he said, “But that’s still going back.”
I put this tractor into gear and off I went and in an hour I’d done over 700 bales. They’d never seen anything like it in their lives. Every one perfect. And in the end of it the farmer said, “I think you’ve proved that’s a b… good baler.” I said, “I knew it was a good baler, it is just that this straw is a problem. You can leave the modification on it that will still do the job for the other ones, you just have to let the tension off a bit.” So he said, “I think we might give it a try then.” So that was a great success. But the straw is a big problem. If it’s really very brittle it doesn’t hang together. It tends to break up so you can’t consolidate it. They have the same trouble on the continent, we sent the modifications over to them and they modified the balers over there.
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