Working Lives

Side by side on the land: Riding the binders, cutting the corn – David (1936-1987)

Location: Norfolk

David and his twin brother John began working on the farm in 1936, at the age of 14. It was a hard life but a good one.

Early days

Our first job, when we left school in 1936, was at the Murton Webbs in Knettishall carting sugarbeet. We biked eleven mile out, eleven mile home to Kilverstone. Poor old Mother couldn’t afford to buy us a bike each so we went and hired one to get us to work. It didn’t cost much to hire a bike. Mother wouldn’t let us have a good new one till we earned enough, put a little by till we got a good ‘un. Mother got us one right cheap. I can see it all now – old bicycle weren’t worth tuppence but we had to have it to get to work on. We’d get punctures along the way but you used to bump along on flat tyres – I can see it all now. The roads weren’t like they are today. We set off at five o’clock, we had to start work at six, worked till four. We used to have to scrap along like hell to get there. We couldn’t afford to stop. If you were a minute late, getting there in the morning, you had to lose a quarter of the day’s pay. We were just fourteen when we started. Got paid ten and fourpence a week. We gave Mother ten shillings and we had the fourpence to spend on ten Woodbines, two packets of five. I smoked then, but I packed it up a long while. We were carting sugar beet off in 1936 for two years, working with horses, riding the top of the horse, doing everything like that. We done the harvest work and leading the horses. Suffolk horses, we deal with big Shire horses on the sugar beet. We used to lead the horses for the man on the hoe. We worked two year there at Murton Webbs, Knettishall. When we were carting sugar beet off we had a pair of horses and tumbrels, pulling the sugar beet off till the tumbrels were filled and we towed them to the hill and put them in a clamp.

Kilverstone Hall and Weasenham Farms

We left there in 1938, got another job nearer home. We went to Kilverstone Hall with Lord Fisher. We worked at odd times with horses, with Sam, the horse orderly, but we were working with asparagus there. That was before the war, we were cutting asparagus with eighteen men. we cut asparagus in the season and we done that there till the war started. We got paid thirteen odd shillings a week. We were horse hauling there but when the asparagus season come on, from April till June, that was all we did, before the war. We did that till we came over to Weasenham Farms in April or May 1940.

After that the farm Dad worked for, the lease was up, so we had to move from there and we came to Spall in May 1940. We worked for Weasenham Farms – same jobs, riding the top of a horse – when you’re topping the hay up. the man behind was riding the top of the horse. They grew a lot of cocksfoot, that was maize for the army for explosives. We were binding that and used to thrash it, we used to shock it, four in a shock – two that way and two that way and you tie the shocks up so the wind didn’t blow the seed out. We done that with about eighteen men. We done that for several years. We went on tractors after that. We were doing that all during the war. We used to go in there, lift the sugar beet off the land for carting to Swaffham Station, ten shillings an acre. When we chopped sugar beet we were in a gang, might be ten or a dozen of us.

At harvest time, we young chaps used to leave the old people ‘cos we had to do a lot of corn carrying, carting it off the fields into the barns. Oats was twelve stone, barley was sixteen and wheat and rye was eighteen stone. Carrying whatever you were threshing. You used to have that across your shoulders, two of you. We were about eighteen, nineteen then, at Spall, on Weasenham Farms. That was a big company and we were with the horses there. Us young lads at harvest time, we used to ride the binders, cutting the corn and when it was to thrash, we used to carry it and put it in the barns. People say, about carrying the corn, “we couldn’t carry about sixteen, eighteen stone”. Well I say ‘we had to do it, we had to do it’. We used to come home on nights when our backs would be raw and poor old Mother washed our backs. That was a very tough life at harvest time, thrashing, carrying the corn. We did that till 1960 and then we had a change.

I did a bit of sheep shearing at Weasenham Farms, only for two years. Joe Norman taught me all about my sheep. The contracting people, they went bust and so my mate, Joe, said “will you help me out if I do the sheep”. I said “do you want me”? He said “I don’t want nobody else, only you”. I said, “Well Joe, if I can satisfy you I’ll help you”. And for two years we done it. We used electric clippers, grind off an engine. We got paid so much a score, and I never would have done that if I’d known it was going to do this to me. Look what it’s done to me. (shows his misshapen right hand). That’s holding a pair of clippers all day. You couldn’t wear gloves. If you done a hogging flock you would shear eight or nine an hour. If it was a ewe flock that had lambed, you could walk through them. A hogging flock is the males that have been castrated – terrible old things, but you go on the ewe flock that was good clipping, wonderful clipping

Weasenham Farms were wonderful people but they started getting rid of people, there were so many of us there. So me and my brother, we say “well, we’ll get another job”. We went to work for the dearest and best old boss we ever worked for, D.H. Sanderson at Bodney Hall. He’d always come and have a talk to you. If you weren’t satisfied, tell him, that’d be done. We were chopping the sugar beet, washing and doing carrots and parsnips. I was a drill man when I was at Weasenham Farms and D.H. Sanderson found my history. He come to me one day and said will I go and do his drilling, his sugar beet and parsnips and carrots “I’ve now found your history out. I’ve now been to Weasenham Farms where you was working and they told me you had ten years there drilling, will you do mine?”. I’d been drilling on it all my life at Weasenham Farms but I didn’t want to do it but did it for the old man and were were ever so happy there, but then the dear old man died.

 You had to take what comes in them days. I can always see it now, I was up Weasenham Farms, one day, a Wellington bomber crashed, two fields over. I had a horse on a lead, when two fields away, I could see his plane go, all of a sudden, down it went, he crashed. The crew was burned to death.

Working with horses and then combines

My favourite thing, when I was on the land, was chopping the sugar beet. It was piecework there – what you done, you got paid for. That might be an extra pound a week, it might be thirty shillings a week but you got a bit extra money. There wasn’t a lot there to spend it on by the time you’d gone home and paid your mother for board and lodgings. I had three sisters, another brother and my twin brother. My eldest brother worked on the land with us all the time. Dad was a head horseman. There wasn’t tractors about then. When we were up Weasenham Farms they had five teams of horses up there. We had a good lot of horses. I can’t pick out any favourites. I generally had four or five teams up Top Farm. They were lovely old creatures. They were always Shires and Percherons. They were fairly big. I can see the head man, Jimmy Clark, he had a lovely team of Percherons. I was water-carting ten water carts, ten engines and the poor old mare in the water cart, she pulled off her harness, carting water, and was pinched between these engines. They had a blacksmith on the farm. If anyone wanted shoeing you see him in the morning before you went to work. He’d soon tack the shoe on. After the war, they brought in tractors and the combines. We drove some of the first combines ever come into the country from America. They were all Massey Harris trade ones. They come in boxes. We helped to build them up. We had someone show us how to use them. They had no cabs, nothing on then, you know. The people who come, who helped build them up, showed us what to do and how to maintain them after they’d gone.

Hard winters

I remember the hard winter of 1947. We were still at Weasenham Farms. The shed where we was lambing, there was so much snow we had to get up one night, keep the pens clean where the ewes were lambing. We didn’t lose many. Poor shepherd Hughes was in a muddle with Herman Hill keeping the panic the ewes were in. 1947 was a bad winter but 1962-63 was worse. That was sharp, that wasn’t the snow. We were with D.H. Sanderson at Bodney. We took the tractor out and the frost froze the diesel up in the tractors. Rather him stand us off, in that sharp wind, during that weather, he said “will you do the river out?”. He found a job all through that sharp weather. We done the river and poor old man, he used to come and see us, see how we were getting on. We had chain saws going. There was a lot of trees in the river. So he got us to do the river out while that sharp weather was on. He was a wonderful old boss, D.H. Sanderson. If you’re not working, you’re not making any money. He said “I might have to stand you off. If you do the river out I might be able to keep you going”, and bless his old heart, we done the rivers out. There was us three brothers, me and the other brother and John. He kept us going all through that and it went on for weeks and weeks and weeks. He was a lovely gentleman.

Entertainment and days off

For our packed lunch, you might have a bit of bread and cheese, bit of bread and meat, stuff like that. We always had a hot meal when we got home at night. She was a midwife – she done a lot of that work. We went to work on bicycles. You never had another way then, till we got up at Weasenham Farms and then us three boys got a motor car. An old Ford 8. We never had it long, that conked out. Then we got a Morris 8.

We used to come to Swaffham Picture House, about twice a week. Eight pence. I can see it all, all them days come back. Anything we wanted to see, get out of the way for an hour. Poor old mother, I can see her now. All of us would get together at Christmas. Mother always used to get goose for Christmas. When we started on the land there was no holiday at all. You get half a day on Christmas Day. We had to go to work in the morning, help to feed the cattle. You go and see the stockman, that’s when he tell me you get half a day off. And then we got three days’ holiday, and that comes so we got a weeks’ paid holiday. Never went away, couldn’t afford to go away. So I used to go to work again, get some more money. Money was short in them days. Good luck to young people nowadays. People come to me, say they get seven pound an hour. When I was working I never got seven pound a week, never mind an hour. They say they’ve got to have computers, or a mobile phone, I wouldn’t know how to use a mobile phone.

Americans, Land Army girls and Paddies

Airmen were where Pickenham airfield is now, we broke that up during the war and we hadn’t had two crops of oats so far, they come along and commandeered it and made it into an airfield. During the war we had two hours extra so you went to work in the daylight. They added a second hour to make it lighter so you had extra time on the land. In winter times you used to work fifty hours and fifty two hours in summertime and that was throughout the country. Now it’s a forty-eight hour week.

 We had Land Army girls with us. They used to work the horses as well as we did. All good girls, I can see all them now. They came from anywhere in the country, all through the war. They stayed in lodgings in the villages, they took them in. We had about three at Weasenham Farms, very good girls. During the war, sugar beet season, several Paddies used to come over from Ireland. They were funny lads. Had many a laugh with the paddies. They used to come into our shed, doing the pulling job with sugar beet. We needed extra workers for winters for pulling tops of sugar beet, but now they’ve got all this big machinery, there’s no-one pulling tops of sugar beet tops nowadays. They were good boys. Some of them came back every year. All over East Anglia.

My best times were at Bodney Hall. D.H. Sanderson was the best boss we ever did have. We went to his for Harvest Festival and there’s everything laid on you want. We got done harvest and he come to us, all workers, and he said “can you come to Bodney Hall tonight? We got the Harvest Horkey.” Everything laid on, a drop of drink, a meal laid on, and a film show what we done through the harvest. On certain jobs, he come with a camera and film us while we were working. He always come and have a talk to you when he was out, bless him.

That was hard work but I had a happy life. I hope this will open a lot of people’s eyes, they can see how we had to carry on.


David Smith (b.1922) talking to WISEArchive on 31st July 2017 in Swaffham.

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