Working Lives

A Foulsham Farmer (1930s-1980s)

Location: Foulsham, Norfolk

Eric was a farmer born and bred, although he had to work in Barclay’s Bank for some of his life!

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I was born at Bates Moor Farm, Foulsham. My Great Grandfather went there in 1851. It went out of the family for a number of years then my uncle bought it and my father went into the farm to farm it. And in 1950 I followed him in. It was mixed farming; arable and cattle and my father was a big horseman. We had Suffolk horses and I was quite interested in that. I grew up on the farm and my first job was keeping the cattle by the side of the road when I was out 9 or 10, you used to go into the road about half past eight and be there ‘til about lunchtime in all weather. I didn’t get paid by the way!!

When we went to school, we had to travel about two hours there and back so we never got there ‘til gone ten o’clock. So consequently, we had to go six days a week. And we had compulsory sport twice a week and two hours of homework every night on top of all the chores. We never got home ‘till about half past five, on the train.

I passed the 11 plus and got a place at Grammar school but they wouldn’t give me a scholarship because it was a question of income. Not that they were doing very well. I can remember my mum telling me “you can’t have this and you can’t have that”, we lost a hundred pounds this year. That was a lot of money in those days. But we survived.

I had one sister. She was a bit younger than me. She and I used to do other jobs; it was quite heavy land so we used to pick stones. We used to have a bushel skip, upside down and we had to fill it with stones and then you lifted it up so it left a heap on the field. And we got sixpence a bushel for that.

And I remember once when I was at school at Foulsham and I came home and said ˜so and so gets pocket money!” So my father says I’ll tell you what, I’ll buy you 12 mole traps and half a dozen rat traps. And he said, you’ll get a penny a mole and sixpence a rabbit.

There were two others that worked for my father and of course I worked for him too. But we’re talking about a period in the 20’s and 30’s when farming was in the doldrums. My mother had been a schoolteacher and she was determined that I shouldn’t go into farming; although I wanted to!

And of course, when you were sixteen in those days you did what your parents told you to. She said ˜I want you to have a nice safe job”. So I ended up in Barclays Bank! I started at Attleborough for £1 a week and my lodgings were £1 a week; so I didn’t get very fat!!

Then it came during the early war years that we had to go and register for National Service. If I’d been on the farm I wouldn’t have had to. But being in the bank I had to. So when I went to register I volunteered! My Mother never knew! I wanted to go into the Air Force as a wireless operator and I went and being very green I said this is what I want to do and they said ˜well, we don’t want any wireless operators at this time in the RAF, so you can go in the army as a wireless operator. The Royal Signals. And that’s what happened. I did five years in the army. I eventually came home and decided I wasn’t going back to banking. Instead I worked as a District Inspector for field drainage. We did drainage work on Burnham Overy marshes which was used during the war as a firing range. We dug miles of ditches and I was supervising five drag lines. I did that for about three years.

Then in 1950 my dad decided to retire and live in the village and I went into the farm which was still owned by my uncle so I went there as a tenant which wasn’t very easy really. But when he died, eventually, I bought the farm in about ‘55 or ‘56. There was 85 acres in the actual farm and 27 acres which my father had bought and which I inherited eventually. I also farmed other odd bits of land; so there was about 150 acres altogether. In father’s time that was farmed on a four course rotation but that had to be expanded as time went on. We grew sugar beet. And then, for that last fifteen years I grew mustard for Colmans. I grew white mustard; that’s for seed not for making mustard. It was a very useful crop to grow because they were a family firm and they always paid up within two weeks. Whereas if you grew wheat you had to keep it sometimes right through to Spring. And it wasn’t a difficult crop to grow, the biggest problem was getting enough seed off it.

Originally you know, I was into horses and I had a man who was very good at working horses. We even bred a few foals. But then of course he died and then we had to mechanise. I did contract work and bits of ploughing for other people and combining. I bought a second hand combine and we had some fun with that. But I was more interested in the cattle side of it. We had a pedigree dairy shorthorn herd, about forty head which was big for those days. I won some prizes at places like the Norfolk show.
Then the time came when we would have had to spend a lot of money on the buildings and what not so we went out of dairy, that’d be about 1960. We took the cattle to Leicester, to market. These shorthorns were and still are few and far between and the majority of the herds were in the Midlands or the North and I was advised to take them to Leicester where they sold well for what they were.

I can always remember that my wife and I, we loaded them up and they went off and when we got to the Little Chef a on the A47 the lorries were there and we got out of the car to have a cup of tea and they heard my voice and they all started up. Well, that was just one of those things. So there you are.

After the Dairy Herd was sold I started a Relief Milking Service (one day a week and holidays for a number of farms who had dairy herds). But apart from two farms I did myself the project fizzled out after about 5 years mainly due to not being able to recruit suitable staff.

During this period I also joined the staff of Farmkey based at Banbury; to freeze brand cattle and freeze mark horses throughout Norfolk and parts of Suffolk down to Ipswich. At one stage I was branding 3-400 cattle a week. I carried on this business 83. It gave a good insight into cattle handling and a wider view of farming generally.

In those early days though, when my father kept a few cows he never kept a bull so when we wanted to get a cow in calf we had to drive it to a neighbouring farm. On this particular occasion we went a neighbouring farm He had two bulls. A shorthorn and a Friesian bull. So my father was keen that the shorthorn should service her. So we had ever such a job to keep this black and white Friesian away from her. And that shorthorn was a bit slow but he eventually serviced her and we were just about to drive away when that old black and white popped up and serviced her too! And she had two calves, one Shorthorn and one Friesian! There was no hiding that mistake!

Another funny story was; we’d always been involved with the Baptist Church and attended the chapel at Foulsham. We would ride there in the pony and trap, the four of us, and the pony used to be turned out in the little meadow which was a fair step away. Anyway, he always used to go on a Sunday morning and fetch her back and put her in the orchard, then he’d come and have breakfast. So, on this particular occasion in the Autumn of the year he went back out after breakfast to put the harness on and he almost immediately came back indoors. And my mother asked him ˜what you doing back indoors?” And he said ˜we can’t go in the pony and trap this morning”. So she says ˜Why’s that?” And he said ˜She can’t stand up! She’s ate all the apples. She was intoxicated!! She was. She couldn’t hardly stand. So that was that and we had to go to church on our bicycles instead!!

In the early 1930s my mother used to make butter and that’s a job I had as a boy, churning that. In the summertime she got up at about 3 am to pack the butter up because there were no fridges. But we had a Beck running alongside nearby and my father dug a hole in the base of the beck under the bridge and we’d put this butter in the churn and take it down there and put it in there to keep it cool. And there was the butcher who used to come and buy it and he was always asking how we kept that butter so fresh, but you didn’t tell people where we kept it in case it got pinched.

We were next door to Foulsham Hall Farm which was run by a cattle dealer. Every Saturday morning the men would drive cattle past at 5 or 6 in the morning on the way to the train to Norwich, drive them through Norwich into the market and at night the same men would drive a different lot of cattle back and they’d come back past our farm about nine or ten o’clock at night. That was a regular occurrence.

He had quite a lot of land and he kept two stallions turned out on this field and that same pony that got into the apples got out one night. In addition, there she was with them and you can guess what! She did produce a lovely foal though! We wanted to sell it to ride and drive so I had to ride it, to break it in. I quite enjoyed that!

I had two children. My son would do anything on the farm as long as it had a starter on it! But he always wanted to drive heavy goods vehicles and that’s what he does. Long distance. My daughter, she had two loves. She was always good at cooking. And she wanted to look after cattle! Therefore, she went to Tech and did a course and she wanted to go to college to learn more and the best one was in Wiltshire so she went there. And of course she met a fella there and never came home again! She used to be out milking over a hundred cows down there in Somerset where she still lives.

I ran that farm for forty odd years. My great grandfather had been there from 1851 ‘til about 1890 or a bit after. He’d had foot and mouth at the farm and that about finished him. They were tenant farmers back then and so it was let to somebody else until my uncle bought it in the twenties. He was a baker with three businesses at Foulsham, Briston and Sheringham. He had 16 carts on the road and my father used to break the ponies for him. So he bought the farm to go into it but he never did go in and my father ran it instead ‘til I took over. It was a matter of getting up and working fourteen or sixteen hour days, going to bed and getting up and doing it all again.

There wasn’t a lot of time for anything else, though we did spend a lot of time involved at the church and we enjoyed that. I used to spend a lot of time looking for birds nests. Which you could in those days. All in the hedgerows. And we had shoots. Rabbit mostly; using ferrets to drive them out and then shoot them. Hopefully.

So it was in ‘88 I decided to sell the farm. So I sold the arable land away and we stayed on at the farm ‘til ‘91 when we advertised the farm and the pasture. We got offered a good price so we got out and retired to Bintree. I’d had an accident as well you see. I was chopping down a tree and I stood in the water in the Beck to cut it down. Then I had to get out of the Beck but as I got a hold to climb out the tree rolled and crushed my hand. I had to drive that tractor back and of course all the bones were crushed and they took skin off my leg to graft onto my hand and that was awful. In hospital they said to let the air to it. So I’d have it in a sling all wrapped in cotton wool and they’d all ask ˜How’s the baby this morning?”

I do consider it a good life because I always wanted to do it. I was devastated when I went into the Bank, although I quite enjoyed that. But then I had those five years in the army and at the end of that I was stationed near Melton Mowbray and that was there that I met my wife. So if I had never gone in the army I’d never have met her and we’re coming up to 50 years. She wasn’t from a farming family. Far from it. Her father was a station master at Melton Mowbray. She’d always been brought up in town. With all mod cons. But when we were first married all we get was a place at Mileham where you got water from a communal pump. No electricity. No drainage. So that was quite a shock to her. The last ten months we were at Mileham we had electricity. She was over the moon. Then we had the opportunity to go into the farm. So we went back to the farm and.. no electricity!! No drainage. Water from the pump outside. Back to square one! In fact we were one of the last places in Norfolk to get mains electricity. But before that we had a diesel Startomatic Plant and made our own electricity. That was ok but when you put the last light off at night the engine stopped and you could hear it stop. So you could be there on a cold winters night ready to turn the light off and jump into bed and you’d hear the engine going and you’d know there was a light still going somewhere in the outbuildings and you’d have go off back out again! And if I was milking the cows using the power, she couldn’t iron at the same time or all the machines would go off. So we were glad of the mains electricity when it came!

So that’s been quite an interesting life all in all.

Eric (b. 1923) talking to WISEArchive on 3rd December 2007 in Bintry.

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