Working Lives

A Life on a Norfolk Farm (1937-2008)

Location: Norfolk

Stanley describes his life working with horses, hedging and ditching and driving tractors on Norfolk farms.

Starting work, making a stand and losing a pork chop

I started work when I was 14. I left school on the Friday night and started work on the Monday.  It was harvest time and there were about 14 others working on the farm. The foreman came into the stable and he say Ted, you are a full-time worker now and I want you to take that old horse and go horse raking. I say ‘alright’ and I went horse raking for two days and after that I went driving, taking the loads from fields to the stack. I had two or three days of that, I had a trace horse and that was hard work. I started work at about 7.30a.m. and you weren’t allowed a break, never no Nineses, not till 12 o’clock.

There weren’t such things as sandwiches in those days. You had a loaf of bread cut in halves. Grandfather had half and I had half, with a piece cut out and a bit of margarine or butter put in and a piece of meat or cheese, if you were lucky. The piece that was cut out, a thumb-piece, was laid on top. You put your thumb on that as your hands were dirty and there was nowhere to wash them. They say you got to eat a bushel of muck afore you die, and I think I have. You had a half hour for your dinner. You had your bag to put your food in, no tins in those days, nor plastic things. You had a sack which grandmother or whoever you were with, had washed, lined and put a strap on it, then you had a dinner bag. One day when I first started work, we were hedging and they were out exercising the foxhounds. We were up the road. Our bikes stood along the hedge and our bags hung on the bikes. I got a pork chop in my bag and these hounds smelled that and pulled my bag to pieces. It was in ribbons. They’d ate all my dinner. When I saw what had happened I started for home. The foreman said. Wwhere are you going, Ted?’ I told him the Weasenham Foxhounds had eaten my dinner. He phoned the huntsman who came down in the afternoon. He say ‘Who’s the gentleman who had his bag pulled?’ ‘Mine,’ I said, and he give me two half-crowns.

We had to get the horses ready in the mornings and we boys had to see that they had their dinner and plenty of water so sometimes we’d only have about 20 minutes for dinner, until I put my spoke in. The boss didn’t live on the farm so we had a foreman. I said to him ‘I don’t think that’s right. They sit down for dinner at 12 o’clock and have half had their dinner before we get there and then expect us to get the horses back in the wagons to start again’. He sorted it out.

Harvest time and demanding a pay rise

At harvest time we were pitching the sheaves from 7.30am till 8pm, five and a half days a week and all Saturday. I got paid a ten shilling note a week. At the end of the harvest I went bullock feeding for the winter. I earned 13 and 3 halfpence for feeding them Saturday and Sunday. In spring time we were out in the fields with the horses, harrowing, raking, that sort of thing. When the crops come along we had to feed the horses in the horse yard. As we got older we had to do different things like chopping sugar beet out which brings them to the surface. We went in a gang and one man was lord and you had to do what he said. You had to hoe so far on one hand, turn over and hoe so far the other hand. I used to get in a hell of a muddle! We sold all the corn and roots and then it was harvest time again.

Being a year older you had to go on a loader. They put them on the carts and you loaded them. I did that all harvest, no gloves, no spray and you had thistles pricking your hands. I asked for gloves. The foreman said ‘What you want gloves for?’ and I said ‘all them thistles’. After the harvest we started sugar beeting, all by hand, knocking and topping and loading the cart. We did the mangels first, then the swedes, put them in the hale (a big heap), then the team-man would plough round this hale and after they’d been covered with straw, you’d take a fork and throw muck on to keep the frost from getting them. Just leave one end open for the mangels and swedes so you could get some out for the cattle. Then we used to go filling the sugar beet. I was 16 then and working with another chap driving the cart. We used to get a shilling a day extra for that. Our foreman come one day and he say ‘You don’t look very happy, Ted’, and I say ‘no, I aren’t very happy. He standing by the side, he’s getting two shillings a day more than what I am’. He say ‘well, you’re only a boy’. ‘Well’, I say ‘why am I doing a man’s work then?’. Then I took the sugar beet fork and threw it at him. I said ‘you can fill your beet yourself, I’m off’. So I went home for dinner. This was about 11 o’clock and my grandmother say ‘what you home for?’ so I told her. The foreman came after dinner and said ‘will you come back Ted?’. I said ‘yes, but on my terms’. He said ‘you are a good boy, you’ll do anything on the farm so I’ll give you the full amount’. Two shillings was a lot of money in them days.

Tractor driving and life at home

We had another year with Mr Mason, the farmer, doing the same old thing, and then the war started and they sold the farm to a farmer called Hall. I was 17 and agreed to work for him. He said ‘I suppose you hen’t got a driving licence though I know you’ve been on a tractor. I’ll get you a form, fill it up and get you one. I want you to do a lot of road work.’  There weren’t any lorries then and you couldn’t get petrol or diesel just paraffin and petrol. Hall wanted me to cart a load of sugar beet to Raynham Park Station. I carted all the sugar beet down there, though not every day because he wanted me tractor driving on the fields, hoeing and drilling. All the horses went to two other farms and Hall only had three which my grandfather looked after. He used to drill all the roots, the mangels and sugar beet, and I drilled all the corn. We were still clearing all the ditches on both sides and trimming all the hedges by hand, with a hook, always kept down low, and cutting the corn with a binder. We had to gather up all the trimmings which were used for stack poles, on the bottom, and straw on top to keep the damp out.  I didn’t work with horses again.

Farm work was hard work when everything was done by hand, all the hedging, muck carting and muck spreading. It wasn’t so hard when I was driving the tractor but there were still no mechanical loaders, it was all done by hand. We had steam engines for thrashing and while I was coping with the binder about ten or twelve others were sharpening them up. Sometimes we had an engine come into the field and then you would thrash them off the shock. Before I was tractor driving one of us boys had to hold the horse near the engine otherwise they’d run away ‘cos they were so frightened. After Mason sold the farm we carted them off with tractors and trailers and then we had to unload off the trailer onto the other bailer and onto the stack. My grandfather was stackman. He used to do all the stacks. We had to pitch, probably be working at ten o’clock at night, pitching all these shocks. Cornstacks (haystacks) used to be a work of art. Stackmen took pride in the thing, well, they didn’t do nothing else.

When you went home you had no bathroom, no running water, toilet was up the garden, you had the kettle and a string of newspapers fixed on the wall. We had no electricity, just a paraffin lamp and the water came from the well. Every Sunday night we had to cart the water about two or three hundred yards.  When you wanted a bath after work you had to get the old tin bath out the shed, put it in front of the fire and heat the water in the copper which was in the shed and fill the bath. After your bath you had to cart all the water out. We had a great big pantry and in the summer we had to get water from a big tank for a cold water wash and shave in the shed. One day, in the winter, I boiled the kettle, had a wash, cleared up, filled the kettle again but I must have overfilled it so when I put it back on the stove some shot out of the spout onto my grandfather’s feet. He’d been sitting by the fire, asleep, and shouted ‘you scald my feet!’. Boy, he did mob me! I said ‘what, with cold water?’ I suppose, being asleep, he felt that was hot water.

On your bike and off to the dances

There were five or six of us young ‘uns in Wellingham which was only a small place and there was nothing to do evenings, so after about three years at work I said to my grandmother ‘I wish I had a bike’. They didn’t say anything then but one week she said ‘you had better keep your ten shilling note and buy yourself a bike’. You could buy a brand new bike for ten shillings. I told my mate over the road and he did the same. We walked to Fakenham and biked home on our new bikes.

There weren’t nothing for the young people to do in Wellingham so we used to walk round the villages, meeting up with different people. They had a youth club in the Reading Room at Weasenham so after we got our bikes we joined the club. They had what they called The Sixpenny Hop, learn to dance, so I said to my mate ‘Are you going to join?’  ‘No’ he say, but I joined and went to these here Hops and learned to dance. When the war was on they had a band from Raynham Aerodrome on a Saturday night. There was no electric or gas heaters, so no electric guitars, just normal ones. I met May, my wife, at the dance at Weasenham. She was cook up at a local farm and we got together and we were courting for two years. There were two old people at the farm and at 9 o’clock at night May used to lock the door and she and the servant came to the dances. Well, someone on the farm split on her and she got the sack, well she walked out.  Someone said they could get her in the Army but her mother didn’t want that so she got a job at Kelling Sanatorium scrubbing floors and peeling taters, so I biked over. She’d gone in a taxi on the Thursday and she say ‘I aren’t going to stop there’ and I say ‘alright’ and she came back the following Thursday. I went and got her home again. I asked my boss if she could have a job on the farm with us. You had to work on the land and there were two or three other women there already so she joined me. We decided to get married in 1943. I had to borrow some coupons off my grandfather and grandmother to buy a suit to get married in. You had everything brought to the door. You didn’t have to run out of anything but when your coupons ran out, that was your lot. We used to go poaching a lot, knock off a pheasant, or a rabbit, that sort of thing.

Married life and keeping the wireless charged up

Afore I got married my grandmother used to bring up what they called the Fourses, about 4 o’clock. They had probably done some cooking and they’d bring you hot food for your tea ‘cos you probably wouldn’t leave off till about ten o’clock at night. The clocks were put on two hours so we had more daylight. As soon as it got dusk you had to stop ‘cos you couldn’t have lights during the war. They put the clocks back to normal after the war. During the war you were on rations, two ounces of this and two ounces of that. You had to crop all your own garden, growing your own vegetables. Used to hale the ‘taters up in the garden. I didn’t live far from the farm so I walked to work.

The van used to bring everything as there were no supermarkets. We had the wireless but no electricity and you had two accumulators. You had to get to Fakenham to get the high tension battery charged up once a fortnight. You had one being charged over the fortnight and then you take the other one in. I biked there one Saturday, afore I was married, get my grandparents their accumulator, got home, outside the gate to the yard, threw it down and smashed it into pieces so I had to bike back to Fakenham to buy a new accumulator.  Just had the radio, used to get ‘Haw Haw’ on it.

I got called up for a medical and went to Cambridge as I was going to go in the Air Force. I got my papers to go up to Oxfordshire and when I got up there an officer came over and said ‘Are you Mr Taylor?’ I said ‘yes’ and he said ‘your boss has been on the phone, you aren’t supposed to be here, you work on the farm don’t you? You’d better get on the train. We’ll take you to the station’ so I came home. So I have been on the land all my life, right since I was 14.

In the 50’s farm work got easier. After we were married we got electric and water put on. My wife worked in the farmhouse during the war ‘cos my boss, Hall, had three or four children and said to me ‘would your wife mind working in the house?’ so she went there and would take the children out. On the farm I drove a crawler (on tracks) for eight years and I had about 35 years driving a combine. After Hall packed up Wellingham Farms bought the farm. There were 20 men working there including 10 tractors drivers and we were tending to five farms. We had lorries for carting the stuff ‘cos by then diesel and petrol were available. We had some laughs on the farm. One time we had big binders, big rolls of twine. We used to put our bikes in the garage and someone tied one of the rolls to his carrier on his bike and rode off, out of the yard, pulling 200 yards of string with him. We used to have some pranks but we never did anything to hurt anyone or do any damage.

I stayed with the same company for 45 years, moving with them from Wellingham when it was sold. Same firm, same people.  We had a foreman who had come onto the farm when he left school. We taught him all about farm work and after a time he took a dislike to me. If there was a dirty job he always come to me. No matter what I’d done, that weren’t right. He say to me ‘You’re old fashioned, Ted’. Well, I had been doing that all them years and now it weren’t right. I just kept going like I been used to. We didn’t take any notice of him. We had several rows, me, him and the boss, but that didn’t make any difference. When I retired, at 65, the boss said ‘If we’re in a muddle, Ted, will you come and help us out?’ I said ‘I would, willingly, if you treat me right’. That was two months before he give me my P45 and I got the tax back. I never got a ‘thank you’ when I left. I didn’t go back.

Keeping busy in retirement

I had a job gardening at Lexham Hall, the Fosters. The head gardener wanted somebody at Church Farm and asked my niece to ask if I wanted a job. I said I hadn’t done much flower gardening. ‘Well, I’ll put you through’ he said. I was there for about six months and then he died. Neil Foster, his son, lived in the Hall and Church Farm stood empty for about 18 months. I kept going down there for 18 months, all that time standing empty, and then, all of a sudden, Temple-Richards bought Hindringham Hall and I was there for another 10 years. I packed up when I had prostate problems. Then I went ‘brushing’ (beating for pheasant) for about six or seven years, and I did some gardening. I was busy all week, always doing something.

Many of the people I worked with have died. We all went to school together, worked together and there’s one at Dunham who comes to see me every so often and we have an hour or two. He had to retire due to bad arthritis. He lives at Gressenhall now.  I haven’t been there since they turned it into a museum. They’ve got heavy horses there. My uncle was in there when it was a workhouse. I said I’d never go no more. That was a rum place.

Memories of Topper

When I worked with the horses I always had Topper, a Suffolk Punch, he weighed a ton, and there was Lion and Gypsy. I always had him. I used to cart a lot of the stuff out to the shepherd and the cattle, with Topper. They turned him out on the meadow, back of where we used to live afore I was married. I used to give him sweets and shortcakes and that. My grandfather mob me, he say ‘you’ll turn that horse into us, boy’. I only had to go out and whistle and he come. When they sold up the horses when to another farm and they couldn’t do anything with Topper. He pined for me. I always had him, he was my horse. My grandfather said if anybody working in the stable wanted a horse to go somewhere, they would start to take him and he’d say ‘you’re not taking him, that’s Ted’s horse’. I never needed the reins on him, I just to walk in front of him and he’d follow me. He was just like a dog. The horses weren’t that old when they went to other farms so I don’t know what happened to them. They was lovely horses, fat as butter. My grandfather had five, we had thirteen altogether. There would be five or six in a field while two were harvesting. Didn’t matter if it was raining or shine, you had to go. I’ve been wet through and if you went home you weren’t paid and sometimes they couldn’t find you a job in the dry. Other times they could find you a job in the sheds, where the cattle had been, that sort of thing. If the foreman was awkward he wouldn’t find you a job. Tractor driving you had no cabs on them so, in very bad weather, we came home and repaired the implements.  To try and stay dry you just wore an ordinary old coat with sacks tied around you. You hadn’t got anything else, there weren’t waterproofs in those day, no water boots.

Farm work was a very hard old life but I didn’t know anything else. I was bred and born for farm work. When the factories got going again a lot of farm workers went off the land and got different jobs. I was too old to learn another trade and I enjoyed what I was doing though I earned a lot less money. My son, Mike, worked on the farm with me when he first started. He worked for my step-father in the wood trade, then for Ray, in Wellingham, also in the wood business, driving the truck and the crane loading wood.  He worked for the Council, driving for 21 years, until he got ill. He is doing very well now but getting too fat.

Stanley (b. 1923) talking to WISEArchive on 14th July 2008 in Litcham.

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