Working Lives

A life on the land (1948-2005)

Location: Halesworth

Gordon didn’t want to go into carpentry as a young man. He said ‘Farming is what I love and what I want to do’ and stayed on the land all his working life.

The little farm at Sisland

I lived in Loddon and when I came home from school, I used to get on my bike and go back to a little place called Sisland and go and help on the farm. I got a little bit of money; I can’t remember how much it was, and they gave me so much pocket money a week.

I used to go and get the cows up for them every night off the meadows, take them home up the road and then get them into the cow yard, get them into the sheds and tie them all up ready for milking.

I looked forward to the summer holidays: harvest time. When the binder used to be at work, we used to go and shock up the corn and the great exciting time was when the corn was taken home to the stack yard. My job was to take the horse and wagon home, with the loaded corn, and take the empty one back, which I really enjoyed. I don’t know how I coped with the horse, because I weren’t very strong. Sometimes the horse would run and I had a job to stop it, but I really liked that job.

Then I got so I could milk the cows; it was all done by hand, no machines. We used to sit on a stool and pull the milk out into a bucket. Sometimes the cow would kick and you’d get kicked, but it was all part of it. Everything in those days was hard work, but we were used to it and took it all as it came.

I did that for quite a long time; it would be every afternoon and almost every night until time came for me to leave school when I was 15.

Now the great thing was that I so loved this work that’s what I wanted to do, but my mother wasn’t that keen and the local Methodist minister tried his hardest to get me to go into carpentry, because I was pretty good at that in those days. He wanted me to be a cabinet maker and he tried ever so hard to get me off the land and go into carpentry, but I said ‘No, farming is what I love to do and that’s what I want to do’, and no one could stop me.

I went on when I left school in about 1950 working for the same farm, on a full-time basis. I got paid a bit more money, I don’t know how much it was, but it certainly wasn’t more than £2 a week, if that.

I had my own horse; he was called Smiler. I used to use him to cart the sugar beet tops for the cows, take them onto the meadow and throw them out for the cows and all that sort of thing, cart straw home with the horse and cart for the cows, and generally use the horse for most things. I wasn’t hardly tall enough to get the collar over its head, but I did it and, occasionally, it would run away with me and I couldn’t stop it; someone else would have to stop it, but that was my job and getting the cows in and all that sort of thing. I suppose it was a boy’s job and I really liked it.

I was the only outsider at the time, because it was a family farm. There were three brothers; two of them ran the farm and the other one worked for them, but after a while they did employ another boy, so there was two of us. So you can imagine sometimes what we got up to when you get two boys. There used to be a saying that ‘One boy was a good boy, two boys was a half a boy and three boys weren’t no use at all’.

We would be shocking the corn and often the binder would throw out a loose one and our job was to tie it up and stand it up with the rest, but Ginger, who I worked with, he said ‘I know a better way than that’, and he would pile the loose corn on the ground and we would stack round it. So we didn’t never tie the loose ones up; we found a way of doing that.

Of course, another time would be when we went sugar beet harvesting. In those days the sugar beet would be lifted by the horse; they would have a type of plough, which lifted them out of the ground and our job was to go behind. We had to do three rows a time, bending down all the time, pulling the sugar beet, knocking the dirt off and laying them into rows. After that we’d come along with the horse and carts and we would have to stand each side; there would probably be four of us, with a hook in your hand and knock the tops off and that was quite hard work.

I remember I did have one or two injuries later on, when I worked with the cattle: got knocked about with them, but in the early days I can’t remember too many injuries.

There was no such thing as health and safety in them days. We would climb up the wagon wheels as the horse was going along and jump into the cart. You would never think of doing that sort of thing now.

I remember I had to be at work at half past seven in the morning and it was always a job to get there, so I devised a little plan: just before I got to the farm, I would let the wind out of one tyre on my bike and say I’d got a puncture, so I had to walk. That went down for a few times ’til they got wise to it.

On the farms in those days there was quite a merry time: people pulling each other’s legs and telling stories and trying to get you to do silly things, which, you know, they’d take great delight in, especially if you were a boy. They would send you after some silly things that when you got there no such thing was heard of. It was great excitement most of the time; hard work and you used to be pulling sugar beet and saying ‘My back really ache’, and they’d say ‘Well the best cure: don’t get up, keep bent down, your back won’t ache then’.

I would bike home for my lunch and back again. In the harvest time, one exciting thing about it was grandmother used to make home-brewed beer and it was very hot in them days and I knew where they would hide it; it would be hid in the stack. So I used to go and help myself sometimes to a little drop of home-brewed beer and that was lovely; we enjoyed that.

Of course, the corn would all be thrashed out. A gang used to come round with a thrashing engine, an old Field-Marshall tractor, and it would be an all day’s job to thrash one stack; a dirty old job. They’d sometimes give you the job of bagging up the chaff and calder and that would be put in the shed for the animals: such a dirty job.

A contractor come round with the thrashing drum. We did have one tractor, which was an Allis-Chalmers tractor. It was on iron wheels and that used to do the ploughing and all that sort of thing. I used to sometimes drive it. I remember occasionally I would get in a muddle with it; I wouldn’t turn soon enough at the end of the field and finish up in the hedge and all that sort of thing.

Eventually after the War, they had a new Fordson Major tractor and that would only be used on special occasions. Because it was new, everyone wanted to use it. It was petrol-paraffin used; had to start it on a handle. It had to get hot before you could turn it onto the paraffin.

They weren’t very keen on accepting tractors; they liked the horses and they found a lot of the jobs, the weight of the machinery behind, they hadn’t got used to the idea of putting the weight on the back wheels. They had a trailer made out of an old lorry buck and the tractor wouldn’t pull it out of the yard, because they had to then have the wheels put back, so that the weight was on the tractor and there weren’t many of them knew how to drive the tractor and they couldn’t reverse it.

They’d been so used to the horses that they got in all sorts of muddles with using a tractor and they wouldn’t accept milking machines; it’d still got to be done by hand. They didn’t like new inventions. They liked the old ways and they were slow to change.

Milking at Norton Subcourse

I suppose when I started, the War had finished. I think farmers were short of money in those days and I kept on that farm ’til my father died and my mother got remarried and she moved house. She moved to a place called Raveningham, which was a lot further away. I managed to get another job then, at Norton Subcourse. It was a little tiny farm.

You didn’t have to have many interviews in those days; you just went and saw them and they gave you the job. He’d got a small herd of cows and it was quite something new: he’d got milking machines. He taught me how to use these milking machines and he kept saying ‘You’ve got to be quick, you’ve got to be quick, come along, come along, you’ve got to be quick; you can’t hang about; these machines have got to be changed’. He taught me how to use milking machines: something I’d never used before. He’d got a little Fergie tractor and I used to use that and I stayed with him for quite a long time.

I enjoyed it, but I think going back over the years, I enjoyed the work more with a horse and working at Sisland. I occasionally go back and see them. Of course, they’re the younger generation, but they still know me. I’ve been there this year and saw them and, of course, their farm now is all mechanised; altogether different; you wouldn’t recognise how things have changed.

I was the only one worked for the farmer. He’d got a small acreage of land and I used to do all the work on that: the ploughing and the drilling and all that sort of thing and, of course, with the cattle there’d be a lot of muck cartin’ taking it up onto the fields. In the summertime we would go and get hay off the marshes, because there was a lot of marshland there and we used to go and cart the hay off for the cattle in the wintertime. I enjoyed working for him.

The tied cottage

Then, of course, I met my wife, who is still my wife at this moment and we wanted a house and to get married. We were young; in the 20s then and we looked at the idea of having a caravan and still working for the farmer, but there was obstacles finding where you could put it and all that sort of thing.

Maureen, my wife, lived in Bramfield and at that time, a farmer was advertising in the paper for a relief cowman, with a house to go with it.

I went and saw him and after a time he gave me the job and we got the house. Not long after that we got married and I worked for him for quite a time, a relief cowman and arable work. I moved there on 17th October 1959 and stayed until about 1965.

I believe I got a pay rise when I went there from my previous job, but wages weren’t very high in those days. I would imagine £7, or £8 a week, nothing more than that.

There’d be a small rent. I don’t think it was very much, in fact, I don’t know if it was even ten shillings a week. It was a tied cottage. They’d modernised it a bit: you’d got a bathroom and toilet and that sort of thing, but it weren’t a very warm house; it was cold. We had two children born while we were there. Father-in-law had got a farm in the village and we used to walk down to his very often, in fact, we’d go down there to dinner Sunday dinner, that sort of thing.

I spent a lot of the time in the cows. This was another new change.  He had a milking parlour, where the cows came in and you tied them in the stall and they were milked straight into the milk churn. You would keep milking different cows ’til the churn was full and you had to change the churn and wheel it out into the dairy where it’d be cooled.

I think he had a herd of probably 50 or 60 cows; there was two of us and I got used to that job. You had to be quite quick at getting the cows in and get them through the parlour. I worked with a cowman; he liked his favourite cows, so he used to go outside with a little stick and he’d separate them, so he only got the cows he liked. You used to get the other ones pushed onto you and you’d get the ones what were a little bit of trouble that would kick and all that sort of thing.

When you’d milked them, you let them out in a small passageway. I remember once one cow bolted through there and nearly squashed me up against the wall, because they wouldn’t stop, but I managed to get out of it. You could be kicked badly sometimes, but it was all part of it. Long hours too; you had to be up really early in the morning for that.

I didn’t belong to a union in them days. I didn’t belong to a union for a long while, until I was asked by a union representative, which was on the next job I went to. Farm work then, they were quite long hours; one perk we had was free milk every day and that went with the job – we didn’t have many perks.

In those days there was a dairy where all the milk went to in Halesworth called United Dairies, and Kidner’s Lorries from Brampton had a fleet of lorries that used to come round every day and collect the milk and you had to help the driver to lift the churns onto the lorry.

I remember one driver; I don’t know how he did it, but he’d make it so that the weight all went your way and he didn’t get any. So the churns lifting with him were very heavy, but then when another driver came, that was so easy, ’cause you were lifting equal weight.

While I was there, the farm began to modernise. The old buildings, they turned them into more modern buildings. They had a bigger cow yard and after I left there, they even had a new parlour. They had more modern machinery, more up-to-date tractors.

They’d only got an old Ford Major and two Fergusons. They’d got a County Crawler caterpillar tractor, but that spent more of its time broken down than it was being used and so things began to change slowly.

Most things I picked up on me own. Somehow you weren’t shown too much; people used to keep it to theirself what they knew. They didn’t want to show you too much, but I did manage to sort out how a lot of things go and I used to do a bit of the tractor work there, but most of my time there was with the cattle.

I weren’t all that old then, so I didn’t go to any special colleges, like there was at Otley. I did go later in life on special courses, but not then. I don’t think the farmers liked the idea of sending their workers on courses, or anything like that. They just wanted them to keep at work and if you couldn’t work, they’d soon find somebody in your place; labour was still pretty cheap. But things began to change: wages began to improve and more machinery began to come onto the farms.

The horses they began to disappear; there weren’t many about then. I remember when the first diesel Fordson tractor came onto one farm; everybody was going to look at it. It was a new thing, a Ford Major and that was something special. But after that, they began to increase in numbers; most farmers began to have new diesel tractors and bigger tractors. The tractors weren’t very comfortable either in them days. They were a bit of wrecks; you used to have to probably put a sack on to keep warm.

Gordon Frary (b.  1935) talking to WISEArchive in Halesworth on 21st September 2016.

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