Working Lives

Cows for company (1950s-2017)

Location: Thurlton

Tony grew up on the marshes and has been involved with them all his life. He talks about coypu, drainage, agriculture and the future of the marshes.

My name is Tony Clarke, and I’ve been involved with the Norfolk marshes nearly all my life and have had some really good times.

We used to try and beat Reedham Ferry across the River Yare at swimming, which normally we did. This was because the ferry used to drift down the river on the tide, but we managed to swim straight across, thus we beat the ferry! We were down there one day when one of the boys came down in his car. He’d got some young girl in the car and they were messing around in it. But he then shot his car straight into the river! It was lucky they both got out, but the little old dog in the back of the car drowned.  That’s when I was about ten or eleven.

Growing up on the marshes

We then started shooting, and got onto the shooting trail. And father, well he got allocated some coypu cages so was a trapper for the coypus. So we used to do that for father, ‘cos we used to skin the coypus and send them skins off to Horace Friend at Wisbech. We’d get a few quid, ten bob, a pound, sometimes thirty bob or what we could for the skins. And sometimes we’d boil the meat up ‘cos we’d got an old copper outside. We’d boil the meat up and it was good stuff. It was like a rabbit, really, good grub ’cos them old things were vegetarians. There was one particular coypu and I think the dog had got to it. But it died and the belly was moving all about on it. So on this particular coypu we got a knife, cut it open and took out three baby coypus. I shall never forget this ‘cos baby coypus when they’re born they’ve got their fur, they’ve their eyes open – they’ve got everything. So we took them home, and I don’t know how many months we kept them. But they were in a run at home until they escaped an a ‘cos they were gone then. So, we had them as pets for a little while, but did we had some fun with them !

We used to do a fair bit of shooting and messing about, and swimming. And then ‘they’ dug a nice sock dyke out, as they call it, under the river, where we used to go swimming. There was one boy, I shall never forget him, and Kenny Catchpole was his name. He couldn’t swim but he did come down there. One day he said ‘let me have a go’. I said ‘alright go on boy dive in. So he dived in but he never came up. When we hunted about for Kenny he was stuck in the mud. We had to pull him out and get him going cos’ he nearly drowned. We got him sorted out and away he went again. We used to have some real good times.

Tony’s father, Herbert Clarke, also a marshman

Grown up and working

And then I grew up and started doing other things. Girls came into the equation, like they do, and we then started to play football on Saturday afternoons, and go out to dart marches on a Friday night. So we had some real good times! I then started work down at Loddon bike stores, going round on the grocery van for about eighteen months I think.

Then I thought ‘well I’m not getting a lot of money here’ so I got a job at Norvic Shoe Factory up in Norwich. And that’s where I met the wife. We’ve now been married for 52 years.

I had got a job so now felt I could get a house. We couldn’t afford a mortgage, we couldn’t afford to buy one. So then I got a job as a cowman down at Norton Hall with James Cargill. And there was a little tied cottage that went with this which we were chuffed to bits with. So we took that and went and got married. And then of course we had the two girls come along. I was at Cargill’s I don’t know how many years cos’ we also used to go round there when we were kids. We used to go there and pull the teats on the cows which we loved doing. I can remember we used to go down the road and take them walking up the road to be milked, and we’d then jump on an old cow’s back and ride home on it. Them cows you don’t forget because we did love those old cows. I was a cowman there when I was in work. We milked one hundred and twenty cows and were milking forty three times a day. I worked there seven or eight years.

Anyway, working at Cargill’s was good but things didn’t go too well. You see I wasn’t very good at mornings as getting up was a problem. I needed to be at work at five o’clock in the morning so I’d got to be up like at half past four, quarter to five in the morning to be at work. But I did make the time up through the day because I never left ‘off at noon. It was always quarter past or half past twelve, and it weren’t five o’clock more like six o’clock or whatever in the evening. We were milking three times a day at Cargill’s. We were going back later on at quarter to seven ‘til half past nine milking these three times a day. Milking was the main part of my job but I was also involved in calving. I do remember one particular cow. The head cowman weren’t there and I was sort of’ next in charge I suppose. I said to one of the chaps, I said ‘that old cow isn’t getting on very well at calving, we’ll have to give her a hand I reckon’. So we went and had a look at her, how you do, and there was no end of legs about there! I thought well this is strange there should only be two, but there’s four or five here. But we got it sorted out because there was twins, and they were both trying to come out together. Well that weren’t working. So we had to push one back, pull the first one out, then get in and pull the second one out. This we did, and lo and behold we got them both out alive. I was chuffed to bits with that. That was that was one of the highlights in my cowman’s job I suppose if you like. I enjoyed it. I love the old things, that’s why I’m with them now.

Anyways, I got a warning and then I got the sack and I thought that’ll do me! I then went and got a job at Mackintoshes. I had eighteen months at Mackintoshes working nights up there in Norwich. But that was just to fill in ‘cos there was a job coming up – the one which I’m now in. My father said to me ‘you ought ‘a go for that job boy and see if you can get it.’

Back on the marshes

Well I did. I put in for the marshman’s job and was lucky enough to get it. I remember I had to see old Gordon Askew about it. I met him at the Crown Inn Haddiscoe, the pub, one dinnertime. We had a drink and a chat. And he said as far as I’m concerned you’ve got the job boy. But you must get the phone put on. Oh I said, and alright he said. So I got the phone put on then gave him the bill which he paid. Phone was on so all was alright, and that was job done. And I’ve now been here some forty odd years. I’ve had some good times down here.

Basically, a marshman spends most of his time looking after cows or cattle on the marshes. And at the end of March we have a marsh letting at the Bell Hotel in St Olaves where Gaze the Auctioneers from Diss let out a thousand acres of grazing – any parcels from five acres to thirty acres in size. They’re all dyked off as we don’t have any fences. And at the marsh letting the farmers come, and the highest bidder gets it. So much an acre they pay. Anything from £50 to £100 an acre for these marshes. And they hire us as well. For thirty weeks from the beginning of April to the end of October. But sometimes there’s run over a bit, depending on the weather at October November time. If the weather is nice then they the cattle stay down on the marsh a little longer! I’ve got my patch, six hundred acres, what I look after. And I have sometimes had the best part of eleven hundred head of cattle on them six hundred acres. They hire us and we set our fees at … when I first went at somewhere around five pound an acre. Now I think we’re up to £21 an acre. That’s how wages have gone I suppose. That still isn’t really enough but there we are, we’re happy and we keep jogging along, and making a living !

Tony on the marsh with cattle

And as I said I’ve had some good times down there. I had one particular old farmer, he was a tight old b… he was. He would not give nothing away. He once, he give me an aniseed ball and it nearly choked me. Then once he turned around and gave me 50p. ‘Here you are, Clarke, here’s 50p,’ he said. ‘You’ve done a good job getting them cattle in there and starting that’. And I come home here and I said to the wife, I said, ‘the old man ha’ give me 50p tonight’. I went through all my pockets and I could not find it. I could not find his 50p! So I thought, well I’ll have a look round the next morning when I get down there. But I had good look round and I couldn’t see it laying there nowhere. And I say to this day the old man had it on a bit of string. But I got on with him. I remember going to his one day. He rang up, he said ‘Clarke if so and so bring me down to have a look at the cattle can you bring me home?’ I said ‘I’ll take you home’. He didn’t drive, that old man ‘cos he hadn’t got a license. He had some sort of fits. You never knew when he was going to have one. Anyway I said ‘I’ll take you home’. So I took him home to Hethersett the lady there said, ‘Tony do you want a bit o’ tea?’ ‘I’d love some, love some,’ She said ‘thas only salmon and a bit of cucumber.’ I said ‘all right, lovely, I like salmon’. So anyway a tin of salmon got shot onto the plate and I see the old man he’d got a fork and put a little bit on a plate. ‘There you are Clarke. Here’s yours’. He give me that little old bit and he had the rest! He had the rest! She never had any- he had the rest! That’s the sort of’ old man he was. He was alright though.

Wildlife – coypu and mink

I’ve seen a lot of wildlife stuff down there. The old kingfishers and herons, and bitterns, and geese, and what are you. We get everything down on the island. Haddiscoe Island was a very famous area for coypus at one time? Well they were everywhere these coypus. And I can remember one particular day down there the coypu catcher was also there. He used to have these cages – he’d anything from 50, 60, 70 cages that were out at a time. And he’d been round his cages on a Friday afternoon. He’d then given the old motor a bit of a clean up before going home. I said ‘whatever you doing that for’ I said. ‘It’ll be covered in shit again Monday!’ He said ‘no that ‘on’t’ I said ‘well that might be, that might be covered in some more today.’ And I scooped up a handful full of cow muck and chucked it straight into his motor and he went ape shit he did. He was gorna’ do this to me and do that to me. Old Noel Rockford his name was. But there was a lot of coypu about. They’ve killed all them off now and I haven’t seen one for years now.

They’ve got an odd otter or two about there, and mink. There’s Brian’s son young boy Mace he’s a mink catcher. The boy caught one last week. Oh yes, there is still some mink about, more than what I care to think about really. They don’t interfere with the cattle but the waterfowls, well they are worried about them. Mink like waterfowls don’t they! So, the RSPB or whoever, well they are a bit concerned about the waterfowls. Maybe mink will make them extinct and all that? The Environment Agency, well they get involved with these things don’t they? As for controlling the water we had an electric pump down there. I was looking after it for what they call The Drainage Board. But I only ran that winter time. I didn’t want to run it summertime ‘cos I wanted the water in the dykes for the cattle. But in the winter time we ran the pump. Oh that was a good old pump. That would pump out 30 tonne a minute. So that was moving some water. In case of floods and things like that we’d have to have the pump going and going….that was alright. That was alright. Didn’t have nothing to do with the reeds though. There was a bloke used to come down there. Can’t think of the chaps name now but he’d buy the reed rond as they call it. Pay so much money and then he’d cut the reeds, tie them up, and they’d go away on lorries to all over the place really I suppose. One of the chaps, well he come from Reedham or Acle way, or somewhere like that. Willmot I think his name was. Yes, John Willmot. But I never had nothing to do with reed. However, I used to draw the mill dyke years ago, what they called draw. You get a long handled knife and like cut the reed out, and then Crum them out to clean the dyke out so the water could get to the pump alright. Once we’d pulled them out we just laid them on the side of the dyke. They weren’t eaten by the cattle as they were only just little old bits. But we had to clean the dykes out so they didn’t bung the pump up. And in the winter we cleared the footdrains so as to let the water off the marsh. We used to have Bob Mason and his boy come up with a gadget what we pulled behind a tractor. More like a plough, which would throw out a little grup, so that the water could run off the marsh into the dykes. Yes, footdrains they called them. We used to get a quid or two for doing that. Then they stopped all that just as they’ve stopped about everything now! In 1962 there was a big freeze, and I can well remember that. There used to be some big boats go up the river. Cargo boats to Norwich they were. I remember one of them was owned by Daniel Lamb. They were M boats and there was two of them got froze in the ice on the river at Reedham. They were there for a week, more than a week, frozen in the river. But, we’ve been lucky down on the island. And I can remember when we got a flood. We had these floods around there. I didn’t know the island was there though in 1953 ‘cos I was only eight years old weren’t I. But whether it flooded all over I don’t know. However there was a lot of flooding down at Reedham, here at Norton Subcourse, and also Haddiscoe. So I expect they got some water on it.

Footdrains at Halvergate created by RSPB. Photo: Mike Page.

The future of the marshes

As for the future of the marshes – good question. Where’s it going to end?  I mean I’m now 72. I don’t know how many more years I’m going to do it. Or who’s going to take over if I do happen to pack up. So I don’t really know. I’d like to think they’d still be there. I mean that is, if heaven’s as good as them marshes then, that’ll do me! Bury me down there. I don’t want to go to heaven, I’ll go down there. Because the work of the marsh man probably hasn’t changed all that much over what- a hundred years? No, that that hasn’t. I mean, cattle were there, and have been for a hundred years down on that island. And people have been there to look after them. So what I mean is, if you’ve got livestock you gotta have someone to look after them. It’s been going for hundreds of years and well how things are going now, whether that will go another hundred years I don’t know. The numbers in the animals have decreased a lot. I can remember when I was first started down there, I had a lot of black and white Friesians through placements for dairy herds. This year I’ve got one lot of placements for dairy herds, that’s all! Twenty years ago I had seven or eight different lots of replacements for these dairy herds though. Someone told me the other day there’s only about eight herds of Friesian milking cows left in Norfolk. There are no horses and no sheep. I did have a few sheep once but no horses. I don’t know why. As a rule, or maybe some law, no horses are allowed on the island, so nobody did have them on the island. They do have them down on Haddiscoe Dam and Acle Straight and other places, but not on the island. When you get the marsh letting catalogue it says in there no horses!

My responsibilities are looking after the cattle on the marsh and to make sure they’ve got good health. We don’t have to feed any of them ‘cos they live on the grass. Nearly every autumn we have to get these mineral buckets which the farmers supply for their cows. Calcium is in them, as well as iron and copper. We have copper deficiency down on the island, we once used to give them a little injection 5ml of copper – however that’s all put in the mineral licks now. If they are ill then I’ll ring the farmer up and he’ll deal with it, or he’ll ask me to get a vet out to them if necessary. We do get wooden tongue down there. And we get foul foot along with a bit of mastitis, and New Forest eye, which is infection in the eye. Foul foot is what they get it in the feet! Oh we did get salt water poisoning one year. That was bad news that was. Salt water poker we called it. I think that was 1976 when we had a drought. Hell of a year it was with no rain. We couldn’t get water up and out of the river. The water in the dykes was all going brackish and wrong. And the cattle through drinking this got salt water poisoning which they died from. So I mean that weren’t very clever at all. And, I was basically just seeing the cattle were alright. Sometimes the cattle will calve down on the marshes. I’ve got an ol’ boy, and he’s got a few suckling cows. He don’t know when they’re going to calve ‘cos the bull is with them all the while. And he said ‘Tony, I don’t know when they’re going to calve, and you’ll go there one day and there’ll be a calf lay there’. So I said, ‘thas’ had twins some day!’ Down there also another old cow had twins. The grub is there all the year, the grass is what they live on. We move them about from one marsh to other, so that while a bit of grass is being fed off, another one is growing back. They do like a reed that grow in the side of the dyke as well. They go for them first.  There’s suffin’ goodness in them what they like, so they eat the reed well out of the dykes.

We’ve got all these cattle there belonging to a lot of different people so we have to know somehow who they belong to. I’ve got some with freeze brands which are numbers froze on their bums. They’re mainly dairy cattle what have freeze brands. They’ve all got ear tags in, big yellow ear tags or orange ear tags with a number on. And the herd number on ‘cos every farmer who keep cattle ha’ got a herd number. And that’s stamped on these tags so if we do get a mix up then we’ve got the ear tags to sort them out with. But sometimes you can get a mix up after a couple of days. So that lot’ll lay there and the other lot’ll lay there and you shift ‘em about and ninety nine times out of a hundred you’re right. Because we know what numbers there are, so many in a herd, and how many is on each individual marsh, if we do get one missing then we’ve got to have a hunt round.

And it might be in the dyke, or might be in with someone else’s  ‘cos they swim them dykes. They get through when I’m bulling. And they get in with other people’s. So you just think, now they’re all yellow tags, that one is an orange tag, so it must be that one! They walk through the dykes, but they can swim. One year I had a cow in a cut in the river. And we had to get the fire engine out. That was Tom Crawford’s engine that was. And some old woman on a boat she said, ‘leave it to me.  I’ll get in there with it’. I said ‘you please yourself but I’m not bloody getting in there with it’. She then jumped in the river with it. But the fire engine come and puts straps on it and we pulled it out like that. In the end she didn’t have to do anything, but she was in the river with it. I said’ I’m not getting in there girl, that I aren’t.’ She replied ‘I’m a farmer’s daughter’, and I says ‘I don’t care who you are but I aren’t going in there’.

Talking about water, we never had a problem with Weil’s disease, touch wood. It’s never been an issue down there, not that I know of. The only thing we got was that salt water poisoning one year. That was in 1976 as I said before. I know as I nearly lived down there. We had Primes of Wangford come, and they sunk all these well points about the marshes. They were going down 60 foot to get to water. And I was going round with the little pump, hooking it onto the pipe in the ground and filling the bowser up with water. Then I was also going round each individual lot on the marsh that had got water tanks on it and was filling these tanks up! Doing that twice a day with a tractor and a bowser seven days a week. So I nearly lived down there then.

It’s obviously been a very varied job in terms of what I do but also in the amount of time I spend there.. Very seasonal, so you never know what you gonna have. But once the cattle are done, and all gone home then I spend a bit of time with my couple of labradors. We go out shooting and picking up at different places. I go shopping with the wife. I certainly would recommend the job of marshman. Would especially recommend it to my grandson. BUT the wages are going be the thing.  These days with people if they haven’t got money then they can’t live. But I mean you’d be lucky down there to earn ten twelve thousand pound a year? Nowadays people want double that as they can’t live on what I do can they? I don’t think he’d take it on but I would recommend it to him.


Tony Clarke (b. 1945)  talking to WISEArchive on 22nd September 2017 at Thurlton.

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