Farming to factories (1940s-1988)

Location : Thetford

George recalls his working life on the land, in the Home Guard and factory work.

Farming as a boy

I was born in West Wretham, near Thetford and lived there at Hall’s Yard. I was the youngest of five, two brothers and two sisters. My oldest brother was a gardener and left when he got married. My two sisters were sent out to work as domestics and my other brother worked on the farm. When I was old enough I left school and also had to go and work on the farm. I really wanted to work in Thetford as a trainee with Alison Doran Coach Company but my Mother said that I would only get seven shillings a week which was not enough to keep me, so I had to work on the farm at ten shillings a week. The difference weren’t much but that’s what she said.

When I started work I did all kinds of things including driving. Two of us had to take in the harvest field. One had what they call a trace horse which was fixed to the cart. When it was loaded up it was driven away to be stacked. The other one took over with another horse so two of us were doing the same job.

I suppose I enjoyed farm work at that time but my mind weren’t there, but I had to stay. After a couple of years my father was crippled with rheumatoid arthritis and had to give up work. That was prior to the war and when war broke out my brother went in the army. There was no holding him back! So I had to stay and look after my parents. There was no chance of anywhere else to live if I didn’t work on the farm.

We didn’t have any Land Army girls. There were about eight village girls who didn’t want to go anywhere else so they worked on the farm with me. I was driving the tractor and we used to set potatoes, cabbages and cauliflower plants, with a machine behind the tractor. We had perhaps three young ladies on the back doing the potatoes and three when we were setting the plants. That was nice but when the Americans were there the girls didn’t want to know anything about the English boys. They wanted to know all about the Americans.

The RAF, the Americans and joining the Home Guard

When they first opened the airfield in the early part of the war there were Czechs and Poles there and they had Wellington Bombers on the field. One time, at about 5 o’clock in the evening, one of the bombers crash landed taking off and the 500 pound bomb on it blew up! One or two of us rushed down there ‘cause we knew that weren’t far away. We helped the RAF to look around to see if we could find any survivors but they must have been blown to pieces. Next day we weren’t allowed anywhere near the crash site. I suppose they’d got to find out why that crashed.

I decided to join the Home Guard in 1942 as I wasn’t old enough to join the Local Defence Volunteers. We had a landing field nearby with RAF personnel. During the war we had RAF people on the camp and then the Americans came. As the Home Guard we were on watch from the top of the Old Hall which was the officers’ residence. Two of us would be on duty there at night. We stayed in the lookout tower, we didn’t do any walking about. We could see quite an area from the tower and we were just, well, watching out to make sure nothing was dropped or anybody came down by air or any suspicious characters. We were on watch from 10 o’clock at night to about 6 a.m. I don’t think they carried that kind of thing on for very long.

In the morning we went in for breakfast with the Americans. They gave us, which I’d never seen before, bacon and egg and then they put treacle all on it! But you’d be surprised, it was very nice! Breakfast was the only meal you were allowed to have with the Americans, nothing else, and we weren’t allowed to buy anything off the camp. The next day, after very little rest, I would go back to work on the farm.

In the Home Guard we would go to Thetford for training on Sunday mornings and one evening a week. We were trained to do rifle shooting and use a machine gun. I was a Lewis Machine Gunner, that was my job in our platoon. They sent us transport to the range. Different times on a Sunday morning for rifle shooting. After training we could go down to their canteen in Bridge Street for a drink. We could also go in on a Saturday evening.

I can’t recall any scary moments in the Home Guard and I never had to use my gun. We were never allowed to load the gun unless we were on the range. As well as training in Thetford we went there for local Home Guard meetings and Battalion meetings.

Being in the Home Guard got us out from what was, more or less, a dead village. There was nothing going on, only the pub, in the evenings. You didn’t see anything like the drinking you do today and beer was only four pence a pint.

Entertainment, Christmas and birthdays

In my leisure time we would go to the pub and have a drink but the trouble was I wasn’t old enough in the early part of the war. The landlord at The Wretham Dog and Partridge allowed us to go and sit round the back, have a glass of Shandy and a packet of crisps but we ‘ad to get out as soon as we’d finished. We did the same in The Albion when we came into Thetford on a Saturday night. Of course, when we turned eighteen we could have a drink. On Saturday afternoons there was a shopping coach that came in at Thetford and went back to Wretham and Hockham, Great Hockham by 9 o’clock in the evening. During the war we used to go in to Thetford on the coach to go to the pictures and returned home on the bus at 9 pm.

Sometimes we would get off at the pub and have a game of darts or a couple of drinks. Then I had to walk back to West Wretham, a couple of miles away, at about half past ten in the evening. I went home on my own! I left me mate half way on the journey and done the rest on my own. We went to Bury St Edmunds on the coach quite a bit and went to the pictures. We didn’t come home from there till 11 o’clock. That was during the war but as soon as the camp finished they stopped the late bus and I don’t think we had a shopping bus after that.

There were always RAF people at the camp with the Americans and, being in the Home Guard, we were allowed to go down there on a Thursday night, to the dance in their canteen. We found our own way there and back as there was no transport for us. The camp had a bus service that ran from Wretham to Bury St. Edmunds four nights a week and we were allowed on even though we were civilians. That was how I met my wife.

I got a card from the Home Guard with a badge of the Royal Norfolk Regiment on the front. Inside is a small message ‘May the joys of Christmas all be yours and the New Year fulfil all hopes of happy days to come’, and down the bottom of the card, in print, is No. 3 Company 8th Battalion Norfolk Home Guards.

There was nothing special to do on birthdays then. We’d go to the pub I suppose. If there weren’t a dance here on a Saturday night, we cycled into Thetford to the pictures. Only the pictures or the pub, worse luck.

Work on the farm and moving on to tree felling

I moved down to the other farm. The whole farm was split up and sold in different lots. I worked at the east end of Wretham where the man in charge was an ex-army Major who had bought the farm. When they came up in 1942 for my medical he said ‘I’m not gonna let you go because we need you on the farm’, so he got me out of going into the army.

Later I had to go back to Hall Yard Farm because the manager said if I didn’t my Mum and Dad would have to get out of the house. There was nowhere for us to go so I had to leave the other farm. I told him straight ‘I don’t want you throwing back at me that you got me out of the army, I’d rather go in the army and do my bit. You keep telling me if I don’t do this, I can get out’! At that time they were recruiting for the mines but I certainly didn’t want to go down a mine. I said ‘I’d rather go in the army’. In the end I stayed on the farm with my Mum and Dad.

When the war finished my brother came out of the army and came back to work on the farm. After a time I started courting, got married and went to live at Barnham. I started work on a farm at Elveden and stayed for a few years doing various jobs. The basic pay was the same but there was more chance of extra money. When I left I went to Honington aerodrome and worked on building sites. Then a chap from Barnham asked me to drive a coal lorry for him and for a few years I did a coal round. After a time I got fed up and my brother-in-law got me a job felling trees at Centre Parcs at Elveden.

There were 365 acres of woodland and every year they sold it off, in fifty acre pieces. I went, with a couple of others, to work for a man named C who was a wood merchant. I was quite happy tree felling and did it for about three years. I had a van to get to work and later a car. When I worked in the wood I had a bicycle. Used to bike to Elveden from Barnham. The chaps I was working with used to make some lovely chips off the trees and I would bag them up and lay them on the back of my bike and take them home and sell them for pocket money. Saturday mornings I’d take them up the village to sell. Well, people asked me if they could have a bag of chips, somebody else wanted a bag of chips so I bought myself an old van and I bought home five or six bags of chips during the course of the week and I delivered them, up the village, sixpence a bag, something like that. We then had a chain saw which I used all the time when I worked there. When we came to wood worth sawing up into bullets, I used to do it and I bagged perhaps half a dozen extra bags up to sell on a Saturday morning.

In the end I had to stop on doctor’s advice. It was because I used the chainsaw all the time that I had to give up. In those days there were never muffs or anything like that and that’s how I lost the hearing in that ear, and used to get dizzy feelings. So I went to London ‘cause my oldest brother worked as a gardener for a consultant at Whitechapel Hospital and he got me an appointment to see him. The consultant said there wasn’t much they could do about it. I’d got Meniere’s disease in that ear caused by using the chain saw without ear protectors. I liked the job but it was very hard work!

From the woods to the warehouse

Then I had numerous jobs. Murco garage, and another garage at the bottom of Norwich Road. As I wasn’t allowed on the dole if I was out of work, I became self-employed and went back to work with wood, hoping to stay long enough to get some stamps on me card so I could go on the dole if I was ever out of work. However, I didn’t care much for the bloke so I didn’t last long.

I moved on to become a salesman with somebody from Mill Road, Cambridge who sold clothes and that kind of thing. I would go round the houses selling clothes and what have you. I didn’t like that too much and after a while I packed that in and went back to Murco’s garage, and then to Baxters who came to Thetford in 1965. They became Travenol. They advertised for a gardener so I went for an interview but didn’t get the job, but was offered another one. They’d got a workshop up in Mundford Road where they were making kidney machines and my job was working in the warehouse.

Up at Munford Road I worked from 8 o’clock in the morning till quarter to 5 in the evening. Saturday mornings we used to get a few hours overtime. The pay weren’t that high. There was a little bit more overtime to be had in the warehouse. They started us on to a shift system but I never did like shift work but it didn’t last long in the warehouse, so we were almost always on daytime hours. We had a ten minute break in the morning at 10 o’clock and one in the afternoon, and about half an hour for lunch. They had their own canteen.

I enjoyed working there and when they closed the workshop down I came back to the main factory on Caxton Way. It was a big factory and I did all the export packing. They used to move me about in the warehouse, from there up into Stevenson Way, then up to Fison Way, always with the same people obviously, same firm. They then moved me to the last big place they’d sold to Jeyes. I spent nearly 21 years there and I retired in November 1988. I enjoyed being there. I wouldn’t say it was the best job I ever had but it was a lighter job than tree felling. I did a lot of hard work but generally I enjoyed the jobs I done.

I think Baxters was one of the best places I’ve worked for. They treated you fairly well. There wasn’t much training. I used to do the job as I thought best and that always proved to be the way to do it. They never found fault and were mostly happy enough with the way things I did.

Harold George Gates (1924-2014)  talking to WISEArchive on 19th March 2012 in Thetford.

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