From the Farm to Engineering Haulage

Location : North Norfolk

I was born at Edingthorpe near North Walsham, and I lived there till I was about five. Just before I started school. By that time we’d moved to Coltishall where I started school and I was there till I was ten years old. We then moved from there to Trimingham and lived there till we were forty three. During the time we were at Trimingham I finished school and I had about three weeks on the farm after I finished school in July and we moved in October and in that time it just changed from school to work because in those days a lot of us where the fathers worked on the farm, the sons were expected to as well, so after about the age of eleven or twelve there was always odd jobs you could do, which wouldn’t be allowed today for health and safety reasons. But when I think back, the things we used to do, and how few accidents there was, it rather amazes me where all this health and safety has come from. It’s difficult to put into words really but by the time we were twelve I could handle a horse, I could harness a horse, I could take one about three miles to the blacksmiths on a Saturday morning, which I got half a crown, and that just went on from there. Being fairly tall and well built, the idea was in those days if you were big enough you were strong enough, and you could work like a man. Although you didn’t get a man’s pay until you were twenty one. Some of my first jobs would be horse raking, at harvest time. I have helped on my grandfather’s farm, where he worked, to take horses for the change over on the binder, because they could only do two hours because that’s such heavy work, and then take the others back and unharness them and feed them.

Boy and man on the farm

You worked on the same farm as your father?

Yes. You didn’t really have a choice if he lived in the tied house. And the farmer had a job for you it was there. You couldn’t choose your career or anything like that.

And you were still at school when you started working?

When I started work I was still at school.

So, as well as helping with the horses you mentioned working on the binder? What was that? What time of year was that?

Well, when we harvested…

And the binding, was that a machine…

Cut corn and tie in sheaves. And of course, in the winter, when I was still at school we’d go Saturday mornings, have a horse and tumbrel, and cart sugar beet tops or mangels to feed the stock, and that’s how it went on till I left school and that was that full time.

So did you miss some school to help on the farm?

Yeah – we used to bunk off sometimes. I remember one farmer on the estate, not the one my father worked for, but he came after me one night. He’d got trouble with his beet drill. It kept blocking up, so he wanted me to go with him the next day so he could drive the horse in the drill, and I could watch all the cups and make sure they were going round and the seed was going out. Well, I thought a few pence there was better than going to school, so that was where I went. I always remember the night we finished. He gave me what he thought was a fair do, and he said, Ay, here y’are boy, he said, you learnt more today than you’d ever have done in school, and that was the whole attitude at that time.

What did he give you in money then for something like that?

Probably about a two shilling piece or something.

And that’s for all day, is it!

Walking up and down a field all day!

So, what were the main sorts of crops you were involved with then at that time?

Well, that be wheat, barley, oats. Oats and peas, which we used to dread. Because that was all tangled up, and that was an awful job to handle. And sugar beet, and all foodstuffs for the cattle. Because at that time a lot of the land was taken up to feed the horses even.

What was it about the peas that you didn’t like?

Well, of course the peas climb, don’t they? And of course they climbed up the oats and pull the oats down. When they were got down they were just like rope. They were all mixed in together. Why they didn’t grow the oats and the peas separate and then mix them when they wanted to grind them I don’t know. Because at that time you don’t think, do you? That was one thing we didn’t used to like.

Was this all weathers, were you out in all weathers?

Yes, oh yes, and up to the time I left school, that October I left school, we were at Trimingham, right on the cliff edge, so you could imagine what that would be like in wet weather. You’d have an old sack round you and, ha ha, drag about, oh dear… Yeah, that was nothing at that time to pull some mangels on a piece of land at the edge of the cliff, and go back the next morning there’d been a cliff fall and you’d see some mangels right across the beach… ha ha…

Wow… So how old were you when you left school

I were fourteen when I left school. I left school on the summer holidays, which would be about the twenty fourth, twenty fifth of July I expect. I was fourteen on 19th July, so I had about another week or so of school after I was fourteen, then I left on the Friday night and started work on the Saturday morning. Worked ever since, right till I retired!

How much holiday would you have then, when you started full time?

I don’t know if at that time we got up to a week. That might have been about three or four days but I can’t be absolutely sure. Because holidays, among farm workers anyhow, they didn’t start at all till about ’38.

So you had about a week a year off the rest of the time?

That was work, just constant work. Of course, at harvest time, you’d be out twelve hours a day anyhow at least. Probably a bit more.

How did your work change when you went full time? Did you get different things to do? More work?

Not really, no, because I’d been doing most of that anyhow.

What was your boss like, presumably the man who owned the farm?

Oh, he was all right, yeah, we got on all right in that respect, yeah.

How big was the farm?

I think at that time that was then about three hundred acres say. That included arable land and water meadows and suchlike.

And were there any animals other than the horses?

Oh, cows, and fat stock. Which would be running loose all summer on the pastures, and then come in winter time to be fattened up ready for market. We didn’t have sheep, we didn’t have hens. There was just a few hens, but not many.

And as time went on were you given more responsibility on the farm?

Yes, because after you’d been working probably a couple of years or so another young lad would come along and you’d be expected to teach him what to do, make sure he didn’t do anything stupid or silly or get injured or anything.

What were the main things you’d advise?

Well, the way to use a fork, a pitchfork, for one thing, which may sound a bit silly but you can do some dangerous things with a pitchfork… or how to swing a hook even. All things which are way in the past now, for good or bad. I’m not sure which.

You said you became a tractor foreman. Was that at this farm or…

No, no, that was after I was married. Or actually, when I got married. After I was about sixteen I got into tractor driving. Learnt to plough. Which had to be to a good standard because the farmer I was working for at that time, he really had things done properly. I didn’t know another farm like it really. But anyway that put me in good stead for when I moved about on other farms and that. And when I got married I left there and took a tractor driver’s job and foreman. That was another place. That was a big change in one way because I’d gone from lovely soil that you could do anything with, at any time of the year to heavy clay, a lot of it. That did cause me some aggro, still I was able to master it. [Originally expressed in Norfolk as: And that did drive me quite a bit until I got into the way of it. Ed.]

Is it more difficult to plough straight in the clay?

Not to plough straight so much, but to get it to turn over properly. I’d never experienced this but I remember the first time I went to plough I was ploughing along, it turned the furrow over, and then it was falling back in behind me. All you could see was a mark where the disk had been to cut it. And I’d never been used to that, so that meant setting the plough up in a totally different way, and you couldn’t do neat ploughing or anything that I’d been used to.

So it would fall straight back but you couldn’t say where it was going to fall?

Well, it’d just fall back to where it had been.

Where was this farm then?

That was at Susted, that was.

How many men were you in charge of there?

Four, and five at times. We did grow some soft fruit, where we used to have women picking and weeding and all such like that, but I wasn’t involved in that bit of it.

So you were driving the tractor, what were the other men doing?

There’d be another lad; he’d be carting the food for the cattle and suchlike. And harrowing, and all those.

Moving to Wall Engineering

What made you move on from there and join Wall Engineering?

Finance! I think, I had this chance to go there to Wall Engineering. Had an interview with the foreman and we spoke about money and suchlike and I found I was going to be about eighteen pence an hour better off, which in those days was big money. And I went there to learn cutting plates and drilling. Structural engineering. But I’d always wanted to be a lorry driver and I got one or two chances to go out with small loads, cause those days, if you needed, if you’d got a car licence you could drive and that was it. Nobody went with you; you just found your way as you went along. I did this once or twice, and I got to like the job and I suppose they found I was reliable; I could get up early in the morning. Because sometimes you had to make quite an early start to be on site when the erectors were. And that carried on, like I say, twenty two and a half years.

So, Wall Engineering, what did they make, what did they do?

That was all structural engineering. There was hardly anything else, mostly structural engineering. To start with, that would be farm buildings, Dutch barns…

Building them?

Well, they put the steelwork up. They’d make all the steelwork, take it out to the site, and that would be erected, and then builders and everyone else came in behind to finish off and do all the auxiliary works.

So, basically you were transporting the steel and so on for the Dutch barns.

That’s right, yeah. And as time went on, the buildings got bigger, longer, portal trusses came in, in two parts; some of them would be up to forty, fifty feet long. So you’d have some really obscure loads, and I sometimes wonder now how I got around with them, with how the roads were then to what they are now.

So, these were obviously very heavy. How were they put on to the lorries?

Well, they’d be loaded by crane in the yard, and you’d have to meet a crane on site, and they would unload you.

So, there would be a mobile crane on the building site?

On the site there would be a mobile crane, yes

Were you involved in working that, or would somebody else do that?

I did some crane driving later on, that was when the company got their own crane, but I didn’t do a huge amount of it. But what I did get involved in, we’d often take the steel out to a building before the erectors were ready to start, so that would mean taking a set of drawings and laying the building out where the parts were wanted, so they were in the right order. And woe betide you if you got one wrong, ha ha… That was all interesting work, and you know, you think afterwards, I got something to show for this. I mean, I can go about this town now and, I mean there are several big buildings in this town where I took all the steelwork. But of course, you don’t see much of the steelwork when they’re up and finished. That is nice to think that. There was job satisfaction, no doubt about that.

Are they mainly houses, or public buildings in North Walsham?

One big, well, what was then a biggish supermarket. The telephone exchange, the Post Office and such as that…

So you were involved in the building of the Post Office?

Yeah. We took the steel; I can remember taking it up there.

‘Cause, if you recall, when you go back down there, you can see there’s some big sycamore trees in front of it. Well, woe betide us if we’d have broken a branch off one of them when we were lifting it over. We had strict instructions about that! Ha ha!

So what sort of vehicle was it that you ended up driving?

What I ended up driving? Well, that would have been a Leyland Road Train.

An artic (articulated lorry)?

Oh yes, an artic. We went onto artics, oh, can’t remember now, but for a long while we did have three ton Bedfords. And then we got the artic. There again, we went straight out onto artic, no previous experience. Same licence…

You didn’t have any artic training!

No. Life was simple, ha ha. When they brought the HGV goods licence in, course then everyone had to pass the test, but us of a certain age who could prove we’d done it for a certain amount of time, we were granted what was known as grandfather rights. And that was how the world revolved.

I’ve driven a seven and a half tonner because of grandfather rights, but you can’t any more…

No, I don’t know what licences are applicable now. If anything else comes into it now.

So mainly you started off with three tonners?

Three tons.

Any others in between or did you go straight on to an artic?

No, I … the first one we had was an old Austin, and I remember coming back to Norwich one day and I see some men down in a lay-by a fair way ahead with white coats, and I thought, ‘Right, they’re checking…’ That was when they were beginning to bring in MOT restrictions and suchlike to make sure lorries were in good condition. And so I did a quick turn off. Quite a long way back to get back to North Walsham without going past them… went in the office to see the guv’nor, explained to him. He said, ‘keep your eye out,’ he said, ‘If you see them I don’t mind if you go thirty miles round,’ he said, ‘but miss them…’ Of course that then set into motion getting a better lorry. Of course, not a new lorry but a better one. And of course that was a company that everything was done as it should be really but I mean, nobody then had vehicles, or hardly anybody had vehicles, that were up to the MOT standard. I well remember one chap coming to Wales to pick up a lorry, a trailer, an artic trailer, that had been loaded for him, and I can’t remember why but he came in and he was going to take this off to Wales. I remember when he backed onto the turntable that shook the whole unit, and the spring hangers were hanging on about one rivet in the chassis. So I thought that was being held on by sheer weight once that was on.

So the trailer wasn’t roadworthy?

Well, the unit wasn’t. Oh, I remember seeing them, ha ha. But that was how things were then. But even then going back, you didn’t have that number of accidents. Strange thing, isn’t it.

So were you mainly delivering in Norfolk or did you go further afield?

No, because to start with that were in Norfolk, but then we got England, Wales, Scotland, anywhere.

What was the furthest you would go then?

I think the furthest north I went on that particular job would be Glasgow. Renfrew Airport. We did quite a few down in Wales, in that area. Kent. We were doing a lot of work in Kent when the Bacton gas site was being built. I used to meet them on the road. There’d be a firm coming up from Kent to bring steel buildings to Bacton and we’d be taking steel buildings from North Walsham down to Kent…

Not a lot of sense there… With the artic, any memories of tricky places to get to or issues like that?

Oh yes, we had all sorts of problems. Tight corners where you couldn’t turn. Worst problem we ever had was driving to somewhere where you couldn’t only reverse out. That did happen a few times. But I remember taking to somebody very rich down at Mill Hill in London. He had a swimming pool built, or was in the process of building a swimming pool, but they were having a steel building built over it to cover it all in. And that was a very tricky place and he insisted that there’s no way you could drive in there an artic, turn round and come out. The land was all landscaped and suchlike. Perfectly good road going in, but there was no way to come out, so we said that’s all got to be unloaded on the road and pushed in on bogies. When I got there with a load, well it all went on one load, I think it was about twenty something ton of it. When I got there he was then going out, which was fortunate. The erector’s foreman he said to me, he said, ‘We can’t do this,’ he said, ‘push all that in there,’ he said, ‘that’s going to take no end of time, and that’s going to be hard work, and some of it we won’t be able to do it anyhow because the roadway isn’t hard enough.’ So anyhow, we went round, there stood the crane. I could drive round up to the crane and I said, ‘well, there’s no need to because if I drive onto the crane and you unload the trailer, you can then, if I unhitch the trailer, you can lift the trailer and swing it round out of the way. I’ll back the unit out onto the road and back in again, turn the trailer round while it’s lifted from the ground and we’re away. Which we did, and didn’t do any damage at all, but as I was driving back out onto the main road, the owner came back again. To see the look on his face as I was driving out … Ha, ha, it was a picture… It was one of those things that always stay in your mind.

So you’d done the job perfectly but he just didn’t want you to drive it in…

Did not want us to drive in there and reverse out.

So did you reverse out?

I just reversed the unit out, which is dead easy, and then reversed it back in again. And in the meantime, the trailer had been lifted and turned round and faced the other way.

How did they turn the trailer round then?

Well, that was lifted off the ground by the crane and swung right round.

Lifted the whole thing off the ground?

I mean, the trailer only weighed about three tons.

Did you have to use tachographs and so on, towards the end?

They came in towards the end, yeah

How did you find them?

Difficult. But those days there was ways and means of getting round it. I mean, up to then we had log books. You were supposed to log everything we did, but the old saying was, well, you keep one at the front on the dashboard and one behind the seat… ha ha. And change them over.

You don’t have to tell me this!

It’s all in the past! Ha ha.

Okay… When did you finish at Walls then?

I can’t remember the exact year, not without looking a load of papers up; I think it’d have been about ‘eighty two. That was when recession set in, and they were laying off, and doing drastic changes. The lorry had to go and they went for outside contractors. So, I wouldn’t stay because I had been on a good rate of pay which they wanted to cut drastically, to go back as a labourer. So, I then went down to General Haulage, which is all different, the set up was, completely.

General Haulage

That’s another company?

Another company, yes. I’d always thought … I’d seen people with tipper lorries: he don’t have to sit about waiting for a crane, or be there at a certain time, he can just open the back and let it go and that’s finished and done with. But I found that didn’t work exactly like that, because you’d get some loads that would stick to the tipper, and have an awful job to get them off.

This is a tipper truck? You’re saying some of the stuff wouldn’t come out?

Just wouldn’t slide, would stick to the floor.

This would be like, sand, or something, would it?

No, sand’d run off dead easy. One of the main things, we used to cart a lot of sugar beet pulp nuts. And they set solid like a cake, ‘cause they were warm when they put them on. Then they had this period when they used to dose them with something, some said it was talcum powder but I don’t know if it was, it was a white powder. Then the salmonella came in, and they stopped doing this and that and the other, and up till that time we used to put some diesel on the floor or something like that. Of course, all that was banned. They’d check your trailer before they loaded, just to make sure that was clean and dry. And of course that gave us all these problems of getting rid of it.

So what would happen if the load stuck even when it was tipped?

Well, you’d get on there and break so much of it up, and then tip it up and get rid of that, and go and break some more up and tip it up like that.

So you’d break it off manually?

Break it off manually and then tip the trailer up and get rid of that and then go back and knock some more.

So did you use a pick or a spade or…

A spade, anything you could get your hands to.

Yes, not as easy as just tipping it off is it…

Oh no. But the other downside I found to that job was you’d … there was no job satisfaction. Once you’d tipped a load that was gone and finished, you’d got nothing to show for it or anything. After what I had been used to.

Most of that was going between farms and Cantley (Sugar Beet processing plant) was it?

Cantley, farms…

So that was local work, you didn’t get the long trips?

Well, we did. The pulp nuts used to run us into long distance because a lot of that used to go down to Somerset, on the Somerset Levels. Then we’d bring back granite and stone back from Cheddar Gorge, in that area.

The nuts were being used as fertiliser?

Cattle feed.

How many years were you at General Haulage then?

Well, I worked there till I was … I think I done just over ten years. To about ninety two or three. And then, I was getting a bit old for the game so, I was looking for something else and a job came along in town and I wanted to leave because I was pretty sure I could pick up enough odd jobs just to keep me going the last two or three years of working life. You couldn’t leave.. there were so many restrictions and that, you couldn’t leave… anyhow, I did get a job in town, in North Walsham here, so I could leave and not worry about unemployment pay or anything like that, which I did. And although things and working conditions hadn’t been that brilliant for quite a few months before I finished this other job, I was surprised the night I finished he said, ‘You know, if it don’t work out for you, you can come back,’ he said, ‘there’s a job here until you retire,’ which rather shook me really, after some of the problems I’d had. Anyhow, I didn’t have to go back, so I carried on until I was sixty five.

That was a good offer anyway

Yeah, that really surprised us, didn’t it?

Well, that’s covered just about everything from when you started to finishing. Are there any sorts of people who stick out in your mind as memorable characters perhaps?

There has been so many I suppose… They’d be a few. At Wall Engineering, right at the early time, because of course they got going a bit more after I’d started there, they got up to about seventy working in the works. And of course there’d always be some of them who were game for a laugh and that. I always remember there was one chap there; we had a lot of steel plates stood about for different jobs. They’d got eight foot by four, and could not resist that he’d chalk something on one of them. And they’d be drawings, they’d be cartoons, and anyone would be the butt of one of the jokes, you just had to take it… And I always remember when we were coming up to finishing when there was all the redundancies coming, someone started a book on one of the sheets, who was going first, who was going to be last, and that stood there and, boy, he was way, way out! Ha ha…

They don’t always know, do they?


Okay, well, I think that’s probably covered everything unless there’s anything else you want to add.

No, I shall think of a lot afterwards, no doubt.

Well, thank you very much for taking us through your experiences on the farm and in the haulage business.

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