Working Lives

The Assistant Farmer (1936-1968)

Location: Colney, Norfolk

David’s family were tenants at Old Hall in Colney. In farming those days there was a good social life. He was on farms, and then travelled around with the Ministry of Agriculture.

I came to Colney on October 11th 1936 when my family gave up Manor Farm Kirby Bedon where I was born and we moved to Hall Farm Colney. The farms were farmed at Colney by my father Bailey and his brother Hugh trading as H & B Wilson and the reason that the family moved to Colney was because of my grandmother. She’d come to look after her bachelor brother in 1863 and when my grandmother married, she married a man who worked for the Great Eastern Railway. He was a clerk and a bookkeeper and the Makins family, of which she was a member, were needing someone to keep the books because they had a very big cattle and sheep interest and so when she married my grandfather they moved into the Old Hall at Colney as tenants of the landowners. My grandfather did not farm but he was, as it were, secretary and accountant to William Makins.

I was 10 when I came here in 1936. H&B (Wilson) had been farming the Colney farms and also Church Farm, Earlham since the death of William Makins, my grandmother’s brother, in 1927. Church Farm at Earlham was owned by John Gurney of Walsingham Abbey. The Colney Estate was owned by the Barclay family. The Colney Estate ran to about 800 acres, well probably more, because of woodland, and we obviously didn’t hire the woodland only the arable land and the pastureland. So Colney was just over 1000 acres.

We had three big herds of cows, one at Church Farm, Earlham and another established before 1936 when the family took over the tenancy of Hall Farm, Earlham that was on the Bluebell Road on the site of what’s now the University. We grew quite a large acreage of food for the cattle and horses and for cattle particularly a crop that I haven’t seen at all lately, marrowstem kale and also mangolds, mangold-wurzels as they were called by many, now a crop, I should think, almost extinct. We also grew swedes, but sheep-farmers still grow swedes. Otherwise it was mixed farming, oats, wheat, barley, sugar beet and of course all of the work was done manually and by horsepower. So it was enormously laborious, you had a big labour force.

In 1944 when I left school we employed 104, I remember, but that included some land girls because some of the men had been called up. Because the families of those who worked on the land lived in the cottages round the farms it was quite a sociable atmosphere between them. You can still see all those cottages. They were built piece-meal for people who worked on the estate.

We had quite a social life. We had a cricket club. Colney never had a football team but the Independent Labour Party had a football pitch on Colney Park and some of the Colney men played with the Independent Labour players. Then there was the Men’s Club in the Parish Room, the Mothers’ Union and the Women’s Institute. The Men’s Club met in the Parish room two nights a week and they played cards, they played darts they had a billiard table, billiards and snooker. There was a kitchen so they could have tea and refreshments. There was an open fire so they could sit round the fire and chat. For the children there was Sunday school and they went to Little Melton School. They used to walk along past Church Farm in procession from the cottages lower down to get to Little Melton School.

I can quite imagine now how they say farm workers get depressed. You see one man on a huge machine. It must be a lonely life. The Women’s Institute used to have a dinner once a year and after that there was dancing, and the Men’s Club did the same. That was in the 1940s and 50s.

After the War machinery came along. My family tended to be a bit conservative and perhaps didn’t realise as quickly as some others did. So they still had a large labour force and the cows were still milked by hand in the 1950s. The bulk of the ploughing was done by tractor but we still had quite a few horses and we bred Persherons. The bulk of the ploughing was done by tractors. We had four tractors after the war but the horses still did quite a lot of the work. Some were kept for breeding and there was a good outlet as Persheron horses were in demand. They were very good for general farm work. They were strong and very amenable and they were very nice animals to work with.

As I got older my role was to help my father and uncle with the farm which often meant going with them if they went to buy and sell things, going to the Corn Hall on a Saturday if we’d got corn to sell and generally being their lieutenant. I knew all the men and knew their backgrounds and they knew us of course. Norwich Market was the main market we went to and there used to be quite a lot of lamb sales and we kept sheep. We used to buy lambs when they were weaned. We’d go to Bury St Edmunds or Diss where there were big lamb sales in July of each year and we’d buy about 300 lambs and they would be folded over the land. We had hurdles on wheels and they could be pulled by a horse or a tractor. They would graze the crops we grew for them, swedes. In the summer they’d be on the hay bottoms after we’d cut the first crop and they’d get the aftermath there. And of course they did the land a lot of good because it can do with all the manure it can get, and fertiliser and folding sheep over was a very good way of helping that. We would fatten out the wether lambs and sell them for slaughter and the ewe lambs we had clipped in May or early June and they would go to sales at Diss or Bury St Edmunds as sheering ewes. Batches of those were put to the ram and bred by the farmer. That was in the 40s and 50s.and earlier too.

Dairy farming was the other big thing. There were 3 dairy herds with about 80 cows at the peak at the end of the war. We kept Fresians mainly but there were some Ayrshires and we did have a little beef herd. That went on into the 1960s. The farm went in 1967 . My Uncle Hugh, my father’s brother, died suddenly in 1965 and father when he was 80 in 1967 decided to retire. When he retired part of it had already been developed, the University of East Anglia being so close they bought a sizeable part of the farm.

Under the Agricultural Act you had security of tenure if you farmed property. If the land was required for a purpose other than agriculture the land owners could get possession of it, subject to proper notice. The University bought the land that’s now the playing fields and the land that’s now the Research Institute and the land that the BUPA Hospital stands on, the land through to Watton Road.

Evelyn Barclay died in September 1956 and that’s when the estate was sold. That bought big changes. We no longer had a resident landlord. Eagle Star Insurance Company, who bought our holding, employed an estate agent, Irelands, the Auctioneers, and if we wanted anything done, buildings repaired or something, we had to approach Irelands. The work force had to be reduced as the acreage was reduced. I couldn’t give you the exact figures of what there was. Those of working age, if we had no job for them had to move out of their cottages and go elsewhere to find employment. I’m glad to say that some of the oldest people living in the cottages were allowed to stay on after their retirement. So it was a gradually reduced force on the remaining land.

We had a very easy relationship with the Barclays when they were landlords, before Eagle Star took over. Mrs. Barclay would come through the parish two or three times a week on foot and she was quite happy to talk to anyone she met. She was President of the Women’s Institute and of course on Sunday she came to church. They would want to know if anyone was ill and they’d visit and they cared for the people in the village. Evelyn Barclay, himself, was always very ‘hail fellow well met’ and well disposed and he’d come cycling through or walk along the footpath with his dogs chatting with anyone he met. He was interested in village life and was President of the Football Club and when he went on Saturdays to the matches he’d take old Fred Mortar the blacksmith who lived at the forge with him and Mrs. Barclay, and they made a threesome. He was quite an extrovert. After his death that social aspect was missed very much. Evelyn had three daughters, and he said to my father some years before he died, he said ‘The estate will have to be sold when I die because I can’t leave it to one daughter. The only way to make a fair will is to treat them all the same.’ If he’d had a son things might have been very different.

Eagle Star were very fair landlords indeed. I wouldn’t want to find any fault with them. Irelands were their agent. For a certain number of those who worked on the farm and lived in the cottages they put bathrooms and sanitation into each cottage which hadn’t been done until then. Looking back on it, I periodically meet people about my own age who lived in the village when I was in my teens and twenties, sons of ex-employees. One said to me only recently when we were looking round the church, he wishes to be buried there. He said, ‘It was such a happy village. We didn’t realise what a nice place we were living in and how happy we were.’ And I often think back to it. Although of course it lacked the facilities that most people would want today, bathrooms and so on. But others have said the same to me, how happy they were.

When the farm had to go and the land was taken over I joined Animal Health Division and the Ministry of Agriculture in the position of a so-called technical assistant. The title was pretty quickly changed from being a technical assistant to being an Animal Health Officer. Basically our job was the control of notifiable diseases, in other words, Foot and Mouth, Fowl Pest, Rabies and things like that. And of course we were also involved with the eradication of TB in cattle. As you know, all milk now comes from Tuberculin Tested Cattle. And as I joined they were just starting on the eradication of Brucellosis and so we were soon very involved with that, talking milk samples and blood samples from cattle. These were diseases that had affected us while we were farming. If a person drinks milk affected by Brucellosis they can get undulant fever which is extremely nasty.

I used to travel all round Norfolk because we were controlling the markets, that sort of thing. So it meant I was on farms which I liked to be on. I had twenty years with the Ministry. It was very interesting. I had only been with them three weeks when I was drafted north in March 1968 to the Foot and Mouth Centre because it was just at the tail end of the outbreak that plagued Cheshire and the surrounding counties and we spent some time up there clearing up. That was quite a baptism of fire.

David (b. 1926) talking to WISEArchive in 2007 in Colney.

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