Working Lives

The doings of the Dewings – a farmer’s tale (1954-1997)

Location: Bressingham, South Walsham

Richard has been a farmer most of his life. He moved from a small farm in Bressingham to South Walsham from where he retired in 1997.  

I finished university when I was twenty and then did my national service. I actually had a twenty-first birthday the week I joined.  I did my two years in Germany and came out of the army in 1954 to look for a job.  The first one I got was with the Agricultural Research Council.  My job was to obtain identical twin calves because they were good for research.

Agricultural Research Council and the Euston Estate

I travelled the counties of Cheshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire to look for them.  We advertised for calves at a good price and farmers let us know if they had any and I had to go and examine them and decide whether or not they were identical.  If they were we would pay £50 for them – quite a good price for a calf at that time.  So I did that job for a year or two.  I was quite happy doing it but I knew in my heart that I wanted to farm on my own account. I wasn’t doing research – I just got the calves.  I did actually go on to do the same job in Scotland for a while and I did some work on research there.

I’ve been brought up on a farm and I wanted to farm on my own and I wasn’t going to get into it by doing that sort of job.  As I wanted to try and get a farm from Norfolk County Council I decided I better get nearer Norfolk, so in the mid-sixties I got a job as an assistant farm manager to the Duke of Grafton, at the Euston estate in Thetford.  I married while I was there in 1958.

The Duke was very keen on his Hereford herd.  My title was assistant farm manager, but I wasn’t really, I was the stockman.  This week they were talking about making the minimum wage £9 an hour, but actually at that time, my wage was £9 a week, which was more than agricultural workers were paid.  I also had free accommodation and milk.

The Hereford has a single calf and as far as possible they were born in February and March when there is plenty of grass and plenty of milk in the cows for the calves.  The calves were sold in October.  So that was the job really.  In the winter they were kept outside so they were outside all year round and I had to sometimes move them from one place to another and feed them with kale and that sort of thing. That was the main part of the job – feeding the cattle.  It wasn’t particularly hard work.

Norfolk County Council farm at Bressingham

While I was there, I was on the Norfolk County Council waiting list for a holding and after two or three years one came up.  I was interviewed and in 1958 I got a small farm at Bressingham – 50 acres – and we moved there in October.

I have didn’t enough to buy a farm which is why I had to go through Norfolk County Council.  I had to borrow fifteen hundred from the bank when I started – a lot in those days.  While I was at Bressingham we had five children and that cost a bit as well.

It was half of a 100 acre farm really and it was mainly arable with some livestock.  I kept a few cattle and bought a tractor, a plough.

In those days, sugar beet harvesting by machine was very much in its infancy.  I employed casual workers in the autumn or winter to harvest the sugar beet by hand.  I would lift the beet with a machine so they came out of the ground easily and then the workers had to knock the soil off them, cut the tops off and I would go along and collect them in the trailer. It’s all done by machine now but in those days there was a lot of work involved.

I grew cereals and I employed a contractor to harvest it.  I did have a lot of experience in my youth working on my father’s farm at a time when all the harvesting was done by hand. I helped my father from about the age of 12 onwards I suppose.

Combines hadn’t come in yet but one change was when I bought a sprayer – when I was a youth my father never sprayed anything and it all had to be done by hand.  We used to grow some magnificent crops of thistles, I remember.  At Bressingham I did everything myself except for somebody else harvesting my sugar beet or later combine harvesting my crops.

I kept about 15 beef cattle, fattened them up and sent them to the Norwich market.  It was hard work and I never had a day off.  I couldn’t play football or anything like that.  It was hard labour but it was the only way to do it.

I had beef cattle and a cow for the house which I milked by hand.  Eventually we were offered a larger slightly farm where I kept hens and sold eggs.  I did make more when I moved here – you couldn’t make enough money on a farm the size I’d had in Bressingham and make a real living – especially when you’ve got five children. That’s one grouse I have with Norfolk County Council… When they let me have this farm in South Walsham I was doing a teaching job in a convent teaching girls to O-Level at Swaffham.  I taught biology three days a week at the school. I had studied it at university – biology and science – and I enjoyed doing the teaching actually.  I could do it because the Bressingham farm was small.

They let me have the farm on condition that I gave up the teaching job – which I did.  But when I came here, I found that every person with a small holding had got another job!

I enjoyed the teaching.  I think I was reasonably good at it and I got good results. It’s been one of my regrets in my life that I had to give it up.  But I did, because I wanted to and because my wife wasn’t terribly happy at Bressingham; it was very isolating.  And when she came here, she was able to set up her own bed and breakfast business in this house.  And so that helped as well.  When we came here I was 42, and she was 36. We arrived at this farm in South Walsham in 1973 and gave up in 1997.

We’d always said that we wouldn’t stay in the small holding here because the idea was to step up – but I couldn’t get any further.  There were hardly any farms to let at the time.  However, on one occasion a 120 acre farm came up for let in Suffolk.  They wanted the person to be a family man and a supporter of the church.  Well, I was church warden at Bressingham and I was also a reader in the church so we went to interview at the farm but we didn’t get it.  I then discovered that the bloke who got it was the son of a large farmer and was single.

When I came here to South Walsham the sugar beet was all mechanised and it wasn’t touched by hand at all.  I had combined at Bressingham, but here I had contractors to do a bit more especially towards the end.  I had some marshland here which you couldn’t plough so I had to keep cattle to use the grass – so I had a few more cattle here.

At one point I did try dairy and sold milk and eggs but I didn’t want to sell milk to the milk marketing board.  I kept 200 hens and five Jersey cows, and I milked the cows, bottled the milk and sold it here.  But the day I sold my first pint they brought in milk quotas, and I couldn’t get a quota.  Despite the ministry giving me advice on what to do and how to set up the dairy, I couldn’t get a quota unless I joined the NFU and I never went along with that sort of thing.  Why should I join the NFU to get a quota?  They were supposed to say how much milk they sold if they had a quota but people selling their own milk didn’t always declare when they had sold more – even when it meant fiddling a bit.  For the first five years, they did OK but the sixth year, for some reason or other, they went wildly over their quota and my profits went to the ministry.  I’d had enough and I stopped doing the milk, but I had proved it was possible to do it without a quota and that people would lie to get one.  I was defeated by the government on that occasion.

It was all to do with EEC regulations.  But I discovered afterwards that lots of countries don’t take any notice of that stuff – we obeyed every rule.  I think Italy never bothered with quotas.  We obey every rule and they ignore them!

Teaching in Uganda

I gave up the cattle around 1990 I suppose and I felt at the time that God was prompting me.  At that time I lost the sight of my left eye because I had a displaced retina and they couldn’t put it right and I spent time in hospital.  And every time I picked up a magazine it said to give two years of your life to the third world.  I thought that they were trying to tell me something so I decided that I would do it. I consulted my wife to see if she was happy and we went with an organisation to Uganda for a couple of years -1992 -1994.  I was 62.  It was a Christian Canadian organisation actually. We were sent to a college where the students had to grow their own food and the organisation funded it and provided them with a lot of tools and that sort of thing.  We had the job of teaching in the college.  My wife taught English because they were dead keen to learn it and she taught theology.  English was, more or less, the official language which everybody used.  I taught aspects of farming.  We were there for two years and we made some good friends there as well.

We were in Canada for about six weeks for training and spent part of it in Jamaica so we could get used to third world conditions – which meant no flush loos. As there were none when a kid, it wasn’t new to me!

I taught farming because they were all going to be self-supporting farmers.  Everyone there was a self-supporting farmer.  They grew maize and crops like that.  I taught economics, to some extent I suppose.  I enjoyed our time there but my wife would have stayed on.

They were a very nice and very hard working people and they were Christians as well.  Uganda had been a troubled country before we went and some of the people had been through a lot. We were ambushed while we were there.  The organisation had people on the other side of the country and as we went there one day we were stopped as we went round a corner by three or four blokes with Kalashnikovs.  They made us get out of the vehicle and they took everything but they didn’t touch us and they let us carry on.  They even cut the safety belts out of the cars.  Everyone thought we would run back home but we didn’t.  There were rebel groups all over the place including a rebel army or Lord’s Resistance Army as they were called – it had nothing to do with the Lord at all.

We were near a town in the north called Gulu, about thirty or forty miles from the Sudan border.  Someone came with a gun one night and demanded money.  We told them we didn’t have any, which was true. Everybody thought we must be rich.

We lived just up the road from the main hospital.  Unfortunately for the Ugandans they had to pay for their schooling and medicine.  They thought that we must be loaded and could give them money to go to hospital.  We continually had to say we were sorry but we couldn’t finance them.  Quite a few people threatened that if I didn’t give them money, I was going to die.  You can’t give in to that sort of threat.  It was a culture shock; it was certainly a culture shock.  But we’ve been back.

While I was away my daughter did the books.  My son, Andrew worked for Dalgety but he managed the crop side and a contractor up the road, who is a good friend, did the work.  I had no stock but I had 200 hens which my other son and his wife looked after. His wife also ran the bed and breakfast and kept the house so it all worked out very well.

Home to the farm

My wife still runs the bed and breakfast to a limited extent although she’s older now.  People who have been coming here for 20 years still come – but not so many now.  It’s a very worthwhile thing to do and we have made some good friends over that time. So, it all worked out very well.

I say that God looked after me because the council controls people around here. They had always promised me more land but were never able to supply it, however, if you did get more land you had to sign an agreement to retire at 65.  On my agreement I could carry on forever!  As a result, they gave me a golden handshake to give up the farm because they wanted the land.  It was not enormous but it was reasonable.

I had wanted to buy the house at the same time as my neighbour bought his in 1980 but they wouldn’t sell to me.  In the end, they did.  The golden handshake didn’t pay for the house but it helped towards it.  My brother was an auctioneer and estate agent in Dereham and did the negotiating, so everything fell into place.  We’ve been here ever since.

Richard Dewing (b. 1931)  talking to WISEArchive on 14th July 2015 at South Walsham.

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