Working Lives

The Farm Manager (1954-2001)

Location: Weasenham, Norfolk

Jim went to agricultural college and then worked on farms throughout the country before moving to Norfolk to work as a farm manager. He tells of the changes from the age of horses through to modern methods of herd management, and the challenges of disease such as BSE.

When I left school I wanted to go to agricultural college, I always wanted to be a farmer, from very quite an early age. To go to agricultural college you had to do a year’s practical on the farm, work on a farm before that. So I got a job, on a farm near where we lived in Herefordshire, village called Coldwell. The farm was about 45 miles away from there and I used to go on my bike everyday. My Father’d knew this farmer from meeting him in the pub so that’s how he got me the job. It was mixed farm with livestock, sheep and cattle, and arable farming as well. Quite traditional for that part of the country but no hops, the hop yards started in the next farm to us, which again is also a side of farming in Herefordshire but not on the farm I worked on. So I worked there doing a dog’s job really all the pleasant jobs, looking after the calves. My boss used to go to market on a Monday in Hereford, come back with a calf or 2 in the boot of his car. I had to get them to suckle on a cow and get them going, which was quite a difficult job for somebody who didn’t know anything about it. But so I succeeded in that for best part of that year and then just in the summer before I was due to go to college, we fell out the boss and I. So I left there, I was living in the farm house because my parents had moved away by then., So I got a job with another friend who was a farmer, who was also a butcher in the village, that I knew and I worked with him for the last 3 months or so. Then I went to agriculture college for 2 years in Shropshire, Harper Adams College, which it’s a good college. Enjoyed my time there, played a lot of rugby And also did a bit of work as well. Managed to get a college diploma under National Diploma in Agriculture, which was the sort of qualification that, you came out of that college with.

I’m not sure how much I was paid. It wouldn’t have been more than about 30 shillings which was £1.50, if that. I didn’t have much money because I’d just left school, so at 17 to 18 I was working on this farm. I’d just got a pushbike and I saved up all the money I could. I had to give some for my keep I suppose, when I was living in the farmhouse. Bought a motorbike for £37, which was a lot of money you know with my savings really. I used to save a few shillings every week I suppose, and that sort of made me more mobile then. So that I was able to get about and I took the motorbike to college with me.

The only sort of friend I had from school really who lived locally was the butcher’s son, who had a pony. He was sort of into farming and that but he was much more into horses really. We went on to school together to public school. He ended up as apprentice to the stables in Cheltenham, Freddie Nicholson’s stables, it was very well known trading in those days. So he continued his career with horses and I went into farming but apart from that I didn’t really know anybody. I don’t know why, what it was, it’s because my parents weren’t farmers, we just lived in the country and just liked the country way of life I think really. That’s why I decided on farming and farming all my life.

I enjoyed college. I wasn’t homesick or anything you know because I’d been away from my parents because I boarded at school from the age of 13. Some people hadn’t been away you know, before they went to college. A lot more were at that time, this was in 1954 when I went to college and a lot of people had done their National Service. Then had come to college after doing that, so they were a bit older and they were more worldly, a lot of the colleagues at college. But I hadn’t, I’d gone straight from school more or less and just a year on the farm, so I was quite naive really I suppose, to the ways of the world. But that was how it was, it was either you went to college or you did National Service because you were conscripted for 2 years in those days. When I came out of college I went to work on a farm with livestock and if you worked with livestock, you were deferred from National Service. I wanted to get on the farm, I didn’t really want to do my National Service, which probably in hindsight was the wrong thing because a lot of people who did, gained a lot of experience really. There was always this risk that you wouldn’t get a job at the end of, because it was difficult to get jobs when you came out of college. There weren’t too many good jobs about really, jobs with sort of bit of a premium. There was quite a lot more people being trained than there were jobs really, even in those days. Also people were coming back from the colonies in that time as well, from Africa especially because things weren’t so good there. A lot of people in colonial service, they were all looking for jobs as managers, foreman and that sort of thing on farms. So I thought if I lose out two years I’m never going to get a job, that’s why really I wanted to get a job, rather than do National Service. So I always worked with livestock and then I was deferred always from doing National Service. Then of course in about 1962 or something I think it finished anyway, conscription.

Within the first farm there were cows, calves and sheep. Then after I left college it was quite difficult to get a job, wanted to go back round Hereford area but I applied, different jobs. Used to get Farmers’ Weekly every week and, you know, when you are looking for jobs, everybody was searching through the columns of Farmers’ Weekly for jobs, but there weren’t many in Herefordshire. I put an advert in the ‘Hereford Times'”, I got two replies and I went to see one of them and I could of got that job but it was on a hill farm just almost into Wales, when I was on the border of Hereford and Wales. I would have been living in this farmhouse on my own, I think and it was miles from anywhere. I just didn’t want to be working on my own as well. The fellow who owned the farm didn’t seem particularly keen on too much work, I got the impression anyway. So I think it was his parents’ farm and he was just sort of running it but not really keen on farming. So I turned that one down and ended up in Somerset, on a dairy farm with milking Friesian cows.

Used to be up at six to milk. Never done any milking before, never had anything to do with milking cows but was quite an eye opener really to go into that sort of life but stuck it for, 18 months I think it was.

Still wasn’t a lot of money. You didn’t get overtime anything like that, so you just worked and got paid, I don’t know whether I got up to about £4 a week or something like that. Likely to have been that sort of money I think, this would be from round about 1958. I left there.

I always said ‘Well I’m never going to milk cows.’ I went to another dairy farm after that, near Henley-on-Thames, again advert I saw in the Farmers’ Weekly. I applied to a job with a farmer in Northamptonshire near Market Harborough. I went up to see the farm actually and we got on well together. This was for a shepherd’s job. I hadn’t worked the sheep really, apart from when my first job and I didn’t get the job but I got on well with the boss. He said “If you are ever looking for a job in the future, get in touch with me I might have something.” He had quite a big farm with the cattle, sheep and arable farming. So anyway I went to this farm, dairy farm in the Chilterns just north of Henley-on-Thames, to a village called Bix Bottom. I stayed there for about a year and I had to move on from there. I lived with a foreman or sort of foreman manager, who used to do the milking side, so I just did relief milking. I used to look after the calves, did all with just the two of us on the farm. Although they did have a pig man as well who just looked after the pigs. This was a sort of leisure farm for a lady of leisure, whose husband was an industrialist. She was quite a tartar really: you had to take your cap off and doff your cap to her, take your shoes off and go up on the carpet to be spoken to, if you’d done anything wrong.

I didn’t really like that set up too much, so I applied to this farmer that I’d applied to before. He said ‘Yes I might have a job for you, come and see me.’ This was near Market Harborough and so I drove up to see him. He told me that he’d got a farm in Norfolk as well, where he’d been born. Up on this farm in Norfolk, he was looking for somebody to take over ‘cause the manager was getting on and was getting near to retirement.

I came to Norfolk and it was the end of harvest I think, the first year I came. First time I came down here we stayed in Kings Lynn, the farm was at Weasenham, which is about 15 miles away from Kings Lynn to the east. Came down and had a look round the farm, then he gave me the job. The jobs normally change at Michaelmas, which is, in Norfolk 11th of October. I joined him from the 11th October and had 3 weeks working on the farm in Northamptonshire, with the shepherd up there. which turned me down for a job, 2 years before or 18 months before. Got on well with him, the boss and then at the end of October 1959, came to Norfolk.

So that’s a rather long preamble about my early days but anyway. I came as an assistant manager that winter 1959 and got on ok. The manager was an old boy really, he had his own farm and he just sort of looked after this farm, he was more the secretary really. He did all the books for the whole company because although it was 2 separate farms, one in Northampton and one in Norfolk, it was run as a company, private company. So that he did all the books for the company and he was really a secretary but he looked after the farm as well. The boss, who was Mr Overman, used to come every twoweeks to Norfolk: go on a Sunday night and stay in his house in Kings Lynn, come to the farm on the Monday, Kings Lynn market on the Tuesday and then off back home to Northamptonshire again. Did that every 2 or 3 weeks, for a long while. I got on and got a bit fed up because the manager didn’t give me anything. Mr Platten, his name was, he didn’t give me any work to do really. He didn’t particularly want me there, he thought I was, well he didn’t really know why I’d been sent there, I don’t think. Although I suppose he’d been told that I was going to be his assistant. So I just got on and eventually went on to the farm and worked along with the manager, who accepted me quite well really. He used to help with the cattle and we had a lot of cows and calves, be from suckling herd, there he used to help with the cattle, as much as Owen could.

Got quite friendly with the foreman Arthur Wix, used to call him Stuart in those days, and another chap called Jack Lynn, who lived with foreman, his lodger, who was a great character, he was a tractor driver. So we got on well together and they sort of kept me busy, jobs for me all through that winter. Then the next April, Mr Overman, on one of his visits said Mr Platten was going to finish at the end of April, Finish and I was to take over. That was all a bit, a bolt in the blue really because I’d no idea that he was. Mr Platten hadn’t said a word to me that he was going to retire. So it was, dropped in at the deep end then completely. The 1st of May 1960, I was in sole charge of this, just over 1,060 acre farm.

I was 21 then, on the farm. It was a very traditional farm, much more so than the farms in the area really because Mr Platten, being more or less left to get on with it and he was an old fashioned boy. There were two teams of horses, team for four horses, two teams of two horsemen look after them. They used to plough with the horses still. Do a lot of the carting with the horses, cart the sugar beet off the fields. The sugarbeet used to just be lifted by hand but they used to be told not to top, so you’d maybe ploughed out of the ground with a Guyco, it was called the machine. It took two rows, lifted them and then you had to go along and lift up the tops, hit them together to knock the soil off and then to chop the tops off with a knife. Then throw them into a heap and then that heap had to be forked into a cart. The cart went to the end of the field, made a heap and then they had to be loaded up on to a lorry to take to the sugar beet factory, it was all very laborious. There was a steam engine on the farm and a thrashing machine. In that first winter there were still stacks made, so some of the corn was cut with a binder and there were stacks made. In that first winter I was there, we thrashed these stacks of oats and beans with the thrashing drum, steam engines, which was completely new to me. I hadn’t worked with horses. Although I didn’t actually work with them but to even be on a farm where there were horses was quite a surprise but anyway.

Most had some tractors but they were all quite old ones. The first winter I was there, they did buy two new tractors, they were just to be used for the fieldwork. They had steel wheels on, spud wheels used to call them, so you couldn’t go on the roads with them. They were left in a barn up on the fields and they just drive ‘em out from the barn every day, so they didn’t help with carting on the roads at all. But that was all they were intended to do was to just do the ploughing really and any other field work with drilling and harrowing, that sort of thing.

I remember when I first started, I got some thing just over £8 a week I think, which was the same as the foreman got on the farm because I was assistant manager really. I was still very new and young and inexperienced but I think it might have been £8 5 shillings or some thing like that, which was the same as the engine driver got because he’d got an extra amount of money for looking after the steam engine and being skilled at driving that. He also sort of the engineer on the farm really, mechanic I suppose you’d call him, in a sort of basic way. Although that he didn’t do very much in the way of repairs but just maintenance I suppose. He also got that sort of thing the money and then the rest of the labourers got quite a lot less than that I suppose, I don’t know about £6 a week or some thing like that possibly.

Lot of work was done on a sort of bonus system, for the various jobs you got an extra 6 pence a day. For things like muck spreading I think and because that used to be done by hand. Also lot of the sugar beet work was done piecework, so you got paid for the job. They could make more money, specially the hoeing the sugar beet in, singling out the plants in the spring to about a foot a part, that was all done piece work and so much a… I can’t remember if it was a chain? I think it was how much a chain used to pay. They could work harder then and longer hours and earn more money you see so that was one way of increasing your wage a little bit. Then there was overtime as well, the Agriculture Wages Board stipulated what the wages would be and how much the overtime pay would be. The working week in those days would have been, probably 46-48 hours I suppose. Anything over that, like the horsemen, they used to come at 5 o’clock I think or half past 5 in the morning to feed the horses. Then go home and have their breakfast and then we used to start work at 7. So they would have that much extra, another hour or something, at the beginning of the day, which they would get paid for and they would also get a bonus, the horseman anyway I suppose. It wasn’t a lot of money really and so we got on reasonably well. Earnt a loss money in the first year, when things had got very run down and there wasn’t much production from the land. This would be early 60’s when farming wasn’t in a very healthy state anyway. Gradually we pulled out and some of the men were retired and some were made redundant, so from 21 we got down to 15 I think. Had more tractors then and I had the job of selling the horses, which was not a very pleasant job because they were sorry to see them go, although they were really getting past being able to use them for anything. Then with having fewer men on the place there were more tractors and there wasn’t really a place for horses. One of the horsemen went onto a tractor and decided he would keep his job and try and drive a tractor. The other one was dead against tractors, he left, although he did later on, some many years later came back to work for us again because he still lived in the village, I think. He came back but never to go on the tractor, he came back as a sort of stockman.

I learnt as I went along and there was a very good friend of Mr Overman’s, who was a foreman, for Captain Birkbeck at West Acre. He was an old boy but he was very friendly and he used to come over and, Mr Overman had told him to keep an eye on me, just to see I didn’t do anything too silly. Mr Overman used to come every 2 or 3 weeks anyway just to check out what was going on. Billy Thaxton used to come over, ride over on a Sunday and go round the farm with me. Harvest time they’d often be round, he and his wife in the car on weekends, to see what we were up to. I had some help really and people were very, very good and the men all worked well for me, they supported me well really.

So I gradually got to learn what needed doing and we progressed well then. We still had quite a lot of livestock and increased those, increased the cows, calves and used to have cattle to graze as well. They used to come from Market Harborough because Mr Overman was a great market man. He would send loads of cattle from Leicester market on the train. They could still come on the train because there was the old M and GN line, which went from Kings Lynn to Fakenham, that was still open in those days. It had stopped being a passenger line with the Beeching cuts. They kept the line open as far as East Rudham, where there was the granary. They got a contract with the granary for them to use the railways so they kept the line open for goods. Cattle used to come from Massingham Station and there was a cattle pen at the station. We used to walk them from there, which was about 2 miles I suppose to the farm. We were the last people to use that line for livestock. Then it continued going to the granary. We used to have fertiliser and things still come on the train. We used to go to the East Rudham station and unload them. In the early days, before my time, they used to send sugar beet by train from East Rudham station. All the sugar beet had to be thrown into the trucks by hand, heavy heavy work, same with the sugar beet going away on the lorries. The first haulier that we had didn’t have a loader, tractor loader so it was all thrown in the lorry by hand. They were quite small lorries, only about 10-ton lorries I suppose, but even so. I used to help the lorry driver sometimes, found it very hard, heavy work throwing sugar beet into a lorry. They got used to it, they got the knack of it, they were doing it 6 days a week or probably 7 because they load up on a Sunday for the Monday morning.

I liked doing livestock. I was interested. I always looked after the cows myself for a long while, when I sort of had more time in those days and did all the calving and everything else, it made long hours. I got married in 1966, we lived on in the farmhouse, first married. It wasn’t so bad when you lived on the farm, we used to pop out in the middle of the night if necessary, to a cow calving. After the children were born, we were three miles away from the nearest village where we lived, with school coming up, with our eldest girl, was coming up for five, we moved to a cottage, we bought a cottage in Gayton, which was about 10 miles away from the farm. I had to drive that distance every day but at least we were living in our own place then, so we were more secure in a way, rather than in a tied occupation. It meant more travelling then really and so I was away for quite long hours and of course it was 7-day week job; always worked 7 days a week all my life really. There’s always been the livestock, can’t be a 5-day week with those.

It was still long hours then. Some of the men were retiring so we were looking for younger men. In fact at one stage I was quite worried because all the men on the farm were over 60 and I suppose I was in my 30’s then and getting a bit worried as to how we were going to carry on with everybody retired. But I managed to find one or two young lads, the son of one of the families that worked on the farm. In fact two of their boys actually worked with me, right from the time off school. They used to work on a Saturday, they were called Saturday boys and then did the harvest all through the summer and they’d get paid for the harvest as well. They started off, and I managed to find a stockman who was a labour lad. He trained up and he became an apprentice and so he was properly trained. He used to go away to five-weeks courses at colleges and that sort of thing, I think it was 2-year apprenticeship that he did. He’s still on the farm now and proved to be a very good stockman.

Yes I was there for just on 42 years, 1959 to 2001, saw a lot of changes. Some of the worst years of the drought years was 1975 and 76, when it didn’t rain for 3 months or more. It was light land, the farm at Weasenham, quite sandy and gravely land, so all the crops just burnt up and we had virtually no crops at all. The grass was non-existent, I don’t know how we survived with the cows really, they got very lean I know. Some of the grass just died and it just took 3 or 4 years really to pull the farm back into shape again. We had our ups and downs through the years but enjoyable, I enjoyed every moment of it really. Towards the end, quite big upheavals, the main thing that really took all the enjoyment out of the farming was the BSE outbreak in 1996, which hit the cattle industry overnight really because we were into rearing beef cattle and the market just dropped away.

We didn’t actually get BSE no, but it crippled and we didn’t get Foot and Mouth in 1966. There was an outbreak and it was in the top of the farm, was West Raynham airfield, just over the hedge sort of thing and they had a pig unit there then, which they used to feed all the swill from the canteens to pigs, which people did in those days. They got Foot and Mouth in this pig unit, from all the waste I suppose. That was only just a field away from us but luckily we managed to keep clear of that, and did from the other.

Brucellosis was a big set back as well because that was being eradicated through the 80’s I suppose. We had Brucellosis in the herd, we used to have to keep blood testing them every month, which meant a lot of extra work really, getting the cows all into the farm buildings so we could get them all through the crush and blood tested. Eventually we became clear of that, after about a couple of years.

Then of course with the BSE, really was the last straw, as far as the cattle went but we carried on with them and it did just start to pick up. Of course Kings Lynn market closed at that time as well, shut down about 1996 I think just after the BSE started. We didn’t have that outlet for our cattle, we’d always taken them away to a supply butchers, through the market and also privately as well. It always has quite a good outlet for the beef really, every month and every week of the year we were selling fat cattle, so earnt a lot from the local butchers in the Langham area, which supplied from the farm at different times. Then of course the market closing made that more difficult really, so I managed to have a couple of good butchers that continued with me and supported me, so I was able to supply them direct. They opened up, the butchers at Gaytons, opened up his own abattoir which took in work for other butchers.

By the time I’d got home at night I never did want to go out again very much. I played rugby when I was a young man before I got married. It didn’t really mix with heavy work and I had a bad back, which aggravated it playing rugby. Had a disc that was slipping, so I had to give up rugby and so I wasn’t able to play any other sports, which I miss. But really that was all there was time for, there was the farming and just the family, but I enjoyed what I did.

It wasn’t too bad really, it was very different when it was a company, the boss who took over Mr Overman, came to us all to carry on. He was very much a different, not a farmer but industrialist I suppose you’d call him, or a businessman anyway. His ideas were quite different and he was very keen on the shooting, so everything evolved round the shooting. From then on the shooting was built up to be very first class Partridge shoot. So all the farming had to be geared towards providing cover for partridges, food for them, with game strips. Sugar beet had to be cut in strips, so it left area for them. Then we had to delay the sugar beet harvest until almost Christmas before we could lift the rest, the sugar beet because of the pheasants and partridges. So that made life a little bit more interesting. I enjoyed it but towards the end, it was getting very stressful.

Then of course all the regulations that came in with the Common Agriculture Policy, means a lot more form filling because you’re relying on the acreage payments that we were getting from Brussels , for any profit on in the farming at all really. So much form filling to do, field measuring and crop measuring, that sort of thing. But it became quite stressful really, to make sure you’d got it all done properly. I did it all myself, I didn’t rely on employing surveyors or anything. When I finished, I thought I wasn’t put off by the work really. I realised how stressful it had been when I left off and I didn’t have to worry about it anymore. I spent a lot of time in the office towards the latter part of my time there, just sort of trying to keep on top of the paperwork. I paid the wages the whole time, always paid in cash. We never got on to paying by cheque or anything.

We worked all the wages out. Go to Fakenham every Friday, go to the bank, collect the money and pay out. Sometimes it was a bit of a rush to get there before the bank closed. Occasionally I would miss it and so the men wouldn’t get their money until Monday because there was no banks open on a Saturday, which didn’t go down very well I’m afraid but I tried for that, not to happen. I had all the P.A.Y.E to work out, which was always a bind yeah, absolutely, a nightmare really. Every Friday, or try perhaps get it done on Thursday nights some times. If something else cropped up you know, you were struggling to work it out then.

Early on we used to have a secretary, one of these sort of mobile secretaries, who go round some farms. She gave up and I didn’t get anybody else. There was a central office for the company at the Northamptonshire farm because they carry on with that farm as well. I got support from them but I resisted going into computers really so that made life a bit more hard for me in a way but I just didn’t fancy learning how to use a computer, with my time getting towards the end of working there. Of course as soon as I left, the chap who took over from me, just went on to the computer. I don’t think the wages were done on the computer, certainly I tried to get them done on the computer when I was still there and they said no, it couldn’t be done. I don’t think the wages were put on to computer, which makes my life much more essential really. I wasn’t interested in computer I didn’t really want to have to go into learning how to use it. Farmers nowadays, they’re all computer literate.

I just wanted to say about the breeds of cattle that we had when I first went there: it was all Herefords, crossbred cows. They were Hereford crosses mostly but then in about 1966, I think it was, or 65, we bought a Charolais bull. The Charolais had just been imported, not too long before that, into the country for the first time. He was a lovely Charolais bull and he did ever so well, using him on the cows that we had and we used to buy a lot more cows as well. From all breeds: Aberdeen Angus, Welsh Black and then the Herefords: all the various crosses of the Herefords: the Galloway, even the Belted Galloway, the Bluegreys; put them with the Charolais bull, always produced good calves with him. He lasted for a long while. I think he was 14 or 15 years old, when he finally packed up. Then we even bought the Simmental bull after that. Stayed with Simmental all the way through and still we have Simmentals, also a lot of their offspring now, so they are crossbred Simmental.

In about 1982 I think it was, I bought a herd of pedigree Simmental Cattle from Barry Hawkings, who’s the auctioneer in Kings Lynn, who kept a herd as a hobby and he was one of the pioneers of Simmental breeding in this country or in this area of the country anyway. He sold about six cows I think it was and several Heifers to me. We started up a little nucleus of the pedigree herd, which we bred bulls and sold a few bulls. We had our own replacement bulls from then onwards really for a long while. That was an interest as well, to be able to see the different breeds evolving from the imports that came in from these French/Swiss breeds.

I had said I wouldn’t milk cows again unless they were my own cows. You have to milk the cows when you are feeding calves or that sort of thing you know but I wouldn’t milk cows for a living. Hard work.

I preferred the beef side of it yes. I’d never work with sheep either, I mean I started off, thought I’d like to be a shepherd but it just never turned out that way but I got the chance to work with sheep. If I hadnt had that first job, I probably would have been a shepherd instead of a farm manager. But we didn’t have sheep at Weasenham. We once had a few just to feed through the winter but they started to die, so had to get rid of them in a bit of a hurry. Just about got rid of them, scraped even I think, cover the one or two that died. I just managed to get enough money for the rest of them, so I didn’t lose money on them, so we didn’t have any more. But on the farm years ago, it would have been a big sheep flock on theirs, as a lot of Norfolk farms did.

I did a lot of my own veterinary work, as much as I could. I did all the sort of manual side of it and a lot of the treatment as well. In some respects I would have quite liked to have been a vet but I didn’t have the training really and nor clever enough I don’t think to have been a vet. I’m glad I had a little bit of both sides really.

There were five men on the farm when I left but now since then, in the last six years, that’s gone down to two. The manager who took over from me is retired now, so he only just does 1 or 2 days a week in the office, just to catch up with all the post I suppose and do any ordering that they need. They get on with the work themselves, 1 stockman and 1 tractor driver. They do with the aid of contractors no doubt, doing all the big work like sugar beet harvesting and silage making, that’s all done by contractors now, which we used to do all that work ourselves. The pendulum has swung full circle really, from 21 men to two men now. Just a part time manager.

The farm was Skipton Ash Farm at Weasenham, which was  two farms, Skipton Farm and Upperhouse Farm amalgamated and the name of the company was Overman Son and company.

Jim talking to WISEArchive in 2007 in King’s Lynn.

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