Working Lives

Three Fakenham Sisters – Hazel and Diane (1940s and 1950s)

Location: Fakenham, Norfolk

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Hazel and Diane


I’ll start when we moved from Themelthorpe to Saxlingham near Holt. My Dad was coming to work for Sir Dimmock White. He was a very well known land owner and they farmed one thousand acres at Saxlingham. Various crops they had, arable, but lots of meadow land because they lots of cattle as well. But when we first came there they had twenty horses and three team men to look after them because that entailed such a lot of work with having to get them all ready for work. They had to be groomed in the morning.

The team men had to start work at half past five because the horses had all got to be ready by 7 o’clock and the nose bags which had to be filled with chaff and oats, chaff being chopped straw, that was there for the horses at midday. All the older horses were given the lighter jobs and the younger ones, some of them were very very strong, had to go for the heavier work.

My first harvest

And at harvest time it was lovely. We all had to leave together and we’d all be in a row going along the road and when you came to a gate I wasn’t tall enough, because I did my first harvest when I was eleven and I couldn’t get off my horse and get back on. So I had to have a leg up and so I made sure I wasn’t the first in line, because the first one had to open the gates and the last one had to shut them all. So you made sure you wasn’t in the front because if you got off your horse and you couldn’t get back on. You had to walk probably three or four miles unless one of the men would give you a leg up. And then we would go down the fields where we would be harvesting and that would entail gathering the sheaves in, which would all be stood in stooks. You’d get six or eight stood up and you’d have the wagons to load them on. The wagon would have two horses if that was very heavy. Wheat was very heavy, barley was much lighter. The sheaves had been stood in stooks three weeks sometimes depending on the weather. They had to be dry to go into the stack We would load them up out in the field and it would be my job to take them, or whoever else was there, you had to take them to the stack and they were put on to the stack and they were then taken up by an elevator that took the sheaves of corn onto the top of the stack. I ought to have just told you about the stack. Shall I just tell you this piece about how they made the stack first?

Making the stack

When they were going to stack the corn they didn’t put the sheaves of corn straight on to the floor,that would be such a waste. So what they did, they always made sure that they’d been round and all the hedges had been cut, not with a hedge cutter like today. They used to cut it all by hand and put it all in piles around the fields that they were going to make stacks in. And when they were going to do the stacks they’d go with the horse and cart and get all this hedge trimmings, it was all around in big heaps, and put that down to make the stack bottom. And then they’d tread all that down, make that about two or three feet deep. Then they would put some old straw on or old hay and then they would start the sheaves of corn. The sheaves of corn were always pointing corn inwards, but you always filled the centre up first because that had all got to be that if it rained and any rain did get in, the water would run off the sheaves. Because if they were going down that way all the middle of the stack would get wet and then they would rot and be no good. You had to build it up all the way round and round.

You had four people. There would be one putting the sheaves of corn in to go up the elevator, one half way up and one to pass them to whoever was doing the stack. Making the stack of corn was very special and we used to build them so high that I dare not come back down the stack. I used to go back down the elevator because the ladders weren’t long enough to reach. And it was so high one stack we did. I was working at Saxlingham then and I’m sure you’ve heard of Blakeney and Cley and along there, I could see the ships going along out to sea. My gosh, that was a tall stack!


One of my first jobs I had when I did my first harvest when I was eleven, and very pleased to get a job, I had a horse that was called Damsel. The horse was in the elevator and it had to go round and round, it still had a collar on and had the chains on and that was hooked to this big long pole and this horse went round all day from seven in the morning to nine o’clock at night . You would load the sheaves up at the bottom of the elevator and they would go up and on to the stack. The horse didn’t know she was going round and round. Sometimes they had blinkers on so they didn’t see anything behind. And I used to do that all day and I could either sit on the middle of this grass underneath and just keep making her go along or I could sit on the side, as long as she didn’t stop so that the sheaves of corn kept going up on the elevator and she did that all day. It was a very monotonous job but I didn’t mind as long as I was getting paid. That was my first pay packet. That’s interesting to look back and see the old pictures but at the time we didn’t think anything about it. That was just a job and you were jolly glad to be there.

Thatching the stack

When they finished the stacks they had to be thatched and that was why they needed the water cart because you couldn’t thatch with dry straw. The straw was laid out in bundles and the man used to take it up to the stack and you’d have two pieces of wood with strings round and he could loop them up together and take them up the ladder on his back. And they used to have what they call in Norfolk ‘brotches’ which were cut out of the hedge from hazel wood, because you could bend hazel wood and make the things to push into the stack to hold them and then that would be with string and they’d weave them all the way across because they had to be water proof . And if it was thatched badly, I remember one was, probably it had come on to rain or something like that, and it was never finished and that was one part of the stack because what you had to do when you came to thrashing you had to take all that top off first.


The corn that went into these stacks was still in the ears and when you wanted to use it you had to take it out and put it through the threshing drum and then the ears would be separated from the straw. It’s like a combine but it’s static. You take the straw to the drum which is the piece of equipment that threshes it, that’s static, that would be powered by a tractor or a steam engine. You’d get the big wheels with all the belts going round like mad.


The steam engines and the threshing

The steam engines, like the ones you can see at Thursford Museum, used to come on our farm. That was Mr. Cushing who brought them to the farm where we did the threshing. That was old Mr. George Cushing who founded the business. And what they did they’d have three or four stacks quite near and you could do one stack in a day and then they’d move the whole thing, the drum and the elevator, with the steam engine and get it all set up for the next day so they were ready to start. And Mr. Cushing would sleep in a little wooden hut because he had to start early in the morning to get the steam engine going, because that would have to be ready to start at seven o’clock, so he had to start very early, and then they would stay there three or four days on one farm as our farm was that much bigger, or they would do all the small holders in the area and move the next day so there was one to do the next morning, It was mainly in the winter that they did the threshing because they needed the straw for bedding all the cattle and the horses. The horses were the main priority because they had to be looked after because they were relied on for everything.

The water cart

The water cart was used in the thatching because the straw had to be damp and when they got it on the stack they had a comb which was like a big wooden rake with wooden prongs and they had to comb the straw down. The man who took it up had to lay it all nice and straight and then they had to comb it out because they had to make sure there wasn’t any straw going the other way which would stop the water draining off, because that had got to be one hundred per cent water tight. And that was why it had to be damp because you could work damp straw in much better than you could the dry straw. Hence the water cart being there.

The water cart I had was a heavy steel thing and it had two iron wheels at the back and one at the front and the shafts were attached to an iron bar and we had to have that to fill up to feed all the cattle, mainly beef cattle they had in the yard, the fattening stock. And we’d fill the water cart from a pond that we fed by a spring in the farm yard. And it was very muddy, deep mud in some parts so you had to be very careful when you went in so you were right for coming out because when you came out and the water cart was full and the horse started to go and that would throw out quite a lot of water that you’d pailed in. You stood on a step at the side. When you drove into the pond you were on your horse but you had to walk down the shafts of the water cart to stand on the little step and you’d fill it with a bucket. I can’t think how many gallons it would have held. Perhaps a couple of hundred gallons. And that all had to be done with a bucket and sometimes I had three or four loads before breakfast to do. We started work then at seven and you had your breakfast at nine if you were lucky. And one day my dear old Tansy, she was a lovely horse, we had mainly Suffolks on the farm, some others but a lot of Suffolks. And she got really fed up standing in the pond and I was just going to start to fill the cart and she decided she would walk out. So I couldn’t get back on her. So I hopped from the step into the cart and away she went back to the stable and she managed to get her body inside but not the water cart. So there was her in the stable and me outside sitting in the water cart. But as luck would have it my Dad, who was foreman on the farm, he came and said ‘What do you think you’re doing there?’ And I said ‘I don’t know, I think you’d better ask Tansy. That was her idea not mine.’ And I was soaking wet and you didn’t have too many pairs of trousers to change into then.


It always used to worry me because the water tank was always full of tiddlers and I always used to wonder what happened to them. I never did find out, thankfully.


Damsel and the grease balls

I ought to tell you about another one of our horses. This was Damsel and she used to get terrible colic and my Dad used to have to give her grease balls because… Now the stables were quite near the house and it was all concrete floor but the horses had straw to sleep on. And Damsel, no matter what she ate always got colic. And the vet used to bring these grease balls in a big pack, they were long things like sausages and the smell was terrible and they were all wrapped up in grease proof paper. And Damsel used to have to have these for her colic. It was the only thing they could give her. And she had to have them because she would knock and bang her foot all night long because of the pain. And this particular night my elder brother wasn’t home from Holt. And the horses all had halters and on the bins where they fed, there was a hole through the front.

There was a big block of wood and so the horse could get up or lay down. And Dad got me up in the feed bin, this would be about eleven o’clock at night, no one was late in bed because you had to be up by six in the morning, and over the top of the feed bin there was a hay rack so the horses could feed all night. And I got up in this hay rack and there was a long wooden post with a piece of chain on the end and they used to put that on the horses nose and twist it to hold it tight so it had to stay where it was put. So I was up in the hay rack and Dad put this thing on it and brought it through the hay rack and then he stood in the bin and you had to keep the horses head right up straight to push these two grease balls right down the throat. I wasn’t very strong. It was all right for my brother because he was much heavier than I was. So there I was hanging on to this thing like a little monkey and my Dad stood on the bin pushing this in and I well remember she’d got to have two that night but you could only give one at a time. And he got one down all right and she thought that was the lot and she tried to break free and her teeth right from his elbow to wrist had skinned his arm. So then we had to come in and I had to do Dad’s arm..

A bit of fun

And I well remember he’d have to get up all hours if she’d got colic. She was an old devil. She would bite anybody. And we used to have some students come in because all the men on the farm had gone to war. And we had lots of land army girls and foreign prisoners of war, the Italians and the Germans all used to come. And we had a student from Holt whose Dad was a doctor there. And he used to come in on a motor bike. And this particular day my Dad had said to him, ‘John, be careful with Damsel because she’ll bite you.’ She would not go backwards, she would bite and bite, really nasty. And Dad had told him and he was off guard and he got caught. And she got hold of his trousers in front and she shook her head and ripped the front out of his trousers. And he said’ I can’t stay at work like this Mr. Harvey.’ And he said ‘No you better get back to Holt and get some trousers.’ And he said to my Dad ‘Well, haven’t you got a pair of trousers?’ Well, you didn’t have two pairs of trousers then to go to work in. You only had one pair and one Sunday pair. And my Dad said’ I’m sorry. I haven’t got any trousers I can let you have.’ But he said ‘We’ll fix you up to go to Holt.’ So my Dad got a corn sack, which was a huge big sack and very strong, and cut the corners out and he stepped into it and they tied the shoulders up with string and that’s how he rode his motor bike home to Holt because he’d got no trousers on. And didn’t they laugh when they saw him.


There’s nobody worse for practical jokes than the old Norfolk farm workers. They worked hard but they liked to have some fun.

When we had to cart the hay home and I had Tansy she always knew her way home and I’d get in the top with the load of hay and say ‘Home we go’ and she knew we were going back to the farm with our load of hay and this particular day, there was an army song that used to go ‘When this blinking war is over, oh how happy I will be. No more harnessing the horses ‘ I was buried in the hay and singing this song and came to the last line which said ‘We will tell Tommy Sterling to turn his old cows out to grass.’ ( that’s the cleaner version, anyway) And Tom Sterling was the manager of the farm and he stood there talking to my Dad and I was with another land girl that day, and as I came out and brushed off the hay there stood my Dad and the manager and he’s heard us singing this rather rude song.


Hazel was always in trouble because she was always a very mischievous child.


I always liked a bit of fun. We worked hard but we always liked a bit of fun. My Dad was one of ten children and his Mum used to cook for them all on one of those big open fires with a hook up the chimney and she had all the big pots on there. And when she cooked and when they had fish, when they were smaller they would have to share one herring, three to a herring, and two sharing an egg. And he said that he once stole a swan’s egg because Nan wanted to make a cake because there were all them to pack up for, there was ten of them. And by the way, my Dad weighed a stone (14 pounds) when he was born.

And Nan said, ‘I’ve got no eggs, I can’t make this cake’, and they used to go and get duck eggs or goose eggs or water hens’ eggs, anything to cook with but he couldn’t find anything but this one swan’s egg. And he took his clothes off and went into the river to get it and brought Nanny this swan’s egg home to make her cake. And she was so upset. and she said’ Don’t you ever do that again because they all belong to the King.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘he won’t know that I had that one.’

He used to tell us all these stories round the fire of a winter evening.

They used to set traps to catch sparrows to make the pies. Can you imagine plucking a sparrow! But they did because they were hungry. And my Dad was once going along to work and the farmer next door who was a bit of an old rogue The crows had been on his corn so he’d put a scarecrow up and that scarecrow had a better jacket on than my Dad had got so he went over and took the clothes off the scarecrow and put his on it .And this silly farmer had put a real gun on the scarecrow so my Dad went home and cut a piece of wood to look like that gun and he took that gun and that’s how he came by his first gun. And he said’ If he hadn’t got no more sense than that I’ll make him a gun.’ And he didn’t notice the difference.

Collecting acorns

When I was eleven we got three pence an hour. But later when all the men had gone to war we used to get a card from school to go and pick potatoes. We’d pick them in bushel skips. I’ve still got one at home for a wood basket. We used to get three pence an hour. You used to get a green card from school and you were allowed two days a week. We had to start work at nine o’clock and we worked until four.

And the other thing we’d do that was an extra bonus, when there was acorns, we had lots of pigs on the farm. Dad used to say ‘Mr. Stirling will pay you half a crown for a sack full.’ Half a crown was a lot of money than. So I well remember I filled up a sack. The pigs were fed them for the protein, you see. I had a bucket and I kept taking all these acorns and putting them in the sack and I said ‘Dad, I can have my half crown. I’ve got a sack full of acorns but I can’t get them home.’ And he said ‘Right, I’ll take the wheelbarrow ‘ So he took the wheelbarrow up the road and got to my sack of acorns and I hadn’t shaken them up and by the time he had finished I only had half a sack full so I had to go and get another four pails full and carry them all back but I did eventually do it. That would have fed a lot of pigs and half a crown was a lot of money in those days.

The food was on ration then and then men who worked on the farm all got extra rations because of the pack-ups and things. They used to be delivered from the shop to our house and on Saturday lunch time once a month they got these rations. They’d all come with their lunch bags and they’d have a piece of cheese, a piece of margarine, and a packet of tea, tea was all loose then, and sugar.


I expect you’ve heard about how much rations people used to have. I was amazed when I read that it was fourteen years from when rationing started to when the last item was taken off ration. As soon as the war finished the Americans cut off the aid, didn’t they, and it was only three years ago that I heard a programme that said we’d finally finished paying off America for the Lease Lend during the war. That’s over fifty years. That’s amazing, isn’t it!

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