Working Lives

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

Location: Fakenham, Norfolk

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Iris and Hazel


We’ll go back to building the corn stacks. The sheaves had to point inwards and you went round and round until it was quite high. And when you were starting to build the roof part and it was shaped, each sheaf of corn you had to bring in about a foot as you went round to start to shape to roof, and keep going round and round. The centre had to be done first to keep it high so each sheaf of corn was sloping outwards with the heads inwards and the tails out so the water could run off the end. You always kept the centre of the stack high and make sure the sheaves were pointing out to shoot all the water off, and you’d keep going round until the top would be half the height of the stack. And you’d carry on bringing it in as you went round, each round that went in would be about a foot (12 inches) and you’d bring them in until you got to the last ridge and then they all had to be turned in and it would get smaller and smaller because you had to work that in and you’d finish each end, and then you’d end up so you had just a small place to stand in. And then the corn would be coming up the elevator, I have done it before they had the elevators. What they had to do was bring the elevator back a bit and the last well you had to stand in, would be filled in, because that was a very important place in the stack. That must be filled in correctly because if water got into the centre of the stack it then meant it would let water in if it was built wrong, even if it was thatched right, and that would ruin all the stack and ruin all the corn. So that had to be done correctly, and that was the top man that used to do that. Usually the team man was the man who did the top of the stack. That would be the last hole to be filled in with the corn.

And then the big problem was coming down. I used to come down in the elevator because the stack was so tall that I could see the ships out at sea. We were at Saxlingham near Holt but I could see ships going along at Blakeney and Cley, all along the coast line there. That would have been four or five miles away as the crow flies. I came down the elevator because I daren’t come down the stack because I couldn’t reach the ladder.

Then we come to the thatching. If it was a good forecast and there was lots of corn to get in they used to do the stacks, get all the corn in and then go round and do all the thatching afterwards. They wouldn’t thatch the stacks as soon as they finished, because it was more important to get the corn into the stacks. And if they weather came in bad before they thatched they had the big cloths to cover the stacks. They were huge tarpaulin type things They had to go up on the elevator to put them on because you couldn’t lift them. They used to put them over the stack and then they’d go on and get more corn in because it was so important to get the corn in the stacks, because while it stood out in the field in the stooks the corn would get wet, although when you built the stooks you had to make sure they would stay standing. You would pick up two and have them under your arms and stand them up and always make sure that the bottoms were right because if they weren’t right they’d blow over and get wet and then the corn would start to grow. So they always had to be in that position. You’d usually put about six or eight sheaves of corn in one stook. They’d work hard to get the corn in, then go back to the stacks.

Getting the corn in

We used to have the school children come. That was my first job when I was eleven, to holla ‘Hold ye’. I used to be on the horse and when you were going to move up from one stook to the other there would be one or two on the big wagon. That was when they’d got the ladders on the back to make an extended load. There would be two men on the ground pitching up to the wagon and when you were going to move up from one stook to the other you had to call our ‘Hold ye’ ( hold tight) and if you didn’t shout and the men fell over they could fall off the wagon. So they had to be prepared and stick the fork in for you to move up to the next stook. When that load was finished the men would put their forks into the side of load that they’d got and come down holding their pitch forks. Because they’d have one each side to hold onto and there would be someone on the ground to get you off. That was like abseiling down the side of the load. They’d stick the fork in and it was like a banister really, I suppose. I’ve seen some of them come down and stand on the other men’s shoulders. Or you could get down over the front, if the extended piece on the back was too far down, too shaped. But if you did that you’d come down on the horse’s back and that would probably be sometimes a little bit too far. The horses were good. They knew what was going on and didn’t get upset about it.

The horses

We had one though who was a very young horse called George. He would pull any weight. He was fantastic. But he would run away. One day I saw him with a wagon, we were doing the harvest, and we were putting the corn into the elevator and they tied two fifty six pound weights one each side onto his halter because he didn’t like the elevator He had blinkers on but he would try and look and knew what was there. He didn’t like the noise. And he decided he wasn’t going to stay, in spite of having these two weights tied to him, and he put his head up and he ran away. And he went down the lane and was going over this bank with the wagon behind him. But the two trees he went through weren’t wide enough to take the wagon. And he went through, and the wagon of corn stayed the other side with the shafts. And he was heading for home but he’d got his foot caught in the shafts with the leathers and he fell over and ended up in the ditch. And he couldn’t get out.

But he was a fantastic horse, he really was. He would work all day and never give up and he’d still run away when he got home, if he wanted. He never gave up. He was greedy though. He’d run home because he wanted his tea. He was a hungry horse but he did really work hard. We had twenty seven horses, two teams. And we had brood mares on the farm then.


The Queen had one. They presented one to her for the farm at Sandringham. That was the Queen Mother then, you see. And father used to have riding lessons so he could get about the farm because there wasn’t the petrol then and everywhere he went he used to bike. And my Dad never could ride a horse.

And he used to have a little pork pie hat and he used to trot across the fields and go like the wind. And he lost his hat. And I found it three weeks later but I wouldn’t give it to him. Grandad, who was staying with us, gave it to him, and I got half a crown.


There were two team men who looked after the horses, Jack Goodman and Siddy Barragh The team man used to have to get up at five o clock in the morning to feed and groom the horses and muck them out before they went out. There were at least twelve to fifteen horses went out every day because we didn’t have any tractors then.

I remember our first tractor. We had all different sorts as well. That was an Alice Chambers that they used to use for the row crop work, doing the sugar beet. It didn’t damage the crops as it went up the rows. That would get all the weeds from between the rows and we used to have to hoe the rest by hand. We would hoe all day.


With the thrashing they used cart that up to the granary and grind that up for cattle feed And I was about seven or eight stone carrying a comb of corn up these stairs to put it into the granary. They used to say that every man should be able to carry double his weight. Poor little old Freddie Quantrill he was seven stone and he buckled. That’s not surprising. That was a hard life but a happy one, wasn’t it?


So many of the men had gone to war. We had the Italian prisoners of war come, and the Germans.


The Italians weren’t prisoners of war, they were collaborators. They were stationed in huts along Cley beach. I was working down at Thornage at the time in a dairy farm and looking after chickens. One of them used to come after me. He was nice. He always wanted silver florins (an old two shilling piece) And he’d take a silver florin and bring it back next day made into a ring or he’d made a silver sixpence into a little Spitfire. They were ever so clever.

They used to make slippers out of hop sacks.

They got the hessian and unwound it into strands and then braided it (like a plait) and then they’d first make the soles, like the shape of the shoe, and all these plaits would be sewn together with more Hessian. And they’d take the sack one day and bring you back slippers the next day. And we wore them because they would be a good fit and they were quite comfortable. And of course in the war time we didn’t have slippers so we were glad of them.


A funny story

I’ll tell you a funny story now, through it isn’t a farming one, about how I swapped a rabbit for a dress. The parson had four daughters and one son and they used to love to come up on the farm. And at that time I had several rabbits which we used to keep to earn pocket money. And I had a ginger buck rabbit and this parson’s daughter wanted this rabbit.

And we used to go down to the Rectory. And they used to have a big parcel of clothes sent to them which was supposed to be for the parson and his wife to take round to the poor of the village. But nobody in the village used to get a look in. He used to keep them for his children. And I went to Pam one night and she said ‘Come and see, we’ve got some new clothes.’ So we went to her bedroom and she’d got this frock on the back of her door with a circular skirt, it was satiny sort of stuff, and that was pink and turquoise and beige all done in little squares. Well, I’d then started getting a bust. It was a little bit tight but I got in it. I’d made up my mind it was going to fit me. So she took it off the back of the door and I put it on. And I’d never had anything like that! And I said ‘If I let you have my rabbit can I have the dress?’ And she said’ I’ll ask Mummy’ and she said ‘Yes, but don’t tell Daddy.’

So I got this dress and off I go to school in it next day in this big circular skirt and wearing black plimsolls. I hadn’t got any shoes but I had these black plimsolls with the toes sticking out And I went into the class room, twirling in so everyone could see me and I nearly knocked my teacher over. And she said ‘Hazel, what on earth are you doing?’ and I said ‘Just look at my dress.’ And I held it out like that. And I’d never had one before like that and I’ve never had one since. That was a very expensive dress and I saw my friend and she can still remember me swapping that buck rabbit for a dress.

Back to wartime

When the German prisoners of war used to come, the foreman used to ask my Dad if they could have some sugar beet because they were so hungry. They were young men with good appetites and they used to bring something for their lunch but they wanted something to supplement it so they used to ask Dad if they could have some sugar beet from the field and swedes as well. They used to like swedes .They’d wash these off in the water tank because there was no taps or running water .But they had a brush and they used to scrub this sugar beet and the swedes and they used to go round the hedgerows and get some wood and make a big fire and cook them and share them for their dinner. And they’d snare rabbits and cook that as well sometimes.


And these prisoners used to make toys. One was like a little table tennis bat and it had three holes and three little wooden chickens and a string going through and a wooden weight underneath and you’d swing it and the weight would make the chickens peck. Then there was the monkey up the ladder which was two long pieces of wood with a cross piece at the top and this little monkey was on the top and you had to squeeze the bottom and the monkey would somersault. I have seen them on Fakenham market


Did you tell them about when the Heinkel crashed at Sharrington? That was quite near where my husband used to live, of course he wasn’t married then.


Where we lived there was a search light at Langham, one at Binham, one at Brinton and one at Hunworth so there was four. These search lights used to cross the beams and get the German plane in and you’d see the bullets going down. The plane went down at Sharrington and the plane was burned out. We think they fired it before they left because two of the chaps that came out of the plane were taken to Greshams’ School. And they took some guns and some ammunition out of the plane. And there was a dead man and they stood him up in a ditch. My Dad went down to see what was going on. We were told we couldn’t go down there, not straight away. Dad went down there and this chap out of the plane was stood up in the ditch and stood a rifle at the side of him and Dad thought there wasn’t a lot of movement in him so he poked him with a stick to see if he was dead or alive. And he was actually dead. This was on the Sunday morning and we set off to see this plane that had crashed and I found a roll of ammunition along the Holt to Sharrington road. I found that in the grass and there was a policeman on duty at the top of the lane and I had to take him and show him where it was. And further along the road to Holt, they knew where they(the airmen) were going and he was heading for Holt, they then found the rifles and they took the airmen to Holt police station, somewhere to give them some food. That was a time when we used to go and get the aeroplane Perspex and make rings, burn holes in them with a hot poker and cut round them. That was a terrible smell for my poor mother to put up with.

I’ve got a photo frame made of that Perspex. I think Diane still has that.


We never had things made of parachute silk but there was Burgee Page who lived at Field Dalling and she had a target, because they used to have target practice along the coast, all along by Cley and Weybourne. There used to be a plane towing this target behind and the soldiers at Stiffkey and Weybourne would fire at it. And if one got cut down, if they cut the tow rope, that would be worth a lot. There would be all this red material. Burgee was an Armenian and she married this old bloke during the First World War and he bought her over here and she was a wonderful seamstress and she made a dress out of this target and she did all scallops round the bottom of that dress and on the cuffs and round the neck and there was all embroidery all around the bottom of it. It was absolutely wonderful. She made that for Major Savory’s Fete.

We used to go potato picking in gang work during the war and after the war as well. We had to because we were needed on the farm and we desperately needed the money. The main motive was making ends meet really.


When the war was on we were only allowed within a five mile radius of where we lived. And Dad came from Reepham so naturally he wanted to go and see his Mum and Dad and we used to bike over there on a Sunday and he used to say ‘If you see a policeman don’t say a word. You button up.’ And we had to pass two police houses going but we never got stopped. Everything was zoned .There was no planes and no buses. You could only go where you could bike.


Just before we left school in the last year we used to go on a bus from Field Dalling School, to Holt for a cookery lesson. That was once a week. We used to make cakes but they were such silly little bits because everyone was on rations and you couldn’t spare much anyway We used to eat them but it was such a small amount it actually dried up rather than cooked. We used to look forward to going to Holt.

The other thing we did was count the Dam Buster planes going over. We used to sit on the wall outside our door and count them out and you’d lay in bed and hear them come home and we used to try and count them home.


I always remember we were down at Stiffkey(at a dance) at the end of the war when victory in Europe was celebrated. That just came out over the tannoy and every body flew. There was all the girls left stood standing, and all the boys went.

They got on everything they could and they went off to London They pinched vans and trucks and anything that moved they had, and they went down and celebrated the victory. And we were left standing and just had to come home. The dance band packed up and there was nothing left. The only men left to work the farm were the prisoners of war with the land army girls, and the young boys not old enough for the service. Because they left school at fourteen then.


No one gave you any training in those days for the jobs on the farm. You were started off by someone telling you what to do and then you just learned how to do it. It was amazing how quickly you did learn too, because if you didn’t do that job there wasn’t another one and you desperately needed that money.

When my husband was only nine years old he started his first job at the Hall where the boss lived, going and filling up the kindling wood and getting the wood in for the fires. This was after he left school at four o’clock.

They had to walk home from school in Sharrington, then they used to walk from Brinton to Sharrington and then walk up to the Hall, and his elder brother who was two years older than Jack had to go up the dairies and wash up all the buckets. He was a tiny little chappie than and could only just reach, with something to stand, on to wash up all the pans and buckets.

Those were hard times and lots of children did jobs. My mother in law was left when her husband got killed. In those days they used to keep the mother in bed for three weeks after she’d had the baby and just get up a little while each day. And he got killed on his bicycle coming down a hill, at the cross roads at the bottom to go up another hill, and he was hit by a motor bike. That was the day she was going to get up on that Saturday. He’d said to her ‘Don’t you worry about the washing. You cook the lunch for us and I’ll do the washing this afternoon.’ She cooked the lunch and he didn’t come home and she was left with eight children, the baby just three weeks old.


And there wasn’t any help then. That was when he was working up the stone pits at the time of the Slump and they had to work three days for eight shillings at the stone pits at Saxlingham where we lived. That was their only income. They were only allowed to work three days, so they’d get out and let someone else have a chance. That shared the work around and spread what there was.


They used to sell a lot potatoes in hundred weight sacks from the cart. A few years later they’d supply the fish and chips shops. Then the tractor and trailers came in and we used to sell right along the coast with potatoes. We used to take out two or three tons probably two or three times a week, so that wasn’t on ration.

We used to do the mangolds and the fodder beets on the farm for the winter feed for the cattle. And the potatoes were kept in big hods that had to be thatched to keep the frost out. You’d put thick straw on and pile soil on and every so many yards you’d leave a little tiny air hole to let the air into the potatoes. It was very important to have that.


The lambing yard used to be quite near by and the lambs used to get through a little gap and they’d get on that potato hump and skip and jump about. They always loved to play. And they’d take all the soil off and we’d have to go and put it over again. We had a flock of four or five hundred ewes. And we used to take the tails off the lambs. We’d have a big fire and took the hot iron and took the lambs tails off. I used to hate that because it smelled awful. They’d have two or three irons in the fire and they had to be really really hot and they’d just hold the lamb and have this big block of stone and they’d stamp the tail and burn it off. They did that because if they got messy with diarrhoea they’d get maggots. And there wasn’t any spray or anything like that. Later on they used to put the rubber band on and they’d shrivel up and drop off. But years ago they used to have a very sharp razor blade and just make the holes and cut them (the lamb’s testicles) out. I well remember our blacksmith. He used to go every year and they’d get a whole big milk can full of sweetbreads, as they called them. And he loved them fried with his vegetables. He was the only one who had them. But we did have lambs’ tails and had lamb tail pie. That was nice and tasty actually and we were glad of it because you couldn’t get the meat then.

And in the winter of 1947 the snow was really dreadful. It was up to the telephone wires and we were cut off. We were fortunate because we had cows on the farm so we had milk, we had eggs, and Mum always had flour.


My brother Ted and I, we went with the horse and cart from Saxlingham down to Blakeney and we met the baker. He got as far as he could, and we went over the fields. We were gone all day to get bread and we got a loaf of bread for every house in the village and we were gone from eight o’clock in the morning until dark. And they all took the bread but we never got a penny for it. Ted and I we gave our day and that was a day! I was sixteen then and my brother was seventeen.

We weren’t used to luxuries and things. We were just happy with what we had.


If you didn’t have any meat, we all had vegetables. We always had vegetables from the garden. And we had a lot of gravy. We only had four ounces of meat a week (ration) but if you could have bought it we couldn’t have afforded it because we didn’t have the money. Four ounces isn’t a very big piece of meat. But we always had vegetables because we worked hard in the garden. Even if you’d been at work all day you’d still come home and plant your garden up because you relied on having all your winter vegetables, all your winter greens and cabbages and sprouts and celery. But mainly if you had potatoes you could make a meal, mashed potatoes or potato cakes.

But the big problem was cooking it because when I was first married we lived in a little cottage that we rented from an old boy in Holt. That had a wall over and a little fire place, that was a little grate that was about two feet high off the ground and that had a little hob each side that you put your kettles and your saucepans on.

But my Nan had a bigger one than that because there was ten in my Dad’s family. She had a big hook hanging from the chimney and she had her saucepans and her kettles hanging on that, they all had handles shaped to go on this hook, And that’s the way she used to cook but I used to have to have my saucepans each side of the fire place to cook. We didn’t have any electricity.

We used to get water from the well and we had oil lamps downstairs and we had to take the candles upstairs. But the problem was to heat the water. After you had your meal you had to wash up. We didn’t have any sinks or wash basins or bathrooms. We heated saucepans of water up on the fire and did your washing up on the table on a tray and then you’d fill the saucepans up again. You did that with rain water. You didn’t use the water from the well for that. You had the water butt outside your door to do all the washing because when we’d been to work potato picking we would have to wash all the clothes that we’d worn that day because you couldn’t possibly put anything back on.

We hand washed on the table with a bath of water and a scrubbing board and soap. There was no washing powder then but there was soda. And then we had to crank it through the mangle with wooden rollers and then go and peg it out up the garden.


Do you remember the Cornish girl with her little boy? She had ever such a mass of hair right down to her waist and she was busy putting this washing through and the little boy cranked the mangle and her hair got round the rollers and she was stuck, because one roller goes one way and the bottom one goes the other. And you have to feed it through and he turned it. I can’t remember what happened but she came to work the next day in a stew, didn’t she? I felt sorry for the little boy because he looked frightened when he was telling us. He probably would have got a smack.

Changes on the farm after the War

When our gov’nor Sir Dimmock White died, his son took over and he had different ideas about farming. And the son who took over hadn’t a clue.


When the men started to come back from the war things were different.

We had one chap, Tommy Neale, who had been a prisoner of the Japanese. I remember the day he came back to work, bless him. It must have been dreadful for him. We used to rear calves, around five or six, in little sheds called box stalls You’d keep the cattle in for the winter and then in spring you’d turn all the cattle out in the meadows.

The first day he came back to work, poor man, we had the cart outside and we had to load all the muck that had accumulated. It had probably got about three or four feet deep through the winter when you just kept putting in clean straw to give them a new bed.

And this day he came back to work and we were mucking out all these boxes and they all had to be cleaned out and left for the summer and he came back and he kept jumping and shouting. I did feel sorry for him but I was a bit frightened of him. I didn’t think he’d hurt me but I thought ‘He’s got a big fork in his hand. He could stick that through me.’

He did make a good recovery but his legs were very heavily scarred when he showed us. It was beri beri or something like that. Actually he’s still alive. He lives at Binham. He made a good recovery And his brother who also worked on the farm said ‘I knew he’d come home. I knew Tucker would make it, if nobody else didn’t.’

There was others who came back but they hadn’t been prisoners of war. As they came back the prisoners of war who were working on our farm, they shortened them off. That was a lot of men to have on one farm. Dad used to nearly go mad when the weather was bad and he didn’t know what to give them all to do. There were forty men. When the harvest rations were on, mother used to measure out forty lots. We used to get extra with Jack being on the farm.

My mother in law who lived next door, what we used to do was to put the oven on once a week because coal was on ration, half a bag a week, We used to go round the hedgerows and get wood and we’d pool our rations and have one fire once a week in the ovens on Saturdays. And we’d cook our little piece of meat then.

We wouldn’t have any of it. You could look at it then, but you have the gravy and the vegetables on Saturdays and then you’d have the meat on Sundays cold with vegetables again. We used to make a few cakes while the oven was hot, we’d share the coal. I’d have a shovel and she’d have a shovel, and then we’d get some wood on so we’d get it nice and hot. That would save the fuel. The same with the copper. We had a big steel tub with a fire underneath. We used to save all the rubbish. You wore your shoes until there wasn’t much left, and that would burn, and cabbage or sprout stalks. So long as you could boil the washing that was the main thing. You only boiled up once a week. You washed the rest, anything like nappies and things you’d put in a bucket of cold water out of the water butt to soak. But you’d still hand wash them afterwards.


And we always had a compost bin. We had a bucket to keep the peelings in, there was never any bread or anything like that. You didn’t throw bread away. Everyone had a compost bucket which we’d put up the garden because we all grew our own vegetables. But in those days everybody dug a big hole in their garden and that were where you threw away any jars and tins.

But of course you didn’t even throw any jars away then because in those days we made all our own pickles and chutneys and sauces. The top shelf in my pantry every winter was full up with jams and pickles. And we used to have Kilner jars, and go blackberrying, anything to fill up the jars. You never threw jam jars away. If you had a tin of anything it was very rare, because you hadn’t got the money to buy it. So every winter the top shelf would be full of preserves of some sort to get you through.


I can remember the sad day when our horses all went. I remember when we sold the last of our horses. That was so sad, I shall always remember it.

We lived opposite the meadow where the horses went and there was a huge big pond and they loved to go in there. And it was a very hot day. That was my last day with Tansy.

And I’d worked with her for so many years and that day, it was so sad because they’d keep selling and selling the horses as they got more tractors, and this particular evening the team man had let the horses out to go and have some grass. They always used to go in the pond and I was upstairs and I looked out my bedroom window and I saw seven of the horses in the pond and I knew that would be the last time ever because they were going the next day, and I stood and I cried and I came down and my husband said ‘What on earth’s the matter with you?’ And I said ‘You’ve got to come and look because you’ll never see this again.’ and he said ‘What’s happening?’ and I said ‘Well, there’s seven of the horses they’re all in the pond and they’re having a hell of a time They’re splashing. Oh you should see them, and they seem to know that it’s going to be their last time.’ And I just stood and cried, and he said ‘Come on down. You don’t want to upset yourself like that.’ and I said ‘I just can’t realise that I’m never going to see them in there any more.’

We knew them you see, all their names, and I think they knew you as well. I used to spoil my Tansy. I used to take her bits. She was a lovely horse. They were so big. You don’t think about it now. I was so tiny. I used to sit on her back. You could ride her without a saddle. She was really good and kind. She seemed to know when I had to put the collar on, she put her head down for it. I had to get in the bin where they fed, to put the collar on because I wasn’t big enough. The collars were so heavy. Once you put them on, you had to turn them over. She seemed to know that I couldn’t do it. She was very good. And when you’re getting the strap on underneath, my arm wasn’t very long and when I first started I thought, oh gosh that’s a long way away, and I used to dive under and get it right quick and my Dad said ‘No, you do that nice and steady, and you talk to her.’

And horses like aniseed and peppermint and I used to take Tansy little pieces of apple. She didn’t get many because we couldn’t spare them. Any windfalls that had holes in, I’d take her them. We did have some lovely horses we really did.

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