The Way It Was

THE WAY IT WAS 01

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….to country boys better than to Philosophers. While many townsfolk earn their living by making and selling luxuries, the farm worker deals solely in necessities.’ ‘His produce,’ said Cobbett, ‘Consists of things wanted by all mankind. Nature, it is maintained by the countryman, teaches men to make a reasonable estimate of sufficiency and then to feel satisfied with it. Fresh air, after all is better than stale, sunlight outshines desk light, and to plough a field or to thatch a rick is more healthy and less monotonous than to stoke a furnace, or walk a shop floor. There is nothing mystical about the country-man’s content’.

This sums up the why and wherefore of the countryman, his attitude to life and the way he felt about things in those days.

Times have changed a lot since I was a boy in those far off days, but at that time they hadn’t changed much from Cobbett’s day. Admitted the Great War had made its mark, but it was still a world of hard work for folk working on the land; of patience and backs bent to the ground, tending and handling crops, with virtually none of the modern day machinery to take out some of the hard work; of waiting on the weather and growth, long walks between villages along white, narrow, winding, dusty roads, rutted by hooves and iron-tyred cart wheels. People passed along on foot – rarely for pleasure – some on bicycles, a few motor vehicles were beginning to make their appearance, but for the most part it was horse-drawn traffic; the horse was still king.

Up until just a few years before I was born, almost everything grew up around the horse: fodder, smiths, stables, paddocks, distances to be travelled and the whole rhythm of the days. The horse was the fastest thing on the road, his eight to ten miles an hour was the limit of movement for years past.

Take the old carrier for instance, he would come jogging along come rain or shine, either old John Cooper himself or some days it was his wife, Mary, driving the wagon loaded with all manner of things. Their destination would be Minety station, where their load would be entrained to various parts of the country and they would pick up a load for delivery to the hamlets and villages on the return journey. They were always on the lookout for anyone wanting a parcel called for, or goods collected and delivered. Sometimes they would be asked to purchase things, like a pair of boots or some other such commodity.

The journey usually took all day, a very hard, long day; they started out early in the morning and finished late at night. Sometimes a passenger might be carried to the station, or perhaps a youngster from the station to spend a holiday with an Aunt and Uncle.

They say the whole structure of rural life rested on one man – the farm labourer. And he was a labourer; he toiled six days a week, often twelve hours a day – or even longer at harvest time and during haymaking. If it was a dairy farm, then he had to go to work on Sunday morning and evening, because the cows had to be milked every day. And for that he got thirteen shillings a week – this being in the early nineteen twenties, about the time I was born. His weekly wage was usually well below the national average.

He had virtually no status at all, either in his own community or in the outside world; he was very near the bottom of the social ladder, though he was recognised by those who knew about such things as a very skilled person, but he had pride in his skills, and was very versatile.

A farmer and his workers spent most of their working life in the open air; they rose early, looked at the weather and still clung to the ways that things had always been done. Technology had not devised a way of telling the farmer when to reap and when to plough.

The farm worker knows what it’s like to hack the ice from a cattle trough on Christmas morning, to sweat in a hayfield in mid summer, to rescue snowbound ewes and deliver still born lambs, and to call the cows home. He must recognise illness among his stock. He must be ready to hammer a stake and repair a fence, when he would rather be drinking a pint down at the local, or to repair a gate, grease an axle, or repair machinery. The men worked in the fields hour after hour, hoeing the crops, cutting thistles and docks, ploughing, sowing, mowing, dung-spreading, hedging and ditching, milking, lambing–the tasks seem endless. They didn’t take sandwiches but a whole big loaf–a cottage loaf, a little loaf on top of a large one–with a hunk of cheese and an onion, or perhaps some pork, all wrapped in a ‘Tommy bag’. The meal was washed down with some home brew or cold tea. They worked long hours, sometimes in all kinds of weather.

They usually wore corduroy trousers, sometimes tied below the knees with a strap, or leather leggings or gaiters; these had big buttons and spring clips at the bottom and straps at the top to do them up.

Almost all farmhands wore a waistcoat, the front of which was cord, with pockets in which they carried their pocket watch on a chain. They wore heavy boots and their jackets were usually quite ‘roomy’ with large pockets. Headgear was either a cap or a trilby.

When farmers went to market they wore a raincoat; if the temperature rose to the seventies he might sling it over his shoulder; it was worn more as a gesture against the elements. Tweed caps were their favourite headgear and gumboots had not yet taken over from the old, traditional brown boots, with leggings or gaiters for rough weather.

Most farmers carried a walking stick, or fork stick, either to lean on or to prod with. Walking around his farm he often carried a twelve bore shotgun. The old nickname for farmers was George, from the Greek, ‘georgos’, or husbandman – one who nurtures and tills the soil.

In those days all farms ran on ‘horsepower’; horses pulled harrows, dung carts, a mower for hay, or a reaper for corn, so it is not surprising that the man who looked after the horses was the aristocrat among the farm workers. His title varied; in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire he was known as the wagonner, in most of the south, certainly in the Cotswolds, he was the carter. On small farms he might be in charge of perhaps two or three horses, but on the larger farms, especially on those growing cereals, he could be in charge of an many as twenty or more heavy Shires or Suffolks, with six or seven men working under him–one for each pair or team of four.

The carter had his own horse brasses; they didn’t belong to the farmer, they picked them up here and there. They wouldn’t be worn by the horses at work, but only when they were on the road or at shows.

Some carters reckoned their year started in May when they were working the summer crops: roots, turnips, mangolds and swedes. They worked the bare land, clearing the ‘trumpery’ with chain harrows, and using the horse and cart to haul away the rubbish. With the coming of the harvest there was the binder; this required a change of horses because the work went on all day. Usually there were three horses to a binder, which meant six horses in all. The carter would do the reaping whilst other farmhands ‘stooked’ the sheaves, placing them ears uppermost in stooks of four or five. When the grain had ripened the sheaves were hauled by wagon to the rick yard.

The winter job was ploughing. Some ploughs were double furrow, with three horses to pull them; there was an art in setting these ploughs to run well and keep in. There was a lot of rivalry about who could plough the straightest, and who could set it up the nicest.

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For the three horses there were two reins or lines, one each side. Sometimes these lines were twisted round the plough handles and the ploughman could leave the plough, the horses continuing on a straight course, and – if the plough was set up well–it would keep into the ground and run correctly. Every farm which kept animals – and in those days that meant most of them–had to have hay for fodder, so haymaking was a busy time of the year. It was a very anxious time because it was a time before the advent of modern machinery. The greater part of the process: turning, gathering, carting and ricking had to be done by hand, with every man, woman and child working at full stretch. Hay was a farmer’s bank balance in some cases. If the season was bad, the winter would be bad.

On Greenslades Farm they usually mowed with a two horse team, although there were one horse machines which had a three foot wide cutting blade. The larger one cut about four feet six inches wide, and the two horses were harnessed each side of a single pole. They used to cut out around the outside of the field with scythes first of all.

When the field of grass had been cut and left for a while to dry, people used to go and help out with tossing the hay with pitch forks; this was before the coming of hay tossing machines.

The drying time depended on the weather of course, but also on the herbage content. If it had lots of straw grass it dried quickly, but if it was broad leafed, or what was sometimes called ‘herby’, it needed longer. The whole cycle in good weather, was: mow it, leave it overnight, spread it the next day and on the third day turn it, then leave it until after dinner when it was raked into wind-rows; usually after that it was ready for carting to the rickyard.

On lowland farms, as opposed to the hill farms, the hay was carted on four-wheeled wagons, ‘hay wains’, fitted with hay ladders at front and back. In our part of the country the hay was carted as near as possible to the farmstead or cattle shed, often some distance from the hayfields. The hay was stacked into large, rectangular ricks with slanting tops so they could be thatched until they were required for fodder, at which time it was cut into handy sized squares with a hay knife.

With haymaking time over there was little time to spare before the harvesting of the corn. This called for over a month of dawn-to-dusk labour for every man on the farm, sometimes with help from the women and children. I remember the corn being cut with a binding machine, which also tied the corn into sheaves and tossed them out of the side, to be later placed in stooks for further ripening. Unlike today, when the corn is cut, threshed and bagged up, or transferred into waiting vehicles, all in one process, in the old days if cut too ripe grain would be scattered and wasted if subjected to too much handling. Although there were three – and four-horse binders, I remember those drawn by two horses, these being smaller machines and better for handling in the relatively small fields around us; there wasn’t that much corn grown on each farm.

The machines were all ground driven, that is to say there was no power drive. The sails of the machine revolved in front and pushed the corn back onto the cutting knives, then as it was cut it fell onto the canvas which was moving sideways towards the packers and the batter boards which shook and packed it into a sheaf. The end of the canvas rode on loose boards, hinged at one end, so that when there was a certain weight of corn on it, it swayed down and tripped a knotter and the needle and string came round and tied it into a sheaf. The sheaves came out of the side. All this mechanism was driven by chains and gears from the ground wheels, which had spade-loops on them to prevent skidding. All this had to be drawn along by the horses, consequently it was much harder work than pulling the grass cutting machine.

The corn had to be properly dried out otherwise the stack could overheat and you could have a fire on your hands. Generally they used to weather oats for three weeks and wheat for a week or two.

There was more to many of these tasks on the farm than first met the eye. Most called for some skill; for instance, loading the wagons had to be done in such a fashion, or you would loose half the load on the way to the rickyard. Sometimes there could be as many as a dozen stacks; when they were finished the thatcher got to work and they were all thatched until threshing time came.

When I was a boy threshing was done by a steam traction engine and threshing drum, which had come into general use little more than ten years earlier.

Before that it was done with portable steam threshing machines, which had no road gearing and were sort of static; and before that threshing was done by beating out the ears of corn on a threshing floor with the aid of flails.

Farmers couldn’t afford their own threshing equipment so when threshing time came around they hired one of the contractors, like Mr Osborne in our village, who used to go round all the surrounding farms in our neighbourhood.

Most of the folk in our village, and those around us, earned their living on the land, of the remainder some worked for local trades people or in Malmesbury. Our next door neighbour was a porter at Minety station; my father worked for the County Council. Whatever their means of earning a livelihood, we were a close-knit community.

Most villages consist of about forty or fifty houses, not built in rows but dotted about more or less in a circle, sometimes at the junction of several roads. There would be an inn or two. The only shop was quite often the front room of a house, as was the Post Office, although the latter was usually only found in the larger villages; this was how it was at Luckington. Cloatley End however was a hamlet–just one or two houses alongside the road between two such villages.

Some villages probably came into being by growing up around the traditional pond, which in its way was a focal point and probably more fundamental than some of the other institutions like the public house, church or cricket on the village green.

The Roman highway engineers drained their roads into ponds so that horses and stock using the route could drink. Smithies, inns, tradesmen and Churches appeared around them.

Plough horses on their way home from work in the fields, cows coming in for milking, stock being driven to market on the hoof, all paused to drink. Some ponds had cobbled bottoms where carts could stand in hot weather to swell the wooden wheels, preventing the iron tyres from becoming too loose. Constable’s painting ‘The Hay Wain’ illustrates this.

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Some cottages had two bedrooms, some only one, often divided by a curtain. But these should never be thought of as slum dwellings. The inhabitants lived an open-air life, the cottages were kept clean by much scrubbing with soap and water, and door and windows stood wide open – weather permitting. People seldom locked their doors, the keys seldom turned in the locks; great keys they were too, sometimes six inches long, great hefty things fitting into great gaping key holes which the wind whistled through. Even when people left their houses they didn’t always lock up, in those days if anyone entered whilst you were out it was more likely that they left something for you rather than took anything away.

Food was rough but good; in the main people were healthy, the doctor was not often called out, if he was it was usually to the old folk or to deliver a baby, although the District Nurse coped with everything with some assistance from one of the women of the village. There always seemed to be one on hand for such emergencies, including the laying out of the dead.

Indigestion and such things were virtually unknown, as were nervous troubles; as I once read somewhere, the word ‘nerve’ was used then in a different sense to the modern one, my mother used to say, ‘my word, hasn’t he got a nerve?’ about someone who expected more than was reasonable.

A farm labourer’s pay at the turn of the century was something like ten shillings to a pound a week. They usually lived in the farm cottage rent-free. Other people paid a rent of about a shilling or two a week. Food was cheaper than today because so many people grew their own; men took pride in their gardens, and all vegetables were home grown. We ate plenty of green food: cabbage, lettuce, spring greens, we also had watercress which we children gathered from a nearby stream. There were potatoes, carrots, runner beans, broad beans, radishes, and onions, and fruit: apples, pears, plums, gooseberries, blackcurrants – they go on and on don’t they, but we had all these, and all from our own gardens. The very small potatoes were boiled with their jackets on, not peeled.

The three main ingredients for the one hot meal a day were bacon, vegetables, and flour for the ‘roly-poly’ pudding.

The meal called ‘Tea’ was taken in the evening when the men came home from work in the fields, and the children from school, for, usually, neither could get home at mid-day. At about five o’clock chimneys would start to smoke as the fire was stoked up to do the cooking. Children were given their share and not expected to complain or fuss about, picking and choosing. Other meals depended largely on bread and butter, sometimes to help ‘fill up’. We had bread and lard or dripping, sometimes bread and butter with a sprinkling of sugar on it, or there was ‘sop’–bread steeped in boiling water, strained, and sugar added.

A special treat for us, which we loved, was when ‘fishy Haines’ came peddling up the road, his bicycle laden high–front and back – with boxes of fish and a plate of crisply fried sprats. There was always a good supply of jams and chutneys of course, made by mother from the fruits available. Coal at a shilling a hundredweight, and a pint of paraffin for lighting, had to be squeezed out of the weekly wage.

Our house was humble in the extreme, but to us children it was all a home should be: the worn furniture, the rag and wool mats mother made, the black-leaded fireplace, coming to life with crackling flames from the burning logs; the mantle shelf, overloaded with china ornaments, trinkets and bric-a-brac, and the dancing shadows cast by the oil lamp on a winter’s night all helped to create the reassurance of a haven of snug comfort and safety.

In our way we children sometimes helped to ‘make ends meet’, for, apart from hauling home the firewood–which we enjoyed, rather then treating it as a chore – we pottered around helping dad in the garden. Harry went down to Luckington Court each day to pump the water from the well up into the header tank in the roof, which was the arrangement in the houses of the well-off up until the coming of mains water supply. I had a similar job; we used to count the strokes as we rocked the handle of the semi rotary pump backwards and forwards; nearing the two hundred mark we went outside to see if the water was coming out of the overflow pipe. For this I think we got about two shillings a week. Len used to trap moles; again the farmer didn’t object – they were a nuisance if, like at the place Len used to go, there were mole hills everywhere. He used to scrape away the fresh soil to reveal the burrow, set his trap, and replace the soil. It was a common sight to see the skins pinned out on a board to dry. And again a few shillings came our way for the skins which were made into rather costly moleskin coats, which were widely sought after.

Sometimes all the family would go gleaning, picking up any corn stalks and ears left after the harvest had been gathered, then beating out the wheat, and getting it ground into flour.

Another means of earning a few shillings was stone picking on the land. Tilling the soil brought up stones to the surface, especially in our part of the country where much of the building stone was surface quarried. If I remember rightly we got three shillings for twenty-four bushels–or was it five shillings for thirty bushels – anyway it was what they called ‘a load’. Up and down the field, picking the stones into bushel baskets or a pail, you soon got to know how much a pail would hold, and how many times that meant you had to go to the basket to fill it. The farmers used to get so much a load from the Council who used the stones to repair the roads. After being spread out they were often left for the traffic, farm carts mainly, to wear them in. Otherwise the farmer used them to repair the ruts in his gateways.

For the folk who worked the land it was all walking; they walked to their place of work, then they often had to walk miles behind the plough, harrow or roller in the summer–long, hard days gathering the harvest – and in the winter the ordeal of dragging mud-clogged boots, when, by the end of the day the leg muscles were shrieking in agony.

Some walking was considered a pleasure, such as when the gentry got together for a shoot. We boys who were old enough were allowed to join the rest of the farm hands to beat game to the guns. Armed with sticks we beat the undergrowth and tree trunks, and yelled as we moved forward, sending the birds towards the guns.

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Our village, like most others, was no paradise, we knew and recognised a certain amount of corruption in our midst, but there was seldom tale-telling, and no sending for the police. Transgressors were dealt with by local opinion, by silence, or nicknames. We had a Police Constable resident in our village; his beat also took in some of the surrounding villages and hamlets. He maintained law and order commendably. The more serious crimes were referred out of his hands, but generally he was able to cope; he was respected by all levels of the community, especially by us youngsters. Sometimes ‘crimes’ were dealt with without the assistance of the Constable – if caught in the act we got a quick slap, or the stick by the farmer we might have ‘scrumped’ apples from, This we accepted – if you were too slow, too bad. The village didn’t always rely on the authorities to punish sinners; they were dealt with – often given hell – but their wrongdoings and waywardness were absorbed into the local scene, and the punishment was confined within our own small community.

Within less than a century life in the English countryside has changed completely; no longer do the farm hands in need of work visit the ‘hiring Fairs’ as they did in the north and west, or scrutinise their newspapers as they did in the Cotswolds. The great farm horses have gone and with them the carters and wagoners. The corn ricks and their thatchers are no longer required; the traction engines that once travelled from farm to farm at threshing times have faded into history.

As I have said elsewhere, it may seem to some people that we lived a miserable existence, but nothing could be further from the truth. We children were happy, carefree, cheerful, and often quite noisy. We enjoyed life, we didn’t yearn for material things, we didn’t have today’s standards to compare to our own, and the past was little known to us; we had no yardstick, so we were quite content with our lot. I still feel a great sense of nostalgia for those times, there is a satisfaction in pondering over and reading about the old country life; those days had a charm about them, the countryside had a fragrance about it when I was a boy, somehow that seems to have been lost – the smell of new mown hay, and crops untouched by modern chemicals and fertilizers; there was a greeting for you from a briar hedge, it caressed the nostrils from yards away. Horizons have widened such that the communities don’t seem so close-knit any more, I’m not sure the youngsters of today are quite so able to make their own entertainment and enjoyment as we did.

Regretfully I have spent a great many of my later years away from Wiltshire, even so as I grow older my roots seem to be growing stronger; I like to think I am worthy of being called a ‘Moonraker’.

So many memories of those early days spent in the Cotswolds flood in, some are vivid and remain stamped in my mind; others are awakened by a word, a sound or a sighting.

Of all my school friends for instance, there are few that I remember, and fewer still that I remember by name, especially the girls. There was one girl however who was to distract and haunt me during the latter part of my school days. We were about the same age, twelve I think, it was, and in the same class; her name was Iris Gardener. She wasn’t beautiful, nor was she lissom, voluptuous, sensual or any of these romantic things. She was nice looking rather than pretty, with a nice figure, though this was often hidden by the ‘tweedy’ style clothes she wore. A little shorter than I was, she had shoulder length auburn hair and grey eyes. I think it must have been her serene, warm quietness that I found so attractive about her.

She mixed well but didn’t seem to latch onto anyone in particular. I thought she seemed lonely but that was perhaps because as soon as school was over she set off towards her home, an isolated cottage on the road between Sherston and Luckington, consequently I only saw her at school. I don’t remember when I first became interested in her but once I had she was always very much in my thoughts and I was aware of her whenever she was near at hand. She had given no indication that she thought any more of me than anyone else, and I hadn’t plucked up enough courage to approach her.

Then one day we were thrown together quite by chance; we were both nominated by the teacher to come forward to assist in the selection of art work for display in the classroom.

We were given a corner of the classroom in which to work. Since a lot of the work was on large sheets we placed a dust sheet on the floor and set the work out around us. We knelt on the floor facing each other; after a moment or two we found the floor a bit hard on our knees so she moved to sit comfortably, not more than a few feet from me, her legs drawn up beneath her, leaning towards me with one hand on the floor. She was gazing downwards, her long hair falling across her cheek.

I threw quick glances in her direction, willing her to look at me; we had spoken little so far. Teacher and class had faded, we were alone, and she seemed more assured than I was, I felt awkward, unsure of what I should, or shouldn’t do next.

For moments we did nothing, then she picked up a drawing from the floor and leaned towards me, holding it so that both of us could see it, our eyes met for an instant, darted away and down, and then came together again, in those few seconds I knew all I needed to know, our feelings were mutual. I was trembling and tingling, I felt my head would burst; when our hands intentionally touched from time to time afterwards there was something which stirs my memory even now.

But it was in all innocence, we were still at that tender age when one is encountering new experiences and emotions for the first time but doing no wrong. Even though nothing ever came of it, other than flirtation and the very fact of just being near each other whenever possible, I was never the same again; for something like two years this idyllic situation prevailed until the time came for us both to leave school. I never saw her again, but I have never forgotten her.

Christmas 1936 was different, I was fourteen years of age, and I had left school and was in a kind of no-man’s-land, neither school-boy nor worker.

Things had been arranged for me to start work at Luckington Manor and a week before Christmas Mr Lambert, the head groom at the Manor, came to see my mother to discuss my future. The outcome was that I was to start work as a stable lad-cum-odd job boy, working in the stables, gardens and around the House, commencing at six o’clock on the Monday morning after Christmas. I think I was quite excited about it, if not a little apprehensive.

Christmas was over, then came the morning for me to start work; mother got me up at about a quarter past five, that was the first shock, my brothers were still asleep, they didn’t even have to go back to school yet! It was cold and dark, I got dressed by the light of a candle and made my way downstairs, where mother had a fire going in the kitchen range. She fussed around me as I pulled on my heavy boots and did up the gaiters in front of the crackling fire. I had porridge to warm me up, although, like other land workers of those times, I would be coming home for breakfast at around nine o’clock, after tending to the horses.

Muffled in overcoat and scarf I left in plenty of time for the short walk to work. As I went out of the door mother gave me a hug saying ‘off you go then, take care,’ with that look that mothers give on such occasions, as though they are about to lose you.

It had stopped snowing, my boots made little noise on the carpet of snow as I trudged through the darkened village – no street lights then. Some houses had lights in them, re-assuring me that I wasn’t the only one up and about. The lights were on in the cowsheds as I passed Wilcox farm; they were busy milking.

Hunched into my overcoat against the cold the thought crossed my mind that I was now the family breadwinner! At the end of the week I would be taking home the princely wage of two shillings and six pence. In less than ten minutes I arrived at the gates to the Manor. I could see lights from the hurricane lanterns bobbing about around the stables, the other men were already at work. I crunched my way up the wide expanse of the gravel driveway and headed for the tack room.

01/02/2021