Reminiscences of Country Life
A Village History written in 1937 by Joshua Lamb (1856 – 1943), reflecting on the previous 70 years.
From the hilltops around our village we can see considerable portions of the counties of Warwick, Worcester, Gloucester, Northampton and Buckingham in addition to our own county of Oxford, and the observant traveller in these shires will notice the large acreage of land which, although now pasture, had evidently at one time been under the plough. Mile after mile as you pass along you see the regular ridges which were formed when the land was in cultivation, and although the countryside is now almost entirely enclosed and divided up among the separate owners, this was not the case even 150 years ago, at which time all sheep had to be folded, and cattle and horses tethered when out on the open field. All possible land was then obliged to be under the plough, and the number of persons who at that time were required to work these arable fields must have been very much greater than at present, and there may have been something in what Cobbett says in his “Rural Rides” that the great churches we see in agricultural districts, which are now much too large for the congregation, were at that time, when the number of workpeople was so much greater and church-going more popular, none too commodious for the inhabitants of the districts surrounding them.
In the days of the open field it was no unusual occurrence for the livestock to get astray, and most villages were supplied with a “pound” where they could be shut up till claimed by their owners who had to pay a fine before the gate was unlocked. We well remember this being the case even in our own time, but now these old walled enclosures are mostly fallen into decay or are being used for some other purpose.
When the open field was enclosed about 1790 an opportunity arose of laying some of the land down to pasture where sheep and cattle could run at will, and as time went on, and cultivation of the land became less profitable, more and more went down this way, until today, the latter largely predominates wherever plenty of water is available.
The facilities for travel are infinitely greater than they were seventy years ago (1860). Those of us who remember the wretched roads we then used which have since been transformed into something approaching sheets of glass, fully appreciate the benefits thereby conferred upon us, even though we find that our favourite haunts are invaded by those who apparently care little for the preservation of the beauties of the countryside and the poor horse are at a loss to know how to keep their footing.
In our childhood days it was with considerable difficulty that we made our weekly visit to the market town on the rough recently stoned roads, which in that day knew nothing of a steam roller, and so bad were they that nearly all the farmers went to town on horseback, leaving their purchases to be brought back by the local carrier, who at that time did a lucrative business. But as the roads improved and distance was covered in the pony and trap in which the eggs and butter were taken to market and the purchased goods brought back, the carriers fell on bad times and their numbers were soon reduced by half, and now that motors have become general their old covered carts will soon be a thing of the past.
But the changes that have taken place in agriculture have been equally remarkable. Up to the year 1872 no introduction of machinery had taken place on our father’s farm, and we remember how during hay time we loved to go and watch the string of mowers following each other across the field of grass or clover, laying low the beautiful flowers and exposing the nest of the partridge, landrail, quail and lark and disturbing the little grass mouse in its cosy home; or in the harvest time assisting with a sickle in reaping the corps of golden wheat. When the corn was all cut by hand, every available man, woman and child, including many of the local tradesmen, were in the habit of assisting and very considerable sums of money were earned especially when the work was done by the “piece” and days of sixteen hours were frequently made. The introduction of the reaping machine in 1872, followed by other horse-drawn implements, gradually took the place of the farm labourers, until at the present time not more than about one-third the former number are employed.
When carting the crops of corn it was usual to leave one shock or cock standing in the field until it was ready for the leasers, and they understood that after that was removed they could enter and pick up all they could find, and it was no mean quantity which an active woman and her children could obtain in this way in a season. One instance we knew where sufficient wheat was obtained to keep the family in bread till the next autumn. The introduction of machinery, together with the dissatisfaction which arose about the same time between masters and men, was the death blow of leasing, with the result that during the last thirty years little or nothing in the way has been attempted in this district.
Beer used to be given to the men during haytime and harvest which was supplied in wooden bottles holding up to a gallon each and it was often our duty to run home and get them refilled. The brewing of this beer once or twice a year was a serious undertaking. Some barley grown on the farm would probably have been sent to the village maltster several weeks previously, and then when this was ready for use a few pounds of hops would be purchased at market and next day the furnace would be alight by three o’clock in the morning and the first boiling taken off by breakfast time. This would occur again more than once during the day, by which time every available wooden vessel to be obtained would be full of steaming ale, to which as soon as it was sufficiently cooled barm would be added to set it working. Then came skimming time, when as fast as the frothy accumulation was in danger of over flowing it would be removed into a tub and would ultimately be sold to local baker for bread making. Next came the filling of the great barrels in the cellar where there were usually three with a capacity of about eighty gallons each, and into those would then be inserted the barm sprouts to carry off into a vessel underneath any overflow which might arise; then at last the spout would be removed and the hole plugged up, the bung put into its place at the top and the barrel supplied with a tap ready for drawing of the beer when required.
But we must not omit the rejoicings which at that time were connected with the completion of harvest, how the extra beer was taken to the field before the last load was picked up ready to celebrate the event; how from the top of the load and its precincts the words “Up, up, up, up Harvest Home,” were shouted again and again between liberal potations from the bottles; how some evening after all was secured the workmen assembled at the house of their employer to partake of the plum puddings and round of beef which had been cooking in the great copper furnace all day; how songs were sung and speeches made and how the happy reunion resulted in the continuance of that good feeling between masters and men which we are afraid is at this day sometimes lacking.
The thud of the flail on the barn floor; the blind horse pacing round and round all day attached by a pole to the driving cog of a threshing machine; the patient oxen plodding to and fro with the wooden plough; the harsh cry of the corncrake and the call of the quail; these together with many other sights and sounds of our childhood have passed away.
Picture if you can two stalwart men facing each other from morning till night for weeks and months on end pounding away with their flails at the corn spread out between them on the barn floor, their alternate blows resounding all over the premises especially when, as was the case in one instance, the owner boarded the “midsty” so that he need not leave his comfortable fireside to ascertain whether his men were properly attending to their duty; this job was no sinecure, it required training and experience before it could be successfully accomplished.
There was of course, more corn left in the straw in those days than is the case with the steam threshing machine, but it was by no means wasted as the cattle in the yard adjoining were foddered with it night and morning, and the poultry well knew that their only meal depended upon their thoroughly searching for the hidden grain, and they acted accordingly. The barns where the threshing was done were built with high double doors on the rickyard side and smaller ones opposite so that loads of corn could come in and the empty wagons pass out; as fast as the ends of the barn became empty, they would be replenished form the stackyard adjoining.
By no means all the corn was even at the time threshed by hand, many of the larger barns were so arranged that a machine could be taken inside to be worked by a horse in the rickyard on shoes, speed of course depended on the sufficiently rapid revolutions of the drum, and a boy was frequently employed to keep the animal moving, and in one instance a local lad when attending to this duty got entangled in the machinery and lost his leg in consequence.
Wheat was formerly sold by the bag of 3 bushels instead of by the quarter of 8 as at present, and it varied in price enormously year by year, and those farmers who had a few old ricks on hand reaped a rich reward in the event of a wet harvest spoiling the grain or necessitating its being stacked in poor condition; this occurred especially in the year 1801 when our great grandfather sold his wheat at 55 shillings per bag while some of his neighbours made 76/6d, or 25/6d per bushel, and bread went up in price for a time to 3/6d the 8lb loaf.
Many doubtless suppose that the recent price of wheat, 20 shillings per quarter was the lowest on record, but that is not the case for about the year 1826 it was sold at 7/6p, or 20 shillings the quarter, and again from 1893 to 1896 it was quite as low not infrequently, and we well remember some changing hands a Banbury market at 2 shillings per bushel.
Wars and rumours of wars immediately affected the wheat trade, and the price it commanded at those times was a sure indication of the state of feeling in the country, and it was perhaps only natural that signs of peace were not looked upon with much enthusiasm by some of the farming community, and John Leech made full use of this fact in some of his well known caricatures. In the year 1812 during the Peninsular War wheat rose to 54 shillings per bag, and several time afterwards between then and 1868 it reached 27 shillings but not till the Great War did it again approach that sum.
The old practice of putting the wheat ricks in “staddles” was principally for the purpose of protecting them from the rats and mice, but the latter were almost always introduced with the sheaves at harvest time, and the rats took the first opportunity of running up a ladder or pole which had inadvertently been left standing against the rick during the night with the result that much damage was never-the-less frequently sustained. There was a man in most villages who kept a dog and ferrets and who added to his precarious livelihood by going round to the different farms to assist in clearing out the rats, this was sometimes successfully accomplished but at others the ferrets would “lie” in the rick at a nest of young and would probably not be seen again for a day or two. The same person would attend to the mole trapping on the farms at a given sum per year or at so much per head; in the latter case the culprits would be hung on a hedge where the farmer could keep count of them. He would have nothing to do with the ordinary steel traps, but with a few twigs cut from the hedge – one of which was used as a spring – he would manipulate a very serviceable article in a few minutes.
At the time our father commenced business in 1846 there was no railway station even at Banbury, and up till then and for several years afterwards practically all the wheat grown in the district was sold to local millers, and while threshing with the flail was in vogue the proceeds were generally sold each week and delivered in driblets of a few bags at a time, and with the roads in the state in which they then were the transit of even those small quantities was doubtless no easy work. There was at the time a mill by the waterfall at Broughton at which a considerable quantity of wheat was converted into flour for bread making, and it had the further advantage for villages in our district of saving the toll gate charges which were 1/6d for a three-horse team.
We have alluded to the disappearance of yokes for oxen which we well remember frequently watching at work on a large estate within a mile of our home; there were often four pairs attached to a plough or cultivator, and although their pace was rather a slow one, they had some advantage over the horse especially when fed up for sale as beef at six years of age.
The disappearance of the corncrake and quail is, we believe, entirely due to the introduction of the mowing machine; these birds, especially the former, were quite common up to the time their use was commenced, as the old birds could train their young away from the scythe to safety, but the machine drives them all into the centre of the field where they were cut to pieces by the cruel knives; both the quail and the corncrake were at that period shot in considerable umbers in the stubble after harvest but it is many years now since we have seen or heard one; the former is a pretty little bird almost identical with the partridge but only half its size. It was known in this district as the Quick-ma-Dick on account of its distinctive call.
We have referred to the great fluctuations in the price of wheat during the last century but other changes of a much more permanent character had meanwhile been taking place especially in the value of agricultural land and the wages paid to the employees. It was impossible to rent a decent farm in those days under 50 shillings per acre while at the same time the weekly remuneration had only recently risen from 9 to 11 shillings per week. We have records of several farms in this district which changed hands at that time, and which have been recently sold again at considerably less than half the sum which was the paid for them, while wages, on the other hand, have risen enormously; the change over from Landlord to workman has certainly been in the right direction but it has resulted in the ruin of countless owners whose mortgages amounted to much more than the farms themselves are now worth; the occupiers have meanwhile struggled on but the balance of the turnover has not been in their favour and they are anxiously awaiting better times.
At that period farm rents were about 50 shillings per acre, rates 2/6d in the £, wages 11 shillings per week, wheat 9 shillings per bushel, barley 36 shillings and oats 30 shillings per qr., butter ½d per pound, eggs 24 for 1 shilling, pigs 11 shillings per score, breeding ewes 42 shillings and cows in milk £10-10-0 each. Things were then just settling down after the Crimean War and wheat soon afterwards dropped to 5/6d per bushel.
The corn drill which had recently been introduced was fast superseding the old practice of sowing by hand, an operation which required great skill in its even distribution; there had also been a cleverly constructed machine in use called a “Dibbler” which deposited the seed in holes made by the instrument itself. We only saw one of these and should much like to know whether such a curiosity now exists; it was owned by a person at Hook Norton and our father paid 2/6d per acre for the use of it.
In those days of long ago the landlords were well able to assist their tenants in the way of liberal allowances for draining etc., with the result that great improvement in that way were made which were often paid for by felling sufficient timber to cover the outlay; trees abounded at that time in almost all the hedgerows round arable and pasture fields, having doubtless been planted with the quick when the enclosures took place; and as the timber merchants were then few and far between these trees were usually drawn together in some convenient spot where a pit could be dug and the timber converted into planks, boards, felloes etc., as required; the sawing was done by hand either by local residents or others travelling the country for the purpose. The sawyers would frequently have also been the tree-fellers and were expert men in both departments. The winter was chosen for felling the ash and elm, and early May for the oak which would be barked on the spot and the proceeds stacked on trestles to dry; this would not take long and then it would be carted away to the tannery at Shipston where there was always a ready sale for it.
The sawing up of these large timber trees by two men was a long job, and we often went to watch them at work first cutting them into the requisite lengths and the trimming and rolling them on to the two supports at the sawpit; then came the marking out which was done with a string which had been liberally chalked its whole length each end of which would be held taut, and then the string lifted with thumb and finger and suddenly released, which resulted in a clear straight white line along which to guide the saw. When the whole log was lined out the sawing would commence, and we often wondered which man’s position was the more to be envied, as one had to stand all day on the piece of timber while his companion’s outlook was confined to the four walls of the pit in which he was working. Occasionally a nail would be encountered in the heart of the tree which resulted in much comment by both workmen as well as hindering them a long time in extracting it and re-sharpening the saw; these nails were mostly found in hedgerow timber where a rail had been inadvertently fixed to it at some period of growth.
The number of sheep bred in the district was very much larger than is now the case, and in addition many were purchased in the autumn to consume the crops of roots which were grown largely on the lighter land; these usually left a good margin of profit, but occasionally disaster followed, as was the case in the winter of 1879-80 when many thousands died of fluke rot owing to the cold wet summer preceding, and in some instances it became the practice to send a cart each morning to the sheep fold to fetch away those that had died during the night. Happily more care has been exercised to keep the sheep on sound land during wet summers so that losses to the same extent have not since been experienced.
The washing of sheep before shearing is not now obligatory, and this probably helps to diminish the numbers seen in May at the places where this is performed, but the great flocks in former days filled the lanes and approaches, and it was necessary to stop the two overshot wheels at our local mill to liberate sufficient water for the purpose.
It was practically compulsory that the shearing should take place within a certain number of days of the visit to the brook so that there would not be too great an accumulation of grease in the wool. When they were once dry it was sometime necessary to shut them in if rain threatened and the shearing had been arranged for a certain day as was usually the case; for weeks previously local farmers would have been making their arrangements for the shearing of their flocks, and all would band together to help each other in turns, allowing one, two, or three days according to the number of sheep to be attended to. If either of the fixtures failed to materialise it had to fall out of the rotation and be taken last; these shearing clubs as we may call them were times of much festivity especially in the case of large flocks when the last day would be celebrated by a feast of boiled leg of mutton and plum puddings accompanied by abundance of stimulants.
The fleeces of wool would be loosely rolled by the shearers, and then handed over to the “winder” who was usually an old hand whose active days were over but who could clean and neatly bind the wool ready for stacking away in the loft overhead. Then came the branding of the shorn sheep with hot pitch which left the initials of the owner clearly marked for the rest of the season, and traces of it were even found at the next shearing tine. After a while came the wool buyer with his great wooden scales on which a “tod” at a time would be weighed while any “greys” or “cots” would be thrown aside to be dealt with afterwards at about half price. The latter, as their name implies, were usually found amongst sheep of the Cotswold breed, and were an indication that the animal’s health had been below par during the preceding winter, the wool having woven itself into a natural blanket from which it often took an hour to liberate the occupant, they made excellent doormats and were frequently used as such. The long coarse wool of the Cotswolds is now out of favour, and that class of sheep is fast disappearing in consequence, and the fleeces instead of averaging eight or nine pounds each have been reduced at least 30% in weight through the introduction of the finer qualities.
The isolation of our villages was almost as pronounced in the middle of the 19th century as it had been during the preceding hundred years. The electric telegraph and railways were in their infancy, bicycles were as yet unknown and the daily paper was to be had only in the towns and large villages. Almost the only outside news we obtained was through the medium of “Bell’s Weekly Messenger” which usually devoted one page to general information. This paper often served two or three households and it was our duty when very young to pass our father’s on to a neighbouring farmer who kept a dog of which we were much afraid. This was to some extent compensated for by our being allowed to see an enormous white ox which was being fattened in a barn. When it was sold to a Shipston butcher in 1862 for £70 its dressed weight proved to be 1840 lbs.
The first bicycle which made its appearance here was a wooden wheeled contrivance better known as the “bone shaker”, and it held its ground until it was usurped by its still more dangerous high front wheeled successor which in its turn gave way to the present “safety” bicycle.
Two stage coach routes within a few miles of our village were, we believe, the only means of communication with the outside world before the railway was opened through Banbury. One of these connected Oxford with Birmingham and passed through Shipston-on-Stour, and the other appears to have gone by the Roundhouse at Edge Hill as our father twice mentions having met the coach there. We presume it went through Banbury and down Bullet Hill in the direction of Wellesbourne. Local conveyances were largely confined to the “Sociable” which was a covered two-wheeled one with an open front, and probably got its name through all the occupants having to face each other inside. They were very objectionable when meeting a high wind, and, in one instance during a great blizzard near Tadmarton the shafts snapped off leaving the rest of the vehicle standing on end with the passengers heaped together at the bottom. The “Dogcart” was also then coming into use. It had a receptacle at the back in which to place a dog – frequently a greyhound – probably for the purpose of securing a stray hare or two. These animals were very abundant at that time and were shot in large numbers at the cross roads in the early morning, and we always knew from whom we could purchase one when required.
In addition to the beer to which we alluded previously large quantities of cider were made as the orchards round our villages were well stocked with apple trees, many of which produced fruit suitable for that purpose, and this being supplemented by any crabs obtainable in the hedgerows it was no uncommon thing for several of the residents to have a considerable quantity at their disposal. An apple mill would be hired, and the fruit passed through a pulper, and after being enclosed in horsehair wrappings great pressure would be brought to bear upon it by means of a screw and as much juice as possible extracted. The fact that this was going on in the village would soon be noised abroad, and quite a party would collect to taste the product which at that early stage was extremely palatable. Sugar or treacle would sometimes be added and the cider then placed in casks for future use. Most of these old trees have now been blown down or removed, and when fresh planting has been done a better class of fruit has been encouraged so that the cider mill in this locality is another thing of the past.
The first mention in our father’s accounts of insurance against fire is in the year 1851 when a payment was made under that head to Joseph Jarvis who then carried on the well known business which is still conducted in Parson’s Street, Banbury. It was usual if not obligatory at that time, to have a metal plate affixed on all insured houses as a check we presume to incendiarism and a few of these are still to be seen on some of the old cottages.
The mention of Parson’s Street calls to mind how at the time of Michaelmas Fair that thoroughfare used to be crowded with young men and maidens seeking situations, and with Masters and Mistresses in quest of Carters, Shepherds and Dairy Maids. The Register Office and Labour Exchange were as yet unknown and this hiring business was transacted almost exclusively there: intending shepherds wore a bit of wool in their hats while the carters were recognised by a twist of whipcord. Families were usually much larger than is the case now, and the young men as well as their sisters were glad to get away from home for a change and take situations in other villages, and they were often hired at these fairs to attend to matters about the house, and would lodge and board with their masters, and lasting friendships were sometimes made in this way as was the case in the family of the old wool winder previously mentioned. An amusing incident occurred between one of our ancestors and a hired employee who, on completing his first year of service wished to make a change, and to his master’s enquiry as to why he wanted to leave he replied that “the bacon was too fat”. Sometime afterwards the same person applied to be reinstated, but our grandfather told him that the bacon was as fat as ever. His reply to this being, “I have learned to bread it well, Master.” He had evidently in the meantime been where scarcity was the main difficulty.
The choice of a Dairymaid was naturally the prerogative of the Mistress of the household, but on one occasion we accompanied our father when he had undertaken to try and fill the post. He chose a fine buxom girl of twenty-one who proved herself to be an excellent assistant, and stayed with us till her marriage which took place six years afterwards. In each of these hirings it was usual for the Master or Mistress to hand over one shilling as “earnest money” which was supposed to bind the contract, the greater part of the wages being payable at the expiration of the year of service.
We have already mentioned the tollgate which existed on the Banbury Road by the turn to North Newington; the right to collect the fares was sold each year to the highest bidder either by auction or tender, and the purchaser entered into occupation of the cottage adjoining, which has since been removed, and was responsible to the Highway Authorities for the amount bargained for, any takings in addition being his own perquisite. So it was only natural that alertness was shown in the calling, and no one was allowed to pass before handing over the charge except foot passengers who made use of a small side gate: the return journey, if made before midnight was free.
Enormous flocks of sheep and droves of cattle were frequently seen in those days passing eastwards, and we well remember many thousands of the former filling our village street from end to end as they slowly moved onwards. It was usual when possible to take advantage of those roads without a toll bar and such a one was to be found leading from Stow-on-the Wold past the Rollright Stones and Wiggington Heath, and when the enclosure of the open fields was made this hilltop highway was left with an extra width of grass on each side to enable the flocks and herds to obtain pasturage by the way; the road is still there, and the grass is there, but the drovers and their charges are seen no more.
Another frequent sight in our childhood was the sweep looking out of the top of a chimney and informing all and sundry that he had reached that position from the fireplace below. It was often a small boy, who performed this feat, and the protest raised by their sufferings eventually led to an act being passed prohibiting their employment, and now the appearance of the brush itself is the only proof to the passer-by that the operation is in progress.
At the period to which we are referring a deadly scourge was visiting the country in the way of the Rinderpest which was causing the death of enormous numbers of cattle: we had just previously paid a visit with our parents to a farm near Oxford which was well stocked with about sixty head, and we were particularly interested in a small favourite cow which they called “Tiny”. But soon after reaching home we heard that the dreaded disease had reached them and had wiped off in a few days nearly all their cattle including the petted animal; It was about the year 1866 and although we, in a different neighbourhood escaped the visitation a rate was raised for the benefit of those who were the sufferers. And licences had to be obtained from the local magistrate at Broughton to move our cows to and from the milking yard, and on one occasion we had to run down to the Vicarage for the renewal form while our father waited with Sociable in the road above. On returning we saw something that riveted itself on our memory and has never been effaced. Our childhood days had been largely spent among crinolines, and our astonishment at meeting two ladies who had discarded them and in consequence were able to walk side by side on a footpath can well be imagined: up to that time such a roadway could scarcely accommodate one female, to say nothing of two, and one has only to refer to the current numbers of Punch to realise the predicaments they were frequently placed in.
But let us return to the subject of cattle disease. Although as we have said the Rinderpest did not reach our village this was not the case afterwards with the “Foot and Mouth” disease which visited our father’s herd of milking cows in two consecutive seasons. This occurred in 1872 and 1873, and the milkman had to bear the brunt of the trouble which attended the outbreaks. There was no slaughtering then, and we were left to affect a cure as best we could at our own expense. We were not allowed to move the cattle backwards and forwards to milk them, and could not have done so even if we might, for their poor feet made it almost impossible for them to walk, and their sore mouths and badly affect udders made milking and other attentions a terrible ordeal both to the attendant and the twenty two cows affected. One beast only died during the two visitations, but the ultimate loss in other ways was enormous. It was very strange that while we might not move the cows themselves we were at liberty to use and sell the milk and butter which one would have supposed could not fail to carry infection wherever it went. It appears hard now to see healthy cattle slaughtered on account of the disease having attacked other members of the herd, but the ultimate suffering they escaped would make us wonder whether it is not the most merciful thing to do not only for their own sakes but for that of their masters also.
The present generation of farmers know little or nothing of the procedure which was customary during haytime and harvest before the introduction of machinery. We were brought up where nothing of the kind was in use till the year 1872 by which time we had already had a good deal of experience, and we still retain a distinct recollection of what then took place.
It must be borne in mind that as many as three labourers were at that period employed on most farms where one at present is supposed to suffice, and a holding of 200 acres found regular work for at least ten men and boys during the whole year, and these were supplemented by other villagers at haymaking and harvest at which time the fields appeared to be alive with workers both male and female.
When the busy period drew near half a dozen of the able-bodied men would be instructed to look out their scythes which would have been carefully put away at the close of the previous season, and the first move would be to the grindstone where half a day would be spent in thinning down the blades and preparing them for the work ahead. The leather belts in which to carry the rubber in the pouch at the back would be overhauled, and on the appointed morning the men would turn up at an early hour in the clover or pasture field as the case might be to commence their strenuous work.
There is no operation nowadays in the hayfield so hard and wearing as mowing for ten hours on several successive days, and those who could stand it for a week on end were well worthy of their three shillings and beer which to us now appears to have been a most inadequate remuneration. The most proficient workman would generally be the leader of the gang, and he would strike in first and the others would follow at short intervals leaving the lying in “swaths” about five feet apart; as soon as the scythes began to lose their keen edge the leader would stop and reach for his rubber from the pouch. His example being followed by the rest of the men, and then would be heard one of the most characteristic sounds of the hayfield – the metallic ring of whetted steel – which to our childish ears was as musical as the pealing of bells. By night the six toilers would have cleared several acres and be extremely glad that the time had come for them to return home where they could rest their weary limbs ready for the next day’s exertions. Tradition says that one of our ancestors on visiting the field where his men had been mowing all day was so dissatisfied with the amount of work accomplished that after the moon had risen he took his scythe and cut as many “throughs” as had been done during the day, and then went home to bed. Each workman was astonished when he went the next morning to continue his mowing, but he had learned his lesson although not a word on the subject ever passed between master and man!
The mower’s song which we often heard in our childhood still recurs to our mind: “Eat before you’re hungry, drink before you’re dry, whet your scythe before it wants and you’ll mow as well as I”.
If the field in hand was pasture two or three of the olden men would soon put in an appearance with their forks and commence to throw the swaths, so as to regularly cover the ground for the sun and wind to more readily do their work, this “tedding” operation would keep pace with the mowers, and after lying in that form for a day or two according to the rapidity or otherwise of the drying process, long handled wooden rakes would be used to “hackle” the crop into rows about three feet apart. These would again be turned next day if sufficiently dried, and afterwards five of them would be pulled by the same means into one “windrow” which would then be thrown over with forks, care being used to open out all the green of “litcheky” portions to facilitate their drying, and then the rows would be “put in” ready for carting. The men would have a change of occupation and come to the wagon or the rick for the “carrying” operations.
The youngest lad would generally be set to lead the “filler”, and it would be his duty to warn the loader each time he was about to move on by shouting “Hold you”. Two of the younger men would accompany the “pitchers” with “heel” rakes and clear the whole of the ground as they went along; this was often a strenuous business as a great quantity of loose hay had to be gathered together, and when the ground was rough or the grass left rather long, this raking was a hard job.
In the event of the crop being clover it was not thrown about but the swath turned as often as necessary and then cocked up ready for carting.
When carrying operations were in progress tea was always taken afield for the workmen, and our whole family generally turned out accompanied by visitors, so that the five gallons scarcely sufficed for the company which often numbered as many as thirty persons. The Dairymaid would be full of excitement on those occasions, and would make herself look as attractive as possible, and although she was most assiduous in helping the ladies of the party handing round the tea and refilling the cups it was easy to see her glances and attention were specially directed towards some good looking lad who would be sitting alone against a haycock. It was our father’s practice at these times to have one of us sit behind him and as he took care to make himself comfortable by leaning heavily upon us, we were always glad when our assistance was not required.
In an ordinary season haymaking would scarcely be over and the ricks thatched before the harvest operations had to be commenced. If the wheat was ready first every available hand would have to start with the “sickle”, which was a light pointed hook with a serrated edge that was capable of making ugly gashes in the fingers when least expected; it required as much skill in its manipulation as the scythe did, but could be handled successfully by much younger and less robust persons. Part of the crop would probably be cut by the “gret”, the remuneration for which was usually about twelve shillings per score, but the ordinary staff would account for the greater portion of the work. During the harvest of 1871 there were nineteen employed in this way, and we remember that on the first day they reaped and shocked a field of six acres so that they averaged something over three chains each. When the crop was badly laid, as was often the case in those days, they had to cut it close to the ground which was a very backbreaking business, but in an ordinary way it was usual to leave the stubble about a foot high, and this would be “bagged” later in the season and – under the name of “haulm” would be used for thatching buildings, being more durable than the long straw which now has to serve this purpose.
For cutting the oats the “Fagging Hook” was brought into requisition: this was a much larger and heavier tool than the sickle and had a smooth edge. The corn was chopped in towards the standing crop for a few yards, and in returning, was gathered up with the hook and a bent stick and placed in a band ready laid for the purpose. It was not an uncommon occurrence for travelling Irishmen to be employed at this, and unless the farmer was very keenly on the lookout, they would be at work as soon as the sun was up, and while the corn was wet with dew or rain, and roll it into sheaves which took a long time to dry.
Barley was always mown with the scythe and half a dozen men would soon lay a large field low if the mowing went well; this was afterwards turned and cocked when dry and of course, carried loose.
Beans had to be dealt with in a different way from any of the other crops on account of their tendency to shed, so the “hacking hook” was employed, shorter and lighter than the one used for fagging. The tops of the beans were held in the left hand while the stems were severed at the base; a couple of the longest of these would previously have been laid down and sufficient then placed in them to form a sheaf. No attempt would at that time be made to tie it as the straw would be brittle, but after it had lain a few days and got “wiltered”, the bean stalks would be as tough as shoe strings while the dew was on them or after a shower, and then was the time when this part of the work was attended to.
Peas were “bagged” with the scythe by which they were chopped towards the left leg, which had a bag or other wrapping to protect the workmen from injury and the crop was left in little heaps a yard or two apart.
The first Reapers which appeared in our district about the end of the 1860’s were very cumbersome machines with the driver’s seat fixed on the pole just behind the pair of horses. In 1872 Samuelsons introduced the “Little Royal” and our father purchased one of the first to leave the works, and followed this up the next season with one of their mowers. Then came the Horserake, Elevator, Swath Turner and Haymaker in quick succession. The Binders put in an appearance in the 1890’s and after the Great War the Farm Tractor and many other adjuncts of husbandry were added until the barns and outhouses are now filled with machinery which would have puzzled our forefathers but which, today, is looked upon as essential to the agricultural industry.
Joshua Lamb wrote a further piece Part 2 of Reminiscences of Country Life about the decay of village industries.