Memories of Margaret Shephard
The following is extracted from “Local Farming before 1919”, written by Margaret Shepard for her mother, based on earlier conversations with her. It was published in “Moreton History” in the summer of 1999.
In 1906 my father moved to Little Wolford, Warwickshire, from a farm in a little village named Shabbington, three miles from Thame in Oxfordshire. The village was actually just in Buckinghamshire, a few miles from Aylesbury, then the county town.
It must have taken a great deal of arranging as everything was moved by road. By arrangement with various farmers on the way, the cattle and sheep were all sent by road on their own four feet, with stops for the night on the way in obliging farmers' fields. All implements were loaded on wagons and trolleys are driven by two horses. Furniture was treated in the same way, covered over with rick sheets and securely fastened.
I had been ill and was sent to my grandparents for some of the time. My father went first, and my mother and the other children went by train to Moreton in Marsh Station, and were met there by a pony and trap. I remember coming myself to Moreton and my father meeting me - it seemed a very long way.
At the new farm we had a cowman called Book - he had worked on the farm before we came, and why he was called Book none seemed to know. He was quite a character and used to make what he called his "bait", which consisted of a large square of layers of of chaff, corn, mangolds and cow cake, which was then put in the cows' mangers. We children had great fun climbing up a step ladder with a cord at the side and then sliding down the rope and landing on Book's bait. We heard him remark "Them young hussies bin 'ockling on my bait again".
After harvest my father had a "Harvest Home" and the men, their wives and any old people in the village came. My mother made plum puddings and baked them in a copper, and my father roasted a small pig or lamb in the big bread oven. After the meal. with plenty of home made cider, the men used to sing solos, mostly old ballads, and finished up with "For he's a jolly good fellow and so say all of we". Of course the 1914-18 War put a stop to all that.
Harvest time today, when everything seems to be done in one operation, is a very different affair to that of the early part of the century. First we had to cut the corn with two horses and a binder, which cut and tied it into sheaves, and then make it into stooks. The eight r so sheaves stood up like little wigwams. When conssidered dry enough, they were loaded onto wagons and made into ricks. Oats had to stay until the church bells had rung for three Sundays.
Then came the threshing - great preparations for this. Sacks had to be hired - and there was a Sack Hire business in Moreton. The next step was getting the steam engine out from the barn where it was kept, covered with a rick sheet, and also the threshing machine. The engine had to be warmed up with a fire - a door opened in front to put in wood and coal, and steam had to be sufficient for it to move - and out it would come, dragging the threshing machine into the yard and then round to the rickyard to the corn which had to be threshed. It needed a lot of men , and a woman to cut bonds (the binder twine around the sheaves).
The theshing machine was a wonderful contraption made of wood. The sheaves were thrown into it. It shook and shivered, and out of the back came the corn in separate chutes, one for the good corn and one for the tail (used for the poultry , etc). Chaff came out from somewhere and straw. from somewhere else. Sacks were tied to the chutes, and a man had to be ready to tie on a fresh sack. The full one was carried to the granary on a sack cart. Another man had to attend to the engine , one or two to throw in the sheaves, and another to move straw as it built up. It seemed as busy as a beehive. The engine was attached to the thresher by a wide leather belt. The same method was used for years, but of course with a tractor instead of a steam engine.
As a school girl before the First World war I used to spend a lot of my Saturdays in the rickyard. It was some distance from the house, with all the other buildings in between. It was often a very interesting place. There was a long fronted shed where the elevator stood when not in use, together with the binder, wagon and other implements.
At the far end was a blacksmith's shop with an anvi and huge bellows. There was no blacksmith in Little Wolford, and one used to come from a nearby village, with a boy to relight the fire and blow the bellows. I often used to go and watch them - people would bring their horses to be shod, mainly heavy cart horses with an occasional pony or hunter. The fire was already lit before I went to watch, and it was nice and warm in there. A horse would be brought in with a loose shoe or sometimes with one missing, and the smith would have to make a new shoe. He would take a new piece of iron and put it in the fire, and the boy would blow the bellows until the fire was glowing. The piece of iron was put in the fire until it was more than red hot and put on an anvil and hammered into the shape of a horse's hoof, fitted for size to the foot, and often returned to the fire several time to get a good fit. It always worried me when the nails were hammered in. I thought they were going into the horse's foot, and must hurt.
Another interesting thing that sometimes happened in the rick yard was hurdle making. There would be a heap of ash poles which were chopped and sawn into long pieces of wood, and sawn and chopped into pieces flat on one side , then shaped into the required length and chipped and nailed together, and a beautiful new white hurdle would be made. Sometimes there would be an order for a dozen or half a dozen, which took some time. The hurdle maker was a nice Mr Arthurs from Long Compton, and the late Mr Jim Arthurs told me he was his uncle.
There were various ricks of hay or corn, and I learnt how to thatch a rick. Later my brother told me where to find a young cuckoo in a hay rick. I had to go up a ladder to see it in a robin's nest. The poor little robins had a busy time feeding it; I suppose they thought it their duty. It was an unattractive, unsightly creature at that age with its feathers very stubby, and was very spiteful if anyone went near it, and made little dashes in my hand, with the robins scolding nearby! I must have gone away then, and don't remember what happened to it.
In the early part of the century my father went to a pony sale. I think of Welsh ponies and picked out a lively one. We called him Robin. He was an excellent pony - he was broken in to drive and was a really fast trotter. We drove him for many years, and he was always easy to hurdle, but he was artful and mischievous, and difficult to catch. Once in a stable he was stand quite still to be harnessed , and I myself harnessed him and drove him to Moreton, our shopping town, many times.
Now for his artfulness. He could open gates and doors which seemed quite secure. We put him in the orchard, where he was easier to catch. It had several entrances, including a door to the vegetable garden where there were several dwarf Bramley apple trees. One night Robin managed to open the door and help himself to to several good bites of the very good big apples - I don't think he liked them very much, as they were green and sharp. He then went back to his orchard. In one episode amongst several - the one that was nearly his last - he managed to get into the yard and open the barn door, and helped himself to a good deal of newly threshed wheat. I have mentioned "Old Book" before - his comment was "He's et enough wheat to kill three ordinary 'osses". But Robin was no ordinary 'oss, for three days he was all blown up, not allowed water, and then decided to get better, to the joy of us all.
I was just leaving school in 1914 when my father needed help on the farm. Some of his men had joined up and several horses had been requisitioned - no tractors then, and everything was done by horse power. I took over looking after the poultry and various small jobs. I remember turning the handle of a machine for sheep shearing - no electricity then.
The first real farming job I remember doing was thinning mangolds - they had to be thinned to a hoe's width apart, and I didn't like cutting out the lovely little plants between. I, together with two men, had a row each and it was a good crop. I did my best to keep up with the others and nearly managed it.
Then came hay making time, very different from to-day with all the machinery. The mowing started at 3 o'clock in the morning so that the horses could be rested for work in the afternoon. Earlier mown hay was then ready for horse raking and side delivery, raking into tidy rows ready for carrying. This consisted of two horses, a wagon and a hay loader behind. I did my share of raking and leading horses along the rows. I even tried my hand at rick building, and remember the continual instruction to "keep the middle filled". I wasn't alone on the rick; my father was inclined to build big ricks. From the wagon a pitcher threw the hay into an elevator, which took the hay up to the top of the rick. The days always seemed hot and dry, and continual hard work.
Tractors were beginning to become available towards the end of the War. The village farmers decided to buy one between them, and I was chosen to be the one to learn to drive it. However, these early tractors proved unreliable and difficult to start, and not easy to get hold of, and the War ended before they were able to purchase one.
At the end of the 1914-18 War some large American mules were put on the market, and, being short of horses, my father bought two, a grey and a black. The grey mule was a good steady worker and very strong and useful, and we kept him into old age. The black one was quite a different character, completely untrainable and not any use on the farm. He was put into various fields, but could get over anywhere if he liked.
Around the house there were laurels and railings, and he would put his front legs over the rails, gather up his hindquarters and fall over the railings. He would then get up and come over the lawn and look in the windows of whichever room we were in. We tried to get him to work, but he would go just a short distance and then put his head into a hedge and nothing would move him and he could kick!
He was then put in a field in the village with an old pensioned off mare, and they became great friends. There was a wall between the field and the adjoining yard. The farmer's wife who lived there didn't like him and tried to drive him away from the wall. One day, after she had put her washing on the line, he was observed by a man walking by to get himself over the waJl and stand with his back to the line, and deliberately splash dirty water over the clothes!
In 1919 there was a Peace Celebration in Moreton in Marsh; including a mule race, and both mules were entered. At the signal to be off the black mule galloped off in front of them all, and put his head in the hedge at the end of the field, and in spite of all his jockey could do he still stood there at the end of the race. . The grey mule (ridden by my future husband) kept up his steady pace and won a silver cup.
We kept the grey until he was old and had to be put down. The black mule was company for the old mare until she too had to be put down. It was a dreadful day for the village, as he went about the field all day crying and making a really terrible noise.