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May 2019 Meeting Report

A Lifetime on the Fens, by Sam Clift

Sam was born in 1938 in a tied farm cottage two miles from the nearest village. Typical of those times, there was no water, gas or electricity connected to the house, and toilet facilities were provided by an Elson at the bottom of the garden. A tin bath was brought into the kitchen once a week and filled with water heated in a saucepan on the coal fire. It was used by the whole family in rotation, starting with the youngest first. Further saucepans of hot water were added as needed. Water came from water-butts which collected rainwater from the roof. These were typical living conditions in rural areas at that time which your reporter can clearly remember. Drinking water for the fortunate few came from a tap attached to a cattle drinking trough. It had to be carried to the house in a pail. Roadside taps were provided in villages, but isolated cottages had only pond water available.

In the days before contraception, Sam's grandparents had 13 children. Granddad was the horse keeper on the farm. This meant that he had to get all the horses fed and ready for work by 7.00 in the morning. The horses' working day was from 7.00 to 3.30 in the afternoon. There was a short break for 'breakfast' at 9.00 and for lunch at 12.00. The men brought sandwiches with them to eat under a hedge at the edge of the field, together with tea in a glass bottle. This was kept hot by wrapping it in a sock and then in a newspaper. The newspaper could also provide some information on current affairs to those sufficiently literate.

When the horses' working day was over, the horse keeper was responsible for cleaning them up and feeding them, after which they could be let out to graze in the meadow. The stables would need fresh straw on the floor, and when this had built up to 3 feet deep it would need to be cleaned out and taken by horse and cart to the muck heap. After a year of rotting down, it was loaded on the cart again and taken and spread on the fields by hand.

At harvest time, the corn was cut with a binder pulled by a pair of horses. The binder tied the corn up in sheaves, which were thrown onto the ground. These had to be gathered up and built into shocks. Two sheaves were stood with their butts on the ground and their heads together in an A shape. Further sheaves would be added to make a shock of eight sheaves. The shocks would remain in the field for a number of days for the straw to dry out. When it was fit, the sheaves would be loaded onto a wagon to be carted back to the farm. This was the opportunity for country children to ride on the horse as it was taking the loaded wagon to the stackyard. The position of stacks needed careful planning so that there was room for the threshing machine when it came to thresh the stack, and for a new stack of the threshed straw.

After the corn harvest, the next job would be the potato harvest. The potatoes were dug and exposed on the surface by a machine called a spinner. Gangs of women would be employed to pick them into baskets and then into bags. Each woman had her own length of row to pick, called a stint. All the pickers had to have completed their stint before the next row could be spun out. The foreman would have to adjust the length of stints according to the speed of each woman so that they all finished at more or less the same time. This was frequently controversial, and if you could keep a gang of 30 women reasonably happy, there would not be nothing you could not do.

If the potatoes were not being sold at once, they would have to go into storage in what was called a Dickey Pie. This was a long A shaped mound which was covered with straw and then sealed with earth.

Sam's talk was both informative and amusing, of a time which older members could easily relate to, but which younger generations would find hard to imagine.

Jim Butchart

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