Wright’s Farm, 1950s – 1960s
Wright’s Farm was farmed by my great-uncle, Len Weeden, my grandma’s brother, for most of his life. He was the only son of George Weeden, who farmed it before him. It was a traditional mixed farm, with a fair variety of both crops and livestock, much like the other farms in Pirton at that time. He lived in no.24 Shillington Road, at the top of the cartway down to the farm. The house at the farm was occupied by my parents, Bernard and Norah Lake, plus me, until 1952, when we moved to a new house at 30 Shillington Road, where my mother still lives. My brother Stephen was only 15 months old when we moved. The farmhouse was never lived in again, but used for storage of animal feed for some years. It was pulled down after my great-uncle had retired, and the farm taken over by Mr Cross.
The farmhouse essentially consisted of two fair-sized rooms on each floor, plus a single-storey kitchen to the side. The rooms were separated by a staircase, with a pantry under the stairs on the ground floor. The front room had a Victorian bay window with a window seat, and the front door to the left of this. The fireplace, with an old range, was on the right. The passage through to the back room, on the left, also gave onto the kitchen, which was sunken into the ground and had two steps down into it. The back door was up more steps at the other end of the kitchen. The bedrooms were just two rectangular rooms.
Cooking facilities were very limited, with the temperamental range in the living room, and a paraffin oil stove in the kitchen. This was later replaced by a calor gas cooker, to my mother’s relief. Unfortunately, in 1952 the kitchen (and everywhere else) became infested with flour weevils and their wriggly larvae, which found their way into all the foodstuffs, even in apparently sealed containers – another reason to move out.
There was no gas or electricity, so lighting was by candles and oil lamps. Water was pumped from a well in the garden, and carried in with buckets. The well filled by seepage from the stream, which further up received the drainage from Rectory Manor and some properties on Shillington Road – however, we all lived to tell the tale. Near the well was an old greengage tree, very few of which survive these days. There was a privy down the garden, under a lilac tree. The bathroom was an oval galvanised iron bath hanging on a nail.
Farm Layout and Buildings
Wright’s Farm was accessed from Shillington Road by a hard-core track, always known as “the cartway”. To the left of the cartway was a strip of land used as the rickyard, where corn sheaves and straw were stacked – Pirton usage was “ricks”, not “stacks”, just as the groups of sheaves in the harvest field were “shocks”, not “stooks”. Until the coming of combines, this was also where the thrashing machine set up and worked (“thrashing”, not “threshing” – another Pirton word). It was occasionally grazed by the cattle in summer to keep the grass short.
The bottom of the cartway led over a brick bridge across the stream into the farmyard. There was five-bar gate here, but it was never shut. Over the bridge, the house was on the left, and after this was the granary, a square building set up on the usual stone “mushrooms”, or staddle stones, to deter rats and mice. This didn’t work too well, as the space underneath was used as a home for all sorts of junk, which the rodents found to be a very convenient ladder.
Beyond this was the cow shed, home of Lucy the house cow, hand milked twice a day. When she went, she was not replaced, and milk came from the milkman. Further up this side of the farmyard were chicken houses and piggeries, the latter with open strawed yards in front of them. At the top were some open sheds with equipment and general bits and pieces – nothing ever seemed to be disposed of, even if unused for many years.
Opposite the farmhouse was the cart hovel – in Pirton a hovel was an open-fronted shed, not a derelict building. Beyond this was the old cart-horse stables. The internal stalls were removed with a chain-saw, and afterwards used for storage, or sometimes as a piggery. There was a hay-loft over the stables. Outside was a fenced cattle yard with an open shelter shed, where store cattle lived on straw in winter. In spring the accumulated manure was removed through a gate to a dung-hill (pronounced “dungle”) in the fields.
Opposite the piggeries was the old timber-framed harvest barn, with the tall double doors at the front, a draught door at the back, and a thrashing floor in the middle. The barn beyond this was later replaced by a modern concrete and asbestos building to house the increasing amount of machinery. The final building, presumably post-war, was a nissen-hut shaped barn, but clad in asbestos, not corrugated iron.
Many of the more substantial buildings had brick footings, but the main structures were wood frames of varying vintage, clad with tarred wooden weatherboard. Roofing included tiles, slates and corrugated iron, but no thatch remained by this time.
The “home ground” surrounded the farm. My grandma’s meadow behind 28 Shillington Road (her house then) and 30 (our house) was permanent pasture, as was the Back Meadow, which was L-shaped and ran beyond and to the right of the farmyard, almost over to Burge End. Between the meadows and with the stream on two sides was the old orchard. This still had some old apple trees and two enormous pear trees, at least 40-50 feet high. These produced rock-hard green pears, which had to be cooked to be edible. Uncle Len also farmed the lower half of the field behind nos. 16-22 Shillington Road. These houses did not exist then, and the upper half of the field was village allotments.
Beyond the farm, he rented four fields from his Weeden cousins at Rectory Farm, running back to the county boundary. These were Grove Shot (18 on the Pirton field map), Duck Riddy (19a), Beggar Bush (11, although the map gives this name to the adjacent field), and Gallows Corner (10). He also farmed two other blocks of land, Thirteen Acres (56) and the Pyghtle (30) beyond Burge End, and Charity Field (102) and Pirton Field (103) down the Hitchin road.
The main arable crops were barley and wheat. Wheat was normally autumn sown, but both winter and spring barleys were planted. Some barley, particularly the spring variety Proctor, was grown for malting. This was a gamble, as malting barley required a low nitrogen content, which meant reduced fertiliser use and so lower yields. The high value of malting barley more than made up for this, but the grain sample had to meet the specialist requirements or the crop became lower value animal feed. Uncle Len was pretty expert at malting barley, but he also grew other varieties for feed use on the farm. This barley was milled in the barn, using a hammer mill driven from a pulley on the tractor, and used as the basis for pig feed. Wheat was generally sold off the farm – English wheat at that time was generally not very suitable for bread baked by the methods then in use, but was ideal for biscuits and cakes. Oats were grown occasionally, often to order, but were much less common since the departure of farm horses.
In the days before combines, wheat straw, which came out of the thrashing machine straight and unbroken, was used for thatching ricks. Combined wheat straw was more broken, and as it was fairly sharp had limited use for bedding, so it was often burned in the field. Barley straw was much softer, and was the preferred material for livestock pens and yards.
Few other combining crops were grown, just a few tick beans from time to time. These were similar to small broad beans, but grown on until dry in the pods, then combined. They were (and still are) used for high-protein animal feed. The modern crops of yellow oilseed rape did not exist; they were developed as an EU project in the 1970s. The few 1950 varieties produced a bitter inedible oil, the main use of which was linoleum production.
The main break crops (ie rotational breaks between cereals) were peas and potatoes. Peas were picked by hand in the pod, weighed into half-hundredweight hessian sacks, and sent by lorry to markets such as Covent Garden on a daily basis. Many villagers, particularly the women, found “peasing” a useful source of extra cash during the season. This trade gradually died as first tinned “garden” peas then frozen peas came into the shops. These were harvested by giant mechanical viners, similar to combines, on an industrial scale in East Anglia and Lincolnshire.
Potatoes were grown each year, particularly the variety King Edward. Planting was done mechanically by this time, although this still involved two workers on seats at the back of the planter feeding the rotors with seed potatoes. Weed control was partly by earthing up the rows using a machine similar to a plough but with double mouldboards to throw the soil into the potato rows. A fair bit of hand hoeing was also necessary – effective weedkillers had still to be developed. Harvesting was done by a tractor-mounted spinner, which threw the potatoes sideways out of the rows onto the soil surface. These were then picked into baskets by hand, again using village labour. “Tatering” followed on from peasing, but was less popular. There was no sitting down on stools, and the weather was getting colder and wetter.
The potatoes were tipped loose into trailers, taken back to the farm and stored in straw covered “clamps” until required for market. They were then riddled to remove undersize “chats”, with clods and damaged or diseased tubers removed by hand. The market potatoes were weighed into hundredweight hessian sacks (in later years replaced by half-hundredweight paper sacks) and loaded onto the merchant’s lorry. Chats were retained for pig food. This system was generally pretty effective, but in the long frozen winter of 1962-3, the cold penetrated the clamp, and the outer layers of potatoes were frozen into smelly mush, which had to be removed with spades before salvaging the inner layers.
The only other break crop was mangels, large roots grown for cattle feed. They were clamped like potatoes, chipped through a hand-turned machine, and the cattle loved them. However, they were very labour intensive, requiring hoeing to single the plants growing from clustered seeds, hoeing again for weed control, and harvesting by hand. This involved digging them out, cutting the tops off and pitching them into a trailer, late in the autumn in often bad weather. As the labour force dwindled, mangels were abandoned.
The other key crop was hay, made most years in the meadow. Silage was known, but at that time had to be made in large quantities in specially built pits, so was impractical for smaller farms. The modern system of large one-ton bales and plastic wrapping was far in the future. Hay could be made with a small mower and rakes, although tractor-pulled hay turners were common by this time. Until the 1950s, hay was forked loose into ricks, where it settled over time into a compact mass. This was cut from the rick with a hay-knife, a large oval blade 2 feet long, with a long handle at right-angles to the blade. Then balers were introduced, producing brick-shaped bales of hay or straw about 3 feet long. These could be handled and stacked easily, and separated into useful wedges when cut open. The sisal twine which tied them was always cut beside the knot and kept in bundles. This was ideal for tying up sacks, and many other uses, including holding up a farm-worker’s trousers.
The two main livestock enterprises were pigs and beef cattle. Pirton, being in one of the driest parts of the country, has never been a great dairying area, although some, including my grandfather Tom Lake, practised it during the agricultural depression between the two World Wars, when it was one of the few ways of making a little cash. What pasture there is on the farm is wetter ground near the stream and on heavy gault clay soil, and so unsuitable for sheep due to the risk of liver fluke and footrot. It also tends to be a bit too wet for ploughing and arable crops. On the other hand it is just right for summer grazing for beef cattle.
Young 6-month-old bullock calves would be bought from one of the local markets, usually about a dozen. Uncle Len always picked Hereford crosses with their distinctive white faces, as these could be guaranteed to produce a well finished beef steer. They would be turned out in the back meadow in spring, and later allowed into grandma’s meadow after that had been cut for hay. When winter weather arrived, they were moved into the well-strawed cattle yard, with shelter and plenty of food. Fresh straw was added every week, which was trodden in by their hooves. By the end of winter, the yard would be about four feet deep in valuable manure.
Primary winter cattle feed was meadow hay, fed in racks above wooden troughs for concentrates. These were not the modern pelleted feed, but mixed by hand with a shovel, often in the old farmhouse. The mix included home-grown barley meal, dried sugar beet pulp (the residue after the sugar had been extracted), flaked maize (just like cornflakes), a protein supplement (bean meal or fish meal) and a mineral mixture to avoid deficiencies of copper, cobalt, etc. A “salt lick” block of minerals was also provided in the summer pasture for the same reason. After a year or more of good feeding, the bullocks had grown to hefty well-muscled beasts, and were sent off to market. Uncle Len was known locally for producing first class beef animals. New calves were bought in, and the whole process started again.
Two or three Large White breeding sows were kept on the farm. Each of these produced a litter each year, often of 12-15 piglets. Once weaned, these lived in the pig yards and were fed to reach “bacon weight” – about 14-16 stone. Main feed was barley meal mixed into a sloppy porridge with water. Carrying buckets of this to the circular cast-iron troughs in the middle of the yards, through a scrum of hungry pigs, was sometimes quite a hazardous experience. The pigs also got chat potatoes, boiled in an old copper in the barn, and some supplements such as fishmeal.
There were generally a number of chickens about the farm, normally Rhode Island Reds kept mainly for their eggs. They were housed at night in one or another of the buildings to keep them safe from the fox, but often roamed about the yards in the daytime. Their feed was mostly tail corn – the small grains too thin to be marketable.
Machinery and Equipment
Up to about 1950, one horse remained on the farm, a black Shire named Tinker. After this, tractors were the order of the day. For several years, these were a dark blue and red Fordson Major (the old sit-up-and-beg 27N type) plus an even older orange Nuffield. Both had draw-bars to pull ploughs and implements, but no rear hydraulic arms for mounted machinery. They were started with a handle at the front, and initially ran on petrol. Once thoroughly warmed up, a lever changed the fuel over to TVO (tractor vaporising oil), a type of low-grade paraffin.
Towards the end of the 1950s, these tractors were replaced with two Fordson Power Majors. Although the name was similar, these were much more up-to-date machines, with diesel engines, electric starters, and a hydraulic three-point linkage at the back to carry mounted implements. There was a rear power takeoff shaft to drive implements such as balers, and a side-mounted pulley to belt-drive the hammer mill and other equipment such as a circular saw. An even more advanced Fordson Super Major was added in the 1960s, and one of the Power Majors was fitted with a fore-loader (a big fork on hydraulic arms) which was used for loading manure and many other things.
Much of the older equipment, including the carts/trailers, had started as horse-drawn, and been converted by removing the shafts and fitting a draw-bar instead. A classic case was the corn drill. This had a single seed corn hopper (combined seed + fertiliser drills were only just being invented) and four foot diameter iron wheels which drove the mechanism regulating the seed flow. Near the ground at the back was a footboard on which a second man (or boy) rode. He watched out for blockages, used a spud (not a potato, a square blade on a long handle) to keep the coulters clear of mud and clods, and at the end of each bout operated a long lever to lift the coulters out of the ground so they would not be broken off as the drill turned.
Ploughs were 2 or 3 furrows, trailed from a drawbar, until the advent of the Power Majors, when more easily controlled hydraulic mounted ploughs came into use. A variety of cultivators were used, ranging from traditional zig-zag harrows (mainly for grassland and for covering seed behind the corn drill) to power harrows later on. Larger duck-foot harrows were known as “scuffles”. A Cambridge roll, consisting of a series of heavy iron rings with a V profile, was used, specifically designed to crush clods on clay soils. Other machinery included potato planters and spinners and an elderly Acrobat hay turner, which was towed, not mounted. The hay rake was another conversion from a horse implement. A conical spreader was used for granular fertiliser (“artificial”), and there was a fairly primitive crop sprayer. Not much was sprayed – mainly cheap basic weedkillers in cereals, and copper sulphate based fungicide to control potato blight, which King Edwards were particularly susceptible to.
Cereals were still harvested with a binder up to the early 1950s. The sheaves then had to be shocked by hand until ripening finished, pitched by hand onto trailers, taken back to the farm and built into thatched ricks. Later in the year, or the following spring, the thrashing machine would visit to deal with these. Wright’s Farm never possessed a combine harvester, they were too expensive for such small farms, and one would be hired each year for the short time it took to harvest. The first one on the farm was a tractor-pulled Ransome with a 6 foot cut to one side. This took not only a tractor driver, but two men on a platform to bag the grain as it was produced and slide the bags down a chute onto the ground. The bags then had to be picked up again and put onto a trailer. All the men were also needed to swear at the combine on the frequent occasions when it broke down or blocked with straw.
The farm also possessed a baler, which was used for both hay and for straw required for bedding (or sometimes for sale). Rather than drop single bales higgledy-piggledy all over the field, a large wooden sledge was towed behind the baler. A man or boy (ie. me) would ride on this and stack eight bales in criss-cross fashion on the back. By pulling a catch, the back half of the sledge would tip and deposit the bale stack onto the ground. Woe betide the boy who did not tip the stacks in a nice straight line for easy loading onto trailers! Once back at the rickyard, an old petrol-driven elevator, originally for sheaves, made building ricks a bit easier. These were still thatched during the 1950s, but shorter wheat varieties and mangled combine straw ended the supply of suitable thatch. The alternatives were to stack the bales inside a barn if there was space, or to “thatch” the rick with straw bales laid on top at a 45° angle. These bales eventually rotted and were discarded, but protected the rest of the rick fairly well.
Up to the end of the 1940s, a 70-80 acre farm of this kind would generally have at least two or three workers in addition to the farmer. One would be the chief horseman, and another might look after the livestock, although all would be expected to help out with anything as necessary. As farms became more mechanised, worker numbers diminished. By the 1960s, Uncle Len had just one worker, Ron Crawley, plus me on Saturday mornings and in the school holidays. Additional help was hired from the village as needed, as in the photos of potato sorting on page 88 of “Portrait of Pirton”, where mum, Peggy Arnold and the Timburys are helping out.