The outbreak of war in 1939 found many farms in Mersea and much of the rest of Britain in a run down state with many fields not seeing the plough for many years. Cheap imports of foreign grain made it impossible for our farmers to compete. With the ships bringing in this grain now
being threatened by the nazi U-boats there suddenly became an urgent need for home grown food.
A government body known as the 'War-ag' set about bringing many of the fields back into cultivation and some of the first on the island were those to the North of East Road now covered by Windsor Road Estate, Garden Farm Estate, Constable Close, Norfolk Avenue and the North part
of Oakwood Avenue.
These four fields were covered with well established
bramble bushes and hawthorn all of which was cleared mainly by hand with a tractor brought in to pull out the tree stumps. With many of the younger men away in the armed forces, it was left to the older men and young lads not old enough for the forces. New tractors came in and one new D4 Caterpillar allocated to driver Frank Richer of East Mersea was the most powerful and did the bulk of the ploughing and heavy work.
By the time the lower fields of Bower Hall Farm were being cleared the girls of the Womens Land Army were coming in on this work. Several were local girls and a group of former factory girls from the Romford area also arrived. Many of these girls were billeted in Orleans the big old house by the church and since replaced by New Orleans Flats, they were taken to their place of work by Underwoods coal lorry driven by Stan Deal, not the best or cleanest form of travel but that had to do. Only a few bits of the fields on Cross Lane were in use and when the rest were broken up after laying idle for many years a set of steam ploughs
was brought in, consisting of two large steam traction engines with a large drum of steel cable suspended under the boiler which was attached to a large cultivator. An engine was stood at each end of the field and the cultivator was drawn across the field towards one engine which then gave a toot on it's whistle for the engine at the other end of the field to haul it back again.
I stood watching with great interest as the cultivator travelled silently across the field until one of the men called out 'I shoont stand thayre booy, if that owd woire break that could hev yer leg orf'. I quickly moved away.
The combined harvester had yet to arrive on Mersea and I don't recall seeing one here until well after the war. The corn was harvested by self binder which threw out sheaves which had to be stood up on end to dry in groups called traves in Mersea and Peldon but stooks pretty well
everywhere else. When dry they were collected by horse drawn wagon and some tractor drawn trailers and built into stacks to await the threshing machine.
At the start of the war this was done by contractors Coppins who had a yard at Blackheath which until recently was Cherry Tree Garage. Again steam was used to drive the machine and several men were required.
These again were the older men and I recall my Gt. Uncle
Harris Green, a quiet little man working away as he had done on the farms all his working life. He would have been in his mid seventies at the time and it was the only time I ever met my grandad's oldest brother.
John Downs funfair was laid up for the duration of the war in a yard opposite the Peldon Rose and they had a small showmans steam traction engine complete with brass spiral posts supporting an overall roof. This engine took over threashing duties driven by John Downs and his son John
jnr. who's younger brother Alan attended Mersea school. This brave little engine sported a hand painted headboard
'Tiger on war service', it often got bogged down in the muddy stackyards during the winter and had to call for help from Frank Richer's D4.
They made a fine sight, the diesel and the steam engine going at full blast until they were out of the mud.
The Hall Barn was used as a depot for light servicing of tractors etc. Bigger jobs were sent away to Writtle. Mrs Johnson was in charge of the land girls and had an office in the barn.
Fortunately Doris, one of the Romford land girls, had a camera, and more important a film which were hard to come by during the war. She took about a dozen snaps of herself and other girls doing hoeing, threshing etc which give a good record of the WLA work in Mersea.
The photo above shows a group of the girls posing on Frank Richer's D4. It was taken on the lower fields of Bower Hall Farm when they were being cleared. Doris is in the driving seat and Frank took the photo.
Others working on the 'War-ag' at the time were brothers Fred and Oliver Woods, horsemen, from East Mersea, they had been horsemen all of their working lives and had lived at North Farm which was by then derelict.
Both in their sixties, Oliver was the quiet one but Fred was more talkative. Another East Mersea man was Percy 'Snib' Bibby originally a gamekeeper but now a horseman. One of Doris's pictures shows him posing
with his horse and a group of land girls with the White Hart in the back ground. Later in the war German prisoners came along and in spite of the language barrier us lads got on well with these Germans we had hated throughout the war.
After the war the fields of garden farm etc were used for grazing the dairy herd from Well House Farm ,and of course, was eventually built on. Most of the others remain under cultivation.
Article published in Mersea Life, October 2012. Photograph from David Green's collection.
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