A Farmworker in Fingringhoe in 1944

A FARMWORKER IN FINGRINGHOE IN 1944 by Daphne Allen

Having left school aged 16, all I wanted to do was work on a farm, and my parents - I was the youngest of four girls - always encouraged us to do what we wanted to. So I started work at Fingringhoe Hall. Col. and Mrs. Furneaux lived at the Hall. Mrs. Furneaux farmed the land, she was an excellent lady farmer - she could turn her hand to any job on the farm - being strong-willed as well as physically strong, therefore she expected the girls that worked for her to be the same.

I started at lambing time - we kept the ewes penned inside straw bales on what was to become the tennis court. I learnt how to milk a sheep when a lamb wouldn't suckle, also how to take a skin from a dead lamb and put it onto another lamb so the mother ewe would think it was hers and let it suckle.

When the lambs' tails were 'docked' I took a bundle home to my Mother who skinned them and made a sort of 'lambs' tail broth'!

I soon learnt to milk the cows - we started with a small Friesian herd and hand-milked in the old cowshed. On cold mornings we used to warm our hands in the lovely soft pouch between the cows' udder and their back leg. Some were very sweet-tempered but the bad-tempered ones used to kick you plus the bucket of milk into the gutter - usually full of sloppy cow pats.

We had to cool the milk by lifting the heavy buckets of milk high above our heads and tip it in the milk cooler. The milk then ran slowly down the outside of a series of horizontal pipes full of cold running water and into the milk churn at the bottom.

There was usually a row of farm cats waiting for milk and I liked to drink the warm milk straight from the cow too! We were allowed an enamel can full of milk every day, I used to cycle home to Abberton with it on my handle bars with the lambs' tails hung on the other side. I always hit our cottage gate with the front wheel of my bicycle so that it flew open and I could ride through without getting off, and it would close behind me. The same gate is still there 50 years on!

We always kept one Jersey cow whose milk went to the house each day. The big pans of creamy milk were left overnight in the dairy and then the cream was skimmed off and made into butter. The butter milk which was left was fed to the calves - I loved putting my hand in a pail of warm milk and encouraging the calves to suck my fingers and gradually to get them to drink on their own and finally weaned. They often head-butted the metal pail so the bottom rim cut into my shins! An indoor job on a wet day would be to white-wash the inside walls of the cowshed and calf pens, using a stirrup pump and bucket. When we finished we were often whiter than the walls.

Later on we had a large Friesian herd and a milking machine, an Alfa Laval, one of the first farms to have one installed. This was at South Green Farm where Mrs Furneaux farmed as well as the Glebe at Abberton. It seemed to take us as long to sterilize all the machine after milking as it did to do the actual milking.

I used to cycle to work from Abberton where I lived with my parents. I started work at 6.30a.m. and the first job was to get the cows in - often by torchlight in the winter - sometimes from the marsh fields at South Green.

We had to wash the cows' udders first and test for clots in the milk, Each cow knew which stall to go in - tempted by cattle cake. I too have eaten his, picking out the groundnuts in it.

When we had finished milking and sterilising we had to hose down with water and disinfectant and scrub with a broom all the cement floors. In winter we gave the cows extra food in the yard. Mangold had to be chopped in a huge mincer-like contraption and mixed with chaff and cattle cake.

When we had finished milking and feeding and cleaning up we rolled the churns of milk down a slope to the road and then lifted them (one girl on each side) onto a wooden platform the same height as the milk lorry which came to collect them each morning and you had to have the churns ready on time too, or the driver was cross if he had to wait. I've since thought - why didn't we leave the churns on the ground and let him lift them up? We finished milking about 8.30a.m. and then us two girls who worked at the Hall were allowed to go into the big kitchen and have a cooked breakfast! I've never enjoyed any meal better than those breakfasts. Porridge to start with made with coarse oatmeal from a hessian sack which stood in the kitchen, having been sent down from Scotland. We were supposed to have salt and sour milk on it, but I preferred sugar and cream.

I learnt to drive a tractor - we had a Fordson Major and an Allis Chalmers which I drove.

We also had two lovely Suffolk Punch Horses - Punch and Blossom. I worked these horses with harrows and horse rake. The harrows you had to walk behind up and down acre after acre. If the horses stopped suddenly for some reason you could get your feet entangled in the harrows - I'm sure I nodded off whilst walking up and down! The horse rake has an iron seat with only a sack for comfort. I remember I was off work for a while with a damaged tail bone and had to have cortisone injections - the needle actually breaking inside on one occasion. There is one of those horse rakes opposite the big windows of the Nature Reserve at South Green.

Haymaking and harvest were very busy times - having started milking at dawn we carried on til dusk - helping to load the sheaves of corn or standing them up in 'traves' or turning endless rows of cut hay so it would dry properly.

I always smile when I look back and think that my future husband Derrick used to cycle to Abberton from Fingringhoe each evening to see me (after Dick Barton had finished on the Radio) and I used to sleep in the armchair in front of the fire nearly the whole evening, while he played cards with my parents! No wonder it took five years before we married! But he was doing a 7 year apprenticeship as a Shipwright at Rowhedge Shipyard and only getting 12/6 per week, and I was earning 9d an hour. We finally married in 1950 when he got 'Man's money' - £2.10s per week.

Milking and feeding was done twice a day including weekends with half a day in lieu. We didn't get any overtime money.

We still had to do the milking twice a day as well as helping with the harvest and haymaking. The corn was cut with a binder, first pulled by horses, then later by tractor.

Before the binder started cutting the corn, each field had to be cut round by hand. This was because the binder was side-cutting and it would have ruined the corn for the first cut round the field. So a man using a scythe cut round every field, and we had to go behind him and tie the bundles up by making a straw twist to hold them together. I remember the man I worked with always had a bottle of cold tea in a Corona bottle with a wire clip stopper. Every summer seemed so hot when working in the fields. We had to stand the sheaves of corn up in 'traves'. Plenty of thistles to prick bare arms on a hot day!

When the corn had ripened in the 'traves', the sheaves were carted to the stack on carts. We had to load them very carefully as they could be very unsafe if loaded badly. When on top of the load you only had a pitchfork to hold on to and the wheels of the cart would drop into the odd 'water gap' in the hard ground and make the huge load sway from side to side!

Several stacks were built in the stackyard, when the side of the stack was built up to roof height; one of us had to work in the 'stage hole' - a small space in the side of the stack where the sheaves were passed up to from the cart and then passed up higher to the man building the top part of the stack. When all the stacks were built they had to be thatched to keep them dry until threshing time. Straw from the previous harvest - always wheat straw for thatching - had to be shaken in layers and soaked with water from the water cart. The straw was then pulled from the bottom of the pile and straightened into 'yellums' and carried up the ladder to the thatcher. We also had to make sure he had a good supply of 'brochets' - the wooden sticks cut from the hedge to keep the thatch in place with binder twine. Sometimes the stacks were built in a corner of the field that the crop was grown in. We used oat straw for fodder, barley for bedding and wheat for thatching.

During one harvest I broke my arm, a compound fracture. I somehow got squashed between a trailer and tractor. A friend who was working with me at the time came with me to Essex County Hospital to have it set. We walked the half mile to the bus stop and went on the bus and then walked from Headgate to the hospital. I remember when the nurse took my boots off all the chaff and straw fell onto the floor - and I had a hole in my sock! I felt quite embarrassed.

The hay was cut by horse and hay-cutter and left in rows to dry. We then had to hand-turn it with a pitchfork rows and rows and acres and acres - I'm sure 'Thirty Acres' is more than 30 acres! It was then made into haycocks and finally stacked and cut with a huge hayknife when needed for winter feed.

We often had sheep on 'Thirty Acres' after he final cut of hay. There was no fence at all and one of my jobs was to make sure the sheep stayed on the field. I had to keep riding round on my bicycle from one side to the other.

One good thing about haymaking and harvesting was that we had extra rations - cheese, marg, tea etc. Mrs Furneaux would bring us these in a blackberry basket.

The really special event was the Harvest Supper held in the black barn for all the farm workers. We always had Rabbit Pie - made by Miss Coombes - housekeeper at the Hall. We girls had a bonus of £2.10s under our plate. Colonel Furneaux's Regimental Band provided the music.

One of the coldest winter jobs was cutting kale for the cows. In snow and sharp frosts it still had to be done, by hand with a bill-hook. We wrapped hessian sacks round our waists but each time you whacked a stalk of kale to cut it - some were huge and very tough - you got boots full of snow and ice and the sack got wetter and wetter. I remember on several occasions having feet and fingers so frozen that the pain made me feel sick.

Sometimes we lit the old copper in the granary and cooked all the small potatoes (chats) for the chickens, to mix with meal. We would stand in front of the copper fire and dry our wet trousers still on us - til they steamed! I wonder if this is the cause of my rheumatism? We also ate some of the small hot potatoes straight from the copper - boiling in frothing scum, and plenty of grit when you bit into them - delicious!

On very wet days when all the outside jobs were finished we used to mend the hessian corn sacks that had rat holes chewed in them, using a huge curved sharp sack needle and binder twine. There were always rats in the granary while we were sitting there mending the sacks, but they took no notice of us, nor we of them.

In late spring we went sugar-beet hoeing. This was done after work to earn extra money. We took an acre each - it had to be hoed twice - once to single out the beet to give them room to grow and a later hoeing when the weeds started to grow. For this we got £2.10s per acre.

When the sugar beet were ready to be harvested in late autumn we had to pull each beet up from the row on the point of a sharp beet hook and holding it with one hand, cut the top off and leave the beet in neat rows, and the tops in another. The sugar beet were then carted by horse and cart to a great heap to be collected later by the lorry to take them to the Sugar Beet Factory. When the sugar had been extracted some of the pulp would be fed to the cows. We girls used to chew this too - it was a bit like sweet grey Allbran! The beet tops were fed to the cows too; if we fed them too many the milk would taste sweet.

We had a huge Friesian Bull called 'Plonk' - no doubt he had a proper registered name being pure-bred. Mrs Furneaux had no fear of him whatsoever - he knocked her down once and ate her hairnet! I remember once I had to hold him while she measured round his neck. He was kept in the bull pen and house. The pen was constructed of strong upright metal bars - just far enough apart so when you went in to clean him out you could squeeze through the bars if you were attacked. I don't think I could get through them now! We used a piece of broken glass to scrape the horns and hooves of the cattle for the show and then polish with linseed oil. We also washed their tails in soapy water til they were white and fluffy. I remember at one occasion I was training a bull at Donyland Hall and getting him used to a rope halter for the Essex Show, when stupidly I would the rope round my waist several times, and the bull bolted and dragged me along the drive - I was grazed a bit - but I didn't do it again!

All the cows in the herd had names - no two Friesians are identical - their black and white markings make them easy to identify.

Sometimes a pig or bull calf was slaughtered on the premises by a butcher - using a very quick shot to the front of the head with a 'humane killer'. I didn't like the job of disposing of a barrow load of 'guts', but we still enjoyed a joint of pork or veal that was given us.

I used to take the Suffolk Punch horses up to Mr Fookes, the blacksmith, to be shod. I hated the smell of burning hoof when he had made the red-hot horse shoe and then tried it on the horse. I know the horse didn't feel anything but I did! I remember how the horses' lovely chestnut-coloured bottoms stuck out onto the road opposite 'Pigs Foot Green'. Not much traffic then but the open building was right on the roadside. The Forge building had a closed front and the furnace would glow white-hot when Mr Fookes pumped the bellows.

One job I hated was threshing. As soon as we heard the old traction engine and threshing drum coming up the road we knew it meant all hands were needed. The threshing drum was always painted a dirty pink colour. I was intrigued to see the engine driver light something called a cartridge, blow on it til it smouldered and glowed, then put it to the front of the engine to start it. A huge drive-belt went from engine to threshing drum. Any job during threshing was better than being on 'chaff and cavings'. This was all the husks, chaff, dust and rubbish from the machine which was blown out from under the drum. It had to be bagged or raked clear. The filthy dust clogged your eyes, throat and covered face and body. Breathing became difficult (no masks then) and uncontrollable sneezing followed. If it was barley being threshed then one would itch all over, but clover for seed was worse than anything. The best job - although one of the hardest - was passing the sheaves from the stack to the man on top of the drum who cut the string feeding the sheaves into the constantly shaking machine. No guard to stop him falling into the machinery!

The corn was bagged in hessian sacks from the back of the drum - these weighed as much as a strong man could carry. Wheat weighed 2 ¼ cwt, barley 2 cwt and oats 1 ½ cwt.

The straw was taken from the drum up on to a pitcher and made into a straw stack and then thatched. It was used for fodder if it was oat straw, or litter if it was barley, and thatching if it was wheat straw.

I remember how flat that sheaves had become towards the bottom of the stack with all the weight on top. There were always mouse nests in the stack and we girls used to pick the babies up and put them in our pockets so they wouldn't go through the machinery. We used to put them somewhere safe and hope their mother had escaped and would find them later. The men used to tie binder string round trouser legs to stop the mice running up their legs, but we girls didn't bother. Whenever you were passing sheaves on a pitchfork from one person to another you always passed them ears first as the cut ends of the stalks on the other end were very sharp and could catch you in the face.

On one occasion I had to take the tractor to Colchester Tractors on Hythe Hill to have the brakes seen to. I never had a driving licence then but you were allowed to drive on the road if you were going from one farm to another. I don't think it applied into Colchester though. I remember I had to approach Colchester Tractors from the bottom of Hythe Hill so I could turn left into their entrance and not go down the hill as the brakes wouldn't hold.

Part of the farm land was a fruit field (where the dovecote is) where we grew apples, pears, plums, blackcurrant and strawberries. These had to be picked when ripe and sent to market. Pruning the fruit trees was done in the winter. This was a very cold job as you didn't move about enough to keep warm. There seemed endless rows of trees. Another job was mucking out the cattle yards by hand and loading it onto a tumbril and then it had to be spread on the fields later with a muck fork. There was always plenty of fat maggots in it.

There were always ditches to clear, hedges to cut by hand and water gaps to be dug in the fields to let the water off.

We also kept pigs and the baby pigs' teeth had to be clipped so they didn't hurt their mother while suckling. I used to hold the babies while this was being done and always gave them an extra cuddle - but they did squeal so. They were so warm and pink - like reels of pink Sylko!

We also kept chickens in a run where the Church Green Trust houses are built now. We also kept some at the far end of the field between the church and Mill House.

One spring we had to pick primroses and bluebells from the 'Colonel's Wood' beside the pond on Whalebone Hill and make them into button-holes and sold them to farmers at the Saturday cattle market in Sheepen Road - where it was then. The money went to one of Mrs Furneaux's charities.

One revolting job was plucking and drawing game for the House. Pheasants and partridge had to be left 'til they were very high, having turned slightly green and very smelly.

We had one man who worked on the farm who chewed tobacco. He would cut a chunk off the twist of black tobacco with his penknife and having chewed it for ages, the juice from it used to run out of the corner of his mouth. He would hen spit it under the inside rim of his hat for later on!

One spring time I was sent to hoe peas with a toolbar attached to the tractor and if you didn't set the row of hoes just right on the toolbar or you started one row over to left or right you could easily hoe up and destroy about 8 rows of peas. This I managed to do and I was so upset and frightened as to what Mrs Furneaux would say that I started to cry - all alone in the field. Suddenly, Mrs Furneaux arrived on the scene and seeing I was somewhat distressed she said 'Swear if you like Daff but for God's sake don't cry!'

The weekends that I had to milk and feed, Derrick, my then boyfriend, used to come and help me so I could get finished early. He would carry the heavy bales of straw and hay for me but I had to do it myself during the week!

Whenever we worked the carthorses, we had to harness them first. The big heavy horse collar had to be lifted up and put over the horse's head. The horse would often object to this I'm sure that he knew it was a sign that we had to do some work. He used to raise his head higher and higher - well out of my reach - and then finally managing to get the collar on by which time my arms were aching so much and because you couldn't watch the horse's head and his feet at the same time, you would get your feet trodden on by a very heavy Suffolk Punch!

After a hot day's work, we would sometimes go to the Whalebone for a drink - nothing stronger than a shandy. The landlord was Mr Hasler. The door of the pub opened into a narrow passage with bare forms down each side. You sat knees to knees and the drink was served through a hatch - no bar!

Sometimes we went for a dip after work to 'The Wick' the beach is still the same and an old barge 'The Fly' on the shore was used for undressing in. There is still a small bit left of the barge.

I used to hand roll my own cigarettes - always used Golden Virginia. On our afternoon off we would go to Colchester on the bus from Abberton (9d return). A visit to the Pictures would cost about 1/3d. We would sometimes treat ourselves to a milk shake in the milk bar opposite the old bus station in St. John's Street.

We also grew lucerne for cattle feed. This was a very pretty mauve-flowered vetch. It was cut whilst green and then made into silage. This was done by putting alternate layers of the lucerne and molasses (like black treacle) from a watering can. This had to be stamped down very firmly with feet wearing wellington boots. It was a very sticky and messy business and if you didn't wash your boots straight away they would stick to each other and everything else they came in contact with.


Daphne Theobald was born c1928 and lived in Abberton at the time she was writing about. She married Derrick Allen at Abberton Church in 1950. She has lived in Fingringhoe for many years.

Transcribed by Elaine Barker for Peldon History Project

Author: Daphne Allen
ID: PH01_DAL
Source: Mersea Museum