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THE BRITISH WORKMAN: Farm Life

CHAPTER V

FARM LIFE

People of the present day often wonder how life could have been endured by the farm servants on one of our Yorkshire Wold farms a couple of generations ago. The isolation, the supposed monotony, the lack of amusement, the general dullness of such an existence, to the young folks nowadays would seem intolerable. In this, however, they are entirely mistaken. For in spite of the manifold changes that have taken place in the last sixty years or so in every department of life, in means of locomotion, shorter hours of work, higher wages, educational advantages, increased facilities for pleasures and amusements of every conceivable kind--cinemas, wireless telegraphy, football matches, bicycles, motor-cars, and all the rest of it, none of which things are to be denounced when used sensibly and in moderation, yet there can be no manner of doubt that there was more contentment, more happiness, joyousness, cheerfulness, friendliness, neighbourly feeling, more consideration for others in the olden days than there is now. This I know by my own observation, and I have been assured of it over and over again by others.

When we come to look into the matter closely, farm life sixty years ago was anything but monotonous. It was infinitely varied--in fact no two days were alike; and what saved the men and lads from any feeling of dullness was the fact that they all took a vast deal more interest in their work than is the case at this day. Now all work is done in a more perfunctory manner, simply as a means for earning, with as little trouble as possible, so much money, most of which is quickly spent. At the end of each day the lads get on their bicycles and hurry off to the nearest town, where they spend their time and their money in amusements of various kinds, and on the Saturday afternoons, in the season of football, the matches are attended by thousands whenever they are in reach of them, over which no small amount of betting goes on ; while in summer, cricket matches and other sports are attended; but still more time is spent in running about the country on wheels of all kinds--bicycles, motorcycles, buses, motor-cars; in fact every means of locomotion for getting the young people over the face of the country except one, and that is their own legs. Walking long distances seems now to be quite an antiquated form of exercise, and nobody does it; and yet there is none better for the human frame.

But to return to life on an erewhile Wold farm. The hours were so long, especially in summer, that there was little or no time for relaxation, and when the day's work was ended with the 'suppering up' of the horses at 8 o'clock, the men felt that bedtime had come. There might be some extemporized cricket in the long summer evenings, but football one never heard of. Quoits would sometimes be played, and if those of the orthodox make could not be procured, the lads would play the game with horseshoes. Games of cards were played frequently when a favourable opportunity occurred. A favourite game was one called 'Luen-dale'; but its rules and history I have not been able to discover.

Our East Riding farm lads were, generally speaking, fond of music, and they often delighted in exercising their voices while at work in the fields, which had a very pleasing effect, for their singing was clear and tuneful, though it seemed as though their strains were commonly extemporaneous; at least one could seldom recognize any well-known air. Instrumental music among them was rarely heard; occasionally a fiddle was played, but more frequently that very poor affair, the accordion; and this, no doubt, because it took but little time to learn.

Very few of the men ever read; and at the time of which I am speaking a large proportion of them were unable to do so ; and as for the rest, they rarely had the time, even if they had the inclination. Some, no doubt, who were unable to read had a great desire to do so, and would have been only too glad to learn if they could have had the opportunity. But I shall have more to say on this point later on.

Farm life on the Wolds, as indeed elsewhere, is varied according to the changing seasons; but in East Yorkshire the agricultural year always began immediately after martinmas (November 23rd). In that week the farm servants, both male and female, were hired for the twelvemonth, Martinmas week was the one great holiday of the year. But in the course of the working year there were certain minor festivities which, although simple in character, gave the men and lads a good deal of enjoyment. These occasions, which were called 'do's', would occur, for instance, after the spring sowing, when all the land had been manured, ploughed, harrowed, sown, and rolled, after which the fields would look as trim, and clear of weeds, as gardens. There were few if any, parts of the country where the land was better farmed at that period than our East Yorkshire Wolds. At this season, then, a day would be fixed for giving the farm hands a feast, which would take the form of a supper, and it is only those who have witnessed it who know what a Yorkshire supper can be. All the food is of the best, and there is no stint--beef, pies, ham, cheesecakes, fruit tarts, cheese, and I know not what besides. People have no idea what ham is until they have tasted a home-fed, home-cured one from one of these farms, or even from one of our villages. And as for cheesecakes, those bought in the confectioners' shops in the towns bear no comparison with the delicious farm-house ones made of curds fresh from the butter-milk. To these viands the men and lads always did full justice. As William Blades once remarked to me, 'the East Riding beats all counties for good living'.

Of these 'do's' there might he five or six in the course of the year, the greatest of them being the Harvest Home, which naturally took place at the close of the ingathering the corn. This was quite a big affair, but to describe it in detail would take me too far out of my course. Suffice it to say that the farmer and his family entered wholeheartedly into the festivities with the farm labourers, which contributed in no small degree to foster a good feeling between masters and men. These harvest-tide entertainments are now, unfortunately, things of the past. They gradually fell out of custom when Harvest Festivals were inaugurated in our parish churches.

Occasionally some entertainment quite out of the ordinary course of things might be got up for the enjoyment of the men and lads by the farmer or some of his people. One such I remember William Blades telling me of which took place when he was in service on one of our large Wold farms.

In this instance, it seems that the housewife, or Dame, as she was called, took, great interest in the horses, and did all she could to encourage the men to look well after them, and keep them in good 'fittle' (condition). She also had a care for the welfare of the lads themselves, and as a consequence she was highly popular with them. It may have been in part due to this good feeling between them, and partly as a stimulus to the lads to take a pride in their horses, that this good lady on certain occasions adopted a somewhat unusual course for the delectation of the men, and also in order to settle certain disputes that would from time to time arise among the lads about the merits of the horses under their care; and in consequence of these arguments high words would often arise. Whenever this matron heard of these disputes which could not be composed by any other means, she gave it out that a race must be arranged to test the merits of the two or more animals. One of the level dales nigh to the house served as a racecourse which was not more than a few hundred yards in length. Here the two had to try conclusions. It must have been a most amusing affair, and quite as entertaining for the time being as any modern football match could be ; for this sporting lady used not only to grace the contest by her presence, but also acted as starter of the races; this she did by means of a bell which she held in her hand, and at the third stroke off they went as hard as they could go amid the shouts and cheers of the by-standers.

On this farm they had sixteen first-rate horses, one of which, called 'Roany', was blind. 'Roany' was in charge of Blades, and on one occasion he rode it in a race with another named 'Merryman'; the latter was described as a 'long-strucken' horse. 'Roany', though smaller, was much quicker in step; this gave her the advantage, and she came off an easy winner. These races would give in their way as much entertainment to the young Woldsmen who took part in them as did that famous race between 'Voltigeur' and 'Flying Dutchman' at York about this same period to the thousands who witnessed it. The horse 'Roany' must have been a very remarkable animal, for though blind she went perfectly straight in the field when 'scruffling' turnips, and she could trot at ten miles an hour. In connexion with the subject of horse-racing we have on our Wolds what is said to be, and I believe is, the oldest racecourse in England. This is Kiplingcotes, a course about four miles in length, extending through portions of the parishes of Goodmanham, Londesborough, and Middleton. The race was founded by some East Riding gentry in 1618, and it has been kept up every year since, though some years it was necessary for a cart-horse to be cantered over the course to prevent the race from lapsing. Many years ago I was told by one who had witnessed them that very rough work went on at the races, accompanied by a certain amount of bloodshed. At the present time the management of the trust has been placed on a better footing, and renewed interest is being taken in this old institution. The race is always held on the third Thursday in March.

On all the Wold farms it is the invariable custom to stack the corn in the yard on the farmstead, and these stackyards after the conclusion of the harvest on one of the large farms were a sight to behold for the remarkable skill and neatness displayed in the construction of the stacks. In this work the men took the greatest interest and pride. The stacks were of two shapes-long and round, the latter being called 'pikes', which had an architecture of their own; and it was certainly more tasteful than that of the houses. Sometimes the farmer would offer prizes in money for the best-made pike. This put the men upon their mettle; and in order to aid them in the work they would in the evenings cut miniature models, planning them out, cutting the straw with knives, and designing the ornamentation at the summit. When the pike itself was completed you could see that the symmetry of it was perfect; any outstanding ends of sheaves were cut down so as to form a perfectly even surface, and all in a complete circle. Then came the thatching of this work of art, which required the greatest skill if it was to be effective as well as viewly; for it must be borne in mind that these stacks had often to remain standing for months before they were threshed out, and so had to be proof against many a gale, and storms of snow and rain. These opposing forces the well-made coverings of thatch would withstand for a whole winter if need be, without scarcely a straw being dislodged. The bands of twine encircling the thatch were made secure by hazel or other stack-prods. And then, to crown all, came the ornamental device at the summit, which was a design according to the fancy of the artist; it might be a fox running, a cock, an arrow, and so forth, the thatch tapering most gracefully to a point or top-knot, surmounted by the fanciful design, which frequently acted as a weathercock, and was fixed in its place by the 'faner' stick; the whole design was called a 'maupin'; but I am afraid that many of these delightful old-world words are now passing out of recognition.

The making of these stacks and pikes, with all their beautiful finish and ornamentation, could never have been constructed in the way they were unless the men had taken the keenest interest and pride in the work ; not a 'mucky' pride, which thinks it knows everything, and resents instruction or criticism; but pride which is honest, healthy, and unassuming. This interest and desire to do their best entered into every department of their work ; whether it were the slashing of a hedge or ploughing a furrow, the same care was shown in it. I have seen hedges trimmed with the top like an arrow for straightness, and in looking at it any one could see that the man's heart was in the job as well as his hand and eye. It was this that made the work on the farms in days gone by so different from what it is now. No doubt a good deal may be put down to the War for this deterioration. At that distracting time the crops had to be gathered in as best they could be, and there was great shortage of labour, so that the stackyards and hedgerows often had a very deplorable appearance. From this we have only very partially recovered, and we shall never do so fully until the workman takes a delight in his work, and puts his heart, mind, and will into it, as was the case formerly, instead of regarding it merely as something to be got through anyhow, without bestowing care or interest upon it. No work, whether it be that of the artist, the sculptor, the engineer, the architect, can be seen at its best unless the agent brings all his faculties to bear upon the task he has on hand. Without these he can never hope to achieve anything really great; and this applies in its own special manner and degree to every workman in the land, and to the smallest detail of what he undertakes.

At the middle of the last century fairs held a much more prominent place in the life, and especially the agricultural life, of the people than they do to-day. Practically all the buying and selling of cattle and sheep was done at these fairs, of which every market town would have three or four in the year. The farm servants seldom got to them unless they went on some business connected with their farms.

The principal market town of the Wolds is Great Driffield. Here corn-dealers met in large numbers, and a very considerable business was transacted. About a mile from this place is the small village of Little Driffield, a place of more importance at one time than its name would suggest. For one thing it is the burial place of Alfred, King of Northumbria, and has probably been the scene of events of importance. But as regards our present subject, it was said to have been a chartered 'town' where four fairs were held in the course of the year, which were opened with the old customary formalities. The chief of these fairs, at least as far as the farm lads and lasses were concerned, was the Whitsun Fair for horses, sheep, and cattle; and in addition to this it was a great pleasure fair. The day on which it was held was the only day in the year on which the farm servants had a half-holiday. it may be imagined, therefore, that the occasion was anticipated with no little stir and interest, and this especially for two reasons: firstly, because on this day all the servant girls chose their summer dresses and other toggery ; and secondly, because it was the one great day of the year on which old scores and grievances were wiped out by the lads in the old English fashion of fighting it out. The occasions of these old disputes were many and various. Frequently the subject of quarrel would centre round the horses; the merits and failings of one were set against those of another; 'Blossom' could do this better than 'Star'; 'Bonny' was superior in that to 'Duke'; the condition of 'Prince' was better favoured than that of 'Dipper'; there was no end to the points raised about the lads' respective horses, and not seldom, as I before observed, the arguments waxed warm. But a deeper cause of strife would often be some love affair. Jealousies would arise among the lads as to the charms Of 'Polly' and the attractions of 'Bess'; these sank deep into the heart, and there they remained till the day of decision came, and that was the Whitsun Fair day at Little Driffield. Then the lads would have stand-up fights, and often the contests were fierce and long; blood would flow, and black eyes and bruises would be manifest on the persons of the contestants; but at last one or other had to give in, which settled the matter, and the victor was on all hands acknowledged as such.

This particular fair was quite a noted one, and there were certain antiquated privileges attached to it, one of which was that any one had the right to sell ale who chose to hang a bough of 'bottery' (elder) or other bush out of his window. In olden days the hanging of a bush outside a house signified that it was an inn; hence the saying 'good wine needs no bush'. William Blades informed me that when he was a lad he has seen as many as four 'bottery' boughs hanging outside houses in Little Driffield on a fair day: the owner or tenant of a house would have a couple of barrels of ale, which he dispensed as any licensed victualler might, and no doubt made a pretty good thing out of it. Naturally all this led to drunkenness and disorder, and it was well when such privileges were done away with. This being the only half-holiday in the year for the farm servants in the neighbourhood, the festivities were continued till late in the evening; but work the next morning would begin at the usual early hour.

At one time fairs and feasts entered so deeply into the life of the country folk that time was more frequently reckoned by them than by the days and months of the calendar. You might ask a man when he was born, and he would answer 'a week afore Mart'mas': or when his father died, and he might reply 'a fo'tnith eftther Nafferton Feast'. Their memories for past events connected with their work was often very surprising. I have frequently been told of some event of no great importance that it happened many years ago on some particular day of the week, so long before or after some fair or village feast.

The only real holiday worthy of the name which the farm servants enjoyed in the course of the year was Martinmas week, which fell in the latter half of November; this was the great 'Saturnalia' for the farm lads and lasses. At this time they were engaged for service for a year; the 'fest' or godspenny was given by the farmer, and that made the bargain legally binding on both sides. This particular season was, no doubt, chosen because it was the slackest time on the farms. The harvest, even in the latest seasons, had been ingathered, and the winter sowing had not of necessity commenced; but in other respects it was the worst possible time for a holiday; the days were short and gloomy, the weather uncertain, and the roads in many parts like quagmires. People who now use the roads have no conception what the country by-ways were like at the time of which we are speaking. It would have been practically impossible for a motor-car to travel on them.

These Martinmas hirings--'statties', as they were called--took place in every market town in the Riding, and here and there in a few of the larger villages, though in these cases only on a small scale. At this time the farm-houses were cleared of their servants, who always took this opportunity of visiting their homes.

It is only those who have been present at some of these old-time 'statties' who have any conception as to what they were like. On the day appointed for the hirings at some particular market town the farm servants of both sexes, farmers, and sometimes their wives, with hundreds of others who had no business to transact, poured into the town, some on foot, some in carriers' carts and other vehicles, some by train, till the marketplace was filled with moving crowds from end to end, so that it would have been wellnigh impossible to have driven through them. Shows of all kinds, merry-gorounds and stalls were strongly in evidence, and the voices of cheap-jacks and others selling their wares might be heard on all sides. The young folks were in a state of intense excitement, for this was the one great time in the year of relaxation from work, and they were determined to make the most of it. Boisterous greetings would take place between them, and friendly salutations between the elders. It was the great rendezvous of the year, and high jubilation and happiness everywhere prevailed. There was, of course, a strong element of business in the proceedings, for the farmers were present, as I said, to hire their servants for the ensuing year; and before doing so they would take a good look round, and when they saw a young man or lad that appeared from his build and healthy look likely to suit, the master would accost him, and, after asking a few questions as to the other's capabilities, his former place, and so forth, they came to the important question of wage; this might take a little time, but if they could come to terms the farmer would give the servant his 'fest', which might be half a crown or so, which finally clinched the business. Generally speaking, the wages would rise by about a pound a year until they reached the maximum of a foreman's pay, which would amount to about thirty to thirty-five pounds a year.

If the day happened to be wet the public-houses were crowded with men, lads, and girls, and there were scenes of wild confusion and uproar; sounds of singing, shouting, and laughter were heard on all sides, while the places of entertainment were filled to suffocation. In course of time, through the instrumentality of the clergy and others, these conditions were greatly ameliorated; public rooms were engaged where the girls could assemble and be interviewed, and hired by the farmers wives. Thus the system was put upon a better footing, though, even so, the statute hirings were always looked upon as a lively time, and Martinmas week continued to be the one great holiday of the year. At the present day they have dwindled down to a mere shadow of their former greatness, where they exist at all.

Christmas festivities did not enter to any great extent into the lives of the farm servants. There would be, of course, a certain amount of extras in the way of food at the farm-houses, and included in these, 'frumety' was always eaten on Christmas Eve, and sometimes also on New Year's Eve. This was a dish made of wheat, milk, sugar, and spices. I believe this to be a very old custom. The word is evidently derived from the Latin frumentum.

On Plough Monday, which I believe was the next Monday to Twelfth Night, some of the lads at the farms or in the villages would dress themselves up fantastically, and go round the neighbourhood, calling at various houses, and going through certain performances, such as dancing, singing, and, in earlier days, sword dancing, when two of the number were king and queen, but in later times only one called the 'Betty' was specially distinguished. They were always accompanied with music of some kind. These performances caused a good deal of diversion, and sometimes the plough-boys, as they were called, would collect a good sum of money, which they commonly spent in some kind of merriment. On one occasion William Blades joined a small party of plough-boys, and when they shared up at the end of the time they had earned fourteen shillings apiece.

Over and above the regular farm labourers, at certain busy times of the year, such as harvest and threshing days, extra hands would be employed by the Wold farmers; these were called 'off-men', and among them would be included a class of workmen known as 'Woldrangers. These men would follow the threshing-machines from farm to farm all through the winter, and they could turn their hands to almost any kind of work; but they were a rough lot, and when they were not engaged in work for the farmers they would take to poaching, robbing hen-roosts, and all sorts of malpractices, for which they were very seldom brought to justice, since they were extremely crafty in avoiding detection, and many of them were better educated than the ordinary farm labourer. They needed little or no housing accommodation, for they could sleep anywhere.

It was a common custom in later years for the farm lads to be boarded and lodged at the house of a 'hind', as he was called, which was situated near to the farmstead. This arrangement was only beginning about the time of which we are speaking. The hind was paid so much for the lads' keep, and he made what he could out of it. Under this system the servants did not fare badly as a rule, but the food was not generally so good as at the farm-house itself, and the old arrangement was much preferred.

Hired cooks were unknown in the farm-houses in the olden days. As a rule the whole of the domestic work was done by the housewife, the 'upper lass', and an under-girl. Extra help might, of course, be called in on certain busy days and seasons, but the amount of work that could be done by the dame and a couple of strong lasses was truly amazing. I have heard of one such lass being able to carry on her back down some stairs a sack of flour weighing, I suppose, about eighteen stone: I have little doubt that many another could have performed a like feat.

Hitherto I have spoken mainly of the life and work of the farm lads, but that of the female servants was, in its way, no less exacting. Of this I must here give some account.

In a previous work (1) I alluded to this subject; and since what I there wrote was taken from real life I feel that I cannot do better than reiterate what I then ascertained from personal knowledge.

(1) Nunburnholme, its History and Antiquities, 1907.

This was the case of a daughter of a labouring man, and one of a large family. She is destined for farm service; and from her earliest years she has had to work at home, helping her mother In various ways, sometimes looking after the younger children, cleaning the house, running errands, and in harvest time making bands for the sheaves, or helping to glean : in short, doing so many jobs of all sorts, that schooling, which in those days had to be paid for, was out of the question; but, even if it could have been had gratis, the probability is that homework and duties would have interfered with it greatly, or even taken away all chance of it.

In this illiterate state the girl reaches the age of, let us say, ten years. She cannot be kept longer at home; the family is increasing, flour is dear, and wages are low ; she must therefore go to farm service. She enters a farm-house. For a year or two she has not to do the hardest kind of work ; her main duty at first may be to nurse the children; she has been engaged with that object. She is up betimes, generally about 5 a.m. in summer, long before the children are out of bed; she has to fetch up the cows to be milked when they are out in the pasture, and has to make herself generally useful in the house and out of it from morning till evening. In such a situation she would probably at first receive no actual wages-- 'neea brass' as they would express it; she would only have her 'meat', that is her food, and whatever else the mistress would have a mind to give her-, which might perhaps consist of old frocks and clothes of various kinds. She would have no wages till she went to her next place, when she might earn from £2 to £3 a year; and then real hard farm work began in earnest. I have heard of a girl at that time of life or a little older who had to help in the milking of nearly twenty cows daily. The cows would assemble on the back 'causer' in a ring; they would not be tied, for without the least trouble each would go to its accustomed place. It was reckoned rather a feat to milk these cows in an hour, but Jane was 'a rare strapping lass', although she was only the under-girl; meanwhile the head-girl would be getting the lads' breakfast ready. Then came the dairy work, 'siling' the milk, churning, and what-not. In those days, too, it was customary for the servant girls to wash for the lads and men; for this they received no extra pay, as it was all part of their agreement; and this, added to the regular washing for the household, was no light matter. On washing-days, which were invariably Mondays, the servant lasses would often be up at one o'clock in the morning, and they were 'kept agait', with but little intermission for the rest of the day, or at least till about tea-time.

The girls, too, would frequently lend a hand in the harvest field, and at odd times they would have other odd jobs to do such as 'pulling' turnips, which they would 'top and tail', throwing the turnips on to one heap, which later were carted home for the beasts, while the tops were thrown on to another heap and used as fodder for the calves and pigs. In those days there was, as it was once expressed to me by one who had gone through the mill, 'a deal o' slaps an' muck, an' nut sike fahin deed i' t' hooses as noo'. Carpets and fine furniture were then almost unknown in farm-houses, and pianofortes were unthinkable.

In a severe winter--and they were in those days generally of that nature--the work of the lasses must indeed have been exacting to any but the strongest constitutions. Sometimes, so I have been told, the 'iceshoggles' would form themselves on the lower edges of the girls' petticoats while they washed the potatoes; and when the snow lay thick on the ground they would have to cross it knee-deep to get some 'fire eldin' to heat the copper for boiling the potatoes. This kind of work would, of course, now be done by men or lads.

I have already alluded to the men's food in our East Yorkshire farm-houses, and that of the female servants would be in no wise inferior or less abundant; indeed, had it not been so, the work required of the girls could scarcely have been accomplished.

A complete revolution has taken place in the matter of dress since those days, when the mistress of the farmhouse would appear in a blue bed-gown with a little white 'poppin', and a cap with a small 'screed' and a 'plate' of muslin at the top; while the servant would wear a frock with short sleeves, with two little frills round the arms, a common 'wunsey' apron being worn for work. She would have a smarter print dress for Sunday wear, with longer sleeves; but it would be made perfectly plain, with no sort of finery; the style even of wearing the hair was in harmony with the rest of the attire, it being generally 'boxed up' with a comb; in short, everything in the way of dress was arranged with a view to use, and not for adornment.

Means of locomotion for the farmer and his family were of a primitive kind at the middle of the last century'. Railways were then in their infancy, and were looked upon with anything but favour. The inmates of the farm-houses seldom went beyond the limits of their market town, or the place of some local fair. The poorer classes would go on foot to the markets or in carriers' carts. The farmers would ride on horseback, or in gigs, which were then fairly commonly in use; but frequently they and their wives would be content to jolt to market in an ordinary agricultural cart, vulgarly called a muckcart, without, of course, any attempt at springs, a deal board being placed across the body of the cart to do duty for a seat, and not seldom a chair for the dame. In earlier days the farmer's wife would ride to market behind her husband on a pillion when she did not go on foot; but pillions had gone out of use before the middle of the century, though occasionally one heard of a stray one or two lying about among the lumber of some out building. Such things would now be regarded with curiosity, and as suitable articles for a museum.

Some of the furniture in the farm-houses in the olden days was very quaint and primitive. I remember hearing of what were called 'kneading tubs'. These were wooden tubs in which they used to make bread: they were fixed to the wall by 'jimmers' or hinges.

But still more curious were the old oak tables of a somewhat earlier date. These tables were used for meals for the farm men. In the thick wooden tops holes were cut about two inches deep, and the size of an ordinary plate; into these holes the broth, meat, and vegetables were poured, and eaten with wooden spoons. The tables were well washed after every meal with hot water and soda, by which means they were thoroughly cleansed. In some houses, however, I have been told that wisps of straw were also used for doing the rough cleansing. This was before Blades' time, though he well remembered hearing of these tables. He told me that when they ate off wooden trenchers, and used wooden spoons, these and all wooden kitchen utensils were cleaned with a special kind of gritty sand, which was washed down along the sides of the Wold roads in wet seasons and collected for this purpose. It was most effective in cleansing anything to which it was applied by rubbing.


Transcribed by Graham Metcalf © 2002