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THE BRITISH WORKMAN: Dotterel Park Farm

CHAPTER VI

DOTTEREL PARK FARM

When quite a lad William Blades had a great wish some day to become a shepherd, and it may have been this inclination which determined the choice of his next situation. This was at a farm called Dotterel Park in the parish of Kilham. Here a boy, though he might not have anything to do with the sheep directly, if he kept his eyes open, which this lad certainly did, could pick up a good deal of knowledge about them. With this object in view he could not have lighted on a more suitable place.

Dotterel Park was a farm of eleven hundred acres and tenanted by a man of considerable wealth. The land was in a high state of cultivation like that of most of the Wold farms in those days.

To work a farm of this size it needed not only a large amount of capital, but also a man at the head of affairs who thoroughly understood his business, as well as many competent men under him. Some idea of the work that went on will be gathered when I say that the farmer here had fifty fat three-year-old bullocks in one fold-yard, with two men to look after them, and fourteen hundred sheep, namely, four hundred ewes, and a thousand 'twoshear hogs', as they are called, which needed the constant attention of three men. The sheep on the Wold farms at that time, as indeed they still are, were mostly those of the large Leicester breed. The wool from these sheep is of very high quality, though their mutton is not equal to that of some other breeds, notably the Welsh. Blades got his first lessons in clipping sheep at this farm. This he did on the early summer evenings after his regular day's work was done. His progress in the art, and an art it certainly is, was so rapid that he was soon able to clip a sheep by himself.

The experience which Blades had with sheep while he was at Dotterel Park was very considerable. Those only that have had such experience have any notion of the amount and variety of work entailed in the care and management of large flocks of sheep.

On one occasion our young shepherd was required to drive a flock of three hundred and fifty to a place about ten miles distant. To an outsider this might appear quite a simple matter, but in point of fact it was one of great labour, discomfort, and difficulty.

He started off early one morning accompanied by his dog and an old mare, which he led along the road by a bridle. It was now nearly summer, and as the sun rose in the sky the heat became intense. The road was thick with dust, and it is only those who have witnessed the scene who have any conception of the clouds of dust that can be raised by a flock of sheep along a road in dry weather. The progress was, of course, very slow in this case. Had the flock been over-driven many of the animals would probably have died on the way. As it was, what with the heat, and the dust from which there was no escape, for the cloud encircled the troop, the atmosphere was wellnigh suffocating. Slow though progress was, the poor sheep would lie down on the road panting as if they were almost at their last gasp. The dust, too, was blinding as well as choking. The journey could not of course be accomplished in a single day. The declining rays of the sun gave some little relief, until at length the village of Nafferton was reached, where they spent the night. Young Blades had been provided with a sufficient supply of money for his board and lodging, and we can imagine with what zest he sat down to his supper of bacon and bread that evening accompanied by copious draughts of ale.

Next morning they were all astir again betimes, for the journey as yet was only about half over. The events of the second day's travelling were a repetition of the first, for the intensity of the heat and the dust were in no wise abated. On and on the boy shepherd with his flock, mare, and dog trudged, till at length, nearly exhausted, they reached their destination at the village of Brandesburton between 10 and 11p.m. Like the 'Village Blacksmith' of old he had well earned his night's repose; but this he did not gain till, after having partaken of a hearty supper like that of the previous night, he mounted his mare and rode back to Dotterel Park, which he did not reach till after midnight. This journey with the sheep to Brandesburton under such trying conditions impressed itself indelibly on Blades' memory, as well it might.

The life of a shepherd is always an anxious and trying one, and at certain seasons of the year he gets very little rest. The winter snows, which on the Yorkshire Wolds often arrive with great impetuosity, and the early spring lambing season are the most trying times of all.

The winter that Blades spent at Dotterel Park happened to be another of the old-fashioned sort. Blinding storms of wind and snow from the north-east swept over the country with great violence, and in places the drifts were many feet deep. For eight weeks they were literally snowed up at the farm. At one time some of the sheep were out in the field, and the farmer felt anxious about them. The men were looking out for them, when the master came up and asked them if they could 'see owt o' them yows?' The field was a mile long, and in no direction were the ewes visible. But what men cannot see a good dog is often able to discover. And it is only those who have witnessed sheep-dog trials, as the present writer has done, who have any idea of the marvellous sagacity of these animals. In this case at Dotterel Farm they were fortunate in having a singularly clever dog; and not only with sheep, for among his various accomplishments he could draw a badger and kill a fox.

On this occasion all that was said to the dog was, 'Seek 'em oot, Jack,' when away he went ranging over the field till he ultimately found the sheep buried in the snow in a long line under a low hedge. There they had lain all night: they were all alive, and when they were dug out, which they had to be, they 'steamed like a kettle', as I was told.

The soil on the Wolds is usually of a light loamy character and only a few inches deep, the chalk rising almost to the surface; nevertheless it is admirably adapted for producing corn and turnips, which latter are essential for the rearing of sheep; and for this purpose the dryness of the whole district adds greatly to its value. The surface of the land is commonly very thickly covered with flints, and at the time of which we are speaking it was usual for women and children to gather them with rakes and buckets; for this work they were paid from a shilling to eighteen pence a day, and when a sufficient number had been got together they were carted away for mending the roads. Land of the character thus de scribed-light and flinty--is said in our vernacular to be 'chennely'.

The state of cultivation of the Wold farms at the present date has somewhat deteriorated as compared with what it was at the time of which we are speaking. This is due to various causes. The use of artificial manures has almost wholly superseded the fashion of earlier times when, as aids to the ordinary farm-yard manure, soot, lime, and crushed bones were highly valued as fertilizers.

I have already alluded to the spreading of soot on the land with its attendant disfigurement of the persons of those engaged in the process, with other discomforts while the work was going on; but the handling of lime, though not attended with quite the same degree of unpleasantness, was a very irksome business.

In the neighbourhood of Nafferton there were some rather extensive kilns at the time when Blades was in farm service, and wagons would come from quite long distances for lime from them, sometimes as far as eight miles or more. The amount of work accomplished in a day in this connexion at that period affords a striking contrast to that of the present time. As an instance of this I may mention that at the farm where Blades was then working it was found possible for the teams to make three journeys to the kilns and back in two days. The work began on a Monday morning, and the most had to be made of the time: consequently, to avoid Sunday labour, the men were ready one minute before midnight on that day, and directly the clock had struck the hourthey went to yoke their horses and start for the kilns. No time was wasted on the journey; the wagons were loaded with lime, and by 5 a.m. the whole of it had been 'scaled' (spread) on the land, after which they returned to the farmstead, 'lowsed oot' (unyoked), attended to their horses, and then got their breakfasts, to which they did full justice. After this, they laid themselves down in the stable to rest for a while. Dinner was ready for them at half-past eleven, and in the afternoon they made a second journey to the kilns and repeated the operation of the morning. On the following forenoon they again set off for their loads of lime, which was all spread before dinner, and in the afternoon they were occupied in 'luking' (weeding) in the fields. These two days represented a vast amount of hard work, against which the farm labourers to-day would rebel; but, as Blades has repeatedly told me, he enjoyed hard work, and nothing ever troubled him, or caused him to complain, and it was the same with the rest of the farm hands; they were happy and contented in their daily tasks. The probability is that on this occasion the work which these men had completed by five o'clock in the morning would take at the present day an equal number of hands the whole day to perform, or something very near it.

At certain seasons of the year there was rather a run made upon the lime kilns, and it was a case of first come first served. The early arrivals had one great advantage, besides a saving of time over the others, for the farther they had to penetrate into the kilns the hotter the lime became, and it is recorded that on one occasion some wagons which had come a long distance had been laden with lime in too hot a state, and after having got some way on the journey one of the wagons burst out into a blaze; but fortunately the wagons were not seriously damaged. The use of lime in these days, like that of soot, as fertilizers, has almost entirely died out. Formerly the three principal additions to farm-yard manure were soot, lime, and crushed bones; but now manufactured manures of various kinds are used instead.

With regard to the use of fertilizers of agricultural land at the present, as compared with former days, one of the largest and most successful farmers in the East Riding gave me a year or so ago some interesting particulars. In speaking of soot he remarked:

'When I came here fifteen years ago we used about twenty tons a year; but I found great difficulty in getting men to sow it, and the horse lads hated handling it. For some purposes it cannot be beaten, given the right weather after sowing. To begin with, you have to pick a calm day for sowing. If after sowing it sets in a spell of dry weather it does not get to work. Under favourable circumstances it is rather slow in action. It is very variable in quality: also some of the so-called soot out of mill chimneys has very little value. We find 1 cwt. of nitrate of lime as a top dressing acts at once, whatever the weather may be, less bulk to handle, 1 cwt. instead of four or five. We can drill the nitrate of lime, but not the soot.... Some people use nitrate of soda instead of soot; but I have heard the expression that applying nitrate of soda is like applying whipcord to a jaded cab horse. Sulphate of ammonia is the best and cheapest form of ammonia where it suits, particularly for the potato crop....Taking lime: the old-fashioned way of applying lime in the form of unslaked lump lime is about out of date owing to labour costs. Like soot, it is not nice stuff to handle, and a common dressing in the lump form was from two to three tons to the acre. Unless the men were good at the job you did not get it very evenly spread. Nearly all the lime used to-day is the unslaked lime, ground to a fine powder, supplied in hundred-weight bags, and applied by drills....

'Bones. Pure raw crushed bones are very dear. We use a good proportion of bones for turnips, but always either a boiled or steamed bone; grease in any form in a manure is a drawback; the bone boilers take all that out; they reduce the percentage of ammonia, but increase the percentage of phosphate, and you get it in a much finer form than in the raw bones.' The following prices, &c., are added:

                                                             Per ton (delivered)
'Raw bones ¼ inch , 48% phosphate, 4% amon. . . . £8 10 0
Boiled bones, fine meal, 58% phosphate, 2% amon. . . . 6 5 0
Steamed bones, fine powder, 60% phosphate, 1% amon. . . 6 5 0
Mineral superphosphates are so good and reliable to-day
that they have in many cases taken the place of bone
phosphate.
Mineral superphosphate, 30% soluble . . . . . £3 5 0
The phosphates in bones are not soluble, but become so
fairly early on some of our Wold soils, but very slowly on clay
and sand.'

I have thought it well to record the above particulars, coming as they do from a farmer of very wide experience-the late Mr. R. H. Stocks, of Haywold, in the East Riding, who, I regret to say, died only a few weeks after furnishing me with them. At one time Mr. Stocks farmed about 1,500 acres on the Wolds. He was a noted breeder of sheep, winning prizes at shows all over the country, including the Royal. He was a first-rate shot both with gun and rifle, and carried off prizes repeatedly at Bisley. Unlike the generality of his class, he was a man of culture, well read, and a delightful companion, abounding in humour, and possessing all the best qualities of the true Yorkshireman. He died deeply lamented by a large circle of friends. A thoroughly good feeling, moreover, prevailed between him and his employees, of whom at one time he had about forty.

For all things there is a time ; and from the age of the Patriarchs to the present, the season of sheep-shearing has always been one of interest and importance to those engaged in pastoral pursuits.

On the large Wold farms of East Yorkshire where sheep are extensively bred, their clipping is one of the great events of the year. Besides being interesting and important to those concerned, it makes a pleasant change in the more ordinary routine of agricultural work. I am alluding to this because our old friend, William Blades, was for a long period of years closely connected with this work, and ultimately became one of the most noted clippers of his day; in fact, he may be said to have held the blue ribbon for dexterity and rapidity in the clipper's art. To watch a sheep being clipped by a really skilful hand is quite a fascinating sight. Of this we shall say more presently.

But before sheep can be clipped they have to be washed; this, too, is a process of no little interest to the onlooker. There is a certain wash-dyke close to the village of Nafferton where sheep have been washed from time immemorial. The place is well chosen, for there is a stream of pure water running through it, and by damming it up, the water in the circular washing-place can be raised to a considerable depth. It was my delight as a small boy to visit this dyke at the time of the sheep washing and contemplate the operation. I can see it all now as if it was yesterday. The central figure, of course, was the man in the tub, who had the actual washing to do. On one side a convenient number of sheep from the flock are enclosed in a sort of pen by means of sheep nets, with a man to handle them and fling them into the dyke one by one at intervals sufficiently long for the washing of a single sheep. The bleating that goes on without cessation is very great, especially when the ewes are separated from their lambs. Sometimes the sheep go clean under, and come up snorting the water out of their noses. The labour involved in washing sheep is very exacting if the work is to be done satisfactorily. The washer's arms have a special covering for the job, since he has to dig them into the thick wool of the sheep, working and rubbing, and squeezing the wool so as to get as much of the dirt out as possible in the short time available, though only the roughest part of it can be removed, even by the best hands. The days are generally pretty warm on these occasions, and the man in the tub, as I used to see him, was in a constant state of perspiration, a condition which was invariably accompanied with thirst; and as I witnessed the scene this thirst was slaked with porter or ale, which was always quaffed out of a tumbler-shaped vessel made of horn. This kept the steam going. As the sheep emerged slowly from the wash-dyke, evidently astonished at the added burden of the water with which their thick fleeces were saturated, they stumbled up to the road hard by, their bodies dripping for long enough afterwards, until by degrees they approached their natural weight, and the creatures began to know themselves once more.

A few years ago, by a remarkable coincidence, I happened to be passing near this same wash-dyke one bright spring day when a flock of sheep were being washed there. I could not resist the impulse which drew me to the spot once more after an interval of I am afraid to say how many years; and I turned aside to witness the sight for a brief space, as I used to do in the days of my boyhood. The modus operandi was the same as it ever was--the washer in his tub, the attendants, one to handle the animals, and another with a pole with a cross bar at one end to rub them about when in the dyke, and the sheep all dripping on the road. I did not see the drinking-horn and its contents, though, for aught I knew, they or their equivalents might have been at hand; but what I did notice specially was that the work was not done with nearly the same amount of energy and thoroughness that it was in former days; and as I turned back to go on my way I said to myself, here is a sign of the times, which any one might have read who had eyes to see.

Before the sheep come to be clipped, about a week has to elapse in order that their wool may become sufficiently dry, though the length of time requisite must depend, of course, to some extent upon the weather.

The clipping of sheep is an art, which like every other art has to be learnt, and naturally some men are very much more adept at it than others. There is a certain knack in it, which but few have to perfection ; but if any one was master of the craft in all its details, it was William Blades. At fifteen years of age, as I before observed, he could clip a sheep, and from that time onwards he gradually rose to the top of the tree.

Those who have watched sheep-shearers at their work must have noticed how restive the sheep commonly are under the process: when they are thrown on their backs upon the clipping 'binch' they will 'fick (1), as we say in our folk-speech, and so hinder the shearer in his work; but Blades had a special faculty for turning a sheep when being clipped; so that they never gave him any trouble through 'ficking'. Another advantage he had was that he could clip equally well with either hand. His fame spread far and wide, and people used to come and look on as he turned his sheep over, one after another. On one occasion a farmer came from some distance with this object, and the reality so far exceeded the report that he was fairly 'stagnated' (dumbfounded) at the sight. Naturally, at the clipping season Blades' services were greatly in request by the neighbouring farmers, for some of whom he clipped for twenty years in succession.

(1) This word is quite distinct from 'kick', and signifies to struggle with the legs.

On one of these occasions he was engaged along with others, and towards the end of the day there were seven sheep remaining to be clipped. The idea occurred to some one that a test should be made of the speed with which Blades could clip these seven sheep. He had two attendants for the task, one for the sheep waiting in the pen, to pick out any thorns or straws there might be entangled in the wool; and the other for winding the fleeces. There were six pairs of shears all ready sharpened, so that there might be no delay from that source. Another man stood over all, watch in hand, so that the time should be accurately tested. The start was made at the set moment; one by one the sheep were thrown upon their backs in the most artistic fashion, and the whole seven were clean fleeced in the short space of thirty-two minutes. This was certainly a very remarkable achievement. Blades was not one who was given to boasting of his performances in this, or in any other kind of work; but I did once extract from him the admission that in the matter of sheep-shearing he did not think there was another man in Yorkshire who could 'best' him; and I have no reason to question the truth of his assertion. Moreover, he thoroughly enjoyed the work; as he once said to me 'I loved it, and I did it'.

On another occasion he started off at 5 a.m. to walk to Foston, five miles distant, to clip fifty sheep for a farmer there. Five ewes he finished off before breakfast, and the remaining forty-five, which were 'hogs', he clipped without difficulty in the course of the day. He had a man to wait on him; and he got back home at 7 pm. His usual wage for clipping sheep was half-a-crown a score, but sometimes he would earn about seven shillings a day.

At the time when Blades was at Dotterel Park he assisted the shepherds, as we said, with their large flock of fourteen hundred sheep. Out of these the farmer made a very considerable profit by the wool alone. They were a fine lot, and the men took quite a pride in them. Of course, the value of the wool depended to a certain extent upon the condition of the sheep and the cleanliness of the wool. If it was in a good state, free from thorns and so forth, it would fetch near the top price. When the time for selling the wool arrived, dealers would come from the West Riding to make their purchases from the Wold farmers.

The year that Blades was at this farm he well remembered the occasions when the wool merchants came to do their business with the farmer. The wool was in fine condition, clean, and without thorns or anything else to detract from its value. In course of time a bargain was struck, and at the end of the business it was customary for the dealers to give a gratuity to the shepherds and their underlings of a sovereign or ten shillings, as the case might be, together with a few words of praise for the pride the men had taken in their work. Wool at that time was worth half-a-crown a pound, and on an average each sheep would yield about 10 lb. of wool. On this occasion when all was completed, one of the dealers said to the tenant farmer, 'The wool you have taken up to-day will pay your rent for a year'; and so it did. Farming at that time was a profitable business, and many of those engaged in it make large fortunes: as Blades said of his master at this place, 'money kept tum'lin intiv 'im'. What a contrast this is to the state of things at the present time, when many of our farmers are driven almost to bankruptcy, and are in consequence giving up their farms ! All this has been brought about by high wages, low prices for farm produce, bad seasons, and the fact that the men do nothing like the amount of work now as compared with the time of which we have been speaking. And this is due, not only to the shorter hours now prevailing, but also because the men do not work with the same will and interest, and I may add, with the like honest pride that they used to do formerly.

After leaving Dotterel Park, Blades engaged himself to a farmer at a place called Lissett in the parish of Beeford. He was now eighteen years of age, and his wage £14. It appears to have been a good place, though the work was pretty stiff; for the master, besides being a farmer, was also a dealer in corn and wool, which involved the constant carrying of heavy weights; so that at one time the lad's back in consequence became sore, and had to be attended to. The farmer used to buy a considerable amount of soft corn, which had to be taken to a drying kiln at Burton Agnes, some miles away; but they had good horses to do this work. On one occasion they had to deliver three hundred quarters of wheat at Burton Agnes Station; this job took from three to four days. Each wagon carried twenty quarters, that is forty sacks of corn, each sack weighing eighteen stone; so that the handling of these sacks and putting them on the railway trucks was no light work. But this was a farm where the men were well fed; moreover, the farmer brewed his own beer; and there was plenty of it, which helped to keep them in good heart, for the beer was good wholesome stuff; and contained nothing hut malt and hops.

I inquired of Blades what sort of a man his master here was. 'Well,' he replied, 'Mr. T. weighed twentyone stone, and his wife nineteen.' Whether this abnormal obesity was induced by copious potations or not I cannot say with certitude; but judging by the following episode there is but little room left for doubt on the subject. Once in the course of his work Mr. T. told Blades that he might have a pint of ale, and proceeded to go to the cellar accompanied by the servant lass; how long it was before she appeared with the pint for Blades I cannot say exactly; but she averred that during the comparatively short interval, her master had consumed no less than eight pints of ale. This seems almost incredible, and I can only account for the possibility of the feat on the supposition that the weather was intensely hot, and that the man had been an exceptionally long time without a drink. While here Blades was very attentive to his horses, and took a real pride in them: the master, seeing this, did all he could to encourage him; so, one day when he was about to start with his wagon and team, Mr. T. noticed that he had only got a flail whip;(1) when he called to him, gave him ten shillings, and said he was to get a 'gad' whip, which was a long and much more imposing affair. This the lad did the next opportunity, the cost being seven shillings, which left him three for himself, and highly pleased he was with the whole transaction.

(1) That is, a whip made somewhat on the principle of a flail, with a lash in place of the 'swipple'.

There were two or three places after this where Blades was engaged before finally ending his period of farm service, the last of them being at Middleton-on-the-Wolds, where he acted as foreman to the tenant of the rectory farm. It was a good place, but a very responsible one, as the farmer had to be a good deal away from home.

Although wages were low in those days as compared with the present time, the men who were careful and thrifty were able to save a nice bit of money, which often enabled them to start farming in a small way for themselves; and from this they launched out on greater ventures; it is probable, indeed, that quite as much money, if not more, was saved then than there is now, owing to the large sums now spent on pleasures and amusements, dress, travelling about the country in motor buses, on bicycles, and other means of locomotion, to say nothing of betting, gambling, and other extravagances. A remarkable instance of thrift once came under my notice in the case of one of my former parishioners. This was a man who had begun life as an agricultural labourer: he could neither read nor write, but was possessed of a great amount of practical knowledge and sagacity; this enabled him in course of time to save a considerable sum of money. One day he went to the agent of a neighbouring large landowner to apply for a farm that was vacant. He made his application, but was told by the agent that his request was useless, because he would not have enough capital to stock the farm; whereupon the applicant, without saying a word, put his hand in his pocket, produced the sum of £300 in bank-notes, and put it on the table. Ultimately the farm was let to another, though I am perfectly convinced that had it been let to this man, whom I knew very well, not only would the land have been kept in good heart, but every half-year the rent would have been scrupulously paid to the day. Several cases somewhat similar to this have come to my knowledge from time to time.


Transcribed by Graham Metcalf © 2002