On the farm

If on the farm I was picking after my flask was empty I would shuck the peas and put them in my flask, they would be already to cook when I got home.  Beside that I would also fill a bag up with peas for another day.  Whatever we worked with we would take some home, we were never without something.

Sometimes Ern would take Robbie up the field in the evenings. Nine times out ten he would bring a rabbit, a hare or even a pheasant. Once the pheasant had got to close to the wire in the hedge, it couldn’t fly that’s when Ern would catch it. Mind you he was a very good shot with a gun.

We used to feed our dog on hares, they were really big.  He had a 12 bore shot gun and a 10 bore they were not as popular as the 12 bore.  He had a license for them and also permission to walk the fields.  Sometimes he would take Robbie (I’m sure he used him as a gun dog).  You could hardly see his little head above the brussel tops.  His little cheeks would be like bright red balloons when they came home.  It made him feel very important and he loved every minute of it.

Ern was a good man, he made a lovely dad.  I said I would have liked four boys, Ern used to say we can’t afford what we’ve got, he was very down to earth.  He loved music, he was always whistling away or playing his mouth organ.  The first tune he ever played was ‘Now the day is over’ we all loved to hear him play.

When Vi came over to visit from Australia we put on a good old party.  No TV, we had Gert and Vi and all of us mob also Rene and Tubs Spellar.  We had a really lovely time, Gert sang ‘Only a bird in a gilded cage a wonderful sight to see’.  Ern played very softly so that we could hear her.  Vi and Gert sang quite a few songs with Tubs joining in.  He said it was the best party he had ever been to.  When he was a boy they used to sing around an old piano, nearly always someone could knock out a few old tunes.  Rene and Tubs were good friends of ours.  I always sent him a valentine card and sign it with lipstick from ’Hot Lips’.  At Christmas I sent him a card which said ‘Meet me under the Christmas tree and I will kiss you under the balls’. We used to have some really good laughs. He said to Rene one day (they were having a few words) ‘I can’t say two words to you these days’ she said ‘I can SHUT UP’. I suppose in one way I was very lucky.  I had some really nice friends as well as family.  I have had lots of love all my life the benefits of being the youngest of ten children.

We used to have moth balls in drawers and cupboards everywhere, they were little balls of camphor, we, well most people smelled of them.  When Lil was very small she put one up her nose, mum had the devil of a job getting it down.

Now getting back to our days on the farm.  We had work all year round, you were not supposed to take children on the farm at all really, especially not in winter months but as a lot of the work was in the barn he allowed us to take them.

I loved all the work, except picking potatoes, God it was hard work.  We used to have cherries in very high trees, we used to pick in buckets, before that it was baskets lined with fleece, but when it was wet you had a job to lift them.  We also had a long hook to pull the boughs in that one couldn’t reach, it made your feet ache standing on the ladders all day.   Ern and Maurice were ‘our men’ for moving the ladders. Mr Burns would weigh our fruit and mark how many we had picked.  We were paid so much a box.  It was called piece work.  You really had to keep going to earn anything at all but if we worked in the barn it was ‘day pay’ which in those days was one pound a day.  Most of the outside work was ‘piece work’.  In the winter and early spring we were pruning, we collected all the twigs up and burnt them on a big fire.  I loved it at break time we would find a big twig with two prongs and lay our cheese sandwiches on it and toast it over the embers till all the cheese melted and ran over the sides.

Mrs Redsell had been a gypsy so she could always get a fire going.  We picked the wood up in big sack aprons so she would light the fire and to get it going she would lay her apron on the side of the wind on the fire and in no time it would really get it going, even though the wood was wet.  She would also tell us how when anyone feels faint or even have fainted, light an old piece of rag or paper and let the smoke go into their nostrils, also anyone who has cut themselves pull some old cobwebs from an old shed or anywhere you could get them from and put them tightly on the cut, it would stop the bleeding.  She would then hum all day and picked quicker than anyone on the farm.  She would never run off for a wee, like we did, we all liked her though.  I wouldn’t cross her, I really think she could put a curse on you.

Then there was ‘Aunty Flo’ she used to bike out every day from Gravesend, never knew her to be late or ill. She was telling Jen one day that there were some wild kittens in the barn, Jen said ‘You won’t kill them will you Aunt Flo’.  Flo said ‘My dear girl I wouldn’t kill a flee’ so Jen said ‘Ooo Aunt Flo do you just let them itch’, so she thought Aunt Flo had a few.(Got your matchbox handy Ern).

Then we had Hilda, Flo’s sister, she used to bike out later because she worked at the bakers shop before she came out to the farm.  I must tell you this, Hilda loved cats, Flo’s husband couldn’t stand them.  One day Hilda’s cat went into the bakery, it followed Hilda and fell into the doughnut vat which was full of oil. Well Flo’s husband found it in his back yard (they lived next door to Hilda) when he took it round to her she thought he had tried to drown the thing.  You can imagine what it looked like. Well Flo said Hilda was going to kill him, they had a job to hold her off. They did finally manage to clean him off and take him to the vet. Flo said Bill (her husband) couldn’t stop laughing.

Then we had Emeline, she was an old spinster, she always wore a scarf, summer and winter, her name was Emeline Dunne.  Ern would sit on the bottom of her ladder she would be picking cherries and he would sing ‘Old mother Dunne never been done’ and she would sing back ‘And she’s proud of it too’. The men used to sit on the bottom of the ladder to hold it firm and stop it slipping.  She was a very jolly person and could take a joke.  She used to bike out from Gravesend and go home for dinner (made of good stuff in those days).

One day Mr Burns had a big green tarpaulin tied to four trees for a shade or to keep the rain off us.  One day it had been raining so we were in the barn, the children were playing.   Come dinner time we yelled for the nippers to come up from the orchard.  Two ends of the tarpaulin had come undone and the kids had been using it as a slide, when they arrived they looked like little green men from outer space, they were covered, faces, legs the lot.   They looked so funny we all had to laugh, mind you it was one heck of a job to get it off.   Even old Mr Burns had to laugh.

After a few years they got  machine in for planting potatoes, I used to go on it with Ern and Maurice.  Mr Burns would drive the tractor we sat on three seats on the back to make sure the potatoes went down the holes one by one.  I loved it, nice and easy work just sitting there.  Then eventually they bought a new machine for picking potatoes up.  I liked that as well, but you really had to keep your wits about you.  Sometimes it would pick up huge flints, a bit dangerous they could easily crush your hands but I loved breathing the air from the fresh earth, it made you feel alive.

That is one thing I remember about being in the land army in Gloucestershire, being on an old Fordson tractor and using ring rollers on a field of corn.  It was a really massive big field.  The morning was early in spring and on the way down to the field I had seen a whole nest of stoats, all ginger and white.  Once in the field it was like another world, the sun just starting to warm up, the smell from the dew on the young corn shoots, a soft breeze on my face, it made me feel so happy it was like paradise.  It would take me all day when I stopped for my dinner I could hear the sky larks high in the sky, I hoped they hadn’t nested in the corn. I went back to the hostel at night, I would lay on my bunk thinking about it.

Years before one used to have men cutting the corn and we would have to put them in ‘stocks’ that was stand the stems down in sacks of eight all across the fields to dry.  They later went into a machine called a ‘binder’ which cut the corn and threw each bundle out to the side.  When it was fairly dry we went into the fields with a two pronged pitch fork to pick them up and take to a corner of the field and two men would make a large stack of them.  Then it would have thatching like a house on top to keep the weather out.  Come winter we would have the threshing machine come to thrash all the corn out, it was a very hard and dirty job to do. The dust would get right into ones eyes, no goggles those days and the string would make your hands bleed.  We used to have to change jobs every so often.  Mind you everyone just took it in their stride, no moaning we were all in the same boat.

Then we would work round the potato clamp when it was freezing cold, kneeling down on an old sack sorting the chats from the ware, also the rotten ones.  Your feet would get so cold it was a job to walk on them ‘Why should I have to work such rotten jobs’ feeling sorry for myself, mind you it didn’t do me any good ‘or harm’.

I think the good days outshone the bad. The weather made such a difference to all the jobs.  Sometimes we would pick early Worcester apples, they were nice low trees, the fruit was the most beautiful colour, all red and warm from the sun, they used to smell gorgeous.  Then we would have to pick Victoria plums, they were nice low trees.  In Mr Lawrence’s chicken run there were more nice low trees and I have never seen such large ‘Vics’ in my life, they were really delicious. He also had Morello cherries for cooking, we used to have to cut their stalks with scissors, not pick them, they had to have stalks intact, they looked like wax in the chips.   The chips were made of ply wood.

When we worked in the barn we had a machine which would grade the apples by size, then we would pack them in tissue paper, not just place them, they had to be on their sides, bright side up, we would have a circle in the middle without papers so they could see what they were buying.  The small apples went into larger wooden boxes with a blue paper collar round the inside to save the bruising.  We also had to do the same with pears and the Bramley apples.  We each had our own stand for packing.  Then Mr Burns would inspect them and put paper tops on with clips.  The names and all the details would be put on with a rubber stamp, it was a nice job.  We always had two or three robins in the barn singing away.  They knew they would be well fed at ten o’clock break.  The time used to go very fast in there but if we were out in the cold picking Brussels it would seem forever.

The barn was always nice and clean, we all cleaned it up every day once we had finished.   We had a piece of wood and an old sack to stand on to keep our feet warm.  We all had something most times to keep our feet warm.  We all had something most times to talk about. Bert Bowyer was the lorry driver, so he would be full of jokes that he had heard in the market.  I won’t write them down.  He was always singing that song called ‘Try a little tenderness’ he was quite a nice chap, one of those who always took his time.

Later years when my mum was living with us, Bert was taken ill, he had to go into hospital for an operation, for at least two weeks they said.  Mr Lawrence asked Ern if he would be willing to help him out, so good old Ern said ‘Yes’.  We couldn’t have done it if mum hadn’t been living with us.  I went with Ern because we worked all day on the farm, back after tea to work in the barn, home at eight o’clock back to the farm at eight thirty to a full load of fruit to the market in London!  By the time we had unloaded and stacked all the empties to bring home it would be two o’clock in the morning before we got home.  This was every day or night I should say, even on a Sunday.  It was a nightmare, this went on or eight weeks until Bert was fit again.


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