An Account of Farm Life in Early 20th Century Wiltshire

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Notes by Denys Walter Swanton
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This interesting first-hand account of farm life in Wiltshire in the early twentieth century was kindly sent to me by Judy O'Halloran, Mr. Swanton's daughter, who lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

Notes by Denys Walter Swanton

My Grandfather, ROBERT THOMAS SWANTON, (1848-1925) was, like his forebears, a farmer. He never owned his land but like the vast majority of his contemporaries, he rented farms from the landowners. In his comparatively small way, he seems to have been quite successful and a photograph of him and half a dozen others – presumably all tenants of the same landlord – portrays a group of well-dressed, bearded gentlemen all looking pretty prosperous.

Grandpa’s activities were centered around such places as VOBSTER (where father was born), MELLS and LULLINGTON – all within a mile or two of the Somerset market town of FROME and close to the Wiltshire county boundary.

My father, LEONARD was his third child, coming after BLANCHE (LAWRENCE), and EDITH (BUSH). Brother FRANK came last. When the two boys finished their schooling it was evident they would have to leave the nest and fend for themselves as there was clearly no room or scope for them on Grandpa’s small rented farm.

Accordingly, LEONARD and FRANK went off taking sister BLANCHE as housekeeper and jointly rented SEVENHAMPTON farm near SWINDON. Before long FRANK decided to set off on his own and proved a very successful farmer remaining unmarried until he was 50 years of age. BLANCHE meantime married the son of a neighbouring farmer and my parents also married and continued to farm SEVENHAMPTON where NEIL and I were born. The landlord there (?Lord Banbury) proved to be a difficult, meddlesome individual and father decided not to renew his lease in about 1916 and moved the family to WEST STOWELL near PEWSEY where he rented some 500 acres and where ALAN and GUY were born.

It must have been at about this time that father acquired that splendid trap horse DUTCHMAN from my mother’s parents, who bred him on their farm near Swindon from a spirited mare named LADYSMITH, which dates the event as the South African township of that name was then much in the news. It was held by the British against the Boers from 2nd November, 1899 until it was relieved on 2nd February, 1900.

Dutchman was foaled about the time of my own birth and proved to be not only a splendid trap horse but a keen follower of the fox hounds. All four of us boys learned to ride on his back and he had absolutely no vices but a spanking trot when pulling the trap. He was our only means of transport in those days when cars were few and far between.

The trap itself was a light two wheeled conveyance entered through a small door at the rear by way of a stout metal step. Seats ran along each side so that we sat facing each other, three on each side. There was no protection against the weather except a waterproof blanket across the knees and a large umbrella always referred to as the GAMP (see “Martin Chuzzlewit” by Dickens). A tubular holder was fitted to take the Gamp on the outside of the trap when not in use. Two single candle lamps were also attached and threw a very weak light at night and an even weaker red beam to the rear.

DEVIZES was the local market town and father often liked to visit it especially if he had something to sell. All the corn he grew was sold by means of a sample shown to the various buyers’ representatives who maintained “desks” in the large corn exchange building next to the BEAR HOTEL.

An interesting feature at Devizes is the Market Cross which bears the following inscription:
"The Mayor and Corporation of Devizes avail themselves of the stability of this building to transmit to future times the record of an awful event which occurred in this market place in the year 1753 hoping that such record may serve as a salutary warning against the Danger of impiously invoking Devine Vengeance or of calling on the Holy Name of God to conceal the devices of falsehood and fraud.
On Thursday the twentyfifth day of January 1753 Ruth Pierce of Potterne in this County of Wiltshire agreed with three other women to buy a sack of wheat in the Market, each paying her due proportion towards the same. One of these women in collecting the several quotas of money discovered a deficiency in the total and demanded of Ruth Pierce the sum which was wanting to make good this amount. Ruth Pierce protested that she had paid her share and said she wished she might drop down dead if she had not. She rashly repeated this Awful wish when to the consternation and horror of the surrounding multitude she instantly fell down and expired having the money concealed in her hand." Thursday is still market day at Devizes.

On arrival at Devizes on a market day, we would drive straight to the yard at the rear of the Bear where an ostler would take charge of Dutchman, unharness him, give him a rub down and a few oats and then reverse the procedure when it was time for us to go home. In those days there were quite a few other customers arriving by horse transport as cars were still uncommon.

Whilst we were all living at West Stowell, the neighbouring farm of DRAYCOT FITZ PAYNE (to give it its proper name as shown on ordinance Survey maps) came on the market and father bought it with the help of a loan from the then newly established Agricultural Mortgage Corporation. For some time he ran the two farms of over 1000 acres but eventually we all moved up the road to Draycot and allowed the lease at West Stowell to lapse. This must have been around 1921 as Guy had been born at Stowell in November, 1920.

Horse power was still the main source of energy but tractors were becoming more common on farms. At that stage we had six large cart horses: JOLLY had suffered what father called Poll Evil which resulted in the fusion of upper vertebrae so that to graze he had to plant his front feet wide apart in order to get his muzzle down to the grass. He managed to keep fit and lived to a ripe old age. Next came BLACKBIRD, WHITEFOOT, VIOLET, BLOSSOM and CHAMPION. ERNEST COLES, the head carter always chose Blackbird and Whitefoot for ploughing as they were the same size, worked well together and understood his language. He could steer them by word of mouth. He himself must have followed them up and down over hundreds of miles in his time ploughing a single furrow. When the tractor arrived it moved much faster and pulled a 3 furrow plough. Violet and Blossom, both mares, were unexceptional but Champion was huge. He was not only by far the largest in the stable but he was also fast on his feet and just a trifle too energetic to appeal to his handlers as a result of which he was underused but a godsend when an extra heave was needed.

We boys became very familiar with the cart horses as we led them during work in the harvest fields. Late spring / early summer was the time for hay making and the storing of silage crops for winter feed.

Later in the year came the corn harvest. Before the advent of the combine harvesters, the crops of grain – wheat, oats and barley – were first mown and bundled by what we called reapers or binders. These machines, pulled by horses or tractor, cut the stalks of corn (straw) a few inches above ground level leaving just the stubble. The crop was then conveyed through the machine where it was tied in bundles (sheaves) and let fall on the ground. Men then had to follow and manually build pyramids (stooks or shocks) consisting of half a dozen sheaves; ears uppermost to ripen and thoroughly dry. Then these dry sheaves were loaded, again manually, onto horse drawn wagons and conveyed to a convenient spot where they were offloaded and built into corn ricks to await subsequent threshing at a convenient time.

Boys were employed leading the horse drawn wagons during these lengthy operations and became quite familiar with the idiosyncrasies of these generally gentle creatures.

Inevitably quite a lot of grain must have been lost during all this handling and father was impressed by the grain yields after the advent of the combine harvester which performed very efficiently.

During these operations in the harvest field which continued flat out whilst warm dry weather persisted, it was the normal practice to knock off work for a mid day picnic lunch. The workmen would sit on one side of the rick and our family on the other. Lunch consisted for the men largely of half a loaf of bread, a hunk of cheese and perhaps a raw onion, all washed down with a bottle of cold tea. It was not wise to attempt conversation with the workmen during this brief interlude. If you did speak to ERNEST COLES and required a reply, he did not pause but in all probability shoved a slab of bread in his mouth and helped it on its way with the blunt end of his pocket knife which he used to cut his lunch, disembowel a rabbit or any other performance.

On the lighter equine side, sharing Dutchman’s nag stable was FLOSSIE, the milk cart horse and two or three ponies. Flossie was ticklish and didn’t like pushing backwards when the cart was being parked under cover at the end of the day. Perhaps the friction of the breeching harness on her rump disturbed her! One had to watch her teeth during this operation. Her main duties were to take the milk every evening of the year to the railway station at PEWSEY. The milk itself had been cooled and passed into churns supplied by the London firm of United Dairies. Originally these vessels were of 17 gallon capacity but this was too heavy for one man to handle so a smaller 10 gallon variety appeared. The circular lids were marked with the supplier’s name eg SWANTON, PEWSEY and the man who took Flossie to Pewsey each evening placed the full churns in a railway wagon on a siding at the station and collected any empties bearing father’s name for the following days use. His name was GODDARD and he had served in the Royal Artillery in WWI as a driver when the guns were towed by horses. He worked all the hours imaginable as he was a milker starting very early and when the others went home he had to undertake this return trip 7 evenings per week to Pewsey. I don’t think he often saw his wife in daylight.

I haven’t mentioned HISCOCK perhaps the most important worker. He took charge of the first tractor we owned and although he was very largely self taught he managed to keep it and its successors running most of the time and was called on to do all kinds of jobs. Those tractors were not only for pulling things; they were also used as stationary power unit driving such things as threshing machines, circular saws, elevators, etc, by means of belts running from their flywheels.

The farmhouse at Draycot had no power in those days but had its own lighting system based on carbide and a small gasometer in the garden. This arrangement was not very satisfactory and after the supply of gas had failed on a few wet winter evenings calling on father to go out and replenish the exhausted carbide with fresh material, he gave it up and we returned to kerosene lamps and candles. It was to be quite a long time before main electricity reached Draycot.

For heating and cooking we very largely relied on firewood. Every winter saw many branches brought down by wind or snow from the numerous elm trees on the farm. These were hauled into the yard and cut up by circular saw powered by the tractor and the resulting logs stored near the back door in the wood shed which was the size of a large room. There was always a chopping block and an axe handy to split any logs too large for the fire place or the cooking range in the kitchen.

The kitchen was a large flagstoned room and the AGA range which consisted of hotplates and a couple of ovens stretched across almost the whole width at one end of the room. This was the domain of NORAH the simple daughter of FISHLOCK the cowman who married his own first cousin. She was all the domestic help mother could find and I doubt if Norah got much more than a couple of good meals a day as a reward.

I have mentioned Hiscock, the tractor man, Fishlock, the cowman, Ernest Coles, the carter, Goddard, the milker and his ticklish friend Flossie. There was also BILL COLES tall young brother of Ernest, their father old Coles with a full white beard who was an old man from my first recollection of Draycot and worked on till he dropped at an advanced age. There was also ALBERT MITCHEL the one armed man who married ETHEL a one time domestic help to mother. Ethel was one of the daughters of a man named BROUGHTON who earlier on had been foreman to mother’s parents when they farmed near Swindon. Broughton himself had come to the rescue when my maternal grandfather died prematurely and through his efforts Grandma Wiseman was able to continue running the farm until she herself suffered a stroke.

All these workers lived rent free in 8 cottages owned as part of Draycot Farm. Four of them, including the one in which Mary and I lived for some weeks in 1970 whilst house hunting on my retirement, were just across the paddock at the rear of Draycot farm house. The other four were in the nearby village of Wilcot where stood the church in which we were married and where we regularly attended as children. Father was for many years church warden there and Neil and his wife, Sue, lie buried in the cemetery.

Speaking of Sundays, I should perhaps add that they were respected as holidays and whilst cows had to be milked twice a day even on Sundays, the horses were always given a day of rest.

Ernest called his 6 great charges the “HARSES”. None of the workers every donned ties or collars. The normal garb was a collarless shirt. On Sundays he put on a clean shirt and usually a waistcoat. Then after midday dinner he would walk over to the field where his “harses” were grazing and make sure they were all fit and well. On one occasion when I was not present, one horse slipped through the fence around a muddy swamp – it did not deserve the title of pond – and became completely bogged down. The more he struggled, the deeper he sank into the slime. According to father’s version, they managed to get a chain or a rope over the horse’s head and then all gently heaved to no effect. Eventually they harnessed another horse and attached it to the rope and gave it the gee up. Father records an expectant audience awaiting the sound of the poor creatures head parting from its body! But no, by degrees it was slowly and successfully heaved out of that bog by brute force and survived.

Hiscock on Sundays did a newspaper round finishing up always at the pub in OARE. He invariably left two papers at Draycot without any cost to father.

When father finally retired, Neil took over the farm. He had always been the most likely to do so. Alan had tried it for a short time, but whilst there he met an RAF officer living in Wilcot and flying from UPAVON, who told him that if he really fancied flying the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy was the place to be and so it proved.

Neil had been to Bristol University and gained his BSc degree. He also did a stint of some kind at Reading University where agriculture was figuring strongly. During the war years of 1939/45, he was employed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries on food production activities designed to thwart Hitler’s plans to starve us all into submission in the UK.

Strangely, all four of us joined the Officer Training Corps (OTC) at school and Neil was the only one of us to show any intelligent interest, gaining his Certificate A. As events turned out he was the only one not to serve in the armed forces during the war.

Towards the end of 1971, when Neil was nearing retirement age and after father had made over Draycot to the four of us in equal shares, Neil was approached by SIR PHILIP DUNN, who showed a keen interest in purchasing the farm. Sir Philip was a businessman and land owner living close by and was described as the first son of a wealthy Canadian financier and steel magnate and whose elder daughter subsequently married the 4th Baron Rothschild, whose estimated personal fortune was placed at UK463 million pounds – what a wise girl!!

The date of construction of the farmhouse at Draycot is not known but I recall a keystone over the doors of what we called the garage has the year 1710(?) inscribed on it. In a field at the back of the house Neil and Sue built (NEWMEAD) lie the remains of a Roman building, the foundations of which were plotted by archaeologists whilst we were living in the UK in the 1970’s. I believe they did this by means of steel probes rather than deep excavation.

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