From blacksmith to college lecturer. Working with agricultural machinery 1954-2000s)

Location : Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, East Anglia,

Peter did an apprenticeship at an agricultural and general engineers. He worked for a large manufacturer of agricultural machinery, travelling throughout the UK, Ireland and Europe. Following redundancy he became a college lecturer in agricultural machinery at Hampden Hall in Buckinghamshire. He finished his working life at Easton College in Norfolk.

Part time work, an apprenticeship, and college

I started full-time work at 15 years old. I can tell you exactly how much I was paid: 22 shillings a week. When I was at school I had a paper round. Then in the evening and on a Saturday morning I used to work at the bake-house, clearing up all the mess. I think I earned something like 30 shillings a week doing that, and 22 shillings a week when I went to work. I earned more when I was at school than I did when I left!

I had to cycle seven miles from my home to my workplace. I needed to be at work at seven o’clock in the morning. Sometimes I didn’t finish until seven at night. Then I had to cycle back home again. For the first year it was fairly hard as I was cycling in all sorts of weathers.

Unfortunately at the end of the first year the owner died and the business collapsed. There was a farmer who was a customer of ours. He asked me to go and be a farm mechanic, and to help generally about the place. I did that until he sold the farm and moved to Devon. His father owned a chair-making factory in Watford. They used to make seats for aeroplanes. But he was not into that business, he was just a farmer. He wanted me to go down to Devon with him. I didn’t really want to, so I declined the offer. I was 16 and a half, 17. I didn’t really fancy moving down to Devon and looking after myself.

So I got an apprenticeship for five years at an agricultural and general engineers. I went to college in the evenings, got my indentures and passed some exams. They did me no good whatsoever. People just wanted experience, not qualifications.

Horses, oxen, and a very strong blacksmith

In my first year, this was in 1956, I started to learn about being an agricultural engineer and blacksmith. We split our time between the machinery workshop and the blacksmith’s forge. I didn’t mind some of the horses, but some of them I disliked intensely! It put me off being a farrier.

We went to a stud at Pinner. They kept Arab horses. The oldest stallion was a fairly gentle old chap, but one of his offspring was a real mean little perisher. When we got there he had actually kicked out the side of his loose box. I declined to go anywhere near him.

The cart horses were the gentle ones. They only caused trouble when you got in alongside them to push them out of their loose box. If they leant on you they sort of knocked the wind out of you a bit! But they were lovely horses. We had several farmers round and about who still kept shire horses. We used to shoe them regularly.

Almost opposite the blacksmiths and agricultural engineers was a girls’ school. The school had four or six oxen, and they had to be thrown on their sides to be shod. They wouldn’t lift their legs up like a horse does.

The under-blacksmith there was about six foot six, and twice as broad. He would grab hold of the oxen’s horns and twist their necks until they fell over! I’d never seen anybody as strong. He could pick up a 14-pound sledge hammer and hold it out on the end of its handle for about ten minutes. A 14-pound sledge hammer is fairly hefty, even without being on the end of a three and a half-foot handle. He was immensely strong.

The agricultural machinery manufacturer; travelling abroad

After a number of years I had the opportunity to go and work for a big agricultural machinery manufacturer. It was a totally different world. We made all sorts of agricultural machinery. We had a factory where we made balers and muck-spreaders and mowers. We brought in combines from America. After a few years they were made in Belgium. We had a factory in Belgium, and one at Dijon in France. They used to make balers, but they weren’t very good. Ours were the best balers where I was.

I did quite a lot of travelling abroad. I used to go to Belgium a lot, and to France. Occasionally I went into Holland, Germany and Italy. I wasn’t mending machines. It was more of a teaching position. Occasionally we’d take a brand-new machine across, especially to somewhere like France or down to Italy, where they grew different crops to what we grow in England. Then the machine would be tested on farms down there. For instance, one of the combines went to Italy, where, strangely enough, they grow rice. The combine was adapted to working rice fields, paddy fields.

Here we use the forage harvester to cut maize. In France, one of the combines was adapted to cut maize instead. It wasn’t that successful. I think they went back to forage harvesters. The combines were originally made in America. Then machinery and everything was transferred to the plant in Belgium and they made the combines there.

Round balers

We’d not long had a piece of machinery called a round baler. They had come from the States. They only made one-ton bales, which were very difficult to lift and to manoeuvre. There wasn’t the specialised equipment then. We made the conventional round balers in Aylesbury.

We came up with the idea of making a smaller one, a half-ton baler. It worked very well. One of the best was one of the fastest small balers that’s ever been produced. Even today I can still listen out the back here and I can say to my wife, ‘I know exactly what baler that is, what model it is.’ I can tell by the number of strokes it’s doing how many bales it’s making.

They used to make silage bales, which were round and wrapped in plastic bags. They still make them. They were much easier to move. But the object of the round baler, really, was not to make silage but to make straw bales.

Modifying a round baler: ‘a great success’

Straw is a big problem. If it’s very brittle it doesn’t hang together. It tends to break up so you can’t consolidate it. It was a very difficult job to try and make the baler start the bale off, to actually make the bale dense enough. They have the same trouble on the continent. We’d adapted the baler to do the job. We came up with various modifications to improve the core of the bale. We sent the modifications over to our colleagues on the continent and they modified the balers over there.

1976 was a very hot year, and a very dry year. It was very difficult to make bales with barley straw. The trouble was the barley straw had never grown really tall. It was quite short, and after a week or two in the field it got very brittle.

There was a farmer in a place down in Wiltshire, I think it was, or Gloucester, one of the two. He had bought one of the new balers and tried it. He couldn’t make it bale. He was bitterly upset about it. The local dealer couldn’t do anything with it. He’d actually left it in his yard. He didn’t want it. He wanted us to take it back. I went down there and took this modification with me. I saw the farmer.

The farmer said, ‘I’m not interested. You can take it away. We’re still using the old one, that’s doing the job.’

I said, ‘Well, look, I’ve come all this way, can I actually give it a try?’

‘Do what you like,’ he said. ‘There’s a tractor over there. I’ll show you when you’ve done. Down the road.’

I put the modifications on the new baler and hitched it up to the tractor. I followed him down the road to where the old baler was still working, plodding round the field very slowly. The chap on the tractor said he was just going to have his sandwich. It was about one o’clock.

I said, ‘You don’t mind if I give it a go, then.’

‘Do what you like,’ he said. ‘But that’s still going back.’

I put my tractor into gear, with the new, modified baler attached, and off I went. In an hour I’d done over 700 bales. They’d never seen anything like it in their lives. Every one perfect. And at the end of it the farmer said, ‘I think you’ve proved that’s a b… good baler.’

I said, ‘I knew it was a good baler, it is just that this straw is a problem. You can leave the modification on it. That will still do the job for the other ones. You just have to let the tension off a bit.’

He said, ‘I think we might give it a try then.’

So that was a great success.

Forage harvesters: another successful modification

A forage harvester is a piece of kit that cuts grass very short to make silage. The machines are designed to drag the grass into the cutter head. The cutting mechanism consists of anything from three to up to a dozen very sharp knives. They revolve at very high speed.

Forage harvesters did a good job. The only trouble was that on some occasions, particularly where you’d got a farm that was close to a town, all sorts of rubbish was thrown into the field. Even quite thick metal pieces. The forage harvesters were so powerful they would chop this rubbish up. Then, of course it went into the silage bale.

We had one farmer who’d got a dairy herd. He’d lost seven of his cows because of wire that was chopped up in these bales. It had perforated their stomachs and had killed them. He’s lost seven cows. We came up with a metal detector which actually stopped the cutter head as soon as metal got anywhere near it. It was brilliant.

I went to one farm where the operator had got two buckets up on the driving platform. They were full of wire and all sorts of old bits of bicycle that had been chucked in the fields. He said, ‘I have to stop every five or ten feet, but look what I have collected.’

The metal detector was a very good thing to do. I was so pleased

Demonstrating farm machinery: police escort necessary!

We used to do demonstrations, too. When we got a new machine, we used to take examples all over the country. With the forage harvesters, we used to start in somewhere like Somerset and then gradually work up the country. They were quite good events. The forage harvesters usually went on trailers.

At one time we had the biggest combine in the world. It came over from America. We were demonstrating it. We started off in Wiltshire. Then we went up into Gloucester. I always remember that we had a cavalcade coming through the centre of Gloucester with this combine.

We had a police car at the front and a police car at the back. We had the combine, a land-rover with the trailer behind it, and another car with a caravan which we used as a sort of an office and base. Then there was a van with all the spares in, all through the middle of Gloucester. I don’t think people were very pleased about that!

We used to do the shows as well: the Royal Show, the Royal Highland Show and the Smithfield Show. We couldn’t actually drive the combine into London, not on the trailer. We had to take it off the trailer at the end of what was the Western Avenue and then drive it to Earls Court. We did have a police escort though, front and back! That was good fun, that was. And it was quite exciting, too.

The only problem was that I was away a lot, for two, maybe three weeks at a time. I often missed my children’s birthdays. I don’t think I saw my daughter’s birthday until she was about twelve years old.

Promotional work: farmers’ evenings

We used to do a lot of promotional work as well, like farmers’ evenings.

We’d go out round the country. The local dealers would get the farmers to gather in the village hall or the local pub. We’d give them a talk and a bit of a slideshow on all the new machines. We’d answer questions about the machines that they’d got. That was quite interesting.

Sometimes they could be a bit lively, particularly where some of the farmers had got a machine that hadn’t gone right, and the local dealer didn’t fix it properly. It usually ended up with a visit from us the next day to try and fix his machine for him. It was good public relations.

It was a good life in some ways. It wasn’t very well paid, I must admit.

‘Agricultural machinery is very very dangerous’

A forage harvester is a particularly dangerous piece of equipment. Unless you stop the cutting mechanism from revolving it’s still revolving when you try to unblock it.

We had several people losing fingers and half a hand. One chap foolishly enough put his arm there and got it dragged in. And that was the end of that. He actually lost his arm in a forage harvester.

The dangers of a round baler

We had a call from a farmer down in Hampshire, I think it was. He wanted us to see what we could do with his baler to make it bale barley straw. When I got to the field I could hear the baler still going, but it was stationary in the field. I thought, ‘That’s strange.’

I drove into the field, pulled up alongside the baler and looked for the operator. The chains were still actually going inside the baler, although the tailgate was open. I couldn’t see the operator anywhere. I jumped out of the car, and he was in the back of this baler.

Immediately I jumped on the tractor and killed the engine dead. When he got out of the baler, he asked me what I was doing. I told him in no uncertain terms, while his boss was there, exactly what I thought of him. He could have been killed.

A few weeks beforehand, a chap had actually been killed in one. He’d done exactly the same thing. The tailgate had closed and trapped him inside with the baler still going. He was in there for about four hours until the tractor ran out of fuel. The people back at the farm wondered where he was. When they got to the baler, there he was, mangled up in the back of the baler. There were several cases like that.

Meeting a combine in the road

We used to travel all over the British Isles. Some of the things that we encountered on the way were humorous, and some of them were downright dangerous. One of my colleagues was over in Ireland. He was driving down this road in southern Ireland, and there was a combine coming down towards him. The driver of the combine was frantically on the steering wheel turning it to the right, as if he was going to crash into my colleague in his car.

Without any second thoughts my colleague put the car in the ditch and this combine carried on straight past. After a bit they managed to get the car out of the ditch. My colleague was so irate he turned round and followed this combine until it went into the field. He was going to have a go at the driver. He said to him, ‘You were steering at me.’

And the driver said, ‘Oh no, the steering went wrong on the combine. I took this one off the lorry. The steering is at the back and on the lorry it’s at the front, so you have to turn the wheel in the opposite direction. So when I turn it right, I am going left and when I turn it left, I’m going right.’

So that was quite humorous, but I don’t think I should have wanted to have met him on the road!

Redundancy

The factory I worked at was owned by an American company. We were the only plant in Europe that actually made a profit. For some reason best known to themselves they closed us down.

We all went into work one morning and were told to meet in the spare parts department, which was a vast building. There were seven hundred chaps that worked there. We all assembled in the parts department. This Yank came in. He stood on a box and he just said, ‘You’re all sacked.’ Then he turned and walked out.

Imagine the uproar that there was. I mean some people had worked there thirty-odd years and they were just chucked on the scrapheap. Really good engineers. That’s before they had unions that really fought for them.

In some ways I was very lucky. The department I worked in, they needed to keep the service side of it going, to keep what customers we’d got. So I was kept on for another year or eighteen months after all the others had gone. But it was a desolate place. When we went in there in the mornings there was no more factory work, no more trucks in and out. It was very sad.

Teaching

When I finished there, I was lucky enough to get a job at the local agricultural college. It was at Hampden Hall in Buckinghamshire, near Aylesbury. They were looking for lecturers in agricultural machinery. I had done some teaching. We used to do machinery courses during the winter for our dealers’ people back at the farm. But I’d never been in teaching as such before.

I applied, and I got the job as a college lecturer! It was because of the experience I had had with agricultural machinery. I couldn’t believe the sort of money I was paid. It was absolutely amazing. And seven weeks holiday in the summer and another four weeks, I think it was, at Christmas. I couldn’t believe it. And you still got paid for the holidays.

It was a totally different world. I must admit it was very hard at first. It was totally different teaching 15- and 16-year-olds to teaching grown men. Some of the little angels that came I could have got quite cross with. In fact on one or two occasions I did. I fell short of actually striking anybody, but I did get to learn their pedigree on several occasions.

Some of these children were a total waste of space. They were only there because their parents were well off. They could afford to get them out of their hair. ‘We’ll send you to agricultural college. Don’t bother to learn anything while you’re there, and just disrupt everybody else who is learning.’ A terrible shame, total waste of people they are.

Closing down Hampden Hall, and a final job in Norfolk

Hampden Hall was part of Aylesbury College, for some reason that I could never make out. Aylesbury College ran into huge financial troubles. We never did, at Hampden Hall. For some reason their debt was transferred to us. They actually closed the college down, which was a shame. It was the only agricultural college in the area. The nearest one then was in Berkshire. A lot of their equipment went over to Berkshire, which I thought was a shame, too.

I’d worked there for about nine years, I think it was. I was just over 50. I thought, ‘Well, it’s time for a change of life.’

I’d done quite a bit of work in East Anglia, so my wife and I decided to move up here. I got a job at Easton College. I worked there part-time for several years until such time as I deemed it time to retire. That’s how it sort of ended up.

Peter (b. 1939) talking to WISEArchive in Holt on 10th October 2013.

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