Eric speaks to WISEArchive about the time he bunked off school to earn a few pence on the land in the good old days, and slowly progressing from being the young one on the farm to driving a tractor. Opportunity struck which allowed him to follow his desire to drive a lorry before new regulations entered, like M.O.T.s and tachographs.
Boy and man on the farm
I was born at Edingthorpe near North Walsham, and lived there till I was about five. We moved to Coltishall where I started school and I was there till I was ten years old. We then moved to Trimingham and lived there till we were 43. I finished school in July and spent about three weeks on the farm. In those days the fathers worked on the farm and the sons were expected to as well. So after about 11 or 12 there were always odd jobs you could do, which wouldn’t be allowed today for health and safety reasons. It rather amazes me where all this health and safety has come from given how few accidents there were.
By the time we were 12 I could handle a horse, harness it and take one about three miles to the blacksmiths on a Saturday morning, which I got half a crown. In those days the idea was if you were big enough you were strong enough to work like a man, although you didn’t get a man’s pay until you were 21. And I was fairly tall and well built. Some of my first jobs would be horse raking at harvest time. I helped on my grandfather’s farm taking horses for the change over on the binder, because they could only do two hours because of such heavy work, and then take the others back and unharness them and feed them.
I worked on the same farm as my father. You didn’t really have a choice if he lived in the tied house. The farmer would have a job for you if you wanted. You couldn’t choose your career or anything like that. I started work while still at school. We cut corn and tie in sheaves with the binder. In the winter we’d go on Saturday mornings, have a horse and tumbrel, and cut sugar beet tops or mangels to feed the stock. That’s how it went on till I left school and that was that full time.
We used to bunk off school sometimes to help on the farm. I remember one farmer on the estate, not the one my father worked for. His beet drill kept blocking up, so he wanted me to go with him the next day so he could drive the horse in the drill, and I could watch all the cups and make sure they were going round and the seed was going out. I thought a few pence was better than going to school, so I went. I always remember the night we finished. He gave me what he thought was a fair do, and he said, “Ay, here y’are boy. You learnt more today than you’d ever have done in school.” That was the attitude at the time. He gave me about two shillings or something for walking up and down a field all day!
The main crops I was involved with were wheat, barley, oats, sugar beet, and all foodstuffs for the cattle, because a lot of the land was taken up to feed the horses. We used to dread oats and peas. It was an awful job to handle. Peas climb and they climbed up the oats and pulled them down. When they were brought down they were just like rope – all mixed in together. Why they didn’t grow the oats and the peas separately and then mix them when they wanted to grind them, I don’t know.
We worked in all weathers. We were right on the cliff edge at Trimingham, so you could imagine what that would be like in wet weather. You’d have an old sack round you and pull some mangels on a piece of land. The next morning there’d been a cliff fall and see some mangels right across the beach!
I left school a week or so after I turned 14 on the 19th July, on the Friday night and started work on the Saturday morning. Worked ever since, right till I retired! I think we had about three or four days for holiday. Among farm workers they didn’t start until about 1938. It was just constant work. At harvest time you’d be out 12 hours a day, probably a bit more.
The boss was all right. We got on all right in that respect. The farm was about 300 acres including arable land, water meadows and suchlike. We had cows and fat stock. They would be running wild all summer, on pastures, and then come in winter time to be fattened up ready for market. We didn’t have sheep. There were a few hens, but not many.
You were given more responsibility on the farm after you’d worked a couple of years or so. Another young lad would come along and you’d be expected to teach him. You made sure he didn’t do anything stupid or silly or get injured or anything. You’d advise the way to use a pitchfork or how to swing a hook, for example. It may sound a bit silly but you can do some dangerous things with a pitchfork. All things which are way in the past now, for good or bad. I’m not sure which.
I got into tractor driving when I was about 16 – learnt to plough. It had to be to a good standard because the farmer I was working for at that time had things done properly. I didn’t know another farm like it really. That put me in good stead for when I moved about on other farms. When I got married I left there and took a tractor driver’s job and foreman. That was a big change in one way because I’d gone from lovely soil that you could do anything with, at any time of the year, to a lot of heavy clay.
The difficulty wasn’t ploughing straight but to get it to turn over properly. I’d never experienced this but I remember the first time I went to plough. I was ploughing along, it turned the furrow over, and then it was falling back in behind me. All you could see was a mark where the disk had been to cut it. And I’d never been used to that, so that meant setting the plough up in a totally different way, and you couldn’t do neat ploughing or anything that I’d been used to. This was at Susted where I was in charge of four, and five men at times. We grew some soft fruit, where women were picking and weeding and all such like that, but I wasn’t involved in that bit of it. While I was driving the tractor there’d be another lad carting the food for the cattle, harrowing, and things like that.
I had this chance to go to Wall Engineering. I had an interview with the foreman and we spoke about money and suchlike and I found I was going to be about 18 pence better off, which in those days was big money. I went there to learn structural engineering, like cutting plates and drilling. But I’d always wanted to be a lorry driver and I got one or two chances to go out with small loads. In those days if you had a car licence you could drive, and that was it. Nobody went with you – you just found your way as you went along. I did this once or twice, and I got to like the job. I suppose they found I was reliable as I could get up early in the morning. Sometimes you had to make quite an early start to be on site when the erectors were. It carried on for 22½ years.
To start with, that would be farm buildings like Dutch barns. They’d make all the steelwork, take it to the site, erect it, and then builders and others would finish off and do all the auxiliary works. So I was transporting the steel and so on for the Dutch barns. As time went on, the buildings got bigger, longer, portal trusses came in, in two parts; some of them would be up to 40, 50 feet long. They’d be loaded by crane in the yard, and you’d have to meet a mobile crane on site, and they would unload you. You’d have some really obscure loads, and I sometimes wonder now how I got around with them, with how the roads were then to what they are now.
I did some crane driving later when the company got their own crane, but not a huge amount of it. We’d often take the steel out to a building before the erectors were ready to start, so it meant taking a set of drawings and laying the building out where the parts were wanted, so they were in the right order. Woe betide you if you got one wrong! It was all interesting work and you think afterwards I got something to show for it. I can go about this town now and there are several big buildings in this town where I took all the steelwork: one biggish supermarket, the telephone exchange, the Post Office and others. Of course, you don’t see much of the steelwork when they’re up and finished. Undoubtedly there was job satisfaction.
When you go back down there, you can see there are some big sycamore trees in front of it. Woe betide us if we’d have broke a branch off when we were lifting it over. We had strict instructions about that!
I drove an artic – articulated lorry – a Leyland Road Train. For a long while we had three ton Bedfords. When we got the artic we went straight out with no previous experience on the same licence. When they brought the HGV goods licence in everyone had to pass the test, but those of us of a certain age who could prove we’d done it for a certain amount of time were granted grandfather rights. And that was how the world revolved.
The first one we had was an old Austin, and I remember coming back to Norwich one day and I see some men down in a lay-by a fair way ahead with white coats, and I thought, ‘Right, they’re checking…’ That was when they were beginning to bring in MOT restrictions and suchlike to make sure lorries were in good condition. I did a quick turn off. It was quite a long way back to return to North Walsham without going past them. I went in the office to see the guv’nor and explained it to him. He said, ‘keep your eye out. If you see them I don’t mind if you go thirty miles round, but miss them.’ That set into motion getting a better lorry, though not a new lorry.
The company did everything it should but hardly anybody had vehicles up to the MOT standard. I remember one chap came to pick up a lorry – an artic trailer – that had been loaded for him to take to Wales. When he backed onto the turntable it shook the whole unit, and the spring hangers were hanging on about one rivet in the chassis. I thought it was being held on by sheer weight once that was on. The unit wasn’t roadworthy, but that was how things were then. Going back, you didn’t have that number of accidents. Strange thing, isn’t it?
To start with we delivered in Norfolk, but then we got England, Wales, Scotland, anywhere. The furthest north I went was Renfrew Airport, Glasgow. We did quite a few down in Wales. We did a lot of work in Kent when the Bacton gas site was being built. There was a firm from Kent bringing steel buildings to Bacton and we’d be taking steel buildings from North Walsham down to Kent. I used to meet them on the road.
We had all sorts of problems like tight corners where you couldn’t turn. Worst problem was driving to somewhere where you couldn’t reverse out which happened a few times. I remember taking something to somebody very rich down at Mill Hill in London. He had a swimming pool built, or was in the process of building one, and were having a steel building built over it. He insisted that there’s no way you could drive an artic in there, turn round and come out. The land was all landscaped and suchlike. Perfectly good road going in, but there was no way to come out, so we said that’s all got to be unloaded on the road and pushed in on bogies. When I got there with a load, about 20 something tons, he was going out which was fortunate.
The erector’s foreman said, ‘We can’t do this, push all that in there. That’s going to take no end of time, and that’s going to be hard work, and some of it we won’t be able to do it anyhow because the roadway isn’t hard enough.’ So we went round and there stood the crane. I could drive onto the crane, unload the trailer, unhitch it so it can be lifted and swung round out of the way. I’ll back the unit out onto the road and back in again. We turn the trailer round while it’s lifted from the ground and we’re away. We didn’t do any damage at all, but as I was driving back out onto the main road, the owner came back again. To see the look on his face as I was driving out was a picture! It was one of those things that always stay in your mind.
We used tachographs towards the end. I found them difficult but there were ways of getting round it. Up to then we had log books where you were supposed to log everything we did, but the old saying was you keep one at the front on the dashboard and one behind the seat and change them over!
When the recession set in they were laying off people, and doing drastic changes. The lorry had to go and they used outside contractors. I wouldn’t stay and go back to being a labourer because I had been on a good rate of pay which they wanted to cut drastically. So I went down to General Haulage which had a completely different set up.
I’d seen people with tipper lorries – he doesn’t have to wait for a crane, or be there at a certain time, he can just open the back and let it go and that’s finished and done with. But I found it didn’t work exactly like that. Some loads would stick to the tipper, and you’d have an awful job to get them off. They just wouldn’t slide; they would stick to the floor.
Sand would run off dead easy. We used to cart a lot of sugar beet pulp nuts and they set solid like a cake, because they were warm when they put them on. Then they would douse them with a white powder – some said it was talcum powder – but I don’t know if it was. Then the salmonella came in, and they stopped doing this and various other things. Up till then we used to put some diesel on the floor or something like that. Of course, all that was banned. They’d check your trailer before they loaded to make sure it was clean and dry. This gave us all these problems of getting rid of it.
If the load stuck you’d get on there and break so much of it up, tip it and then repeat. We’d use anything you could get your hands on like a spade. But the other downside I found was there was no job satisfaction. Once you’d tipped a load that was gone and finished, you had nothing to show for it after what I had been used to.
Most of these loads were going between farms and the Cantley sugar beet processing plant. The pulp nuts used to run us into long distance because a lot of that used to go down to Somerset, on the Somerset Levels, to be used as cattle feed. Then we’d bring back granite and stone back from Cheddar Gorge.
I think I worked at General Haulage for just over ten years to about 1992 or 1993. I was getting a bit old for the game so I was looking for something else, and a job came along in town. I wanted to leave because I was pretty sure I could pick up enough odd jobs just to keep me going the last two or three years of working life. The job here was in North Walsham, so I could leave and not worry about unemployment pay or anything like that. And although things and working conditions hadn’t been that brilliant for quite a few months before I finished this other job, I was surprised the night I finished he said, ‘You know, if it don’t work out for you, you can come back. There’s a job here until you retire.’ It rather shook me after some of the problems I’d had. Anyhow, I didn’t have to go back, so I carried on until I was 65.
At Wall Engineering, right at the early time, they got up to about 70 working in the works. There’d always be some who were game for a laugh. We had a lot of 8 foot by 4 steel plates stood about for different jobs. There was one chap there who could not resist and he’d chalk something on one of them. It could be drawings or cartoons, and anyone would be the butt of one of the jokes, you just had to take it. When all the redundancies were coming, someone started a book on one of the sheets, who was going first, who was going to be last, and that stood there. Boy, he was way, way out!
Eric (b. 1929) talking to WISEArchive on 2nd February 2011 in North Walsham
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