Bill lived and worked on the marshes in Norfolk all his life. He talks about all the jobs involved and the changes that took place during that time.
I was born in Reedham in 1927 and started school at Burgh St Peter when I was about four or five, as my father worked on the river. We lived in the public house which mother and father ran. It was quite successful; we were only there for about five or six years then we came back to Reedham.
Father took a job with the East Norfolk Rivers Catchment Board, he was in charge of the board and we moved to Haddiscoe and I went to school in Lowestoft. I took the train, which didn’t take long as we lived right alongside the station. Before I went to school there we lived on a wherry for a couple of years, it was moored at Cantley and was quite cosy.
At the outbreak of war my sister and I were evacuated to Barnham Broom. We were able to see family, mother used to come over from Haddiscoe, on a Saturday. My father died and I was left at home with my sister Joyce, my mother was still in Cantley.
I had two older two sisters, one was married and worked in London. My other sister Edna worked in Norwich through the war, and then got married. My brother was at sea on the barges.
I left school in Barnham Broom when I was fourteen and started working, looking after the cattle; you would start work at about six in the morning, milking, we had a cowman helping and then we used to do the milk round.
I carried on doing this until just before I got married. I had been working on the marshes in Cantley for a time and then after I got married and Peter came along I got offered a job by another marshman at Berney Arms, so we grabbed it.
There was some 400 acres and you worked alone, you had your own area and you were really in charge of yourself, the main things we did were doing the dykes and drains in the wintertime and tending the cattle in the summer.
You would get up in the morning and decided where you needed to be, first thing, the dykes, you would do the middle dyke first and all the little dykes afterwards.
You would walk a fair distance, as you couldn’t drive or ride a bike.
Living on the marshes
I lived on the marshes, there were four houses for marshmen, it was addressed as Berney Arms, but they were on the old roadway, before the A47 was put in. You came from Halvergate towards what we called lock Gate Mill.
The four marshmen were Freddy Mutton at Manor House, Carter on Sutton’s level, another Carter further down, then myself and the other side of the fleet was another marshman.
The house was nice, it’s still there today. Strangely enough I was in the doctor’s recently and there was a lady there too who lived in the house where we were living, so it’s a small world isn’t it?
We had no electricity, we used candles and oil lamps, we did get a generator eventually, and for heating we had a Rayburn.
We drank rain water right up until Sue was born and then the nurse said that we had to have drinking water, fresh water.
We used to go shopping in Yarmouth once a week and we had two milk churns which we used to get filled with water and cart them back from Yarmouth station. We managed to scrounge enough to get a motor, but before that my father in law used to meet us on the new road and we would walk the mile and a half across the marshes.
We used the water sparingly, but could still wash using the rain water.
We used to get our post delivered by the marshman at Berney Arms, Mr Hewitt. He used to walk round all year, even winter time and after he had done his cattle he would walk across and put the letters through the door. The paper man would deliver the paper to Berney station too.
The children had to get to school, in the first house at Berney Arms, Peter used to walk a mile and a half to the new road, and the bus used to pick him up. He did this twice and then he was late, something happened with the bus driver and he dropped the poor little fella off, and he’s walked all the first marsh, all the railway line and was heading for home when I came across, he was only five and hadn’t been to school above a week, he was very young, but he got home in the end.
We got to borrow a horse for the winter months. He asked me what I was going to do, about getting around in the winter time. It came from Yarmouth and spent the winter time with me, and then in the summer time it went back to the front at Yarmouth, running on the front taking customers up and down, not a bad life for a horse.
I do think that the snow and ice were the worst, one time when we lived at the first house, we couldn’t get out, I managed to get Bunns from Yarmouth to bring a lorry right that way from the A47, right across to the house; that was so hard, they brought food and everything for us.
Times were quite hard with the children holiday-wise, but we used to go down to Breydon Water, when it’s low tide, there is a sand bank there, so it was more or less like a beach.
Working on the marshes
The day would start at about 8 o’clock and if I was clearing the dyke I would take a scythe, a meg and a shore cutter. A meg is a long pole with a scythe on the end and a short cutter is another type of scythe, only bent. You got used to carrying them.
The scythe would need sharpening about every hour and a half, I used a rub, a rubbing stone, you’d carry it around with you. I never wore gloves, or had any accidents, and I’ve still got all me fingers.
These were the three main implements we used, nothing mechanical, until later when they brought some drain cutters, you know, that you put behind the tractor and you drove along like a little plough. I used them for a time, but later we weren’t allowed to do the drains on account of them wanting the water level high.
There were a lot of marshmen, I counted up the other night, you would go from Reedham to Yarmouth and there were two at Reedham, and then you came to Carter, that’s three, Yoiton Hewitt was four, and he had another man with him, that’s five. There was Freddy Mutton, six, Lenny Carter, seven, Henry Everson, eight, myself nine. Three Hewitts on the A47 on the other side of the river Bure and Gordon Anderson, so there were nine or ten of us at least.
By the time I retired there was only one still working, the one who is there now. Most of them, gone, retired and nobody is replacing them, you see Barry Brooks, the big cattle man, he bought nearly all the marshes through there.
When I was clearing the dykes and drains and looking after the cattle I would walk a fair distance each day, if I walked to Halvergate from the house that was three miles there and back, and I would tend the cattle once a day sometimes twice, so that could well be twelve miles a day. Eventually, after two or three years we managed to scrounge up enough to be able to buy a jeep. I got a left hand drive jeep from an auction the other side of Norwich, it ran on petrol and made a tremendous difference. My wife wouldn’t drive that jeep but we did go on to get a land rover and she learnt to drive in that.
You didn’t see anyone during the day, just my wife when I got home. I would take a snack with me, and after being out all day have a hot meal when I came home.
After Berney Arms I moved up to Sutton’s Executors, on the condition that they sold us a piece of land to build the bungalow up at Halvergate, and they agreed.
I was still working with cattle at that time, they went out on to the marshes at the end of April through until about October, I couldn’t tell you how many cattle there were as Sutton had so many come in and so many go out a week. Sometimes the cattle are referred to as ‘marsh cattle’ but that’s just what we used to call them, they were no different to the ordinary cattle. They used to come from Birkenhead, Sutton’s used to have all Irish cattle.
Sutton’s used to have their own marshes so the cattle grazed on them and that’s all I looked after, their marshes. There were some sheep about too, and I had some of my own.
The only time I thought that it was a bit too much and didn’t want to go out was when it was snowing, and we had some hard winters, especially in the 1960s, around 1962, 1963. During that time there was a long time that we couldn’t work, as the marshes were frozen, so that was hard. We didn’t have any special clothing to keep us warm and dry, just the normal.
I remember one Christmas when we were at Berney Arms, everywhere was frozen and I went to feed the sheep and they’d gone. They’d walked down to Halvergate and the dog went down, picked them up, went round and brought them back again. I think that they’d nearly got to the manor house.
I was fairly lucky health-wise I didn’t have to have time off.
We were paid almost on piece work, we got so much a chain, on the dykes, I can’t tell you exactly how much we got paid, but it was peanuts, maybe £3 a chain. I think I got £15 7s 9d for doing five score five rods dykes, and fifteen and a half score for the drains. You would get paid for clearing the drains and dykes once a year after you’d done the dykes.
The measurements were all passed down. When a marshman left he gave you the measurements, so you knew roughly what it was.
Additional work on the marshes
Over time as more mechanism was coming in all the time the hours working on the marshes got less, so it was important to find other ways of making a living
I looked after other people’s sheep on the marshes, just tending to them like you do the cattle. I didn’t initially do any shearing but later on when we moved to Halvergate I got my own sheep. I hired some marshes to feed them and then I did do some shearing, learning mostly by trial and error. The wool then got sent off to Stamford, so that was a nice extra bit of income, a reasonable income.
I also had my own cattle, the amount varied, it depended on what you’d reared during the winter, small calves and whether you sold them in the spring or waited until they got fat.
I also picked up work, like checking and mending fences and doing maintenance for local land owners.
The marshmen had other varied work as well. Yoiton Hewitt used to look after the Breydon Pump, plus the one near Ashtree Farm. I looked after a pump at Stracey for a time, just making sure that the water levels were right, and if it was getting too high, turning the pump and pumping in to the river. I didn’t do that for long.
Changes in working and the environment, ecology and conservation
As I got to the end of my working life I think that major change I have seen since starting is the RSPB, this is because they wanted the water level to be high. This means that they don’t do the dykes, I haven’t seen any cleared out, they think that it’s for nature I suppose, I don’t know.
In the early 1970s the Ministry brought in diggers, and the marshmen didn’t do the middle dykes, they were stopped from doing them, so they were taking our work away, it was the beginning of the end of the marshmen, as we didn’t have as much work to do on the marshes.
When we first went down there were plenty of coypu, they were alright, but it was thought that they were destroying things, like the river banks. They made a mess, but not that much, but the Government paid a shilling a tail, we would catch them or take our guns when we were clearing out the dykes and drains.
I suppose their thinking was that was helping conservation, but I don’t think that it was. I think that grazing was the important bit, the cattle helped with the grazing and we cut all the thistles, so all the marshes looked clean, but they don’t today do they?
With all the changes, it’s not my job to say whether they are for the good, but I wouldn’t have thought that they were. I noticed when I came past from Yarmouth this morning that I have never seen the marshes so empty, hardly any cattle, all horses, so whether they are keeping more cattle inside now or what I don’t know.
Bill Lacey (1927-2021) talking to WISEArchive at Acle 16th June 2017.
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