Survival to Success (1965-2000s)

Location : Norfolk, Sussex

A youth in agriculture – later life in the city. Alice tells us about her interesting and varied life, from shepherding and selling double glazing, to house clearances and pea harvesting.

I was born in Norwich in 1950 and when I was five my father decided that we would move north, streets paved with gold that sort of thing. So we moved to Leeds, a new start, very exciting but it was a completely different ball game from Norfolk. We lived in a semi detached and I went to catholic school, most amazingly there were catholic schools everywhere whereas in Norfolk they were a complete rarity.

I then went to boarding school in Weston-Super-Mare for four years but unfortunately I passed the Eleven Plus and the nuns at the school in Weston felt that I needed a more scientific education. So I came back to Leeds which made me very unhappy. I went to the grammar school and did my O levels, did very well and then came up to sixth form and absolutely hated it and managed to get myself suspended. My father told me that I couldn’t just leave school so I went to secretarial college and it took me two years to do a one year course.

I then worked for an archaeologist and an anthropologist at Leeds University, and I was a hopeless secretary but they didn’t mind the fact that I couldn’t spell and I couldn’t type. But in the summer holidays I got put under the control of a woman who really thought that I should do better than I was. My dear old archaeologist took me out for lunch and said, ‘Well, why not just throw it in? Come and camp in Cambridge and do archaeology?’ So I did. This would have been 1968, 1969.

So I went to work on this dig in Cambridgeshire and I met a local farm manager and I discussed with him that I’d always wanted to farm. My grandparents and my mother’s family had been farmers. The school careers guidance person told me that there was no way that a woman could do agriculture unless you went to Reading University and got an agricultural degree. Well, I’d managed to skip that completely by being suspended from school, so he told me about colleges where you could do the training. So that was it, that was the next part of my life.

Looking back I had always been a bit of a worker. As a school girl I had a Saturday job at the Majestic Cinema in Leeds and Jimmy Savile was the area manager so that gives you the date. So from 1965 every Saturday and Sunday I worked there and I used to get, I think, about £2 for working the two days. It was enough to keep me in tights and other things I wanted to have so it worked out very well.

Agricultural college

So there I was looking at going to agricultural college. I applied to Plumpton in Sussex as it looked picturesque and I had thought that I would like to work with livestock. Plumpton were delighted to have anybody that had O levels because they mostly catered for farmers’ sons who didn’t. You had to do a year on a farm first, so good old Farmer’s Weekly and the student jobs. My dear grandmother lent me her Morris Minor and I drove down to Devon. I interviewed at three places, the most sensible one of course was offering me day release and my own cottage all the nice things. But of course being a bit of a romantic I went for the farm at Dulverton on Exmoor, just above Tarr Steps. It was basically a longhouse and at one end there were stables with the animals in and the grandmother lived in the longhouse too with her granddaughters. The only running water there was a stream that came in at the back of the kitchen into a big stone slab basin and out down the drain of the house. She had a horror of flush toilets, one had been installed in the dairy area which is an interesting hygiene situation. But she wouldn’t use that, she always did her business, as she put it, out in the stable.

My employer, his wife, his son and another student lived in a cottage on the farm. My first job was making clotted cream, where you had to fill this big double boiler with water from the sink, boil it up, in a bain-marie and the milk went to the top and you would scoop out the cream.

I got paid £5 a week and I was fed, well I say I was fed, I was fed if I was well and working. I remember vividly being very unwell and not being able to get up and I remember that no food was sent up for me. I started there in the September of 1969 and I went home for Christmas, then my father had either Hong Kong or Asian flu, I can’t remember which, but it knocked him out. He had his own business and had his deliveries to do so I stayed and helped out for a couple of weeks.

I had notified the farm that I wasn’t coming back immediately but when I returned the farmer was very unpleasant and shook around his six bore gun. I realised that I wasn’t going to stay so I took a horse from the stable and rode down to Dulverton and threw myself on the hospitality of the Lamb Inn. The hotelier phoned my father, who promised to pay the bill and he set off from Leeds to scoop me up and take me back to Leeds. When he arrived the police gave him an escort to the farm to pick up my trunk. So that was all very interesting.

Many years later I was on a sailing holiday off the southwest and I was talking to the boat owner, who had been in the police force in Dulverton. He took one look at me and said, ‘You were the girl with the horse’ so yes, I was the girl with the horse.

Another farm and a much better experience

After returning to Leeds I decided to look for another farm. My elder sister was working in Solihull so I wrote to the Warwickshire NFU and asked for a recommended place, as I had had a rather hairy time on Exmoor.

I was adopted by this wonderful family called Bell, their daughter had just gone off and married a Spaniard and was working in a restaurant in Spain so Mrs Bell was feeling very bereft. I was taken in and literally spoilt to blazes. I would do the early milking every morning and they would bring me a cup of tea and a piece of cake while I got up.

They taught me so much which was informative whereas I have to say on the previous farm I learnt very little other than the brutality of life on Exmoor. Although I did learn how to hedge and ditch which came in useful in years later when I worked with British Conservation volunteers in Norfolk.

The Warwickshire thing went really well until one day I got kicked by a cow. It wasn’t so much the kicking of the cow that was the problem it was the landing in the water trough that was the problem. I had a broken arm, broken rib, broken thigh bone and so I got carted off home again, all in plaster. It was the time of the Viva Maria skirt which was fortunate because as an ankle length skirt it covered up my plastered leg.

In the September my father drove me back down to Plumpton Agricultural College, because I was still half in plaster, and I started my year of NCA which was the National Certificate, the most basic of qualifications.

It was absolutely wonderful, there were 80 boys and four girls so it was a wildly sociable existence, I would be out at dinners all the time because everyone wanted an escort. I entered the Miss Dairymaid competition of the year as in those days we thought that was a good thing. Had I won I would have had a lovely year going around the world. Unfortunately I got through the Sussex qualification but when it came to the regional round I only came second so that was me out.

This was a very exciting time to be in farming, everybody wanted meat, they wanted wool and they wanted milk, so it was a very good time.

After leaving college I got a job in the Weald with a farmer who was also an antique dealer and had jersey cows, which were just a delight to work with. None of them had numbers or markings they all had names, all sixty or so of them and you had to learn them all. They had their names chalked over their stalls in the cow shed and they all, mostly, always returned to their stall so you got used to who the cows were.

The milk was milked by using what was known as an inline system, there were vacuum lines running the whole length of the cow sheds, you had a stainless steel bucket with a lid that had a vacuum hose attached. You would milk the cow in its stall and when it had finished you would carry the bucket to the end and pour it, through a filter, into the milk churn.

I was milking at the Weald for several months. I had a boyfriend whose father had sheep farms down in Brede near Rye and he felt perhaps that I should be looking for work closer to where he was, as it was quite a trip to the Weald.

So I looked around and a man called Rob Morris who was across the river asked me if I’d be interested in working with him and his sheep.

Working with sheep and taking to it like a duck to water

I took to sheep like a duck to water, and absolutely loved shepherding. I learnt very quickly and was very good at sheep tasks, I was extremely useful on the lambing field as I had very small hands. I lived in and was extremely well paid. I got £20 a week and was fed, and I mean seriously fed. It was glorious. I belonged to this family, I would take the children to school and then on the way back I would looker as you called it, when you went out and looked at your flocks.

We used South Down rams who were the meat generation, fascinatingly South Down rams are now considered to be rare, but in those days they were the common stock ram on the Romney Marsh or Kent sheep. We had a system which was very traditional, the rams went in in November, then lambed from the first of April. Almost on cue. Then you would have sold all your meat lambs by September the following year keeping only the pure bred females. So I had a Kent flock and a South Down ram.

I had 2000 ewes and I had only been there a few months before Rob told me that he thought that I could take it all over. It was just idyllic.

When you think of the hours I worked, it was almost nonstop, but you just didn’t mind because that was your life. We used to have the Australian and New Zealand shearers come over and this was a great moment of festivity in the year. They would come over in great big teams and have a really riotous few weeks maybe even a month. They would then leave Sussex and go to Sweden because the sheep there were all shorn before slaughter. It was a very interesting cultural time, you learnt about all these people who lived in other parts of the world.

I was so lucky with my work with the Morrises and I ended up spending three years working with Rob. I didn’t end up marrying my boyfriend but I met another chap at Young Farmers and he was a pig man. I moved up to a place called East Hoathly which was on the bend of the Dicker Road, it was a very interesting place. He looked after the pigs and I relief milked cows for a man called Sam whose father was a coal merchant. We had a very active Young Farmers existence there.

In 1974 my grandfather in Norfolk had decided to give up his pig enterprise and my husband decided that it would suit us nicely to move to Norfolk and take over this pig enterprise. My grandfather was very willing and tried hard to make it work, which it did and didn’t in its way. So having got married in May 1974 in the August we moved up to Norfolk.

The move to Norfolk, pig and sheep farming

We took over a small holding, 10 acres, of not good land, it was basically a hill of sand. In those days we used to run the sows outside. Interestingly in those days that was very much frowned upon and seen to be a very backward thing to do.

As the land was sand the manure put in the land was very welcome. The yards were all straw so that there was plenty of fibre to put back on to the land too which was very important. This pig enterprise was very much a muck generating business, the idea being that you put them on as much straw as possible. It was the same with bullocks. Because the land was very light my grandfather was a great believer in spreading muck everywhere. They didn’t do slurry, that wasn’t something that was part of his world, so everything was on straw. I remember that the straw was always baled behind the combine. In the early days they were just bunches that the combine used to throw out but when my grandfather got his new combine it had a shoot that put the corn into the trailers and used to cut the straw and leave it in lines on the field. The baler which was pulled along behind the tractor and that used to bale the straw into very tight bales. One of my delights was driving the baler, I used to think that was great fun.

When I got married Rob Morris had given me a South Down ram for my wedding present, so we had to get some ewes. I chose what were then called mules, which are basically rubbish sheep, but you could pick them up cheaply. So these rather old, raggedy sheep came to our green pastures and our ram did a wonderful job and we had a meat generation which we sold very successfully.

At the Easter auctions you would bid for the rights to graze the sheep until Michaelmas, on the Acle marshes, Halvergate marshes area. I got a certain amount of acreage, and in the winter there would be a lot of fields where they had beet tops. The Peter Standen machine used to go up the lines of sugar beet and would top one line and then the disc contraption on the machine would lift the beet that had been topped the line before.

Most farmers would just plough this in as green mature but I managed to get enough fields to graze my ewes through the winter. You used to have to be forever moving electric fences and my poor sons who were born in ’76 and ’78 spent all their known lives until they were four and two in waterproofs and welly boots on the edge of a field with their toy cars while I was moving fences.

My husband departed when my younger son was a mere baby and I kept on with  the small holding for another couple of years. But when my son became four and a half he had to go to the village school at Salhouse, which was two and a half miles away. I didn’t have a car, I only had a bike, so I found this a struggle. We had a house cow, a nice Jersey cow. I would milk the cow, then come back to the house and get the boys’ breakfast, get them togged up. This was winter term and my eldest son had an ancient rusty but trusty tricycle, I would have my youngest son on the back of my bike and we had to ride the two and a half miles. I would leave the tricycle with a friend in Salhouse and then either go to a toddler group or cycle home and do jobs before picking him up from school at twelve or half past. This small boy did this every day for a term.

I became totally worn out by it as I still had the sheep, the house cow and the garden which I grew for food, or else we would probably have starved.

It is quite interesting that I never understood the welfare system so apart from my single parent child benefit I didn’t understand that you could ask for money, so it was a very hard couple of years.

I was very lucky in Woodbastwick because there was this marvellous man, Mr Chubby for whom I will be forever grateful. If you woke up in the morning and you heard a hammer knocking you knew that Mr Chubby was somewhere on the farm trying to mend something to help me through. He was absolutely superb. You might think that he was a machine when it came to working you might think that he was slow and steady but my goodness the work he got through. Every Saturday I would leave my boys with him and they would watch wrestling which meant that I had a whole two hours to myself which was just heaven. Most of the time I would be working in the garden but the fact that I didn’t have to consciously think about where these small children were was a great relief. So, dear Mr Chubby in Woodbastwick.

I was a tenant on a very large estate, the agent’s idea was to make money so he was not particularly welcoming to me because I was obviously struggling.

Leaving the smallholding and moving into Norwich

My grandmother very supportively said that I would have to give up the farm because it was going to kill me. She helped me to buy a house, an unmodernised terrace off Unthank Road in Norwich, it cost something £8,000 or £9,000. I basically started a new life and life became a lot easier and I came to the end of my struggle.

When I came to give up the tenancy on the estate the agent said that I had to reinstate the buildings to the state that they were in when my husband signed the lease in ’74. Amongst other things we had installed feeders in the pens, concrete floors in the stables to make cleaning easier and he wanted all this removed. I knew that this was beyond my capabilities. I had no money, and not that much energy. So I walked up to the hall in Woodbastwick and confronted the owner, John Cator who was a very interesting man. He was famous for his tempers at full moon but he was also very paternal. He knew my grandfather and my mother and I explained the situation with the agent and how I couldn’t possibly do any of this. He said to me, ‘Don’t worry’ and that was it and I didn’t have to worry.

The agent was furious and came down and it’s hard to remember but I was a very frail mother at that stage with two small children and this man came bashing on the door. It was not an easy situation, but that’s how life was, very hard but as I said with the move into Norwich life became easier.

Discovering I could sell things, Oriflame and  double glazing

The most marvellous moment was the moment that I discovered that I could sell things. I started off with Oriflame, which was a makeup company and you used to have these parties. You would pay a babysitter a fiver, go out on an evening and make £20, I did it two nights a week and it was an extremely good way of existing.

Once I realised that I could sell, a friend and I saw an advertisement in the EDP [Eastern Daily Press] which said, ‘Last year I had no money, this year I’ve had exotic holidays and run fast cars’ and we decided that this would suit us as we were both single mums with no financial support.

I went along to the Posthouse in Norwich and it was a double glazing company called Thermabreak who were down Hall Road in Norwich. They wanted salesman and basically didn’t want saleswomen at any price. But they did offer me an opportunity to earn money by distributing leaflets. So I started off making appointments for people to be seen by the sales people. The thing was I would get a fiver for an address that turned out to be a deal, but I knew that the sales people were earning £200.

So I campaigned to be allowed to sell. I was very lucky, the sales director was very friendly and welcoming in his way but he was limited by the general atmosphere of the sales reps.

He said that I could do it for three months. I was their top sales person in those three months.

I went on to work for them for two years and earned a phenomenal amount of money, £50,000 I think I earned in ’81, ’82.

This enabled me to finish modernising the house in Norwich and then I realised that I had serious money so I bought a beautiful timbered house right next to the school in Pulham St Mary in South Norfolk. So double glazing was very kind to me and I have been grateful to it ever since.

My younger son then broke his leg and at that time the school toilets were outside and could not be negotiated by a wheel chair so I realised that I needed to be at home. I had sufficient income by then so I could quieten off.

When I said that I was going to give up selling they asked me whether I would be prepared to go around and train salesmen and they offered me enough money to make it worthwhile. I would earn a percentage on the concession a salesman got if their sales increased after they had attended my meetings. I used to do three Mondays a month, at Leeds Castle in Kent, Guildford and one other place that I forget. I would go down on a Sunday night and stay in a hotel. On the Monday I would do the presentation standing there with my very long hair and my very short skirts thinking I was absolutely the bees knees. I would tell these salesmen to smile and stop being so appallingly greasy and unpleasant, because double glazing salesmen truly were pretty grim.

Luckily they took notice, luckily they earned more money and luckily I earned more money, which gave me quite a comfortable income.

I had some girls who were in between jobs or going to university who would come and stay with me and look after my boys when I was away, so it was all very organised.

House clearances

I then started doing house clearances, I had a big Peugeot car and you could take out the back seats. Of course in those days we thought nothing of putting two children on the front seat of the car.

So I would go around the villages buying up whole housefuls of furniture, which I would transport in the back of the Peugeot. I made various contacts in the area. There was a man in Long Stratton who used to buy chest of drawers which he used to turn into television cupboards and cabinets which were all the rage at the time. A man in Scole would buy Edwardian wardrobes from me and turn them into bookcases, and there was another man in Dickleburgh who would buy chest of drawers from me and he would make them into combined bars and television cupboards. I would buy mahogany dining tables and put them into the sale at either Durrants in Beccles or Gazes in Diss. I made a really quite good income and it was much much more fun, much more sociable than double glazing.

All this is very interesting social history because people were buying up their houses and they wanted this smart furniture to put in it, this was before the days of IKEA of course.

Working in an art gallery

When I first ended up in Norwich I had a very good friend Tizzie Fairhurst who was an artist and his father Joe owned the Fairhurst Gallery in Bedford Street. Tizzie wanted to help me so he asked Joe if I could come and work in the gallery. So I used to go in the mornings and I used to do framing, mounting stuff, painting lines around mounts. Blickling Hall had some frames which needed restoring, one of the things we’d do was squeeze plasticine over the moulding in a good place and then you would have a mould which you could then use on other parts of the frame.

I have to say that was a very soul restorative place to be, surrounded by lovely kind people, doing lovely things, making lovely things.

Memories of my grandfather

My grandfather was also a tenant farmer for John Cator, he had a farm at Salhouse and then also took on a farm at Plumstead. He had a very interesting domestic life. My grandmother, his wife, lived at Salhouse and his mistress lived at Plumstead. My grandmother lived a very quiet life really and she was always rather overtaken by the fact that her husband had gone off with someone else. She didn’t want a divorce as she was very catholic, and my grandfather respected that and in his way he did all that he could to make things as fair as possible. Every time he bought something for the farm in Plumstead he would offer it to my grandmother as well, so she had new cookers, saucepans, everything that his mistress wanted he would buy for my grandmother.

His mistress moved to the Plumstead farm when she retired from the sugar beet factory. In the early days he used to pick her up at the railway station and they used to stay overnight at the Grange Hotel on the Yarmouth Road. I had known her all my teenage life but what I had never known or understood was the relationship. I was at least 16 by the time my mother’s younger sister discovered that I knew that she existed. She was so furious with me and I had absolutely no idea why.  I’m not even sure that I even had the concept of what mistresses were at that stage

Summer holidays with grandparents, tractor driving

I spent all my summer holidays with my grandparents, coming down on the train changing at Peterborough and March. At March you sometimes had to change stations and my mother always used to write down in capital letters exactly what I had to do and how to ask for the other station if I got lost. You literally had to walk between them.

On Fridays I would go into Norwich with my grandfather. We would go to the fish market which was behind where the Hotel Nelson is on Prince of Wales Road, down by the river. We would buy fish for lunch and then pick up the money from Barclays Bank on Bank Plain, it was a very splendid building. We would then often go and have coffee, with a man from Wiggs. Wiggs was a distributor of tractors and agricultural machinery and they were up where the Castle Mall now stands on the edge of what was the livestock market.  I used to think that this was so grown up, to sit there with these two men drinking coffee, which of course I never had at home, watching the life come in and go out. Everyone talking about machinery, farming life, the weather and it was all very exciting. I remember going to the corn market with him. You used to take your bags of corn round various corn merchants and somebody would offer the price he was expecting and that’s who he would sell his harvest to.

He was absolutely thrilled with modern technology but I remember he had an old tractor called an Allis Chalmer and I always thought that it was ‘Alice’ because of me but it wasn’t. I was driving tractors from the time I was thirteen and this was the first tractor I learnt to drive. I had to put both feet over the clutch pedal to get it to go down and then you put it into a gear and you tottered off in this gear and unless something dire happened you wouldn’t change it because it was too much of a performance.

I also used to drive the minivan around the farm for my grandfather too. Most of his fields could be connected by darting across a road. There was only one place on the Plumstead Road where I had to dart for 100 yards on the main road to go from gate to gate. So I had to open one gate in a field and then cross the road, open the gate on the other side, checking that nothing was coming before I zoomed across in my van. Then I would shut both gates.

I had another job which was to fill up the guns that went off to frighten the birds. You put powder into part of the gun and filled up the water container, you checked that the clock was correct. It was on a clockwork system which would come to a certain place then the water would drip into the powder, which would produce a gas which then shot the gun. I don’t know whether I would have allowed my thirteen olds to do this job, but hey ho

Growing and helping to harvest peas for Birds Eye

At one time he grew peas for Birds Eye in the days when peas were harvested in the field and had to be loaded on a lorry and had to be in Lowestoft or Great Yarmouth within a certain time from leaving the field. This created a mad brigade of pea testers who were also driving minivans scooting around at vast speed up and down the lanes of Norfolk, forever testing peas. It was just bizarre really. The testers would come into the field, walk across the field and take a few pods. They would put the peas into this little thing that squashed the pea and it told them whether the peas were ready for harvesting.

When they said harvest, you harvested, there wasn’t an argument. I think that the machinery was owned by a co-operation of farmers not Birds Eye, so these farmers would all come together and work on the same harvest. You would then move onto the next farm and then the next farm.

I remember that last summer that I drove tractors for the pea harvest, just before I was about to go off to secretarial college. The excitement of being in a field at night with lights attached to everything so you could see where you were going and wildlife skitting around, it really was a very very exciting time.

I used to drive tractors with the trailer for the grain harvest too. You had to catch the grain as it came out of the spout on the combine. In the early days I used to stand on the side of the combine with a couple of farm workers who would be filling the bags actually on the combine. I would have the great job of getting the new bag and putting it onto the hooks after they had taken the full bag off. I felt tremendously important and I really absolutely loved staying on the farm with my grandparents.

As a teenager I used to help out with the wage packets. I would sit at my grandfather’s bureau desk, which came from Cantley sugar factory and is now in my study today. In those days it was all done on a double ledger folder. You would put in how many hours the men had worked, multiply it by the hourly rate, deduct the tax and national insurance and then you would have the sum. You would then copy all of this information onto the little brown envelopes. You could then open the drawer in which my grandfather had sort of trays, one would have ten pound, five pound notes, shillings. I would count out the money, put it in the relevant envelopes, lick the back and stick it down. At about three o’clock on a Friday afternoon I would get in my minivan and I would drive round the farm and give the men, and they were all men, their money in the little envelopes. I was always very pleased to have my little brown envelope. And at that time I don’t think that I even paid tax or deductions so I was very fortunate. This was all cash, everything was cash, it’s a most interesting piece of history.

When my grandfather died the funeral was held at the church in Little Plumstead and the church was packed.

By that time I was living in Norwich and my other grandmother on my father’s side completely came into her own. I had been terrified of her in my teens and yet when I got into my twenties and had this traumatic relationship with my husband she was so strong. She brought me food and used to take me to second hand clothes stores. There was a shop in Glandford near Holt, which was where all the posh people from London used to bring their clothes. So they were very posh clothes and I was deeply grateful for them.

Reflections on my life

Just as a reflection, when I look back on my life, I think how jolly lucky I was to be in agriculture when I was. I had none of the hardship of the men who worked in the field. They did live in pretty awful housing, but they hadn’t known anything else and there was a society that supported them. So I’m not justifying it but I do think that there was a lot for it.

I was incredibly grateful for my tied cottages because it meant that you could live where you worked which was very important, because we couldn’t have done the hours that we did if we had had to travel.

We were very lucky in Sussex as we had some very enlightened farmers who had given us some very good quality agricultural workers’ houses. I was very lucky to fall on the Morris family at Brede not least because Paul McCartney had the farm next door. I used to work with his land agent on fencing. We had to put the fencing, I think, three foot apart so that Linda’s not be slaughtered, not to be eaten animals wouldn’t get contaminated by mine who clearly had a meat generation existence. I learnt so many skills and I have been very practical ever since.

I think that it was wonderful going off to market at a time when we thought that we were doing the best for our animals that we could. We certainly never left animals to be mistreated and certainly not in my circle anyway. The fact was that we were rearing animals when they were very much wanted. I live a vegetarian life and yet I’d be very sad not to see cows and sheep in the fields.

I was very pleased to be a young woman, much heralded, much spoilt, in my farming days. I met so many interesting people, and I just want to say that I think that I was extremely lucky to be doing it then. Although I certainly wouldn’t want to be going out to the water troughs at three in the morning to see whether they had frozen now.

Then the move into the city and to make the money that I desperately needed when my children were small. It’s the story of agriculture isn’t it. You start in a field and you end up in a house in the city.

Alice (b. 1950) talking to WISEArchive on 3rd March 2022 in Norwich.

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