The Cow Hand (1936-2007)

Location : Norfolk

Ralph worked on the farm where his father was a foreman as a cowman. He talks of the American servicemen from Seething airfield while he lived at Thwaite.

I was born in 1933, the son of an agricultural worker. We were living at Thwaite St Mary near Ditchingham in the 40s. My father was a foreman on the farm. The farm was a cow farm mostly. What would be done would be done by hand. The milking was done by hand. There were four cowmen and each cowman would have eleven to fourteen cows. The milk was done by hand. It was carried from the cow shed to a tank by pails, put in this tank where the water ran through the cooler to cool the milk. The milk churns held ten gallons. Each morning you would take the milk churns to the farm gate where a milk lorry would come and collect it in the mornings. This was a pretty good job. In the summer time we used to cover the churns up with wet sacks to keep cool, as it would soon go off in those days as the churns retained the heat.

After the milking was over there was all the other work to be done such as cleaning the cow shed out, washing it down, getting the food ready for the afternoon milking. This in the winter time was done by hand and hay had to be cut with a chaff cutter and the mangolds had to be cleaned to put the beet grinder then you would fill the skep and take to the cow manger, one skep-full per cow. The boys always had a job on the farm, as there was pigs and calves to be fed. The calves were fed with milk by hand.

Harvest time as a great time. The boys always enjoyed the harvest time, as there were plenty of jobs to be done the corn such as wheat; barley and oats were cut by a binder. In these days it was drawn by horses and the sheaf had to be gathered up and put on to a shock. These remained six to eight on each shock. After they were dried after three weeks they were taken to the stack yard where they were stacked. Then they would be left there until the winter time when they would be thrashed. After harvest the stacks were all thatched to keep the water out.

After harvest such things as the mangold and sugar beet had to be got in. The mangolds were pulled and cleaned and taken by horse and combo to the headland.They were put in long rows just inside the gate ready for the wintertime use. These mangolds had to be covered with a foot or more of straw and then covered with earth to stop the frost getting to them.

Then come the great day for the thrashing engine to come to the farm. This was a great day for the boys. The steam engine would need water. This was taken from the pond with a water cart and one horse. Sometimes they would want two to three cart fulls before they could really start the thrashing. If they were thrashing wheat it would mean 18 stone in one comb sack. The drum and the pitcher were drawn between the two stacks so that the wind was right for taking the thatch off before you could start. This had to be done first thing in the morning.

….And knock and top the beet. They were put into heaps on a roll. These were taken from the field to the hiderling (?) and the sugar beet lorry would take them to the Cantley factory. This was also all done by hand, no machinery whatsoever. The sugar beet was often taken by wherry if there was a river nearby. As we had moved to Horning the river was there so all our sugar beet went by wherry to Cantley. This was loaded by hand by 4 men. You had to wait for the tide so he could travel over Breydon Water. Then they would return two or three days later for another load. This was quite a hard job to be in. Heavy work.

At the age of fifteen I myself became a cowman, fourth cow man. Then you have to work your way up and learn your trade of milking the cows. This was still done by hand in the early days but within four years of working as a cow man I found a farm which had machinery to milk the cows. This was a great improvement in the milking. After some years on this farm I myself moved to a farm at Harleston in Norfolk and was a cowman there, not head cowman but second cow man. This was a lovely farm to work on. It was near the town. The house was free. The wages, I think, were about £7 a week. After working a few years in the Harleston area I then decided to go as a head cow man so I returned to a farm at Alburgh not far from Harleston as head cow man for Mr. Bond who had a herd of eighty cows. Everything from the door to the milk churn was then done by a bulk tank. This was always collected every day but still going to the same places such as the milk marketing board at Norwich. There wasn’t any training given in those days.

You followed your father’s footsteps and learned the trade of being a cow man and sometimes a half-bred vet as you did all the things that you could. There wasn’t the transport so much as in these days so you could get a vet as quick as you wanted. Most cow men had a good knowledge of when a cow was sick I also went onto a farm where we milked three times a day. This was done by two cow men. The idea of this was that you fed the cows more and you got more milk. This was an intense job as the cows very rarely went out to grass. The grass, the silage and everything was brought in to them.

I was a person who didn’t like school. I preferred to work on the farm when I was younger. I was often playing truant from school.

Either churn, which you were doing at the time, or bulk tank took all the milk on the farm to the Milk Marketing Board at Norwich. When you had to go out working on the fields you could not ride the horse home from its day’s work. You could ride it to the job but not on the way home. That was one of the things you had to obey.

Just before harvest would come all the wagons and the tumbrels would be backed into a pond. This was so the wood would swell on the wheels and everywhere else. You would leave it in there for a week just before harvest and then draw them out. That was a system that was done all over the country.

In the early 1940s the clothing was not very good. Rubber boots were scarce and expensive. I remember well all the bad winters, frost, snow etc. Today we don’t seem to get that. On the way to school was terrible because you didn’t have any warmth in the house only a fire. No heating or anything. There was no hot water only by the fire. The only good thing at home was the food was always good as it was home cooked. Mother was a good cook. Everything we had to eat was good. School meals were very poor in those days, all fattening things such as dumplings which you wouldn’t get today as we were working hard as boys and needed the strength to do the jobs.

We had to bike 7 miles to school and 7 miles back. There were no buses at this particular time. They did come a little later. When you got back from school we returned to the farm to do some more jobs. The lighting was very poor. It was by hurricane lamp or tilley lamp. No electric on the farm in those days. And on this farm where we were all the beet grinding and chaff cutting was done by a stationary engine. There were no electric engines.

When you were a boy you had the jobs that the men didn’t do such as harrowing the corn in the springtime or rolling it down. Not very often did you get the chance to drive the old Standard Fordson. Sometimes you were allocated to the Standard Fordson which you didn’t have to put in gear as it had a foot clutch on the tractor so you just bent down and pulled a little lever or the foot clutch. You were left on your own after you were trained to do this. The tractor was taken to the field by your father or by the farmer then you were left to do this job such as rolling or harrowing. You never had to go onto the road because you didn’t attempt those sort of things in them days.

After all the work was done winter and summer, just after the winter there would be other jobs to do such as ditching and draining the land. This was all done by hand. No machinery whatsoever for these sort of jobs. The drains were dug across the field to let the water run into the ditch by spade and draining tool. The drains were called bush drains. So you had to cut the hawthorn bushes down and cut them into smaller pieces to jam in the drains. Then you would fill them back with the soil. This was a good type of draining system. Once it was done it lasted for years.

As a lad I can remember the first steam engine coming to the field to plough. This was done with an engine at each end of the field and a 6 or 7 furrow plough. I t would pull from one side of the field to the other. Quite an exciting job as there wasn’t much else in that line to do that sort of work in them days.

During the war working on the farm was quite scary at times because you would see the planes come over. You soon recognised the English from the Germans which they were. We were once fired at when we were on the field, my father and some more fellows with us, as the plane came over and dropped its bombs on Bungay.

At harvest time we did get a ration, as it was rationed in the wartime. We got an allowance of butter and cheese and stuff like that, which was sent through the Agricultural Workers’ Union. The garden was the main thing. You grew everything in your garden. It was all dug by hand. You had potatoes for the winter, and runner beans, broad beans and everything like that was all grown at home. Very little shopping had to be done in them days as you grew it yourself.

After all this, as a boy becoming a man I found out that land work was the best thing you could do. You were not a man until you had done everything on the farm. Most could milk, drive the tractors, plough, combine, everything. This was a normal thing, as I have said before. You picked up as you went along, from your father’s footsteps.

At the age of forty I told my boss that I was going to give up the cow work, as there was no time off. Saturdays and Sundays you had to be at work. So I decided to go to another farm as a maintenance engineer. On that farm we did everything. We made things, built things and repaired things. We also had to do a longer shift on these big farms. This was just on four thousand acres so there was plenty to do. You had to do the drilling, the ploughing, the spraying and everything. This was always done by hand years ago but now you just sat on the tractor and let that do the work.

You moved from farm to farm quite regular. For another extra 10 shillings which is fifty pence today you would travel up the road maybe another three or four miles for an extra five or ten shillings a week, which was a lot of money in them days. The farmers have all got tied houses and most of them are for their sons as there’s not many farm workers on the land now.

The hedging on the farm was always done in the wintertime. The wood would be trimmed out from the hedge and the thick stuff would be stacked alongside of the headland. This was then taken home for your own heating. In them days nothing was wasted. The verges on the side of the road and round the field of grass and rubbish was always cut with a scythe. It would be stacked up into heaps alongside the road or alongside the border in the field. This was then taken to the stack yard until the corn from the field was put on this border stuff so that no water or dampness rose up from the ground where these stacks were.

On a Saturday morning I myself with my father, who was steward on the farm would get the new horse or the colt and break in it.This was a job which the head man did, quite a funny job really because he would put this big tree trunk behind the horse, put the long rein on it and get it to walk round and round. After a few times he would shout ‘Stop, Whoa or Whist’ whichever he had to learn that horse to do. Then after a while I would get hold of the horse by a rope from the bridle and walk it round. This was when it was half done so it was not dangerous, quite a gruelling job to do as you kept walking for at least an hour round and round and round until you got the horse on command to do as it was told.

All the wagons and the tumbrels and the machinery on the farm were nearly always painted once a year. Normally a blue colour was a great favourite. The name of the farm was put on a cast iron plate and screwed on to the wagon or the tumbrel.

This thatching of the corn stacks was quite a big still. This was normally done by the headman on the farm. He was the one who normally did the stack thatching. When I got older I once had the chance to do my own stack. This was quite a rare thing for a young lad as you had taught yourself or watched you father and you could manage to do it. It was quite a big experience for a young chap.

As the years went on as an agricultural worker all the machinery came in. It was great fun to drive the tractors, plough, combine and everything. It seemed as though you just knew what to do. No training in particular on these things as it was bred in you.

On farms years ago Christmas time was a good time. There was no turkey or stuff to have in them days. If you were a married man you would have a cockerel at Christmas. A single man would have the change to take the cockerel or the 10 shillings. So me being single at the time I would take the 10 shillings. Everybody who worked on the farm at Christmas time would all come in to help the cowman to get done so that you could get off by ten to ten thirty in the morning. You would have all the food to get ready for the afternoon but everybody came in to help.

After the age of forty-five I’d been on most farm work and had done all the machinery work and everything, there was never money to spare at the end of the week. So I decided that it was time to leave the farm. I wanted to buy my house but never had the money or deposit to put down being a farm worker. So at the age of forty-five to forty six I decided to change my job and I went self-employed, working for myself. Most jobs I understood, building and fencing and everything like that. That was the only way I could see myself buying my house. I bought my house and I paid £11,200 for it. It was an ex council house in the village of Shimpling near Diss. It was one of the best things I ever did, as I now don’t have to worry about a roof over my head now.

I am one of the lucky people who could see a future in collecting bygones. I have collected nearly every type of agricultural hand tool there is, so that no body has ever seen. I have given my plough and my brass  to my daughter as she is now in the farming trade near Braiseworth.

While living at Thwaite my surname was Waters and the farmer and all the boys at school used to all me ‘water lily’. After a few days and a few jobs that I done for the farmer he said. ‘Your name didn’t ought to be water lily. We’ll have to think of another name for you.’ So he did. He came up with ‘tiger lily’. After a few months the ‘lily’ fell off and I remained ‘Tiger’ all through my life, through hospital, through the army, Even today people in the village only know me as Tiger. I’ve stuck by that and I my now 74. If you went to Harleston or in that area and asked for Mr. Waters no body would know me as I went by Tiger all the while living at Harleston, Wortwell and Alburgh. That is all that I was known as.

While living at Thwaite in 1943 the American soldiers and air force came to Seething which was only at the top of Thwaite. We lived in the camp as our house was inside the camp area. I remember the Americans coming over with all the B24s, which were Liberators. The group was called the 448 Bomb Group. They were quite young chaps. The officers who flew the planes were very young and also the gunners and everyone. They had just left college in the States. It was quite shocking, really, to think that all those young fellows died at Seething. Every time they’d take off and muster in the air about nine o’clock in the morning, on their way to Germans it was quite a sight to see. I knew lots of them. I was mascot with them for four years at Seething. It was the time of my life. The boys at Ditchingham school used to wait for me to come to school as I’d have all sorts of chocolates, sweets, bananas, oranges and everything else you could think of where none of us did in the county of Norfolk in them days.

Christmas time was a lovely time. They used to drive round with their trucks and take all the kids from the villages surrounding the camp and give us a Christmas party. It was everything you could imagine. Nothing was any problem or too expensive for all those American men. My mother used to do the washing for several of the officers, so every night I would turn round after school and take the washing to them. It was sad to enter their barracks and see the beds all folded up and their private things in a kit bag ready to go back to the States as they’d been shot down or killed in action. This was quite upsetting, especially for a young lad of my age of ten or eleven. After about thirty-five years I did have one friend, Dick Kemble. He was the navigator of this particular bomber. He used to write to my mother and father and to me. I’m not very good at spelling. I never did write to Dick very much but I wrote to him several years later as I went to Seething and helped to build a control tower and other pieces to help out over there. They said that Dick and all the other people that I knew were coming back for a reunion. So I made it my duty to see them. I drove to Norwich and after all those years I see him sitting on the bus and recognised him as though that was only yesterday. I took him to Norwich and different places and to the camp. I entertained him for four or five days. The other one who was a great friend of mine, he was a bomb disposal man. His wife is still alive and I think she’s ninety-four or five She’s been over with him and we’ve had a good meal at the house.

A few months ago seven Americans who were in the television trade came over and wanted to interview several of us people that lived on the camp as a young lad. They thought it would be great to make a film. So I was talking about all the things that happened during the war so that they could put it all on film. I was on film for roughly thirty-five minutes. I haven’t seen or heard anything about this as it was being done in America and not in this country.

As I’ve collected farm tools with a knowledge of using them at the right age I was, it was just right. I myself go round and give talks on all farm equipment and tools and all the money I raise I send to the Air Ambulance at Norwich. My mother and father are dead now, as this is 2007. I’m a married man with a wife and family still living at Shimpling. I am still known as ‘Tiger’ throughout Norfolk, no other name.

Ralph (b. 1933) talking to WISEArchive on 24th July 2007 in Shimpling, Norfolk.

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