Miss Alexander reflects

These reflections on Milton characters, and changes in farming, were recorded by Miss Alexander whose family lived in “Mortimers” for many years.

Index

Bill Cockerell

“Old Bill” worked for my father “on and off” for many years. If he did not come to work in the morning, my father would go down to his cottage, and hear the most colourful words in the English language for his trouble, but he would be back when the next job came along. What a splendid workman he was, he could put his hand to almost anything about the garden or fields, and do it well. A gardener, like most Milton men, he could set up an asparagus bed or turn a compost heap with mathematical precision. He made a grass “batter” (sloping bank) in Mortimers garden that was as true and level as anything made by a so-called expert with all his scientific aids. He knew about herbs, and enjoyed horse mushrooms, puffballs and blewits (a type of mushroom), and a nice young rabbit. Old Bill pitched the drive and yard at Mortimers and he could mend a gap in a drystone wall, though he made no pretence of being skilled, and treated the whole thing as a bit of a joke.

Back to top

Jim Green “Sinbad”

“Sinbad” died in 1952 aged 78 after pain and misery that no living creature would have suffered at his hands. Hands that were master of so many crafts, and whose gentle skill tended so many of his beloved birds, his were the happiest canaries I have ever seen. A great sorrow in his latter years was that deafness prevented him from hearing the songs of the wild birds. He was a real naturalist of a kind rarely met with these days, his wide knowledge and practical experience were backed by extensive reading. One of the few men left who could use a scythe like a artist, he could also make hay like it should be made, by hand, feel and scent. Then he would build the rick, pull the sides until they were as level as the sides of a house, and thatch it. The result was one of the neatest jobs you could wish to see, and one of the rarest in this age of Dutch barns and bales. He also knew the old art of trussing (tying up) hay. He would run his hand lovingly over a piece of wood like the true carpenter he was . He would undertake anything from furniture to fencing and thatching prickers. A keen and deadly shot, he enjoyed many days with his ferrets and old patched gun. Friends with the gamekeeper on a large estate nearby, he would go as loader to the big shooting parties held annually, until the war, and the death of the old Lord ended such pastimes. A man in his time plays many parts, which was certainly true of Sinbad. He had been at sometime during his life, a special constable, a licensee of two or three public houses, a carpenter always, he nearly always had some kind of farm stock, and he could house decorate inside and out, he would often do seasonal work for farmers, and he could fell and saw up a tree. He and his wife Ann were born in South Northamptonshire and lived there all their married life. She was very nearly as handy as he was, and could help him with most of his work.

One of a large family, she used to go gleaning with her mother, and she certainly had a way with straw, for she could yealm it (straighten and arrange it) ready for thatching in the most workmanlike manner. She could peg a rug, and I have known her to make a "sparrow pudding". This was made like a steak and kidney pudding, in a basin, and only the breasts of the birds were used. Everything grew for Sinbad ,and his garden always seemed to be ablaze with flowers. So we will leave him sitting outside Water Hall cottage with the summer evening sun making long shadows across the orchard grass, reading “Cage Birds” and puffing at his pipe of baccy.

Back to top

Milton Feasts and farm sales

Milton Feast, Michaelmas and the Harvest Festival mark the end of the farming year, though the cycle had already started once more, with muckspreading and the ploughing up of the stubble. Ram fair is over, and the farms have changed hands, the winters work is already under way. A farm sale, though full of interest, can be a sad affair. A man's lifetime gone in a matter of hours. The long rows of implements, some new, some relics of long forgotten sales in the past, the tools worn smooth by constant use, the waggons, red, blue and yellow, old and faded bearing the names of their first owners, and now useless. Scraps from the back of the barn where it has lain forgotten, and no one can remember what it was used for. The horse plough from out of the ditch, the harrows from the gap in the hedge, the old milk churns which stood among the nettles by the farmyard gate. Things that have no meaning to anyone but the man to whom they were a part of everyday life, for perhaps fifty years or more.

Back to top

Changes in farming

Farming has undergone a tremendous change during the last fifteen years, becoming almost entirely mechanised. Before the war the local farmers kept up to six or eight horses for work on the land, two in the plough team and for harrowing, two or three abreast for the binder at harvest time. This was heavy hard work from start to finish , starting with the cutting of a lane round the crop with a scythe, then the binder got to work, round and round until the last island in the middle fell amid a slaughter of rabbits, the "bush telegraph" worked like a dream at these times, all the locals turned up at precisely the right time armed with guns and sticks. All the sheaves were then pitched up and stooked (stacked) eight ,ten or twelve according to the crop, this was not as easy as it looked, as the sheaves had to be set up in such a way as to withstand wind and wet. Oats were supposed to stand in the field for three Sundays. Wheat could be carried almost immediately. It was something of an ask to pitch up sheaves on the end of a pitch fork and land them properly on the load on a high horse drawn waggon, three men and a boy were ideal for this job, though of course more or less could do it, but two to pitch from each side, one on the load and the boy to control the horses, one in the shafts and one forward made the work a lot easier. If the horses were well behaved you could dispense with the boy and one of the loaders could go forward and with a “hold tight” lead them on to the next stop. Loading those old waggons was a tricky business It was the easiest thing in the world to lose a load, swaying and lurching down hard rutted farm tracks, it did not do to turn a corner to sharply either. Sometimes it was a straight pull into the rickyard, but not always, and the loaded waggons had to be manoeuvred into place beside the growing rick These were often masterpieces, swelling outwards at an alarming angle to the eaves and then rising to a high sharp ridge.

The finished rick stood perfectly balanced on its comparatively small base. When it was thatched it proved the perfect foil to the rain and could stand clean and dry until it was threshed in the spring. Some ricks got badly infested with rats and mice and at one time they were built on staddlestones to prevent this. Threshing was done by contract, and it was quite an event when the threshing tackle arrived. A large steam traction engine with shining brasswork would lumber down the country lanes and into the stackyard, drawing a threshing drum and probably an elevator and water cart too. A certain amount of preparation work had to be made for all this, including the provision by the farmer of coal and water for the engine. When everything was set the hard dusty job began, with two men one on the rick to cut the twine and feed the sheaves into the drum very evenly so as not to stall and choke the works, and another to replace the full sacks of corn and clear the cavings (refuse left-over from threshing) from beneath the drum, the worst job of the lot. The locals once again turned up for the last layers of the rick with their mongrel terriers to catch the rats and mice that jumped out in all directions.

There was an ancient custom about leaving some sheaves in the field until all was safely in, when they were brought in with the last load for harvest home, amid great rejoicing. The harvest suppers were a great event in the old days. The stubble used to be gleaned by hand, and I believe some form of announcement was made when a field was open to glean, and gleaning rights were granted. This practice died out and the fields were raked with a horse rake and the draggings fed to stock. Farmyard manure was carted onto the stubble and spread by hand, after which it was ploughed in sometimes lime and basic slag was used but very little in the way of fertilizer.

Back to top

Enclosure

The enclosure of the open fields is always thought of as an evil act against the freeholder, but the days of the common, and small croft were over, and they were mortgaging their property. Improved methods of food production had to come on the land, as machinery had to come in the factories. The Poor Law of 1534 put an end to the ruinous and degrading system of out-door relief, which encouraged large families and low wages and had been crushing the agricultural labourer and loading the parishes with debt ever since the unwise legislation of 1795. The Corn Law which had protected the farmer at the expense of everyone else, was also repealed, but with the drift of wealth and labour to the towns, started the depression in agriculture which lasted in some degree until the 1939 war. It is fashionable to disparage and decry the voluntary services provided before the Welfare State. The wicked landlord living on his rents is the popular image, this may be true in some cases, which provided useful ammunition in the class war, but their was another side to the story. The big house may have depended on the village for its staff, but equally the people were often brought to the village by the prospect of a house and work. The wages may have been low, but, judging by today's standards, so were the incomes of a large number of the landowning classes. The clergy especially were very near the poverty line in many cases. The income from the glebe was often uncertain and irregular, and repairs could swallow up a whole years rent from a farm. Defaulting tenants and dilapidation were an ever present worry. Even the Bishop of Peterborough could have debts of over a £1000 through no fault of his own.

The workers on the big estates, besides an assured income and a house, had many perks, and also in some cases helped themselves, Via the back door, the kitchen garden and the fields. The big houses provided the hospital service and the parish nurse, the school and countless funds for recreation and the relief of hardship, meals were provided for the poor, and from the Rectory Sunday dinners for the old. The Rector supervised the welfare in the village and the Squire re - roofed the Church. Contrary to modern day belief most girls in domestic service received a good training which was useful for the rest of their lives A girl who went to a good place straight from school, never forgot her lessons, and her references were valuable. But if she had been to a bad first place, nothing would change her bad habits. The good employer was responsible for the welfare of the young servants, and the task was not always easy. But many parents were happy to know that their daughters were in a good place, and the mutual trust was rarely broken. The dress of maidservants all through the ages has been distinctive and usually attractive, e.g. the 18th century and the Victorian - Edwardian era. Before the 1914 war the status of a domestic servant was far above that of a factory worker.

Back to top