Making the Most of Memory: Farm Lads' Tales

By Stephen Caunce
What is the role of people's memories in writing history? And how does the historian go about gathering this 'oral testimony'?
The 'least lad', or youngest boy, at Manor Farm, Thixendale, East Yorkshire, 1890s 

Memory as source

As we grew up, there was only one thing for us and that was to go on farms. I never looked for anything else.
I left school when I was 13 ... Our year-end was November 23rd. We were supposed to have seven days holiday, what they called Martinmas week. It was supposed to be seven days only but we generally used to have a few extra days. Now that was for the year. And you couldn't get out of it - you signed that contract for a year. If you left during the year, well - it was up to your employer whether he paid you any money or he didn't ...
I had £8/10s the first year, I had £12/10s for the second year. And then I had sixteen for the third…
Anyway, I went to work ...

These are the words of William Johnson who was born in 1893 in Hutton Cranswick, in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Although this account of his early working life is full of detail, professional historians used to reject this sort of reminiscence as a source for history.

'Little is left of most of the occupations and skills of the pre-machine age.'

Influenced by scientific attitudes, they relied entirely on written documents because they wanted everything to be verifiable. With accounts based on memory, a reader could not go back to the original and check for themselves that a witness, such as Mr Johnson, had really said or done the things they said they had.

Today, however, people's memories are back on the agenda, especially among local historians. Family and community life in Britain have been changing at a furious pace, and little is left of most of the occupations and skills of the pre-machine age, except for what survives in elderly people's memories. It has also become refognised that such memories are very accurate, because they draw on years of experience, and are easily checked by comparing the testimony of several speakers with similar backgrounds.

Tape recording oral testimonies offers a way - sometimes the only way - of capturing some of the detail of this vanishing past, before it is lost forever. Although Mr Johnson has died since I recorded his memories, his words are still available to historians in just the same way that documents are.

Farm lads - a case study

Image of a waggon with horses
A three-horse team and pole waggon delivering corn sacks at Burdale station, in East Yorkshire, c.1900
Because William ranged over many subjects, I could have followed up a wide range of topics with him, but I was interested in his time on farms, working with horses.

What was most surprising was the revelation that single lads were then still hired by the year as servants living on the farm, with their board and lodging as part of their wages. They did not go home at night, as the married labourers did. This was a system associated with early modern England, which was generally believed to have died out by the early 19th century.

'I taped oral testimony from many East Yorkshire farm workers ...'

I taped oral testimony from many East Yorkshire farm workers, all of whom have since died. Taken together, I built up a substantial archive that contradicted the generally accepted idea that horsemen were always skilled, older workers, promoted on merit. Instead, they were often young men not long out of their teens.

Image of Wold's waggoner circa 1800
A Wolds waggoner, circa 1800. The way the horses are yoked was peculiar to the East Riding. The similarities with the Burdale station photograph (above), taken 100 years later, are striking.

Getting a job

Image of a farm worker with a team of horses
Massive horses pulling a heavy roller - used after sowing to compact the soil
When I started out I was frightened of causing - or feeling - embarrassment, especially because I'd been warned that people were scared of tape recorders. But people liked talking about their past experiences and no one ever minded speaking into a microphone (except for one man with something confidential to say, and that just meant turning it off for a few minutes).

Some interviewers prepare questions in advance, and if you have very precise aims, or are dealing with someone used to being interviewed, that can be essential. However, if you're exploring little-known areas of the past, as I was, you may miss things if you keep to a prepared line of questioning. The main thing is simply to listen to what people say, let them say it in their own words, and ask for explanations when they're needed.

'Now my lad, does tha want hiring? I'll gi you a good home ...'

Mr Baines (born 1908, in Howden) described how the lads found jobs at 'hirings' - large gatherings of farm workers and farmers at local markets.

The farmer used to be walking down t' road, you know, with stick, looking round like this 'ere. They'd sort a big lad out, or a suitable lad, you know, and they'd say, "Now my lad, does tha want hiring?".
You used to say "Yes", and they used to ask you how much you wanted for t' year. You used to tell them and they'd barter with you, you know: "I'll gi you so-and-so", and "I'll gi you a good home", and this and t' other. And "can you do this, and can you do t' other?"
One chap used to go across and he used to say, "Can you swing plough, my lad?" If you were about, you know, 17 or 18 years old, or 19. And you'd say, "No I've never done any swing ploughing". He'd say, "Can you wheel a big barrowful of manure?" You used to say, "Aye". "Well thou can learn to swing plough then!" And he'd probably hire you, you see, then and give you a fastening penny, probably half a crown or five bob, and you used to think you'd gotten the world, like.

Boys doing men's work

Image of farm lad with horses and plough
A lad with his horse team at Thixendale Farm, 1890s
Most of my interviewees were boys at the time they were recalling. I was amazed to hear about 12- or 13-year-olds doing the work that was expected of them.

Mr Walker started work in 1915 at the age of 12. His first job was to bring a cartload of fertiliser from the railway station. 'They helped me to yoke four horses in a waggon, two afront o't'other,' he told me, 'and I went to t'station, with myself, for three ton of phosphate. And I couldn't lift it. T'porters put it onto t'waggon.'

It was Mr Baines who explained to me how the boys knew what to do, when it came to ploughing:

Well nearly every lad in t' East Riding, before he left school, had had hold of a plough, if he were interested in farming. And you know, most on 'em, their brothers or their fathers worked on farms and they used to spend a lot of time on t' farms, you know.
You'd go and - same as my dad, when I were a kid about ten years old - and I used to take his drinkings on a Saturday morning into t' field. And if he were harrowing or rolling or ploughing he used to say, "Now, get on, my lad, and off thou goes. And thou can go round while I get my drinkings" - that was his drink o' tea and his summat to eat.
And same in holiday times - you used to go every morning and take your dad his drinkings. And you learnt by doing little bits here and there. My dad used to say to me when I were at school, "Fetch them beasts up and get 'em in cow house for when I come home out o' t' fields."
I used to get 'em in and I used to be milking. If I hadn't milked two when he came home he used to be wondering what I'd been doing - give me a rousting, you know. So I had to help him to milk. I got nowt for it like!

Tough work

Image of Mr Masterman in 1914
Mr Masterman in 1914. He was 18, and about to leave the East Riding to fight in France
But it was a tough way for young lads to start out, and the first winter especially could be grim, as Mr Masterman (born in 1896 in Thorngumbald) recalled:

I went out at 13. I left school at 13 and I went to that farm at Keyingham Grange and the next morning they gave me a pair of horses and a plough and I went with the other lads and I ploughed all day, every day, as long as they did. I know at night I was a right mess. I was all mud, because plough knocked me down.
When the horses turned in, instead of me knowing what to do with the plough so that the plough swung round, I left the plough and the horses turning round and pulled. The blinking handles caught me at the back of the knees and knocked me down all in the mud and I was all mud. But I soon learned, I soon learned how to just lean my plough over so it slided round without knocking me down.
The waggoners used to use the boot. They did and all. The lads was well-disciplined - and them boots the waggoner used to wear, you know, they were boots. They weren't like these ... They were boots with metal toes and if you got one o' them you knew you'd had - you knew a day or two after. You didn't want that twice!

Buckets of beer

Image of men in field with hoes
Haymaking at Manor Farm, Thixendale, in the 1890s
Sunday was the one day the lads had more or less to themselves, but instead of getting away from the farm, Mr Masterman also recalled that they found their recreation there too:

There was a lot of farms and each farm had five or six single lads, and we used to go to look at their horses, to see who had the fattest. And in harvest time we used to go and see who had the best stacks... Sometimes the farmer would come out and he would bring a bucket of beer - great big buckets, scoured clean - bring a dozen mugs and a basketful of beef sandwiches - stick 'em in the middle of the yard, and say "here you are lads!"

Being paid once a year, and being tied to a farm for a year at a time, strongly influenced the way they lived, as Mr Walker told me:

You see, what we earned during that year had to go for clothes and boots at the end o' the year, do you see? You couldn't pay for it straight away. You had to you know, go to tailors and bootmakers to get your boots. 'Course they were all measured, do you see, and hand-made, same wi' clothes. And pay for 'em the following year, do you see? That's how we used to carry on.

Soup, suet and boiled beef

Image of a horse-drawn dray
A 'Lawson wagon' at Broadgate Farm near Beverley, East Yorkshire, 1920s
Another surprise about the farm lads' lives was that, though they worked very hard, they ate far better than they ever could have at home, and far better than youngsters did in town jobs with higher wages.

Mr Johnson gave a graphic description of the typical diet:

You had cold meat for breakfast - I never knew a farm have fried bacon for breakfast. You had - there was generally a joint of beef and bread. And there was - they used to make pies, you know, fruit pies, apple pies, plum pies, jam pies. You filled up with that.
Now for dinner, you always had hot dinner: it may be, Sunday anyway, you had roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and vegetables. Now and then you had what they called 'pot days'. That was broth days. Some of them had, say, roast beef for dinner on a Sunday.
Monday - broth day, that used to be; you had soup, suet puddings, boiled beef, vegetables. Now then, next day was pie day: meat pie, vegetables, meat and that in ... Wednesday, pot on again, Thursday pie day, and then for some of them - that was six days - pot on and pie day and then roast beef on a Sunday.
But some used to vary it a bit: fried beef or such as that for dinner, you know, slices off the roast beef and, you know, fried up. They used to call that "resurrection". Really it was old beef warmed up, but it made a change.

This may sound like a fantasy but all other accounts of farm lads' meals agree with Mr Johnson's. In 1864, a Medical Officer of the Privy Council recorded his opinion that they were the best-fed working-class group in the country.

Oral testimony needs to be checked in this way against other accounts, in exactly the same way as you would check any other kind of historical source. Thus, I also used data from the Census to confirm the age of horsemen, and their tendency to change farms between contracts. The two types of evidence complemented each other perfectly.

Published on BBC History: 2005-01-31
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