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An Agricultural Apprenticeship: Dung Spreading in Kent, 1940

by D Peter Randon

Contributed by 
D Peter Randon
People in story: 
Peter Randon
Location of story: 
Tunstall, Sittingbourne, Kent.
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
08 November 2003

An Agricultural Apprenticeship in 1940.

It was 1940 I was 14 year old living with my parents in 133 Picardy Road, Belvedere, a suburb in the South East of London, we had moved there earlier after we had been bombed out at 38 Avenue Road Erith, and I went to school at Dartford Grammar School. The earlier part of the war had been raging on and my Mother, my younger brother Michael and me had been shuffled here there and everywhere as evacuees to farms in Cornwall and relations in Rugby, Nottingham and Leicester, interspersed with living at home. My 16 year old elder brother John was in the Fleet Air Arm and having the time of his life doing three years training in airframes at RAF Halton, Buckinghamshire. My school work up to that period was not very brilliant, could do better, not trying and doesn’t pay attention a typical school report. Because of the war it got worse, and within the space of a year I was evacuated to four different private locations and had attended three different schools. My parents and the teachers were getting more and more frustrated with me, their uncontrollable middle son and untalented pupil. They decided some drastic action had to be taken, and the chance of me staying at school to progress through the ranks and transform into a bank manager, solicitor, company director, bowling club manager or whatever was looking implausible.

At the time the Kent Education Committee was running a scheme, for boys of school leaving age who wished to take up agriculture as a profession. This scheme was run in conjunction with the War Agricultural Committee and it killed two birds with one stone. No1, it gave the incompetent boys like me something to do and be away from their frustrated parents, and No2, there was a major war in progress, all the young male population of call up age were away in far distant places fighting for their King and country, and these fresh faced youngsters of 13 years old and more, armed with the right training, stepped in and filled the void.

The Kent Education Committee had a farm at Sittingbourne in Kent, it belonged to the `The Kent Farm Institute`. The students were dumped with the herdsman and his wife in their tied farm cottage as lodgers and left there for an eight-week training period. The plan was for them to cover all aspect of practical farm work such as milking, thatching, hedging, working with horses, tractor-driving, hedge laying and harvesting. These boys would then emerge after the eight-week period as fully trained agricultural apprentices and be moved to other positions on privately run farms in Kent. There was another asset, after a respectable time and when they had established themselves as a viable asset to the farmer their employer, they were then in a reserved occupation for the duration, similar to the Bevan boys working in the coalmines.

This idea was suggested to me, what did I think, and Mr Voysey came to see me to decide if I was eligible. Mr Voysey was the Kent Education man in charge of the scheme and he explained the layout to me in layman’s terms, his face was festooned in smiles and I took to him immediately. I had already decided to do it I had endured enough school to last a lifetime and I certainly didn't relish returning for the endless lines, the verbal persecution and beatings administered by the heartless teaching staff with their canes, rulers, and flying black-board rubbers at Dartford Grammar School. My thoughts at that time were, `I can earn some money, and do what boys do, and best of all I can leave home and be free of all the restrictions that parents can muster`. Needless to say I jumped at the chance and agreed to all the options.

There was a war on and the clothing coupons were too valuable to use on working clothes and I went with my parents to a shop in Woolwich near to our home. They sold second hand and surplus MOD clothing. My father bought me leather boots, leather leggings and breeches with thick jumpers and coats, it was an army dispatch riders attire similar to the farm workers clothing of that day. I was despatched with my suitcase to Grove End farm, Tunstall, Sittingbourne and lived in digs` with Albert the herdsman and his wife Mary.

My Father had briefed me earlier that I would. "Have to work hard because all farm workers do and when you come home I want to see your hands are hard and you`ll have to work in the rain too, all farm workers do". The herdsman’s wife was a nice lady and a good cook and I immediately settled in. Food rationing was in force and food in the towns was in short supply. Obviously not at Grove End F arm, I can clearly remember tucking in to a large plate of home made buns with large pots of home made jam on the scrubbed wooden tea table each night, and massive mugs of tea with thick crispy bacon and eggs for breakfast.

The next morning at seven am sharp I was given my spam sandwiches and the tea in a lemonade bottle wrapped in a thick sock to keep it warm, and I lined up with all the other workers in the barn to get our orders for the day from the farm bailiff. He looked at me and said. “Get a dung fork and go with Fred, he’ll show you what to do” and off I went with this old bloke. Fred was a typical farm worker he lived in a cottage close to the farm, and he said “Come on then we’ll sort out a dung fork for you, you don’t want one of the farm ones they’re no good, they’re all bent, they don’t work. I’ve got some better ones in my shed you can borrow one of mine, I can’t work without the proper tools, I keep my best ones at home in my shed.”

Fred’s shed was an Aladdin’s cave that Pandora would envy. Down one side an array of dung forks, digging forks, spades and shovels, all hanging up on six inch nails cleaned and oiled to protect them. Along the other side he had a collection of thatching implements, hand rake, mallet, balls of binder twine, and thatching spars. A bill-hook for sharpening and splitting the hazel boughs for the spars and buckets to wet down the heap of shaken out straw prior to thatching, and specially shaped spades and scrapers suitable for land draining and ditching. I was impressed with Fred’s vast selection of tools; he was obviously prepared for any eventually. Fred was a typical experienced farm worker, he obviously collected his tools with enthusiasm, and they were his pride-and-joy.

His garden was the same and although it was March, as we walked through it there was a great selection of wintergreens, leeks, an enormous asparagus bed, and the permanent structure for the runner beans. The last year’s crop of onions was hanging in bundles in his shed. And a trench had been dug at one end to put all the kitchen waste in for composting, and he said. “I may put the beans there this year, if its a dry year the compost conserves the water, beans like plenty of water”, a comment I have recalled many times in the past years.

He selected a suitable dung fork and a wooden scraper to keep it clean, he had fashioned the scraper with his pocket-knife from a piece of matured chestnut stake. Fred passed it to me and said. “If you keep your tools clean they will work better for you.” We both set off with our lunch bags and dung forks over our shoulders to Park Field twenty minutes walk away. Some piles of sewage sludge had been emptied there; it had been collected earlier from the local sewage works in Milton and brought to the field with a horse and cart.

Our job was to spread these piles of sewage across the field with our dung forks. It was the time of the year that the sewage farms annually emptied their pits. I didn't find this too difficult I had used a dung fork on many occasions, on holidays staying at farms, and also helping my father in the garden. We spread all the lumps in the field on the first day, and the next day another field appeared with piles of sewage sludge and another and another and yet another. Fred never complained about his job he was obviously enjoying it, and although we were dealing with sewage sludge he took it seriously deciding the best plan of action to tackle the job, stopping at intervals to clean his dung fork and survey the situation. At break times he produced an old hessian potato sack, found a comfortable spot away from the biting wind in the lieu of a hedge and we both sat down and ate our `beaver. Neither of us had a watch but Fred’s uncanny mind knew within half an hour the time to knock off. We could hear the steam siren from the Sittingbourne paper mill and we could also hear and see the smoke of the trains, and Fred knew the times they ran. He could also tell the time by the position and shadows of the sun.

I carried on with this job every day for four weeks and by now I had become an accomplished dung spreader. We found all sorts of foreign objects during the course of our duties, Fred and the others would delight explaining to me in graphic details their uses interspersed with dirty laughs. I expect it all must have smelt foul, but I can’t remember, my Father had warned me earlier. "Every thing smells on the farm.” Each morning it was always the same pattern, we all stood in the barn for our orders and the bailiff said to me. “You carry on with Fred.” I was beginning to wonder at this point if dung spreading was all they did at Grove End Farm, surely my apprenticeship would cover other tasks?

The morning in the barn at the start of the fifth week the Bailiff said. “I want you to go with the Waggoner today, he’s in the stable.” I joined him and he introduced himself as George. He said. “Go and harness up Jim for me there’s his harness over there, can you do that, you’re not very big are you?” he said pointing to a ten foot high Clydesdale horse with itchy legs standing in a stall. I confidently said. “Yes.” Luckily for me our holidays on farms in Cornwall helped me here yet again, and apart from wielding a dung fork, I had learnt many other farm tasks, and one of them the techniques of harnessing a carthorse. I stood on a bucket to put the collar over its head, but alas the horse was too big and the harness too heavy and George helped me. I did learn a Waggoner’s tip from George, he said. “If you hang your bottle of tea on the hames of the horse collar, put your coat over it, the heat from Jim will keep your tea warm.

We hitched Jim the massive carthorse to a dung cart and we set off for Milton Sewage Farm. This was great! here I was sitting on an iron wheeled dung cart next to the Waggoner driving down Bell Lane, up the High Street, and Station Road in Sittingbourne, under the railway arch and down new road to the Milton Sewage Works situated somewhere in the vicinity of the creek. I was now in my element, this new job was a step up the ladder and called dung carting. When we arrived the sewage was stored in pits about five feet high it had been there for a number of years, it had had time to drain and rot down to something like the consistency of peat from the Irish peat bogs, and we were able to chop it out with our spades. In no time we had loaded up our cart and were on our way back to the farm and deposited it in lumps for Fred and his new hapless Agricultural Student to spread. After a couple of days as a bonus George the tobacco chewing and swearing Waggoner was letting me drive the horse, and giving me an occasional roll up of his Pirate Shag tobacco.

Waggoner’s had to start their day at five am. The horses have to be roused, fed, watered and groomed, the stable has to be mucked out, new hay in the rack above the horses head for when they return at the end of the day, and the nose bags filled for the horses mid-day beaver out on the sewage run. All this had to be ready by seven am when the main farm staff reported for work. The horse’s working day finished at three pm and they set off for home at the stable, they had to be curry combed, watered, and fed and the harness may have needed some running repairs. When we got back that first day, George gave me the job of oiling the harness with `neats-foot` oil to keep it supple and strong, while he went off with another man to the hayloft above the stable, cutting the hay into chaff and mixing it with the rolled oats for the horses feed.

Sadly all good things must come to an end, in the blink of an eye, my eight weeks intensive Kent Agricultural Training course carefully thought out before hand by the men in grey suits at the top had come to an end. They has got the inspiration for the training course sitting in the head office at the War Agricultural Office at Springfield in Maidstone, and it was designed to familiarise young men and boys in all aspects of general agriculture to help the war effort.

I had enjoyed my stay at Grove End farm, had met several other apprentices and together we had occasionally walked to the town in the evenings. For my new full time position as a fully trained farm apprentice, I was deposited with Mr Muddle at Panthurst farm in Weald near Sevenoaks, a 400-acre dairy farm with eighty milking cows.

I had settled in my room in my lodgings in the village and was deep in thought musing to myself. `How fortunate for Mr Muddle that I had come to his farm, and what an asset I would be with eight weeks intensive training in the arts of, dung spreading, dung carting and dung shovelling, tucked under my belt.

D.Peter Randon. 16.3. 02. 2394.

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