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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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Country Life, Farming and Food Production

by Bridport Museum

Contributed by 
Bridport Museum
People in story: 
John Warren
Location of story: 
Netherbury, Dorset
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A3943622
Contributed on: 
24 April 2005

Interviewee : Mr John Warren Date of Birth 1938

Just prior to the war farmers had been going through terrible times. I mean, you couldn’t sell anything., and they were really on their uppers. And really the war produced much better financial returns for all the farmers. Prices improved tremendously. Of course there was local demand - we had to feed ourselves. Talking to my father, to give you an example, milk was probably about a shilling a gallon. You couldn’t give the stuff away. We had a local milk factory in Beaminster, and of course there was no refrigeration as such in those days, so most things were turned into butter and cheese, but Beaminster particularly produced dried milk. And dried milk was essential for use by everybody during the war, so it was being manufactured here locally. And the Services needed it as well. One of the things that happened in the war, and one of the things was to sterilise everything, so all the milk churns got steamed out. They came across a particular bacteria, and it seemed to kill off all the other bacteria. So they thought this may be a means of preservation. Using bacteria culture, and they cottoned on to this idea, and that started in Beaminster, and that’s the basis of the firm that’s in there now. And they sell these cultures world wide, particularly in hot countries, for keeping things in good condition, without refrigeration. That’s clever stuff!

All products were difficult to sell. Most people had a small number of cows, and milk was the main source of income. And then of course, they had other things going on. Everybody had a mixed farm, and one price went down , one tended to go up Everybody kept a pig - because if you were making butter and cheese the by-products were fed to the pig, and you could kill a pig and you could salt it, and you could live on it. Because everybody was very self-contained. And there were no problems with rationing and such. In the towns the people had a hard time, but in the countryside you had everything going for you.
Because the only way the people in the towns could buy extra food, because there were strict rationing cards, the only thing you could do was enter the Black Market. Obviously it was going on everywhere, but it meant cash, and where would you find the cash? Because most people were on extremely low incomes. Most people in Bridport were employed in the net factories and the rope factories and the pay wasn’t excessive. And their priority I would think was more with Palmers beer than with anything else! And then have something to eat. So immediately the war started prices improved, Of course these people who worked in the countryside weren’t called up. But they had to join the Home Guard, so it was quite demanding, because if you worked all day, say in hay making time, and you had to go out and do Home Guard duties at night, it was pretty knackering. But they all had to do it.

Then the War Ag in Dorchester, they said that each and every farmer in the area, with suitable land, they would grow say four acres of flax per year and keep growing it. And it was very labour intensive, because, bear in mind we didn’t have facilities for drilling it so we had to get some machinery to do all this. There was an awful lot of machinery imported from America. And one of the first things that turned up, via Edwards in Beaminster, was Allis-Chalmers tractors, and they were bright orange, and they were brilliant. And they came on rubber tyres and they came on iron tyres. Of course the ones on iron tyres were very good for ploughing, because you didn’t get any wheel-slip. But of course you couldn’t run them on the road,It was a great increase, because with .. most of the horses that were in the area had gone, due to the First World War, so you didn’t have sufficient horsepower to produce the goods that were required by the War Ag in Dorchester. And so this complete census was done, which you’re probably aware of, of everything that everybody had. And it was done in very quick time - six or eight months or so, very early on. And then, once they realised what was available, then farmers were instructed to grow various crops. But the best farmers were encouraged to join the War Ag and in fact they would spill the beans on the neighbours. And if a neighbour didn’t come up to par and he wasn’t good for the job he got thrown out - they’d put somebody else in. They’d requisition the farm It was very severe. No questions asked. If you weren’t up to scratch - out the door! Because what we had to do was to produce food. Bear in mind in ‘42 and ‘43 the submarines were knocking stuff out of the Atlantic, thousands of tons a day, it was critical.

The whole area was plagued with rabbits, so at Solway Ash there was a rabbit dealer. A.J. Thomas and Son. He had the basis of a brilliant business, ‘because he dealt in rabbits, and you could go - most farmers were pestered with these things. ‘because here you were on the one hand trying to produce more, yet rabbits by the thousand were invading the fields and this had a great effect, no doubt about it. I remember, with my uncle, we went out one Sunday in the winter, with ferrets and twleve-bores and we shot three hundred in a day. I mean the whole field moved! You could take them up to Salway Ash and you’d probably get something like one and six or two bob, which was good money, up at old Thomas’s. And he would process them up there and he did regular trips to London

The other thing that was introduced in the war was a thing called nitro-chalk. It was the first time that we’d actually had artificial fertilisers available. I don’t know where - it was obviously imported from abroad. And that was the start of the decline of all the flowers. Because I can recall, in Netherbury, right by Netherbury Bridge, his name was Fred Davis and he was a carter on the Parnham Estate. They used to start at four o’clock in the morning and he had this pair of horses and it was beautiful in June. Not much grass but flowers everywhere! And butterflies, MILLIONS of them! And as you drove through the swath, chatter,chatter,chatter, chatter, all the flowers and the grass would fall down behind the cutter bar and all the butterflies would take off. And I shall never forget that! And it was within two or three years - it was as quick as that - when the nitro-chalk was applied, of course that caused the grass to grow rapidly and suppressed all the flowers. And that was the end of the flowers. And then of course every field you could l;ay your hand on had to be ploughed up, and of course once it’s turned over and you’ve lost these natural fields they’ve gone for ever. Which was a great pity really.

Well, I remember, over at Waytown, this was September time, we were pulling flax up there and this was, I think, when Bridport had a few spare bombs dropped on it and could have been the same aeroplanes, and they came in from the North. We knew they were German - we could see the swastikas. They were only about a hundred foot up. We all dived to the ground, because you might get machine-gunned. You just didn’t know. But if they were being chased by Spitfires it was very dangerous outside!

We used to have all hay ricks. This was before baling, so one of the things was you had to conserve during the summertime all your food you’d require for the farm for the wintertime. So there was a great amount of hay. So we all had to learn how to build hay ricks that didn’t fall over, and didn’t get red hot and catch fire through spontaneous combustion. But they also had to be protected from the weather. So we had lots of local thatchers. You also had to grow Red Standard wheat for the war effort. You kept the straw to thatch the hay ricks to keep them dry. So we all had to learn to make hay ricks, And to get up on top of a hay rick you had to have a long ladder. And they were known as pole ladders, and they were wider at the bottom and thinner at the top. And naturally any sensible Englishman would pick it up and have the narrow bit at the top and the wider bit at the bottom. These Irishmen would always put the ladders up upside down, with the heavy bit right up the top and the light bit at the bottom. We could never understand it! And they would NOT get a ladder the right way up It was really funny!. And Land Girls? They were all over the place. If a farmer felt he needed some extra labour and he couldn’t obtain it locally, they were requisitioned from all over the place. And they were also billeted. Because my mother had a Land Girl billeted with us. She was called Barbara, and she came from the city. And she had NO idea about milking a cow or doling anything. But they learned ever so quickly. And they had these fancy jodhpurs and all the rest of it - they always brought a uniform of their own and they went off to various farms all over the place.

The threshing contractors were down in the Marsham Vale I recall, here and in Waytown, it was a steam engine, a traction engine, and we had to get the coal in. We had to buy that from the Bridport Station. The coal was laid on through, again, a national organisation for this. The War Ag, they knew that steam power was what was needed. You’d be given notice if you had a telephone - my grandfather did. The only one in Netherbury. He was central control! Netherbury 250 - I’ve still got the same number today! They would ring and tell you they were on the way, see, and you had to get everything organised. They’d winch these things into position, a great big threshing machine and all the rest of it, and about seven o’clock in the morning they’d get started up. Of course we boys were into all this! ‘because they used to pull in at Netherbury, by the ‘Star’. ‘because that was a watering point by the bridge. They had to have watering points. Even today, between Melplash and Beaminster part of the road is known as Watering Pot, and there used to be a hole at the side of the road where steam engines used to pull up and have a drink on the way between Bridport and Beaminster. ‘because if you ran out of water you were snookered. You could have plenty of coal, but if you ran out of water that was the end! So Netherbury was a good watering hole, by the ‘Star’ Inn, and they used to put their engines in there overnight, in the yard, have a few bevvies, and they had caravans you see and they’d get their heads down. Course, everybody was as pissed as crickets most of the time. Dreadful. And what we boys used to do, just for a bit of fun, we’d get - all the sacks were West of England sacks. Enormous things. They held two hundredweight, terribly heavy. You couldn’t lift ‘em up. But we used to crawl on top of these steam engines and stuff a bag down their funnel. And in the morning they could never understand, they couldn’t get ‘em started ‘because they couldn’t get any charge (?) you see! We were notorious for getting up to mischief. And we used to stuff a West of England sack in a steam engine funnel and you’d got NO chance of lighting a fire at all!

We had lots of Americans killed with accidents, on the roads. Some went home, some didn’t. I think some of them are buried in Netherbury. Crashing jeeps and all this sort of thing. Of course they went to the pubs and had too much to drink. And there were jeeps everywhere. They were all palleted up, and if you wanted one you could have one! Nobody asked any questions. Father was offered several, but he refused. If he got found out, he’d be in serious trouble. But they brought an awful lot of kit, there’s no doubt about that. They had lovely uniforms, plenty of money, and they also brought plenty of sweets! And we boys used to stand on the side of the road and every time a convoy went by they’d shower you with money and sweets - chewing gum everywhere! You couldn’t get it anywhere else you see. It was wonderful. And at the same time, at the top of Jury (?) Lane, which joins the main road just past Melplash, we didn’t know what was going on, but Perry and Perry had a very large haulage business at Beaminster, and they had these little three and four ton trucks and it was a continuous operation, day and night. They were hauling shingle from the beach between Burton and Cogden, and it all went north. And we didn’t know, but what they were actually doing was building Yeovilton air base. And thousands of lorries went up and back, day after day, month in month out. And on the corner, because they overloaded them, every time they went round the corner, pebbles and shingle used to come off the side. And the whole of the road was just covered in pebbles, everywhere. And I can recall, as if it were yesterday, because that’s where we used to catch the bus to school, and they were going night and day, and we never knew what was going on in Yeovilton. You only knew what you saw with your own eyes in your own locality, ‘because hush-hush was the word. We used to use the trap to go to school some days. My aunt used to drive us up and down in that. But there were buses, coaches, they were about. There were plenty of buses in the village every day, every hour.

We never saw any British troops. Just the local Home Guard. They were so laid back! We met this American sergeant, he was billeted with my grandfather, and he said ‘If I survive this, I’m going to Berlin if I can, and I will bring you back a flag”. And he went to Berlin and he went to the Town Hall in Berlin. He took the Nazi flag off the flagpole there, he stuffed it in his shirt, and it’s in Netherbury to this day! Brand split new. And we only showed it for the first time when we had the Queen’s Jubilee. Because if we had been found with a Nazi flag in our possession after the war we’d have been accused of collaboration! And we took it out and people said ‘Wow! Where did you get that?’ And that’s the story of the Nazi flag. And it’s still in my parents house over at Netherbury now. From this American sergeant., he survived everything. And he went through the landing, and he went right through, and then came back again. And it was his word ... actually I think he thought quite a lot of my auntie!

The blackout, yes, it was very strict. And the other thing, of course, everybody had reduced headlamps, and that was another thing. Every headlamp was covered over and had a slit in it. It was about six or seven inches wide and it was about half an inch, that was all. And you had very little light to the front. And every vehicle had one of these little slits in the front. And every vehicle had to be modified to have these. Of course, you didn’t go out at night very much, it was bloody dangerous. It was dangerous at any time to be out and about! We had great big black curtains hung up, they almost formed little vestibules within the room so you could actually go out. Otherwise you were in the light. And it was almost punishment by death if somebody spotted a light!

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