Tatworth Village/Seasonal work and the village school

Chapter VI: Seasonal work and the village school


Just after WWII it was still possible to see steam engines propelling wagons, road rollers and farm implements. The threshing machine working in Tatworth was hired from the local supplier. It usually came with its own team of men who were familiar with its workings. The decision to start threshing was a judgement made by the farmer. His starting point would be the price of flour, the position of his bank balance and the gamble he was prepared to make on the state of the local economy. Usually the corn was threshed in late autumn and early winter. If done outside, the state of the weather or what was forecast, was the adjudicator. The flail was still known to be used – mainly in the winter, to give work when bad weather kept the workers from the field - to produce corn for the chickens.

Threshing was always done in a hurry - using the maximum number of workers. A full water cart was always to hand. It was no good finding you were out of water halfway through the job - having to close down the boiler. It was the farmer’s responsibility to see that water was always available and sufficient coal to hand. If local water unavailable it was pumped from a stream or pond into the water tub. Welsh steam coal was shovelled into the boiler as gradually steam pressure was reached… The tall chimney belched black smoke and the whistle blew – at last pressure 'was up!' The great flywheel turned and the piston rod jerked backwards and forwards… the belt started to flap and the speed regulator spun… The thresher started pulsating – humming its never-ending tune, as every piece of loose metal, associated bit of tackle, and worn bearing, started to rattle and shake. One man started to go round the road wheels on the engine, to hammer in wedges to prevent the engine from moving closer to the thresher, and another man wedged the thresher – the idea was to stop the belt from slipping by maintaining the correct tension on the belt.

Two men usually unricked the sheaves of corn onto a cart… which duly, pulled up to the elevator, to be off-loaded onto the conveyor. The sheaves passed along the conveyor to the bond cutter who cut the string or untied the band to release the stalks, which were then entered into the drum feeder. At the other end of the feeder the now husk-less straw was taken off the drum to be taken to the straw-stack… the grain was bagged up from the side-chute using a sack-trolley in two hundred-weight sacks, and loaded onto the grain wagon.

Ten men often carried out this whole operation. The spent straw not always taken immediately to make a stack – some farms would tie the straw into trusses using a straw-bond, sold-on or ricked-up. The husks left to fall onto the ground, although: the very action of the belts driving the action, the spinning drum, and conveyor, tended to blow the husks out, making a cloud of irritating, itching-making husks, mask the whole operation – covering everything. From removal of the corn from the ear, to grinding at the mill, as much husk was removed as possible - winnowing, by using draughts of air - by blower or fan… The threshed straw went to build the rick. This straw would be animal feed for the winter and cut out of the rick by the ‘fogger’ using very long and broad hay-knives to cut away a truss, which was then bound and carried to the field. Un-used ricks, which were surplus, broken down and spread on fields - to be ploughed-in or cut-up to make manure heaps. Ricks could be either round or square-sided, with or without end hips. They were built mostly in the rick-yard reasonably close to where the animals were to be fed – near to the chickens - to nest, feed and lay. If likely to be infested with vermin the rick would be built on staddle stones [mushroom shaped stone or iron to prevent vermin from getting into the ricks] - if not, a base of bundles of brushwood laid to allow air to circulate - kept the straw or hay off the ground to prevent rotting. Once the rick built up, the top was thatched.

At the turn of the century, this would cost the farmer 2s for five hours work. At the same time the ricks were being built, the swedes and mangles were being made into heaps [clamps] and covered with straw and earth to keep off the frosts. Potato clamps were specifically for humans although if sufficient, at the end of the season, they would also be fed to the pigs. Both these root crops were used as winter-feed for the cattle. In the winter, cattle food was not just thrown on the ground but placed in large wooden troughs and hayracks. The carter’s stockmen and shepherds were expected to administer to their animals when they were ill. Old remedies were used perfected over the ages to cure swine fever, foot and mouth disease, and foot rot. Antiphlegestin, Stockholm tar and castor oil, were all popular medicants. The only animals to be kept in close confinement were pigs. In some farms, they were allowed to feed off the apples in the orchards or in small fields to graze the acorns. Very often, particularly for hops and soft fruit, town’s folk would descend on the farms to do casual work – staying in purpose built wooden huts. They considered this not only a method to earn a little extra but as a holiday too. It was usually an expected and organized event at harvest time and the same families met up every year taking in turn to look after the children. The huts were provided with cooking facilities and a communal sink and latrines.

After the harvest had been gathered in and the festival blessed in the church, the village held its thanksgiving. In times past this was known as ‘The Revels’, but Puritanism soon put a stop to all that. Now the village fete and garden show took its place. They still draw the inhabitant together: for the children to run wild and the merry-go-round to spin - by the efforts of the showman and his cranking handle. There were country dancing, races and hoopla, ducking apples… and the maypole to be laced – danced round. However trivial it may seem, it was planned for, looked forward to, and continually remembered. A demand was now made on Bradford’s warehouse for coulters, ploughshares and dung forks, as the crops were cleared from the fields. Dung was tipped in piles across the fields and old ricks broken up and interspersed too, ready for ploughing. It was the time for the stable hands to start repairing the harnesses and to put right all those faults with the carts and wagons.

The morning started bright and clear. It was the most perfect September day, the sky was cloudless, the only sounds disturbing the peace was the cooing of the wood pigeons, and the squabbling of the rooks high in the trees overhead. Not far away a stag rears on its hind legs to knock some more acorns off the lower branches of the oak… a shaft of sunlight through the branches lights-up a peacock butterfly - which settled for a moment before continuing its erratic journey. On one of the top branches, a kestrel swivels his head - to left and to right, surveying his kingdom…

The wet grass from an overnight shower sparkles and thousands of small cobwebs glisten from tiny water droplets that shimmer in the sun. Gradually the morning mist lifts from the ground as the sun warms the air… piles of newly dug soil advertise the underground run of a mole. Autumn has begun, we put aside all thoughts of how well Somerset is doing in the cricket league… the football season is upon us. The countryside now changes. The sun is still hot but comes to us lower in the sky. September kicks in with a sudden chill makes one reach for the jumper. The ground begins to show the first scatterings of fallen leaves. They are in a variety of browns, reds and oranges blowing about the ruts, rustling and chattering as they pile up. The dewy grass, covered with early morning webs, soak my shoes that are not waterproof - giving me wet socks again… The acorns and fallen twiglets crunch underfoot. The humming and squawking wildlife quietens as day by day their food becomes more difficult to find… finally the blackbird and song thrush leave for warmer climes…

Tomatoes are starting to ripen outside as well as the blackberry and autumn delight raspberries, the potatoes, onions, beans and marrows become staple diet. The weeds keep coming… it is a full-time job to keep on top of their growth. The pears and apples on the trees behind the privy are picked as they become ready. Those not eaten are wrapped in newspaper and stored on trays in the outhouse.

The local thatcher lays out his unthrashed wheat straw… gathers and ties them, in handy bundles. On wet days, he whittles his pegs, sharpens his scissors and prepares for the next fine day. His first job on Monday morning is the cottage in Perry Street, by Crossways Corner. It is there that he places his very long ladders – in readiness, carting and stacking his prepared bundles for an early morning start. He not only works for the farmer repairing barns, haylofts and making ricks but also re-thatched and replaced roof ridges in the village.

The fields, in the first half of the twentieth century, the banks, and ditches, all presented an enormous variety of plant life compared to today's selection. There were trees of fruit, nut and thorn, varieties of bush rose, vetch, yarrow, knapweed and birdsfoot. The ditches were deeper and damper, with grass more lush and succulent. Insect life not only of greater variety but larger: dragonflies, stag beetles, butterflies, moths, glow-worms, snakes, lizards, toads, frogs and crickets. Birds too would be more numerous. In fact, the whole flora and fauna would be almost unrecognisable by the profusion of differing types and species, especially the winged insect variety.

As September led into October… the cabbages displayed frayed edges as the white butterfly’s caterpillar nibble away - gradually reducing the leaves to skeletons, a number lay across the leaves producing a crosshatched colouration of yellow and black. Some of the cabbages have their hearts completely destroyed – going mouldy and black. There is no time to be sentimental the caterpillars have to be removed – pinched out. By now the beans are stringy and the marrows hard. Digging in earnest… preparing the ground to sow the spring cabbage must be concluded… All the old decaying crops removed to the compost heap. The time for sowing the broad beans, that are going to stand the winter, will have to be sown - to give the New Year a good start.

The compost heap was broken into and manure from the yard made up the load to spread upon the stubble. Now is the time to start pulling and cutting the tops off the cattle-beet… followed by the autumn ploughing and the planting of beans… Immediately drilling the winter wheat, the horse teams are prepared in advance, putting at least a two-horse drill on the light soils. The mangels could now be collected up and carted off to the clamp - which lay beside the potatoes. Autumn is well under way. October starts cold and damp. The early morning mist lies late into the morning giving the fields a ghostly presence. The river is clear and low and the banks encroach – the luxuriant grass weighed down by water droplets sags dipping their heads into the water… the water reflects the growth making the width of the stream appear even smaller. Lower down a pair of swans go through their bonding ritual ducking their heads then reaching up until finally they touch one another.

The thick hedges provided not only a field boundary but also give new material for future hedge and fence, shelter for the farm animals and birds, and provide a byway for wild creatures – to pass from field to field. The hedgerows at the side of the lanes would not be cut, becoming, in some cases, interlinked over the middle of the road forming a tunnel - which shut out the daylight. In the evening or winter nights these lanes were frightening places for us children; the trunks began to form faces and the long tendrils of the branches looked like arms ready grab any unfortunate passer-by. The glow-worms light twinkled in the dark, dank ditches and lane sides, whilst the bats flitted above on their set course to the nearest food. The hooting owls and barking foxes gave a sinister background to the shadowy undergrowth… The hedge banks and ditches were ancient boundaries of tracks running from hamlet to village, from village to town… a source of wonderment at the diversity of wildlife, a fascination at the beauty of the leaf and branch - forming a varied, colourful picture.

The ditches became flooded every year. Tall rushes, herbs and reed, shoot up, at the expense of smaller, less vigorous plants, when the ditches are lush and green – it is impossible to see the bottom of the ditch and quite difficult to extract oneself - if clumsy enough to fall in! In early November, the wind penetrated the stoutest coat. The skies washed out and threatening. The rooks were buffeted, being blown off course, having to make an extra effort to regain their perch. They complained creating a tremendous racket. When they took off to find food, they swept over the fields in gigantic swoops soaring upwards to gain height and then down again almost plunging into the ground. They seemed to keep this up for hours, almost as if they were at play…

Halfway through the month, the better weather arrived and a walk by the brook revealed a wider streambed - now that the dead and dying vegetation had rotted and fallen away. The trees were beginning to look bare - half their leaves had fallen. The reeds with their yellow stems and black rotting heads were flattened by the wind - lay in the water, the fallen leaves clogging their matted remains.The warm weather never lasts long for the rain settles in again, turning the roads into glistening rivers of black ink, gurgling down the drain which leads to the river. Now the mornings were frosty, quickly thawing out to leave just the shady areas icy on dead leaves and limp grass. The river changed again now reflecting browns and ochre’s. It is going to stay that way for some time to come… Back at the cottage, work continued... the war had not changed the routines of life one jot. The butter factory, near Chilson Common, took over the mantle of chief employer after the net making industry had suffered yet another poor year.

The early mornings were crisp, the frost glistening on the roads. The forecast is two days of rain and sleet followed by strong winds. The river is high and unusually brown from mud washed down stream. Last weeks rain has made the current strong as the water rushes over the stones swept down from higher ground. Once again, the moles have been active on the grassy bank every so often the brown earth thrown up into soft crumbly piles. Out of all the greenery, left by the winter’s blast, the ivy remains bright and vibrant. The flowers of pale-yellow populate the tops and by the end of December the berries will be very dark green. Also looking strong, but not as colourful, is the holly with its many bunches of bright red berries - declaring a hard winter… Should look a picture when pinned to the beams in the sitting room, along with the mistletoe, from the oak in yonder field. There is just time for grandad to plant the shallots… before he sits down to the main meal of the day. Then off with his sons to the Poppe Inn… known before 1927, as the Country Hotel, the local meeting place for most of the local village men folk… this is where they played darts, shove-halfpenny and dominoes, until about ten, when they returned home to sit by the fire, play cards or relate the local gossip to grandma.

After Christmas, when all the festivities were over, the farm-workers tried to keep indoors, or at least stayed close to the barns where the seed-barley could be thrashed. On dry days, the broken fences and gates could be repaired or the stack-yard swept. There was always something to do even in the foulest weather to keep the men busy. At Rosalie Cottage, life got back to normality after the Christmas jollities. Other than during the winter the cottage door was left open – guarded by a large, cast iron dog. Step over the threshold onto the thick stone step, which spans the width of the door; take the cambered sandstone brick path through the gate onto the road beyond… Turning right, start up the hill; a few paces more and there, on the left… some steps, with a neat set of iron railings supporting a handrail which lead to a gothic door. The school entrance stands impressively tall. Its an official building… surmounted by the bell tower… the autumn term was ending - another year almost over… The children are practicing their carols; ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ filters out - in time with the piano… Another cold day - the third week in December – the last week of term. The sun shines weakly as it tries to penetrate the moisture-laden air. Nobody dallies, head down, they move quickly to get inside out of the cold. There, the fire blazes up, casting a warm, flickering light, against the brass warming pan… the paraffin lamp is already lit, the smell of the oil another part of my memory bank… gives light, as well as comfort.

On the beams in the living room the pinned holly and mistletoe remained. The painted and crayoned cards still lurked behind the clock and candleholders. The table is set again as grandma bustles about cutting the bread ready for the evening meal… Life in the village changed little. This was the quietest time, it was as if everything waiting for warmth to strike flesh or ground. Inside the cottage the fire crackled in the hearth and the clock strikes midday. The wind and rain of January has passed to clear cold days of February. The farmer over the hedge has started drilling the spring beans and peas. In a few weeks time the oats and barley would have to go through the same procedure. In the village school the children stayed in during their break times, the cold penetrated up from the floor making their toes as cold as ice. The coke fire did little to keep the cold at bay…

Tatworth was not a normal rural village. The lace mill, butter factory and railway junction made it more isolated from the affects of low farm prices - than an economy solely reliant upon what could be produced from the land. The offshoots to all three plus the corn mill at Forton gave it strength to resist unemployment. Even when there were hard times for lace, production one or other of the employers would came to the rescue, plus the largest landowners like Parrocks Lodge and Forde Abbey. This relative isolationism was reflected in the population’s view of the outside world’s troubles, as being a hindrance to the perpetuation of all that was good and normal. Life, like the language, was slow and ordered, in pace with the seasons. Within all his rural activity, the creative industries fed off the large manufacturers circulating wealth and jobs. This circular life in Tatworth, where all benefited from this mechanism - each part fed off the other, maintained the coherence of the complete social group.

Village schools in the eighteen hundreds had their teaching practice based upon learning by rote… in classrooms holding a number of other age groups. In most schools, there was only one large room, which was cold, damp and dusty. Religious bodies… mainly the Anglican National Society established in 1811, controlled the institutions. Church schools greatly outnumbered voluntary organization. All schooling required fees supplemented by donations and government grants. ‘The Education of the Poor’, such as it was, was ministered by the church – by the Church of England’s National Society. At this time, there was no Government provision or legal requirement. The provision of a school was dependant upon patronage and beneficence of the Rector of Chard Church… plus, bequests and subscriptions. Only five years before A Parliamentary Act banned the use of child labour although it did carry on for a few more years.In 1837, Victoria came to the throne one year after the Union workhouse was built on the Crewkerne Road. A further two years saw 243 people sheltered there from the town and borough. Out-relief was a fund raised to help the unemployed… that year a sum of seventeen hundred pounds was allocated for that cause.

The start of the century had seen harvests ruined by bad weather and the lead up to the coronation was to see little improvement. William IV had been on the throne for seven years… now it was the chance to turn round the economy. Victoria was eighteen and she was made of sterner stuff. One the continent, 1830 was a year of revolution. England was up in arms serious rioting broke out. Farm machinery was smashed, ricks set on fire and fists were raised. The rain in 1828 had been the worst in living memory and agricultural prices dropped. During the next ten years farmers’ begged for a reduction in their rent's – a few had to sell up and move away to the town. The lord of the manor, in a number of estates, gave land over to the community for allotments. It was a bad time for all, particularly for the already poor. There was much unemployment, for neither farmers nor workshops were taking on labour. The poorhouse in the town had to turn people away. The Mayor of Chard called a meeting where he put it to the assembled parishioners that the severe weather was creating hardship. It was decided to make donations and a collection was immediately taken – which raised £60. The plan was to purchase coal, bacon and peas and share those out to six hundred poor persons.

The social gap was widening as the inefficient and uneconomic farmer sold up and the wealthy tenant and lord increased their holding. Landowners had benefited from the purchase of low price land. The industrialisation of manufacturing brought to a head the scandal of child labour. By 1844, the employment of any child below the age of eight, in the textile industry, was banned. Between eight and thirteen, the child had to attend school for three hours a day. Many parents evaded the restrictions where they could. Textile workers opposed the raising of the minimum working age of half-timers. Lace schools were set up to teach children to read. The commissioners later tested the children to find out what had been learnt. The results proved that although the children could read the majority could not write.

The Union workhouse was still a necessary. Inmates were issued with a hammock although it would appear that these were not in a very good condition. An issue of string gave some comfort to repair the netting and to ensure the hammock hung properly. Two rugs made by previous inmates were all that were allowed for each person. There were complaints about not being able to wash and the violent disturbances resulted in two months hard labour, in the House of Correction.

It was the large acreage now of the thrusting landowners that allowed them to survive the hard times, after the act of enclosure. Once again, the Pouletts gained most. By 1865 horse-powered threshing machines had been installed, improved land drainage continued, whilst fields redesigned both assisted hay farming to reach its peak by the end of the century.In 1866 J B Gifford, who owned and foundered a lace manufacturing business at Forton - then moved to Holyrood Mill, forming Gifford Fox & Company, who were approached to finance and provide premises for a Co-op. This they did with the additional loan of £15. This proved to be a very successful enterprise although it did not stay at the mill but moved to Fore Street under the title of Chard Industrial & Provident Society. The shop’s staff was in the main local people. To them came Thomas Dolling as a twelve-year-old errand boy in the year 1879. He was a Chard Board pupil who was not only accomplished at schoolwork but also diligent in the shop. Within twenty years, he had risen to become the head of the Co-op. For the next forty years he stayed and directed the operation taking it to great heights.

Tatworth boasted the building and consecration, of a daughter-church to St Mary’s of Chard. This became the Mission Chapel of Tatworth, in September, 1851, [at that time, still considered a hamlet]. When built it was consecrated by the Bishop of Jamaica – the foundation stone being laid three months before, in June, with much approbation.. The chapel, built on a quarter of an acre of land, had been donated by the lord of the manor, Earl Poulett, together with the necessary stone, and fifty pounds towards the total cost of one thousand and forty pounds. All previous churchgoers from Tatworth had to walk three miles to attended St Mary’s Church, Chard. When the poor arrived the church was short of seating – even as far back as 1827. Years later a gallery had been erected, but still the church lacked sufficient accommodation. Many worshippers attended St Margaret’s Chapel of Ease in South Chard rather than face the walk and the possibility of not having a seat.