150 years of rural change’ – Bryan Howling

Bryan started his talk by explaining that he would be talking about changes in the rural way of life during five reigns: from the accession of Victoria in 1837 to the death of George VI in 1952. This, he maintained was the period of the greatest change in rural life as it saw the transition from cereals being harvested by scythe to mechanical harvesting and vast changes in transport and communications and covered the essential changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. In 1831 the population was 13.9 million and in 1901 it was 32.5 million – huge industrial and agricultural change allowed this increase to happen. He would do this by referring to his own village Terrington St. Clements and through photographs and records that related to the: Overseer of the Poor; Highway Surveyor; Tithes; Dike Reeves; Land Rate; Local Acts
Local records, especially from the Victorian era give lots of information about the way in which the village was run and organised and shed light on the ways in which taxes and rates were spent to improve life. The Overseer accounts show how money was spent to assist people in need through illness or accident as well as in childbirth. It is often perceived that the Poor Law of 1834 was in some way detrimental but the local accounts show that it could be a positive force for good and assisted people in time of need.
The Vestry records (which were the records of the parish administration) are an additional source of material and as Terrington St. Clement had a school there are lots of references to the school. The Vestry records show that some local taxes were paid in money and some in kind, thus, for example, some people paid taxes in the form of horse or horse and cart for two days for carting gravel from Tottenhill to maintain the roads which were metalled from the 19th century onwards.
Enclosure at the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century made enormous differences to the life of local people and there are references in records to the use of stock marks for the identification of animals which were grazed on common land. The Dike Reeves were responsible for drainage, ditches, hedges and bridges and local taxes paid for these so the records lie within the Vestry records.
Bryan then went on to talk about information that could be found in a range of materials such as the apprentice indenture for a boy from Terrington who was apprenticed to a periwig maker and records about brick making (many local farms had brick pits).
He then went on to talk about changes in agriculture and the old way of harvesting and cutting the grain, separating the straw and grain, building and thatching straw stacks as the straw was essential for animal bedding and for covering potato graves(clamps). Bryan was able to show photographs of all these processes. Change started to come about with the invention of steam power and Frederick Savage of Kings Lynn who is well known for his fairground rides revolutionised harvesting with a range of steam driven machinery. Bryan’s great great grandfather bought portable engine number 4.
In the Victorian era every village had its own grain mill and Bryan showed several photographs of different mills that once existed in Terrington and the surrounding villages. He also showed the weights of the various grain sacks that workers would have been expected to lift: wheat 18st (114kg), barley 16st (101kg) and oats 12st (76kg).
Bryan was able to show photographs of land work which demonstrate how much the work has changed over the years. The only occupation that seems similar is strawberry picking although the pickers in former times were completely covered with hooded bonnets covering the napes of their necks and the more modern pickers were in sleeveless tops and shorts!. There were photographs of potato pickers with willow baskets that were filled by the women and then tipped into larger baskets that the men then shot into the carts. Hay making was shown with the hay then being compressed into bales for transport to urban centres as horse feed. Once tractors became the principal form of power on farms a further 1.5 million acres of land was released for food production over the period from 1939 to 1962 (rather than fodder production for 5 million horses).
Bryan referred to the changes in transport that allowed crops to be delivered to urban centres and of course the changes that the railways and then road transport brought about. Terrington was on the Midland and Great Northern Line and this allowed crops to be transported easily such as strawberries sent off to market in Sheffield and Leeds. Seed potatoes were brought down from Scotland on coasters and delivered to Sutton Bridge (and Wisbech) – unlike today there was no frost protection and it was not unheard of for the seed to be frosted on the way down!
Bryan also showed the different shops that each community would have supported. He showed photographs of the Marshland Stores, the butcher, baker, the harness maker, the drayman, the farrier all of whom were an essential part of rural life as well as the delivery carts that took vegetables, bread and meat to local homes.
There was reminder of Wisbech with a photograph of the Michaelmas Hiring Fair (the Statute Fair) and the girls standing on the Town Bridge and their boxes stacked beside them – what became of the girls who weren’t hired that day?
Bryan then went on to show photographs of Harry Ferguson whose 3 point linkage system arguably underpins all developments in agricultural engineering and he concluded by showing photographs of machines that have replaced horses and men on farms: pea viners, vegetable harvesters, silage harvester, combine harvester, sugar beet loader and an image of a computer printout that is now commonplace in modern tractor cabs.
The audience thoroughly enjoyed Bryan’s talk and there were lots of “Do you remember?” conversations in the tea break afterwards.
[Margaret Lake ]

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