Page 14 of 19
A Walk Through Hilton in the 1930s, continued
In the early thirties tractors first appeared on the farms. Unlike the monsters of today, with their air conditioned cabs and with enough power to plough ten furrows, they could only plough two furrows. That is about the same amount of power as a team of horses. The advantage that they had over horses was that they could work all day, where as with horses it was normal to work them for no more than six hours a day and at the end of their stint they had to be fed and cared for. There is not much comfort sitting on the steel seat of a tractor with only a corn sack for a cushion in all weathers.
All the farm workers I have spoken to have said that they much preferred working with horses. The most important part of the horse’s harness was the collar, which was padded with horse’s hair and lined with a thick blanket-type material. To the put the collar on the horse it would be turned upside down, placed over the horse’s head and then turned the right way up and pushed back on to the horse’s shoulders. The collar had two large hooks each side and all the equipment (plough, cart etc) would be attached to these hooks sop the pulling power was from the horse’s shoulders.
There was a saddler, a Mr Johnson, who lived in Fenstanton and I have often cycled to Fenstanton with a horse collar round my neck to get it repaired! It was essential that the inside of the collar was kept in good condition. If it was torn or damaged, it would rub and cause sores on the horse’s shoulders and the only cure was to rest at home until healed.
Most of the horses were gentle giants and if well fed, spoken kindly to and encouraged, they would work their hearts out. But if shouted at and even whipped (as I have seen on a few occasions) they would get very confused and agitated and make life very difficult for you.
In the 1930’s, there were about 30 men working on the land around Hilton and now apart from two farmers that work there are only three men. I know of only two fields that are planted with potatoes and the others are sown with either cereals or rape seed. Given a few dry weeks and the large modern combine harvesters the harvest is over and sometimes only one man is needed. In the thirties, a sheaf of corn was handled seven times before it was threshed. Also large fields of sugar beet were grown and both crops were very labour intensive. One farmer told me recently that his motto is, if you can’t combine it, you don’t grow it!
All the hard work that used to be done by men is now done by machines. Men no longer have to carry sacks of corn that weighed 18stones on their backs and load them on to lorries. In the harvest field, men with the aid of a pitch fork would have to pass heavy sheaves of corn six feet or more above their heads when loading the cart. There was always one stook of sheaves left in the middle of the field until the field had been “dragged”.
A drag was a type of rake mounted in a wheeled frame and pulled by a horse. The frame had a seat where a man would sit and steer the horse and it would be pulled across the field to gather all the loose stalks of corn. Beside the seat was a lever that, when pulled, would lift the drag and draggings (stalks of corn) would be left in rows across the field.