ON THE FARM - Part One

Farming in Westmorland has been the mainstay of life for generations of local families. The farm in this isolated rural area has provided jobs, homes, food and social life for a large section of the community since the middle ages, and for the next four weeks, "The Way We Were" will re-create life on the farm since the 1890s through the personal recollections of farmers and their workers.

Given the climate and the terrain, farming has never been an easy option in our district. The type of farming varied from place to place, but fell farms could do little else but keep sheep,and perhaps the odd cow or two and a pig to ensure that they were self sufficient in food; however bad conditions were, there would always be milk, bread,butter, cheese, pork, bacon and mutton. Farms in Lakeland valleys harvested hay, turnips, oats, much of it as animal fodder,with potatoes,and maybe barley or occasionally wheat - but a wet summer would make it impossible to either ripen or harvest grain. Heavy horses ploughed and pulled mowing machines and worked horse gins for threshing before steam power arrived, and it was the 1930s or later before many farms bought their first tractor. Sheep farming brought its own routine of lambing, clipping and dipping; and although life on the farm was always hard, with long working hours in the cold and wet, there was nearly always plenty of good, plain food even during the depression years when people in industrial towns fared far worse.

To find a job on a farm, a farmhand would go twice a year to a hiring fair. There were fairs in Cockermouth, Carlisle, Penrith, Ulverston and Barrow, and this is how one old shepherd and farm hand remembered it:

"You used to go with a straw in your mouth - take a bit of straw with you - stick it in your mouth if you were to hire, and once a chap said to a young lad, "Art thou for hiring lad?" This was down at Ulverston. "Aye". "Oh", he said,"I wouldn't be hiring thee, lad." "Oh, what for?" he said. "Well", he said", "For t'first thing, tha's a great long neck, so tha'd be a bad tempered devil. And next thing, tha's narrow gutted, so tha'd be nae good lifting..." And that finished that.

"So you know, they used to give you a bowl. When they hired you, they gave you a bowl and that hired you. Well, you used to be hired on a Tuesday and go in on a Saturday night. I used to have a tin box, you had one with all your bits of frills and fancy wear in, and they would collect your box from wherever it was, then you were there for six months."

That man earned £4.50 for six months at 14 years old; but his pay had risen to £21 by the age of 21. Here is another man's experience of waiting to be hired:

"You'd just stand away then the farmer would come up and say "Hello, are you looking for a job or have you got a spot?" And you'd get to work talking, and you'd say, "No, no, I'm looking for a spot." "Aye, what can you do? Can you milk, can you use a lay, can you work a horse?" Then you'd start bartering about price, but you never got very far away with them. Then they gave you a shilling, you know, that was a bond that you had - but of course you could be flogging away for half an hour to see if you could git any more, but no....if naebody come for you, you could go home. Because I wasn't very big, and they were looking for girt strang lads, strong of the arm in those days."

At the end of six months, if the farmer said nothing, it was assumed by the farmhand that his services weren't required any further and it was back to the hiring fair; the farmer often had his eye on somebody else. But if the farm had proved a poor one with bad food, Martinmas hiring fair might be the first chance of escape after a long, hard summer:

"The Farmer would come back again a week before hiring and ask if you were stopping on. "Well, what you going to do?" He'd come all smiles ... and you'd say "I'se leaving". He never said any more then, finished. Then he would have to hire somebody else."

Women were hired to help around the farmhouse as domestic servants; and a lad of just 14 was hired as a general dogsbody,to help wash up,, feed the hens and calves, and to take the farmer's wife and her butter and cheeses to market in the trap once a week; one lad got the wrong side of the farmer's wife, ducked to avoid her hard hand and ended up in a slippery situation:

"I was just going up the yard and hears Missus coming down with a lad by the lug. And she was nipping, pulling him, she said,"I'll larn thee to bend down when I'se coming, she had him by t'lug, she wasn't half pulling him. By God, that was a rum carry-on, she and he were up to here in butter!"