Cales from England & An Old Driver

Threshing tackle

George W. Eves

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222 Porter Avenue, Seaside Heights, New Jersey 08751

Several years ago, thanks to some magazine articles, I was contacted by a man in England. Over several years of correspondence we have built up what I feel is a true friendship. We have never met face to face, but I pray that we shall, yet we are on a first name basis. If we ever meet there will be stories to tell 'late atha nite.' Though he was born 30 years before me, I feel we understand each other, as witness some of the tales he has told me; and given permission for me to tell. Some are serious, some are humerous, and all seem similar to the ones I hear from 'old timers' here. Geroge, as I shall call him, was born about 1900 and began his career about the age of 12. The first of his experiences which he has related to me is as follows:

'During my four years apprenticeship, I was always the mate, dreaming of the day when I too would drive one of those wonderful engines. The 14-18 War shaved two years off my waiting years, for most of the firms drivers racked into the Army. The dawn when I heard the boss utter the magic words, 'George, I want you to take over old Jack's set of threshing tackle,' I was just 15. That's all there was to it no period of learner driver. One evening I was a fitters mate, next morning at 6:00 A.M. I was a man in charge of a set of threshing tackle, two old men, and for the first time in living history, my gang were twelve bobby dazzlers in the newly created womens land army. I shall never forget their arrival. They pedalled into the yard on bikes, chattering away like a flock of sparrows.....'Whose gaffer (foreman) here', and it was some minutes before I could unglue my tongue from the roof of my mouth where it became stuck, to say, 'I am.' Me, who had never been in charge of anything before. Conversations were hard to come by, but I did gather all 12 had left school last autumn. They had all drifted into a firm which made all manner of envelopes, this was in the midlands so their dialect needed a lot of understanding. Then when the cry went up for girls to work on the land, they volunteered as one. They spent a month at a training school, learned to harness a horse, milk a cow and tar a barn, then they were packed off down south into a large house commandeered by the government as a hotel, and 12 hours later this gaggle of pretty seventeen-year-olds stood before me, greener than grass.

'What's that,' said one redhead, pointing to the engine simmering away belted up to the thresher? Later that day they found out. There were all the problems as you can imagine, blistered hands, no first aid boxes then, sacks overflowing, chaff shoot blocked up, belts off, no stop cries of 'gaffer' and, of course, one of the pitchers fell off the stack. But they learned fast, and for that matter so did I, not about threshing but the strange way in which a female mind works. In about a month they had worked themselves into a very efficient gang, and I was the envy of all the lads of my own age. One of them used to steer my engine around torturous country lanes just wide enough for the tackle and in and out of gateways as though she had been doing it for the last 20 years. But they were terribly homesick. I was often comforting, or trying to, some tearful lassie who needed a motherly touch not the fumbling words of a green engine driver. But we made it.

'Those war years were hectic. The first night as a threshing engine driver, a bomb from an invading zeppelin missed the sleeping van I and the two old men were sleeping in by 25 yards. My driving career was almost ended before I got started.' And now for another letter:

'Gee, what a lot we missed in those Victorian times. The worst punishment a school teacher could inflict on any boy who misbehaved in class, was to sit him next to a girl. He would loathe her afterwards and cross the other side of the road if he saw her approach. I often smile watching the kids here coming out of school, what a lot of tiddlers they are. The top class at my school held boys 5' 10' high, grown men by today's standards, who barring age could have gone straight into the police force, and the girls were grown women at twelve, only the rigid mode of dress forbid they be mistaken. So when I found myself in charge of that threshing gang, although being a big chap, I was just 15 and a ?, and green as grass in how a female mind works. I learned that in due course. And the same went for the girls. They regarded me like an ogre and were unapproachable. When on the first day, one of them, despite my frequent warning of watching the end of their pitch fork when raking out the cavil and poppy pots and docks from under the machine, and close proximity to pulleys and belts in those days, never guarded. The inevitable happened the result a broken arm. When I went to investigate I was shooed away. The very thought that I should see a bared shoulder was unthinkable. A week later the girl on the stack got too close to the edge and toppled, resulting in a broken collarbone. These girls were billeted three miles in a big house commandeered by the government and in charge of a haughty buxum woman of the nobility, who used to come and visit me and my gang once every day, who watched over them like an old hen.'

This will give you an impression what my set of threshing tackle looked like in 1915. The engine is a 6 HP Fowler, the thresher is a Foster. The living van and water cart are out of the picture, a long train on our then narrow, winding country lanes. Note drivers brake hung on the drum pully and the newly arrived straw tyer, which causes more swearing than the weather. There was no driving licenses then and the road tax was 5 shillings a year! Today it is 25 pounds. The farm yard here is stone rolled and very unusual. They were mostly inches deep in mud churned up by cows brought in twice a day for milking. Drivers wages, then 14 shillings a six day week of 74 hours. Photo courtesy of George W. Eves, 30 Blaydon View, Melbourne, St. Andrew, Dorset, England. Submitted by William E. Hall.

I guess that is enough of the first experiences, so I will come back to more of those in the future. Here is a different subject.

'Your mention of splitting wood by gunpowder was common practice on the farm here in my steam days and in my boyhood. Any tree which blew down on the farm, large by our standards, was split by that method especially when a farm owned a portable, they burned nothing but wood. The secret is knowing how much powder to use. I grew up with the black stuff, for on Guy Fawkes Night, (note, our Halloween) when fireworks were beyond mum's slender purse, I think I was just 10, dad got me a brass cannon 1' bore with a touchole at the breech end, mounted on a wooden block. I was given a pound of gunpowder in a wooden box, showed how to pour it into the barrel, wad it with some newspaper, put a match in a pen holder in place of the pen nib, tie this to a long cane, retire to a safe distance, light the match and carefully apply it to the touchole in the cannon. The result an almighty bang, which set all the dogs barking, the chickens cackling, the geese gobbling, the horse neighing. I used to gather up the gun a bit smartish and beat a hasty retreat before the irrate householders emerged intent on retaliation. My mate and I went to another end of the village and repeated the performance. A delicate sense of timing now entered into our fun at this point. At first the gun on firing would recoil yards and was difficult to find, so dad (he was always good for a bit of fun), fixed a dog chain to the 'gun carriage' which had a spring hook on the other end, and this I would clip to a handy fence, garden gate or hedge thicket before firing. On firing, I would gather the gun and dash for the nearest gap in the hedge or garden gate and escape into the fields. The village policeman alerted by the reports, would set out to find me, of course, he knew I was the culprit, so it was like a glorious military manuever dodging the enemy for a glorious two hours. Many a time I have gone home and found him sitting indoors with my parents trying to look stern but could not, and he would blow the gaff by saying to me....'Go get those clothes off boy, you stink like gunpowder.' Oh happy days.'

'Of course my training was very strict. Only on Guy Fawkes Night was I given the gun and gunpowder, the rest of the year dad kept that in his engines van, for in those times hot bearings in threshing machines (wooden framed) were not unusual. When we mixed up a mighty potent cure to combat this, being a mixture of tallow, turkish umber, paint thinners, and of all things a teaspoonful of gunpowder. Laughable in this day and age, but in my engine driving days it worked like a charm and would cool a hot bearing in 15 minutes. The mix resembled thick brown treacle.'

Anybody ever hear of this? The next is in reply to some slides which I sent to him:

'How different to our early engines. My first set of plow engines had no diffs (differential), just a driving pin on each side. On straight roads, what few there were, you pushed both pins in and cottered then, but when you came to a bend you would jump down, pull out the cotter, as you kept going then at the right moment he would shout right, then you would shut off steam and if you and the mate were in time once the load was off the transmission shafts, the driving pin could be pulled out a foot, and you would open the regulator a bit smartish, especially if you were on an incline. The pin pulled out would be the one on the inside, of course, and the mate would walk along side just in case the pin looked like coming out, then once in the straight again, off steam, in pin, on steam again without losing way. The pin man would replace the pin and rejoin you in the tender. Although this pin business was irksome in wet and mud, it had a lot to commend it, because however well the diff gearing was covered with sheet steel guards, the mud found its way into the diff bevels and that, combined with grease, oil, etc., wore out the teeth very quickly. Unless these were replaced very promptly they wore sharp as razors, and come the day when the tooth would fly off, unless you stopped at once, the whole lot would follow suite. Replacing these out in plowed fields in unkind weather did not endear differentials to me or my boss result we stuck to pins to the very end. But a good mate or steerman was essential with them.'

'It appears that two years ago, a firm of heavy engineers bought up a derelict engine works in the eastern county of Suffolk where in years of yore the first traction engine built by William Savage and was built in 1844. Well, in among the junk that had accumulated since then, it came to clearing out the old machinery. In the pattern loft they uncovered the patterns for the first engine ever built there, and most of them in excellent condition. Now the owner of the place is a keen preservationist, and he was inspired to build a modern version of this old timer, and with the aid of some of the long retired old employees who remembered these engines talked about in there homes by their fathers who worked there, this engine was built using the old patterns, but new techniques. The boiler was welded, the gears and shafts modern steels, but at Stourpaine last September this old timer was there in all its glory, just as the original. Cast iron wheels, the engine was steered like a ship, from a stand mounted on the front carriage. Technically it was a masterpiece, it moved around the grounds effortlessly, and was sold first day for 27,000 pounds. That is how steam is viewed here today. I hear they have orders for 16 more which from a business view, was a bit of nifty thinking.'

'A Wallace Stevens 7 HP single cylinder in charge of a good driver would thresh oats all day, 6 A.M. till 6 P.M. on four hundredweight of coal, that was best Welsh smokeless, something which I never managed to do, but I have done it on six cwt. That was with a 4' 6' drum, and elevator. If you had a straw chopper hitched on, that would need an extra two cwt. Some of the farmers were proper 'skin-flints' and moaned all the time about using too much coal (it then cost 1/11 cwt.) and would bring in a cartload of wood logs to eke out the coal.'

'Satisfied farmers and dead donkeys are few and far between' was an old country saying often heard spoken.'

'Binder twine was used to tie up sheaves on the horse drawn set binders they hoarded like gold. I know it is very expensive now, but in those days, it was dirt cheap, not that you'd think so. The man cutting bonds on top of the feeder was expected to hang on to every bond he cut and tie them in bundles as much as you could hold in your hand, which was then pitched in a heap by the bags of corn. The poor so and so was always accused of letting too many strings drop into the machine and at several places we went to the farmer who would give him an extra shilling at the end of the week. And they counted them believe me. A shilling bought much, j A dinner at some wayside inn top of a cottage loaf; pint of cider; half-pound of cheese; and a plate of mixed pickles then cost 4}4p.; that's old money, four and a half old style pennies, or an ounce of tobacco two and a half pennies, a card of collar studs one penny, a red and white drivers handkerchief 30' square set you back two pence in the village drapers.'

That is enough for now, and if you have any comments, please write me. I answer all letters. If it is published and enough ask, I will write more from his letters. If any one would care to write to Mr. Eves, he would appreciate it. His address is: Mr. George W. Eves, 30 Blaydon View, Milbourne, St. Andrew, Dorset, England.