98 The Butts, ALTON, England (Copyright Reserved)
I wonder if any of your old threshing engine drivers ever had a first day at it, as unusual as mine was. For to start with, just imagine yourself in little old England in the year 1915, on what was normally a lovely mellow September morn, pale sunshine, leaves just beginning to show us their splendid Autumnal tints, and corn stacks spring up in farmyards, along stack roads, and in some cases in remote fields. In our spare evenings the brass band and church choir would be busily practicing the harvest hymns and psalms not forgetting a special anthem, which come Harvest Thanksgiving Sunday would fill the beautiful interior of my village Church, the Norman invaders built centuries before. Instead we were at war with the Germans. They had over run Belgium and France, sacked Louvain, and now the rival armies were locked in mortal combat in Flanders poppy decked battlefields. Patriotism ran high. All the young men had rushed off to don khaki, the middle aged were conscripted, and my village was nearly denuded of men. Prior to this our standard of living was meager enough, but now the Kaiser's submarines were sinking everything in sight which ventured into the Atlantic, ships which brought our life blood from Canada and the U. S. A. We no longer had sugar, flour, treacle, butter, cheese, dried fruit, meat, spice or any of the hundred and one things we had hit to depended on. I was one of a large family existing on boiled swedes, mashed with a little lard, for breakfast, dinner, and tea.
But on this never to be forgotten morning in September, I was a beginner apprentice in a small country engineers works, earning 5/ - a week of 72 hours, where we repaired everything used on farms, implements of every sort, windmills, machinery used in our local brickfields, stone quarry, watermills. Nothing was turned away, while our old carpenter would even knock up a new copper lid while the housewife waited. In addition my boss operated three sets of steam plough tackle, two sets of threshing tackle, three traction engines which hauled timber from the woods, sand, bricks, coal and even flints used to make up our stone roads. For this purpose our four road rollers were driven by four brothers of the village, the youngest 81, who rejoiced in the names of Matthew, Luke, Mark and John, lovable old characters every one. Although the works numbers had been reduced to twenty by the needs of war, I at 16 was the only one under 50. It was a happy contented little community who got along quite well without unions, shop stewards, time sheets, time clocks and progress chasers. The keynote was loyalty, a commodity in short supply today. What little paperwork existed, the foreman took care of in a windowless office about four feet square. With only four drivers and about the same number in the foundry, smith's shop, fitters dept, two boiler makers, one carpenter and mate, the place wore a deserted air, I must mention one horse-keeper for those were the days of horsed transport. So here I was at ten past six in the morning, working with old Jimmie, at 78, the finest steam craftsman ever, God rest him. I had watched from the fitter's shop the departure of the ploughing engines to where new stubbles awaited their ministrations, the three rollers towing living van and water cart, and one set of threshing tackle, and with each engine went my heart, because from a tender age, I had longed for the day when I should drive one of these steam giants, for with Granfer, old Dad and my three brothers driving them it's readily understood how much steam lore had rubbed off on to me, because when I was eleven, I could care for Dad's threshing engine all day, or his huge ploughing engine. But one set of threshing tackle stood in the yard long after all the others had departed, and for a driver to be late Monday morning was a rarity indeed. The steersman, which this morning was old Matthew, came in to us and chuckled.........'My mate has overslept this morning and no mistake,' and we all laughed at old Tom's misfortune. But an hour later it was still there, a wisp of steam at the safety valve, a sparkling polished giant awaiting a hand that would take the machine, living van and water cart coupled up behind it to some farm. Two hours later, the steersman was no longer laughing, neither were we, but our wonderings went terminated when the foreman breezed in and said to me..........'Boss wants yer, large' (It was never (Jcorge). This was the summons we all dreaded as it usual meant you were stood off work owing to lack of incoming orders, so with heart in my boots, I entered the boss's office, if you could call his dusty cluttered up surroundings an office. He was a kindly yet portly man, who could have stepped straight out of the great Charles Dickens books, and what he said was the most unexpected. 'George' he said, 'old Tom turned it in last night' (you never died in my village, 'you turned it in'.) What followed was staggering...........'I want you to take his engine over from now on.... take great care of it......... take no risks, do just as your father has taught you'. And if that hadn't sat me on a star, then what followed did. 'Pake the tackle to Bellman's Farm, there's two stacks of oats to thresh out there..... I shant come anywhere near you this week..... come and see me next Saturday after you have got your wages '. Believe me, I walked out of that office on air, to join old Matthew and my own first engine. He was tickled pink to think I had been given it, and as he lowered his 16stone in the iron pan steersman seat up in the tender he was not a little amused as I went over the engine and tackle behind with a fine comb, checking everything so many times, that my old mate in desperation declared.... 'If old Tom had been here, we should have been half way to old Bellman's place by now.' Only when I was quite satisfied everything was O.K. did I set off on my first mission, with old Jirnmie waving his hammer at me from the works doors as we turned out of the yard and up the village street. Folks took a second look today, for instead of old Tom's rotund figure on the driving side of the tender, it was lanky me, looking first at the lire, then the water gauge, ahead, behind, and over the side, such was my determination that nothing should go wrong. Roads in those days were beset with humps and hollows. They were narrow lanes mostly, with sudden shart ascents and steep declines, but they traversed lovely country that was a second Eden. We picked up water from a wayside brook, stopped to let horsed wagon teams go past, exchanged loud greetings with folks working in the fields, until we came upon a self binder working in a cornfield in charge of two young ladies, in round felt hats on which a shiny brass badge glittered, green jerseys, cavalry breeks, and high topped brown boots. Matthew quickly shed a light on them. 'They are them no Land Army gels' he said..... 'they going to replace the men the army he taken'. Well, well, I mused. Six miles further on, I turned into Bellman's Farm, and announced our arrival with a long blast on the engine's whistle, which brought the farmer's wife running out to us. Her first words were..... 'Where's old Tom then' and we had to tell the sad story. When I asked where her husband was, she replied without any trace of resentment, 'The army took him last week'. This war was biting deep.
I will not dwell on my first attempt at setting machine and engine to the stack as the farmyard was soft and very muddy, but Matthew proved himself a mate without equal although his frequent observations of 'Old Tom wouldn't have done it that way' almost reduced me to despair, but there I mused, no doubt he meant well, and I warmed to his thinking, and tried harder. But come dinner time everything was in situ, threshing machine chocked up, and all belts on, but of the promised threshing gang there was no sign. So I sorted out the farmer's wife milking the cows. 'Sorry' she said, 'no threshermen, but I am expecting ten Land Army girls.' 'Land Army Girls', I eckoed.... 'threshing' 'they can't do threshing, it's dirty work, it's no job for girls'. Wise old soul, the passing years had taught her what I had yet to learn, for fixing me with a steely eye, she said, 'Sorry, its girls, young feller.... may as well get used to the idea'. A bit deflated I returned to the engine, only to find old Tom's black Labrador retriever, which had accompanied him on this very engine for the last eight years, running round the engine, then the thresher, up in the van and out, scrambling up in the engines tender and down again, whinnying and sniffing at my feet all so pathetically, only to start his hopeless search all over again. What a faithful friend is an old Labrador. I had a sudden thought, for grabbing a nearby corn sack and folded it on top of the coal in the bunker. Instantly the dog settled down on it happily, but that hound must have had the scent of that engine firmly implanted to travel six miles to find it. He never left me from that day till he died six years later. So much for one of God's great creatures. Meanwhile I was telling my mate about the girls, who raised his eyes to the sky and deplored what 'this world be cumin to'.
At that moment with much dinging of bicycle bells and happy laughter, there rode into the yard ten brightly garbed girls from this new noncom-batant Army, each of about eighteen summers, and very comely with it. If they registered bewilderment, I shudder to think what our expressions conveyed. For some minutes they stared. The tallest of them addressed me with Who's gaffer here' (foreman), and I suddenly realized it was me, me who had never had charge of one man before, let alone ten lassies. From this young lady whose name was, I soon gathered, Victoria, but was addressed by the rest of her gang as 'Plum Jammie', their history was revealed. They had left school five years previously, since then they had working in a northern factory making envelopes, until a month ago, they had answered the call to join the W. L. A. to replace the men called away to fight the Germans. For a month they had been in training, if you could call it such, on a nearby farm, where they had been taught to harness a horse to a wagon, milk a cow, hoe cabbages, and tar farm fences. Then they had been sent to the other southern end of the country 300 miles from home, which must have seemed a long way then, to a hostel three miles from where they were now standing looking like lost sheep. Their dialect made me long for the services of an interpreter, and I am sure they never knew what my Kentish brogue was trying to tell them. Matthew now 77 years old and me lanky 16, stood and listened before ten pairs of wide eyed girls as I filled in what lay ahead. 'What's that' asked Jammie, pointing to the simmering engine belted to the thresher, and that afternoon they found out. Getting the first two up on the stack was for them adventure, where after pointing out the perils of getting too near the edge, showed them how to pitch sheaves without spearing their feet in the process, while my mate steered Jill on the top deck of the thresher and showed her how to cut bonds. I put two more to deal with the cavil, two on threshing's worse job, chaff bagging, tall Jammie was just the build for attending to the corn spouts, and the last two to make up straw bonds. The farmer's wife and two venerable old farm hands said they would deal with the straw and stacking it, which all told was about the strangest and colorful gang ever assembled in that farmyard. That afternoon was one long round of panic stations. Jammie let the corn sacks overflow, Jean got her pitchfork handle in the spokes of the corn screen driving pulley, the chaff blower I unblocked twenty times plus the expected, Kathy fell off the stack, luckily without injury. All this on top of the worry of having an engine out for the first time. Only the hound seemed to be enjoying the lovely weather. That evening when we stopped work, everybody and everything was intact, including the tackle, save aching arms and backs, multitudes of blistered hands the girls showed to the farmer's wife who dabbed them with zinc ointment and bound them up with strips of ' rag, for first aid boxes had yet to be dreamed of. Filthy dirty they were to be sure, yet happy as bees, they had yet to learn that come tomorrow there would be mice in the bottom of the stack and probably a rat or two. I shuddered at the effect this would have on the new hands come tomorrow, instead I should have been thinking about the night coming. Confidently I banked up the engine's fire, put a damper plate on top of the chimney, sheeted it up, and exchanged cheery 'Good nights' with those who my mate now referred to as 'my bloody wenches'. The pair of us removed the days grime with buckets of hot water from the engine as dusk settled about us, to then retire to the van, preceded by the dog.
Our evening meal eaten by the light of a hanging oil lamp was far from the mouth watering giant sized meals your farmer's wives are reported as serving to visiting threshing gangs, being two slices of bread and jam, washed down with a cup of 'tay' (very weak) no sugar, and a little condensed milk. We sat on the hard wooden bunk, had a long smoke and talked about the strange events of the day, before crawling under the coarse blankets where sleep came so easily. I remember seeing the hound curled up before the tiny red glow from the coke stove, and all was peace and still as the pair of us fell asleep, giving not a thought about something I read about in the paper two weeks ago that a German Zepplin had been sighted off the East coast early one morning. I have no idea how long I had been in the land of nod, when I was awakened by the dog whinnying. Now a well trained Labrador never gives voice (barks) when he hears any strange sound, he just whinnies, and I thinking there might be some prowler round the engine after our coal, got up and quietly opened the door, and looked out, like old King Wencelous was said to have done long ago. What I looked upon, was the inspiration of poets. The whole farm, my sheeted engine and machine, barns, stables, the half built straw stack, all this and the meadows beyond lanquished in God's bright moonlight. The farm pond looked like burnished silver. Who would want to be abroad at this unearthly hour unless it was a pair of lovers. But of these or any other kind of prowler, there was no sign. Nothing moved. But the dog by my side sniffed the air continually and whined away, obviously he was hearing something I was not, so I crawled back under the blanket. An hour must have elapsed, but still the hound kept up his reminding, which finally awoke my mate, who cursed the animal roundly. I looked at my watch, it was just on 3 a.m. and was on the point of putting the hound outside, when a strange but distant sound fell on my ears. It came and went, rose and fell. I'd never heard anything like it before, the nearest comparison was the sound of a swarming hive of bees afar off. The Labrador was now beyond given us a quiet warning. He was barking, slow deliberate barks, and I could hear the strange sound a little louder. So to the door again. The moon was still illuminating the farmyard, but way over the horizon, a couple of distant searchlights were combing the star studded Heavens, for what, I mused. I was aware an anti-aircraft gun had been sited on the village green, and a searchlight had been reported on this very farm, but I had seen neither. Matthew had now joined me in the doorway, and the dog was much more excited as that mysterious sound, so ominous now, grew steadily louder or nearer, I knew not which. Suddenly an inquisitive white finger of light stabbed the sky, its origin seemed just behind the farmhouse. My mate refused to be puzzled.... 'It's only an old goods train going up toward the junction' he laughed, but to me the sound seemed to be making a circuit of the nearby village. The hound was now outside jumping and barking which had the farm dog joining in. The sound was now heading toward us which had us threshermen outside with the dog, craning our necks looking for something we knew not what. The local light was slowly probing the sky nearly overhead, while the sound was now a mighty roar. The light was now searching very slowly as if about to pounce on its prey, and I was just convincing myself that this was no goods train, then suddenly I saw it a long shiny cigar shaped thing in the tip of the searchlight's beam, an airship.....a Zepplin. My heart froze, at the sight of this hideous thing which the papers had said could drop bombs on us. What height it was flying I have no idea, except I could see spinning discs of the propellers, glistening in the searchlight's beam, and I could also see black markins on the side of the gasbag. Then an ear splitting 'crack-bang' as the local gun spat defiance, and 'crack-bang' again and again. Matthew was dancing around shaking his fist at the intruder and shouting unprintable, while about him the hound ran in circles barking and yapping. The evil thing was now nearly overhead. It seemed to shrug off the guns bursting shells which were too far off to do any damage. The world seemed to have gone mad, dogs for miles around were barking, geese gobbling, chicken cackling, horses neighing, cows mooing, and I clearly recall a cock crowing. With nerves at screaming point, there came a new sound, a whiffing sound which rose to an all time crescendo, followed by six blinding flashes of blue light that felt as though it was boring holes in your eyes, and instantly by six almighty explosions which shook the very universe, the last one so close that it sounded as though some giant hand had smote the side of the van, which stove in the windows, glass tinkled, the chimney went clattering away in the holicast, and sent me and my mate sprawling on our faces. Frightened out of our wits, we got to our feet, flew into the living van and I slammed the door shut behind me, even so the dog got inside before us. I gave no thought to the glass crunching under my feet, but we stood there in silence listening to the airships engines receding. The smell of explosive's acrid fumes half choked us, by no power on earth would have got me outside until that evil drone was no more. A lot of shouting going on in the farmhouse, at last drew us hence to find two chimneys in the front garden and the inmates shaking with fear. The gun had long ceased to fire, and the searchlights had been snuffed out, and the scene was just the beautiful picture it was twenty minutes ago, except I noticed the engine tarpaulin was now draped over the stable roof. Plucking up a little more courage I looked round the back of the van to find the tall hedge was blown over drunkenly against it, so I presumed that last bomb to have been rather close. The pair of us were shaking like jellies, and fearing the Zepp might return at any moment, I got under my blanket, and re-lived those last minutes a thousand times.
Suddenly my engine started blowing like mad. Knowing full well it had been well dampered, both chimney top and ashpan, I scrambled to my feet, with the other two inmates close on my heels, we went outside to investigate. Under the firebox the fire glowed bright and no wonder, the bomb blast had torn off the ashpan, sent the chimney damper flying Heaven only knew where, hence the engine blowing off as never before, and a match struck before the gauge showed the needle on the red line 150 p.s.i. It was only then I noted the missing tarpaulin off the engine. In order to stop the engine kicking up such a din, I started it up, and put on the pump, then to throw the fire out on the ground. The world's gone mad, was all I could keep thinking, for the sum total of the bombs, a hedge blown over against our living van which was now minus windows and chimney, the engine lost its ash pan, chimney damper and sheet, and here was I pumping water in the boiler and throwing out the fire at 345 in the morning. Matthew was throwing water on the fire I was throwing out, and the only bit of sanity was the hound sitting on his accustomed seat on the tender.
Finally a half hour later, I had got the engine quiet, but by this time soldiers from the searchlight site were swarming into the yard. They told us the bombs had fallen in a parallel line to the farm, all of them in the apple orchards, and thus nobody was hurt. We were the nearest miss, the last bomb was about twenty yards behind our living van. 'Come with us and well show it to you'. And we did, hardly knowing what we might see. Just inside the orchard, trees had been bent over and twisted, and there the hole left by the bursting bomb was revealed. It was about six feet across and three feet deep, little enough by today's reckoning, but what I saw then was breath stopping. The smell of explosive remained strong enough to set old Matthew off coughing, and then it all became more unreal. The night was still as I had seen it four hours previously and without any sound. All the animals had gone to sleep, the moon shone serenely and the stars twinkled. With numbed thoughts we stumbled back to our bunks, the bits of glass on the floor could wait till morning. We brewed up another can of 'tay', relived those terrifying minutes a hundred times. Although I eventually fell asleep, a silly tune kept running through my hod. It was an old carol we school kids used to sing before the gentry's large houses at Xmas, hoping to get a penny perhaps..... it was something about...... .....'Past three o'clock, on a cold and frosty morning.... Past three o'clock' and so on. Well it was certainly past three, but far from frosty.
Next morning, as our great diaryist, Samuel Pepys was wont to set down, we were 'Upp Betimes'. The girls whose hostel was 3 miles away had hair raising tales to tell when they arrived, which soon took second place when we trooped round the van to see the glassless windows, the missing chimney, the leaning hedge, and 'our bomb crater'. Daylight revealed an in creditable scene. The whole area of trees had been stripped of their leaves and fruit, the leaves torn to thousands of tiny pieces formed a carpet under the trees on which lay hundreds of bushels of apples, bruised and battered. We looked at it in silence, for there was nothing to say, only the things about us looked back in mute disapproval. So it was back to threshing. Soon after breakfast the sightseers starting to tramp up the muddy road to see the bomb craters, most of them halted before the drunken hedge, our windowless van all thanking their lucky stars the village was half a mile away. The farmer's wife saw here an opportunity to raise cash for wool for the villagers to knit into Balacalava' helmets for the soldiers freezing in Flanders trenches. She asked me to nail a corn sack on the gate leading to the orchard, and by the end of the day I could not lift it. I had to fetch the sack barrow. A early caller was my boss on his shaggy pony, anxious that we were all right after the rumours in my village back home. He was highly amused with my Land Army girls, and after pleasantries all round, departed, assuring me he would call in and tell Mum we were all alright, adding 'I've left something for you in the van,' and on looking saw a whole bottle of whisky. The magnitude of such a gift in those hard times, cannot be measured in words. Visitors were now coming with trowels and garden forks to probe the craters for bomb fragments. Mid morning came the Army's top brass, red tabs, monocles, tailor made uniforms, brown leggings and boots, who talked in loud voices and surveyed my humming outfit in the farm yard distantly. The village policeman arrived with time honoured note book and stub pencil end to record it for his authority's records. Yes, there was much coming and going, this took my mind off the problems of being a new driver and the first to have an all girl threshing gang in the district.
Later that afternoon came the mice and a few rats, but that's a story to be told another day. But I certainly had one hell of a start to my steam driving career, which the all powerful Overtime and Titan tractors terminated 15 years later. Thus ended an era and its strange beginning, which remains with me as clearly as though it only happened last night. A treasured relic is the old watch I looked at that distant morning, which still registers the hour of three as accurately as it did 57 years ago.