Rural Relics: Milkmaid’s Yokes and Root Choppers

Jo Roberts looks at what our rural relics can tell us about the early days of farming.

article image
by Josephine Roberts
Walls like these, common throughout Wales, are a visual reminder of early agricultural practices there. Most are at least 200 years old but remain highly functional. Other relics endure as cherished antiques.

Here in the U.K., older tractors are always cherished by collectors. These machines as seen as artifacts of our early days of farming, and there is an overwhelming feeling that they must be preserved for future generations. It’s wonderful that such passion for vintage tractors exists. It would be a sad world if we failed to appreciate and learn from past technologies, but all the same, tractors are relative newcomers on the farming scene. Many far older farming artifacts often go largely unnoticed. Rural relics that pre-date mechanization can be found all around us, and often these old objects tell us far more about our farming history than tractors do.

On my travels (which I must admit are not big travels, for I rarely journey outside of North Wales) I try to photograph any interesting rural artifacts that I see. Conversations about farming relics often lead to someone saying, “Come and see what I’ve got.”

Older people enjoy asking a younger person to guess at a relic’s identify, hoping the item will baffle and generate head scratching. I’m becoming better at this game, as by now I’ve been shown a lot of curiosities from the past. If I didn’t know what they were at the time, I made a point of learning about them since.

So, when an old friend showed me two old wooden farming relics recently, I knew instantly what they both were. The first was a yoke (or a milkmaid’s yoke). This simple tool allowed a person to carry a load, usually two buckets of water or milk, without having to carry it in the hands. When using a yoke, the weight of the load is evenly distributed across the bearer’s shoulders and back, and the hands are only used to steady the load and are free to open gates.

red root chopper

Remnant of era when women provided much of the farm’s manual labor

Milkmaid’s yokes were a common sight in the 18th and 19th centuries, with milkmaids using them to carry wooden pails of milk from the milking cows to the dairy. Sometimes cows were milked out in the meadows and milkmaids, using a yoke, would carry the milk back across the fields to the dairy.

The yoke recalls a simple time before the advent of mechanization, when women provided much of the manual labour on farms. They not only took on dairy work but also cared for livestock and planted, weeded and harvested crops. It’s easy, when romanticizing the past as I often do, to forget that the past wasn’t only a place of beauty and simplicity. It was also a place of back-breaking work and grinding poverty.

yellow root chopper turned in to a planter

The second item my friend tried to baffle me with was a wooden hand-held flail, another tool that reminds us of harder times. This hand tool was used to thresh (or separate) grain from the plant. After grain was harvested and dried, the sheaves would be taken to a threshing area, untied and laid on the floor to be threshed using a hand flail.

Flailing grain was slow and hugely labor-intensive process

The flail itself was a very simple tool, usually consisting of just two “sticks” linked by metal links or a leather strip. The longer stick (sometimes known as the hand-staff) was held in the hand and swung repeatedly so that the smaller stick (known as the swipple or beater) swung freely, beating the sheaf until the grain was released.

wooden flail

Until the invention of the threshing machine in the late 18th century, all grain crops were threshed manually. It was hugely labour-intensive and slow work; estimates suggest that threshing consumed as much as one-quarter of all agricultural labour. Threshing usually took place during the winter, when the harvested grain had dried and there was no other work taking place.

Often families and communities came together to share the work at threshing time, with a threshing bee taking place in a large barn or on a threshing floor in a convenient location. Old paintings depicting threshing taking place in barns often show a board placed across the doorway to prevent grain from spilling out of the building, and this is the origin of the term threshold. Threshing floors were sometimes constructed outdoors, making use of the wind to help to carry husks away from the grain, while providing the threshers with increased fresh air while they performed this dusty work.

milkmaid's yoke

Threshing scene illuminated by a simple oil lamp

A large farm might have its own threshing floor, but communal threshing floors were often situated just outside a village in an easily accessed location. The floor might be constructed of hardened earth, wood, cobbles, stone slabs or paving, with the outdoor floors on a slight slope to prevent rain water from standing.

This old flail reminded me instantly of my late father. Growing up on an old-fashioned hilltop farm in Wales, my father was raised in the days when some of the small-time and poorer farmers still threshed by hand. My grandfather threshed by hand because he only produced a small amount of grain for personal use. In any case, it was unlikely that a threshing machine could ever have made its way up the steep, bumpy track to the family farm.

hand shears

I recall my father describing how they would thresh in the winter evenings, with oil lamps hanging from the beams in the stone barn shedding light on the operation. The air in the building would be thick with dust, and the oil lamps just visible as a dim glow through the murky atmosphere. Even with the door propped open, he said, it was difficult to get one’s breath.

Elixirs, potions and powders

Not only was it a hard life in the past, we also had little in the way of resources and we had to make the best of what we could find around us. This was brought home to me when I had a random encounter with the great-grandson of an entrepreneur by the name of Morris Evans.

Morris Evans was born in the slate mining community of Llan Ffestiniog in 1856, and he became famous for producing a remedy for all ills, animal and human. This elixir became known as Morris Evans Oil. The product became so successful that it was even used by the British Army in the Boer War.

two scythes

Evans’ Horse, Sheep & Cattle Oil was believed to cure a variety of different livestock ailments, and it soon became a popular medicine cupboard staple for farmers. Ingredients included linseed oil, sulphuric acid, potassium and turpentine, plus an undisclosed secret ingredient. Evans went on to produce a household oil too, as well as a range of ointments and cough medicines.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, elixirs, potions, powders and remedies were peddled by many, both honest and unscrupulous, who promised to cure just about any conceivable ailment. At a time when medical knowledge was scant (and expensive), people often relied on remedies that were thought to work, rather than on scientifically tested medicines.

Many elixirs and potions were made and marketed with livestock in mind, particularly horses. Horses were required for working the land, for transport and for military purposes. They were valuable animals, so it was seen as well worth trying to cure an ill horse. The ingredients of these old “cures” varied wildly. Some contained herbs and medicinal plants; others had more risky ingredients such as opiates. Today, old bottles of Morris Evans oil are found in amongst the cobwebs in old stables and cowsheds, for many old-fashioned farmers continued to use such remedies well into the 1960s.

hand powered saws

History in amongst the dahlias

Some rural relics are upcycled into pieces of garden or yard art. One example often seen in flower beds is the stone mushroom. Those from outside of Britain might wonder what on earth stone mushrooms are. As a child, I assumed they were purely ornamental items. I was in my twenties before I was told what these shaped stone objects really were.

The correct name for a stone mushroom is staddle stone. “Staddle” derives from the Old English word stathol, which means foundation or trunk. Staddle stones were originally used to support granaries, hay ricks, tithe barns, game larders and sometimes even beehives, with the stone supports raising the entire building (and the fodder stored within it) out of reach of rats and vermin.

The mushroom-shaped legs prevented vermin from climbing up into the building, and with the floor raised above the ground, there was nowhere for rats to burrow underneath the building and make their home. The raised floor meant that not only were vermin prevented from entering, but also that air could circulate freely around the building, helping prevent stored grain from becoming damp and mouldy. Keeping grain vermin-free was probably even more important in a time before poisons were commercially available. Controlling rat populations depended on rat-catchers and storage of grain and fodder in vermin-proof buildings.

The earliest known reference to staddle stones comes from the 15th century, but it is likely that these mushroom-shaped supports were in use before that date. The earliest examples were probably made from wood and were unlikely to survive. Most staddle stones we see probably date from the 17th and 18th centuries. By the 19th and 20th centuries, farming practices were changing and the days of staddle stones were coming to an end. When we see staddle stones in gardens, it is likely that there once was an old granary building nearby, raised up off the ground on rows of these stone mushrooms. Clues to our past are everywhere, it seems.

building sitting atop stone mushrooms

Victorian labor-saving devices

Another item from our rural past is the old-hand powered root chopper. Designed to quickly slice root crops for livestock feed, these machines were once incredibly popular. With the advent of the industrial age, machines like the root chopper, chaff cutter and grain mill all became commonplace on farms. Their arrival on farms coincides with the Victorian fascination and desire for gadgets and machinery.

By the time these barn machines became popular, we had started to leave the simple pastoral methods of farming behind. Assisted by new developments in technology, we had begun to farm more effectively. However, the mixed farms of the past remained incredibly labor-intensive, and large numbers of people were required to assist with the day-to-day care of livestock. Whilst essential, this work could easily take up many hours in the day, leaving little time for improving the land, cultivating and tending to crops.

stone shaped like a mushroom

Labor-saving devices like the root chopper became increasingly important. These machines were so well-made and so over-engineered that many examples remain in reasonable working order today. Whilst the use of the root chopper sped up the job of slicing roots, it required a lot of strength and effort to operate the machine – yet the work of turning the handle was often given to women or children, leaving the menfolk free to tackle more skilled work on the farm.

Once a labor-saving device, choppers now live on as yard art

Whenever I see an old root chopper in a garden, I wonder who turned this handle on cold winter mornings in the past. I always look to see if I can tell who made the machine. Thankfully the names are usually cast into the machine, so identification is simple. The name that crops up most frequently is Bamfords of Uttoxeter, as they were prolific makers of farm and barn machinery here in the U.K. In North Wales, one is quite likely to come across choppers built by Powell Bros. and John Williams of Rhuddlan.

Although they are antiques, root choppers aren’t worth a huge amount of money. They’re not as exciting as a tractor, and being extremely heavy, they aren’t the sort of thing easily put in the back of a car to take to a show. Too big to be used as a household ornament, the root chopper invariably ends up in the garden.
I sometimes wince to see a tidy example (with the blades still intact) being used to hold begonias, but it is better that these old relics end their days in the garden, rather than being melted down for scrap.

These rural relics tell a story of the hard physical work that our ancestors, male and female, put into making a living from the land, and remind us of the companies that once produced machinery here in the British Isles. Machinery from Britain was exported all over the world, and the fact that many of these machines are still in existence is testament to their durability. As they say in Yorkshire, “they don’t make ’em like they used to.” FC

black and white machinery advertisement

Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at josiewales2021@aol.com.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment