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Looking at Rural Life a Century Ago in Great Britain

A hundred years ago the first world war changed life in rural Great Britain with women being sent to the fields and horses sent to the battlefields.

| June 2018

  • During World War I, women were encouraged to ”do their bit” for the war effort by working on farms. Previously women were rarely seen operating machinery or even wearing trousers. This movement was to change forever the way the female gender was viewed.
    Photo courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • My grandfather, William Roberts, just before he set off for the battlefields of France at the beginning of World War I. Sent to the front to haul guns with horses and mules, he was one of the lucky ones who made it home alive.
    Photo courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • In the 1950s, my father persuaded my grandfather to buy a Fordson Model N. Most men wore flat caps in those days, but my dad was always a bit of a rebel, and he preferred a beret.
    Photo courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • Young recruits for the Women’s Land Army undergoing training. Many of the “Land Girls,” as they became known, were from towns and cities, so getting to grips with farm work meant for a steep learning curve.
    Photo courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • A World War I propaganda poster designed to encourage women to join the Women’s Land Army.
    Image courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • Once he finally made it back to Wales, Granddad stayed in the mountains until the day he died.
    Photo courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • Even by the advent of World War II, those farming in the mountainous regions like North Wales were still farming in a way that hadn’t changed for centuries.
    Photo courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • In the 1940s, most farms were diversified, with sheep, geese, pigs and cattle, and horses were still working on many farms, but farming was beginning to change with the arrival of tractors like the Fordson Model N and the Ferguson.
    Photo courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • Sheep shearing by hand was a slow process, but it was made more bearable by the fact that farmers always helped each other out with this job.
    Photo courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • There were tractors in Britain prior to World War I – we had built tractors like the Ivel pictured here – but they hadn’t caught on in a big way and they would have been a rare sight.
    Photo courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • Even on relatively large farms in Britain, horses were long the main source of power, and many carried on farming this way right up until the 1950s. This photo dates to about 1919.
    Photo courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • The farmer’s clothing always consisted of a flat cap and waistcoat, and still today one sometimes sees older farmers dressed that way.
    Photo courtesy Josephine Roberts
  • During World War I, horses were still the main source of transport. Cars were a rare sight on the roads, especially in rural areas.
    Photo courtesy Josephine Roberts

Wind back a century in time: World War I was coming to an end, and Britain was almost on its knees. My grandfather, William Roberts, wasn’t in the best shape either. William was a young farm labourer who left his rural Welsh home to serve in the bloody battlefields of France. He was badly injured with shrapnel and was sent back to Britain to recover. He was one of the lucky ones of course. If the injury had been an inch or two to one side, perhaps he wouldn’t have made it, and I wouldn’t be here now.

After a spell recovering in a military hospital, my grandfather was sent by the army to work on a large farm in Shropshire, England. British farms needed all the help they could get. The war had massively diminished the workforce of both men and horses. So even a farm labourer recovering from an injury was better than no one at all.

My grandfather had worked on farms before being sent to the front, and he was already at this young age an experienced horseman, but even so this large arable farm in England must have been quite a different prospect to the small hill farms that he’d worked on back in Wales.

We’ll never know if my grandfather encountered a wartime tractor on this Shropshire farm, but if he did come across such a machine, it is likely that he would have avoided it at all costs. His knowledge was with horses. For the rest of his life, he had no interest whatsoever in tractors. In fact, he had an active dislike of these noisy, temperamental machines, and was, we believe, living in hope that they would never really catch on!

Living in a remote hilly region of Wales, a country that has always been less affluent than England, it was quite easy for my grandfather to continue to farm right up to old age in the 1960s without driving a tractor.

Newfangled machines slow to catch on

Of course there were tractors in Britain 100 years ago, but these would have belonged to wealthier landowners and successful contractors. The average farm labourer in the poorer parts of the country would be unlikely to have had much contact with these newfangled machines.


Farm Collector April 16Farm Collector is a monthly magazine focusing on antique tractors and all kinds of antique farm equipment. If it's old and from the farm, we're interested in it!

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