Looking at Rural Life a Century Ago in Great Britain

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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A World War I propaganda poster designed to encourage women to join the Women’s Land Army.
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Once he finally made it back to Wales, Granddad stayed in the mountains until the day he died.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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The farmer’s clothing always consisted of a flat cap and waistcoat, and still today one sometimes sees older farmers dressed that way.
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During World War I, horses were still the main source of transport. Cars were a rare sight on the roads, especially in rural areas.

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.

Back in rural Britain in 1918, the main form of transport would have been, to put it bluntly, boots, or if you were lucky, a horse. Larger arable farms would have used tractors like the Titan 10-20 and the Mogul 8-16, and then the Fordson F, but tractors were by no means the norm.

On the whole, Britain was farming in a very simple pastoral, old-fashioned way. Horses were still the main source of power and transport on most farms. Although tractors like the Ivel and the Saunderson were built in Britain before World War I, it is fair to say that tractor production hadn’t really taken off in this country. During the war years, factories were forced to concentrate on producing machinery and munitions for the war effort. Any thoughts of developing tractors were well and truly put on the back burner.

British tractor production didn’t really take place on a large scale until much later with the advent of the Fordson Model N and the Ferguson tractor. During the war years, steam threshing teams still travelled from farm to farm at harvest time, and steam ploughing still took place on large farms. Otherwise, we were still pretty much a horse-drawn nation, and tractors were still something of a novelty.

Nation’s horses pressed into service

When World War I broke out in 1914, the British Army had some 25,000 horses, which was nowhere near enough, so the Army began requisitioning horses from civilians. A census was taken of all Britain’s available horses, and any of those that couldn’t be proved to be in essential work, or providing an important role, were purchased by the army and sent off on the nearest train to various camps to be assessed, trained and sent to war.

The British Army also bought horses from overseas. A total of 600,000 horses and mules were purchased from America and Canada. Many were lost on the journey alone, from health problems like pneumonia, as well as from U-boat torpedo attacks. For those that survived the arduous and lengthy journey, on their arrival they faced a brief but rigorous training program and a thorough vetting. Then they were sent off to the front to face the horrors of war.

Bear in mind that many of those horses and mules would have been untrained, or worse, half-wild, making everything much harder both for the animals and the men training them. World War I was a horrific mixture of old and new warfare. Whilst weaponry had become more sophisticated, the British Army still rode in to battle on horseback in the age-old way, at least in the earlier stages of the war. Mostly, though, horses were used to carry officers, move supplies, pull ambulances and haul guns.

Few returned home

It is thought that the British Army lost 15 percent of its horses during each year of the conflict, but only one-quarter of those were lost to enemy attack. Most died from health complications brought on by the terrible conditions and the lack of food and water. One big problem the military faced was supplying enough fodder for all of the warhorses. It was hard enough to source enough food for humans. To keep the supplies flowing for thousands of hungry horses on the front was an arduous task.

After the war ended, some of the healthier horses were returned to Britain, but the majority were sold or slaughtered in France and Belgium. There is a story of a horse called Charlie who was a local coal merchant’s horse here in North Wales. Charlie was commandeered by the army and sent to France to pull artillery guns.

After the war ended, he was returned to his original owners and arrived by train back in his home village. It is said that as the goods carriage door was opened, Charlie stepped out and walked determinedly home and straight into his stable and resumed his normal civilian duties delivering coal around the village as if nothing had happened. Most horses were not as lucky and never made it home.

American-made Mogul tractor steadfast through two world wars

Early on in World War I, the Ministry of Agriculture launched a plan to convert 3 million acres of grassland into productive arable land in order to boost food production. Quite simply, Britain had been relying far too heavily on imports. Now that very few ships could safely reach our shores, we were rapidly running out of food.

U.S. tractors like Harry Williams’ Mogul 8-16 were brought over to help to increase Britain’s crop production. Harry, a semi-retired farmer in North Wales, has long been a fan of antique tractors, and he had always wanted a Mogul, as they are among the oldest of tractors to be found here in the U.K.

Many collectors have bought and imported antique American tractors in recent years, but Harry is lucky enough to own an example that has spent its whole working life in Britain. Harry’s Mogul was one of the original tractors sent over during World War I, and it appears to have remained in work right through World War II as well.

By the second world war, the Mogul would of course have been seriously outdated. Wartime meant that all hands were required on deck, so one can imagine how the semi-retired Mogul was dragged out of the stable and put back to work for one last campaign! The history behind this old tractor is what really endears it to Harry. “The fact that it has worked through two world wars makes it quite special, I think,” Harry says.

Women’s Land Army carries the load on the home front

In 1915, the Board of Agriculture organised what has become known as the Women’s Land Army. Fully 23,000 women were recruited to work full time on the land, replacing some of the men who had been sent to war. The women worked mainly in the fields, ploughing and harvesting crops, but also milked cattle and felled and prepared timber.

For farmers, having their skilled workforce replaced with unskilled women was not ideal, especially at a time when productivity needed to be increased. Farmers felt they needed ploughmen, experienced horsemen and mechanics, and not women from cities with no knowledge of farm work. However, it soon became clear that without the work of Women’s Land Army, Britain would have starved.

 The introduction of the Women’s Land Army brought big changes. Never before had women been expected to wear trousers and drive machinery. This sudden shift in attitude went on to empower women, and many feel it gave women the opportunity to show the world what they were capable of.

Many recruits were girls from towns. Working on the land would have required a steep and dramatic learning curve for these young ladies, but many looked back on their days in the Land Army as being a wonderfully liberating time that not only allowed women to play a large and vital part in the war effort, but also opened up a world of new possibilities.

It changed men’s perspectives, too, as many were surprised to discover that, with the correct training, women could and did do the work of men. Most women experienced a great camaraderie through working together for the war effort, and many lasting friendships and fond memories were made during this challenging time.

Tackling food shortages with rationing and Victory Gardens

During the first world war, the decline in imported food meant that food had to be rationed. Each person had to register with their local shops, and those shops were then supplied with enough food for their regular customers. Coupons were given out to allow each individual to buy an allocated amount of food. The first food to be rationed was sugar, followed by meat and butter.

Recipe books were handed out to educate people on how to make the most out of the available food, and how to cook nutritious meals with limited ingredients. Of course a certain amount of black market trading went on, and there are many stories of people swapping butter for eggs and so on. Rural people were in a better position to find and trade food than their city dweller counterparts, who often had to queue for hours for food outside shops.

So-called Victory Gardens were set up where lawns, flowerbeds and parks were turned into vegetable plots. Sports fields and the like were either planted over or used for grazing sheep. Everyone was encouraged to grow their own food, either in their own gardens, or by keeping allotments. Making compost to use as fertiliser for these gardens was also encouraged. Leaflets were distributed showing people the best way to grow food and how to avoid waste.

The wealthier classes were expected to lead the way, so that no one felt that it was only the poor who were making sacrifices. Even the rose beds belonging to the royal family were turned into vegetable gardens, along with many other decorative parks and gardens.

Food shortages teach valuable lesson

World War I changed the way we felt about food. Previously, food was measured in bulk rather than nutritional value, and bread was a huge part of our daily diet. But as soon as food was in short supply, we had to look at ways to increase the goodness in our food, whilst keeping costs down.

For instance, it was decided that growing celery was a waste of time since the plants were in the ground for a long period of time and the resulting crop had very little nutritive value. Instead, beetroot was encouraged as it was a faster growing crop with more nutrients. We were also taught to make use of all parts of animals, including offal, and to waste nothing.

 Soldiers in the trenches were not starved, but their rations were limited and were certainly not tasty. Meals mostly consisted of tinned beef, known as “bully beef” and dried-out bread and very hard biscuits. There was just enough food to stay alive on, but it was certainly not enjoyable to eat. With flour in short supply, bread was often replaced by a type of bread known as “K Brot,” which was made from potato, oats or barley and often bulked out with unsavoury additions such as sawdust and crushed straw.

Whilst foods like K Brot given to the soldiers were highly unpleasant, on the whole the wartime diet for civilians in Britain was actually relatively healthy. Some say that World War I taught us to restrict our use of sugar, fat and red meat, to eat more vegetables, and to waste nothing, which was surely a good thing.

Lucky to return home

As for my grandfather, when he finally returned to Wales after the war, he continued to work as a farm labourer. Before long, he married my grandmother and was able to buy his own farm. It took him all of his working life to pay for it, and it was a farm up on the side of a mountain, with trees, heathland, peat bogs and just a few fertile fields, but he was his own boss, and there he stayed for the rest of his life, raising three children and farming with horses.

He never found any use for tractors, and even when my father persuaded him to buy a second-hand Fordson Model N in the 1950s, he never took to it. It was only my father that drove it, because Granddad always preferred to work with his horses.

It was certainly not an easy life for him, making ends meet on a hill farm in Snowdonia, but compared to the horrors of the battlefields, it must have seemed like paradise. Like many men who had seen the horrors of war, Granddad never spoke much about his days in France, but he must always have been well aware that he was one of the lucky ones who made it home. FC

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

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