MY FIRST ENGINE

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.

Farm Collector Magazine
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