Extract from ‘The Rayner Family of Great Wakering” by Albert Rayner Bsc (Econ) FCA [page 56]
The land around Great Wakering was essentially a corn growing area with sheep and cattle grazing on the marshes. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the farmer relied on human labour and horse labour, supplemented by a limited supply of very simple equipment. It was a labour intensive industry. The horse was as important then to the farmer as the tractor is at the present time. The men responsible for the care of the animals took pride in their work. Each horseman was responsible for two or three horses which were allocated to him and he became very fond of them.
Wages were low but fortunately, many labourers were able to grow a certain amount of produce. The wives would often undertake casual work in the field and most of the Wakering farmers had their own crew of women workers for the various crops. Women were even used for pulling mangolds, which was very hard work and required a strong wrist. At harvest time, a good proportion of the women and children of the village would help, binding the sheaves and stooking them.
After the field had been harvested, they would glean in the stubble and their gatherings would be used to feed a pig they might keep behind their cottage; or the gleanings would be threshed at one of the local mills, in which case it might keep the family in flour until Christmas. Labourers were housed in cottages on the farm or in the village, many of them tied cottages.
There was little discontent, despite the low standard of living. Many of the villagers joined one or other of the friendly societies which had been formed to make modest provision in the event of sickness and a small grant on death. Subscription was a few pence per week. Each society had a dedicated committee, which would contact families in times of sickness. The Independent Mutual Friendly Society was opened at The Castle public house in Little Wakering on 17 May 1879. Although not ideal, the public houses were the only places where members could meet. The Independent Order of Oddfellows and the Ancient Order of Foresters also had branches in Wakering. These societies were anxious to pay their respects on the death of a member, and it is recorded that on 21 May 1879 the Vicar refused the Oddfellows Society permission to read a prayer at the grave of their member R Wyburn.
Saving for old age was simply not possible, with the result that there was no thought of 'retirement'. This is confirmed by the Wakering census records; men would work so long as their health allowed, after which it would be a matter of their being dependent upon their children or relying on poor relief, some ending their days in the workhouse at Rochford.
The latter part of the nineteenth century was a difficult period for the farmer, particularly such as those at Wakering, who were dependent on corn. The increasing imports of corn, due to the expanding corn output in many countries together with lower freight costs resulting from the advent of the steamship, caused an adverse effect on prices for the English farmer. There was no question of farm subsidy. Fanners had to be satisfied with market prices governed by supply and demand. Nor were there any Government grants to make farms more efficient. There was a consequent slight drop in bread prices.
There was the usual crop rotation: wheat, barley, oats, fallow, together with home grown foods for cattle such as maize, kale, swedes and mangolds. The corn would be sold to the local mills. There were windmills at Barling, Foulness and Rayleigh; these were working until the turn of the century. There were watermills on the tidal rivers at Stambridge and Battlesbridge. Many farms had river or creek frontage and those farmers could deliver their produce by sail barge. The watermill owners did, in fact, own their own barges.
Milk was sold locally; villagers would call with their cans, for filling at the farms in the High Street although some milk was delivered by boys on bicycles. Most farms had their herd of cattle and it was not an uncommon sight to see them being driven through the High Street on their way to or from market.
Artificial fertilisers were gradually being introduced, particularly lime and phosphate, but the cattle herds supplied most farmers with natural fertiliser. One Wakering farmer who kept no cattle used to collect manure from the London Barracks and have it brought down the river by barge. Some farmers brought across the river from Kent surplus hops to be used as manure.
In the early part of the current century, many farmers, including Caleb Rayner of Oldbury, developed the growing in bulk of potatoes, rhubarb, onions, peas, beans and turnips for sale through local greengrocers and through Covent Garden Market. The harvesting of crops was done mainly by women but in the case of peas, by women and children. The village school used to close for two weeks to allow the children to accompany their mothers.
Farmers were very dependent on the work of the tradespeople in the Wakering High Street. The joiner and the wheelwright were both involved in the building of the humble cart, wagon and sundry farm accessories; and the blacksmith in the manufacture of the various implements required in cultivating the fields. The blacksmith and farrier were also, of course, kept busy with the shoeing of the farm horses.
The second half of the nineteenth century saw the gradual introduction of more sophisticated equipment but it was not until the early part of the present century that the lightweight tractor was introduced and the farmer was no longer so dependent upon horse labour. For ploughing, the wooden plough was first superseded by the cast iron plough and, from 1868, the double farrow three wheeled plough was on the market. It required more managing but one skilled man and two or three horses halved the time taken to plough a field. This was followed by the steam traction engines and the great anti-balance plough. The flat land of south east Essex was most suitable for this rather revolutionary equipment. The two giant engines were driven from farm to farm with their plough, a living van and water cart. A crew of five was required, two drivers, a steersman for the plough, a foreman in overall charge and a boy - usually straight from the village school - who acted as cook and general labourer. The work was long and hard and the equipment had to be kept working, even through mealtimes. Today we only see such engines at the now popular traction engine rallies.
The villagers did, however, have a surprise in store for them, namely the appearance, at Oldbury Farm, of the Giro-tiller. This machine, powered by an integral MANN diesel engine, was manufactured in Germany and assembled at Fowlers in Leeds. It would churn the soil if need be to a depth of about 24", but the depth normally used was about 12" with a sub-soiler attached. It was fitted with headlights, thus enabling it to work in darkness. This was not always appreciated by some of the village folk who happened to live near where the apparatus was in operation. Such a machine was much ahead of its time consequently there were no other tractor and implements to work with it and horses found it difficult to follow. Also, as time progressed, it was not welcome on the roads in transit from farm to farm, because of its size and slow rate of progress. For these reasons the machine was never replaced and attempts to persuade the manufacturers to make a smaller version have so far failed.
The beginning of the twentieth century saw a gradual recovery in farming prosperity and this enabled the more successful farmers to invest in more modern equipment. In the early days the threshing of corn was a lengthy process, with the flail used to beat the grain from the straw. Threshing machines had been invented towards the end of the eighteenth century. They developed from small models into larger ones which were built into barns and driven by horse power. In actual fact, barn threshers were powered by horse, water or later by steam. The horse wheels were housed in sheds adjoining the barn with gearing to the thresher inside.
Use of machines spread quickly during the nineteenth century with some loss of labour requirements. During the nineteenth century threshing machines were being made portable. Eventually large portable threshing machines, powered by separate steam engines, were built. Many were owned by contractors who moved them from farm to farm. In some cases the most successful farmers - including Caleb Rayner of Oldbury - invested in the expensive outfit which included the steam engine, the threshing machine, the elevator, the chaff cutter and straw tiers.
The threshing season began after harvest and continued until Spring. Threshing on a single farm might take up to three weeks and production rate was about 10 tons of grain a day. During the 1950s, combine harvesters which reaped and threshed corn in a single operation grew in popularity and the use of threshers began to decline. Modern 'combines' can produce 20 to 40 tons per hour.
In Wakering, the harvest was, perhaps, the most important event of the year, as the well-being of most of the community either directly or indirectly depended on it. Many were involved in the harvest, both adults and children. It also introduced a little recreation in the chasing of rabbits, particularly as the binder was nearing the centre of the field; the farmer sometimes taking an unfair advantage by sitting on the binder with his gun at the ready. When harvest was finished, there was usually a feast in the farm buildings for the workers and their families. This tradition, on a wider scale, continues to the present day in the form of harvest suppers in the churches and chapels.
On occasions, harvest was finished somewhat late; in 1879 it is reported that C Poynter's men did not finish harvest until 3 October and C Parson's men not until 13 October. The latter had no harvest supper; apparently they were a quarrelsome lot. In 1880, Mr Parson's men finished on 17 September but again no supper was provided.
A further tradition was to hold a Harvest Thanksgiving Service which continues to this day. It was the custom of the Peculiar People, however, to hold a united Thanksgiving Service at Chelmsford; representatives attended from nearly every chapel and lunch was provided in the Board Room at the Corn Exchange.
The following extract from 'Reminiscences of Professor Frank Engledew' could well have applied to the harvest fields around Great Wakering.
'In 1880, a pattern of harvesting was established which was to endure for half a century. From the early days of August, the overhead sail of innumerable binders clacked their way round the cornfields of Britain, powered by two or three horses and driven by one man; behind came other men and possibly boys or women, who stood the sheaves in stooks in order to dry in the sun and wind. When the stooks were carted to a stack, either in the field or in the yards, the boys were invaluable, for while the men pitched the sheaves on to the carts and thence on to the stacks, the boys could lead from stook to stook, from field to corn rick and back again through gateways whose turnings the older horses knew better than the boys. Much skill was required in building from sheaves a stout stack well 'hearted' up in the centre, vertical or slightly overhanging on all sides. Thatchers then made the stacks weatherproof, using the wheat straw saved from the previous harvest, so the stacks stood until in the course of the winter months the travelling threshers arrived.'
School leavers after harvest would spend long periods in the winter, rook and bird scaring and generally assisting about the farm, learning what was going on in the fields around the farmhouse.