Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on.
By Clive Dalton & Donald Clegg
An extract from the book - Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on (2003) By Clive Dalton & Donald Clegg. If you would like a copy, contact email@example.com
Photo Credit: Bellingham Heritage Centre collection (Photograph number BLLHC:P2004.54.14). Traction engine operated by Tommy Wakefield of North Shields working a Ransomes Thresher and baler, 1940's.
Gitten doon i' corn
As winter wore on, you didn't need to hev gaen te the grammar school to work oot that as a North Tyne or Rede farm laddie, you were simply a cow's feed and nettie attendant from November through till May. The job was aptly described as "cut and carry in, shite and carry oot!"
So when the boss declared that "we wor gittin doon i' corn, and the ootlyers needed some decent strraa", it was music to a Daft Laddie’s lugs! The threshor was due in.
By the end of the 1939-45 war all the “Gin Gans” had long gone. They were a threshing mill inside a barn drivin by horses walking round in a circular building outside the barn with a big shaft going through the wall. This was the Gin-Gan building and remained as a store for implements. Post Gin-Gan days some farms had a small threshing mill built in the barn, powered by a stationary Petters engine that started on petrol then, when hot ran on paraffin. It was a great idea – you just threshed when you needed fresh grain and straw. But these were all but gone by the 1950s - clapped oot and hoyed oot!
Gittin a bit leuk at other farms
The major thrill of the visiting threshor was the opportunity te gan and help oot at other farms in the area. In modern union terms it was a “reciprocal agreement”. The hinds and Daft Laddies came from other farms to help you, and you reversed the compliment. For the real top hinds who had a reputation for their skills like stacking or for their physical strength, it was an opportunity for a real "guest appearance"!
From the Daft Laddie's viewpoint, it was a chance for a bit of light relief from muckin’ oot and beddin’ up, and maybe an opportunity to try and impress the locals. There was always the possibility for a bit of fun, and maybe check out the new sarvant lass at a neighbouring farm who taalked funny from doon sooth and was building a bit of a rumoured reputation! It was also an opportunity to view new livestock and the state of things generally – the information keepin’ the crackin’ gannin’ weell inte spring.
"Man did ye see the state of the stirks at Mowdysike? God, they wor lean. Ye could see thor muck thrrough thor rribs. Did ye see the hoggs on the tornips? They wor as lean as craas! Haaf the stacks were aall mowldy as they'd nivvor been topped oot right and they'd aall pittled thorsels. Owld Tom the hind didn't git the stacks covered afore the storm cos they'd rrun oot o' strraa. He was ower lazy te gan and cut reshees for theakin!" The principles of good neighbourliness, acid criticism and self righteousness all seem to get confused! But it was great fun and we fed off it for months, gaining great material for future mimicking.
The threshing routine was hard, noisy, dusty work and a bit anxious for the boss. It started with the arrival of the threshing mill with its tractor that also provided the power to drive it.
Although the steam traction engine as motive power went out in most areas by the end of the war, powerful American wheeled tractors took. There was nothing made in UK that had the power at the Power Take Off (PTO) to drive a threshing mill.
The power was not needed as much to move the mill from farm to farm, but to drive all it's moving parts at the rpm needed to do all the jobs of stripping the grain from the straw, then driving all the reciprocating riddles to sort the grain over different sized screens, and finally eject the straw.
The Case was the tractor used by Hunters of Hexham who did the threshing on farms in the North Tyne and Redesdale in the 1950s. It was run by Billy Irvine from Bellingham who used it as his means of transport home each night. It was a powerful machine and had high enough gearing to do at least 30mph on the road. Billy built a canvas cover over the driver's seat to keep the rain, frost and snow off him. It had a wonderful bark which woke the neighbours while he let her run for a good while to get warmed up on petrol before changing over to TVO (tractor vapourising oil) which was a grade of paraffin
The other tractor imported from America was the MM (Minneapolis Moline) were also used. It had massive engine power which was also available at the PTO. So it was ideal for driving a threshing mill.
But it had the massive disadvantage of only having effectively one front wheel as shown in the photo of a wonderfully restored model.
It had been designed for row crop work on the prairies - and not for the North Tyne and Rede - or fancy cornering with a threshing mill behind!
Black reek & hissin steam
I (DonC) remember the coming of the threshin’ set to Shittleheugh (pronounced Shuttle Hyaif) in 1950 when I was hired Daft Laddie to Lawrence Corbett. What a sight it was! First the traction engine with its massive road wheels, its spinning flywheel, the chuff! chuff! chuff! of black reek and hissing steam, and its sheer size and power. Enough to excite and amaze any Daft Laddie.
Towed in its wake came the threshin’ mill, bright red and orange like a fair ground ride on its four rubber-shod iron wheels. Next came the green wooden caravan in which the threshin’ team slept also on rubber tyred cartwheels and with a chimney stack poking through the roof. Last of all came the buncher, which would tie the straw from the thresher into great ‘bottles’ to be used for rough feed for the bullocks and for bedding.
Stean gate posts
Getting the mill into stackyards designed for horses and caerts was regularly a bit of fun, especially if the massive staene gate posts got moved or cracked in the process. That tale would feed the district for months. The language associated with digging oot a broken staene gatepost put in by Hadrian clearly eliminated your chances of "gannin’ up te help St Petor when your thrreshin’ days were done. God knows who ever made those gateposts, transported them and then lifted them into place.
In the case of the thresher which came to Shittleheugh, it had a helluva job to negotiate the narrow gateway into the farm yard. The track curved to the right just through the gate and the length of the ‘train’ meant the traction engine was forced on to the grass verge. Ower late! He was up tiv his belly in nae time! It wasn’t only smoke and steam that issued from the engine then! The threshin’ gang rushed aboot in a blue haze, the mill was uncoupled and a strong cable was run out from the engine’s winch and lashed roond a handy ash tree.
“We’ll hev hor oot in nee time” declared the driver. Alas! The traction engine didn’t know its own strength and pulled the tree clean oot bi’ the rutts! It took two hours of hard howkin’ and a lot mair sweerin’ to get the whole lot back on track and finally into the stack yard. Bidding farewell to steam power was a great pleasure.
Settin hor up
In setting up the tractor-powered mill, it had to be level and in a place with good access to as many stacks as possible to avoid ower many shifts. Then there had to be room for the tractor to get back about 5-6 yards so the belt between its power-driven pulley, and the pulley on the mill, (twisted into a figure eight for correct rotation of the drum) was just the right tightness. Then she (theshing mills were always female too) was ready to increase the tractor revs until the drum was singing bonnie, and we wor aall riddy te start. Once gannin’, most communication was by sign language or gollarin’ intiv a lug from close range. The air and yor lugs throbbed for the rest of the day.
But before the action started there was the important allocation of jobs. This was the responsibility of the boss and could be a delicate operation, needing a lot of local knowledge and diplomacy. There were those on guest appearances to consider and those noted in the district for special skills who were given the top-prestige jobs. The Daft Laddie tended to get the dorty low-prestige jobs like raking chaff, most of it ended up in yor eyes, in yor lugs and doon yor shart.
Feedin the mill
The real top job was feedin’ the mill and often the threshor operator did it himself for a while to make sure aall was weell. It was a dangerous job too, as you stood in a little box right beside the drum. On lifting the cover to the drum you faced a blur of humming, rotating bars that would disintegrate anything that fell into them. That was precisely their job - to tear the grain off the top of each stalk.
If owt solid went into the drum it would bring the whole machine to ruin and you with it. There were terrible tales of hands and arms being pulled in by strings - Awful! I once heard a great bang at the Demesne as Jack Beattie’s cap got knocked off by a wayward sheaf and went through the drum - that was scary enough! It was one of his favourite caps an’aal. Baccy pipes were never at risk as these were always held in vice like grips in the jaws of the smokers.
The feeder took the sheaf, which had been carefully passed to him (or her), the same way each time by an assistant standing nearby on top of the mill. The sheaf was held on the left arm and the string was cut with a special knife (held in the right hand) made from a section off a reaper knife riveted on to short wooden handle. A string went through a hole in it that went around your wrist so it didn't fall into the drum.
Zip Bang - oh bugga!
You cut the string on the sheaf and let it all flow off your arm so that it fed evenly into the drum. It had to make a "zzzzzzzzzzzZIP” sound when done right. If it made a zzzZZZZZBANG sound you risked getting a gollar from the threshor operator who prowled around all the time with lugs tuned like an orchestral conductor listening for any bum notes. You soon larned how to feed the drum correctly or it was back to the chaff!
Forking the sheaves from the stack to the two or three people on top of the mill was a skilled job too, usually done by a hind with noted exportese in this area. It was a job the ladies of the Land Army excelled at during and after the war. Some of them loved the work, (if not the rats and mice) and would be asked back almost for a guest appearance. Once they heard the mill going, some folk couldn't keep away and had to cum rroond for a bit keek!
Whaat came oot?
What came out of the mill was in three main parts - grain, straw and chaff. The straa came oot from the end furthest away from the tractor. After being separated from the grain by the drum, the straw was moved back by “straw walkers” oot of the machine’s hint end. You had the option of having it lowse or tied up into a "bottle" by a pair of knotters (the bunchor) attached to the end of the mill. Carrying these bottles of straw away into the barn or to a stack was a pleasant job – but lowly ranked.
Building a stack of straa bottles was another tricky job as they were a very ugly shape with a fat middle and tapered ends. The stack ended up looking like an upturned puddin’, and was functional rather than a thing of beauty like a corn stack. Stacking straw wasn't a real top job but it was important, as straw was valuable and had to be protected from the weather.
The chaff came out from underneath the belley of the mill. Raking the chaff out from below was the lowest of aal the jobs gannin’, and it often fell to the Daft Laddie or the sarvant lass. You never asked anyone from another farm to go on the chaff! It would have been like asking them to muck oot your nettie. Just not done!
You raked the chaff oot onto a sheet made of an oppened oot grain sack, and after hoyin’ it over your shouder, carried it away to some far off hemmel, lowse box, calf hutch or hen hoose for bedding. You made the journey last as long as possible as this was the best part of the job.
The draught waftin from the threshing mill blew the chaff and stour into your face and eyes. The big fan inside was winnowing the grain, blowing the light material out as the heavier grain progressed along sieves towards the back. It was the days before protective equipment for eyes and lungs and all you could do was to tie a hankie over your mooth. If you were lucky you had a pair of gas goggles left over from your father's Home Guard days. It was one thing you could thank Hitler for I suppose. If you neglected your duty and started crackin’ with the men on the corn, you soon got a gollar from the mill operator to get back to the job as the chaff was chowkin’ the machine.
The real man's end
The grain came oot the end of the mill at the opposite end to the straw, and this was clearly the prestige end. Here sacks were hooked on to the different chutes from which came good grain, seconds, and then weed seeds and rubbish. It was also the end that the big crossed belt was fleein’ past your lugs all the time.
But this is where you found the real men! It was the end for the Daft Laddie to aspire to, and the end the servant lasses crept coyly past hoping they'd be grabbed by those strong arms and muscular bodies, even if it meant a handful of hard barley or prickly weed seeds (or even a live moose) doon thor tops or breeks!. It was the end the Daft Laddie could maybe prove himself one day and get a reputation in the district – for bein’ strang i’ the back and weak i’ the heed!
You tried to skite aboot huw much you could lift off the ground and carry to the granary or corn loft unaided. Granaries always seemed to be at the top of at least 20 well-worn and broken steps with no outside rail, through a low doorway and with low slung rafters every 20 feet or so just to add to the physical challenge. If you survived the steps, then the ducking under low doors and rafters was the energy sapping extra that your knees could have well done withoot.
Give 'is a swing Jock
When neebody of importance was watchin’, you could ask the hind helping on the corn to “give you a swing” with a sack. He took the bottom corners and you held the lugs. You started off facing each other and on the second on third swing (to be agreed before hand, mind ye), as the bag went up you did a quick turn and disappeared underneath it. It was important, to avoid derision, not to groan or let the weight of the sack empty the air from your lungs (or lower parts) when the weight came on. If your assistant wanted to prove a point he only gave you one swing when promising three, so you had to be ready.
Image credit: from the historical collection of iSee Gateshead, this photo of Atkinson Farm at Whickham in the 1920s. Copyright iSee Gateshead, contact them for further usage.
"Strang 'i the back and light 'i the heed"
Orthopaedic surgeons must have questioned our sanity. Carrying corn in hundredweight bags (112 lb or 8 stone) was for real softies! If there were only hundredweight bags available, the deal was to carry one under each arm! Some bags were 12 stone but they could range up to 16 stones weight (2 cwt or 111kg). And you were not even supposed to bend at the knees with one on your back! It was often said that for this work you had to be "strang 'i the back and light 'i the heed".
The secret of carrying a sack was to get it right up on your shoulders, even at the risk of dislocating your neck vertebrae. The further you had to go, the more important this was. This neck pain was more acceptable than the pain of trying to stop a sack slipping down your back when you still had a few steps to negotiate, and the person coming back with an empty sack waited on the steps to let you past and savouring your predicament. His comments about "yor lass'll be disappointeed the night lad" fell on deaf ears as your main concern was whether your clenched jaw would ever open again! Stickin’ yor hint end oot was an unreliable and very temporary way to stop a sack sliding doon yor back. It maybe slowed the sack, but your newly acquired gait like a pregnant duck, was always noted by somebody.
19 stone bags
Fellow students at University from the big arable farms in East Anglia said that beans used to be put into 19 stone sacks that they were expected to carry to prove their manhood! Did this stupidity come over with the Vikings? But what Daft Laddie could see ahead 50 years at the prospect of heart bypasses and hip and knee replacements? One thing though about grain, at least it was clean and comfortable on your back and not like bags of basic slag you had to hump aboot that were not only rock hard but filthy an’aal.
Expert practical jokers would always be at the corn end of the mill. One way to get one over a real skite in the gang was to attract his attention while somebody dropped a caeping stone off the dyke into the top of the sack being filled. That steadied him up a bit, especially when everybody was suddenly far ower busy te give him a hike with his sack. He always came back from the granary with a mean looking red face, blowin a bit and a wicked detarmination to find the culprit and get his own back.
But meal times were the highlight of a threshin’ day, with the chance to enjoy the break from the toil, the food, the crack and the tall tales and the lies. It was also a great opportunity for the womenfolk to show their culinary skills and for the rest of us to benefit and pay due compliments. Certain farms were noted for their table and this was always a high priority for a lean and permanently hungry Daft Laddie –even higher sometimes than ogling the farm’s sarvant lass!
It was great fun observing the appetites and table manners of folk who were of course always demonstrating their best manners away from haeme. For some, the amount of food they could devour made a great personal statement. These were known as ‘good heckors’. For others it was the opposite. The contrast was often surprising.
"Mare tetties John?" "Aye, aye, pile them on missus!" We were all thinking, “where does he put it!”
"Mare tetties Andrew?" "No, no missus. Aa’ve had ony God's amoont!" We were all thinking, how can he eat so little and fling those bags about!
Showin yor broughtins up
Table manners and skills with knife and fork were fascinating. One chap I (CliveD) remember at the Demesne spent ages cleaning up the gravy on his plate with his knife, long after we were all finished. He really put his heart into it by bending his knife to steel-fracturing proportions and cleaning it in his mouth. His plate was absolutely spotless and the reason became clear when he insisted that he have his puddin’ on his dinner plate. Clearly his mother had hated weshin’ up or been short of crockery, and had trained him well!
So the old saying that, “ye aye show yor broughtins up” was so true, and it probably remains so for the rest of your days. Mothers have a lot to answer for in this life haven't they, and there was nowt like a threshin to see how good a job they had done! Sad to say combine harvesters killed all this fun.