Life on the Farms

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For hundreds of years, Palterton has been a farming community with its ancilliary trades.  Even when miners started to arrive in the village in the early 1890s to work at nearby Glapwell and Bolsover collieries, farming continued to be part of village life.

Palterton people have traditionally helped out on the farms at certain times of the year when the farmers were stretched to reap the harvests.

Potato Setting was performed by hand by a dozen or so reliable and trusted villagers every year.  They walked along the field side-by-side in a straight line and placed the potatoes on the soil about twelve inches apart; then followed a horse drawn plough which covered the potatoes and at the same time ridged the furrows.

An early image of potato setting in Palterton.

This all came to an abrupt end in 1948 with the arrival of the mechanical Potato Setter.

George Curtis of Scarcliffe (who was brother-in-law to my father's second wife) was the designer of this mechanical farm implement, which he had made in Scarcliffe by Richard Chambers, the local agricultural engineer and village blacksmith.  George Curtis was Farm Manager to George Armstrong of the 'Lanes Farm' in nearby Nether Langwith where the mechanical potato setter was developed and tested.

I remember my father had his photograph taken with George Curtis demonstrating this new machine, which appeared in the local newspaper.

Subsequently the Standard Ferguson Company in Lincolnshire 'copied' the idea but whereas George's implement had two seats at the rear for the men, the Standard Ferguson Company had their seats at the side facing each other.

A group of Palterton potato pickers c.1950.

Potato Picking, known locally as 'spud picking', was part of the village life and had been so for at least one hundred years.  The local farmers employed the villagers to pick the field potato and paid a fixed hourly rate.

It was hard work, back breaking and mostly performed by women and children because the menfolk had their own jobs at the Pit.  The village children always had a week's holiday from school during the middle of October to coincide with the harvesting, which was known locally as 'The Potato Picking Holiday'.

Initially you presented yourself at the farm to make sure the farmer wanted to employ you and to be told your rate of pay.  Children were paid at a lesser rate - I received two shillings and sixpence per day.

Sometimes you got a lift on the farm carts to the fields, other times you walked.  On arrival there the rows of potatoes were clearly marked out with pegs into 'stints' of about ten yards each, depending on how long the rows were and how many pickers turned out.

Each individual then marked his/her 'stint' with his own markers which could be anything from pieces of stick to discarded clothing.  Occasionally the farmer supplied a small basket but mostly one had to provide one's own bucket to pick the potatoes.

The horse drawn spinner came along the row of potatoes and spun them out of the earth so they were visible.  You picked every potato in your 'stint' and put them into your bucket, subsequently transferring them bucket by bucket to a nearby farm cart.  You had to work pretty fast to clear your 'stint' because in next to no­time the old shire horse would be around with the spinner again!  If you hadn't finished your 'stint' prior to the spinner returning you had to stop it until you had caught up, which held up the whole procedure.  If you finished your 'stint' quick you could either help the person next to you, who might be your relative or turn your bucket upside down and sit on it.  At such times that was a real luxury.

With the advent of mechanisation the Tractor was even quicker so you had to work much faster to clear your 'stint' before the spinner came around again!

Occasionally there would be a very large potato in your 'stint' and that was your 'trophy of war'.  You then had to clandestinely get your stolen trophies out of the field but mostly the farmers turned a blind eye to such matters.

These trophy potatoes were often concealed in the hedgerows to be collected later but if your 'stint' was in the middle of the field you had to hide your trophy in your discarded clothing until either dinner time or the end of the day.  In any case the potato picking villagers were masters of subterfuge!

I have vivid memories of my 'potato trophies', large red King Edward ('spuds') potatoes that were taken home and later baked in the fireside oven, then cut open filled with best butter and greedily consumed in front of the fire.

At the weekend we went along to the farmer's house and were paid for our labours.  My old pal 'Rusty' (Graham Whitt) recalls that he once picked 'spuds' for Tommy Turner at The Elms farm and at the end of the week he was paid ten shillings and a kitten!

I remember my grandmother Fanny Richards formerly Hardy telling me a true tale relating to her son, my father Arthur Richards when he was a youth and was potato picking for a local farmer: One day my father arrived home early from the fields and was met by my grandmother who wanted to know why he was home early.  My father told her that "he had come home because people had told him that he looked cold," whereupon he was promptly sent back to the fields suitably warmed up by his mother, with the ultimatum "picking potatoes will keep you warm!"

Potato or 'Spud' Picking, as it was known locally was not my only flirtation with the land and farming.

Mast years I and several of my friends helped out on some of the farms at harvest time.  It was hard work and long days with little financial reward but that is how most of the farmers operated.  Their belief was that they were doing you a favour by allowing you to work alongside them and their labourers.  It was cheap slave labour for the farmer but that is how some became prosperous.

Even as a young boy my friends and I helped out at Hill Top House Farm (Wholeys') on the Crow Hills, because the farmer allowed us to ride on the back of the cart horses!  To a village lad this was Utopia!  There was little or no 'Health and Safety' culture in those days.   The trip home on the last load, often perched on top of the load, was exciting if precarious.

My grandmother Richards was not so impressed and preferred me to spend my time with book and pencil rather than work for 'nowt'!  (How night she was!).

The hay / cereals was generally cut from the last week in July and completed in September.  The earlier it was set the earlier it was ripe; so this fluctuated with the time of sowing and the weather conditions prevailing at Harvest Time.

A farming scene in Palterton probably taken in the Rylah Hill area.

A machine cut and sheathed the hay / cereals after which they were stacked in the fields for a few days, six or eight sheaths to a stook built in an invented 'v' style.  When the sheaths were dry they were loaded onto shire horse drawn carts and transported to the farmyard where they were offloaded and built into large stacks, sometimes under cover, but mainly outside.

I well remember being allowed to help build the huge stacks of hay, barley oats and wheat when I was very young at Hill Top House (Wholey's) farm.  I would either load the individual sheaves of the cereals onto the elevator from the laden cart on receive the sheaves off the elevator and build the stack.

We used a hayfork with its two long curved tines and very long handle needed to reach up to the filling haycart.  Later they would be needed to raise the hay / cereals from the cart to the heightening stack in the stackyard back at the farm.

Often village children would hurry home from school to take food and drink to the workers in the hayfield and then remain to play hide and seek among the haycocks.

Subsequently the Contract Thresher man came to the village with his mechanical Thresher.  The stacks of cereals would be threshed to collect the seed of the barley, oats and wheat whilst the residue of straw was bailed by mechanical means.  Each bale measured about 5 feet x 2 feet x 2 feet and these bales of straw were in turn stacked pending their future use as feed and bedding for the farm animals.

By the time the stacks were threshed they acquired a population of mice and rats and at threshing time many villagers gathered to watch the sport as the farm dogs chased and caught the rats as they escaped from the diminishing stacks.

A few select villagers were allowed to go to the farmer's field after the barley, oats and wheat had been harvested and 'glean' the field to feed their poultry at home.

However, by the 1950s Combine Harvesters had replaced the old traditional methods of harvesting and such events that I have described were then a thing of the past.  Certainly it is much more cost-efficient and less labour intensive than the old methods.  These large machines turn out circular bales of hay tightly bound in black plastic.

Although I have mostly referred to "I" on this page, the same could be said of generations of Palterton children and adults.  I believe that for many years prior to the 1950s, it was "semper eadem" - always the same!

Life on the Farms


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Created 2 December 2001
Last updated: 29 January 2009.