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When life for Suffolk farmers was a real rollercoaster

PUBLISHED: 15:30 10 March 2020 | UPDATED: 12:33 12 March 2020

George Rope, left, who farmed Grove Farm during the second half of the 19th Century, including through the long depression of the late 1870s to the start of the First World War, 'when producing a profit was a very difficult matter'; and Tom Savage, who worked as bailiff, overseeing work at Fir Tree Farm when it was leased by George Rope     Picture: COURTESY BLAXHALL ARCHIVE GROUP

George Rope, left, who farmed Grove Farm during the second half of the 19th Century, including through the long depression of the late 1870s to the start of the First World War, 'when producing a profit was a very difficult matter'; and Tom Savage, who worked as bailiff, overseeing work at Fir Tree Farm when it was leased by George Rope Picture: COURTESY BLAXHALL ARCHIVE GROUP

Archant

Mains water arrived in one village only in the late 1950s − and electricity in the 1960s

Blaxhall Hall farmhouse garden around the turn of the 20th Century. This was taken by Ada Mannall. She was a Blaxhall shopkeeper’s daughter who became a pioneering photographer     Picture: COURTESY BLAXHALL ARCHIVE GROUPBlaxhall Hall farmhouse garden around the turn of the 20th Century. This was taken by Ada Mannall. She was a Blaxhall shopkeeper’s daughter who became a pioneering photographer Picture: COURTESY BLAXHALL ARCHIVE GROUP

Life as an olden-day farmer was a rollercoaster - disaster never far away. Take George Rope. He was on a high on August 28, 1863. 'The finest harvest I ever knew...' he wrote in his accounts for Grove Farm.

Skip to 1879: 'The wettest season since 1860, and similar, but not so cold - about two thirds of the hay and clover spoiled... on the 22nd July we had the greatest flood I ever remember here...'

He adds: 'Streets and shops at Halesworth flooded; and hay, where cut, carried away by the stream - after this we had a few fine days and then it came on wet, with an occasional fine day till the 17th Sep, when in the evening at nine a thunderstorm came gradually on...'

It goes without saying that it was a poor harvest.

More 'downs' than 'ups'

George farmed at Blaxhall, near Snape. A spread-out kind of place. Easily overlooked. As it later was, by the authorities.

Mains water arrived in the village only in the late 1950s, and electricity in the 1960s. Times could be hard.

Four hundred years in about 200 pages.... The book from Blaxhall Archive Group    Picture: STEVEN RUSSELLFour hundred years in about 200 pages.... The book from Blaxhall Archive Group Picture: STEVEN RUSSELL

Agriculture was turbulent - 'more 'downs' than 'ups', actually', admits Rodney West in book 'Blaxhall's Farming Past: A Timeline from 1550 to 1950'.

It's the final part in a trilogy produced by Blaxhall Archive Group. The titles cover the village's social history and a time when things were 'done differently'.

Once, during those 400 years, many farmworkers lived in the parish. Now: none.

Same with the bosses. In 1604 there were 30 farmers or landlords. By 1950 it had dropped to eight, 'and has continued on a downward path ever since'.

That said, Rodney tells us that 'agricultural is still the most important enterprise going on in the parish today'.

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A light interlude

Alderman '˜Aldie' Ling, left, a horseman at Lime Tree Farm who had a bit of a problem with his tea; and two men involved in the hoeing of sugar beet in Blaxhall in about 1930     Picture: COURTESY BLAXHALL ARCHIVE GROUPAlderman '˜Aldie' Ling, left, a horseman at Lime Tree Farm who had a bit of a problem with his tea; and two men involved in the hoeing of sugar beet in Blaxhall in about 1930 Picture: COURTESY BLAXHALL ARCHIVE GROUP

More on the trials and tribulations of farming later. First, a tale from the book.

Aldie Ling was a horseman in days gone by - at Lime Tree Farm, Blaxhall. Each day he'd take a flask of tea to work. One day, he didn't.

Young farmworker Terry Dunnett would later tell the tale. When Aldie suddenly changed his habits, Terry asked why.

'Well,' says Aldie, 'the thing is, the tea has been tasting right pecular lately. So much so that I have decided to try coffee.'

Coffee it was for a while. Then, back to tea. How come?

'Ah,' says Aldie. 'I found out what the problem was and why the tea tasted queer. It wasn't me... no. There was a mouse stuck up in the teapot spout, which gave the tea a right queer taste!'

Subsidies reigned

Rodney splits those 400 years into 90 or so decent ones for the farming sector and 300-something less prosperous.

Times of conflict - such as the Napoleonic and the two world wars - saw prices rise as food was in short supply.

The farm buildings we see today are barometers of 'success'. Wooden barns are invariably from the 1790s, when the price of corn was high - as was the case from 1840 to 1870, when red-brick Victorian buildings went up.

Agricultural laws in the 1930s subsidised drainage and fertilisers, and added oats and barley subsidies to those for wheat. By the end of the war, the sector was in a good state. The 1947 Agriculture Act brought guaranteed prices.

By 1950 the Blaxhall farms were mixed-economy farms, with shorthorn cattle and sheep. Some had a Ferguson tractor. All had Suffolk Punch horses.

'Now today is added the great hangar-like barns that are from the 1960s and 1970s, a time when the price of corn was high and subsidies reigned supreme,' writes Rodney.

But with the halcyon days only a small part of the story, what were those other 300-plus years like? 'Well, it was a tale of toil, problems and difficult, unrewarding years, yet the farmers hung on in there and for that we should be grateful.'

Blaxhall's Farming Past is £20. It can be bought via rodwest59@btinternet.com


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