Suffolk village relives steam era as threshing engine scene revived

Thorndon steam thresher machine reenactment

Steam enthusiast Stuart Hines on board Percy, the steam threshing engine he lovingly restored, on his visit to Thorndon, near Eye - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

When farmer Robert Hines took possession of a steam engine to power his threshing machine on December 9, 1889, he joined the cutting edge of Victorian technology.

He and his team spent harvest time moving from village to village — just as modern farm contractors do — steaming up the byways with their engineering marvel as they set up mobile threshing operations on farms.

The steam thresher machine re-enactment at Town Farm, The Street, Thorndon, near Eye

Thorndon steam thresher machine re-enactment at Town Farm Thorndon with from left, Norman Last, Geir Matlock, Alan Hines and Geoff Calver with Stuart Hines on top of the engine - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

One farm on the itinerary was Town Farm in Thorndon, near Eye. Robert and his team were probably regular harvest visitors to the farm, travelling into the village from his base in nearby Occold.

A steam threshing team led by Robert Hines on the engine capture at Town Farm, Thorndon, around 1915

Some of the names have been lost and others are disputed, but the Hines family believes the line-up from left is as follows: George Jay, Mr Clarke, Robert Hines on top of the steam engine, William Theobald, Percy Hines, a man thought to be the local chimney sweep, 'Panker' Banham on top of threshing machine and 'Dummy' the chaff man - Credit: Hines family

Some time before or around World War 1 — it’s unclear exactly when but possibly 1915 — the threshing team was captured in a photo in front of Town Farmhouse, proudly assembled around their shiny iron marvel.

For years, a duplicate of the photo — copies of which were sold widely — has hung in the Black Horse pub in Thorndon under the heading Threshing at Town Farm.

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It’s a picture which captivated the imagination of Robert’s great grandson Stuart Hines, who has inherited his ancestors’ passion for steam engines and has the original. 

He lovingly restoring an engine very similar to the one in the photograph after purchasing it a few years ago — helped by his dad, Alan Hines. Then he sought permission of the current owner of Town Farm, Geir Matlock, to return there and re-enact the scene.

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Geir — who by chance had just seen the engine while he was visiting Eye — was delighted to accommodate his request and on Wednesday, September 8, 2021, Stuart and Alan rolled into Thorndon, near Eye, with a very similar steam engine — and another rather enchanting fairground circus engine driven by Alan. 

Dressed in early-20th century costumes and joined by their friends Norman Last and Geoff Calver and by Geir, they re-enacted the scene — much to the delight of villagers, who were invited to join them. The buildings have remained unchanged on the outside since a century ago making it possible to capture pretty much the same scene.

It’s unclear exactly who all the original men — and one boy — featured in the original were. The boy is thought by the Hines family to be Percy Hines, Robert’s son and Alan’s father. Some in the village speculate the boy may have been Foxy Brown. Others include a local Thorndon man called William Theobald, a local chimney sweep, “Panker” Banham and “Dummy” the chaff man. Again, villagers suggest that the man at the front of the photo is George Kerridge and the man second from the back on the ground is George Jay.

The engine was fed with coal to heat the water. This would be pumped from a plentiful supply of village ponds as the threshing team made its way around the villages. It would have been an imposing presence as it powered its way up the lanes.

According to Stuart, the seven Horse Power machine, made by Chas Burrell & Sons, Thetford, was the first traction engine to be brought to the Occold/Thorndon district. It would later go through the hands of other local farmers.

Sadly, by the 1950s, this beautiful engine — like so many — was considered almost worthless and scrapped.

“Robert initially lived in Dublin — a small hamlet located just outside Occold — but moved to Valley Farm, Rishangles just after the turn of the century,” explained Stuart. 

“By this time he had built up a good threshing contractors’ business that took him from Debenham across to Eye with many farms and smallholdings included.

“The engine was later sold to a neighbouring threshing contractor in the 1930s called William Last from Occold who ran six threshing sets after the death of Robert Hines. 

“Percy Hines continued to drive the engine for the Last family up to the mid 1940s when all the threshing tackles were sold. The engine was eventually scrapped in 1953.”

There’s lots about the original photo still unclear, and the photographer is unknown, he added.

“We have the original print in our family. The photo was ‘leaked’ to the public in the 1960s when my grandfather took the original to be copied to a local chemist and the chemist gave copies away without permission from grandad,” he said.

Stuart has become the fourth generation of his family to embrace steam, and is chairman of the East Anglian Traction Engine Society in addition to his day job managing Audley End miniature railway in Saffron Walden. “I am the fourth generation of engine owner and driver in my family and that is something not many people can say,” he said.

Alan is very proud that on his birth certificate, his father’s occupation is listed as “threshing engine driver”.

Stuart bought his own engine — featured in the restaging of the original photos — on December 9, 2017 — 128 years to the day after his great grandfather bought his. It was made by Fowles and Co of St Ives in Huntingdonshire and Stuart decided to rename it Percy after his grandad. As it happens, it had been laid up since the month Stuart was born in October 1976 and had been left dormant since. He and Alan stripped it down, polished it and brought it back to life. It’s visited the Mid Suffolk Light Railway at Wetheringsett who make them very welcome, says Stuart, who lives at Great Barton, near Bury St Edmunds.

“It happens to be very similar to my great grandfather’s one,” he said.

Heart-breakingly, the original engine was within a hair’s breadth of being saved after Percy’s then boss, Malcolm Bloomfield, of Bloomfields in Debenham, went to purchase it. But it had been snapped up two days before.

Robert had a farm — Valley Farm at Rishangles — moving his business there from Occold, where his family was based, around 1904. He died in 1934 — long before Alan’s birth in 1946.

Percy, an engine driver, moved to Debenham where Alan was raised. He worked at Bloomfields as a mechanical engineer then moved to Ransomes Sims and Jefferies in Ipswich in 1961. He died in 1983. Alan, now 74 and a qualified steam boiler inspector, worked as a draughtsman at Cranes in Ipswich and later went to ICI in Stowmarket before retiring in 1997. 

For Stuart — as well as for his father — it was a moving moment as they returned to the scene which achieved local fame because of one photo all those years ago. “I’m so grateful to Geir honestly for allowing me to do this. It’s quite emotional to be honest,” he said.

Geir said: “We knew about the photo. It’s quite interesting that people know about it for different reasons.”

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