The six week school summer holiday has been like that for as long as I can remember, except children today are whisked off to exotic places, theme parks and the seaside etc. The list of holidays and places of interest seems endless.
My recollections of school summer holidays are somewhat different.
The year was 1942. I was nine years old and holiday equated to harvest – and that meant work. Children connected to farming were allowed an extra two weeks on top of the allotted six to help with the harvest.
The village cottages in Hatley were divided up by the three farms that owned them, so who your father worked for decided where you would be working.
As I was born at Manor Farm, East Hatley, I had very little choice in the matter. My best friend Bob, whose father was in the RAF, came with me to Manor Farm, even though his cottage belonged to Parkers Farm. Eric was my other mate; his father worked at Manor Farm – he had no choice either. So the pattern for the holiday was decided.
Harvest, as is known by today’s generation, consists mainly of huge combine harvesters working in air conditioned comfort, cutting huge fields day after day, and often long into the night, attended by tractors and trailers constantly taking the harvested grain away in a shuttle relay to the grain store.
In 1942, combines were around but were very rare, and what few there were were imported from America and owned by a government agency called The War Agricultural Committee, known to one and all as the ‘The War Ag’.
The War Ag dictated what farmers could grow; it also farmed larger areas which had fallen into disuse between the wars.
So how was harvest tackled in 1942 in Hatley?
The wheat, barley, oats, beans etc were first cut by a binder. This machine cut the crop and tied it into sheaves of manageable bundles. Having tied the bundles, it discarded them and they were left in rows as the binder went round and round the field pulled by a tractor.
The sheaves were picked up by a team of three men who followed the path of the binder. The lead man in the team took the middle two rows of the six, each man taking two rows. Taking his two sheaves, he would stand them up, the man on his right would pick up two from his rows and place them on the first man’s; this was repeated on the left.
They would go round and round the field, making what are known locally as ‘shocks’ or ‘stooks’. This continued until the field was standing up to dry and the field looked as though hundreds of small tents had been erected.
The corn cut by the binder was slightly unripe, so the grain didn’t get shaken out in the subsequent operations. Most of the binder work had been completed before the summer holidays, so when we started work, we had to help getting ready for the next operation, carting in the sheaves. We had to clean the tractors and trailers, grease them and get them ready for work.
When the shocks had dried enough, harvest as we knew it would start. The three of us, Bob, Eric and myself, were all allocated a tractor each and with a four wheeled trailer coupled to it, everything was ready to go.
Our job was to drive from shock to shock to allow the team of two men to load the sheaves on to the trailer. One man was pitching the sheaves on to the trailer, while the other would stack them. The trailer was considered loaded when the pitcher could reach no higher.
The tractor and loaded trailer would then drive very slowly (in case the load fell off) to the edge of the field to be unloaded.
Another tractor and trailer would take its place to be loaded, and so a relay was started which went on day after day until the harvest was safely stacked. Cloudy or showery weather would not stop this process, unlike today where weather plays an important role.
Creating a hay stack
The shocks, if left out too long and got wet, would let the ears of corn sprout and the grain was ruined. When the loaded trailers reached the outside of the field, a team of four men would be waiting and unloading would begin.
The trailer had to be positioned just right at the elevator – a bad position made unloading difficult. Sheaves deposited in the elevator would be conveyed up to the stack, a stack being about the size and shape of a pair of farm cottages when completed.
Three men worked building the stack, the fourth man unloading the trailer. One man was positioned where the sheaves dropped from the elevator – he passed each one to the second man who supplied the builder with sheaves; he also had to make sure the sheaves were all bound in so the stack didn’t slip or fall over.
Round and round the stack they went getting higher and higher until it was complete. The builder controlled the size and shape of the stack, i.e. round, square etc. So the pattern of work was mapped out.
Work started at 7.00 am – clean, grease and fill up the tractors with petrol for starting and TVO paraffin, which they ran on when hot enough. So off we would go until 10.00 am, a half hour lunch break, also called ‘Docky’ time. The boys always seemed to have cheese or jam sandwiches and would sit in the field with the men, wherever you were at 10 o’clock, loading or at the stack.
The men had the top of a cottage loaf into which a lump of butter would be inserted, a cold chop or cheese and maybe a raw onion – this was eaten using a penknife to cut up the bread or chop etc.
Drink was usually water for us boys and cold tea, no milk, for the men. Then back to work until 1.00 pm when an hour’s break was due. If working a long way from home or the farm, an empty trailer was used to take the men home to dinner. You had to be back in the field at 2.00 pm to start work again.
At 5.00 pm, a half hour break for tea, which meant dry sandwiches, unless Mum or the women came out with fresh ones and hot tea. Usually we would work until 8.00 pm, all going home on the empty trailer, which always seemed to be unloaded at just the right time! Full trailers were left in the field and the stack covered with a tarpaulin in case of rain.
Tractors would be taken home and serviced ready for the next day. This went on until all the harvest was in the stacks. The stacks would be thatched in by teams of two men, to make them watertight, and would stand until winter when threshing out the grain would begin – but that is another story.
So summer 1942 came and went and is now a fond memory of happy times. This work went on for many more years before the advent of the combine and a much different story.
Save for serving in the army in the early 1950s, Bill Richardson has lived and worked in Hatley all his life. The photographs are from Bill’s personal collection.
First published on the original Hatley website, August 2004; with minor changes for this website, October 2018.