A Sussex Farm during the 1950’s

By Ian Everest   9 June 2022  

Ian set the scene perfectly, depicting Manor Farm, Bishopstone, as a veritable idyll on a 1000-acre area of downland, its existence owed to evolution, not revolution. Draught oxen had been employed in 1893 (Sussex having used oxen until 1928), superseded by the faster shire horses, only 20% of farmers owning a tractor before the Second World War. Eighteen horses were required for 1000 acres, each horse needing five acres for feeding and exercise. Crops were rotated, in order that, should one fail, there may be another which enjoyed a good harvest. Work was labour-intensive, 20 men (30 at harvest time) from the tied cottages in the village providing the workforce, out of a population of 110, 25 of whom were children. [In that same village only 60 people reside nowadays, including one child].

We were then introduced to Lionel Willett, farmer, huntsman, marksman, and founder member of the NFU, a veteran of both Gallipoli and the Western Front in the Great War. His son, John Willett, was sent to the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester for three years, returning with new ideas of modernisation. Unfortunately, Lionel tended to employ his son on relatively junior tasks, but did give him a second-hand Bolex camera, with which John recorded, in colour, a film of a year in the life of the farm, combining one year in the mid-1950s with another in the early 1960s. Lionel died in 1956, having shot himself accidentally, leaving John to take over the running of the farm.

That film, a movie film, shown to us, proved absorbing, and redolent of a time which we all remember, when the pace of life was considerably slower. Tractors on view included Caterpillars (provided under the Lend Lease agreement), little grey Fergusons, a Fordson Major, and a couple of Field-Marshalls, although there were still several horses. Mechanisation took the form of seed drills, harrows, rollers, elevators, hay turners, rotobalers, threshers, etc., plus a machine for under-sowing grass seed in a cornfield, rejoicing in the name of a shandy barrow, shandy meaning seed broadcasting. One of the measurements used on the farm was a bushel, a matter of volume, not weight.

Labourers worked a 48-hour week, starting at 7a.m. each day, finally finishing at noon on a Saturday. Curiously, they took lunch at 9a.m., a ten minute stop for a quick bite and a drink. Men had to be strong pitching, with forks bales of hay weighing about 50lbs each, and found binder twine useful for a myriad of purposes, including fixing loose gates and holding up their trousers. Stooking (putting up sheaves) was done by piecework, while circular, roofed stacks were fashioned by thatchers for holding the corn. Rooks did their darnedest to try to access the corn, thus occasioning Rook Day each May, when men and boys took up their shotguns to put an end to their nuisance. Straw was sold as a cash crop to other farmers, the chaff being raked and burnt.

During the Second World War, wheat was grown on grassland, since imports were no longer obtainable. Consequently, less hay was available, so silage was made, the sugar turning into lactic acid by the introduction of molasses. It was rolled, rolled, and rolled again, an anærobic process, to become a sweet-smelling, partially fermented feedstuff. Similarly, cotton did not reach these shores during the 1939-1945 war, so oilseed rape, linseed, and flax were grown as useful substitutes.

In addition to crops, there were beef and dairy cattle, originally composed of Sussex Reds and Welsh Blacks. During the 1950s, beef was provided by Dairy Shorthorns, and gold-top milk by Guernseys, a new mother giving 700 gallons during lactation. Calving at that time saw the cow served by a bull, whereas artificial insemination, (some of it involving intercontinental transportation) is a preferred method these days. John Willett used personally to escort Pedigree Sussex Reds, from a suckler herd, to South Africa and South America. Only one livestock market survives in Sussex today, at Hailsham.

In 1935, 700 acres were sold to Guildhall Development Company for £40000 [£2 million now], earmarked for the erection of 4600 houses, a hôtel, shopping centre, and a garage, but this scheme came to nothing, John Willett being able to repurchase the land at “farming prices”. A railway station specially built at Bishopstone in 1938 stands to this day, adorned by two pillboxes on its roof, installed following the killing of a train driver by a Luftwaffe pilot during the war.

If only we could employ smell or touch, all of us being completely transported by the experience of that 1950s downland farm, sharing in its day-to-day existence vicariously, thanks to a true piece of living history by John Willett, itself worthy of TV or cinema transmission. Ian Everest, brought up in one of the cottages, recognised several of the farmhands on the film, telling us their names, while revelling in the nostalgia just as much as the Wadhurst History Society members. A memorable evening indeed!

Stefan Gatward