Farm Life and Farming before WWII

Vol. 6 No. 3 - 1993

Farm life and farming before the Second World War

by George Robinson, MBE

The pace of life was much slower in the thirties [1930s] than it is today. Very few motors or lorries were to be seen, but they were making an impact, the odd steam engine hauling usually loads of timber to a saw mill, or occasionally a steam lorry lumbering along on solid tyres, were still working.

The main means of transportation was by horse and cart. Carts made a clinking sound as they travelled along caused by the wheels 'jigging' on the axle. Some men professed to be able to tell whose cart was coming by this sound, called "tounging". Donkeys and carts were as common as were ponies and traps, in fact it was quite a status symbol to have a pony and trap. A pony would eat as much as a cow therefore one had to be as they would say, "in a fair way of doing", equivalent to being able to keep a car today. Country churches had stables for ponies and horses during the service on Sunday or any time when a service was held.

Road repairs

Roads were not yet in great shape, as tarmacadam was just being introduced. I can well remember the old way of making and repairing road; with the steam roller, the watering cart drawn by a horse, and men with shovels spreading stones and soil on the road. This was wetted and rolled until it became hard, leaving a beautiful level surface, which unfortunately didn't last. Horses' feet with heavy shoes carrying heavy loads cut it badly, especially in wet weather. At this time some roads were concreted, which was thought to be the ultimate in road construction, and certainly was a big improvement on the steam roller and the watering cart. It did well until motor vehicles got more plentiful, when it was found to be hard, noisy, and very slippery in frosty weather. Tarmacadam soon superseded it.

Road repairs
Repairing the roads - courtesy Collen Brothers Quarries

There were lots of bicycles, in fact cycles were the main means of personal transport, one either cycled or walked. A new cycle cost approximately five pounds, and not everyone could afford one. Buses were becoming popular, and competition between the companies was intense. Safety precaution was not a high priority, and few would pass the safety regulations of today. I remember a local bus owner with having two or three buses including a dual purpose vehicle, with a lorry body during weekdays, and a horse drawn omnibus minus axles and wheels, bolted on instead of the flat body on Saturday and Sunday. On a late run one Saturday evening going up a steep hill the omnibus body fell off the vehicle, a model T Ford; luckily no one was hurt. It transpired that someone had forgotten to tighten the holding down bolts and vibration had caused the nuts to come off allowing the omnibus body to slide back off the chassis landing the passengers on the road. Help was obtained, and the omnibus body was lifted on and roped in position and they continued their journey. This happening was a talking point in the district for years after.

Runaway horse

Another hazard was the runaway horse. This occurrence was easily caused by a loud noise behind a horse or pony which frightened it and away it went at full gallop. If the driver was in the cart or trap there was little he or she could do only hang on to the reins and hope for the best. This often ended in an accident when the wheel hit a kerb or bank, overturning the cart, or trap. Sometimes the animal broke a leg and had to be destroyed, which was a considerable loss. Seldom was there any insurance to cover any sort of accident, and compensation was unheard of, insurance really took off only when the government made it compulsory to have third party cover on a motor vehicle.

Cattle droves

Cattle were driven in large droves along the road either to or from a fair, and little was thought of driving a herd from Enniskillen, or Mullingar, to Belfast for sale or shipment. Horses also were driven to and from fairs. Moy was a very important and well supported horse fair, and strings of horses two abreast were often seen travelling along with their halters tied to the tail of the one in front. Ten or twelve was common, with a rider on a front horse and a second man on one of the last pair, or riding a loose horse keeping the string in order. Ducks and geese were also driven to market but the practice however was dying out in the thirties in this area.

If a pig was to be driven it did not have a halter, it had a rope tied on a back leg, and if it tried to go the wrong way the leg was held and a whack from a flat board was administered to jog its intention to alter direction and go the other way. In towns where a bacon factory was working, it was not uncommon to see droves of perhaps two hundred pigs being driven from the railway goods yard to the factory. Pig trains were common, so also were cattle trains, cattle and pig droving died out as lorries got bigger, and the animals were taken straight from the farms to the bacon factory or meat plant.

The Blacksmith

One of my favourite jobs was taking a horse or pony to the blacksmith to be shod. I can never forget the smell of the forge, when water was thrown on the fire to blacken it. I can remember the smoke and above all the smell of burning hoof as a hot shoe was burned on to the hoof to bed it, before being cooled and nailed on. The black- smith held a very special place in the minds of farmers. He was always treated as an equal. He could do things no one else could do. He could take a piece of iron or steel - usually iron, heat it and shape it into anything he required it to be.

No one else could do such a thing. He could shoe horses no matter how much they fought against him, quite a lot of them did not take kindly to being shod. He could also put a hoop or a shoeing on a wheel and it would stay. He made door latches, hinges, hooks, chisels, lugs for spades and he could shaft spades and other tools. He also repaired harrows, grubbers, cultivators, ploughs, mowing machines or any other implement needing repair. I used to consider myself privileged when he asked me to strike for him while he thinned down a piece of iron. No words were spoken, all communication was by actions, by taps on the anvil. To be asked to blow the bellows was quite a special privilege and very few people were allowed to do so.

The blacksmith and the cartwright worked closely together sometimes in the same yard. The cartwright needed the services of the smith to shoe wheels and make irons for the construction of traps and carts. There were very few wheelwrights in the country as the cartwright usually did his own wheel work. The forge often had two anvils and if large enough two fires. The second one was for use by journeymen smiths. These journeymen were fine blacksmiths and moved on a circuit which they travelled most of the year. If the smith had something he did not want to do himself it was left for the journeyman. This man did not stay long in one forge before travelling on to the next forge on his round.

The forge was also a great focal point particularly if it was at a crossroads. Farmers would stop for a yarn, and to hear the latest news of the area, or perhaps pass on some titbit of information they themselves had to impart. These visits never seemed to hinder the smith since he spent about equal parts of his time working hot metal, or blowing his bellows to make it hot and workable; he therefore had time to talk. All talk stopped as soon as he put a piece of red hot iron on the anvil and started to hammer. Sparks then flew all around him and everyone stood aback, ready to re-group as soon as he returned to the fire.

The Miller
Another place where news was exchanged was at the corn mill, but never to the same extent as the forge. Farmers did not trust the miller as they did the smith. The miller was often blamed for keeping back too much meal as part of his payment. He was paid in cash, and also was allowed as part of his payment an agreed amount of meat. This amount was measured by a measure called a mether, and known as the miller's mether.

Seldom was he accused to his face. Farmers would accuse him between themselves. Had the grain been weighed before grinding there could have been no problem. Another accusation was that he did not return the same grain they gave him to grind into meal. With these grumblings in the background the miller was seldom a popular man.


My favourite season was autumn, and still is, when haymaking is finished and the harvest got into full swing, oats being cut, usually by a pair of horses pulling a mowing machine with reaping gear fitted. This apparatus was operated by a second man sitting beside the driver with a sheafing rake the purpose of which was to push a sheaf off the collecting table, to be tied by the tying gang using a band with a special knot which did not break the straws.

When the field was finished or at the end of a day's work the sheaves were stood up in stooks to dry, four to a stook, if the weather looked good. If it was a wet season then stooks were larger consisting of fourteen sheaves, ten with their butts on the ground, five each side, and four heads down tied on top forming a hood and this kept the heads dry for two or three weeks. But if the bad weather persisted then the stooks had to be built into huts. These were small stacks and were covered with a forkful of grass, or old hay, and tied down with four ropes like a haycock. There it sat for another few weeks until dry enough to be carted in and built in a stack, to await the thresher.

Stacks were built in rows as close together as possible leaving a space between two rows to allow the thresher between. Sometimes it was built in two large stacks with a space between for the threshing mill.

Barley was treated in the same way, as was wheat if the straw was not required for thatch. If it was required for thatch, it was almost always hand shorn with a sickle; scything and shearing were both very skilled jobs. The shearer used the sickle in one hand and a forked stick in the other; the forked stick held the stalks steady while he cut the butts as close to the ground as possible. Using the sickle at the back of the cut bunch and the forked stick in front he lifted the cut bunch and placed it on a band and after four bunches were placed on the band it was tied using the special knot which did not break the straws. A new band was already in place for the shearer. When sixteen sheaves were shorn they were stooked.

A stook of sixteen sheaves was considered to be one hundred weight of straw. Twelve sheaves were stood against each other with four upside down forming the hood, the same as for oats. After four or five weeks the stocks were brought into the haggard (hay yard) and built in a stack and neatly thatched to await lashing. If the stack was to be a large one an experienced, expert builder, was engaged to build it, as not everyone could successfully build a stack and thatch it.


Thatching was done by making staples - small handfuls of combed hay, grass, or straw with a twisted point which was pushed with a thatching tool called a spurtel into the stack and neatly combed. Great pride was taken in having well built neat stacks, of any kind. The straw sat in the stack until time was available for lashing, which was usually done by two men using a wooden barrel. A large handful of straw was lifted from a sheaf with enough to fill both hands. This was then struck over the barrel to expel the grain from the straw, but not to break the straws, or knock the heads completely off.

At the end of the day the grain was shovelled into bags, and left for cleaning using the fans. The flail was never used where the straw was required for thatch. The straw was already tied up in sheaves each one weighing seven pounds and was either built on a cart for market, or delivered to a purchaser, or built in a barn or shed for home use i.e. to await the thatcher.

After the wheat field was cleared, gleaners sometimes asked to be allowed to gather the loose heads. I can remember this practice done once. After the introduction of the horse rake the practice died out, the farmers raked the fields and little was left for the gleaners.


Threshing was also a favourite period of mine. It was usually done in winter and in those days it was done by steam engine and the thresher, a very heavy machine weighing about two tons. Stacks were built as close together as possible, leaving a space between two rows to allow the threshing machine in, before the arrival of the outfit. Barrels of water had to be in place, the engine used a fill every half hour. Coal had to be on hand, enough to do the threshing and also to give the driver a full tender to take him to the next farm. On arrival, usually the evening before, there was much excitement by all concerned except for the engine driver, and his flagman as was his proper name, who did not in the thirties, have to walk in front with his red flag, to warn oncoming horsemen and pedestrians that a mechanical contraption was coming. His job then was to keep the fire stoked by arriving early to have a good head of steam ready to start, and to damp the fire down in the evening. He also fed the grain into the mill.

On arrival the machinery had to be set up ready to work, and this necessitated setting the mill level otherwise the sieves would overflow and clog the elevators. If the haggard was level then not a great deal of work was required, but if it had even a slight slope then a lot of levelling and manoeuvring was required to get the wheels up onto short planks or digging holes to let the wheels down. When the mill was deemed to be correct the engine had then to be lined up so that the mill pulley was in perfect line with the engine drive wheel, otherwise the belt would not stay on. When the driver was satisfied he ordered the belt to be put on, or offered up as they termed it; he then tried a dummy run, and if it was not running true it had to come off and more moving of the machine was required until it was deemed satisfactory. The fire could then be dampened down and the evening meal would be ready and the talk would be of how difficult it had been getting set, or about how the harvest was yielding.

The following morning the flagman would have been stoking the engine from daybreak and a good head of steam would be ready for the engine driver when he arrived. All was then ready to start as soon as the hands arrived; help was always referred to as 'hands'. This help came from the surrounding farmers who had themselves threshing to do.

It took about twelve men to operate the thresher and keep it running smoothly. This meant that twelve farms had to be visited helping at the thresher before all work was paid back and this was referred to as 'swop work'.

Pig Killing

The pig killer or travelling butcher as some of them preferred to be called, would arrive either from a neighbouring farm or first thing in the morning, with his knives and scrapers in a tool roll, his steel hanging from his belt. He also had a long iron bar with a hand hold at one end and a hook at the other.

As soon as the boiling water was ready he and a helper with his iron click would proceed to the pig house to bring out the first pig. This was achieved by cornering a pig in a corner grabbing it by the ears and holding tight. The butcher at this point would thrust the click or hook into the pig's mouth, and with a sharp tug embed the sharp hook in the pig's mouth and then pull the pig out on to a prepared bed of straw. He would then give the handle of the hook to someone to hold, usually me, and with a mallet for the purpose he would aim a quick blow to the pig's head just above the eyes which stunned it enough to give him time to cut its throat, and let its blood spill out. (This practice was quite rightly outlawed about 1940, and not before time).

At this point the kettles of water boiling hot, would be coming. The butcher would start as he called it scalding the pig to enable him to scrape the hairs off. When all the hairs were cleaned off, he would cut a slit in the back legs to expose the sinew, where a piece of wood or a proper hanging hook was inserted behind the sinews. The dead pig was then taken to the hanging point where it was hung up by the back legs and disembowelled, and left ready for market, and the next unfortunate animal was hauled out and given the same treatment.

Up until the thirties [1930s] it was thought that a farrowing sow had to have someone in attendance which meant sitting in the pig house while she gave birth. Some sows were not keen to have a human with them, and became quite wicked. In fact it was good practice to make certain the sow did not ever get between oneself and the door, and always to have a chair which could be used lion tamer fashion in case of attack. A graip with its prongs woven with coir rope was useful to reach up to the sow's head and gently nudge any young pig that might get to her head. Another very important point to remember was never allow yourself to nod off.

At this period the farrowing crate made its appearance. This was a wooden box with a door at each end to allow the sow to go in at one end and out at the other. She could stand up and lie down, but not turn around to get at her young. At floor level one on either side were two low level compartments where the piglets could run into as their mother lay down, and therefore not get squashed, as often happened in a pighouse if it did not have a farrowing rail. About this time a dry feeder was introduced. This [for] when pigs started eating dry meal and drinking water, instead of being fed slop food. This worked well, but there were the prophets of doom who predicted that neither the crate, nor the dry feeder, would prosper as they were both unnatural, but they did. In fact these items were the beginning of modern pig producing which has progressed into a highly scientific mechanised and most efficient pig industry.

Radio, was gaining in popularity and a set could be bought for three pounds. TV although invented took, twenty five years to get here. The cinema was popular but meant a long cycle ride to visit. The main recreation was largely of ones own making with the exception of Tennis and Football, Swimming and Skating in their season. Skittles, Horseshoe throwing and kettie, also walking and cycling were popular. Children of the nineties complain of being bored. I can never remember being so afflicted.

Prices in the thirties make interesting reading.


1 lb [1 pound or 0,44kg] of tea cost 2/8 [13p]
1 stone [6 kg] of sugar 2/8 [13p]
1 lb of butter 1/- [5p]
1 lb of bacon 1/2 [6p]
1 lb of ham 1/9 [8p]
a plain loaf 2d [1p]
5 Players cigarettes 2/6 [12½p]


A milk cow £10 to £11
A cart horse £25 to £30
A driving pony £5 to £8
A springing sow pig £8 to £9
A dropped calf (new born) 2/6 to 5/- [12½p to 25p]


A horse cart (wheels and axle supplied by client) £8.
Horse cart new, with new wheels, and axle £14.
Two horse mowing machine £15.
Horse drawn swathe turner £10,
Wheeled plough £4 to £5
One spade 2/6 [12½p].