When I recount stories of my childhood spent in the countryside of the late 1940s and early 1950s, people always tell me that I had an idyllic childhood. While to some extent I did, I had many wonderful childhood experiences. One of my earliest memories is being placed between the shafts on the hay cart seated directly behind the cart horse. The man that placed me there told me to take the cart back to the farm. Being a small child in charge of a cartload of hay and huge shire horse gave me a tremendous sense of excitement. I was dwarfed by both the loaded hay cart and the horse. Obviously I was not really in charge, the horse knew the way back and went on its way oblivious of the small passenger shouting commands to it. While I can paint an idyllic picture of a post war country childhood, I was even as a child aware of the darker side of country life.
One of my other early memories is of my father, a gamekeeper, nailing a grey squirrel skin to a board. Once it dried out it was sent to the ministry for a bounty. The bounty was one shilling (5p) per squirrel skin, which in the hard times of the post war era was a substantial sum. Particularly if the gamekeeper sent in several skins at once. When I explain that my father’s wage was £3 10s (£3.50), it is obvious that the squirrel bonus was a useful addition to the family income.
There were other ways in which my father supplemented the family income. On such a low income meat was something of a luxury and all to often our meat was rabbit. What I should explain was then that rabbits existed in large numbers in the countryside. Farmers regarded then as a pest, as they consumed large numbers of their young plants growing in the open fields. Although my father’s primary role was to breed and nurture pheasants for the winter shoots, his secondary role was as a pest controller. Quite simply this meant controlling the number of rabbits on the farm.
Now as an adult I can see how inefficient were the methods he used, which were trapping and snaring the rabbits. He studied the hedgerows and when he found a rabbit run he would put either a gin trap or a snare there. Then the following day he would go back to collect the rabbits caught in the trap or snare. Surprisingly the rabbits could often set off the gin trap and not be caught. When he did come across a trapped rabbit it would often be still alive and he had to put it out of its misery.
It was not only us who benefitted from this rabbit bounty, but also our neighbours. I can remember my father giving our elderly neighbours the Hugget’s nice plump young rabbits to make into a pie. Other workers on the farm similarly benefitted from this practice.
This brings me to the most disreputable of characters, the ministry pest controller. This was a man who could be called in by farmers to remove the rabbits from their land. He was disreputable, because of the way he went about his trade. Once on the farm he would identify the areas most popular with the rabbits. Then he would lay traps in this area, but he was very selective in his trapping, as he never bothered with those areas where there were few rabbits. In this way he could always demonstrate to the farmer that he had killed a large number of rabbits and had largely solved the rabbit problem. However he always left enough rabbits to ensure that by the following year there were enough them to cause a nuisance, so he would need to be called back again. Countrymen such as my father despised him because he would make all the easy kills, leaving to the gamekeeper and others to kill the more difficult to get at rabbits.
In the immediate post war years meat was rationed and then when it ceased to be rationed it remained an expensive purchase. Therefore families where looking for alternative sources of fresh meat. This man had a very profitable trade selling these rabbits to market stall holders or local butchers.
In January when the pheasant shooting season ceased it was the rabbit drive season. The pheasants now had been shot and could no longer be scared away by the noise of shooting. Also the vegetation had died down depriving the rabbits of cover, making them easier to shoot. This was a very popular event as it was the one time of the year that the lower social orders could gather on the land and shoot the rabbits. At other times of the year they would be regarded as poachers for and would be prosecuted. Local magistrates who were usually the local landowners dealt with poachers harshly.
These January shoots were an expression of the class divide, as only the lower orders shot rabbit. The gentry only shot game birds, shooting at rabbits was something they regarded as an affront to their dignity.
Sometimes the landowner or farmer would demand a larger cull of rabbits than usual. The only way to do this was to gas them in their burrows with cyanide gas. There was danger in this method, as the pump which pumped the gas into the burrow usually had one or two small leaks. Unfortunate gamekeepers could be killed by cyanide leaks. I can remember my father remarking on the gamekeepers whose obituaries appeared ‘The Gamekeepers Gazette’; men who had been killed by a gas leakage from the cyanide pump.
Gamekeepers regarded this as an unnecessarily cruel means of killing rabbits. I think memories of the First World War accounted for this feeling. Gamekeeper were invariably in times of war turned into infantry men. Certainly the older of my fathers work colleagues could remember the horrors of gas warfare. Also it represented a waste, all those rabbits were left in the burrows to decay; if other methods had been used they could have been used to feed a family.
While as an economist I can note is that this form of rabbit control was a labour intensive and relatively ineffective. As regardless of how many rabbits my father killed there were also a large number happily consuming the farmers crops the next year. Yet these same rabbits provided a source of food for the low paid workers of the countryside. Rabbit pie was for us a cheap meal which he had once or twice a week. Although rabbits consumed a large quantities of the farmers crops the crop yield in those days was still large. The methods used by my father and others to control rabbit numbers was sufficiently effective to prevent the rabbit problem getting out of hand. Farmers never seemed to be put out of business by the rabbit. In fact the farming industry produced a similar proportion of the nations food to that produced today by the same industry.
Farming in the 1940s and 50s was relatively low tech and as a consequence employed large numbers of workers. Such labour intensive industries are less productive per worker than capital intensive industries, so the wages of such workers were low. However such a labour intensive industry demanded a large labour force. When mechanisation became more common jobs began to disappear. As a teenager in the 1960s I can remember seeing abandoned country cottages being left to decay, as they were no longer needed to house workers.
Often when I talk to people about my childhood they say it must have been idyllic. The same belief prevailed amongst my mothers relatives who visited us from town. What they never understood was that country life could be a hard demanding life. In summer my father would rise at dawn and work through to dusk, that is a day starting at 4.30 and ending at 9.30.They wanted the romance of the country, which they got as in there visits they never engaged with the realities of country life. Somehow they managed to be obvious to the brutal killing of wildlife, even when they were enjoying the rabbit pie for dinner.
In this essay I have chosen to emphasise the harsh realities of country life. Living what could be a hard and demanding life meant country people aged in a way that people do not do today. Ageing was noticeable once people passed the age of 40. However despite what I have written country people believed that they had a better lifestyle than those living in the urban centres. They were not oblivious to the beauty of the surroundings in which they worked. Also the nature of their work meant that they were unsupervised. They worked free from the constant intrusion of a supervisor. They were judged by the end product of their labour, the ploughed field or in my father’s case the number of pheasants seen on a shooting day. Although they might be paid as an agricultural labourer, they knew that they were highly skilled in the tasks that they undertook. They with a few exceptions took pride in their work and it was this pride that ensured that the unsupervised work they undertook was always completed.
What I believe is that the working environment on the land in this period created a group of men who were satisfied with their lives. The nature of their work made them tough resilient individuals. One writer in the 19th lamented the decline of agriculture as means of employment, because it meant that there less of such men in the country. To this writer these agricultural workers were the backbone of the ‘thin red line’ that secured so many British military victories.
While I have no illusions about the nature of country life, I do believe the low tech lives lived by such as my father were in many ways superior to the lives lived by many today. It seems to me that the choice is living a more fulfilling life in a low tech economy or in living in a high tech economy with a higher income but with uninteresting working life.