Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Short History of Tractors in Hampshire

Potato harvesting at Stocks. The sacks on the trailer protected the four women
potato-pickers from the weather.
For a boy, growing up on a farm in the 1950's and 60's was heaven, as it meant having access to all the farm machinery - and being allowed to drive the tractors.* Before the arrival of tractors, all large farm implements such as ploughs or binders were horse-drawn; the only machine capable of moving being the enormous and extremely heavy steam engine, which was generally used in a stationary location to power thrashing machines and mechanical loaders. Tractors only appeared on British farms in the 1930s, and Patrick recalled going up by train from Litchfield to collect one and drive it back to the estate, where the many men then employed to work the land with horses must have eyed it with some apprehension.

My earliest memories of tractors was of a dark-blue Fordson which arrived at Stocks when we did in 1950. It had to be started by hand, with a swing handle which could whip back viciously if left engaged after the engine had caught. There were two fuel tanks, one for petrol, which was used to start it, and one for TVO (tractor vaporising oil), which it ran on. These had to be switched over manually at the carburettor when the engine had warmed up. It need careful use of the choke and the throttle (a simple pull wire held open by teeth) to get it going at all. It was just possible to start it alone by running round from the handle at the front as soon as the engine caught and juggling with the choke and throttle, but it was usually a two-man job. There was of course no power steering and the clutch and brakes were very heavy. The brakes in particular were 'slewing brakes' which could be applied on one back wheel alone to help turn the tractor quickly at the end of a furrow. Although we also had the little grey Ferguson, a half-track caterpillar and later Internationals, the Fordsons for many years were the main workhorse. Later, diesel Fordsons appeared, which had electric self-starters and power-assisted steering. The early diesel engines were made by Perkins and while idling made a strange and satisfying 'meringue-meringue' sound which my brother Piers and I used to imitate incessantly.

I was allowed to drive tractors as soon as I was strong enough and loved doing so, so much that by the age of nine or ten, I was doing a share of the 'corn cart' at harvest time - driving the tractor alongside the combine (harvester) while the corn was unloaded by elevator into a trailer while on the move. One then sped back to 'the pit' beside the dryer, backing up the trailer and emptying it before racing back to pick up the next load - before the combine's tank was full again. There were no cabs, so one was at the mercy of the elements, but the feeling of being in the middle of a great field when ploughing or cultivating, with the sky overhead and only the gulls for company, was marvellous. For accuracy, I was never able to plough, an art which involves considerable skill and at which John Spreadbury and later his son Andrew excelled, winning ploughing matches thoughout Hampshire for years. Similarly, I never drove the combines (except to try them) as this too needed considerable experience and their cost made them too valuable to leave to a boy. An example of what could happen to a combine even in the hands of a very experienced driver, appears below!

Soon tractors became highly sophisticated, with air-conditioned cabs and all manner of comforts, such as heaters and radios. But something important was lost when one could no longer feel the elements as we worked on the fields. And of course the religion of safety now prevents anyone under the age of 13 even riding on a tractor.

Some early photos of our tractors can be seen here

*Tractors have arguably played one of the most significant roles in modern life, contributing to the move of millions from the land and creating the dustbowls of North America through indiscriminate and repeated ploughing (and the ignoring of traditional crop rotation). A most interesting history of the use of tractors and their sociological and environmental effects is included in the otherwise marvellous comic novel “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian”.

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