Life Between the Wars

This is an account from Leonard Thompson, farm worker, then aged 71 in 1968, from the book ‘Akenfield’ by Ronald Blythe

“Our food was apples, potatoes, swedes and bread, and we drank out tea without milk or sugar. Skim milk could be bought from the farm but it was thought a luxury. Nobody could get enough to eat no matter how they tried. Two of my brothers were out to work. One was 8 and he got 3s a week, the other got about 7s. Our biggest trouble was water. There was no water near, it had to be fetched from the foot of a hill nearly a mile away. ‘Drink all you can at school’, were were told – there was a tap at school. You would see the dos and girls filling themselves up like camels before they left school so that they would have enough water to last the day. I always remember the bitter metal taste of the tap in my mouth; it was cold – beautiful! I remember once coming home from school and feeling almost mad for water. My mother was washing the linen not he doorstep and when her back was turned I swigged 2 cupfuls from the tub. Up it came at once – it was all soapsuds! Mother did no more than box my ears.

Our parents and all the cottage people were very religious and very patriotic. …The boys marched through the village singing

Lords Roberts and Kitchener, Generals Buller and White,

All dressed in khaki,going out to fight…

and their faces would look sincere and important. It was all ‘my country’ – country, country, country. You heard nothing else. There ws no music in the village then except at the chapel or the church and our family liked it so much that we hurried from one to the other to hear all we could. People like us, who went where we fancied on a Sunday, were called ‘Devil-dodgers’. We all went to one service after another and ate packets of bread and jam in between.People believed in religion then, which I think was a good thing because if they hadn’t got religion there would have been revolution.

After the First World War, wages for agricultural labourers rose due to the manpower shortage, and unions were active in improving conditions.

“1920 looked like been a good year. The awards made by the Central Wages Board were enforced in the spring and w were getting 38s 6d a week on the farms. We worked 54 hours a week and had a half holiday, and if we worked overtime it was 1s 1d an hour. What a change from 1914, when it was 13s a week and just enough grub and sleep to keep you on the move. The farmers were able to pay the new wages because of the prices guaranteed by the ‘Corn Act of 1917… We demanded 50s a week and said that we wold strike we didn’t get it. Then things began to go wrong. ..

The slump set in during the great hot summer of 1921. … We had no rain from March right through to October. The corn didn’t grow more than a foot high and most of it didn’t even come to ear. We harvested what we could and the last loads were leaving the field when we heard, ‘the ages are coming down next week’. .. The farmers told the men that they would be given 42s 6d. Then it was 38s 6dA fortnight later on the farm where I worked it was ‘You’ll have to be on short-time – ..27s 6d a week.’ And that was what we lived on all that bad winter.

It was the government’s fault. They ended the Corn Act less than a year after it had been made law. They said it was best if the farmers made their own bargains, which meant they wouldn’t pay the subsidies. Theorise of wheat was quartered in a year. Cattle were sold for next to nothing because farmers couldn’t afford to keep them. Then we had to close down our Union Branch because nobody could afford to pay the 4d a week membership fee. I remember the week it happened. I drew 27s 6d from the farmer and after I had paid my wife 24s and paid my union 4d and my rent 3s 1d I had a penny left! So I threw it across the field. I’d worked hard, I’d been through the war and I’d married. A penny was what a child had. …

There was no dole for farm labourers. An unemployed married farm-worker got parish relief but a single man got nothing. So the young men began to walk to the other villages searching for odd jobs. Soon East Anglia was full of these men and, by 1930 or so, you’d get up to 50 of them passing the cottage every night as they tramped from workhouse to workhouse.


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