Alec Ballard and Hilton Brett

From about four years old I spent a lot of time with Alec and Granddad. Mum couldn’t keep me indoors and I was up and gone pretty early, out to where Alec and Granddad were working. When I knew them they were both farm labourers at Chessell Farm, but before I was born they were both carters, working with horses and had a very important role on the farm.

Alec in his younger days had been a carter at Dunsbury Farm, while Granddad had worked for a good few years - forty I expect - at Chessell Farm.  Alec and Granddad would have been kept on as labourers when the farms were mechanised. I expect they missed the horses. I know that Alec was very good with them and I expect Granddad was too, they were both very mild-mannered people.

Alec lived at Brook with his brother, Bill, who wasn’t a farm worker; he had a different trade altogether in building. I rarely knew Alec and Granddad to work separately, winter or summer, and they always got on very well together. They worked as hedgers, laying a hedge as good as anyone could in those days; as ditchers, because where there was a hedge there was a ditch to take water away and as thatchers. They would be put to hedging and ditching from about the beginning of November until about the end of March and I made my way to them whenever I could. Granddad was a top man and looked after me well. I never knew Alec get cross with anybody, he always had a twinkle in his eye and a ready laugh.

Mr Bruce, the farm manager, would give them their winter’s work to do in about October and let them get on with it. He’d say, ‘Cut and lay the hedge all around Foxland, dig the ditch out, then go on to Whiteground and cut down through to Newbridge.’  Running from Chessell that was a very long hedge to lay. Mr Bruce took wages down to Grannie; probably Alec’s wages as well. Alec biked over from Brook and left his bike at Little Chessell which was down in the fields. There were  two cottages about a couple of hundred yards apart with Grannie and Granddad living in the top one while we lived in the lower one.   Alec and Granddad might not see Mr Bruce more than two or three times during the winter when he might be passing by and stop to see how they were getting on. He knew they’d always do a good day’s work.

A hazel copse ran down to Newbridge; about four or five acres of hazel which they used to coppice for thatching spars and a few bundles of bean sticks. It was all worked out so that there was always something coming on to cut; proper coppicing. In a really cold and wet spell they’d pack up hedging and ditching for a few days or a week and go on coppicing, cutting the hazel off at about ten or twelve feet high and not all that thick. There was an open-fronted shed about a couple of hundred yards from where we lived at Little Chessell, about thirty feet long and going back about twelve feet. Hazel was put there from the copse so that when they had a couple of days they would light up a little fire in the front of the shed and make spars. The hazel was cut to about four feet and then split down the middle to make two spars. They would be twisted round by hand and bent double, like an upside-down ‘U’, and had points cut on each end. These were used when thatching hay, straw, and corn ricks, to protect them from the weather. A lot of spars were needed. Odd bits of wood were tossed onto the fire, and out of the wind I should think it was quite cosy up there.

When hedging and ditching I remember how they set themselves out. Granddad would start at the top of the hedge and Alec would start some ten-foot away from him. When caught up one went in front of the other and started again and so it went on until the job was done. They were always quite close together, chatting, laughing and joking. Mum always knew roughly where I would be with Granddad and Alec, and I’d stay with them all day.

They took their dinners with them in their nammett bags and sometimes walked a mile or more before they started their work. I suppose they’d set off about seven in the morning as they had to be on the job by about half-past seven. Nammett at about nine would be a bit of bread, a hunk of cheese and Alec always had a bit of fat bacon. Both had cold tea, carried in quart cider bottles, no vacuum flasks then!

Gran had a quart of cider delivered to Little Chessell each week by the grocer from Newport, this was for any visitors who wanted a glass. The screw top bottles were then used for cold tea. Granddad would fill the teapot up with hot tea, have a couple of cups then fill the teapot up and that was drink for the day. Cold tea is very refreshing - a bit bitter with no milk or anything in it. They’d swig away at it and it would last all day. You had to be a bit careful when pouring the tea into the bottle; if it was too hot the bottom came clean out of it. I can remember tea and glass on the floor several times! Gran was always making cake and sometimes Bill did too, so they usually had a bit of cake with their dinner nammett.

I remember that one particular day when I was about seven, Alec said he wanted me to set a rabbit snare on the way home to see what I could catch. When it was time to go home I went off with this snare, looked for a nice rabbit run in the field and set this snare, feeling quite excited! Next morning I was up early and set off to meet Alec and Granddad and to check the snare. There was the snare, pulled up tight, with an empty matchbox in there. I smiled and walked on down to where they were working, and Alec said ‘Did you catch anything Pat?’ I said, ‘ Yeah, I’d caught a matchbox,’ and he asked if there’d been anything in it. ‘No’ I said, and he laughed like anything. He’d been down there on the way to work and put that matchbox in the snare for a bit of a joke… he laughed, we all laughed and I can remember that just like it was yesterday! That’s what Alec was like, a very nice man.

I remember one Saturday lunchtime (you worked Saturday mornings to make up your hours) when they were making spars, they’d had a fire going in a drum with holes in it.  Me and my brother were in the copse and looked up to see flames shoot up about ten feet in the air from this building. We went up there and on the way I saw my younger brother, aged about five, running as fast as he could out of this building! What had
happened was that they’d used a little paraffin that morning to get the fire going; they’d put the rest of the paraffin up in the rafters of this place to keep it out of the way. My brother saw the fire was still smoking a bit and, being able to climb like a monkey, he’d climbed up into the roof, lowered the tin to the ground, undone the lid and tipped paraffin onto the red hot embers – it more or less exploded and blew right up into his face and out the front of the building. We’d seen him running for home and we went on down to find Mum in a terrible state with him in a terrible state -  hair all singed, eyelashes and eyebrows gone, crying… there was a terrific fuss about it.

Mum was cross with Granddad and Alec for leaving the paraffin there of course. The farm manager got to hear about it and got involved - he decided that Granddad and Alec had put the paraffin right up out of the way and that you wouldn’t expect anyone to climb up there to get it, so no more was said about it. It all blew over after two or three days and my brother’s hair grew back, but it could have been a lot more serious, burning his face and burning the building down …a proper sorry sort of a thing.

I remember that when they began hedging and ditching, one of the tractor drivers would bring down about a dozen straw bales and dump them on the ground; that was for starting fires with. There was a lot of stuff to burn up because you had the hedges with four or five feet each side of shrubs and brambles; they had to cut it all out and it had to be burnt. I’d go down and make a little camp out of these bales. If there was no fire burning that day Granddad or Alec asked me to light a fire so at nammett time we’d have something to sit round. I’d light the fire and make these bales into a little bit of a camp. I’d be there all day off and on, getting bits of wood to keep the fire going. When nammett time came Granddad and Alec would sit on a bale round the fire and I felt quite important keeping the fire going. If I got a bit bored I’d go off and scrape up a few bits from where they’d been working to put on the fire. I did that all day for weeks at a time in the winter.

What I remember most is how they used to get on so well together. They spent a lot of time in each other’s company, eight or nine hours a day and Saturday mornings. They never got tired of one another and were always laughing and joking together.