November Feature; Working The Land
By Ruth Lawrence
Before motorised transport altered the countryside, the village blacksmith was the mainstay of the rural community. He was both craftsman and farrier and without him, life would have ground to a standstill.
Pyecombe Forge was a typical hive of activity before the war; horses queuing up outside to be shod, the clang of metal on metal, the heat of the forge and the hiss of red hot iron being quenched in water. I recently met George Long who not only remembers the forge, but recalls Charles Mitchell, the retired blacksmith, being there when George was a young boy in 1933. Later, when George was a farm worker, he remembered “taking the horses to be shod on wet days when the ground was too soft for them.
I was probably one of the last men to regularly plough with horses; I learned when I was fifteen.” He recalls two blacksmiths, Bill and Ernest working together; “One would work the forge and heat the shoes while the other would fit the shoes to the horse.” George joined the army during the war, but after being wounded, he returned to work with horses in peacetime. George recalled the steam ploughs that would take over from horses before the advent of tractors; “We used to supply them with coal and well water all day,” he remembered. “They ploughed much faster than the acre a day you could finish with a horse.” However, George missed the connection with the farm heavy horses who had grown to know and trust him. “Some would lower their heads to help me put their collars on,” he said, before telling me how his working day with the horses would begin at 7am and not finish until the evening. The horses lived out in summer but were stabled in winter; they had to be brushed, fed and watered and George had two Shire horses under his care called Smiler and Darkie. The head carter taught George to plough; the art was to set one wheel in the furrow and one outside and once correctly aligned, it was far easier to plough a straight furrow. “You’d walk 11 miles to plough an acre,” George recalled before telling me that his wages at this time were just 12 shillings and sixpence per week. He’d give 10 shillings to his mother and keep what was left, just enough for a visit to the pictures, a round of drinks and five cigarettes! “I’d go ferreting; if I could catch a rabbit, I’d sell it for sixpence,” he remembered with a smile. Once tractors took over from horses, George’s boss, Mr Phillips used to keep the horses busy on the farm until ploughing matches, when they would compete against other teams. Ploughing matches still continue today as a vital way of maintaining interest in heavy horses: I visited one just north of Hurstpierpoint, where magnificent teams of Clydesdales and Shires competed for ploughing and turnout prizes. I met Jane McInerney, whose late father David, was well known in the heavy horse community; he bred three of the competing horses, all Clydesdale mares. Two called Madge and Belle were being worked by Ian Williams, a ploughman of 20 years experience using a 1930’s Ransome plough. To achieve a straight furrow looked far from easy; the ploughman has to be both horseman and engineer, for the plough must often be readjusted according to the ground. A rare ploughwoman, Suze Russsel worked another Clydesdale, Dolly, on an adjacent plot. Dolly is a full sister to Madge and Belle and all three horses are under seven years of age. “Training begins at two and a half years,” Jane told me. “They start work at three and can continue until eighteen or nineteen.” The season for ploughing matches begins on the August bank holiday and continues until the end of October with competitions running at weekends. I spoke to judge John Cornwell who explained the points system to me: “There are marks for straightness, uniformity, firmness and five other qualities that make for a prize winning effort. I noticed how immaculately the horses were presented and John explained that there were prizes for best turnout as well. The mares were adorned with horse brasses and gleaming harness with manes and tails plaited in coloured ribbon. The public love to see horses work the land and people wait at either end of the furrows to photograph the turning teams. Ian, a smallholder, has broken his horses to ride and pull wagons but ploughing is their main activity, while Suze is a business admin teacher at Plumpton College, demonstrating that these days ploughing is something that can still be learned by the determined. “It’s unfortunately a dying art,” Jane told me regretfully. “It’s not an easy skill, but it’s satisfying and there are courses out there that teach the basics.” When horses are ploughing, it’s not speed that counts; the slower they move, the easier it is to plough and they have to learn to turn the tight corner at the end of each line by crossing their legs sideways. They learn to respond to verbal commands as contact via the reins is so far away; each horse can weigh almost a ton and it’s incredible how they react to the slightest pressure or command to start, stop and turn. Ditchling resident, Dick Morley remembers in his book, ‘No Ordinary Place’ of an account of ploughing matches written by his champion ploughman father, Jack Morley, before he died. Jack wrote, “You arrive at the venue with thirty or more other teams…. now it is one thing to control your team at home with everything familiar; here everything is strange and they begin to dance about a bit.” He goes on to describe how he had to “plough half an acre by one thirty which seems a hell of a lot of ground,” while the judges “have been comparing notes and measuring the depth, the way you have or have not buried the stubble, the way the furrows are laid up, straightness and levelness.” His love of life with the heavy horses is summed up in his final paragraph, a fitting tribute to a lifelong countryman; “I still think that on an autumn morning, with a good pair of horses and a plough, and the birds singing and all the country sounds, I would never wish for anything better.” Dick recalled taking his father to a final ploughing match on his last birthday where he was upset to see horses arriving in horseboxes; in his day, the ploughman would walk several miles to the match before his team even started to plough. The ploughmen completed a furrow after having difficulty harnessing the horses and then discovered they didn’t know how to turn the horses around. They unbuckled all the harness, lifted the plough and pulled the horses into the reverse position before continuing, with red faces all round. Dick’s father muttered softly, “Gawd, bugger, I could turn it over quicker with a spade!” Horses were such an integral part of farm life that many accounts exist to paint a vivid picture of the working horse before tractors replaced hoof prints in the Sussex chalk. Phoebe Somers interviewed several elderly ploughmen for her book, ‘A Time There Was’. One expert ploughman, Bill Wills reckoned that a Shire horse could pull a load five times its own weight, but he had a cautionary rhyme about the typical white markings on the Shire’s legs:
One white leg – buy him
Two white legs – try him
Three white legs – doubt him
Four white legs – do without him
Many of the old horse men had their own versions of these lines; horses needed to be reliable and robust so they were right to be discerning when choosing a working horse. Jess Feast of Midhurst remembered covering eleven miles a day root hoeing behind his horses, Sailor and Stormer, while another ploughman recalled thirteen-hour working days, which must have taxed even the legendary strength of the gigantic Shires. Ploughmen forged bonds with their horses that lasted for the animal’s lifetime; Bill Kilhams of Bury Farm was in charge of a four-horse team when just seventeen. He remembered Captain, Prince, Steamer and Jolly with great affection, saying that “all horses know who is their master; they have their own ways of showing recognition and also that they are pleased to see him.” Boys who began working on the farm as young as eleven would continue until their seventh decade and they took memories of the horses into old age. Cyril Matcham of Poling was still able to recite the drill for getting his Suffolk Punches into the wagon shafts and he recalled the little earcaps the men’s wives used to sew for the horses to protect them from the irritating flies. Made from calico, the caps were decorated with red, white and blue tassels which dangled and moved with the horses. The horses, although willing to toil all day alongside their masters, appreciated being released at the end of day. George Trussler, who worked on Stakers Farm for over forty years remembered them rolling in the grass after being freed from their heavy harnesses. There was a well known saying, “no foot, no horse” that highlighted the importance of the farrier in rural life. Most villages had their forge and as Sussex roads were notoriously rough and flinty, horseshoes came under considerable wear. One of the best known blacksmiths in West Sussex was Owen Crowhurst, one of four blacksmithing brothers. He had an extraordinary memory and could recall the type, size and measurement of shoes for each horse he dealt with regularly. The blacksmith was toolmaker and mender as well as farrier; sickles and shears were forged from rough lumps of iron and building hardware was literally made on the anvil. Before the Industrial Revolution, the local blacksmith would have made most of the nails required in the area, both for building and horse shoeing. When cars replaced horses, smiths had to use their resourcefulness and turn to vehicle repairs as the sound of hoof beats gave way to the roar of engines. Talking to George Long and watching teams at work under the plough made me realise how indispensible heavy horses must have been to our ancestors. Pulling their wagons, making their land productive, carrying them from home to town, each footstep settling next to a hoof print though woodland, farm and downland. We owe these willing, capable giants a lasting recognition for where we have arrived today. Our history is, in part, the history of the horse who once worked beside us.
To find out more about ploughing and matches visit
References; ‘A Time There Was’ Phoebe Somers
‘No Ordinary Place’ Dick Morley