Welsh Social History
Contents of this section
Working the soil
Working the soil
There was co-operation in the use of implements such as a mowing machine or seed
drill between farmer and farmer. Until the 18th C. horses were regarded as noble
and valuable animals, and although they could be used light carting and riding, they
were not subjected to the drudgery of ploughing. It is often forgotten that for nearly
2000 years the ox was by far the most common draught beast in Britain.
Long before the arrival of the Romans the Celtic people in Britain possessed oxen;
rather weak and small beasts that stood only about 40 inches tall. It was the Romans
who introduced the practice of shoeing working oxen. On British farms they were always
shod with two crescent shaped pieces of iron on each hoof. By the Middle ages oxen
had increased in size and strength and various breeds were widely used to draw ploughs
and pull carts. A plough team usually consisted of six, eight or more beasts yoked
in pairs. The yoke consisted of a thick beam of oak or hornbeam, carved into shape
and well smoothed and polished. The bows by which the yoke was attached were made
of ash steam bent into shape.
In medieval Welsh times a fully grown ox was worth 5/- and a working ox was yoked
to a plough team at three years of age and remained at work for six or seven years.
Champions of the ox pointed out that oxen were far cheaper to feed - only requiring
two meals a day while the horse needed at least three. When the ploughman ate his
lunch under the shade of the hedge, the oxen would lay quietly chewing the cud, often
content with little more than chopped straw. An ox team was deemed able to plough
an acre a day, perhaps not as much as a team of horses, but the steady plodding action
was suited to the steep slopes of some areas. Welsh Black cattle were regarded as
particularly suitable for ploughing duties and for centuries there was a steady trade
in cattle driven on the hoof from Wales to the S.E. of England.
These cattle were sold at the fairs in Barnet and Smithfield by the drovers (porthmyn);
a romantic and hardy body of men who carried a great deal of financial responsibility.
They acted as couriers for merchants and farmers on the route. There was even a bank
formed by them with the appropriate name of the 'Bank of the Black Ox'. Yet despite
their advantages ox teams were disappearing in the 18th C. Better and stronger horses
and more efficient ploughs hastened their demise. By 1890 ploughing by oxen had virtually
ended in Wales. The last team being used in the Vale of Glamorgan in 1889.
The real advance in the design of ploughs came with the patenting of Stanyforth and
Foljambe's famous Rotherham plough in 1730. This worked on completely new principles;
it was a light wooden plough with an iron share, mouldboard and coulter. Only one
pair of horses or oxen was needed to draw it, and one man could control the draught
animals and plough. Gradually the design of the Rotherham swing plough spread to
all parts of the country, adapted by local blacksmiths and ploughwrights to local
conditions of soil and slope, although the old heavy ploughs were still being used
until well into the 19th C.
In the sequence of preparing the ground for seed, hand tools were at one time used
instead of harrows. With spades and mattocks men and women followed the plough, breaking
up the surface, where the plough had failed to turn the soil. As farming methods
improved during the 19th C. particularly with the use of the Rotherham plough, the
methods of hand cultivation were stopped, except on small isolated farms. Although
the design of the plough was improved, there was no real change in the harrow. Although
during the 19th C. a patent for an all iron harrow was taken out.
The most common type of harrow was a wooden rectangular frame carrying fifteen or
so tines, spaced at intervals of 11 inches. Harrow tines had to be re-sharpened at
frequent intervals and this was one of the minor tasks undertaken by village blacksmiths,
without a money charge for the service. Instead by tradition they received payment
in kind of a small rick of barley or oats for the blacksmith's poultry.
The difficulty of feeding the growing industrial population in England led, in the
mid 18th C. to an agricultural revolution. Its occurrence in Wales was delayed for
a number of reasons the chief of which was the isolation of the country, its distance
from large markets and the deplorable condition of its roads , which hindered the
sale of its agricultural products.
The income of medium sized farms, especially in the north, west and mid Wales, depended
very largely on the sale of store cattle and butter. The breeds of cattle that were
most popular in the late 19th C. were Castlemartin Blacks and Welsh Blacks, and these
calved in the spring months thus ensuring a high milk yield in summer. Since only
one farm in five possessed a bull, a number of farms were dependent on the others
for this essential service.
No cash payment of any kind was made for the bull's services, but providing a day's
labour in the hay harvest or at some other busy occasion in the farming year paid
In the same way, only one farm in eight kept a boar, but since bacon pigs were as
important as store cattle in many parts of Wales, boars were a necessity. For the
smooth running of a pastoral economy, therefore, co-operation between farmers was
essential. In an area of dispersed family farms co-operation was practised - there
was a constant borrowing of draught animals and a frequent exchange of labour.
This was perhaps most clearly seen at haymaking; not only did neighbouring farmers
help one another but also so did their wives, serving maids, together with the cottagers
and their families. In addition to this outdoor labour force the wives and neighbours
were concerned with the preparation of food in the house for all concerned. While
farmers were paid only by exchange of labour, the cottagers were always paid in kind:
they were given a pat of butter (called 'debt butter' in west Wales), milk and cheese,
a sack of swedes or corn for their poultry. A day's labour in the field might pay
for carting a load of coal from a seaport village or for carting a load of manure.
Farmers would assist one another with mowing hay, a task that until the turn of the
20th C. was always done by scythes. Owing to the damp climate of Wales hay had always
to be harvested quickly.
Towards the end of the 18th C. a number of county agricultural societies were formed
and these sponsored new methods of farming. The first in Wales was that of Breconshire,
founded in 1755 mainly on the initiative of Charles Powell the squire of Castell
Madoc. It was followed by that of Glamorgan in 1772, and by the Cardiganshire society
in 1784, until by 1815, there were local or county societies in all parts of Wales.
These encouraged the introduction of turnips, potatoes and clover, and offered premiums
for the best crops. They gave awards for the planting of trees, for the best bulls
and herds of cattle, for superior craftsmanship in spinning and knitting and in other
rural trades, for the care of roads, and for the good behaviour and service of farm
The improvement of cattle stock was largely dependent upon the provision of adequate
winter fodder. Hitherto there had been a general slaughter of cattle at Calan
Gaeaf (1st November), because of a lack of fodder, and country folk lived throughout
the winter months on salted meat. Animal husbandry led to the consideration of soil
husbandry. To maintain the fertility of the soil it was necessary to alternate between
tilling it and allowing it to remain fallow. The simplest form of rotation was to
exhaust the soil by growing corn on it for several years in succession, and then
to attempt to restore it by allowing it to remain fallow and by fertilising it with
the natural manure of the cattle turned on it to graze. The chief difficulty lay
in the inadequate supply of grass, for if there was insufficient grass the cattle
would have to be kept low and there would not be enough manure to restore the soil.
In an attempt to remedy this there was a great increase in the use of lime in Wales
during the later half of the 18th C.- Lime not only supplied an essential plant food
but counteracted the acidity of the soil in the upland pastures and produced the
conditions necessary for grass to grow. Lime was particularly important to the farmers
of Wales, especially the high ground which needed a considerable amount of it since
heavy rain washed away much of the natural lime. There is a rich band of limestone
on the edges of the south Wales coalfield and long strings of carts would carry the
raw material westwards. Dozens of limekilns were built to satisfy the needs of the
farmers of west Wales. Through the use of lime, also, it was possible to cultivate
clover and other artificial grasses. But even more important was the extensive use
of turnips as a field crop. Turnips had been grown on a small scale but now it was
noted by the more progressive farmers that they were useful as cattle feed. Arthur
Young noted carefully the rotation he found on the estates of the landed gentry in
Wales as did the reports published by the Board of Agriculture in 1794 and 1796.
It varied from place to place, but frequently it consisted of growing turnips one
year, followed by barley, then clover and finally wheat.
The corn harvest, was a matter for the individual farmer. There was little co-operation
between farms on this occasion. In the parish of Pen-bryn in 1890 2500 acres were
under the plough out of a total acreage of 8000. No cereal crops were grown for sale.
Wheat was used in the home, oats for feeding horses, and barley the most important
crop of all, was used for feeding pigs and cattle.
Corn was sown broadcast from a basket or wooden 'lip' or from a linen sheet held
around the waist; it was weeded with a forked stick and weeding hook and harvested
with a scythe. In wet years, when rain and wind had flattened the corn crop, and
in dry years when the corn stalks were particularly short, the scythe could not be
used and the whole crop had to harvested with a sickle.
In normal years it would take an experienced scyther at least a full day to cut an
acre of corn (4840 sq yds) and at least another half a day to bind it into sheaves.
It was customary to bind wheat immediately after cutting, a task usually done by
women; but in the case of barley and oats the crop had to remain on the ground for
at least nine days before binding, the sheaves were then stooked, and the stooks
were collected and built into land mows of either 72 or 96 sheaves. Finally the sheaves
were carted to the rick yard on gambos (two wheeled drays) and built into rectangular
or round stacks, which were then thatched.
As an example, in 1897 on a farm of 145 acres in Llangrannog, Cardiganshire 35 acres
of corn were grown; 15 of barley, 5 of wheat, 3 of rye. The farmer had a labour force
of himself, his wife, 2 male farm workers and one maid.
If the farmer had to depend on his own labour resources: harvesting would take him
35 working days. Meanwhile the day by day work on the farm had to continue: 10 dairy
cattle had to be milked and fed, 35 calves, 15 pigs, 5 horses and poultry had to
be cared for.
The farmer therefore sought extra help in the harvest fields. He looked not to his
neighbours who were likewise occupied in their harvesting but towards the non-farming
cottagers who relied on the farmer for their livelihood. In order to provide for
his family the cottager was allowed to plant potatoes in a neighbouring farmer's
field; while the cottager supplied the seed potatoes, the farmer undertook to prepare
the ground, weeding and hoeing the growing crop and supplying the manure. In payment
for this the cottager was expected to work in the harvest field: for each carefully
measured row 80 yds. long, the cottager was expected to do a days work cutting corn,
or alternatively spend a day and a half binding corn.
This system of 'work debt' remained in vogue until the 1950's with the advent of
modern machinery, that the last vestiges of it have disappeared.
Threshing was done in a variety of ways, with or without implements, but except when
straw had to be kept unbroken for thatching purposes, the flail was the main implement
until it was replaced by the threshing machine. For flailing the floor of the barn
had to be of beaten earth or a moveable threshing floor of wood could be used. In
all cases reasonable headroom was required. The jointed flail with handstaff (droed-ffust),
beater (yel-ffust) and a joining band (cwplws), has a history going
back to Roman times. To thresh corn with a flail, the beater was swung round in the
air on the swivel, above the head of the thresher and brought down with a chopping
blow on the ears of corn. Although by mid 19th C. flailing had been replaced by barn
threshers in many parts of Wales, flailing did persist until the 20th C. more especially
for barley. The ears of barley are less easily knocked off than ears of oats.
Before threshing machines became commonplace, many barns, particularly in the east
of Wales, were equipped with doors at opposing ends through which draughts could
blow. After barley was threshed it was necessary to take off the awns which were
injurious to the animals. This was done with a 'hummeller' or 'jumper' (colier)
a tool with a short handle set vertically in a square iron frame which contained
a set of blades, parallel to one another and an inch or two apart. Barley after threshing
was spread out on the floor and struck with the frame.
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