Smoke in a Barrow


One of the tales my father always told was of back when he was in his teens and farm workers would work for a ‘term’ (summer or winter) and then after the term was up, he’d either sign on again with the chap he was working for or go on to the next fair.


Apparently one of the tales going round at the time was of a young chap who was approached by an old farmer who asked, “And what canst tha do, lad?”

“Owt yer want, Sir.”

The old lad was a bit sceptical about this, so asked. “Canst tha plough?”

“Aye, as well as any, and a good acre a day.”

“Canst tha milk cows?”

“Aye, tha’ll niver get a better cowman?”

The old chap was getting even more sceptical. “What about sheep? Hast tha worked much wi’ sheep?”

“Aye, I’m a grand shepherd an’ all.”

This was too much for the old farmer. “Canst tha’ wheel smoke in a barrow?”

“You shovel it boss, an’ I’ll wheel it.”

Apparently the old fellow hired him. When asked why he merely commented, “Whatever happens, coming year isn’t going to be boring.”

The old hiring fairs died out with the war, but my father, footloose and single, used them to travel a fair way. He worked on farms between Workington and Morecambe, doing all sorts of different jobs before he got married and settled down. He talked about the conditions they lived in. The lads would sleep in an attic bedroom, single beds. Any girls living in would sleep in a different bedroom, and the farmer and his wife would have the bedroom below so they’d hear if there was any hanky-panky.

On one farm he was woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of rats chewing his corduroy working trousers, to get at the milk that was spilt on them. Back then, there was no underwear for lads, who was going to wash it? They had two pairs of work trousers, washed alternately on a Monday.

Washing day fitted in with the family diet as well. Farm workers, living in or not, ate with the family. On Sunday there was always a roast dinner. On Monday, after the big copper had been used to boil water for the washing, one of the lasses would make a hotpot in it. This consisted of a layer of potatoes, chopped fine, a layer of carrot, a layer of turnip, then some meat left from the Sunday roast. Then another layer of potato, another of carrot, another of turnip, a bit more meat, then more potato, until the pot was full.

When it came to dinner time, whoever was serving would stick the ladle in, give it a good stir round, and then give everybody a couple of ladles full. For dessert there would be rice pudding, and you ate your dessert off the same plate that you’d had your dinner off. I can remember as a child watching my grandfather. In spite of the fact that everybody got a bowl for their pudding, he still cleaned his plate with the flat of his knife blade, and had his pudding on the same plate.

My father always commented that you could tell the good farms to work on, they would add a black pudding or two every day to the hotpot, or a bit of bacon. Otherwise by the time you cleaned the pot out on Saturday, it was pretty much the vegetarian option. This was what families were brought up on and considered normal.

Jim Webster farms at the bottom end of South Cumbria. Jim was encouraged to collect together into a book some blog posts he’d written because of their insight into Cumbrian farming and rural life (rain, sheep, quadbikes and dogs) It’s available here.