From Somerset to Norfolk


William Kidner (1842-1932) and his wife Jessie Matilda (née Clatworthy) farmed Fennington Farm near Cothelstone, on the western edge of the Quantocks. Roger Kidner (1886-1971) was twenty-one years old when his father moved from Somerset to Norfolk. The following extract, from a book Roger was writing, was printed in the Norfolk Young Farmers' Year Book 1965-67.

From Somerset to Norfolk

by Roger W. Kidner

In the autumn of 1906, Abbots Farm, a 617 acre farm at Stoke Holy Cross, some 5 miles from Norwich, came up for letting. How did this come to our knowledge in Somerset before those in Norfolk seemed aware of it? But so it was, and my father eventually hired this farm from his home near Taunton for my eldest brother, Marcus, who was married with two children and who had been managing an uncle's farm, but was wanting to start on his own.

But then fate began to take a hand in re-arranging our future. My mother died that year, my brother Alfred was back from 3 years in Canada, and I had just finished a year at Harper Adams [agricultural college in Shropshire], so it was decided to let Marcus carry on the old farm in Somerset while the rest of us adventured into Norfolk farming. Plans were made accordingly, and as Michaelmas day in Somerset was September 29th, and in Norfolk October 11th, the rest of us decided to train to Oxford, and then proceed from there by road the rest of the way. My brother Alfred had gone on ahead with his hunter to attend the Michaelmas sales to buy the necessary horses and implements with which to make a start.

Travel at that time was mostly confined to rail or horses, as the motor car was in its infancy, and so on the advice of a more travelled uncle, we booked our "first night at the Randolph Hotel. This turned out to be about the most luxurious hotel in Oxford! As the next stopping place was to be the Swan Hotel at Bedford, 56 miles away, we arranged to make an early start.

Hotels had stables and cobble stone yards in those days - not garages - and the fun began when, after an early breakfast, we assembled on the cobble stone yard. The two horses, fresh and excited at their unusual surroundings and strange voices of the ostlers, began prancing about, and soon every window facing the yard opened to see whatever this unusual scene was about.

But off we went. My father and two sisters, Grace and Madge, drove in the trap. I rode the hunter mare. My young brother, Tom, rode his bicycle, and the spaniel trotted along beside. Just imagine today a dog trotting 150 miles from Oxford to Norwich, or even surviving a mile of it. We took the rest of the journey in easy stages - from Bedford to Cambridge the next day - Cambridge to The White Hart, Newmarket on the Sunday - Newmarket to Attleborough on the 10th October, and so to Abbots Farm on the 11th.

From the luxurious Randolph at Oxford we descended to the opposite extreme for our last night - this was to have been the Royal Hotel at Attleborough but when we arrived the proprietress had died and was awaiting burial so the Hotel was closed and we were recommended to try the Station Hotel. By the noise that went on well into the night the main source of income was obviously the bar. My sisters were assured that the sheets were well-aired as someone had slept in them the night before. However they wrapped their heads in a towel! All was well and we survived.

Most of our things had been packed in a large pantechnicon and put on rail at Taunton, and our married sister was there to see to the unpacking when we arrived. And so what was to prove a further 60 years' adventure of farming at Stoke had begun.

The outgoing tenant, Robert King, had farmed Abbots Farm for 9 years, Youngman for 11 years, and Jerry Seago, a relative of the artist Edward Seago, for 30 years before that, and he it was who had made great improvements - draining the land - enlarging the fields, etc. He was often held up to us as a shining example of how things should be done, as our Somerset ways were not Norfolk ways and we were constantly being shown the 'proper' way.

There were some 20 men and boys working on the 600 acres, and a stable for 12 working horses, and a riding stable for five. Although I seem to have outlived all of the original workers, Jimmy Frost has been with us for 58 years, Ben Hardesty 54 years, and Stephen Whiting and Reggie Garrod 50 years. Wages were 13s. a week for labourers, and 15s. for horsemen, cowmen or bullock men, with the head horseman, Dan Calver, getting an extra shilling. This was for a 60-hour week, 6.30 a.m. to 6p.m. in summer, including Saturday afternoon, and a 70-hour week for the Sunday workers with 2d. an hour overtime! Yet they were always eager to put in overtime!

The men worked the half day till 11.30a.m. and then a two hour break for the horses dinner time, and also on most Bank Holidays, Good Friday, Easter Monday and Boxing Day - while everyone turned up on Christmas morning to help the horsemen and stockmen. August Bank Holiday was also worked if harvest had started.

Father kept careful accounts, even in those days, and in spite of the low wages, which had been at this level for I don't know how many years (and remained so until March 1915 when they were raised by 2s. a week to 15s.), and our total wage bill for the first year 1907/8 on 617 acres was only £566, while rent, rates and taxes were a further £544, yet our balance sheet showed a loss of £449!

We then managed to show a small profit each year until 1911, the drought year, but it wasn't until Michaelmas 1913 that we levelled off the score. This proved the last of the seven lean years, and the next seven years were prosperous ones.

In 1913 an adjoining farm of 420 acres came on the market which had been run more as a convenience by a large sheep dealer, Sam Warnes, and was pretty foul with couch, poppies, wild radish, and a lot more besides. This was bought by my cousin, Norman Kidner, who married my eldest sister, K, and who was in charge of the Thrapston Ironstone Works in Northamptonshire - the price £13 an acre. This he rented to us for 15s. an acre. No-one ever had a better landlord, for he helped us a lot with his big business outlook on life, and encouraged wise spending on improvements.

The corn harvest at that time played a very important part in the farming year, and provided the return on money spent all the rest of the year. The harvest was usually let to the men on the basis of its being a month's work, and after the bargaining of what should be included in the harvest and the price was completed, a hiring shilling was given for the year ahead. I suppose this was a relic of the old hiring fairs which took place even in my grand-father's days.

On the evening of the day the harvest was completed the men all turned up in their Sunday best for the harvest supper set out in the corn barn. This consisted of hot roast beef, pork or mutton and plenty of gravy, which the farm house had prepared. Funnily enough, it was the excellence of the gravy that was most commented on. There was plenty of help with maids in the farm house in those days.

After the supper there were songs from some of the men - usually the same singers each year, with much appreciated repetitions of old favourites from previous harvest homes. Sometimes these were augmented by a professional entertainer. I remember one of these - Harry Haylett, who highly amused the company. I noticed one of the men, however, looking very glum during the show, although his wife was thoroughly enjoying it, and when I asked him how he had enjoyed Harry Haylett - he replied, "Why it was nothing but lies he was saying"! Rectitude was rather a strong point with him.

When the men were on a continuous job, such as hedging or ditching, away from the farm buildings where we arranged the jobs each morning, they used to ask if they should follow on next day instead of first coming to the farm. I remember one wag bringing the house down after a supper by saying, "Can I follow on here in the morning Master?"

On the Saturday of the week harvest finished the best waggon on each farm was cleaned up and the men and their families all set off to Norwich with the harvest money in their pockets to replenish their wardrobe, etc., for the coming year. This was a Saturday the shop keepers of Norwich looked forward to.

The barley acreage was mostly undersown with clover, or clover and rye grass seed for hay the next year under the Norfolk four course shift. Most or the barley was mown with scythes when we first came to Norfolk, for the brewers objected to the use of the binder because of the different colours in the grain-just as they objected later when combines came into use. The swathes of mown barley had to be turned once or twice with forks, and finally laid three rows into one for hand loading. This was not an easy job to handle with the 2-tine forks and loose barley - either to pitch or load. We had been used to binding barley in Somerset, and even as a boy I remember on very dry summers (we did get them occasionally even at Taunton!) turning the sheaves on the ground to get the dews on the other side to mellow the grain.

I remember too, later on, in the exceptionally dry summer of 1921, when the barley was very steely and there was little dew at night, Hubert Groom of Docking, that grand old figure of 90 and still going strong, vowing he wouldn't cart his barley until it had had a rain on it. It was six weeks before it rained, but he made 10s. a quarter more for malting - though what the waste was by birds, etc. in that time I didn't hear!

I remember that year using three or four watercarts full of water on a heap of 150 sacks of barley on the barn floor and then turning the heap over. It looked dreadful at first but the barley was so steely and dry that it soaked up the water and then sold like hot cakes. The buyers were just not interested in the untreated. It's not often you can sell water at the price of barley and at the same time please the buyers. 1921 was so hot and dry that some farmers sprayed a hose on the barley as it went up the elevator on to the stack and were handsomely rewarded for the effort.

There was a lot more difference in price between good malting barley and that for grinding than nowadays, and when we could buy barley for 11s. or 12s. a coomb for grinding, we could often sell some of ours for over 20s. It was worth doing at that difference, even if you did get fewer sacks.

I can't leave the corn harvests without mentioning that of 1912 - the flood year. The men started harvest the last week in July. It had been a wet summer, and I well remember by the Saturday evening, August 24th, the men were finishing our second stack - a barley stack. The other stack was up, and thatched, and was all right, and the barley in that one made a high price when sold. There was rather more sheaves in the field than John Copping had bargained for, and he made the roof exceptionally steep. "Well John", I said to him "No rain would ever get into that stack." But the Clerk of the Weather must have been listening, and early Monday morning it started raining hard with a North Westerly gale, and it rained all day and night. Norwich registered 6½ inches in the 12 hours, and 7½ in the 24 hours, while 8½ inches were registered between Norwich and Yarmouth. The water went through to the bottom, and I have never said what Nature could or couldn't do since!

A valley, with usually a dry stream bed all summer down the middle, was a raging torrent 50 yards wide each side, which carried the shocks of barley and beans there away and deposited them with mud in the boundary hedges, some of it finishing up on Shotesham Common, nearly a mile away. There were 80 Norfolk County bridges washed away, including the Lakenham bridge over the railway and river, while the Trowse bridge over the river was partly destroyed. The flood reached its height in Norwich by the Wednesday, when boats rowed down Magdalen Street, the water being over the archways to the Courts, and there were pictures in the London papers of Jack Read swimming across the courtyard with bread for people the other side. I remember walking down to the City Station when the floods had subsided, and all the doors of the houses were open, and the muddy high water mark in the houses were where the picture rails would be.

When we first came to Norfolk, the Norfolk four course shift was in full vogue, and one of the first jobs we did was to buy a bunch of 62 Irish bullocks to eat up the vast crop of mangolds and swedes left by the outgoing tenant, the law or tenant's agreement being that the outgoing tenant must leave a quarter of the arable land in roots for feeding, which the incoming tenant was to take over.

A relation of ours, the late Tom Kidner of Halvergate Hall, and grandfather of T. and J. Kidner of Suffolk, having been a London butcher all his life - the one who had put us wise to Abbots Farm coming up for letting - helped in the buying of the bullocks, which were well worth the money at £15 5s. 0d.a piece. I well remember my anxiety when the 62 bullocks were put in charge of a little old man and a dog to deliver to Stoke Park, especially with the hundreds of other bullocks about on the roads, but they got there alright. There were literally thousands of bullocks, mostly Irish, and nearly all Shorthorns, that came to Norwich each week from September to Christmas. One Irishman would occasionally sell 1,000 head on a Saturday and without making a single note he would know exactly where you left off the deal in the morning if you came back in the afternoon. These cattle were all sold in bunches held up by drovers - 10, 20 or 30 head and reached from the Bell Hotel to the end of the Shire Hall. There were many other dealers selling cattle as well.

But when our bullocks came out fat in February, March and April the trade was poor, and they only averaged about £18 5s. 0d. after eating many tons of cotton and linseed cake, most of the hay, and nearly all the roots!

So it was only natural we turned to other ways of earning a living than those of the majority of farmers in the arable counties of the East. Next year we started rearing calves, buying them at the calf auctions around 50s. each, and often competing with the veal butchers for the best looking at £5 each. The best looking at a month old we found to our cost were not necessarily the best proposition, for a dud bred calf suckled on its mother for a month would look fine.

This led us a step further, and my brother and I went to a sale of Aberdeen Angus bulls at Birmingham, and bought two young bulls. These we lent free to two neighbouring dairy farmers, Arthur Stimpson at Arminghall, and George Mutimer at Hapton, both of whose main interest in buying a bull was to get their cows in calf. These were all Shorthorn cows in those days, as were at least 70% of the dairy herds in the county, and they made an excellent cross with the Angus.

We were to take all the calves at current market prices at a few days old - and at one time we had over 200 of these on the farm at different ages, and this arrangement carried on happily for several years. ·We kept about 15 Shorthorn cows or so to provide the milk for these calves, which were reared on the bucket. We used a Shorthorn bull for our own cows, and we found that their steer calves when fat at under or about 2 years old, would come to more money than the higher priced per cwt. crossbreds, owing to their greater growth rate. Here was an object lesson to be learnt, though it was not to be fully exploited in farming practice until some 50 years later, when growth rate and food conversion rate were to become the criterion of the day among the progressive farmers, but then there are many more people to feed today than there were 50 years ago, and there will be many more still in 50 years' time.

My father had made quite a name for himself in Somerset for his Devon cattle, winning many prizes at fat stock shows, including Birmingham, Smithfield, and at the Bath and West and other summer shows, which had left their mark in our minds. And when I was at Harper Adams Agricultural College in 1906 they kept a Shorthorn herd there, and so it was with Shorthorns that our thoughts turned to develop; besides they were by far the prevailing breed and I have seen it stated that 70% of the cattle in the whole world were Shorthorns or Shorthorn crosses at that time.

It was October 1st, 1915 that the Norfolk Branch of the National Milk Records was formed, and we joined it at the half year, April 6th, 1916. About that time some of we local farmers formed the Framingham Farming Club, with our headquarters at the Framingham Gull. These included J. A. Christie, Ben and Ned Burgess, Jimmy Hazell, George Ford, the farmer landlord of the Gull Inn, Hugh Hotblack and myself. I don't remember who the rest were.

This was very successful, and grew into a very useful form of getting farming information from the people who specialised in the different spheres who used to come and open a discussion. There was no N.A.A.S. in those days. We used to run a Framingham Show as well. I was impressed with the value of these discussions and later I put over the proposition to Frank Rayns that we could profitably widen our scope to County level, and the Norfolk Livestock Club was formed.

With Dr. Rayns' intimate knowledge of who were doing the research work with the various diseases, etc., and knew what they were talking about, and not only that, but he knew too who could put over their knowledge well, this too proved successful from the start, and filled a much felt want in difficult times for farming. This was in the mid-twenties when farming was at a very low ebb. Mr. James Alston of Uphall was our first Chairman, and Lord Hastings our first President, and well I remember his remark at the inaugural meeting "Thank heaven here is something our farmers are wanting to do for themselves"! Frank Rayns did the Secretarial work and the subscription was 5s. a year.

This Club prospered, and later we again wished to widen its scope, and it was changed into the Norfolk Agricultural Club, which now holds about five monthly meetings during the winter with excellent attendances.

One of the early results of forming the Framingham Agricultural Club was to form ourselves into a Shire Horse Society, and we got the then Norfolk Livestock Officer, Mr. Crosland, to attend a meeting of the club to put us wise as to the procedure. In due course, the Burgesses, Jimmy Hazell and myself set off to the Peterborough Horse Repository to attend a sale of Shire stallions, and we purchased a son of the then famous Norbury Minstrel for 350 gns. He left some excellent sons and daughters on the farms around us. It fell to my lot to house and travel him.

Mr. Crosland stayed with us for the night of the meeting, and he said on arrival "I always ask to see the cows wherever I visit". As a result, he persuaded us to go in for grading up our cows to pedigree status, and he obtained a pedigree proved Dairy Shorthorn bull called Kelmscott Juggler 33rd, which he got for us at 2nd grade bull beef price (beef being rationed at the time - 1916), and he cost us £63, for he weighed a ton.

This bull proved very successful, and we were on our way to perhaps the most interesting line of my whole farming career, viz. the building of a successful herd of Dairy Shorthorns. In November 1923 we held our first home sale of 62 head of grading up Shorthorns, which included many of Juggler's daughters, including Stokelycross Poppy, who made the top price of 90 gns. There had been a dreadful slump in beef prices, and good fat cows made as little as £11 l0s. 0d. at Irelands Auction, cows that at recent prices would have made £110 or £120 for export to the Continent. This beef slump had turned farmers' minds to milk production, and our sale proved an attraction to several of these would-be starters. However, disaster seemed to be staring us in the face when at 8 o' clock on the morning of the sale when we opened the Eastern Daily Press, in which there were huge black headlines across the page "GENERAL STANDSTILL FOR ALL CATTLE NORTH OF THE THAMES" owing to a drastic spread of Foot and Mouth disease.

The telephone had only recently been installed on the farm, though we were still number 3 on the Framingham Exchange, and Oh Boy, were we thankful for it! Mr. Crosland was with us, and he was in constant touch with the Ministry in London all morning. At first they insisted the sale must be cancelled, but Crosland stuck to his guns, and insisted it just couldn't be as everyone, including the caterers and auctioneers, were on the way. It wasn't until 1 o'clock, when Lot 1 was already in the ring, that the message came through that permits could be granted on the following Monday. The Norwich Fat Cattle Show, which then was third in importance to Smithfield and Birmingham was on that week, and this weighted the scale in our favour in granting the permits - our telephone had paid for itself in one day!!

There was also an animated rivalry going on between the auctioneers, Messrs. Thimbleby & Shorland of Reading, and John Thornton & Co., who were at daggers drawn. Mr. Thimbleby had a habit of bringing out his white top hat as soon as he felt a sale was going to be a success, and when Lot 3 came into the ring, out came this hat! The sale proved to be the best non-pedigree sale of the year, and the 62 head averaged £57 l0s. 0d. That was money in those days of acute depression in agriculture and I still remember the thrill of getting a £3,000 cheque on account that night from the Auctioneers.

One buyer had signed a milk contract to start delivery on the Monday, intending to buy at our sale, but as the first lots seemed too dear, he kept putting off, until he ended in buying every animal on two pages of the catalogue - 10 or 11 in all. Another would-be buyer, Fred Key of Framingham, put each lot in at 50 gns. towards the end of the sale, and never bought one.

There weren't the motor lorries about in those days for carting cattle, and most of the away buyers had them put on rail. So we set off in the dark on Monday morning with lanterns, and two or three men to walk them to Trowse Station. This was nothing unusual for us however, as fat cattle walked to market in those days and it took three or four of us with lanterns starting off at 5.30 a.m. to manoeuvre the bullocks over Shotesham Common which wasn't fenced off then. This wasn't easy when the cattle were black and the lanterns dim and the Common was boggy.

This extract is from a book I am writing for our celebrations after 60 years farming in Norfolk. So if you want any more you must wait for the book!

R.W. Kidner

Stoke Holy Cross
Norwich, 1967


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Last updated on 24th December 2008


Roger W. Kidner and his wife Florence in a photograph published in April 1952 in The Eastern Daily Press