Life on Mersea Island (population 1,600)
at the outbreak of the Great War
August 4th 1914.
Summer was nearly over and, symbolically,
this was to be the last harvest of an era –
the world would never again be quite the same.
“There’s a whisper down the field,
where the year has shot her yield,
and the ricks stand grey to the sun,
singing Over then, come over,
for the bee has quit the clover,
and your English summer’s done.”
Rudyard Kipling, “The Long Trail”
“When war was declared on 4 August 1914, I had just taken over my little farm, East Barn, which adjoined Waldegraves. There were about fifty acres with barn and cattle yards and, as luck would have it, I was about to gather in my first harvest.
Farmers were encouraged to harvest before joining up and this was infuriating as I, like most other young men, was desperate to get off to the war. Percy Roberts a great friend of mine, was also waiting to enlist and, as we both had motorcycles, we decided to enlist together.
As soon as the harvest was gathered in we reported to the Albert Hall in Colchester, where we passed our medicals. We then signed up, asking to be posted to the 11th Hussars, who were then based in Colchester, as we were keen on riding and thought it would be great fun to join the cavalry. It was a fortuitous request to have made, because had I gone into the infantry my name would quite probably have been on the fatality lists beginning to come back from the Front.”
Extracted from ‘Pearls & Oysters’ by Harry Pearl Cross 1892-1988.
With kind permission of his grandson Russell Wheldon.
Commuting from Mersea did not exist as we know it today, and even travelling to work in Colchester daily would have been difficult from the island.
Apart from the time taken in a horse and trap, there were the varying times of the tide to contend with, not to mention the six day working week, during which offices, and particularly shops, were open long hours, often not closing until after six o’clock. Therefore families’ livelihoods depended on the island’s economy to a considerable degree.
There were three main groups on the island:
Farmworkers were the largest group. Although their lifestyle was generally not so dashing as that of the young Crewmen, there were many perks to be had. Many were allowed free milk and firewood, as well as odd pieces of land on which to grow their own vegetables.
The labourer’s wage was as low as ten shillings a week in winter, though this could be sometimes supplemented by contract hoeing in the spring evenings as the days grew longer again. Owing to the agricultural depression, much land, though not a great deal on Mersea itself, had ceased to be cultivated by 1914 and fell into disuse as scrubland. Such land soon came back into enforced cultivation with the advent of war, when it was realized that tractors, although useless in winter on the heavy un-drained soil could plough more effectively if used in the drier autumn period. All corn was cut manually by scythe in my early years.
Fishermen were the second largest group. West Mersea Hard was used for the landing of fish for the table caught by the twenty or so small fishing smacks moored there.
Fish was also used as manure by the farmers, usually sprats, mussels and ‘five-fingers’, otherwise known as starfish, which were brought up in the nets along with the main catch. Sprats would only become available for agricultural use when there was a glut. Shellfish, Eels & Crabs were collected from the foreshore. Oysters & Winkles were packed in barrels and dispatched to all parts of the country by rail. These were important commodities, vital for the island’s economy, and it was a common sight to see as many as thirty men winkling at the water’s edge below Waldegraves Farm. At low-tide the stooping black figures would slowly and deliberately pick their way across the mud like ungainly sea-birds.
Young men between 18-30 who spent every summer crewing on the luxury steam boats, which plied the East Coast as well as the large ocean-going vessels. All dressed in blue jerseys with the name of their ship in red letters on the front, which were worn proudly all winter.
THE WORKING DAY
The day began early with the Head Horseman getting down to the farm at five o’clock to give the horses their “bait” – usually rolled oats and chaff.
We kept Suffolk Punches, massively powerful beasts, with tremendous drawing strength and the gentlest of temperaments. They would be out in the meadows in the summer, but were brought into the sheltered straw-yard stables during the harsh winter months, away from the biting coastal wind.
The other horsemen arrived soon after to prepare the tack and to groom and harness the horses, while they digested their bait. It was widely considered desirable for the horses to have two hours in which to do this before starting work in the interests of their health and working performance.
At about seven o’clock the horses, gleaming in leather and brass, were turned out of the stables, stamping the ground with their feathery hooves and tossing their majestic heads back impatiently as if anxious to start the day’s work. After a morning straining at the plough, men and horses would all return to the stables at about eleven for an hour’s rest. Once the horses had been given a little fresh bait and some water, the men devoured their breakfast, after which work was resumed until three o’clock.
At this point the day’s heavy toil was over as far as the horses were concerned, and the men ate their dinner before grooming the horses and bedding them down. The horsemen spent most of the day working in unison with their horses, usually two per man, and were alone in the fields for hour after hour. Not surprisingly, they established very close working relationships with their horses, and would be terribly upset if a horse they worked with, or had broken in and trained, had to be sold.
The men eventually finished work at half past five and would walk back to their homes with that unhurried, economical gait that comes from years spent behind the plough. It is interesting to note that the average ploughing rate expected was about one acre per day. On that basis a man would daily walk maybe a dozen miles merely behind his plough, not to mention a fair distance to and from his home.
The labourers without horses to look after started at six o’clock in summer and an hour later in winter, while on Saturdays work for all finished at four o’clock. The Head Horseman was generally the last to leave, and he was paid about two shillings a week more than the ordinary horsemen, though he may well have had other perks such as a share of the rabbiting.
PLOUGHING AND FURROW DRAWING MATCH
Every year the men had a day off for the Ploughing and Furrow Drawing Match, which along with the annual sailing Regatta, was well-attended by everyone on the island. It was a great day, with the horses all meticulously groomed, their harnesses sparkling, and each contestant eager to display his prowess behind the plough-share.
A good deal of local prestige was at stake and so competition was intense among the favourites, as the men summoned all their skill and experience. Light relief and entertainment was provided by a sweepstake drawing match for the ladies and one for visitors who were not ploughmen, and this invariably caused some hilarity. At the end of the day everybody adjourned to The Fox for refreshment where Father, being the organiser, would present the prizes.
Considered as ‘muck or money’ that is their value at sale either made a significant loss or a decent profit.
At this stage hens just roamed the yards until they died, with no account kept of their age or health. No-one was inclined to invest time or money in looking after their poultry.
Valuable source of food to all those living in the country. On a day’s rabbiting at Waldegraves we would typically catch about 30 rabbits, which we caught with ferrets and nets. These were then sold in the village for about sixpence apiece.