Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/The Londoner at a ploughing-match




If this title suggests anything but the right man in the right place, it is no fault of mine. A bishop at a prize fight, a bull in a china shop, a fish out of water, or a nigger in the Senate of the United States, might perhaps, to an unreflecting person, seem equally at home. But the days are long passed away, when the metropolitan idea of the country was formed merely by acquaintance with St. Giles’s Fields or Islington Green. Is it necessary for me to vindicate my self-election to the post of cicerone by giving testimonials of fitness for the place, or will you follow my description of a scene just now very common throughout England, content with the assurance that although I date from Pump Court, Temple, I have whistled at the plough, and have really some good claims to be regarded as a practical farmer?

Suppose we lay the scene in Kent, not a hundred miles from London, in one of those wide and shallow valleys which diversify the Weald of this and of the adjoining county of Sussex. Ethnologically it is a most interesting corner of England, for here the Saxon element is purest, witness the fair hair and blue eyes of the peasants, the sons of those brave men who formed the van of Harold’s army at Hastings. It is also worth remarking that Weald is but the German Wald. But I am going to write concerning the events of last week, not of those which occurred before the Conquest, and if I do not begin at the commencement of my journey, it is only because an express train on the South-Eastern is a very common-place and prosaic affair, unless treated after the manner of Mr. Turner’s “Speed, Steam, and Snow,” a style which no amount of word painting can imitate.

However, the mail train deposited me at Oakford, and my friend’s carriage quickly conveyed me and my luggage to —— Park.

I don’t know anything more refreshing to an unhappy bachelor, wearied with his own society, and with all the gloom of three hours’ travelling in no other company full upon him, than suddenly to enter upon the refined luxury of a warm and bright drawing-room, well furnished with ladies. “This is irrelevant,” you say, “this is not ploughing,—we know all about this.” I must plead guilty; but surely you would not have a picture all of one colour; if we are to be of the earth, earthy, don’t be so unreasonable as to exclude that which must do duty for the blue sky in my landscape. A drawing-room may look into a plough-field, and surely “a Londoner at a ploughing-match” may glance at a piano. As it happens that I am quite as partial to drawing-rooms as to ploughing-fields I might perhaps stay here if not ordered to move on, so, accepting the correction, we will consider that in the company of some charming young ladies I have studied the programme of the Oakford Agricultural Association, from which were gathered the facts that my good friend and host is the President, and that the ploughing takes place the next morning in a field about two miles distant.

It was proposed that we should see the ploughs start, which involved the necessity of leaving —— Park by eight o’clock, and probably no ambitious ploughman desired a fine to-morrow more than I, who awoke to find the sun shining through my windows, encircled by the precise density of mist which is the most certain sign of fair weather at this season of the year. You would take but slight interest in knowing what I had for breakfast, or in my opinion of girls in riding-habits, or in the kindly remarks which their lady-mother may have exchanged with me across the urn; so we will turn out of doors at once.

It has always been my opinion that the Strand is a pleasant place enough, and that there is not a mile of country in broad England to compare with it for varied scenery. Its ever-changing pictures of busy human life are to me a delightful study; but a fine autumn morning in the country, with every tree dropping diamonds of dew, where velvety meadows seem strewn with brilliants, beats it hollow. Add to these beauties of Nature, three of her fairest productions in the similitude of my companions, and then the no less pleasant company of the President, their papa, a model of that invaluable race of country gentlemen, which the soil of England alone seems capable of supporting, and we are ready for a start to the scene of action. Having performed the pleasant office of stirrup-jack for the ladies, an operation in which I fear I am rather a clumsy practitioner, I mounted my horse, a little uncertain if five years’ absence from a saddle had not made it a dangerous eminence for me to climb to.

As we approached the place in something like a cavalcade, the road was blocked with teams and ploughs, some of the horses gaily decked with ribbons of bright colours; and the men wearing the working-dress of their every-day life, except where a clean white frock marked an attempt at gala costume. On entering the field, which lay fallow and ready to yield, almost too easily, to the pressure of the plough, we found that the working staff of the Association had already set out the requisite number of “cants” (the technical term for the piece of work allotted to each competitor), and soon the ploughmen and their mates, as the drivers are called, were busy in laying out the line of their first furrow. Groups of labourers stood about, watching the operation with that stolid look of supreme indifference which a real bucolic wears as his holiday face. They rarely conversed with each other, but were content with now and then throwing out observations, one after another, without much coherence or relevancy. Pulling up near a party which seemed to be much interested in the proceedings, but sorely hindered in their pleasure by the difficulty of hiding their hands, the sight of which appears hateful to a labourer at leisure, I heard the remark:

“That ere man a’ won six prizes.”

This was addressed to no one in particular, and referred, if I might judge by the direction of the speaker’s face, to a sunburnt, black-haired and black-eyed competitor, who was trudging about before us with something like activity.

“Is there ere a one out o’ your parish?” said another.

He, however, got an answer, if this can be called one.

“There’s my brother’s mate out o’ Woodborough.”

But this effort seemed to have exhausted the conversational powers of the whole group, so I joined my fair friends in a canter over the battle-field which was soon to be covered with the sixteen champions of Oakford neighbourhood. Meanwhile the teams were taking their places upon the headland of the field ready to start at the signal of the President.

I have felt the flutter which throbs through expectant crowds when the “Derby” horses are gathering at the post; and with a “pot” on Oxford, have watched the University boats fly from their moorings at the appointed signal. I have also partaken of the anxiety to catch the largest share of wind and tide which agitates the commencement of a yacht race; and therefrom have learned that a start is generally interesting in exact proportion to the time occupied in the match. One cannot expect, therefore, a great sensation when ploughs are to run for five hours, and when there is no possible advantage to be gained by one over another in the start. But for all this, the commencement of a ploughing-match is a very pretty sight. My host, the Squire, seated on his strong horse, and surrounded by his graceful staff—I think ladies never look to greater advantage than upon horseback—stood like a general at the saluting point, on the opposite side of the field to that on which the ploughs were drawn up.

Upon receiving word from the Secretary, who usually unites with this, the office of general manager, that all was ready, he raised his hat, and “Gee,” was the word among the drivers; the whole line charged, four horses deep, and sixteen ploughs were striking furrows up and down in this fallow field. Some of the horses were rather astonished to find themselves in so large an equine company. I wondered what the worms thought of it. They are probably a quiet race, and believers in rest. If they reasoned at all upon the matter, which perhaps they did not (although Mr. Kingsley is telling us pretty stories about talking eels and facetious frogs), a sense of justice might lead them to suppose that having devoured so much which was both great and good, a Nemesis had been sent to unearth and destroy them.

Faint anxiety was manifested by the spectators generally, after the first bout was finished, and some very confident predictions were made as to the success of certain competitors. Evenness is a great virtue in ploughing; if furrows are not parallel, the top soil cannot be completely turned over, or covered in; while, if they are not of equal depth, either the uncultivated subsoil will be brought to the surface, or there will not be a sufficient depth of loose earth.

The time will come, perhaps it is nearer than any of us suppose, when steam-ploughing will be general. No one as yet considers a steam-engine an eligible feature in a landscape; it seems a violent interruption to the settled calm of Nature. The “team a-field” has been the theme of poets innumerable. It is not impossible that some future Gray or Thomson may evoke the poetry of steam; but at present no one who loves the country—because there, Nature is above all, and before all—can view with satisfaction the exchange of the familiar sights and sounds of the plough-fields, for the creaking of ropes and windlasses, and the noisy puffings of the untiring engine. But for all this, I have a high opinion of the advantages of steam-cultivation, which is particularly suitable to a soil like that of this Oakford field, a stiff weald clay, rendered at top somewhat friable by continued ploughings. The impervious nature of the subsoil is the great hindrance to fertility; this is counteracted to a large extent by drainage with rows of pipes placed, perhaps, sixteen feet apart and two deep. But it is evident that the benefit derived from these pipes depends entirely upon whether the superincumbent earth is porous. If between the roots of the growing crop and these drains there exists a hard and impenetrable crust of earth, the pipes might as well have remained in their original clay.

Now at Oakford all the ploughs had four horses, and all were the heavy and old-fashioned, but very useful, Kentish turnrise plough, laying wide and deep furrows; but as they laid the subsoil bare, it was trodden into a hard floor by the sixteen hoofs moving in a very straight and narrow line, and leaving no part which, upon examination, would not be found to be as tight as though it had been puddled. The crop suffers greatly by this, and drainage is rendered to a large extent ineffective. Some few farmers use deep subsoil ploughs, but this is a very expensive process, does not avoid the treading, and often has the effect of bringing to the surface a very inferior and unfertile soil. The steam plough passes over the surface, turning the earth in any required direction without ramming the subsoil, or disturbing those natural channels which surface water has worn through it in its passage to the drains. Miles upon miles of pretty hedgerows will in time be sacrificed to this iron idol; farms will increase in acreage and farmers in capital. The new system will push away the old, leaving, however, many small farmers who will plough with horse-power, and thresh their corn with a weapon the facsimile of that which might have been found on the threshing-floors of Bible history; but these time-honoured usages are doomed to pass out of fashion, and we must reconcile with our notions of rural life, farms become manufactories, and farmers manufacturers of food.

But we are forgetting the Oakford Agricultural Association. However, you will agree with me that there was no use in standing beside the ploughs for the next five hours. I thought I should do my duty by taking a walk presently with the Judges, and finding this was also the opinion of the ladies, we rode off. We parted at the park gates, as I wished to rejoin the President and continue with him the pleasant labours of the day. After riding for a couple of hours over his estate, performing those duties which we are so frequently reminded accompany the rights of property, we rode into the village again, to meet the other members of the Committee for adjudicating the prizes for garden produce and length of servitude. They soon turned up, and together we examined the neat baskets of potatoes, french beans, carrots, and turnips. We were far above being influenced by mere size, and freely used a knife to test the quality of the productions. Our decision was unanimous, and I believe perfectly equitable. Then we proceeded to open a broad schedule, in which, betwixt many red lines, and beneath many headings, were recorded the names and qualifications of certain waggoners, farm and in-door servants, the latter both male and female. The qualifying conditions for the prizes were very simple, and when it was settled that all the candidates referred to the time they had served the same employer, it remained only to select the two in each class which could show the longest period of servitude. This was soon done, and we trotted back to the field, where the Judges were engaged in making their award. The symptoms which betray a ploughman’s excitement are not very readable; but it pleased me to see that there was some spirit of emulation in the competitors, who were for the most part busy in putting up their ploughs, placing them in carts and waggons ready for the return home. The President would not disturb the Judges; so we hung about, waiting for them, he, good-humouredly talking to some of the ploughmen. I think he hoped they had all won the first prize, which pleased them, though involving a rather obvious impossibility. The Judges soon came up and walked by our horses’ side back to Oakford. Their decision was never adverted to, for it is part of the etiquette of these occasions that the names of the winners should be kept secret until the announcement is made by the Chairman of the dinner, in its proper place, after the “usual loyal toasts.”

I did not mention the dinner in my heading to this paper, which some may regard as a deception; however, I supposed it was implied, for every one knows that a dinner is the crown and cornerstone of an English Association. Who can say that Douglas Jerrold was wrong when he remarked that “if an earthquake were to swallow up England to-morrow, the English would contrive to assemble and dine together somewhere in the ruins, if only to celebrate the event?”

In the large room of the Golden Lion we found two long tables well filled, with a cross table at the top of the room, raised a few inches above the others, at which were arranged seats for the gentry and clergy. I found myself placed next a a rural dean, whose manners and conversation were gentlemanlike and agreeable. Sucking-pigs, legs of mutton, and loins of beef disappeared rapidly; the hum of talking, the clash of knives and forks, and the clatter of plates and dishes filled the room; but as the gastronomic accompaniment died off into silence, and men had eaten and were full, the vocal sounds grew louder and louder, until the rap of my friend’s hammer proclaimed silence—and “The Queen, God bless her!” The National Anthem followed, but with very uncertain progress; some were at “gracious Queen,” while others were at “knavish tricks,” drowning completely the screams of a concertina, which vainly struggled to preserve harmony. Clara Novello would probably have gone off into hysterics, had she been present at the murder of that beautiful solo, which she has so often rendered with such grace and dignity. I believe most of the company knew that it does not improve a song for fifty people to have a way of their own, irrespective altogether of each other; but we were not particular about time or tune, and met together over the last two words in each verse to start afresh upon our ramble through the next. At the conclusion, when we resumed our seats, I should say the general impression was that we had done the handsome thing towards Her Majesty, and that the professional singer who attempted to control our loyal voices, had been signally and deservedly defeated. Toast and song followed in quick succession, the President pointing each sentiment with a few appropriate words, and showing how well he understood his audience by continually evoking their hearty cheers. Presently the door opens, and enter—his three daughters, bowing with easy and well-bred confidence as the company rises to receive the honour of their visit. Preceded by an obsequious waiter, who, by the way, had a very stable-boyish appearance, they took seats behind us, and then the ploughmen were introduced in a long file, and the President announced that William Rugg had gained the first prize, and that “bold peasant” came towards the table, the most miserable-looking victor I ever saw. Clamp, clamp, tramped his boots upon the sanded floor; if it had not been for his hat, I think he would have lost his very moderate stock of senses, but by dint of constantly trying how this would fit his knee, or what sort of a seat it might make, he managed to receive the congratulations of the President. I believe he was proud of his success, and that the contest had done the man good morally as well as in his pocket. It was some proof that skill in ploughing is a real and not a fanciful acquisition, to hear the fourth prizeman say he had already taken fourteen prizes. He bore his honours bravely and looked a man, which is more than I can say for all the competitors. The money was to be given privately the next morning, which is a very considerate provision, for otherwise the winners might be subject to heavy demands for “backsheesh” from their convivial friends and admirers.

The “servants” did not enter an appearance, and after the ploughmen had left, we drank “the Ladies,” for whom a young gentleman with whom you have already made some acquaintance returned thanks. Many a jolly laugh followed his mention of the old lawyer’s apostrophe:

Fee simple, and a simple fee, and all the fees in tail,
Are nothing when compared with thee, thou best of fees, female.”

Then came “the Visitors,” coupled with the name of the same young man, and when empty glasses resumed their place upon the table, the concertina shrieked out its own peculiar version of “Coming through the Rye,” during which performance I have the best reason for knowing that the young gentleman aforesaid was preparing his reply. But he tells me that “Gin a body kiss a body” drove all other thoughts from his brain, and chased away all graver speculations. Concertinas are, however, not like Dutchmen’s cork legs or unruly parish organs, and at length the song ended. “No man is a hero to his valet,” and I have often served this young man in that capacity. Therefore I set no great value on what he says, and if in concluding my narrative, I quote a little from his speech, it is not because I think well of him, but because his remarks will serve for a finish. I shall only quote him upon “Agricultural Associations.” Referring to this subject he said:

“Gentlemen,—I entirely differ in opinion from those who look upon these meetings as useless and unnecessary. In the work of the world man learns of man, and those occupations which necessitate the greatest isolation, lag far behind others in the march of improvement. The work of a blacksmith or a tailor can easily be compared with that of a man of the same trade in the next or in any other parish; but it is not so with the labours of the ploughman. Agriculture is not a manufacture, in which public favour will stir itself uninvited to mark out the greatest merit; true it is that a good farmer gets larger profits than the sloven, and a good master soon finds out the worth of a good ploughman. But we want to make good farmers and good ploughmen, and this can only be achieved by exciting a spirit of emulation. And these Associations have diffused agricultural knowledge among the farmers, and aroused a competitive spirit both among masters and men, without which there can be no progress in any branch of industry.”

About eight o’clock the ladies withdrew, and soon the room grew dim with tobacco smoke. After the list of toasts was ended, and we had proved our familiarity with a “churchwarden,” the President, with myself and another friend, left the room amid general cheering, and in the pleasant fresh air and moonlight found his carriage in waiting.

A. A.