Picking potatoes in schooldays

It must have been the autumn half-term holiday of 1973. A friend said there was a day’s work picking potatoes for a farmer at Huish Episcopi. We cycled to the field and spent the day picking potatoes. Even for a thirteen year old in the company of friends, it was a tiring day’s work. At the end of the day, we were given thirty-seven and a half pence each, the farmer had come with the right change. Presumably, in former times, he had paid boys seven shillings and sixpence for the day and had continued to pay the decimal equivalent. It was a derisory sum of money, a few pence an hour. Opportunities for spending money were limited, the pennies were probably spent on sweets from the village shop.

In our community, as in every farming community, casual farm work was seasonally available, and always badly paid. Reading British History Online it seems that there was a long tradition in our parish of children doing poorly paid work on the land. It notes the work in autumn that was done a hundred years before we went potato picking:

Harvesting apples, potatoes, and turnips provided employment for parish children in the 1860s and were the cause of absenteeism from the parish school. In the 1870s the blackberry crop had the same effect.

“Ah,” I thought, “hard work on their family farms, or for farmers who would have paid the children’s fathers whatever the children might have earned. We were lucky having the money to ourselves.”

Re-reading it, a date from undergraduate history days came to mind: 1870. The Elementary Education Act of 1870 had provided for free education for all children aged 5-13, prior to it, education provision had been haphazard.

Through the efforts of Adrian Schaell, the rector from 1570-1599, our village had its first school in the late Sixteenth Century, which was endowed with money left by Schaell. Two centuries later, the parish school had 145 children on its books, with an average attendance of 87. The schoolmaster in the 1860s was often paid in kind, presumably with produce from the farms. The figure of 87 as an average attendance would have concealed the reality of the situation, suggesting a typical day was one when two-thirds of the pupils were present and one-third were absent: instead, there would have been times in the year when almost all the children would have attended, and other times when hardly any were present.

Thirty-seven and a half pence was a poor return for an aching back, but at the end of half-term we were back in the comfort of our classrooms, no need to face carrying baskets of apples, or picking mangold wurzels to ensure the cattle had fodder for winter.

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2 Responses to Picking potatoes in schooldays

  1. Vince says:

    70 years earlier an army of Irish and Welsh pickers would travel south to north and back during those harvests. Not much is written about them. Well, not as much as with those from Ulster crossing over to Scotland to do the Tatties and Herring anyway.

    I did that for one day. It’s hellish.

  2. Ian says:

    We used to do a Saturday in my Grandad’s fields to pick enough potatoes for the winter.

    There were gypsy families that would come to our village each September for pea and fruit picking, staying at a local farm. The children would come to our school for a few weeks before they moved on.

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