ID: RVH_FOL / Ron Follington

TitleReeves Hall Farm by Ron Follington

The Memories of Ron Follington.

In mid 1962 my Brother-in-Law, Bernard Richardson, had agreed to purchase Reeves Hall Farm from the then owner, Mr Tom Dooley. The sale was to be completed by late September that year. At the time of the negotiations for the purchase I was working as Farm Foreman on a mixed farm in Hertfordshire and Bernard invited me to work for him at Reeves Hall in a similar position.

It was early July that I came to Mersea to view the farm for my first time. To say the least the farm was in a poor condition although entering from Meetings Lane the first areas of land on both sides of the farm road looked reasonably cultivated. It was in the area behind the farm buildings that neglect was obvious.

Arriving at the farmhouse Bernard and I were met by Mr Dooley, his wife, 3 sons and 2 daughters. We found out later that another, older son lived away. Invited into the house for a cup of tea we accepted but said we would join them after we had driven around the lower fields for my benefit. Most of that land was below sea level and the Essex River Board was still working on the sea wall, raising the height by a few feet. This lower land had been flooded in January 1953 when the severe high tide breached the sea wall. Gypsum had been spread over the land affected by the sea water to neutralise the salt water effect.

The field nearest the sea wall was just over 100 acres of reclaimed land but had not been cultivated so the surface was totally uneven and was only fit for sheep to graze.

In the farmyard it was obvious the buildings - 2 large barns, an "L" shaped cowshed, a tractor and implement shed plus 3 pig sties and a smaller animal shed - were all usable. A newer long shed to the side of the farm road near to the house was in good order and behind it was an area with pens for use with sheep, plus a sheep dip. Included in the purchase was the flock of some 250 sheep, 30 cattle and about 140 chickens.

The farmhouse consisted of a large Queen Anne building to the front with a much older part and very dilapidated to the rear and possibly the original farmhouse. To the front of the house was a large lawn on one side of which a big, fierce sounding dog was tethered which barked very loud at us when we had arrived. No doubt a good guard dog. Also tethered on the lawn was a vixen, caught as a cub we were told, but now a full grown adult. On a spare area of land to the east of the garden it looked like a junk-yard with old, broken or disused equipment.

Included in the purchase would be 3 tractors, a German Combine (not Claus) and a few implements including two ploughs, a seed drill and various tools for cultivation.

After our tour of the farm we were shown into the kitchen for our cup of tea and "a chat". This was a large room in the oldest part of the house. We sat at a long table on which was a milking bucket which was used by Charlie (their one worker) to milk the "house-cow". After Mrs Dooley had made the tea, our tea mugs were dipped into the bucket for milk before the tea was poured in. We found small bits of straw floating on
our tea but said nothing, politely and carefully sipping the contents. Notably, two sheep wandered around the kitchen as we sat in conversation. We declined the offer of a second cup of tea. We had noticed two sheep dogs in an outhouse as we entered the house and were told they would be left there after the family had emigrated to Australia and sent to join them after passing the strict animal checks before being allowed to go. We agreed to take them to a vet for that purpose and we did, but the outcome was the dogs could not go to Oz as they carried too many things that were not allowed entry.

Our visit to Reeves Hall left us feeling we were in times long past. No electricity or telephone on the farm completed the picture. The potential of the farm was apparent but we knew it would be some task to bring it up to modern standards.

Installation of electricity and the telephone were top priorities. The latter was installed very quickly and before we took over the farm. It could not be put in the house at first as renovation was in the plans, so my brother-in-law bought a small caravan to which it was installed, this being sited beside the newer farm building and would be used for some time as our "office". Electricity was not so easy as it was planned to be an extension of the power lines from Bocking Hall Farm. Mr Gray, the owner, would only allow this if his power supply was upgraded from "single phase" to "three phase". The electricity company eventually agreed to this and Mr Gray allowed the power lines and poles across his land to Reeves Hall. As it happened it worked out well for us as we also had a "three phase" supply.

At the end of September 1962 myself, my wife and our two young daughters moved from Hertfordshire to Fairhaven Avenue, West Mersea and after a few days to settle in I went for my first working day at Reeves Hall on October 2nd. Some of the Dooley family were still in the house and the two youngest boys, Sam and Tom junior, had been doing jobs on the farm, Tom with the livestock and Sam doing some cultivations. Sam was 17 years old and did not want to go to Australia with the family and he asked me if he could stay on and work for us. I had to tell him he should go with his family.

Bernard was still living in Surrey and he and his family would not move to Mersea until the beginning of January 1963. He drove down to the farm frequently and stay a couple of days when we were able to discuss plans and do some work together. So at first I was mainly on my own but soon, in answer to our advertising for workers, Bernard and I went to interview an applicant at his farm cottage in Stanway. This was Fred Fairweather and our chat with him showed he was "the right man for the job", so he was offered and accepted it. His Father-in-Law, Bill, would also come to work for us at Reeves Hall, so very soon Fred and his family moved to Reeves Hall Cottages and started work.

By the time Fred and Bill started work on the farm the Dooleys were all gone. They had left the sheep dogs, which was a great help for me, and had taken the fierce guard dog with them. Sadly, Sam had released the vixen which would cause us a lot of trouble later on. One sunny day Fred and I started to sow a field with winter wheat but in the afternoon I could see fog rolling towards us from the east end of the farm. Fred told me it was sea fog and in a very short time we had to stop drilling as the wetness of the fog caused the fertilizer spouts to block. This was a new experience for me having previously farmed far from the sea.

On the days Bernard was with us we were able to do much more out in the fields and he spent much time doing administration in the "caravan office". "Free Range" is an asset these days in poultry farming, but the Dooleys chickens were more free-range than most. There were about 140 of them at the start all roaming the farm fields adjacent to the farm buildings. A large "chicken-shed" was in each of two of these where the birds could roost. In early November foxes started to dine on those in the outer field so we planned to catch them and enclose them in a proper chicken-run, We moved one shed to ground near the farm buildings and made a large run fenced by high chicken wire. Catching the chickens that lived in the two sheds was easy as, after dark, Fred and I went to the shed, he doing the catching and me shining a very bright light which seemed to mesmerise them. They were all able to fly so we had to clip their wings before putting them in the new run.

A good many chickens roosted in the big barn up on the high beams and to nab them we positioned a long ladder up to a beam in the daytime then, after dark, Fred went up the ladder to catch them, me with the bright light again. This took several days as Fred could only reach those nearest the ladder and each day we moved the ladder nearer to where others roosted. We thought these chickens must have had their "own spot" as none moved onto the cleared beams. In all we collected 117 to put in the run so obviously the foxes had taken a good many.

As winter set in our problems mounted. The grazing fields had no fences except at gateways, and relied on the cattle not crossing deep-water ditches. The Fleet, an 11 acre lake between the lower marsh and the upper land, and short fences each end to and over the sea wall kept the sheep in.

By the end of November we were having hard frosts, the precursor to the awful winter ahead. Before long the water in the deep ditches froze hard enough to allow the cattle to escape and they went as far as the Shop Lane area before we were able to drive them back to the farm. Then they had to be housed in the cow shed for the entire winter but could be let into the adjoining meadow for a while. Re-fencing was not possible as the ground became frozen solid well below the surface. We also brought the sheep off the lower marsh into a field just behind the farm buildings which was the only one fully fenced.

All through December the frosts became harder so no work could be done in the fields. Of course, we had the animals to look after and much repair work to do on some buildings.

The day after Boxing Day 1962 we woke up to snow and I hurried down to the farm. With a strong wind blowing drifts were already forming along the road. I got the sheepdogs out and brought the sheep into the meadow behind the cow sheds where a little shelter was available, and thought all the sheep had been moved to safety. What I didn't know at the time was a ram and five ewes had taken shelter in the ditch of the field I drove the flock out of. They had been covered by snow and died, and were only found in mid-March when the thaw started.

I decided to leave my car at the farm and come back to "West" on a tractor, stopping at the farm cottage to tell Fred what I had done; he was going down to see to the animals feeding in the afternoon. I had fed them in the morning. As I was leaving the farm by tractor I took a chain with me and as I entered Chapmans Lane I found two cars stuck in the drifts. The drivers were very happy that I could tow them out and go on their way.

The frosts were getting harder by the day and at the beginning of January 1963, after my Brother-in-Law, Sister and family had moved into the other farm cottage (the farmhouse was to be renovated), we found we had no water, which with all the animals needing water, was a big problem. We found that the water main crossed under the road just after a sharp bend but then crossed the open ditch and was completely bare. Bernard and Fred lit straw in the ditch under the pipe which had the desired effect and the water flowed again. Of course, they heavily lagged the bare pipe to avoid a recurrence.

But our problem was not over. As the frosts got harder and harder all water sources in the farmyard froze up except for one which was the supply to a drinking trough (tank) in the small animal shed. Here we found that heating the supply pipe with a gas blow-torch it gradually started to flow and continued to do so while we carried many, many buckets of water to the thirsty animals, and that took until after 11.00am each day until the mid-March thaw. Every day after getting sufficient water we built a straw surround to the pipe and tank, but every morning it had frozen again.

The next problem was that our ewes were due to lamb but, of course, the Dooleys had no record or markings on the ewes to suggest which ones would lamb first, so each afternoon Bernard and Fred checked all of them to try and decide which ones were likely to lamb that night. These were kept indoors in pens out of the bitter cold, but this process was not 100% accurate so some of the other ewes would give birth out in the field. The big problem with that was most ewes would have twin lambs and in that cold the first born would freeze to death before the second was born and the ewe could tend them. Because of this, Bernard and myself took turns on "night duty" when we would patrol the field looking for any ewes giving birth (in between going into the lambing shed to warm up). We did this until about 1.00am and when we found a birth taking place we moved the ewe and lambs into spare pens in the shed. Our efforts did save quite a number of lambs but we also lost a good many.

Some ewes also succumbed to the severe icy conditions; another serious loss.

As I wrote earlier, the thaw didn't start until the middle of March so we had over 3 months of a very, very cold time. It was so cold that most of the tractor engines would not run out of the shed as the diesel fuel turned to a jelly-like state. Only the Ford Dexter could be used outside.

On the Fleet, the 11 acres of water froze solid so fast that a fully grown swan froze into the ice. Mr Reynard gradually cleared out the carcass. And hundreds of ducks that lived there were starving, but we had a pile of useless grain left by the Dooleys and we took some daily to feed them, after dealing with our water problems of course. It was awful to see the ducks so thin; some of them must have lived due to our feeding them. The ducks became so used to the time we fed them that they gradually came nearer to the buildings to meet us and in the end were waiting behind the first gate.

Our efforts to save our chickens were useless as the foxes somehow managed to kill them over time, together with the twelve Muscovy ducks that stayed at night behind the farmhouse, taking them one by one.

I have to smile each time we are reminded of "The Beast from the East" and how cold it was. That lasted for all of 10 days and by comparison to the winter of 62/63 was almost mild.

In the Spring and Summer of 1963 the front part of the farmhouse was completely renovated. The older part to the rear was demolished and rebuilt to modern standards.

Ron Follington.
February 2023

AuthorRon Follington
PublishedFebruary 2023
SourceMersea Museum