12th November 1919
Only two words really sum up Robert (Bob) Gosling and in their own way they are totally sufficient. He is the most wonderful example of a ‘True Countryman’ you could find. There is nothing that could describe him any better. Being one of those from the old school and now at the age of nearly ninety four, he will have seen more changes in farming and the rural way of life than many who are alive today.
His arrival in to the world came just a week after the family arrived at Box Tree Farm, Hitcham, mid way between Stowmarket and Hadleigh in the middle of what was then and still till this day is very much part of rural Suffolk. Born in the evening of November 12th 1919 and weighing in, as he says, at a strong 10lb in weight, he has no hesitation in telling me this gave him a thoroughly good start in life! His Father was Alfred and Mother, Rose, a member of the Underwood family who also lived locally.
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The Gosling family farmed 84 acres of their own land with another 34 acres belonging to the Glebe close by. Agriculture at the time of Bob’s birth was in the deepest depression and whilst the Goslings were indeed fortunate that they owned the majority of what they farmed, life for many was extremely tough. Contending with the weather of 2012 and 2013 was a nightmare for farmers throughout the UK, but this was totally different to what farmers had to deal with then. What made things worse was there was very little respite until the early 50’s. The problem was, as Bob explained, that the Americans and the Canadians were flooding the UK with wheat and maize and it was far cheaper to import than produce it ourselves, therefore leaving British farming firmly in the doldrums. Thousands and thousands of acres were being left virtually unfarmed.
However having been brought up in the agricultural world, it was there where Bob was to spend the rest of his working life, and he loved it with very few regrets. He started school at five years old and in 1933 aged fourteen had to leave to go and help his father. His first memories were of going off regularly to Bury St Edmund’s Market with his father to buy calves. This they used to do by setting out in an Austin Cowley. Once the animal had been bought for anywhere between 10 – 18 shillings it was put in a pulp bag with the string carefully tied round its neck and placed on the back seat of the car. On arriving home the calf would receive the Gosling treatment for settling the stomach which was a raw egg, shell and all, straight down the throat! Bob recollects the best cure for a chest infection is to take three table spoons of flour and one of mustard and mix them into a paste. Then put the mixture into a pillow case which you fold like a pancake and move round the chest and back for two days. He tells me that you were very soon cured! At that time most households were large and for many it really was a matter of hand to mouth living existence. There were bankruptcies everywhere. To ensure there was a plentiful supply of meat a lot of families kept a pig or two around the back of the house. This with the huge number of rabbits that were about at that time certainly helped feed those living in rural Britain. Whilst his father kept a dozen or so sows, it was Bob’s responsibility to grind the meal and ensure all their livestock were managed correctly. The problem was livestock was hardly worth anything and if it had not been a family owned farm the end would have certainly come for the Goslings, like sadly it had for so many others not only in Suffolk but throughout the country. To make matters worse War was declared again on the 3rd of September 1939. Bob kept working on the land, whilst at the same time joining the Kettlebaston Home Guard which played an important part in defending the local area and especially RAF Wattisham from German attack.
In 1940, aged twenty one Bob married Mabel who was the youngest of eleven children. They moved to Loose Hall at Hitcham where Bob had started work for the Morley family who also owned Clay Hill, Box Tree and Studdles Farms. As the need for food production increased he started contract ploughing with an Allis Chalmers crawler with no cab. The exhaust was situated right in front of him with no such thing as a silencer, so you can imagine his ears must have been ringing after a long day’s work. It astounds me after what he told me that he is not stone deaf!
In June 1943 a Mr Bert Steward came down from London’s East End to Suffolk and bought the neighbouring farm, Water Mill in Nedging. He had run a fruit business but due to the Blitz quite understandably made good his escape! However he found rural life far from easy and within a year or two made his way back to where he came from. Early in 1947 a Major Taylor made his way down south from Kirkudbright in Scotland, in an Austin Seven, to look at a farm near Newton Abbott in Devon. It was on his rather indirect way home that he decided to view the Mill at Nedging and its surrounding land. All in all this added up to just short of a hundred acres and seemed to suit the Major’s plans. He bought the place and moved down in the late Spring of 1947 employing the existing farm staff of Jack Garrod and Ted Day and a short while later Bob arrived on the scene. Agriculture at that time was under huge pressure to produce enough to feed the nation. Food was scarce and rationing was still very much in evidence. As a result of this a set acreage of potatoes and sugar beet had to be grown on each farm. To assist in this as well as the ploughing and drilling of arable crops the Major bought three Suffolk Punches, Prince, Sunlight and Brag.
Whilst there were two small tractors, heavy horses were still being a huge asset to the farming industry. With three men employed they all had their own responsibilities and one of Bob’s was the hand milking twice a day of the six cows whose milk was sent off to Stowmarket Creamery. A new parlour was added and the herd was increased as time progressed to a dozen.
Traditionally the whole local community would pull together at harvest. The wheat would be cut by binder and stooked up for ripening. When the threshing machine arrived it was like a great gathering of the locals and everybody helped until the job was finished and done. It was then that much beer was consumed in celebration, with the good old fashioned harvest suppers taking place when all had been safely gathered in. They then returned to ploughing and sowing the following year’s crop and milling enough stock feed for the winter months ahead.
It was shortly after that first harvest at Nedging, that Bob’s father offered £300 for a 250 acre mixed farm which he thought would suit the family, only to be turned down. Two months later it was sold for £275. This was something that would have been Bob’s chance to farm on his own and he still regrets till this day not taking this opportunity. However he never let this get the better of him and his loyalty to the Taylor family is as strong today as it ever was.
Although farming was going through a very tough time, hunting was and still is a very popular activity in this part of the world. This is Essex and Suffolk Country, where Ken Mason whose family owned the local cement works at Great Blakenham, was Master. Major Taylor came from a hunting family whose connections were with the Badsworth in South Yorkshire. He not only welcomed the hounds but hunted regularly with the Essex and Suffolk, the Easton Harriers and other Essex packs. As you can imagine not only would work come to a halt if the hounds were in the area but all the necessary earth stopping would have to be undertaken beforehand. Between them Bob and Jack decided that this was going to be their responsibility and they were paid five shillings each with a bonus of a pound if there was more than one fox on the place! This worked out well and between them they took on the stopping not only in Semer Wood but right the way across the neighbouring farms. In both places foxes were in reasonable abundance at the time so this certainly would have helped both families cash flow! What is more, as food was short, Bob in particular would use this opportunity to behave in a way that was not dissimilar to our vulpine friends. In fact he always said he liked to play the fox, by returning home from stopping with the odd cock pheasant that had miraculously fallen from high up in a tree on a moonlit night. On occasions there may have been a hare or a rabbit hidden under his coat too. The truth being that hidden in the inside pocket was a 2.2 rile which he had bought in Ipswich for £9! At the end of each season the Masters would lay on a right feast for all their Earth Stoppers in the Hadleigh Town Hall. With great slabs of beef provided and a plentiful supply of beer an enjoyable evening was guaranteed!
This was a different era when rural communities knitted together much more than they do now and it is a time that Bob looks back on and describes fondly as the “good old days.” As the years progressed so has farming, both at Nedging’s Water Mill, and everywhere else in the country. The dairy cows went and single sucklers were bought in. After a while this no longer became viable and the grazing on the low meadows was rented out. The arable land was and still is taken care of by a good neighbour John Chaplin.
A year or two before Major Taylor’s death both Bob and Jack became semi retired and were presented with their long service awards at the Hadleigh Show by Suffolk’s Lord Lieutenant Sir Joshua Rowley. These were two men who committed themselves to agriculture, for all but fifty years a piece and the changes they will have seen, in the greater scheme of things is a very short time, is quite remarkable. From three men working a hundred acre farm, with three heavy horses and two small tractors to one man per thousand acres and the huge machinery that goes with it today makes one realise just how advanced farming has become. However it is the knowledge and expertise of Bob’s generation that has stood the test of time. When the Nation needed feeding they were the ones that took up the mantle and committed themselves to ensuring farming tackled the challenges that lay ahead. It is easy to forget but they are the ones who have quite literally helped agriculture develop into the position it is today. They had to cope without all the modern farm machinery available to farmers today, with air conditioned cabs in their tractors, radios and computers doing most of the work for them. Life was hard and physical and I doubt that farm staff nowadays would survive a week if they had to change places with the likes of Bob.
He admits he is very lucky to be able to look back over the years with very few regrets. His knowledge of the countryside, nature and everything that goes with it has not only enhanced his own life but many others around him.