From the Sussex Ox to the Fordson Major

From the Sussex Ox to the Fordson Major

Due probably to the weather, there were only 23 members, and no visitors, for this fascinating talk by Ian Everest, about the transition from animal to mechanical power on Sussex farms, illustrated with a wealth of images of many downland farms and personalities. The talk stems from Ian’s own background growing up on Manor Farm, Bishopstone. At the core of the talk is his mother’s old shoe box full of old farm photographs, supplemented by many taken by herself with an old box Brownie, which perfectly illustrate the transition, plus others on glass plates taken by a keen amateur Victorian photographer, and many more.

The first slide shown was dated 1953, of Manor Farm, Bishopstone, showed a perennial harvest scene, with stooks of sheaves of corn being collected in a downland field by horse drawn waggons, that Ian told us must basically not have changed for over 1000 years.  To reinforce this the second slide showed the same scene 70 years earlier in 1883, the only difference being that oxen drew the waggons instead of horses.

Oxen worked in teams of six, whilst heavy horses worked in teams of three. The traditional Sussex oxen were a deep red colour, and the term ox describes a castrated bull, what would nowadays be called a steer or bullock. They were always big horned, and seldom had them cut, just using small wooden spheres with internal threads to screw onto the sharp tips of the horns to protect the ox-man and boy. De-horning, or pollarding seems to be a modern fashion, and beasts are bred today without horns. The formation was quite different to modern beef animals, with the main strength being in the forequarters of the animal suitable for pushing into the yolk and harness, not pulling as is often thought, whereas modern beef animals are bred with massive hind quarters, which is where the prime cuts of meat lie. The Sussex ox was only bred for draft, though it would have been eaten at the end if its working life, and each beast weighed about one and a half tons.

Oxen would have been ubiquitous in the countryside, and could be used to pull any load, and on one famous occasion 86 of the beasts pulled a windmill from Belle View Fields in Brighthelmstone, (between the two piers), where it was being surrounded by new housing developments, to what is now Miller’s Road, off Dyke Road, which was then open downland. They were also used to publicize businesses drawing decorated carts through the streets, one such ironically being for Aorta beef suet.

Oxen were usually worked as a team of six, arranged in three pairs, and would require two people to operate, a skilled man at the rear to manage the task, and an ox-boy with a 16½ foot pole or goad, to encourage and help guide the team. This goad gave the name to the standard agricultural measurement of a rod, pole or perch. Oxen were also the basis of many adjectives in English, such as: as strong as an ox, as powerful, the constitution of, as docile, as patient, as steady, as slow, as certain, as plodding. The beasts were not prodded or smacked, it was enough to simply lay the rod on their backs for them to move, and to lay it on the floor in front of them to stop. They were proved to be very intelligent.

Over time the use of the Sussex Red was displaced by the Welsh Black, or Welsh Runts as they were called in Sussex, which had a more docile temperament, and which were walked down the old drove roads out of Wales in herds of two or three hundred beasts at a time, at two miles per hour! This trade goes back to the 1500’s and was of great importance to British agriculture. To illustrate the size of the trade, in 1841 3000 oxen were sold at Steyning in one day, and ox dealers started their own bank, Black Bull Bank, which became part of Lloyds.

Sussex was the last stronghold of the use of oxen, lasting through to 1927 in Exceat, though many regretted their passing. There seems to be no economic reason for this, just that a clusters of downland farmers liked to see ox teams working the land.  Their yolks were much cheaper to produce than the leather harness for horses, and their shoes were simpler, not requiring to be burnt-on by a farrier like horse shoes, but could be done in the fields. Mind you, it required a team of 5 or 6 men to accomplish it. First the beast had to be thrown on its side using ropes, then its legs tied to an “A” frame to keep them still whilst the helpers sat on the beast’s body as the shoes were fitted. Slides illustrated this in the talk. Oxen were cheaper to feed, not requiring oats like horses, and were better on the slopes than horses, but only had a working life of 7 or 8 years before they were fattened up to be sold on as beef, although they did not need to be broken in as was needed with horses, at two years they could simply be introduced as the middle pair of the team, and the old hands would show them what to do. They began to be replaced by heavy horses at the end of the 19th century, though there was a resurgence in their use due to the scarcity of horses during the First World War.

Many farmers had tried to introduce mechanization through steam power towards the end of the 19th century and early 20th, but the threshing machines caused riots among the farm labourers, who saw their winter employment being stolen by these machines. There was also a drive for mechanization under the impetus of the two world wars, where interestingly, the land girls were often left to manage the new-fangled tractors and machinery, whilst the old farmers got on with their horses in the same old way. The 20 HP Fordson Majors were often referred to as iron horses, and their descendants are as ubiquitous as oxen used to be. They are very powerful now and do the work of many hundreds of teams of oxen or horses in a much shorter time.

Horses had completely replaced the ox by the 1930’s, and they lasted through into the 1960’s, before increasing prosperity and the drive for higher yields led to the almost universal use of machines, much to the regret of many.  One farmer sadly reflected that the fields became very lonely places with the loss of the draft animals.

The vote of thanks was given by Robin Reffell, and the assembled members were most generous with their appreciative applause.

Report on Ian Everest’s talk in February from John Warren