THE NORFOLK FARM WAGON

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A hundred years ago these four wheeled wagons were the only way of conveying corn, straw and hay around the farm; and around the countryside too, as far as the local railway station. Heavier goods like roots, gravel and muck normally demanded a more robust two wheeled cart. The change has been quite astonishing.  On Dec 30 2011 I published a blog with a picture of wagons drawn by horses gathering the harvest at Costessey in about 1910. By the 1920s tractors and trailers had begun to appear on farms, but horses were still common. But by 1950 the horse drawn wagon or cart was already obsolete. Centuries had seen the slow change from ox carts to horse drawn wagons, and now less than half a century had witnessed the conversion to the internal combustion engine.

Certain features were the same wherever the cartwright worked, such as elm for the wheel hubs and ash for the fellies, but each county had its distinctive proportions. Also the words used to describe parts of the wagon varied from county to county. This one had red for the wheels and blue for the bodywork, a popular colour scheme across the country. In this case the exterior of the wagon was painted red, the blue being restricted to the interior. The blue paint has retained much of its former intensity, but the red is very faded. 

The four wheeled wagon was introduced to East Anglia by the Dutch in the sixteenth century. Before the wagon became a common method of transport over short distances  goods were often moved by packhorse. Two wheeled carts were drawn not by horses but by slower oxen. Rivers were used to carry corn to the local mill. The Dutch who brought with them the more capacious for wheeled wagon came to drain the Fens, but also to escape religious persecution. Even with this improvement transport remained difficult.

The Dutch brought many things with them. Their weaving reinvigorated the cloth trade in Norfolk and Suffolk, and it is thought they introduced the Norwich canary; the use of the word plain to describe a place or square, which is widespread in Norfolk, corresponds to the plein of the Netherlands. Eindhoven for example has a Stationsplein. There is also a hint of Holland in the 17th century architecture of  East Anglia, particularly Kings Lynn.

In this view of the rear of the wagon shows the rear shutlock nearest to you. This has been decorated with elegantly chiselled chamfers. Directly below this is the coupling pole. Where this crosses the axle it is connected to the superstructure by the bolster. This also has a curved chamfer, though less intricately decorated than on the more visible shutlock. These chamfers served to reduce the weight of the wagon without compromising its strength. Note there is also a wooden roller to make the loading and unloading of heavy articles easier. On the coupling pole there is an iron loop for attaching a rope if the wagon needs pulling out of a rut. This has been made by a blacksmith who has decorated it with a twist on each side.

In 1900 a new farm wagon would cost about £30 and might have been cart barnexpected to last 50 years or more. In the event changes moved on so swiftly that many were abandoned long before their natural life was over. Trailers with steel wheels and pneumatic tyres tool their place while the horse was replaced by the internal combustion engine. At first the tractor was too valuable a piece of equipment to use just for pulling sheaves of corn to the threshing machine and was used to drive more complicated things like elevators. To a certain extent this prolonged the life of the four wheeled wagon.

In this view of the side of the wagon you can see the iron stays or staves – called copses – that hold the outrave, the rail at the top of the sides. This example has the front wheels small enough to pass under the body. This improves the lock but a smaller wheel will not support so great a load without sinking in to ground. Most wagons had larger front wheels that extended above the lower rave – the planks that make up the body of the wagon. There was a whole language to be understood, unique to the wheelwright’s trade; the felloes (or fellies) for instance are the sections of the wheel’s rim. The words varied across the countryside. One of the wheelwright’s tools remains in use today under its old name – the spokeshave, once used for shaping the spokes of the wheel.

By late Victorian times these carts and wagons would mostly have been built by the local Agricultural Engineer, who employed a wheelwright and blacksmith among other (now vanished) tradesmen. William Bush of Cawston had the prestigious task of making carts for the Royal Estate at Sandringham. The order was being built in the early 20th century.

This cart was left in a decaying wooden barn in central Norfolk; ther building was roofless and soon to be demolished. No doubt the wagon was destroyed too. This was in 1973, and the cart had probably been abandoned since the end of the Second World War.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE

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