WE ARE SO lucky to live in a village within thirty miles of our great sprawling capital city, London, and yet be able to experience the seasons through the agricultural calendar. Many of us follow with interest the times of the year when the words of the old country ballad still resonate “to plough and sow, and reap and mow” and we witness the outcome of all that activity. As we walk our dogs, we ask each other “will the newly sown crops get their roots well-established before winter sets in, will the rain ruin the crops, and will we get good weather for harvest?”
Fred de Voil was one of Widford’s last ploughmen and his widow, Jackie Devoil, is now indisputably a Village Treasure. Jackie has shared with me her memories of their world just post-war.
Fred was born at 6 Northview Cottages, Widford on 12May 1928. He was the much loved only child of Walter de Voil and his wife Agnes, born Agnes Godfrey, who came from Stanstead Abbotts. Fred went to school in Widford and, like so many children at that time, left school at the age of fourteen and chose “to be a farmer’s boy” by going straight on to the farm owned by Captain Frank Pawle.
Fred’s first job was to be a general farm-worker, turning his hand to anything that needed doing. The hours on the farm were long and hard, particularly at harvest-time. It was during the War years that Fred and Jackie met; she was one of forty Land Army girls billeted in Walnut Tree House, and their marriage on 15 December 1951 surprised no-one. Captain Pawle allocated them a cottage (Ainsborough Cottage) and an allotment area for growing food. The odd pigeon or rabbit were welcome additions to the family menu. The cottage was very sparsely furnished, and Jackie would draw water from the well and heat it on the kitchener [cast iron stove]. In 1952 their son John was born, to be followed by their daughter Ann. Jackie’s first job each day was to pack up Fred’s “beever” – his food for a ten o’clock break. (In the middle l960s I was often invited to join the Felstead family for “beever” – cake and a cup of tea.)
In those days the ploughs were horse-drawn – Captain Pawle’s horses were Big Prince (the stallion), Little Prince and Dolly. The horses would work in teams of two, and at meal breaks their nosebags would go on before the ploughmen could eat. When Fred was ploughing near the woods he would ask Jackie to put in an extra sandwich for the stag, who would join him for his break and be hand-fed by Fred. Ploughing teams competed against each other, particularly in Essex, and on occasions Fred would be in the winning team, but competing or not, he liked nothing better than a trip out to see a ploughing contest. Fred loved the horses, and although he was sad to see them retired to Priory Meadows after the advent of tractors, there was no doubt that he loved the tractors more.
Between the mid-sixties and the end of the seventies, Fred was a towering figure in the lives of the Luck boys, then living at Eildon, Nether Street. In those days there were no fences between the cottage garden and the big field behind, and the children would stand patiently waiting for the tractor to make its circuit, the highlight of their day being to stop the tractor to give Fred a can of lemonade. They all had a small toy tractor with a “Fred” figure seated on it, and many were the frantic searches for “Fred” at bed-time. In 1973 Ben was born on 20 August to the sound of the combine harvester rattling past the cottage windows, and ever since we have compared harvest times with the date of his birth, labelling them “early” or “late” in comparison.
We still miss the sight of Fred in his blue overalls making his way about the village; he played the church organ, and yet was much in demand on Saturday nights to play the piano in the pub; patient and kind to his adoring fan club in the village, and a dearly loved and loving husband and father, Fred died in 2001; he never retired and his working life spanned a time from horse-drawn ploughs to computer-driven tractors.
Photograph of Fred and his tractor taken near Halfway House in 1993