Farming in Martham and Somerton in the 19th Century: Barbara Cornford

An item from the Parish magazine by Barbara Cornford in September 1976, describes life in farming between 1853 and 1878.  Barbara interviewed Mrs Violet Dyball who lived in Yew Tree Cottage, in 1976.  It appeared in the magazine as, Farming in Martham and Somerton a hundred years ago.

Many people will remember Mrs Violet Dyball, who lived in Yew tree cottage.  Some years ago she lent me the farm diary of a great uncle of her husband.  He was Humphrey Dyball who lived at Somerton in the mid nineteenth century.  Like many farmers he kept a regular diary in which he recorded the weather and his farming operations.  He kept the diary for twenty-five years from 1853 to 1878 and only very occasionally did he fail to make an entry for any day.

He farmed about 40 acres of arable land in Somerton and Martham, with an unspecified amount of pasture.  His main concern was growing wheat and barley which he sold to a local corn merchant, Mr Faulke, who owned Martham Mill on Hemsby Road.  He also sold part of his trefoil and clover hay crops.  He grew potatoes, which he sometimes sold to sea-going boats, peas, beans and various roots such as turnips, swedes and mangolds, all for fodder for his stock.  He had three cows and their calves, some pigs and two horses.  His labour force consisted of himself, Thomas who was a son or brother, and a hired labourer, John Gymer. 

John Gymer was paid 1s.10d. a day in 1853.  The next year, at the time of the Crimean War, food prices were rocketing, his wage rate rose to 2s. a day, and by 1876 he was earning 2s.6d. a day.  This would mean that his weekly wage was about 12s.to15s. for a six day week – no half day on Saturday.  However some of his work was done on piece rates for which he seems to have got nearly twice his usual rate.  In 1854 he received 20s. for four and a half days' threshing: back breaking work with a flail.  Setting wheat, sowing hay and cutting thorn faggots were all paid by piece rate. 

Our farmer Humphrey Dyball had six arable fields, all quite small, between five and eight acres.  He usually grew three or four different crops in each field, so that a typical cropping pattern would be two acres of wheat half an acre of turnips, a row or two of potatoes and two or three acres of clover lay all in one field.  This seems to have been the traditional system of cropping in East Norfolk.  Since all his operations were carried out by horse and man power, he was seldom able to tackle more than an acre a day for any task.  This splitting up of his crops caused him no trouble.  He never ploughed more than an acre a day, nor sowed more that that.  When it came to haymaking and harvesting he could deal with more than an acre.  He and John Gymer mowed three acres of clover with a scythe in one day in June 1856.  This then had to be turned and finally heaped into thirty hay cocks, which were carted in six cart loads to the hay chamber within the next week or so.  A second crop was taken in September.

The harvest started in August with the wheat. This was reaped with a sickle or a reaping hook, tied by hand into sheaves and the sheaves stocked in the field.  He records each day’s achievement in the number of sheaves cut, usually between 400 and 600.  Barley was always mowed, turned and cocked like hay.  He could cart two acres of corn a day, stacking it in the many corn stacks that stood about his fields. 

Threshing was done by hand with flails, or sometimes by horse treading.  Occasionally he hired a horse driven threshing machine.  His entry for August 12th 1853 is ‘Threshing a stack of wheat with Turner’s machine and with Daniel Manship and Mr Robert Wright’s horses.’   After 1870 he is using other methods.  He borrowed a reaper to cut his wheat and cut 1500 sheaved a day. Three times as much as he and John Gymer could have done by hand.  In 1876 he hired a steam threshing machine on October 2nd from Robert Thurtle. For this he employed five extra men at 2s. 6d. a day,a boy at 2s. and the two machine men at 5s. 6d. a day.  As a result of the day’s work he thrashed a stack of wheat (54 sacks), and a stack of barley.

1876, a hundred years ago was as disastrous a year on the farm as 1976, but for quite the opposite reason.   He records day after day of rain with the comment ‘nothing done to forward business’.  He finally finished his barley harvest on the 18th September.

Humphrey Dyball's fields are called Somerton Field, Jolly’s Close, Home Close, Southfield, Middle Field and North Field.  Can anyone identify these?

Barbara Cornford (1976) (Edited a little by AM, 2020)

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Photo right: Sickle or reaping hook used to hand harvest cereal crops (

Two men cutting
              wheat with hand-held reap hooks, from a postcard in
              Norfolk in 1917. Each man is using a crook stick in the
              left hand to push the stalks back against the crop, while
              they are cut through by the hook (University of Reading)

[Above: Two men cutting wheat with hand-held reap hooks, from a  picture postcard in Norfolk in 1917.  Each man is using a crook stick in the left hand to push the stalks back against the crop, while they are cut through by the hook (University of Reading)]
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