WORKING ON THE LAND
The Maze has long been renowned as one of the most important market
gardening areas in Northern Ireland, held in high regard both for the
productive quality of its sandy soils and excellent drainage. In the
area covered by this book, there are now only three `full-time' farming
families � Bingham, Skelton and Sloan. There are several other families
who are engaged in farming, but not as their main job � Gillespies and
McGurnaghans. Other landowners from farming backgrounds have chosen to
let their land in conacre � Elmore, Emerson, Hewitt, Palmer, Reid and
Immediately after the war however it was a different
story � there was a considerable number of vegetable growers in the area
who provided full and part-time jobs for the local population of
Coronation Gardens and to a lesser extent Culcavey. Although most are
now deceased, people in the area can readily recollect the following
names � Josh Elliot, Billy Hood, Kennedy Hunter, Billy McCoy and Stuart
McQuitty, in addition to Binghams, McGurnaghans, Skeltons and Sloans who
still continue to farm.
Market gardening is a relatively labour intensive
operation compared to other sectors of farming, especially in the 50s
and 60s when mechanisation was not widespread or sophisticated.
Planting, weeding and harvesting required a supply of labour, some
skilled, some not so skilled. Until the advent of sophisticated potato
harvesters in the 1970s, potato harvesting at Binghams and McGurnaghans
required squads of boys and girls for a period of time in the autumn.
Indeed, schools in rural areas regularly had a weeks holiday allocated
in October for pupils to that they could help at home with potato
picking. For those pupils who were not from farming stock, it provided
the chance to earn a few pounds and a welcome break from lessons.
During the long school summer holidays, it was not
unusual for a gang of boys and girls to be seen making their way down
Sandy Lane to see if their services were going to be needed that day �
either for weeding, putting up vegetable orders or helping to plant.
Certainly most of the tractor work was done by the farmers themselves or
their skilled regular workers, but there was always the chance you could
have a job weeding, pulling scallions, cutting cauliflower or cabbage
etc. Such employment gainfully occupied the local teenagers, and while
the pay itself may not have been much by today's standards it was at
times a valuable contribution to the family budget, whilst teaching them
at a young age the value of money. In addition, it provided them with an
avenue into an environment sadly lacking to the youth of today � they
were working with nature, in all weathers and were none the worse for
it. Indeed, physically, socially, emotionally and financially, they all
benefited from working on the land. Here is the story of some of these
people, people selected from different age groups and different family
backgrounds, but with one common thread � they all worked on the land.
1. 1 first started working when I was thirteen years
of age. This was an after school job and at weekends with Sammy Miller
which gave me approximately �3.00 per week and food. When 1 was 16 I was
considering becoming an apprentice joiner but the necessary job offer
did not materialise. At that time Billy McCoy happened to mention that
he could be doing with some help on the farm and that was how I came to
work for Billy for over twenty years.
Billy McCoy was one of the old school � a perfectionist. You were
expected to do what you were asked � no if buts or no can do. Weather
was irrelevant � if orders had to be put up, there was no way we could
let the weather interfere. Over the twenty years I was with Billy we
grew a wide variety of vegetables and some flowers. The list included
beetroot, broad beans, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, early turnip,
leeks, parsley, celery, lettuce, scallions, parsnips, peas, potatoes and
Although Billy only owned about eight acres of ground
he took (rented) a substantial acreage of land all over the district. At
different times he rented Hedley Beattie's land, Hewitt's
land at Culcavey and Bunting's off the Moira Road, to name but a few.
When / first went to work for Billy the only mechanised equipment he had
was a 12 inch rotavator and a wheelbarrow � no tractors, ploughs,
harrows, drill ploughs, seeders, trailers etc. They all came later This
was no means unusual at that time as Ulster farms were only becoming
Jimmy Bingham, who had an extensive contracting
business throughout the area, and was well known to all in the farming
community, did all the tractor work. Jimmy, like most of his generation,
was brought up on horses but had purchased a tractor when he saw the
manner in which farming was developing. Nevertheless he still had horses
in his blood and it was not unusual to see Jimmy ploughing a field and
then as he neared the ditch with the tractor one could him hear him
shouting "Whoa, Whoa", as he made the turn. Old habits die-hard. Jimmy
got through a power of work in the country and the fact that he was
always in demand was a reflection of his ability to get the job clone
and the quality of his work.
I remember the first tractor that was bought for the
farm � a TVO Massey Ferguson from Howard Abrahams. I understand it was
one of only five ever brought into Northern Ireland. Before the tractor
was purchased, Billy and I had a long debate about whether we should buy
TVO or diesel. Jimmy Bingham had a three-cylinder diesel but it was a
beast to start, even though when it started it would run all day without
trouble. In the end it was decided that diesels were a bit risky in that
they had only recently come on the market� better to avoid them and
stick to something tried and tested. You can never be too careful with
cutting edge technology!
The TVO tractors were started on petrol and then
switched to TVO when they had warmed up � hence there were 2 tanks on
the tractor, a small one for petrol and one approximately four times the
size for TVO. At that time, Johnny Palmer, a cousin of Billy
McCoy, stocked petrol and TVO at his small filling station and wooden
shop at Spruce field. He knew Billy was getting the tractor and was
eager to see it � I was tickled to be driving this brand new tractor and
was equally keen to show it off. As a result, I went round to Johnny's
to get the tractor tanked up with fuel. I remember it clearly, as if it
were yesterday. Johnny came out to see the tractor and said "Start her
up till I hear her going". The engine was ticking over so sweetly that I
had to tell Johnny that she was already going. He just couldn't
believe a tractor could run so quietly, and held his ear over to the
tractor before admitting that she was indeed going.
For several years we grew seed potatoes for export to
Cyprus � British Queens. This was a very difficult operation in that the
Ministry men constantly checked them as they were growing and were very
particular in the selection of the crop that would meet export
requirements. Luckily Robbie Welch, who worked for Stewarts the potato
exporters at that time, lived locally and he came and helped us to pick
those seed that would meet export criteria. The Ministry man then
checked the selected seed before it left the farm for export by boat to
Cyprus. Even then the checking was not finished � at Belfast port
another Ministry man would spot sample different bags of seed potatoes,
which could lead to the rejection of the entire load. To the best of my
memory ours were never rejected.
Most of the produce that we grew either went to
merchants, nurserymen or shopkeepers directly. Order for merchants were
put up on Mondays and Tuesdays. for the two big days in May's
Market, Belfast � Tuesday and Friday. We had two merchants for whom we
put up vegetables on a regular basis � Sammy Millar and Jimmy Hamilton,
also known as the one armed bandit. While it is true that Jimmy only had
one arm, some said that there was more than a grain of truth in the
nickname by which he was known.
In the early days of my period of work with Billy the
vegetables were loaded onto a wheelbarrow, specially adapted to carry
large loads, and then transported to the Blaris Road with one person
pushing the wheelbarrow and another pulling it with a rope attached to
the front wheel. The merchants then loaded their lorries, ready to go
off to market early on Tuesday and Friday mornings.
The main shopkeeper who bought off us was Tommy
Alexander, a character in his own right. His shop was part of what is
now known as `Greens' in Lisburn. Tommy also grew
tomatoes extensively after the war, in greenhouses situated just off
Harry's Road near to Hewitt's big red brick house.
Rationing was still in existence at that time and Tommy made a
substantial income from selling his tomatoes in the market.
Unfortunately Tommy Alexander has been dead for some years now, but his
nephew Quintus is still alive and indeed grew lettuce in the greenhouses
in the seventies.
Tommy McQuaid was the main nurseryman who purchased
from us. Each year Billy would sow half an acre of pansies that would be
sold to Tommy who paid for them as he drew off them. Tommy had a nursery
near Hillsborough � just under the AI Dual Carriageway Bridge on the
Culcavey Road as you head for Hillsborough, on the right hand side.
Tommy's nursery had many greenhouses, some of which
had a central heating system operating on coke. The story is told of how
one day when Tommy went down to the coal quay in his lorry to collect a
load of coke one of the `smart alec' Belfast men called him over and
showed him a large lump of coal which had come on a shipment. The lump
was as large as a man and weighed approximately 4 or 5 cwt. (200 � 250
kg. to the younger generation). The 'smart alec' then told
Tommy that he would give him the coal if he could lift it onto the
lorry. Tommy said, "Thanks very much", proceeded round to the front of
the lorry, opened the cab door, took out the hammer that he always
carried and broke up the large lump of coal in full view of the Belfast
'smart alec' and shovelled it onto the lorry. Needless to say, the
`smart alec' had a higher opinion of Tommy McQuaid the next
time he met him. I also understand that it was Tommy McQuaid who taught
Johnny Palmer how to drive (when he purchased his new Ford Prefect) � no
provisional driving licence required then, and indeed no driving test
Even after he retired Tommy McQuaid was still a
regular visitor to Billy McCoy's and every year when the cauliflower
seedlings were pricked out Tommy was one of the people who could be
entrusted to perform this very important operation in Billy McCoy's
During the year we tended to work from daylight to
dark which meant long hours in spring, summer and autumn, short working
days in the winter The bulk of the vegetables matured from late May
onwards and to enable the assembly of orders from customers Billy had to
take on 'seasonal' workers. These were mainly the youth of Coronation
Gardens who were looking pocket money to .fund their weekend
leisure activities and to contribute to the weekly household budget.
Indeed it was not unknown for parents to arrive in Billy's yard with one
or more of their offspring saying to Billy, "Can you give
these boys something to do?" Coburn, Crossey, Kennedy, Mallon, McQuillan,
Patton, Stewart and Welch are a few of the surnames who received a
rudimentary education on work with vegetables during my period at Billy
McCoy's. It was undoubtedly hard work but there were also some lighter
moments that I can recall.
Even though horticulture is labour intensive and
essentially dirty work due to contact with the land, Billy was not
averse to employing females on the farn. One particular notable incident
involved instruction a certain lady in the intricacies of weeding
beetroot. It was carefully explained to her that all the plants with the
red stalks were to be left in the drill and all other vegetation
uprooted. Later that day it was discovered that the weeding instructions
had been misinterpreted to the extent that al/ the beetroot plants had
been carefully extracted from the drills leaving the weeds to grow on
healthily. It would be inappropriate for me to divulge the name of this
lady as she still lives in the locality and may not appreciate this
incident being put in the public domain.
During my early years with Billy McCoy it was usual
for me to be "farmed out" to Jimmy Bingham for one or two weeks each
year to work on the thresher. This was very demanding work and one
really needed to be it to keep up with the pace. Indeed time passed so
quickly on the thresher that no sooner was the tea break over than it
was dinner time and then it was afternoon tea break and then time to go
home � very tired and very sweaty but well fed. I still have fond
memories of Mrs. Bingham (long since dead) and Jimmy who is one of the
real characters of this area.
During the wintertime at Billy's I got to
go home early and my family would see much more of me than at any other
time of the year. However in November we would start to prepare the
bases for the holly wreaths � a popular sales item at Christmas, most of
which went to either Tommy Alexander or Tommy McQuaid, who delivered to
a large number of shops. In late November and early December we would go
out into the Dromara hills and cut down holly, which we tied up into
large bundles. Another lifetime friend of Billy McCoy's,
Charlie Sterling, would then drive up to Dromara in his car and bring
the holly home for us.
Anyone who knew Billy McCoy realised he loved
fishing, and it was he who kindled my interest in fishing when I saw him
drop a fly loaded line into the water on the Lagan next to a willow tree
and pull out a large trout. This impressed me by now simple it seemed
and I was hooked! I still remember that not long after I was married and
returned home from our honeymoon I took 30 shillings (�1.50 to you) and
went out and bought my first fishing rod.
Billy and Headley Beattie (now Niall Elmore's house
on the Halftown Road) regularly fished the Lagan but on a very
competitive basis. Billy was the fly fisherman and Headley favoured the
worm the race was then to see who could land the most fish before they
went home for the night. In those days the Lagan was a much cleaner
river and had plentiful supplies of trout (2-3 lb.) and even pike.
Billy McCoy was one of life's quiet men,
yet someone who had a profound effect on all those who knew him on a
personal basis or worked for him. Although .from farming
stock he had worked in the building trade for a large part of his early
life. It is a little known fact that he was the foreman on the site when
Coronation Gardens was built. So he not only employed many of the
inhabitants of Coronation Gardens but he was also responsible .for
the construction of the homes in which they lived. Quite a remarkable
2. In the late fifties and early sixties most
families were always short of money with the result that children were
often sent out to get work of any kind.
I got a job at the age of 13 with a local farmer
called Kennedy Hunter who farmed about 50 acres off the Halftown Road in
the Maze area. It wasn't large in comparison to modern farms, but when
most of the work was done by hand it was large enough. Kennedy grew
vegetables for the local markets. He also grew a field of potatoes and a
field of corn "to rest the land", as he often said. The potatoes were
dug in September/October and stored in a frost-free shed and picked in
the depths of winter when it was too cold to work outside. The binder
harvested the corn and the straw went to a local farmer who exchanged it
for manure, which was then carted away.
In winter when it was too cold and frosty to do any
crop work in the fields, I cut hedges and faced ditches � facing ditches
means taking a hand hook and a forked stick and cutting all the grass
and brambles from the ditches. This was done all round the perimeter of
the farm � a .fair distance on a holding of 50 acres. Then a
long tail shovel was used to clean all the drains and waterways round
the farm, making for better drainage of the land � imperative in
Northern Ireland's damp climate.
Kennedy Hunter's main source of income was vegetables
and the seeds were sown in later winter and early spring. Initially they
were sown under glass in seed beds and when large enough were
transplanted, by hand, into drills - acre after backbreaking acre of
them. But before this could be done the ground was ploughed and manured
by hand because, like the rest of the people, Kennedy Hunter could not
afford machinery to do the work. The cabbages and cauliflowers were
hand-weeded and lovingly tended until ripe, then only the best were cut
and bagged, for the market.
Billy Anderson from Saintfield was the haulier who
bought from farmers to sell on in the Belfast fruit markets � something
he did all through the summer months. Once a field was cleared it was
ploughed and replanted. "Idle ground does not make money" was one of
Kennedy Hunter's maxims.
Late summer, early autumn brought the corn and barley
harvest and Wallace Rooney from the Waterloo Road would arrive with a
threshing mill, bailer and a squad of local men who usually ,followed
from farm to .farm.
Thornton's farm on the Blaris Road usually provided
two or three weeks of threshing work. Thornton's workers then followed
across to Jimmy Bingham's farm down the canal banks where the MI is now.
Jimmy Bingham liked to get a .fill day's work out of
everybody and any one slacking got an ear bashing! But to be fair both
the aforementioned farmers fed the workers very well. It was a long day's
work but you never left their tables hungry.
Mid summer was the time when the potatoes needed
spraying against the "blight" � a long feared
disease given the history of the country. This was done with a knapsack
sprayer carried on your back, each drill painstakingly sprayed with
Bluestone. All this was done in the early 60s when I was 13 years old.
It meant a 4 o'clock start before I went to school. Once
school ended for the day I was off down the lane to work until maybe 7
or 8 o'clock, and on Saturday from 8 o'clock until dark.
Summer was a busy time and, naturally, I worked all the school holidays.
Putting a couple of pounds on the table on a Saturday night helped out
and it felt good to be just like a grown up.
Times change, and not always for the better. Farms
have all machinery known to man and you would need a degree to work it,
but still farmers never seem to have enough daylight or days in the week
to get their work done.
3. During school holidays, when I was aged and 10
and 11, children in the local area were given the opportunity to earn
extra pocket money by working .for Billy McCoy doing various
jobs on the land. Work normally began between 8.30 and 9.00 am, when you
went to Billy's house to get your job for the day. From here,
you were taken by tractor to Kennedy Hunter's to work in the fields. My
main job was to weed carrots in preparation for pulling. Thomas Palmer
now owns Kennedy Hunter's land.
There was always a mix of boys and girls to do the
jobs. Most days two or three people were required. We worked about 3
days per week, from 8.30 a.m. � 6.00 p.m., depending on what work was
available and what work had been done. Throughout the clay fresh water
was got from the well that was located behind Kennedy's
Not only did I work on Kennedy Hunter's land for
Billy McCoy, but I also went there to buy fresh vegetables for my Mum. A
small shed, located where Thomas's house is situated now, was used for
selling vegetables. I particularly remember Halloween time when you went
down to the shed to get turnips to make lanterns.
4. Many, many years ago my mate and I worked on Jimmy
Bingham's farm along the banks of the Lagan Canal. We gathered potatoes,
snedded turnips and were just generally involved in farm work. We used
to work in a squad, gathering potatoes, mostly on Saturdays. On the
night before harvesting my mate and I would go down to Bingham's and
check the field that we were going to be gathering potatoes in the next
day. Some of the fields went at an angle, so we would usually pick the
longest peg to start in the morning. We would be working very hard all
morning, but in the afternoon, as you will understand, we had it very
easy as the shape of the field made our peg very short. We also took
large potatoes, "chippers" as they were called, into `Ginessies' chip
shop in Lisburn and they treated us to a fish supper after the potatoes
were carried in. Mrs. Bingham was in charge of paying the workers every
Saturday evening, and she would pay my mate and myself a ten shilling
note each (50p in today's money) and then slip us an extra half crown
(12.5p). We were always told not to let Jimmy know about the half a
crown, so we never did. If he reads this book he'll know
about it now, but my mate and I can't remember how many extra
half crowns we got. Even though Mrs. Bingham died some time ago we still
remember the extra she paid us and the way we were, fed when
we were working at Bingham's all those years ago.
5. I remember going to work on Jimmy Bingham's farm
on Saturdays and week nights after school. Mrs. Bingham would have
lifted us at school every day and we gathered potatoes and sorted them
into 56/b bags. In the summertime we cut hay and barley straw. One time
I remember in a small field in front of the farm there was a large mound
of earth and we kept asking Jimmy what it was. All he said was that it
was a `Bing'. When March came we found out that it was a
large pile of spuds covered with straw and soil, and a track dug round
it to drain water away. The potatoes were stored like this years ago,
and were much firmer than if stored in a shed. Jimmy also kept a few
cattle and grew turnips to feed them. The worst work was gathering the
turnips when there was snow on the ground. I remember going to gather
potatoes and the plough on the harvester couldn't break up
the ground as it was rock hard with. frost.
Jimmy always wore a shirt and tie, even in the
summer; and we used to ask him why he always wore the tie. He always
answered "because it shows I'm the gaffer". It was
hard work on Bingham's farm, but I wish I could turn back the clock as
I'm sure I would enjoy it now.