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No steam without fire on progressive Essex farm Harvest at Ford End, Essex, is completed much more quickly than 100 years ago and although more than nine combine harvesters have been owned by the Freeman family since the 1950s; their predecessors, a pair of traction engines with their original threshing sets will remain on the farm long after the current state-of-the-art harvester has gone. David Williams reports. L Bartrupt & Son farms approximately 290ha at Ford End near Chelmsford, Essex. Cropping is all arable, including wheat, beans and some potatoes and additional activities include local contracting. Hill Farm has been owned since early 1940, but the family’s connections with the land there go back to the late 1800s when current owner Barry Freeman’s greatgrandfather was head horseman, with additional responsibility for the farm’s portable steam engine and threshing drum. In 1895 he bought his own Ransomes portable steam engine, a Clayton & Shuttleworth drum and a locally manufactured Jackson’s straw elevator and set up a threshing round for local farmers. The portable was moved between farms by his customers. The round grew, and in 1898 an additional self-propelled steam engine and drum were bought and a second threshing round started, operating further from the base.

Successful operation

charge for the baler and bale wire. If the farmer didn’t want straw baled it was transferred by elevator to a heap. The agreement was always that customers supplied coal and water, filling the tender before the threshing team left. Consumption was approximately 4cwt of coal per day when driving the threshing drum and baler; known as double work. Most threshing machinery and parts were purchased through George Thurlow & Sons at Stowmarket, one of the country’s leading steam and threshing machinery specialists which had been trading since 1875, eventually becoming Thurlow Nunn Standen which now represents Agco and other leading machinery brands, from six branches across Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. “We owned 14 engines, mostly Burrells, from 1898 until the diesel revolution,” explained Barry. “But we moved with the times and, by 1949, had invested in a Field Marshall for threshing, bought from Chelmsfordbased main dealer James Barr which also sold Claas combines. From the late 1940s combine harvesters started appearing on the most progressive farms while a small number continued threshing until it died out commercially in the 1960s. “We bought our first combine in the 1950s. It was a Massey Harris 726 with an Austin petrol engine, which frequently caught fire. A more advanced Massey Harris 780 was purchased later, followed by a Massey Ferguson 500 model,” he added.

By 1940 the Bartrupts operated six threshing sets; three belonging to Len Bartrupt who also purchased Hill Farm, and three to his two brothers. Len’s threshing activities provided access to a reliable supply of straw and a successful business began supplying hay and straw for horses across Essex and into London, also trading horse manure sold to hop and fruit growers in Kent. Contracting was charged as piece work and, in Essex, billed by the ‘quarter’ which was two large sacks of wheat, equivalent to approximately quarter of a tonne. There was an extra

Steam went overnight

Between 1949 and the mid-1960s the farm’s three Burrell engines were kept under deteriorating tarpaulin sheets against a hedge. The first engine to enter preservation was George which is currently in Ireland, but Barry said he would love to buy it back if the opportunity ever arises.

The quick changeover from steam power took everyone by surprise. “In 1948 steam was used everywhere but by 1949 most farms used diesel power and even combine harvesters,” explained Barry. “Our three Burrell traction engines were stood in a line against a hedge, sheeted up and left. In 1948 they were worth one pound per tonne for scrap but my father felt they had served the family well and preferred to let them remain on the farm. “Field Marshalls were more convenient and almost totally reliable, but struggled on hills where traction

Jessie, driven by Barry and steered by Jeremy, tows the Marshall threshing drum and Clayton & Shuttleworth elevator at Hill Farm.

engines had no problems,” he said. “Steam engines needed an hour to get up steam before work each day, but required little extra maintenance apart from frequent lubrication. A larger job was the boiler tubes but these were replaced only every eight years by farm staff, and it took just a few days.”

Preservation During 15 years’ non-use the engines’ protective tarpaulin sheets rotted letting the weather in and their condition deteriorated. In the early 1960s the steam preservation movement started and one semiderelict engine was sold and restored by its new owner. “We heard it was attending a rally near Haverhill in the mid-1960s,” said Barry. “We went along and were so impressed we planned to return for a second day, but my grandfather suggested we spend the time with our remaining two engines instead, and return them to working order. We did both up in 1965–66 and have rallied them every year since.” Burrell 7nhp compound ‘Jessie’, carries serial number 3923 and was displayed new at the 1922 Royal Show in Cambridge. It was bought by a customer through the ‘Burrell Hiring Scheme’, but he couldn’t keep up the payments and it was returned to the manufacturer. In 1926 Barry’s greatgrandfather visited the Burrell Works to negotiate the purchase of a new engine, but was offered the returned machine in almost new condition for

half-price. “It was £600,” said Barry, “and they drove it back to Ford End from Huntingdon and it has been here ever since.” ‘Rosemarie’ is also a 7nhp engine, but a single cylinder model, and carries serial number 4088. It was bought new in 1930 by a Norfolk threshing contractor who gave up his operation a few years after and the Bartrupts purchased it at his dispersal sale.

Loyalty to brand By the early 1970s John Deere machinery had caught the eye of the family, and was considered ideal for the progressive farm. “We bought it through our local main dealer Blyth & Pawsey, later taken over by P Tuckwell & Son,” explained Barry. “The service was excellent and the machines were reliable and performed well so we remained with the brand. With the local depot just four miles away, we are looked after as well as ever now by Olwyn Poulson and Malcolm Rogers at the Dunmow branch.” The current fleet includes a John Deere T670 combine; the largest straw-walker model, equipped with a 25ft header, and four John Deere tractors including a 7530, 6900, 6800 and a 2130. The combine is the seventh John Deere operated by the family and Barry said it would take a lot to persuade him to change brands. “This is the best we have had by a long way,” continued over...

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