Archive footage telling the history of modern Britain. A look back to the 1930s when mechanisation started to change the face of the countryside.
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Just over a century ago, the motion camera was invented
and changed forever the way we recall our history.
For the first time, we could see life
through the eyes of ordinary people.
Across this series,
we'll bring these rare archive films back to life,
with the help of our vintage mobile cinema.
We'll be inviting people with a story to tell to step on board
and relive moments they thought were gone forever.
They'll see relatives on screen for the first time,
come face to face with their younger selves,
and celebrate our amazing 20th-century past.
This is the people's story, our story.
Our vintage mobile cinema was originally commissioned in 1967,
to show training films to workers.
Today, it's been lovingly restored and loaded up with remarkable film footage,
preserved for us by the British Film Institute
and other national and regional film archives.
In this series,
we'll be travelling to towns and cities across the country
and showing films from the 20th century
that give us the Reel History Of Britain.
Today, we're pulling up in rural Britain in the 1930s...
..to remember a time before mechanisation,
when only man and horse power worked the land.
We're here at Sandling, at the museum of Kent Life,
jam-packed with visitors,
and we have our mobile cinema
and we'll be showing films from the 1930s
when farming in this country changed completely.
Coming up -
a farm labourer's accommodation in the 1930s...
It was one big happy family.
..Jonathan Dimbleby on what mechanisation meant
for rural life...
Suddenly, people realised that you could get rid of people
and replace them, largely, with machines.
..and fond memories of hop-picking.
My grandmother was born in 1892
and she went hop-picking,
and her parents before did.
We've come to the Museum of Kent Life
at Sandling near Maidstone,
to explore the rich farming heritage
of the garden of England.
This is still a working farm,
growing and harvesting hops
using traditional techniques.
Rural Britain in the 1930s looked like this...
But major change was afoot.
Men and women all over Great Britain
who'd worked the land for centuries, with the help of horses,
were up against the march of mechanisation.
As their labour was slowly replaced by the tractor...
..the combine harvester,
and the milking machine.
We'll be hearing how this agricultural revolution
changed the lives of all those involved.
'My guests today have come from all over the country,
'with memories of rural life in the 1930s.
'Many of them will be seeing the films we are about to screen
'for the first time,
'showing us photos of their family history, and sharing their stories with us.'
'Gerry Smith from Sevenoaks is now 86,
'one of the few remaining men with first-hand memories
'of rural life in the 1930s.'
'He became a horseman, like his father,
'in the days before labour-saving machinery arrived.'
Now, when did you start working?
I worked when I left school at 12.
-Yep, and went to work on the farm.
It was a wonderful life, really,
cos everything was done by hand.
And then, of course, tractors came in.
What did you think when the tractors came in then?
I didn't think much of them. No.
Did you think they weren't going to replace the horses?
Yes, I did.
The horses would stay and see them off?
Yes, but they didn't. No.
So what did you do, did you start to drive a tractor?
I had to, in the end, yeah. Yeah, that's right.
-Were you sad to leave the horses?
Oh, it was a terrible day when they went.
Yeah, we loved them.
Gerry's about to be taken back to a time in his life
that he thought was gone forever.
The films will evoke for him
memories of the days when everything was done by manual labour.
It was all hard work,
because everything was done by hand.
There was no machinery of any description,
no tractors and no lights.
We had oil lamps to see.
We used to line up,
about 20 people on a farm.
But change was inescapable,
for Gerry and for thousands of others like him.
During the '30s, the number of tractors more than tripled
and over 100,000 horses faced a tragic fate.
They got too slow.
Didn't do enough in a day.
Some were put out to pasture - the younger ones -
and the older ones were shot.
Very, very sad.
Farm labourers faced an uncertain future too.
At the start of the '30s,
over a million people worked the land.
By the end of the decade, 10% had left farming
and Gerry was one of them.
When they got rid of my horses
for a tractor,
I decided to try a job in the factory.
But Gerry hated city life
and returned to the land.
I still wanted to go back on the farm.
I couldn't keep away.
No money, but you didn't go to work for the money, did you?
You went to work because you loved it.
You go on the farm today, there's nobody.
Just one man or two men, that's all.
Gerry mourns the passing of the days
when man and horse worked the land together.
Brought back lots of memories.
It was hard work, but it was grand.
You loved it. I did anyway.
I wouldn't have wanted anything else.
Through my life, you know,
I've had a wonderful life.
And if I die tomorrow, I've had a wonderful time.
'Gerry loved his horses,
'but others didn't share his sentiment
'and it wasn't long before tractors were embraced
'by forward-thinking farmers right across the country.'
'Two brothers from Kent have come along to tell us about their father,
'one of the first in the country
'to embrace the new farming technology of the 1930s.
'83-year-old Wilf, and 80-year-old Frank Harris,
'are from a long line of farmers,
'who grew up on the family estate,
'Broadditch Farm in Southfleet in Kent.'
'They can trace their farming heritage back to 1848,
'when their great-great-grandfather, William Harris, worked the land.'
I understand your family have been farming for five generations?
Well, John, Wilf's son,
is sixth generation, we're fifth generation.
Did you get the first combine harvester in your area?
Yeah, the first combine harvester in our village, yes.
And did you think the combine harvester...
Did you think it had a future, or...?
Yes, a lot of our neighbours looked on it quite cautiously.
But we proved that we were right at the end of the day!
We were progressive,
our education had been to produce more,
to feed the world.
I know the attitudes have changed rather dramatically now,
but that was what we were educated to do,
to produce more all the time.
We had a carrot hung in front of us,
where they wanted us to go, you know?
The brothers are about to come face to face
with a way of life that no longer exists.
What memories will they have of it?
I did enjoy the film
and, you know, it gives people an insight
into just how difficult it was, everything being done by hand.
You saw them stacking the wheat.
Well, I built the last,
or pretty well the last wheat stack on our farm.
And it's just nice to see that sort of thing, you know,
because the combines came in then and it all stopped.
It was quite moving, I felt emotional once or twice.
Watching the film reminds Wilf of the day that he realised
mechanisation was going to win out over people power.
We've employed a gang of women, of English women,
all our lives, farming,
and they picked the potatoes up by hand.
They would pick up three or four tonnes a day.
Tough, tough ladies, I'll tell you.
We were three parts through our harvest that year
and our neighbour had bought a new potato harvester.
And he said, "I'm finished, I could help you out if you like."
And we finished the last six acres of potatoes in that morning,
and the women, they weren't displeased,
they said it was wonderful!
Wilf and Frank are watching a rare film called This Was England,
made by one of the first female directors in the country - Mary Field.
It was produced in 1935,
to show disappearing farm skills to children.
You see the land was ploughed in ridges
and then it was hand-sown
and then harrowed so it buried the thing.
But to get the grain on the land at the right volume was the secret.
I've been a farming hand for 40 years
and I can sow seeds against anyone
and I can sow ten acres of land with ten pints of seed.
The seed-sower in this rare film, William Aldred,
passed away a year after the film was made.
And with men like him
went the knowledge of traditional farming techniques.
And if you watch that piece of film, he's doing it left-right,
but he's only taking a very small handful left and right
and to get it the right consistency
was an absolute art, really.
And in this fight,
we Suffolk people have learned
to keep on using anything that's old and good
and to try anything that's new
and may be of use to us.
Wilf and Frank's family
were part of a small minority of progressive farmers
who embraced the new technology
and they never looked back.
It was jolly hard work and when machinery made it easier,
I think everybody was jolly pleased.
You know, everything was done by hand.
So the mechanisation, really, was a great improvement -
it certainly was to us, anyway.
In the 1930s,
the traditional, even immemorial ways and scenes
of the British countryside, began to change rapidly.
There are two ways of looking at it.
One is that it was the end of an idyll.
The other, that mechanisation released energies
and changed things for the better.
'I'm meeting up with the broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby,
'vice president of the Council For The Protection Of Rural England,
'who for many years ran his own organic farm.
'I want to find out
'what effect the arrival of machinery had
'on rural Britain in the 1930s.'
So, we're talking about the mechanisation of the land.
Can you give us some idea of what the land farming was like
in the early 1930s?
The machines started to come in in the early '30s.
They didn't take over fantastically fast to start with
because they were very expensive and farmers were very suspicious.
You know, "What do we want machines on our farms for?"
What did this mechanisation bring? Was it utterly transforming?
It meant... The effect of mechanisation
meant that the farmer who made the investment
could produce the same output,
the same goods, for lower cost.
That combination meant that those who invested in mechanisation
began to take off in relation to those who didn't.
So it was a no-brainer in economic terms.
The implications of it, though, were enormous.
Do you think it did have a damaging effect?
I have an open mind about it. Things were clearly lost.
It's very easy to have a rather glossy image,
that somehow there was something romantic and wonderful.
Actually, the work was dirty and hard and often dangerous.
It was a back-breaking life, though.
It was not easy and the wages were very, very poor if you were a worker.
I bet no-one who worked under those circumstances,
if offered today the choice of working in the '30s on a farm
or working in the 21st century,
would ever want to work as they did 70, 80 years ago.
We've come to the Museum of Kent Life
to celebrate the traditional farming methods of the past.
This museum is still a working hop farm that uses manpower to grow,
pick and store hops, still used in the making of beer.
John Reeves Vane worked on a hop farm.
Now he and his team show visitors to the museum how hops are grown.
To me, it seems like a lost world.
OK, what's going to go on here then, John?
Right, Tim will go up the ladder and he'll push the stilts apart.
And he'll stand up there and he'll strap himself in round his waist
and then he puts his feet on the blocks there.
Dave will go up and strap his feet in.
And then he pulls himself up to the wire.
He'll have the string hanging from his side
which he ties on this wire at the top
to come down to the screw peg in the ground.
Hops were once Kent's most famous crop
and they've been grown here since the 16th century.
In 1932, the county had 16,000 acres of hop gardens.
They grow up to 20 ft tall, and are harvested every September
by tugging the hops down from the bines
in order to collect the all-important hop flower.
It's built this way so that when the sun comes up, it shines on the hops.
And then when they're ready, we pick 'em,
and take 'em down to the oast and dry them.
-Just all of 25 yards.
-That's it, yeah! Yes.
Today, hops are mostly picked by machines.
But in the '30s, they needed armies of seasonal workers to do the job.
We're going to reveal who some of those workers were.
Every September, about 100,000 Londoners
swapped their hard life in the smog-filled city
for a few blissful weeks of fresh air and hop-picking.
89-year-old Mary Ripper from Bermondsey was one of them.
Bermondsey Council encouraged local residents to leave town
and go hop-picking for the good of their health.
Children looked forward to it, didn't they?
When it came to September, everybody would say,
"Have you got your hopping letter yet?"
-Did you enjoy it?
-Oh, yes, definitely.
Mary's about to see a rare film
made to promote the benefits of a working holiday.
This is Oppin',
an early health-education film made by Bermondsey Council in 1930.
What memories will it bring back of the annual pilgrimage
that Mary and thousands like her used to make?
Mary had a hard life in the London slums
and her first trip to Kent was as a young girl of 16.
Well, there used to be...
I think, the London Bridge station, the platform,
was crowded with people,
the hop-pickers going down to the hop fields.
The first time I ever went there was in 1938, actually,
the year I met my husband.
He said he was going down to his mother, hop-picking.
And I said, "OK."
He said, "Come down for the weekend," you know. "All right."
So I put me best coat on and me best hat on.
And I'd never been to hop-picking
so I felt, you know, a bit dressed-up for this.
I thought it was good, great.
I had it harder, put it that way, when we lived -
we came from Bermondsey, right - and Bermondsey had some slums
so therefore it was not too bad, really, hop-picking.
But it was just such a lovely place. It really was. Everybody loved it.
It must have been a remarkable sight -
thousands of Londoners arriving
in the midst of this rural idyll in Kent.
Here, at this museum in Kent,
they've preserved the huts many of them stayed in
and my guide, John Reeves Vane, is showing me how they lived.
And these are supposed
to be much better than previous, weren't they?
Well, some of these had a fire inside.
They would bring some of their stuff down
and leave it in here all year
because when they came down the next year they had the same hut.
They used to come down with tea chests full of pots and pans
and then when they got here, they'd take their pots and pans out,
and turn the tea chest up the other way - a table!
Did they complain much about the size of the accommodation?
No, it was like one big happy family.
It was hard times but it was great
cos people had more time to talk and socialise.
You know, nobody was in a rush.
Only when you've got to get out there and earn some money,
then you've got to go like mad to pick the hops.
The East End hop-pickers didn't earn much
and the accommodation was basic,
but whole families would come back year after year.
For many, it was the only holiday they had.
She was born in 1892 and came hop picking and her parents did before.
'Joyce Dutton from the Isle of Sheppey
'is one of four generations of hop-pickers.'
Here she is as a baby.
Her fond memories of hop-picking stretch back all her life.
My uncle had a transport business and we came on the back of a lorry.
Can you imagine health and safety nowadays?
All the children sitting on the tailboard of a lorry?
My husband's aunt, many years ago,
she couldn't afford to come down by train or coach,
so she walked. It took her three days.
She'd sleep in the hedgerow and carry on walking.
She walked there because she loved hopping so much.
It was in your family, wasn't it? They went way back.
They were hop-picking as far back as you can trace.
My grandmother was born in 1892 and she went hop-picking,
and her parents before did. So that's going back many years.
We're going to show Joyce footage
of hop-picking families just like hers,
preserved by the East Anglian Film Archive.
Will the films bring back her own childhood memories
of holidays in Kent?
It was the only holiday that you had.
You couldn't afford a holiday then, especially during the war years
and it gave them a chance to come down,
be with all their families, their brothers and sisters
and to earn, as they said, a bob or two.
My mum used to earn the money and buy us our winter clothes
and put a bit by for Christmas.
Yeah, it is nice to remember.
Seeing the film that we saw today, there's things there that,
you think... And hop fields, when they're fully grown,
the hop gardens, they're a beautiful sight.
The film reminds Joyce of the living conditions for families like hers
on the hop farms.
Oh, there must have been a thousand huts on the common,
as they called it when we were there.
All rows and rows of them.
They were corrugated tin huts, with wooden beams and concrete floors
and there'd be a wooden bed there.
There could be a family of six in each one.
Some people, you know, might have six children
and them and the children used the one hut.
Joyce remembers how her mother tried to make their hut a home from home.
When they got down to the huts that we had year after year,
my mother would paint everything, and she'd put up curtains and sheets
and make it very comfortable for us.
Hop-pickers were paid according to how many bushel baskets they picked.
Many farms used a token system to pay for food
and sometimes workers went home almost empty-handed.
It was hard labour and even the kids joined in.
You'd fill your bushel baskets
and they'd all be taken to the end of the alleyway that you worked in
and then the tallyman used to call out for all full 'uns.
That meant you had to have six bushel to go in the big basket
and my mother would tip 'em in, and, oh, your life wasn't worth it
if you went near that basket and knocked it,
because it made the hops sink and she'd have to put more in.
Communal activities were a feature of hop-picking life.
Cooking, eating and working were all done together,
a way of life that Joyce fondly remembers.
Well, it was a good atmosphere,
because they would then sit outside round the fires.
We'd be cooking apples and potatoes in the fire
and they'd all be sitting there and then someone would start singing,
"Now that hoppin's over and all the money's spent,
"I wish I'd never gone hopping down in Kent."
There were 650 hop gardens in the '30s. Now only 60 remain.
Today has given me a glimpse of our rural past
before mechanisation took hold,
forcing farm workers to adapt to change
or face looking for work in the city.
We should never forget how the farmers
and farm labourers of the past
once toiled to sow, grow and reap the crops.
Almost entirely by hand, they fed the nation.
So whatever the hardships that people suffered in the 1930s,
from foul conditions, from poor pay,
what comes through is the affection they had
for those ancient ways of farming and living, even now.
And because of what they tell us, we have those memories too.
And they are becoming part of our archive.
Next time on Reel History, we're going back to school in Watford...
..to remember secondary moderns in the '60s.
When I look at that pimply, untidy child,
I'm thinking to myself, "What am I doing here?
"I could be outside playing rather than in here."
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Melvyn Bragg, accompanied by a vintage mobile cinema, travels across the country to show incredible footage preserved by the British Film Institute and other national and regional film archives, and tell the history of modern Britain.
This episode comes from the Museum of Kent Life and looks back to the 1930s. This was a time when British farming was on the brink of mechanisation, a move which would change the face of the countryside forever.
Gerry Smith paints a vivid picture of the tough but satisfying life he led as a young farmworker in the 1930s and the sadness he felt when his beloved horses were replaced by machines. Jonathan Dimbleby explains what the arrival of machines meant for the countryside, and John Reeves-Vane shows Melvyn how unmechanised rural life in Britain used to be.