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William Ruston

Bill Ruston of Newcastle under Lyme has kindly added some wartime memories of Norton. A schoolboy at the time, he came to Betton every summer to help with the harvest and lived in a chicken hut!

Wartime Farming – A Visiting Wartime Schoolboy’s Memories

I have read with interest the stories of school children, local and evacuees, in wartime Norton in Hales. There was however another group of which I was one. For several years my school, Hanley High School in Stoke-on-Trent had a month long annual harvest camp based at Norton in Hales. They were held in a field loaned by Mr. Crewe and close to the Church. The camps were organised by the French teacher, Mr. Machin, whose scouting connections possibly provided much of the equipment. He was considerably assisted by other members of the school staff. On site there was a marquee and a number of bell tents.I cannot be specific on the number of boys at each camp but in 1943 it was reported in a school magazine that there had been about 40. We cycled from our homes to Norton in Hales, and in my case returned home each weekend. The cycles were essential as daily, mainly in pairs, we cycled to farms in the surrounding area to harvest and perform other tasks returning at the end of each day.

This is the background to my story which deviates from the one described above and makes it difficult for me to remember a lot of detail about the camps.I, with another schoolboy, Tom (Gus) Shingler, were sent to work at Betton Moss Farm, the farmer being Mr. Gresty. After a few days we found a 18ft. x 9ft. chicken shed behind the farm, it was one year old and disused because of the grain shortage. We cleaned it out, made straw beds at one end, dug a latrine in the hedgerow and received permission from Mr. Gresty and Mr. Machin to live in the shed. We did this for 3 or 4 summers, never returning to the camps which continued to be run every year.

Mr. & Mrs. Gresty lived with their daughter Mary, they had lost a son as a boy seaman on board HMS Hood. They made us very welcome every time we worked there or visited later on.

Our main work was the harvesting. I remember the first field we harvested was the first past the farm, an 8 acre field that ran up to a boggy wood, Bettonmoss Wood. We made a clumsy effort at stooking the sheaves until we were joined by other workers and copied their method of handling the sheaves. So we progressed in all the work that we did and became adept at all the operations. Eventually we were left more on our own and I remember working until late when conditions were right; we would load the cart, I would pitch and Gus would stack, then back to the farm to unload into the loft.

At times of poor weather we would have scythes and cut thistles in the large acreage used for grazing the herd of 44 cows, the dairy side was looked after by the land girls who also looked after the smaller vegetable areas, harvesting too. I remember returning once to the farm for the haymaking to work with the land girls by Betton Wood, getting severely bitten by horse flies. The land girls were also based at Norton in Hales, Brand Hall I think, but we only visited it once.

One of our staple foods became rabbit which we caught, skinned and had cooked for us in as many ways as possible by Mrs. Gresty.

I had not realised until I read Mrs. D Robinson’s article that Brownhills was not just the name of the junction of the lane. I remember the first house had a prolific plum tree; Dolly, the lively young woman who lived at the railway crossing, her husband was away in the Army; further on on the left the cottage occupied by “Old Bill”, Dolly’s father who sometimes did some work for Mr. Gresty. Bill gave me a shock when sleeping alone in the shed I was woken by a prowler walking around me, shouting brought no reply until a grunt told me that Bill had turned his pig loose in the field to forage. I too remember swimming in the murky waters of the canal, stirred by passing barges. My first dive in just scraped the edge of shallow side before the deeper middle.

I visited the Gresty’s a few times at the farm and once after they had retired and moved to a house in Newcastle Road, Market Drayton, close if not adjacent to the canal. Mary I met up with during a short weekend leave from Portsmouth. She was working as a secretary and living in a young ladies accommodation close to Hyde Park. I believe that she married an army Major.

Such are some of the many memories I have of that time.

William (Bill) Ruston. Age.83.

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