Prize day out for gentle workhorses

A bucolic Borstal of the 1940s is recalled by Anne Martin, who writes from Auckland, New Zealand. He grandfather was steward at Factory Farm, now in the shadow of the two mighty Medway Bridges and the rail viaduct. She writes:

Every year the pair of grey horses would be groomed carefully, their tails and manes would be plaited with red and blue ribbons and, decorated with highly polished brasses, they would go off to the show.

They would come home festooned with the rosettes they had won. Two years running they brought home the silver challenge cup (I wonder if that same cup is being competed for?) Their arch-rivals were the magnificent brown dray horses used by the Fremlins brewery.

The horses taking part then were everyday working horses employed and cared for by my grandfather Jesse Norris, who was steward at Factory Farm, which was owned by Mr Jack Beslee of Gravesend. Mr Beslee often visited with his small son, Theo.

The gentle horses in the care of Anne’s grandather Jesse Norris

These huge, gentle animals (percherons, I think) willingly and without fuss pulled ploughs and carts. They would be taken from their stables early every morning, watered and harnessed and hitched up ready for the day’s work.

Occasionally their homecoming, when their work was finished, coincided with school closing time and I would be given a ride home on Blossom or Boxer, my legs splayed splits-like over the broad back. The horses never moved at anything faster than a slow amble.

At the end of the day the horses would be brushed down, then taken to the water trough before being bedded down in their stable stalls with a manger of hay for the night. Their manure and stable sweepings were piled in a three-sided concrete area next to the stables, and when it had been allowed to “mature” it would be spread with a pitchfork from a cart pulled by one of the horses, as a fertiliser over the fields.

When the horses needed new shoes they would be walked down to Rochester High Street to the forge, a grimly exciting place full of fiery glows and sparks, strange smells and sounds.

Jesse Norris at Southill Barracks, Chatham

It is good to know that the ploughing matches till continue but rural life must have changed a great deal from my grandfather’s time. He would be astonished to see the Medway bridges carrying their thundering load of traffic over the fields he used to plough. Life was so calm and summers, of course, lasted forever.

Just an afterthought. I enclose another photograph showing grandfather’s previous occupation before he took to pushing ploughs. The picture was taken at Southill Barracks, Chatham, sometime after he came back from the Boer War. Note the cat riding on the wagon!

I was curious about why my grandfather was at Southill Barracks. I knew that he had stayed on in South Africa after the Boer War in the Cape Mounted Police, patrolling the Kalahari Desert on a camel (but that’s another story.)

So I emailed my Uncle George who said: “The photo was taken in 1915 or 1916 and he was Transport Sergeant stationed at those barracks for the Great War. One of his duties was to ferry the wounded from Chatham Railway Station to the various hospitals, a grim task, I should think, at times.”

Both are wonderful pictures, Anne. Thank you I recall wandering around that area many times in the early 1960s. Many tracks led across the fields and at one of the crossroads, I was shown a huge boulder, which, it was said, marked the grave of a faithful heavy horse that died during its labours. I always presumed it was a myth. But now I wonder …

Rochester & Strood
Medway villages
Medway at war
Crimes that Shocked the Medway Towns

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