We Plough the Fields and Scatter: The Tractor Ploughing Scheme of 1917

From records held at the Norfolk Record Office and newspaper archives at Norfolk Heritage Centre.

As horses and men were sent to the Front, there was an urgent need for both to be replaced at home to maintain food supplies.  Women replaced many of the men while tractors replaced many of the horses.

The records of J J Wright & Sons Ltd of East Dereham, Agricultural Engineers detail the motor ploughing scheme which came into force on 1st August 1917 (BR 399/2).

A letter from Mann, Egerton & Co. Ltd on 26th July 1917 invited J J Wright’s company to a meeting to discuss the scheme which had been developed by the government’s Food Production Department.  As contractors to the Admiralty and HM War Office, the meeting was held at Mann, Egerton’s offices on Saturday 28th July.

The County War Agricultural Executive Committee issued details of the scheme.  A machinery sub-committee was appointed which had to include no more than two from the County Agricultural Executive Committee.  The sub-committee also included a tractor representative, a steam tackle representative and a machinery officer who were appointed jointly with the Food Production Department.

The Tractor Representative was Mann, Egerton & Co Ltd.  Their role was to organize the operation of tractor units (one unit comprised eleven tractors) and plan where they were to be sent.  They also had to supply the labour, check the accounts, organise repairs and wages, deal with complaints and monitor fuel consumption.

The Machinery Officer was the link between the representatives from various districts and the machinery sub-committee and would report daily to them as well as attend all their meetings.  The local representatives from each district had various responsibilities.  They would liaise with farmers in their district and receive applications for land to be ploughed by tractors.  Then they would complete the contracts with the farmers which would then be forwarded to the District Committees.  Routes were planned from the Engineer-Mechanic’s Depot to the field or farm and from one farm to another.  Arrangements had to be made both for suitable storage of the tractor and for suitable accommodation for the drivers and ploughmen.  An adequate supply of cooling water on the fields to be ploughed also had to be arranged.

Supervisors were appointed to work on behalf of the Tractor Representative and they had a team of Engineer Mechanics to assist them.  They had to ensure that the tractors were kept in good order, that fuel consumption was monitored and that there was sufficient labour and lodgings for the work to run smoothly and continually.  Time was precious and no loss could be afforded.

Payment is detailed in the scheme.  This is shown below in part of the contract between J J Wright and the Government.  (BR 399/2).

Photo 1 payment details - Copy

Payment details in the contract between Wright and the Government dated 9th February 1918.

In the same records a letter to J J Wright from H S Weston, Tractor Representative (Norfolk), dated 13th March 1918, notes:

You have already given orders for the room near the paraffin stores to be papered, whitewashed, cleaned, and made habitable for both the supervisor and the supplies clerk. . . . . The spare parts store, and fuel store . . . this would appear to be quite satisfactory. . . . . . I was also glad to see that the telephone is always available for the use of the supervisor and the supplies clerk.

In view of the accommodation offered, it is felt that a rental of £1 per week will be fair and equitable.

I was very pleased indeed to notice the excellent way in which the Department’s wishes have been met.

To support the initiative, a competitive element was introduced to the scheme in 1918.  The Food Production Department issued details of the Selfridge Prizes for Tractor Drivers and Ploughmen.  Mr Gordon Selfridge, founder of Selfridges in London, had offered a sum of £500 to be distributed in prizes to tractor drivers and ploughmen for specially meritorious performances over three monthly periods from February to April 1918.

Photo 2 competition - Copy

Details of the Tractor Ploughing Competition (BR 399/2)

The Food Production Department noted that this gift is a particularly happy one, as it is Mr Selfridge’s native country, the United States of America, that has played the chief part in the development of Motor Tractor Ploughing.

Those taking part were not to see it just in terms of prize money but a symbol of the urgent and imperative need for them to make their utmost efforts; efforts upon the success of which the fate of the British Empire and democracy throughout the world may ultimately depend.

Two records from the newspaper archives at Norfolk Heritage Centre report on the success of local ploughing teams.

On 22nd March 1918 the Norfolk Chronicle reported that the tractor ploughing championship had been won by a Lynn firm.  Some eighty tractor ploughs had been at work in the previous month.

On Saturday the championship was awarded to Messrs. W H Johnson and Sons, motor and tractor engineers of Kings Lynn. 

This team had ploughed 129 acres on Alfred Lewis’ farm at Westacre in North Norfolk.  They had set a record of ploughing 45 acres in 46.5 hours in one stretch.  They were presented with the championship flag at The Royal Hotel in Norwich.

On 17th April 1918 a report in The Eastern Daily Press led with the headline “Champion Tractor in Norfolk”.  The champion flag for the period 9th March to 6th April had been won by a Titan tractor.  It had ploughed 89.5 acres and cultivated 157 acres in the time period.  The tractor team comprised driver J A Bayne, ploughman Charles Powles and team supervisor Mr G F Bond.

These figures may appear unimpressive by modern standards with the advanced technology used in agriculture today.  However, in the early days of mechanization in agriculture, advanced by the demands of war, these were great achievements demonstrating as great a commitment to the war effort as those fighting on the Front.

Compiled by Daryl Long, NRO Research Blogger.




One thought on “We Plough the Fields and Scatter: The Tractor Ploughing Scheme of 1917

  1. Pingback: Rationing in the First World War – Norfolk in World War One

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