My Cornish childhood

Elsa Benson* grew up on a farm near Redruth in Cornwall, which has been in her family for more than 200 years.

I loved every moment of my childhood. I’m a true Corn on both sides. There was no telly to watch – we didn’t have electricity until I was 15 – so helping out on the farm was what we did and I was brought up to turn my hand to most things.

From the age of six or seven, I was expected to help my parents with everything. Every morning before school, I had to get up early to milk my two cows, Buttercup and Daisy, then go inside, have my breakfast, put on my school uniform and run up the road to catch the bus at 8am.

Cowgirls on ponies

As soon as I got home from school, I’d race upstairs, take off my uniform and hang it up tidily on a hanger. Then I’d go straight out on the moors on my pony. My two older sisters and I rode our ponies with bridles but we weren’t allowed saddles. My father was worried about us being flung off at a gallop, getting a foot caught in the stirrup and being dragged along the ground. There were no safety stirrups in those days, so he was quite right.

I became a very good rider but still fell off more times than I can remember. The last time I broke my wrist, the doctor said there were so many fractures, he couldn’t even tell where the new one was.

One of our jobs was to round up the cows every night on our ponies. One evening, we galloped down the field to the pond where the cows were drinking. We were going so fast that when my sister's pony stopped, she fell off head first into the water, straight onto one of the big granite quoins that surrounded the pond.

My father came down the field and said, “What’s wrong with you, my maid?” “Nothing, Father,” she said. “So get up on your pony and get the cows in.”

My sister complained every day after that about her shoulder hurting, and eventually, a fortnight later, my mother took her to the doctor. He said, "Mrs Benson, come here and look at your daughter’s shoulders." They were completely lopsided. The doctor said it was too late for treatment as the bones had already healed. So to this day, my poor sister is lopsided!

Working the land

Working on the farm could be full on. We didn’t have a tractor or even a car. What would we have needed one of those for? We had a horse and gig, as well as ploughs and carts.

We had to work in all weathers. I lived in my bib and brace [dungarees], but they weren’t waterproof. I wore a riding mac when it rained. I’ve still got it; I can’t part with it.

Our biggest field was eight acres long. Planting broccoli by hand was hard going. My father would start at one end and my grandfather at the other. It was a hell of a long way to go, up and down the rows. It was back-breaking work.

We’d plant Cornish new potatoes in January. Walking along the rows with a basket and putting them in wasn’t too bad, but picking them went on forever. It felt as if it was never going to finish.

Harvest time

First, we’d build shocks; each one was made from five sheaves (armfuls) of corn, stacked in a small pyramid in the field and left to dry. A few weeks later, Father would say, “Come on, we’re going mowing.”

jumping a corn shockHe’d go into the middle of the field and, starting with one shock, he’d pull in at least 20 more, building the mow higher and higher, into a circle of corn. This picture shows my sister jumping over a corn shock.

Later in the summer, Father would stand on the horse-drawn wagon and we’d pitch the sheaves of corn to him. When the wagon was full, we’d take it back to the farmyard where he’d build an enormous rick, at least 25 ft high.

Then, we’d go down to the wet moorland and cut green rushes. That was an awful boggy job. We’d thatch the rick with them. So when the rain came, it would run off the reeds, leaving the corn dry for months or even years. When the threshing machine came, we’d throw off the reeds and thrash the corn [throw it off]. As we threw down the corn, a sea of mice and rats would go running down the rick.

A rat up my trousers

All the farm hands used to tie string around their trousers at the ankles, to stop the rats running up their legs. Despite my father telling me to do the same, I never bothered: I thought that would never happen to me. One day, when I was a teenager, we were thrashing and I felt something run up my leg. I realised it was a rat. I was terrified it was going to bite me so, in front of all the male farmers, I dropped my trousers, grabbed the rat as it ran up my thigh and threw it as far as I could.

The cowshed had cob [earth, clay and straw] walls, in which rats made their nests. At night, they would feed down with the cows. When darkness came, they would go into the holes to sleep, with their tails hanging down the wall out of the holes.

Once all was quiet, my father would say, “Come on Maid, get the hurricane out, we’ve got to go and catch some rats.” We’d go out to the cowshed and he’d walk along the wall, grab them one by one by the tail, smash them against the wall and that would be the end of them. It was as quick as lightning.

Big, bad bull

In those days, we didn’t have walkers on footpaths, like there are now. The only time a cow will be nasty is if she thinks you might attack her calf. She might take a run at you if you come up to her.

Guernsey bulls can be very dangerous. One night, my father went out to get the cows in and the bull was with them. It attacked the horse he was riding and drove it into the hedge with its horns. Luckily, Father managed to drive the bull into the bull house and the next thing we heard was a gunshot. He said, “I killed the bugger before it killed me.”

I’m very wary of bulls. I wouldn’t walk across a field with a bull in it. A friend of mine was attacked by a bull but fortunately there was a big dung pile in the field. He crawled into the dung and lay down in it to wait for his father to drive across the field to rescue him. The man escaped without injury, but the bull wrecked the van. So you don’t mess with bulls.

Once a week...

There was no bathroom in our house and water came from the well in the farmyard. One night a week, my mother would boil up water in the copper on top of the old wood-fired Cornish range. She’d pour the water into a long, thin tin bath she placed in front of the open fire in the kitchen, and we all bathed in that, one after the other. It was gorgeous. We’d take it in turns and wash our hair. I was always quite dirty and it was luxury to get into a bath of warm water.

Every Sunday at 11am, we went to sing the Eucharist at church, dressed in our Sunday best. At 2pm we were back in church for Sunday school and evensong was at 6pm. The church was two miles away, and each time we walked there and back, so every Sunday we walked 12 miles.

My father didn’t go to church. On Sunday he didn’t do any farm work, except for milking. He would stay at home and cook the Sunday roast.

The sermons were so boring I could have screamed, but there was never any question of not going to church. What my mother said was law. And as I got older, I joined the choir and that was more interesting. A group of us used to go to choir practice with the vicar. He got 13 of us in a small car! Some people had to stand out on the running boards and I was usually one of them.

Cornish food

My mother was a great cook and we always ate well, even during rationing. We never went short, because we had plenty of our own meat, vegetables and fruit. We made our own butter and bread. We even had honey from our bees, so sugar rationing wasn’t a problem for us.

We slaughtered the animals on our farm and my uncle butchered them. I’d go out in the evening and see the cows and pigs grazing and snuffling happily, and the next morning they were hanging up on the meathook. I hated that and it put me off eating meat for the rest of my life. I’d often eat the veg and slip my meat to one of the dogs under the table. Nobody was ever the wiser.

I didn’t like everything we made on the farm. I’ve always hated tripe. Father would take it out of the cow’s carcass, put it in a big vat of lime and leave it there for a few days. It would literally go green because the grass would rise to the surface. You’d take a big knife and scrape all the green off and what was left was tripe. You hear people saying how much they love tripe and onions and I think, if they knew that tripe is made from animals’ stomach linings, they wouldn’t eat it.

I did love going to the local village store and choosing my sweet ration. We were allowed 2oz [50g] of sweets once a week. I liked aniseed balls and winter mixture, a mix of hard-boiled sweets, really tasty and nice.

Our dairy

My mother was a dairymaid and as a youngster, she worked at Lanhydrock as a cheese-maker. After milking our herd of Guernsey cows, my parents would keep five gallons or so of milk for cream and I used to help my mother make it.

In our dairy, there was a milk separator, with filters that separated the cream from the buttermilk. I had to wind the handle. It was hard work, but eventually the thick cream would come down one chute and the buttermilk would trickle down the other side. We fed that to the pigs. Mother would bring the cream inside and stand it on the Cornish range. After a few hours, it rose up and a crust formed on the top. It was real Cornish clotted cream and we always had plenty of it.

The lane to our farm was at least a quarter of a mile long, and it was quite rough. We’d fill up the churns with 10 gallons of milk and my mother would tilt those heavy churns on their end and roll them from the cowshed all the way to the road, in time to meet the milk lorry at 7.30 each morning. She was amazing.

Making mackerel pasties

We had friends who fished and, when they caught mackerel, Mother would make mackerel pasties. She’d gut each fish, cut off its head and tail, and put it into home-made short-crust pastry, which was then crimped all around and baked in the oven. When it was done, she’d slice open one edge of the pastry, let out the steam, reach inside and pull out the fish’s spine, which always came out whole; there was never a single bone left inside. Then she’d put a big dollop of clotted cream on top of the fish. We loved mackerel pasty with clotted cream.

Changing times

cornish childhood school photoThe lovely thing about living on a farm as a child was that I was free. I could go wherever I wanted. My parents never worried about me although I was a naughty child and a mischievous teenager: a real Cornish pixie.

I had four aunties and every Saturday night, we either went to one of their houses or they all came to our house. I used to love Saturday nights. Everybody had a piano, so we played and sang for hours. Then we’d go into the kitchen and the table would be groaning with food.

We’d catch up on the gossip and find out everything that was going on. You knew all your neighbours. Now, nobody knows their next-door neighbour. Everyone spends so much time in front of screens, I worry that they have no conversation. And in 60 years’ time, when the children of today come to tell stories about their childhood, what are they going to tell?

*Name has been changed.

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