Steam Threshing

The John Bullimore 1861 Diary describes his use of steam powered threshing at the three Wreningham farms he managed at that time.  The work was carried out by a visiting team who brought the equipment with them.

Steam powered threshing machines had been introduced in the 1840s and radically improved the speed and efficiency of a process once carried out by hand, using flails.  The term ‘thrashing’ is also used.

Unlike today, when combine harvesters collect and separate the grain as they are driven through the fields, the complete wheat and barley crops were taken back to the farmyard with the grain still attached to their stalks. Each crop was stored in stacks, covered with a straw thatch to protect it from rain, until there was the time and opportunity separate the grain by threshing. This was undertaken around the year. They did not get underway during harvest time because they were too busy getting the crops in!

The new threshing process was powered by portable steam engines. 

The term ‘portable’ was used to describe these wheeled steam engines – which were pulled between farm locations by horses! Only in later years was it realised steam engines could be designed to propel themselves!

The threshing machine was a separate wheeled trailer (see top photograph) and was also pulled by horses.

During 1861 (as described in his diary), the visiting team came to Bullimore’s farms on seven separate occasions.  Farm labourers were responsible for feeding the crop into the top of top of the threshing machine from the adjacent stack.  The threshing mechanism separated the grain which was collected in sacks hanging on the side of the machine.  Filled sacks were exchanged for fresh ones until the day’s work was completed.

The contractor’s ‘machine men’ were responsible for the operation of both the steam engine and the threshing machine’s elaborate mechanism – the latter being powered by a large belt running between the two units.

The ‘machine men’ do not appear to have been local to this village; no-one described with those skills is referenced in Wreningham census records of the time.  In any case, it’s likely the machine men would have been specifically trained to operate the contractor’s own equipment.

Bullimore’s 1861 diary describes how his grain was sold to merchants at the Norwich Corn Exchange throughout the year.  His visits to the corn exchange took place directly following each threshing visit and his diary listed the prices obtained.  His 1861 grain trades were with Messrs’: Candler, Colman, Dawson, F Brown, Millett and Morgan.

A Bullimore Journal (1878 – 1887)

John Bullimore compiled further details of his farming life – betwen Michaelmas 1878 and late 1882 – in the first half of an 80 page journal.  During the 1870s, John Bullimore was down to two farms (Hill House and George’s – he owned both). He was no longer an employee of the Burtons and had lost the role of managing their farm after Maria Burton’s death in 1870.

In this first half of his journal (between 1878 and 1882), Bullimore divided up the years into two-week farming periods. 

Every two weeks, he listed his current farmworkers and how much each had been paid for the hours worked in the preceding fortnight. 

Each two-week period also included a brief write-up of the recent weather and the tasks undertaken on the farms.

At intervals, the farmworkers’ pay tables were augmented with an extra line – describing the presence of ‘machine men’.  These ‘machine men’ were pairs of individuals who came to operate the steam threshing equipment. 

In addition, wherever ‘machine men’ are included, Bullimore also provisioned ‘extra hands’ at the farm.  Presumably, these were extra casual labourers whose roles would have been to feed the crop into the top of the thresher and remove the full sacks of grain from the bottom. 

The journal shows the numbers of ‘extra hands’ varying between two and five. Presumably this depended on the size of the task at any particular time. 

The machine men earned two shillings and six pence whilst the extra hands were paid more.

In 1879, there were five threshing visits to Bullimore’s farms. In both 1880 and 1881 there were six.

In August 1882, John Bullimore bought an additional 99 acres in Suton (just south of Wymondham) for £3,800. The auction, covered by a local newspaper, had followed the death of Suton landowner owner John Cann.

At this point, Bullimore changed the format of his journal; it was already half full.  The farmworker’s names were no longer listed; instead, he stated their collective pay in fortnightly totals – showing each year’s worth in a single page.  This helped make space in the journal for writing extra information. Most of this was in the form of annualised lists of new subjects – including their costs, prices etc. 

These additional subjects included:

Sales of wheat, barley and & livestock – itemised with prices

Livestock purchases – what, who from and their costs

Purchase of seeds, manure, cake and pollard – itemised with prices

Sales of butter, cheese and milk – sales figures

Rental incomes – covering a number of village properties

Property repairs – what, where and their costs

Rates and taxes – Bullimore never liked these!

Housekeeping expenditure – itemised (we have other pocket books with similar)

Money in (Gurneys) bank – it’s always about the money!

Journal entries concluded in late 1887 – by which point the journal was completely full.  (It’s worth noting: in 1887 John Bullimore celebrated his 60th birthday.  He also appeared to have stopped actively farming at George’s Farm at about the same time. He became its landlord, instead.)

…. and more about threshing ……

The final half of the journal (between 1882 and 1887) includes further information relating to steam threshing.

On the 22nd March 1883, Bullimore made two ‘steam threshing’ related payments.  These were £2 14s and £6 4s and paid to ‘Banham’ and ‘Bunn’, respectively.

The following year, on 24th June, there were further steam threshing payments to Banham and Bunn of £1 1s 6d and £6 2s.

There was only a single threshing payment in 1885.  This was on 9th April when £9 8s was paid to Mr Bunn.  In March 1886, Mr Bunn only received £5 12s – was the marketplace becoming more competitive?  No figure is apparent for 1887, but the journal had run out of space, so not everything appears to have been recorded for that year.

Note: The final half of the journal has no payments listed for ‘machine men’. 

A hypothesis:

In the years 1878 -1882, the costs of the machine men shown in Bullimore’s farmworker lists probably excluded the costs for the threshing equipment, itself.  (The machine men charges appear too small to cover anything other than labour.)  However, as there were no pages in the first half of the journal covering trade accounts, we would not have seen any charges from Banham, Bunn etc for the use of their threshing equipment.

In the years following 1882, the ‘machine men’ payments were probably still being made but disguised within Bullimore’s other farm labour totals.  However, with the journal (now) showing extra categories of expenditure, the Bunn & Banham charges showed up as threshing equipment charges.

Perhaps the smaller of the dual Bunn and Banham payments related to the additional 99 acres which Bullimore bought in Suton, in August 1882. 

Maybe these dual supplier payments in 1883 and 1884 became rationalised to a single supplier (Bunn) by 1886.

The Norfolk county directories for 1869, 1875, 1877, 1890 and 1892 all show a William Bunn of Fairland Street, Wymondham – where he is listed as a threshing machine owner.  The 1854 and 1883 entries describe William Bunn of Fairland Street as a chimney sweep – whilst four of the above five directories also list William Bunn of Fairland Street as both a threshing machine owner and a chimney sweep.  The 1875 entry describes William Bunn as both a ‘thrashing machine owner and a baker’ – with the directory for 1845 recording William Bunn as a ‘fireman’. Potentially, a man of several talents!

Unfortunately, the same Norfolk directories are yet to identify a threshing / thrashing machine owner having the name of Banham. Perhaps we have not searched the correct villages in the directories to find him! Of course, these equipments would have been costly. Might one man have owned the threshing machine and, the other, the steam engine?

Whatever the answers, we will probably never know whether either man provided the steam threshing service to John Bullimore at the time of his 1861 diary!

Bullimore’s Farmworkers

The list of farmworkers in Bullimore’s employment varies over time.  In the listing, below left, are his farmworkers during early March 1881. Their names have been extracted from the same list shown higher up this page.  To the right is corresponding information taken from the Wreningham Census of April 1881 – only weeks later.

NB  The pay of each man (and boy!) is shown futher up this page, too.

March 1881 – from the journalDetails from Wreningham April 1881 Census
B FulcherBenjamin Fulcher: Farm Bailiff, 52 years, Wymondham Road with wife, son: bootmaker & postman, daughter: dressmaker, and nephew: errand boy and letter carrier
Jno BellJohn Bell (not found under Wreningham – did he live just over the parish boundary?)
Jas DayJames Day, Ag Labourer, 27 years, Toprow with wife and two infant sons
R BellRobert Bell, Ag Labourer, 41 years, Ashwellthorpe Road with wife, two sons, one daughter and one lodger (school mistress)
A DawsonAlfred Dawson, Ag Labourer, 42 years, Wymondham Road with wife, four sons & four daughters
A DawsonAlfred F Dawson (son)  Ag Labourer, 22 years, living with parents in Wymondham Road
G HowlettGeorge Howlett, Ag Labourer, 31 years, Church Road with wife, one son & daughter at school plus one infant daughter
C PrestonCharles Preston, Ag Labourer, 28 years, Turnpike with mother (widow), wife and two infant daughters
R BellRobert Bell (son of Robert snr), Ag Labourer, 13 years, living with parents in Ashwellthorpe Road
E CopemanEdward Copeman, Ag Labourer, 13 years, living with parents in Church Road
S BeckwithSamual Beckwith, 61 years, Ag Labourer, Toprow with wife
P FrostPinches Frost, 54 years, Toprow with wife, two daughters: both servants and grandson: at school
Being able to see the associated family detail makes this much more than just a list of names!
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