2 June 2000

What happened to

prizewinners

of 1949?

farmers weekly has given away all manner of prizes over

the years. Some have given fleeting pleasure – others,

such as a trip for studious young readers in 1949, have

had a far-reaching effect, as Ann Clinch discovers

THE girls ankle socks and the bare knees of the short-trousered boy in the front row do little to dispel the mature appearance of the young prize winners in the farmers weekly photograph even though the youngest is only 12 and the eldest 17.

Fifty years after it was taken one of them wrote: "If I look at a photograph taken at that time the first thing that hits me is how old we all looked. I think many people spent the next 50 years getting progressively younger…"

The writer was contributing to a round-robin letter that John James, one of his fellow-prize-winners, was compiling. This was an update on the lives of the strangers who became friends in August 1949 during a three-week trip they had won in a series of competitions run through the Home Section (forerunner of Farmlife) of FW.

This trip was no frivolous affair. It was a "Special course for Youngsters" featuring up-to-the minute agriculture. Among the specialities they were shown were plant breeding in Aberystwyth and warping (using silt from tidal water to enrich soil) at the mouth of the in Humber.

They visited leading farmers of the day and had local farmers visit them for informal evening discussions. They gained some practical farming experience – such as morning milking – and studied the landscapes of Northamptonshire, Yorkshire, Montgomeryshire and Aberystwyth.

They also enjoyed a general view of the countryside as they travelled between bases – Moulton and Askham Bryan farm institutes and hotels in Welshpool and Aberystwyth.

&#42 Filling notebooks

But they still found time to fill the notebooks with which they were supplied, writing up lectures and visits and their countryside observations.

That was the type of work that had gained them their places on the trip. Each month young competitors – and there were a great many of them – were set an agricultural or rural topic to write up, beginning in January with a description of the farms on which they lived and going on to look at local agricultural history and the geography of their areas. Each months work was submitted to the FW judges who marked it and awarded prizes. Each entry was then sent off to the competitors designated counterpart in a different county to build up that youngsters view of another part of the UK.

John James in Cornwall, who recalls winning first prize (£1) in the January 1949 competition and book tokens for second or consolation prizes in the following months, was paired with Sandy Stirrat in Perthshire and still has all Sandys entries.

There were 16 young people on the 1949 course. By summer 1999 two had died, one was believed to be unwell but the rest were pleased to hear from John James and to give a brief summary of their lives.

Only five have stayed in farming. Of these, two, like so many farming people, stayed close to home – one moving just as far as the next farm and the other now living less than 50 yards from where he was born. A few started out in farming but moved on to other industries. Among those who became farmers wives was a businesswoman who wrote "I was very lucky to have met a man who allowed me to make a living away from the farming world."

Some never farmed at all, including two who were drafted into their careers by their parents. John James was one of these. His mother decided that he should be an accountant. It turned out to be a very happy choice, and a career in which his farming background set him in good stead.

Looking over their stories it is clear that they are all people who apply themselves in whatever they do – first as youthful competitors, later as working people. Now most of them are retired but they still lead busy lives. Some are voluntarily active in education, arbitration or administration. One restores agricultural machinery, another serves as an agricultural show secretary, a third collects antiques and old agricultural books. Gardening, the theatre, sport, caravanning, computers and local and family history, also keep them occupied.

&#42 Tracked down

John Jamess links with the Family History Society helped him track down his fellow competitors – that and a lot of perseverance, telephoning people with similar names in likely areas and then getting some lucky breaks when the person contacted knew of the person he sought. A reunion has been mooted but logistics and the health of some of the course members may make it impossible.

Nevertheless, Johns efforts have stirred of a lot of happy memories and resulted in a beautifully produced "souvenir package". In it John includes reproductions of pages from FW giving details of the competition and reports of their course as well as the course members letters and photographs.

One of the correspondents summed up the exercise as follows: "A group of 16 country youngsters were taught about current farming best practice and the emphasis was totally on husbandry. Just about everything we were taught then is hopelessly out of date today. But what we did get was a wonderful overview of British agriculture and a bonding that makes us all – those of us who have survived – still keenly interested to hear what has befallen the others."

Theirs was the eighth in a series of courses FW organised in the 1940s and 50s. The results of the 1950 competition are run beside the report of the 1949 winners experiences, and show that the latter group was off to France to look at farming and the countryside in Lorraine.

Class of 1949… the winners,

as they were,

more than

50 years ago.

Back in 1956 I was a prize-winner in a different farmers weekly competition. A selection of pictures from The Family of Man photographic competition were reproduced in the Home Section and readers were invited to choose one and write a very short story around it. I won first prize – a cheque for £20 that helped set me up to go to college. I bought a very smart coat, a real leather "bucket bag" (all the rage in those days) and still had quite a sum left. While my purchases soon wore out, the boost to my aspirations that winning the prize gave me lasted for many a year.

Over the years hundreds of young people must have benefited from prize courses like these. Perhaps you were one of them? Write and tell us how it affected your life and you can win another prize – £10 – if we print your letter. Send it to Past Winners Farmlife, Farmers Weekly, Quadrant House, The Quadrant, Sutton, Surrey SM2 5AS.