Opinion: A tribute to ‘traditional’ farmers’ wives

My mother-in-law died this week after a short illness.

Mrs J was one of the traditional farmers’ wives who have been portrayed in stories since Enid Blyton’s famous five went yomping around moors, stopping only to ask for milk from the local farmer. This stereotype was real, at least on our farm.

She was brought up on a farm, one of two girls expected to help out with everything from tractor driving to egg collection, in addition to helping look after the house.

Wash day was always on a Monday and originally involved boiling a copper and using a mangle. A newfangled twin-tub was introduced in the 1950s which still necessitated a lunch of “only” cold meat (left over from the Sunday roast), chips (a real treat) and baked beans, as there was no time for a “real” lunch.

Food was an essential part of her life, although she was always very careful what she ate herself. “Baking day” involved clouds of flour, buttered tins ready to be filled (always keep butter wrappers for that use) and fantastic smells. The assortment of cakes that emerged in numerous battered tins would have made Mr Kipling proud.

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The children always loved baking day – so many tins to lick out. Her staples included melt-in-the-mouth shortbread fingers, light coffee cake, sticky date-and-walnut and, in her latter years, ginger snaps.

No visitor was ever safe from a cake assault. The postman always saved delivering Granny’s mail until last, being refuelled with tea and a slice of sponge. Her gardener (in later years, mind – she did the garden herself before then) was spoilt with milky tea and shortbread. The current husband’s friends remember her as much for cake as her kindness.

No-one could leave the house unfed, it just wouldn’t have been right. My brother came to help at harvest as a fresh-faced 18-year-old and was astounded and delighted to be presented with a lunch of “leftovers” comprising a delicious leg of roast lamb and assorted vegetables.

Mrs J could never be still. I honestly believe that she thought my love of books and reading was completely unfathomable. How on earth could anyone find time to read when there were collars to turn, socks to darn, lampshades to make in addition to cooking, cleaning, baking and looking after her two boys followed by seven grandchildren. She looked after my son for two days a week, allowing me to go back to work safe in the knowledge that he was loved and cared for.

As she got older and with severe arthritis, inevitably she had to give up some of the tasks she loved, with the exception of washing clothes. She despaired at the cavalier approach of myself and my sister-in-law to household tasks. She took up our washing and ironing with the steely determination of a sergeant major.

She had lived in the farmhouse we live in now for all of her married life until she moved across the field to her bungalow. She would appear every day to ransack our laundry bins and, within 24 hours, clothes would be returned washed and ironed. She would even pick up clothes from my children’s “floordrobes” – amazed to find a tiny slip of undergarment on my daughter’s floor which she thought must be very uncomfortable to wear. She even took it upon herself to wash and iron the tea towels for the restaurant.

I had treated myself to a lie-in one Sunday morning when she crept into my bedroom, removed the dirty washing from the basket and tiptoed back out. She didn’t have time to wait until I got up, lazy hound that I was.

My work life would have been so hard without her. Always on call to fetch the children from school if I was delayed, or able to rustle up tea from scratch for three hungry children at 10 minutes’ notice. She took the children to the park, made them help with the gardening; she taught them board games and “beetle”. She had a “magic” cupboard filled with forbidden goodies like Mars bars and Maltesers that was always full.

She would cook lunch for all the grandchildren on a Saturday but she never had the heart to deny any of them their favourite dish. At 12 noon on the dot, the table would groan with homemade shepherd’s pie for one, pasta and gravy for another, pizza, sandwiches, sausages and fishfingers, followed by copious amounts of ice cream. Child heaven.

One granddaughter remembers granny “teaching” her to drive by sitting her on her knee – India took charge of the steering wheel while granny operated the pedals, manoeuvring the truck around the field.

Polite and courteous always, she had no time for rudeness. My eldest daughter went to visit her in her last few days. She was barely conscious. My daughter did one of her most enormous sneezes and granny said “bless you”.

It is the end of an era and I think that she would be a bit tickled to see an obituary in the Farmers Weekly. This is not just for her, but for that whole band of women – a disappearing breed in times of farming diversification, who have nurtured and cared for farmers, often with very little thanks. We salute you all.

Sally Jackson

Sally and husband Andrew farm 364ha just outside Scunthorpe in North Lincolnshire. They have a farm shop, The Pink Pig Farm (a former winner in the diversification category of the Farmers Weekly Awards), with a 90-seater café and farm trail. Sally is chairman of the Farmers’ Retail and Markets Association (Farma).


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