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Ginny's gang were in a field of their own

By Toby Neal | Features | Published:

When the time came for a well-earned break – for the work was backbreaking – the women workers on a Shropshire farm would make a fire and have a brew and a natter.

And in those days with a lack of nursery places it was not unusual for them to take their children along into the farmer's fields as they hoed the sugar beet or picked the potatoes.

A series of snapshots in the possession of Mrs Rosemary Simmons of Trench in Telford are an evocative reminder of one such group which would head to a farm near Newport in the 1950s and early 1960s.

"My grandmother was a ganger. She ran a group of women and they went to the local farmer's and picked potatoes in spring and summer, and hoed sugar beet in the winter – I remember them going in February," she says.

Her gran was Mary Jane Darricott, known as Ginny, who lived from 1889 to 1963, and whose home was in Church Parade, Oakengates.

The group she employed headed mostly to the farm owned by the Watson Jones family near Newport.

"She ran the group for as long as I can remember. She was still working until the day she died really. She had a stroke."

The day would begin with the women being picked up by a coach from pick-up points in Oakengates and Wrockwardine Wood at around 7.30am.

On the way they would always stop at the same shop in Newport to buy mints and cigarettes.

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Young Rosemary Darricott, as Mrs Simmons was then, remembers going along too.

"I must have been about 10 or 11. I do remember I had a bash at picking potatoes. It was all done by hand and was darned hard work. I don't think I did it for long, but I tried it. We lived at Walton Avenue, Oakengates at the time."

The photos have no captions but the ones showing the women with hoes, and dressed in coats, will be the sugar beet hoeing, and the summer ones will depict potato picking.

"If I remember rightly the beet would grow and they split the shoots into two or three so you only had one sugar beet growing at a time, although I'll probably get some farmers shoot me down in flames.

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"When these ladies were potato picking the very first thing they did was that a sack was cut and tied round their waist. They bent over double to pick the potatoes and they went into the sack, and it was tipped into a crate.

"A tractor went before them to turn the rows up so the potatoes came to the top. Every woman had a 'length' to pick – a particularly part of the row to pick."

Rosemary's mum Queenie Darricott was one of those who worked the fields. Her dad Fred Darricott worked at Granville pit and for years was secretary of the Granville Social Welfare Club.

None of the photos show Ginny and there are only a few people Rosemary tentatively recognises.

Among the images are the women playing cards, and also taking their break.

"The first thing they did was break up a crate or find some wood from around the fields and make a fire.

"The kettle was a big black object put on the fire and they would get a handful of loose tea and a handful of sugar. You took your own milk. My mum took hers in an old coffee bottle.

"From that day to this when I make tea I leave the last bit at the bottom of the cup because that's where the tea leaves sat and it was horrible. There was no such thing as a tea strainer in a field and you didn't have tea bags then."

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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