If you’ll excuse a slight digression, Mrs Holmes (I can’t for the life of me remember her first name) had a very peculiar mode of running. Just before lunchtime every Friday, a mobile fish and chip shop would stop just up the road, and the proprietor would ring a hand-bell to summon potential customers. Mrs Holmes would come out of her front door like a greyhound from the traps, desperate not to miss it before it went on its way. But as she ran, her hands would always be clasping the cheeks of her very modestly sized bottom, and her feet would sort of zigzag out in turn, rather in the fashion of a speed ice-skater. Isn’t it funny what sticks in your mind as a child?
Anyway, back to her husband on the poultry farm. He was somehow different from the other workers. In the summer he wore leather shorts with integral braces (which I learnt later were called lederhosen) and sandals. Oh yes, and he also rode a funny type of push-bike where he back-pedalled to apply the brakes. Now as far as I know he was English, so why he was wearing and riding these German/Austrian innovations so soon after the war I’ve no idea. To complete his strangeness he spent hours every evening working on a big wooden loom that was permanently set up in his front room. None of the other farm workers wore, rode, or did anything remotely like that.
Sometimes after school I’d jump on my bike and go to watch him at work on the poultry farm and help him collect the eggs. Some of what went on there didn’t make sense until I was older and got to know about “the birds and the bees”. There were a couple of pens of semi-free range chickens, each containing several hens and a cockerel. The eggs from these hens would be carefully gathered and put into incubators, and after an appropriate time chicks would hatch. But there was also a battery house, where hens in cages with sloping floors would produce eggs that rolled away out of their reach. These eggs never went into the incubators, but into egg trays to go off for sale. I never spent long in there. As you opened the big sliding door the stench of ammonia and the noise of hundreds of disgruntled hens were somewhat overwhelming.
They also fattened up chickens and turkeys for Christmas. So come mid-December the slaughter would begin. The chickens and hen-turkeys were easily dispatched by the normal wringing of necks, and Frank Holmes was so adept at it that it appeared to be very quick and humane, although I always found it a little unsettling that the dead birds would convulse for several seconds afterwards, but I was frequently assured that they were really dead. But the big cock-turkeys were a different matter. These were enormous beasts – I remember the excitement all round when one weighed in at a record (and I’m sure I’ve got it right) 60lbs! – and they had no intention of “going quietly”. First you had to catch them, and they weren’t averse to fighting back with their nasty curved beaks.
It would be a three man job just to hold them: one holding the neck to stop it pecking; one holding the clawed feet that could give you a nasty gouge; and another holding the wings that could give you a hefty blow in a very sensitive area for a man. They were too big and heavy for one man to hold and wring their necks in the usual way, so their head would be pinioned to the ground by a broom handle retained by a couple of booted feet, whilst two more men would pull upwards on the turkey’s body until the neck vertebra parted and the job was done. Then came the plucking. The dead birds were suspended in the plucking shed and all the feathers would be plucked out. This was a job I could help with, although there was a certain amount of skill involved as you didn’t want to tear the skin underneath by pulling out too big a bunch of feathers at once. But with my relatively small hands I could only grip so many feathers at a time so I was less liable to do this anyway. Between the chickens and turkeys we are probably talking of a few hundred birds here, and with all the pluckers (and me) working very fast to get the birds into cold-storage as soon as possible, it wasn’t long before you were literally wading in feathers. I liked to shuffle through them like a toddler in fallen autumn leaves, but I’d get shouted at because the feathers would all float up into the air and start people coughing and spluttering.
Continue with the next part of Brian Goodliffeâ€™s childhood memories of Trumpington in the 1940s and 1950s.