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Ploughing fields
in times gone by

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well-ploughed field with straight furrows

A well-ploughed field with straight furrows and no weeds still showing.

Ploughing took place mainly in the Autumn. As a child in the 1940s, I could watch it at a distance from our double-decker buses. At that time, I assumed that the purpose was to produce long dips or furrows for seeds to be sown into and that a plough was merely something sharp that went into soil and was pulled through it. I was wrong on a number of counts. Read on:

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How a plough worked

Vintage plough showing two sets of round cutting blade and larger turning blade

Plough showing two round cutting blades and larger turning blades.

A basic plough consisted of a circular blade in front of a larger curved one in an arrangement for a horse or tractor to pull through the ground. Some ploughs had more than one set of blades.

The circular blades cut through the ground and the curved ones turned over and buried the top layer of soil and weeds.

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Why ploughing needed skill

Action of a plough 1 of 2

Two views showing how the plough lifts and turns the soil, so burying weeds while also creating a furrow.

Action of a plough 2 of 2

Ploughs needed various skills to operate effectively:

It took skill to set the blades so that they cut at a suitable depth: too shallow would mean that the weeds would 'see' daylight and grow, so contaminating the next crop; too deep would mean that the winter frost was less likely to penetrate the top soil. Frost broke up the soil helping to turn it into a fine tilth.

The furrows had to be straight and at a uniform distance apart as gaps would mean weeds and heavier soil at sowing time.

The soil needed to be in the right state for ploughing: Too dry and hard would mean that the plough would not readily go through it, and too wet would mean that the furrows would be washed away. I don't know how much leeway there was on this, but skill and experience would have been needed to make the decision of when to plough.

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Horse-drawn ploughing

horse-drawn plough

A horse-drawn plough, photographed at a vintage ploughing competition.

In my early years, I saw farm horses pulling the ploughs.

It was the task of the farmers or farmhands to guide the horses and the ploughs. This meant walking behind the ploughs or with the horses, whatever the weather and keeping alert to give the horses instructions. Good weather must have meant a lot.

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Tractor-driven ploughing

WW2 land girl ploughing

The tractor which this WW2 land girl works has no covered seat cabin and the wheel tyres are solid. Edited screen shot from an old film.

Farmers and farm hands must have given many sighs of relief when tractors came along. All they had to do was to sit in the driving seat, manage the controls and let the tractor pull the plough. Having to look backwards, though, to make sure that the furrows stayed even must have led to many a stiff neck.

Not that driving a tractor in these times was as pleasant as you might think. There were no covered cabins to sit in, so the seat was open to the air. What's more, the tractor tyres were solid, making for a bumpy ride.

Page contributed by Neil Cryer