Fred Kitchen was a ‘farm lad’ and his autobiography, published in 1940, is an engaging and affectionate account of a life familiar to many of our ancestors as they moved from land to industry, and – given the opportunity – back to the land. It is a personal social history of the transformation of a quiet Edwardian tourist village into a mining town in the first half of the twentieth century. Despite hard conditions and personal tragedies Brother to the Ox is written with humour and a love for life. Glen Hughes said it read like ‘the autobiography of one of Hardy’s characters’.
‘Day after day I stooped along the rows with the scorching sun blistering my neck, and no one to talk to but old Amos…five weeks with Amos at 12 hours a day would turn a saint…I hope I am a Christian, but I can’t help thinking now, as I thought then, that saints do very well for Sundays, but for everyday wear you can’t beat a good owd sinner’
Fred was born in 1890 in north Nottinghamshire to a cowman and a seamstress. Until his father’s early death from diabetes he lived with his family in a tied cottage on the estate of Lord Scarborough at Sandwell Park in South Yorkshire. His life until 11 was secluded and respectable – every cottage had ‘a church calendar and a case of stuffed animals…’ After his father’s death he left school at 13 to find work as a ‘day lad’ on a farm on the edge of Maltby (Little Norwood). In 1904 Maltby was a village of 300 people and a destination for day-trippers, who would occasionally stay over. Within thirty years the coming of the railway helped transform the village into a mining town of 12,000 people. The book is a warm and affectionate account written directly and without pretension, painting pictures with gloriously personal turns of phrase.
Fred was not yet fourteen when he became a live-in ‘hireling’. He milked the cows, cleared the fields, cleaned, fed, and worked the plough horses during twelve-hour working days, taking his meals in the farm kitchen where the stone-flagged floor was ‘scrubbed and scoured till it shone cold and bare as charity’. He was also expected to help the farmer’s wife with ‘bits o jobs’, even ‘during meal times when I was running in and out like a dog in a fair.’
But change was in the air; the railway was coming, and with it a ‘nomadic race of navvies’, digging their way across Maltby common. Maltby ‘took down it’s cards with “Teas Provided”, and put up other cards bearing the inscription “Lodgings” and every one with a spare bed and many who hadn’t a spare bed worth mentioning, went in for lodgers.’
‘Never since the time of the Danes had our village suffered such an invasion…(They were) a happy-go-lucky, beer swilling, God-forsaken race as ever sought for a job and hoped not to find one.’ Their names reflected their origins: ‘Yorky’, ‘Lincoln’, ‘Brum’, ‘Bedford’, and ‘ole Gloster’ among them. The influx led to a transformation of the village and some of its own bad habits. The chief grocer had always ‘sold his thumb’, but was challenged when a big, ‘lumbering navvy bawled out, “Weigh that again, guvn’or, weigh that again, and keep yer b——— thumb off this time!”’ The grocer, after thirty years trading had never before been challenged and retired shortly after this incident ‘to the benefit of all housewives with slender purses.’ Fred Kitchen’s account of the social divisions, between church (‘quality’) and chapel ranters (‘trade’) through humorous characterisations of the undertaker and church sexton are a delight.
Fred was becoming restless with the new possibilities and left the farm to join the railway navvies. The work was tough, and the life harsh, but not without soul. Around the camp fire on Maltby Common he heard one hard drinking, hard working navvy recite ‘Ode to a Fieldmouse’.
When the track was finished and ‘a loco came fussing and snorting like some prehistoric monster, scattering sheep and cattle from their grazing’ Fred left the railway for the sulphate house at Maltby Main, and later the coking plant in Thurcroft. He moved into the new ‘model village’ in Maltby among other miners and their families, and loved it all, but not as much as he loved guiding plough horses through the cold, spring dawn and ‘making friends with every animal on the farm’.
He lost his first wife Helen to influenza, and the miner’s strikes of the 1920’s wiped out his savings, so he returned to the land, where he spent much of the rest of this working life. In the 1930’s Fred discovered the WEA, and he started to take his writing seriously, turning his diaries into ‘Brother to the Ox’.
Kitchen briefly broadcast about country matters on the BBC during the Second World War. He wrote 12 more books, was paid for his journalism and his work as a radio broadcaster, and ended his working days as a school caretaker. Fred Kitchen was at heart a plough lad, and he leaves us with his plough lad’s wisdom:
‘It’s a curious world, and I don’t know what to make of it. The longer I live and the harder I stare at life the less able I am to state an opinion on it. I got to wondering on chance and predestination, through seeing a chap I used to know at the pit…he was on relief work …but for certain tragic happenings I would have been on relief work or drawing the dole…I thank my stars that I am not in any way depressed, that I find life very happy, and that Helen never lived to know unhappiness, depression and the sinking feeling of hope deferred. I have much to be thankful for; but the more I think of it, the more am I puzzled to know ‘What is life?’