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Did you know
...city families used to pick hops on holiday?
Hop picking holidays allowed city families to earn money. Pickers were paid with tokens, which were used in local shops or exchanged for wages.
Did you know
...Elizabethan mattresses were used for both childbirth and corpses?
Mattresses, plaited from sedges, were made to support a mother during childbirth or a corpse after death. After use it would have been burned.
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...farmers used to sow seeds by fiddle?
Sowing by hand can be slow and inaccurate. Seed drills were developed in the 1800s to sow seeds quickly in a straight line at regular intervals.
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...Lady Eve Balfour (1898-1990) was one of the earliest organic farmers and co-founded the Soil Association?
Women continue to play a key role in this movement, with organic farms employing significantly more women than chemical farming.
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...Suttons Seeds invented the seed packet?
The local Reading firm, founded in 1806, popularised paper packets of seeds for gardeners.
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...villages often used to run their own fire services?
The National Fire Service was only created in 1941.
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Our Country Lives - Latest Blog Posts
Our blog explores the people, places and issues of the historic and contemporary English countryside and rural life, uncovering and exploring our collections, the exciting activity around the MERL and the people we with.
Written by Tim Jerrome.
In the first half of the 20th century, Britain was home to myriad secret agricultural societies, such as Horseman’s Word. Yet there was one society which, for many, was only a myth. Known as the Tractor Whisperers, the secretive Order of Credulum tilled the shadows of 20th century rural England, achieving great magical feats to get the very best from the humble tractor.
In this blog, join us as we explore the early history of tractor development in England, the clandestine world of the Tractor Whisperers, and their most remarkable arcane accomplishments.
The Age of the Tractor
Until the end of the 19th century, steam power was at the forefront of agricultural mechanisation. Portable steam engines and traction engines began to arrive in the 1840s. John Fowler’s steam ploughing inventions in the 1850s were particularly crucial. However, steam engines tended to be quite large and unwieldy, and were not particularly fuel efficient. American entrepreneurs caught onto this and began experimenting with petrol engines, which were powered by internal combustion. This resulted in the production of the very first tractors in the 1880s.[i]
Most of the initial American tractors were huge beasts used for haulage. When British firms caught on, they took a different approach. Horses were yesterday’s news, and tractors were seen as the modern alternative for ploughing. Professor John Scott demonstrated his 20 horsepower tractor at the 1900 Royal show, but was met with criticism by those whose livelihoods depended on horse breeding. Meanwhile, Dan Albone created a three-wheeled tractor, replete with a cooling tank and a whole 24 horsepower. Named the Ivel, it was an international hit, earning a medal from Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture and becoming the centre of attention at the 1904 Paris show.[ii]
New Tractor Just Dropped
However, it was the introduction of the Fordson tractor in 1917 which truly signalled the triumph of the petrol tractor over steam power. Not only had steam-powered cars been driven to near extinction by the Ford Model T; the same phenomenon occurred with tractors. The First World War, and the resulting nationwide conscription, led to a serious shortage of manpower in British fields. As is the case with so many questions in life, tractors were the answer.
The very first order of Fordson tractors by the British Ministry of Munitions totalled 6,000 units and set this legendary machine on its path to success. Despite undergoing multiple refinements, the Fordson remained a dominant force in British ploughing for the next several decades.[iii]
Origins of the Tractor Whisperers
It is at this stage of tractor history that accounts of the Order of Credulum begin to surface. Little is known of their origin. The most likely speculation is that the Order began its life as a ‘Friendly Society’, which were community organisations designed to provide financial security to members at a time when poor laws were hopelessly inadequate.[iv] When the 1911 National Insurance Act rendered these societies obsolete, it seems some of the Order’s previous members turned their attention to new, more arcane pursuits. This was especially true in South West England, where the Order seemed to be particularly prominent.
One thing of which we can be sure is the origin of the Order’s name. The fable of Credulum, which has since faded from British culture, is one that was frequently told to farmers’ children at the time. Credulum was a Roman farmer whose oxen seemed to plough at a supernatural speed, which was attributed to his frequent sacrifices to the god of sowing, Saturn.[v] The Order adapted this tale for modern times, and even did their best to replicate Credulum’s practices. Accounts exist of ritualistic sacrifices held in barns: worn clutch plates were often broken in roaring fires to appease the pagan god.
The initiation ceremony into the Order was equally bound in secretive ritual. The essence of the ritual was to overcome problems that the Fordson tractor would itself face during its time on the field. One commonly cited issue with the Fordson was its tendency to tip over backwards on its hind wheels.[vi] Initiates would dress up as a part of tractor machinery (one branch in Somerset used a large grey cloak to impersonate an engine cylinder) and sit on the fence of a partially-ploughed field. Elder members of the Order would then run at the initiate, and attempt to tip them backwards off the fence. If they managed to keep their seat, the initiate was deemed worthy of controlling tractors by magical means, and would be welcomed into the Order’s ranks. A magical cape would be presented to the new recruit, together with a spectacularly full harvest jug of scrumpy, for them to enjoy at their own leisurely pace.[vii]
Outstanding in their field
But what exactly were the Order’s sorcerous feats? One will be familiar, as its legacy has survived well into modernity. The spell sought to power a tractor without the use of any fuel, thus significantly reducing the working cost of the machine. It involved driving a tractor out of the farm and onto a country road, before slowing down and ensuring a queue of cars built up behind. For every car that was caught in the queue, the tractor would gain an extra hour of power via the enchantment cast beforehand. Many farmers still try to replicate the spell, though its level of success on contemporary roadways is unknown.[viii]
It’s Fordsonium Levi-OOO-sa, not Fordsonium Levio-sa
Most of the whisperers’ work was conducted on the field. But in some cases, they worked their magic above it. As mentioned before, many Fordson tractors suffered from the issue of tipping over backwards when crossing difficult terrain. The ingenious solution of some whisperers ensured that terrain would no longer be an issue. If a particularly potent sacrifice had been performed that day, such as an old water tank, evidence suggests that a tractor could be mysteriously levitated to a height of several feet, and even moved back and forth. To witness this spectacle, small crows would often gather. One eyewitness recalled: “It was incredible. I felt rooted to the spot in amazement.” Another stated: “This will take my ploughing to new heights.”[ix]
Unfortunately, the popularity of what became known in popular magical media as a Flying Fordson soon declined, as farmers realised that no manufacturer could produce a plough large enough to till the earth whilst the tractor was in flight.
Agents of F.I.E.L.D
Although most of the Order’s magic served the farming community exclusively, the Whisperers were willing to serve a national cause in times of crisis. Throughout World War 2, the Allies eagerly sought a way to improve their cloaking technology in order to protect troop movements and military secrets. For example, The Royal Canadian Navy fitted two of its corvettes with light projectors which would disguise the ships against the horizon.[x]
However, the Tractor Whisperers took this one step further, and, in an idiosyncratically ambitious manoeuvre, which somewhat epitomises their spectacle-heavy modus operandi, the Order harnessed the secrets of illusory magic to make their tractors disappear. So was born the Stealth Tractor, which enabled farmers and Whisperers alike to plough in peace, whilst ensuring that the secrets of English rural history would never fall into enemy hands, protected from the prying eyes of enemy spy planes.
The War Office attempted to convince the Order to work their magic on vehicles beyond tractors. This was considered such an insult that the Whisperers vowed to never cooperate with central government again.[xi]
The Phony Pony War
Government ministers were not the only people with whom the Order saw conflict. They were also embroiled in a struggle against Horseman’s Word, who feared their society would become irrelevant if horses were no longer used for ploughing.
Today, the prevailing understanding of the events is that the war never escalated to outright wizards’ duels in the streets. But both sides of the rivalry did their best to disrupt their foe. Many Fordson owners reported instances of waking up to find a row of horses blocking their tilling progress, or finding crumbled oatcakes scattered in their tractor’s engine.[xii] On the other side, horse breeders would be constantly disturbed by the loud revving of tractor engines just outside their stables, which vanished as soon as they went to investigate.[xiii]
Academics today still debate whether the conflict had a victor in the true sense of the word. One eye-witness stated : “It was all very much up in the air. At least, when the Flying Fordsons got involved.”[xiv] It is our hope that the two factions made peace and share knowledge and secrets to this day.
Increased public scrutiny of the Tractor Whisperers forced them to officially disband in 1966. Yet if you ever look at a tractor and see it hovering, just for an instant, then pause for a moment and appreciate the enduring power of tractor witchcraft. And if you’ve reached the end of this blog and have no idea what’s going on, then please check the date this was published. We hope that clear things up.
We hope you have enjoyed our special tribute to all things foolish and daft. For other, entirely true stories from England’s rural past, keep exploring The MERL blog!
[iv] Fuller, Margaret, West Country Friendly Societies (Lingfield : Oakwood Press 1964) p. 7
[v] Actor, T. R, ‘Don’t Google the actual meaning of Credulum’ Pretty Please 1:2 (2021)
[vi] Moore, Sam, ‘Ford’s vision: To lift the burden of farming–with the Fordson’ Farm Collector 20:2 (2017)
[vii] Ester, Harv, Tractor Initiation Ceremonies and other Fictitious Recollections (Edoras Publishing 1954) p. 29
[viii] Lough, Phil, ‘Sorry, tractor drivers. We know you’d drive faster if you could’ The Apologetic Blog Author 2:1 (1066)
[ix] Row, S. C, ‘Stand Out in His Field: Life in the Furrow’ Institute of Field and Pest Management (1925)
[x] Roblin, Sebastien, ‘During World War II, the Allies Invented a Cloaking Device. And it Was a Failure’ The National Interest (2018). Accessed on 18/03/21 via https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/during-world-war-ii-allies-invented-cloaking-device-and-it-was-failure-25232
[xi] I assume you’ve stopped coming to the footnotes for actual academic references at this point (although there are quite a few sprinkled in), and where they’re real references, it’s real information. Anyway, how are you? How’s your day going? Are you reading this, mum? You said you read my blog posts!
[xii] Armhand, Frank, My Tractor Brings all the Boys to the Yard (Absolute Unit Press 2018) p. 62
[xiii] Ombustion-Engine, Charles, ‘I hate the 1st April, it sets me on edge’ The Journal of Not Trusting Rural History Museums 4:1 (2021)
[xiv] Stack, H. A., ‘Mastering a corn ollie: Tractor tricks and skill moves’ Rural Racer 9:9 (2008)
*Spoiler alert: this photoshopped image is made from two combined images from the John Tarlton collection, both showing men with Dowty tractors. (MERL P TAR PH3/1/5/3 and MERL P TAR PH3/1/5/5)
In The MERL reading room, we keep a collection of documents that we call ‘Classified Files’. These are not about UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, or sightings of Big Foot in rural Essex. Instead, they are copies of documents, arranged by MERL classification.
However, the Classified Files do contain many remarkable rural secrets. Which is exactly what MERL researcher Tim Jerrome found in late 2020 when he discovered within the files an article titled ‘Horseman’s Word: Light on a Mysterious Secret Society’ (Aberdeen Press and Journal).
The article told the tale of a group of agricultural labourers, working across Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries, who developed a reputation for possessing an otherworldly knack for controlling heavy horses. And many people speculated they were able to do so through the use of magical powers.
Below, join Tim as he journeys through the recorded history of the Horseman’s Word. He explores several of the Society’s most famous arcane accomplishments, outlines the rituals they undertook to achieve them, and asks to what extent the skill of the Horseman’s Word can be explained by agricultural science.
Who were the Horseman’s Word?
Horseman’s Word first rose to prominence in the 1830s, most strongly in north-east of Scotland, but equally gaining influence in English counties such as Norfolk and Suffolk.
This was the same time that the new Clydesdale horse – bred from huge imported Flemish stallions – took over from oxen as Scotland’s premier plougher.ii As such, men who could work with horses across the everyday toils of farming life were in high demand.
Quite quickly, the mystical abilities of the Horseman’s Word catered to this need. Members demonstrated a seemingly supernatural control over working horses, making them walk and stop at will and perform a multitude of bizarre feats, whilst simultaneously inspiring awe amongst uninitiated labourers.
But how did the Horsemen gain their powers? Did they deserve the title of ‘horse-witches’ and ‘horse-warlocks’ that was attributed to them?i Did they really dabble in sorcery which has since been lost?
A classic example of a Scottish Clydesdale horse in 1934, owned by the Corporation of Glasgow. MERL collection number P FS PH1/K5294
Starting to smell a rat – or, at least, a mole
Two key skills of Horseman Word members were in the ‘drawing’ and ‘jading’ of a horse, inducing the horse to walk and stop. Yet rather than deriving this knack from magical spells, as thought by much of the general populace, these abilities came from a detailed knowledge of horse behaviour, particularly their acute sense of smell.
Walter Cater, a Horseman from Redgrave in Suffolk, was able to keep his horses in a meadow for five days by slathering a pungent concoction on the fence-posts. This was recounted by his son Mervyn, who did not know the full list of ingredients, as Walter had instructed each of his family members to gather a few items each. Mervyn himself had contributed soot and linseed oil.iii
Another, simpler method of jading a horse was to rub a dead mole upon anything in its path.iv Did Horsemen typically keep a ready supply of dead moles? Were moles murdered specifically for this purpose? A question for another day. We do know that the Society closely guarded their secrets. No records were kept of their meetings, and they had no titled officials who could be questioned about such matters.v
One equine practise which is unusually well-documented is the activity of so-called ‘toad-men’ and ‘toad-women’. As early as 1835, a book entitled The Country Horse-Doctor detailed how a concoction made from toads could be used to draw or jade a horse without fail.vi However, the life of a toad-person was one that bore a heavy burden. For example, the blacksmith George Kirk warned his assistant in 1908 not to learn the art as ‘you will never rest if you do’, as another stallion leader became beset by visions of obsessed horses coming to his bedside at night, whilst his wife complained that nothing in the house would bake.vii
Eye of Newt, Toe of Stoat…
The members of the Horseman’s Word were not simply practitioners of methods that had been around for decades.
Instead, they developed new techniques from observation and experience.
One Horseman, Charles Rookyard of Helmingham, was ploughing with his horses when they suddenly stopped in their tracks. In front of them, a stoat had just killed a rabbit, apparently spooking the horses. At this point, Charles did what any normal person would do; he grabbed the stoat and rabbit, ground them into a powder, and used this concoction to make the horses halt in the future. Though it may seem peculiar to us, this was typical of the strange innovation that the Horsemen demonstrated on a daily basis to earn the Society’s revered reputation.viii
Can all the activities of the Horsemen be explained through science and logic? Perhaps not, as many feats of the Horsemen go unexplained to this day. One particular event, popular with Horsemen wishing to publicly show off their magical prowess, still defies explanation. As part of their demonstration, the Horseman would stick a fork into a dunghill, and hitch a team of horses to it. The horses would then be chivvied into action, and would visibly strain against their harness and traces, but the fork would not move. Members of the crowd would be invited to pull out the fork, and could easily do so. Yet the horses could not make it budge, even when the fork was re-inserted elsewhere on the dunghill. The above-mentioned Mervyn Cater recalled his father Walter demonstrating this trick, but could not figure out how it was done; all he could offer was that it was only done when the ground was frosty, and never in summer.ix
Despite the practical explanation for most of their horse control methods, the Society was strongly intertwined with the folklore of witchcraft. This was most strongly seen through the process of their initiation ceremony. Young men would be selected for initiation once they had proved themselves on the farm; firstly by looking after the cows and then the spare horse. On their eighteenth birthday, the chosen candidate would awaken to find a single horsehair on his pillow, as if left by some sort of equine tooth fairy. Their initiation would take place at midnight and had clear Satanic themes: there were always thirteen initiates, and it would involve the shaking of the devil’s hand (which was typically a branch wrapped in animal fur).
As if to compound the weirdness, new members were then ordered to sleep with an oatcake under their armpit. This did actually have a pragmatic use – the oatcake would be fed to a horse the next morning, and as the horse was then accustomed to the smell, it would let the initiate lead it without complaint. This was to demonstrate that the initiate could already harness the society’s magical powers after just one day.x It seems there were regional differences in the ceremony; a different account speaks of candidates being blindfolded, lying on straw, and being shown secret signs such as the “secret clasp of the hand”.xi Another tells of a Horseman fully dressing up as – and impersonating – the Devil, who harshly interrogates the candidate.xii I’ve had worse job interviews.
It was rumoured that being a Horseman also improved a young man’s chances with women.xiii There’s no real evidence to support this, but why not try an oatcake under the armpit in your Tinder profile picture from now on – whatever your gender. Let us know how you get on.
The Society’s associations with witchcraft did not stop after initiation. For example, Leonard Aldous from Suffolk recalled the use of the ‘hag-stone’ which was a holed flint to be hung above a horse during the night to avoid misfortune.xiv Many non-members were convinced that the Society’s practises were entirely founded in witchcraft. In one instance, Mervyn Cater watched his father convince a pony to continue working simply by talking to it (a technique also known as horse-whispering). When Mervyn relayed this to the other workers, they had the following conversation:
Worker 1: “Did you smell anything strange?”
Mervyn: “No, only the horse’s sweat.”
Worker 1: “You didn’t smell anything like brimstone?”
Worker 1: “Well, I did when he had a talk with my old gel!”
Worker 2: “Did you see flames?”xv
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the Society’s lore was the concept of the ‘Word’. It was said that during initiation, candidates would be told a Word which could be used to control the actions of any and all horses, simply by speaking it. It was also a symbol of the bond between a Horseman and a horse, a Word which defined horses and Horsemen as equals. Norman Halkett, a Society member born in 1910 who lived in Aberdeenshire, said that “There was a taking of a very definite oath, an oath which holds the horse just as sacred as your fellow horsemen.”xvi
This attitude also led many to view the Society as pioneers in animal welfare, though this is debatable due to accounts of some of the horse jading substances they used, such as a mixture of mercury and ground glass, which would have caused a very unpleasant feeling when applied to skin.xvii During my research I have seen numerous suggestions of what the Word was, though to relay my findings here would be irresponsible – it could cause terrible damage if it fell into the wrong hands!
Well into the 20th century, the sorcery of the Horsemen continued to be reported by the press, such as an article by the Aberdeen Press and Journal which declared that the Society could “bewitch meal mills and churns, and smite cattle with mysterious sickness.”xviii
Due to the reduced use of horses in ploughing, the Horseman’s Word declined in importance and withdrew from the public eye in the 1930s.xix But we do wonder whether there are still members of the Word out there today. If so, or if you do know anything about the society’s history or anyone who was a member, we would love to hear from you, so please do reach out.
For more history of the English countryside, keep exploring The MERL blog!
[i] McKerracher, Archie, ‘The Horseman’s Word’ The Countryman (104:1 1999) pp. 85
[ii] McKerracher, ‘The Horseman’s Word’ pp. 82
[iii] Evans, George Ewart, Horse Power and Magic (London : Faber and Faber 1979) p. 102
[iv] Evans, Horse Power and Magic p. 103
[v] ‘Horseman’s Word: Light on a Mysterious Secret Society’ Aberdeen Press and Journal 18/04/1924
[vi] Pennick, Nigel, Witchcraft and Secret Societies of Rural England: The Magic of Toadmen, Plough Witches, Mummers and Bonesmen (Destiny Books : Rochester 2019) p. 67
[vii] Pennick, Witchcraft and Secret Societies of Rural England p. 69
[viii] Evans, Horse Power and Magic p. 147
[ix] Evans, Horse Power and Magic p. 111
[x] McKerracher, ‘The Horseman’s Word’ pp. 83-84
[xi] ‘The Horseman’s Word’ Banffshire Reporter 18/11/1896
[xii] Pennick, Witchcraft and Secret Societies of Rural England pp. 61-62
[xiii] McKerracher, ‘The Horseman’s Word’ pp. 84, though this myth is recounted in almost any academic text on the Horsemen
[xiv] Evans, Horse Power and Magic p. 148
[xv] Evans, Horse Power and Magic pp. 100 – 101
[xvi] Evans, Horse Power and Magic p. 138
[xvii] Field Theatre Group, ‘The Horseman’s Word project – Lotions, Potions and Charms’ Accessed via https://www.horsemansword.org.uk/lotions-potions-and-charms/ on 26/10/2020
[xviii] ‘Horseman’s Word: Light on a Mysterious Secret Society’ Aberdeen Press and Journal 18/04/1924
[xix] ‘The Horseman’s Word: Is it now unknown?’ Orkney Herald 08/05/1929
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