A Hidden Treasure
by Daphne Turner of Ovingdean, UK
photographs by David Baker of Ovindean, UK
I don’t know how it is in other countries but in England where most heavy draught horses are kept for leisure pursuits, getting that first horse is just the initial step on a long journey of acquiring a multitude of accessories. After getting the horse comes the harness and then some object to pull. Usually this is some agricultural item, and a pair of harrows is often the first acquisition, followed by some piece of machinery such as a cultivator or roller. But it is not very long before that must-have item at the top of the equine shopping list is a traditional wagon. And so it was with David Baker and his Suffolk mare.
But this is not as easy as one might think.
Because of the great variety of terrain in the UK, wagons varied greatly in size and design and once other forms of transport came into use and trailers became more standardized, the traditional cart fell into disuse, often being left to rot away in some out of the way corner. When the heavy horse began to make a comeback, the better specimens of wagons were bought up for the show ring so that today it is very difficult to find a cart, even one needing major restoration, whilst the cost in both materials and labour of building a new cart is too prohibitive to contemplate. But here luck was with David.
Through a good friend, Gus Kitson, who lives in Suffolk and both owns a Suffolk horse and is a wheelwright, David learnt about a small tip-cart for sale. The owner was an elderly gentleman, Mr. Hemmett, who lives in Ringsfield, Suffolk and at 90 years old has had a lifetime’s association with agriculture. He even lives in a house which is a converted blacksmith’s shop. However, when David and Gus visited Mr. Hemmett they had an unexpected find. Not only was there the small tip-cart but other full sized farm wagons. The first that David looked at was a double shafted Lincolnshire wagon designed for the flat lands of that county and too big and heavy for his Suffolk mare of 16.2 hands. But tucked at the back under a tarpaulin was the ideal vehicle – a Norfolk wagon that could take either a single or double shaft and was suitable for the smaller draught horse. Mr. Hemmett had found it in a lean-to shed in Norfolk and believed it had last been used in the 50’s. It had been there so long a tree of some 30 years’ maturity had grown up in front of it and had to be removed by digger before the wagon could be moved to Mr. Hemmett’s premises.
Gus has many years’ experience of rebuilding traditional carts and recently restored the Barron tree transplanter for the world famous Botanical Gardens at Kew in London (see Small Farmer’s Journal, Winter 2002, Issue 101). So with Gus’s professional assessment of the required renovations to guide him, David decided to buy the wagon and made arrangements to collect it.
Once back at Gus’s workshop, it was six months before he could slot the work into his busy schedule, and make a full assessment of necessary renova- tions. Apart from the need for new side raves (the curved top boards whose purpose is to hold in the back when the tail gate is lowered for heavy loads), fellies or felloes in the back wheels and rot in the left hand side boards, Gus found the cart needed a new top rail over the front, a new bottom rail plus a new floor. There are a number of different woods used in wagon making and replacement parts must be made from the correct timbers. Axles and spokes are oak, the frame and fellies ash, the hubs normally elm, the side boards pitch pine and the floor larch. As the bolts were very rusty, it was extremely difficult to dismantle the wagon and it took one whole day just to remove the side and a second day to cut and shape the bottom rail. During this dismantling, Gus found the date 1917 stamped on the back axle, obviously the original date of manufacture.
The rebuilding of the wagon was a painstaking affair. First the new bottom rail and side had to be bolted back on, followed by the new top rail across the front and then the new curved raves down each side. It was then time to repaint the body in the traditional red and blue colours used in East Anglia – three to four undercoats and two top coats. Then a completely new floor of larch pretreated with wood preservative was put in. This wood came from David’s family farm in Sussex and had been cut down more than 20 years earlier.
Once the wagon body was finished, Gus turned his attention to the back wheels to which he fitted new fellies and retired them. All four wheels were then painted in traditional red with hand applied black coach lines.
Using the old shafts as a pattern, new shafts were made from ash and again painted in traditional red with hand applied black coach lines. Here the Cartwright must not just copy blindly but must consider the larger build and length of the modern horse. The shafts are secured to the front of the wagon by a metal rod and can be used either together or singly depending on the horse power required to pull the 15 cwt. (1680 lbs.) wagon plus a load.
A removable footplate for the driver was made for the front of the wagon along with new ladders which are placed front and back to hold in loads of hay, both finished in red. It then remained only to attach the oval plaque giving the owner’s name and address, in this case “D. M. Baker, Ovingdean,” a legal requirement even in the days before car registration plates.
As agricultural wagons, unlike town drays, have no intrinsic pedal-operated braking systems an iron drag shoe or slod was dropped in front of the back wheel which caused it to slide when going downhill, and a wooden roller was towed behind the back wheel when going uphill in case the vehicle began to run backwards. Fortunately the cart came complete with the drag shoe and it was a simple matter to make a new roller.
And the total time required to transform this Norfolk wagon from a deteriorating hulk hidden under a tarpaulin behind a living tree to its full working glory? Well Gus worked on it week by week on a stop/start basis as his other work commitments permitted but, had he dedicated his time to the restoration, he believes it would have taken a complete month. But it has been time well spent. David has driven the wagon, with Gus as groom, at various venues in England and France. It was awarded second place at the Kent County Agricultural Show and in 2001 also appeared at the World Percheron Congress at the Haras due Pin in France before being taken on to be displayed in the final Grand Parade of the Biennial Fish Run at the Vincennes Racecourse, Paris. Its latest outing was at the annual Heavy Horse Day held in June 2004 at the Singleton Open Air Museum in Southern England when David drove it with two horses in shafts and two horses in trace harness in front, each horse carrying on its hames a belfry of journey bells that teams used to wear when traveling down narrow country lanes to warn other road users to clear the way.
It is a privilege and a pleasure to preserve and display part of our agricultural heritage and David and Gus look forward to future opportunities to show an increasingly urban population its heritage.