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Country Life

Published on April 26th, 2024

From the heart of the village to the heart of the harvest, the images in The Francis Frith Collection provide a fascinating documentary record of rural life and social and economic change in Britain’s countryside over the last 150 years, showing how country life and landscapes have altered over time. We hope you enjoy this nostalgic selection of vintage photographs from the Collection celebrating the countryside and rural life in the past. Some of these photographs are in the original black and white versions, whilst others have been charmingly colour tinted in the old fashioned way.

Photo: Cenarth, Sheep Dipping c.1960.

The blacksmith was an important member of the community in the past. Horses were the motive power for both transport and agriculture, and his skill in keeping them well shod, and farm implements in good repair, was vital. On cold days the forge was often the warmest place to be, and local people would gather there to keep warm, chat and exchange gossip.

Photo: Nether Alderley, The Village Smithy, Bradford Lane 1896.

Thousands of sheep were kept on the Sussex Downs in the past, especially the Southdown breed, watched over by 'lookers' – the Sussex name for shepherds. In the background of this photograph is the secluded village of Westdean, near Seaford in East Sussex. Today the scenery is very different from how it appears in this view, as the Friston Forest now covers the downs where the sheep grazed in 1922.

Photo: Westdean, Shepherd With His Flock 1922.

Flower farming used to be a staple industry of the Isles of Scilly, which became known for the quality of their narcissi and daffodils. Two varieties which have stayed the course from those days are Scilly Whites and Soleil d'Or. These Scillonians on the island of St Mary's are happily posing in a field of narcissi.

Photo: St Mary's, Scillonian Family c.1891.

'Broom-squires' once ran a local industry on the heathland of Hindhead Common and the Devil's Punchbowl in Surrey, making besom brooms from bundles of birch and heather, bound together with a thin strip of pliant material such as hazel or chestnut, then fixed to a short wooden handle. They sold their wares at London and Portsmouth markets. This view shows George Mayes, the last broom-squire to live in the Devil's Punchbowl, who also delivered milk to Hindhead until his death in 1939. In order to balance the weight and to ease the load, the pails are chained to a yolk which is supported on his back.

Photo: Hindhead, George Mayes And Broom Squires' Cottages 1907.

'The oldest person in the village …reckoned her own age by the thatch of the roof. It had been completely new thatched five times since she could recollect. The first time she was a great girl, grown up; her father had it thatched twice afterwards; her husband had done it the fourth time, and the fifth was three years ago… about a hundred years altogether.'

From ‘Wild Life in a Southern County’, Richard Jefferies (1848-1887)

Photo: Merthyr Mawr, Rethatching The Old School c.1955.

This wonderful period photograph shows hay-making traditional-style near Linton in Wharfedale, Yorkshire. The farmer sits on his cutter as it slices through the sweet-smelling hay crop that will keep his stock through the bitter Dales winter.

Photo: Linton, Haytime c.1955.

'The friendly cow all red and white,
I love with all my heart:
She gives me cream with all her might,
To eat with apple tart.'
From 'The Cow', Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

Photo: Hampstead Norreys, Church Street, Milking Time c.1950.

This photograph of harvest time at Garboldisham in Norfolk depicts a now-vanished way of life in the country. Horse-drawn wagons have brought in the straw from the harvest fields. The rick-maker is at work – you can just spot a conical thatched roof in the background. Within a decade or two the roar of combine harvesters would mar the peaceful scene.

Photo: Garboldisham, Harvest Time c.1955.

'Now harvest’s done and ended, the corn secure from harm,
All for to go to market, boys, we must thresh in the barn.
Here's a health to all you farmers, likewise to all you men,
I wish you health and happiness till harvest comes again.'
From a traditional song, 'The Reaphook and Sickle'

Photo: Llanelidan, Steam Threshing Gang c.1910.

'Sow four grains in a row;
One for the pigeons, one for the crow,
One to rot and one to grow.'
Old country saying

Photo: Milford, Farming With Horses c.1955.

Eriskay is a tiny island in the Outer Hebrides, a group of western isles in Scotland. The Eriskay Pony breed developed there in ancient times, generally grey in colour and with a dense, waterproof coat that protects it in harsh weather. Eriskay ponies were used by crofters as pack animals, for light draught work and as mounts, but the breed is now rare and its population is considered to be at critical status by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

Photo: Eriskay, Gathering Peat 1963.

'If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?'
From ‘Ode to the West Wind’, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Photo: Shottery, The Holly Gatherers 1910.

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