In the log book of the Girls’ National School, Witham, on 29 June 1888, the headmistress wrote “Many are absent owing to peapicking. One child deserves praise, rising at 4 to work and attending school at 10 a.m.” The girl must have been between 5 and 10 years old, which was the age for compulsory education at that time. Once most of the children had been away picking for a few days, the headmistress would announce the start of the school holidays. Some of the work was as near as Church Street, but most was in neighbouring parishes.
Picking loomed large in many reminiscences of the early 1900s. For instance:
Mr Walter Peirce: “Four o’clock in the morning you used to get up, the women did, and buckets were rattling and the perambulators were squeaking, the kids were howling … As a youngster I remember that … if we picked a bag of peas then Mum would let us play about … When it was three o’clock you had to stop picking, then the ganger come round, and he’d have a big bundle of string, through his braces like, bits of string that length you see, and he’d tie all your bags up, and he’d pay you … then the horse and tumbrel come along, and pick em all up, and take them to Witham station, load them in the trucks for Covent Garden, for London.”
Mr Cecil Ager: “When we worked in the pea fields, when we had our holidays, they used to bring us tea round in a big urn with a donkey. Donkey and cart, every day.”
Mrs Edith Raven: “We’ve walked miles and miles and miles for pea picking. I have, in my married life … One field I went to … I went there at four o’clock in the morning and I worked till four o’clock in the afternoon and I earned fourteen shillings that day and I was that thrilled … I was able to buy the children something, you see. And stand up in that boiling hot heat all that time.”
Mrs Elsie Hammond: “Oh, don’t talk about pea picking … I used to hate it … they used to knock us up. Somebody along the road, knocks up … Most of the people were out, poorer people. Cause that was their only time of the year of getting a little bit extra, you see.” And her family “used to put some in the bucket with a coat on the top”.
Mrs Annie Clarke: “I was sitting on some one day, and Wheaton said ‘You don’t want to sit on that pail’ he said, ‘I know what you got in it!’ I said ‘Do you?’ He said ‘Yes.’ He said ‘I don’t mind you taking a few home but not a half a bag!’ “
Mrs Elsie Baxter: “Well, some of the girls wouldn’t go out and do it, would they? No. Some of them thought themselves too much. But we didn’t, we used to have fun out there in the fields – it was as good as going to the seaside for the day!”
Mr Gerald Palmer: “When I was a boy, I used to go blackberrying, but pea picking I didn’t do – that was a class lower than us that went pea picking. You were very class-conscious.”
The season was also marked by the arrival of travellers and gypsies in Witham to share in the picking. I’ll write about them next month. And fruit picking will also have to wait till another time.
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in July 2012