Farming memories of John Francis Bensted Sillars

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I was born in 1929 and named John Francis Bensted Sillars.

My mother’s name was Bensted. The Bensteds have lived in this area for generations.
Farm lands
My Great Grandfather Thomas lived at Down Court Doddington. He farmed at various times, Down Court, Tong Corner, Elmley and Chetney Marshes.
To get to Elmley he would be rowed across the Swale in the ferry boat, towing his horse behind.
My grandfather Francis Austen Bensted lived at ‘The Lawn’ in Sittingbourne High Street.
‘The Lawn’ was situated next to The Baptist Chapel and was compulsory purchased 1942 for a new Fire station – since demolished.

Grandfather started Sittingbourne Market behind the Bull Inn in the early 1900s.
Mondays were livestock days and on Wednesdays poultry and produce were sold.
He owned and rented land all around the town – ‘The Lawn’ itself had land attached on both sides of Remembrance Avenue, both sides of Borden Lane, and Blackett’s Farm at Tong which flooded in 1935 when all his sheep were drowned. He also farmed the present King George’s Playing Field, and Ufton Court Farm at Tunstall. In Borden he farmed Street Farm, Hearts Delight Farm, Chapman’s Orchard (which ran from Pond Road to Eyehorne Hatch), Chivels in Wises Lane, Backneys on Vigo Lane and Riddles.
‘Riddles’ was and is owned by The Barrow Trust. I have always understood that it was exchanged for land at Milstead in about 1863.

Charles Homewood was tenant of Riddles in 1895 and also owned Ufton Court. Grandfather bought Ufton Court at some stage and took on the Tenancy of Riddles in 1917.
Grandfather was appointed Trustee of the Barrow Trust in 1918 and the Tenancy was passed on to his son Frank in turn he was appointed Trustee in 1941. The Tenancy was granted to his brother Arthur who by this time farmed Ufton Court and Borden Hall land.

Arthur died in 1952 – I and my brother Austen Bensted Sillars were allowed to purchase Ufton Court out of his estate. We also took on the Tenancy of Riddles.
We moved into Riddles House in 1956 we were the first tenants of the Barrow Trust to actually live there, as previously, it had always been sub-let.
The land was planted with cherry, apple, pear and plum trees all mixed up. The crops were sold on the trees at auction for other people to pick and market. The sales were conducted by the family firm F. Austen Bensted & Sons and were held in the ‘Egg Hut’ in Sittingbourne market.

Cherries used to grow on very tall trees and great skill was needed to move ladders to reach the tops this was in order to satisfy the concerns of the pickers as to the quantity of cherries when they got up there and the safety of their position.
Ladders were made locally and varied in height up to the highest I ever managed 51 rungs about 35 feet, but I am sure they went higher than that, hence the name ‘Cherry pickers for the hydraulic lifts of today.
The best pickers could pick two handed, very often with their backs to the ladder – no health and safety then!!
With the hundreds of acres grown locally I never heard of a death or serious accident.
Birds were a great pest of cherry growing – pigeons when the fruit was pea –sized (200 hundred in one day were shot) starlings and blackbirds when the fruit was ripening.
At the height of the cherry season you could stand in Borden and hear at least one bird scaring banger every second during the hours of daylight.
Cherries were sold in 12Ib chip baskets, either thin wood and cardboard or ‘Dutch’ trays.
Three lorries used to leave Home Farm Borden every night for Covent Garden.
Cardboard chips were sometimes loaded on to trains at Newington railway Station for transport to the Midlands.
We used to send chips of cherries by rail to friends and relations in the Channel Islands until eventually they were pilfered to such an extent that they arrived empty.

We used to keep a flock of sheep at Ufton Court and did our lambing at Riddles at the bottom of my garden!
We drove the ewes and their two day old lambs back along Riddles road to Ufton Court – quite and undertaking even then!
There was a sheep dip at Street Farm Borden and we had to drive our sheep through the village to get there. One day we were nearing the ‘Maypole’,when another flock appeared from Street farm heading down Wises lane; a few seconds earlier and we could have had an unholy mix up.
Sheep had to be dipped against a disease called ‘sheep scab’ by law.
The Police would sometimes attend to see that the job was being done properly. I think the chemical used was a form of arsenic. It was a very effective and sheep scab was eradicated from the national flock about 1960. Some years later the disease was reintroduced by the importation of some sheep from Ireland carrying the disease. More modern chemicals seem unable to do such a good job as a dose of arsenic! the disease is still present in this country.
Sheep were also driven in their hundreds to the sale field in Remembrance Avenue. (now a school sports field) It held up the traffic somewhat and the bleating upset the neighbours especially when the sheep were left overnight.

In the early sixties we used to have cattle send up from Devon by train. There were two sets of cattle pens at Sittingbourne Station for unloading. We would drive 30 – 40 cattle from the station up Cockleshell walk – across the A2 and up Ufton lane to Ufton Court.
Rat and Sparrow Clubs
Rat and Sparrow clubs were common in the early 1900s.These were founded by the local farmers and each participating farm had a working member. At threshing time each corn stack was surrounded by wire netting (I think by law) and as the stack got lower and lower the rats would try to bolt and were killed against the netting.
Sparrows nested in corn stacks and ivy clad walls. At night a torch was shone through a sparrow net onto their hiding places and when disturbed they flew towards the light and were trapped in the net. Eggs were also taken from the nests.
Queen wasps were caught in stacks of fruit boxes.
Pigeons were shot or their nests raided. The working members were paid according to their catches rat’s tails, pigeon heads & eggs, sparrow heads, queen wasps etc.
In the late 1950s the club was run by Alec Greenlees of Woodgate Farm and Phil Woodman of Wrens Farm. They invited their friends and acquaintances to the Annual Prize Giving. A fulsome meal was provided followed by entertainment. – A very convivial affair. Men only!
Hounds
In the 1950s and 60s the Tickenham Hunt used to meet at The Maypole and The Plough and Harrow and for several Boxing Days at the Beauty of Bath.

I am now retired and still live in the village and the family continue to own land and farm in the area.
September 2009 

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John Francis Bensted Sillars

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