Obituary: Tom Forster

Thomas William Forster, ploughman: born Ainstable, Cumbria 17 July 1906; married Mary Elliott; died Hexham, Northumberland 13 January 1998.

Tom Forster, of Wallington, Northumberland, was Britain's oldest ploughman. He only gave up work after reaching his 90th birthday 18 months ago. Ploughing a straight furrow, first with horses and latterly with tractors, had been his life.

Forster was born in a cottage near Ainstable in Cumbria, the son of a farmworker. His earliest memory was of dragging a piece of driftwood along the shore of the Solway Firth. As he watched the sand curve from the stick like soil from a ploughshare, he knew he wanted to be a ploughman.

When he was seven his family moved to work on a farm at Lowgate near Hexham in Northumberland. Forster was supposed to go to the village school in Lowgate but there were other attractions : "If I saw someone ploughing in the fields on the way to school, I wouldn't go to school. I'd just follow the ploughman all day."

At the age of 12 he started working on farms. It was a tough life. In spring and autumn most farmworkers were picked out by farmers at hiring fairs held in market towns like Hexham. In the 1920s the pay was pounds 3 for three months' work. The men got board and lodging too. But a ploughman's lunch in those days was a hunk of salt bacon and a crust of bread.

"It was hard work," Forster recalled, "Some farmers treated you worse than their dogs." On one farm he worked at, the farmer was bedridden but used to watch his men at work in the fields through a mirror on the bedroom wall. "If you went out of sight he used to time you," Forster said. "And if you'd stopped to light your pipe or something, he'd play war."

In those days there was a strict hierarchy among farmworkers. At the top was the head horseman. It was a tradition that his pair of horses were the first out of the stable in the morning. It was Forster's ambition to be head horseman and by the time he was 19 he had achieved it.

In 1940 Sir Charles Trevelyan, who had been President of the Board of Education in the first Labour government in 1924 and again in 1929-31, engaged Forster as ploughman at his home farm at Wallington Hall in Northumberland. Forster settled in a cottage in the courtyard of the stately home; it was to be his home for the rest of his life.

I met Tom Forster while filming a television programme about his life, For Love of the Plough, which was broadcast in 1987. He had an astonishing memory for details, especially if they were about ploughing or the weather. "I well remember the day I started at Wallington," he would say, feet on his kitchen mantelpiece, pipe puffing furiously, "October the 22nd. Very wet. But, mind, November that year was a lovely month and we got a lot done on the land."

Forster had a good relationship with his employer. At harvest, he was happy to let his boss, who was a crack shot, ride on the back of the reaping machine shooting rabbits as they ran away through the stubble. But he would discourage Trevelyan from helping him build the stacks of corn, a delicate job and not one for the inexperienced: "I'd tell him he was getting in the way and he seemed to accept it."

Ploughing is a skill and great ploughmen are the true friends of the earth. Every field presenting a fresh challenge: a strange shape, odd contours, difficult soil. It was Forster's boast that he had never been defeated by a field. When he was finished, it was always properly turned over, ready for the seed. The secret, he said, was making sure the plough was set right. Forster ploughed in contests all over Britain and was Northern Counties Ploughing Champion 11 times. He also worked for the Agricultural Training Board as an instructor.

In 1971, Forster retired from farmworking - and began a new career as a ploughing contractor. He bought a tractor and a reversible plough and ploughed for farmers all over Northumberland. When his wife Mary died, he was heartbroken, but he kept on working. "We had no children," he said. "It was the ploughing which pulled me through."

While others enjoyed their retirement, he would work from dawn to dusk on farms like Beaumont House, Corbridge, where, 75 years on, he ploughed the same fields he had ploughed as a young horseman in 1921 - and ploughed them with the same care. He was an outspoken opponent of many modern farming methods and was scathing in his criticism of farmers' haste to sow corn in the autumn rather than wait until spring. "They're in such a damned hurry," he said. "It's not natural and it doesn't do the land any good."

Although he spent the last half of his working life sitting on a tractor, he always enjoyed an opportunity to visit friends who still kept horses and try his hand at ploughing with them. "When you're ploughing with horses and the plough's set right, you can hear the plough singing through the soil and the horses are just sailing," he said. "Man, that's a great feeling."

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Harry Redknapp. Mark Hughes and Ryan Shawcross
footballNews and updates as Queens Park Rangers host the Potters
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
i100... with this review
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
New Articles
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam