Obituary: Tom Forster
Friday 30 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."
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