I first came across John Wortley nineteen years ago. More correctly I saw his wood carvings before I met the genial Englishman who has made his home in Ireland for the past 47 years. His story is of one man’s attachment to land, an attachment which has endured ever since he left the employment of a wholesale stationers in 1933. He was living in Surrey, just south of Croydon, at the age of 16 years when he started a poultry business. He recalls buying a 12 horsepower Morris car for £12.10s soon afterwards for his egg round, but energy and hard work was not then sufficient guarantee of commercial success. He soon gave up the uneven struggle but determined to stay working within the agricultural sector. Just before the start of World War II he spent six months without pay on a farm in Shropshire to gain experience of farmwork. His first job was as a stockman and as a driver to a farmer who fell foul of the drunk driving laws of the time. The farm was in Bichester, Oxfordshire, a noted hunting centre on the edge of the Vale of Aylesbury. While he was there World War II broke out but John as a farm manager was not accepted in the regular army and instead he joined the Air Raid Precaution Service. His next farm job was in Leicestershire where John started work each morning milking cows at 4.30am, finishing at 10.00pm, a routine endured for two days at a stretch, with every third day off. In June 1941 John married Joan whom he had met in art college some years previously. John was earning 48 shillings per week and provided with a farm house which the young couple shared with another farm worker and his family.
During the World War English agriculture was subjected to compulsory tillage control and War Agricultural Committees took control of farms which were not worked efficiently. For a time in early 1943 John worked as a farm foreman for the Duke of Bedford at Woburn Abbey, now well known as a major tourist attraction in the Bedfordshire countryside. When the farm manager was sacked by the Duke, John was offered his job, but only part of the house previously occupied by the departing manager. John showing a determined streak, took himself to another position, this time with the Land Settlement Association near Jarrow.
An industrial town on the River Tynne, Jarrow was associated with the unemployment and social unrest of the 1920’s. It was from Jarrow that unemployed men began the long march to London in 1926 to demand jobs from the Conservative Government. John’s job as farm manager and machinery officer with the Land Settlement Association was to work closely with the former miners and ship builders who were allocated land by the Commission.
He spent two years amongst the Jarrow folk before moving in 1947 to Great Raveley in Cambridgeshire when offered a job by the former manager of the Woburn Estate. John was now earning £400 a year with a house provided, two pigs to kill, free fuel, vegetables, firing and a car provided. A period of relative prosperity followed which soon gave way to thoughts of owning and working his own agricultural holding. So it was that in 1949 John bought a 20 acre croft in Scotland with rights on 7,000 acres of commonage. Crofting developed following the Highland Clearances of the late 18th and 19th centuries which compelled Scottish tenants to abandon their homes and to adopt a subsistence lifestyle as crofters on the fringes of the barren Scottish coastline. Each croft consisted of a small holding with grazing rights on common pasture. It was a way of life which led to poverty, emigration and the eventual de-population of the Scottish Highlands.
The Wortley croft was at Greenstone Point, a cold, wet, and windy outcrop of moorland 90 miles north west of Inverness. The nearest village was Aultbea. The local school was 8 miles distance while the local doctor had to make a return journey of 90 miles if he was required to attend the Wortley household. It was to Greenstone Point that John, Jean and their two children, Frances and Andrew made the long arduous journey from Cambridgeshire just four years after the end of World War II. Jean and the children travelled by train, arriving at a station 35 miles distance from their new home while John travelled from Great Raveley just south of Petersborough with all the family furniture in a small truck. The journey was made at a slow speed without an overnight stop with John and the truck driver alternating as drivers. They set out on a Monday early in the morning and finally reached their destination at 12noon the following Wednesday after a journey of over 700 miles.
Greenstone Point was and is an isolated Gaelic-speaking area where severe gales lash the landscape and the persistent rainfall buffeted by the wind seems to fall almost horizontally. Barley and potatoes were grown on the 20 acre holding, with certified shallots for seed purposes providing a particularly good crop in what was a virus-free area. The barley was used for feeding cattle, six of which were kept together with three milking cows. An annual trip was made to Dingwall Market over 100 miles away to sell the cattle and buy in calves. The eight mile daily trip to the one-roomed school in Laide, a crofting village on Grunard Bay, was made courtesy of the local travelling grocer. He collected the Wortley children and the children of their far flung neighbours for school, took the orders for the daily rations and returned children and the pre-ordered groceries that same afternoon. The seemingly idyllic setting of the 20 acre croft brought with it hardships and deprivations unimagined when viewed from the comfort and security of a farmstead in Cambridgeshire and inevitably the isolated farming experiment was brought to an early conclusion. The croft was put up for sale and the Wortley family moved southwards to Buckinghamshire where in 1952 John got a job as a farm labourer and what he describes as a tiny cottage to accommodate his family.
In 1954 John and the family were on the move again, this time to Ireland to take up a job as farm manager on the Tipping Estate at Bellungan Castle near Dundalk. Once the summer residence of the Dublin Castle rulers Bellungan Castle was in the 1950’s home to Evan Tipping, the famous Welsh operatic singer. John stayed for three years before moving southwards to County Kildare.
At 40 years of age John Wortley moved to Barleyhill in Moone to manage a 500 acre farm owned by Lambe Brothers, jam manufacturers of Dublin. Here he was to spend the second half of his career and unlike the many and varied moves made in his earlier years, Barleyhill and later Oldcourt would provide a more stable background for the one time crofter and his family…..[TO BE CONTINUED]…..