A Mind for Machines
A review by Alasdair Crosby, published in the Jersey Evening Post, 28 November 2006
STICKS and stones helped mankind conquer the earth, and made the first impressions in the virgin soil where the world's first gardens and fields would grow.
In Jersey, the first farmers were those same Neolithic people who built Hougue Bie and the other imposing monuments of prehistory. A piece of antler with two horns made a useful pitchfork and the shoulder blade of an ox could be used as a shovel. The undergrowth was cut down with stone axes and sickles and a tree branch could be removed, one end sharpened, and be made into a digging stick. So for a history of farm implements in Jersey, the title of a new book 'From Sticks and Stones, Antlers and Bones' is an appropriate one. The book was launched recently at the Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society, and its author, retired agricultural engineer Mervyn Billot, has taken, as his grand theme, the history of Jersey farm implements, machines and tractors, from 4000BC to 1960AD.
For all but a comparatively few years of that colossal time span, of course, machines and tractors don't feature much, but tractors and machinery are Mr Billot's first love, and it is the mechanised agriculture of the last century or so that takes up most of the book.
He drove his first tractor on the family farm - at that time Beau Désert, St Saviour - at the age of nine, and from then on he was in his element. He recalled: 'As a child I used to love going with my father to the RJAHS Summer Show in Springfield. I couldn't be bothered looking at the show-jumping and other events that took place. I much preferred looking round the trade stands at the back and collecting leaflets about tractors, farm vehicles and machines to take home and read.
'In the summer of 1935 (I wasn't quite ten years old), I was there, doing what I liked best, and as I was examining a Bristol tractor, the man on the stand invited me to take it for a drive in a circle in the open space in front of the stand.
'"Yes please!" I jumped at the invitation and sat on the tractor - it had a tiller to steer it and tracks rather than wheels. I drove it round in the biggest circle I could make and came back to the stand. The man was quite impressed and invited me to come back at 4pm if I wanted another ride. Of course I did and at 4pm I was back at the stand.
'As I drove the tractor around, I saw a photographer take my picture. His camera was on a tripod and he had cloth over his head. It turned out he was from the Evening Post. The next day my picture was on the front page - much to my father's surprise.
'"What the heck have you been up to?" he asked me!'
Like most children growing up on Jersey farms, he was expected to work on the farm before school in the mornings and during holidays. There was a big extended family, and when Mr Billot was a child the family farm was La Porte, Rue de la Porte, also in St Saviour, bought by his great-great-father in 1834, and in the 1930s farmed by his uncle. Both La Porte and Beau Désert were mixed farms, growing potatoes and tomatoes and also dairy farms.
In 1940, in advance of the Occupation, he left for England, and saw service in the Royal Navy. Six years later he was demobbed, working again on the farm, but now acutely conscious that he was very ignorant about agriculture. So he went back to England, taking his motorbike with him, and was soon in receipt of an ex-Serviceman's grant, which enabled him to attend Sparsholt College - then a much smaller establishment that it is now.
Afterwards he went on to study agricultural engineering at Chelsea College and gained a diploma. He worked for engineering companies Bomford Brothers in Evesham and Ransomes of Ipswich, spent a short time in Jersey when he inherited La Porte from his uncle, then it was back to his career in agricultural engineering in the UK.
In 1968 he returned to settle in Jersey at La Porte, which became the location of his own agricultural engineering business, which was sold in 1987. From 1983 to 1990 he was a St Saviour Deputy in the States and after he retired from both business and politics, he spent three years cruising with his wife, Sheila, before returning again to the Island.
It had been in 1987 that he was invited to join the Channel Island Group of Professional Engineers. Nine years later, he was talking to a member of the same group, Geoff Le Feuvre, who suggested to him that as the only agricultural engineer in the group he should research and write a history of farm implements in Jersey.
He overcame an initial sense of shock at the suggestion and then a further shock on the realisation that his history should have to encompass 6,000 years of history But talks to the Société and other organisations that he began to give on the subject were very well received: 'I never really expected anybody to be interested in agricultural machinery,' he said.
The book is now complete, after some half-dozen years of research, and was launched this week.
Asked if he felt this book was more for the academic or technical reader than for a general one, Mr Billot hoped it would have a general appeal to anyone interested in Jersey's agricultural past.
The breadth of research and detailed knowledge in the book is patently vast and, as Anne Perchard says in her foreword, the author's enthusiasm for all things mechanical in agriculture shines through. There is a wealth of illustrations and there are also two sizes of text: the larger size carries the narrative forward; the smaller size gives more detailed information about the illustrations of the implements and machinery So you can either skim through a chapter, missing out the captions, or, if you have a particular interest in one of the chapters, read as well the captions in the smaller text for more detailed information.
There is one, unavoidable criticism, and that is that the amount of information and pictures give an overcrowded appearance to the pages. The print of the narrative text is not large and the print of the captions is small enough to make many readers want to reach for strong reading spectacles. Ideally the pages would have been less full, so that a larger print size and larger pictures would undoubtedly have had far more impact.
Of course, it is not an ideal world, and the prohibitive costs of producing a book any bigger or thicker than this one might be imagined.
Subjects covered include the development of the plough, horse-drawn machinery, horse and steam engines and threshing machines, cider crushers and presses and, of course, tractors throughout the 20th Century, since the first two-wheeled tractor appeared in Jersey in 1913.
Mr Billot suggested that it was a book for dipping into, rather than for trying to read from front to back cover, and it in this way, opening the book almost at random, and reading short extracts, that the book is at its most engaging and readable.
Copyright © Jersey Evening Post --A review by Alasdair Crosby, published in the Jersey Evening Post, 28 November 2006
This work uniquely records not only the bare facts but the background to the entire known history of farming tools in Jersey over some 6,000 years. Meryyn Billot has wisely "set the scene" with a clever synopsis of the following sections from subsistence to crop export. The initial formation and ultimate emergence of the Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society in 1833 focussed the efforts of many individual farmers not only on crops and the Jersey breed, but to use and often develop machines and tools to increase productivity. The arrival of engine power, whether steam or internal combustion engines, expanded the capacity of many such tools; examples [the author] quotes range from ploughs, crop gathering and milking to transport, all hitherto relying on horse or oxen power.
Drawing together the historical influences in detail: the Neolithic people reached Jersey about 4,850 B.C. Their skills in using bone, wood and flint to craft tools is remarkable. The important plough is given a full section right up to the 19th century and later. As bronze emerged from soft copper and iron started to arrive, blacksmiths recycled material, setting a trend for today.
The author allows himself a glimpse of possible future power technology as the rapid pace of change from horse and oxen power to pull the plough and drive machinery has developed. Steam and petrol/paraffin engines do not require costly feed, shoeing and medical care. Farms shared machinery while maintaining the horse for periods when the engine was booked elsewhere. Gradually, Jersey engineers developed their own versions from imported machines, in particular the Jersey patented potato planting and harvesting unit. The author dwells sadly on the demise of the inter-family coordination which did so much to maintain a cohesive society through troubled times.
The twentieth century saw the import of tractor power for increased ploughing capacity and conveniently to drive the vast range of farming implements, including barn and shed machinery. The author describes from personal experience the dairy industry spawning a new set of powered units.
Farm transport depends on the wheel. Wheelwright and blacksmith combined skills enabling a huge range of carts, trailers and carriages to be horse drawn - until the arrival of the lorry in the late twenties. Hand tools were usually specific to a crop or job of work. The miscellaneous section is a work in itself, covering scales, incubators and irrigation and much more. Finally, a list of blacksmiths, engineers and machinery dealers leads to a valuable glossary and index.
This is a lavishly illustrated and thoroughly researched work by one whose lifetime experience is in farming. It is not a dry tome; I have enjoyed reviewing it. --Channel Islands Group of Professional Engineers (CIGPE) journal . Dr R. A. Kisch
Mervyn Billot was born and raised on a farm in [St Saviour] Jersey. He later served in the Royal Navy. Following this, he was educated in Agriculture and Agricultural Engineering at Sparsholt and Chelsea College. He became a member of our Institution whilst working at firstly Bomford Brothers and then Ransomes. He returned to his native Jersey where he owned and ran his engineering company. He also served in the Island parliament.
In 1996, it was suggested by Geoffrey Le Feurve of the Channel Islands group of professional engineers that with his background and experience, he was perfectly qualified to write a book on the history of agriculture and its mechanisation. At this stage, it was decided that the book would be based on the island of Jersey. This was very sound thinking as it gave the book focus and selected an area of important agricultural development which was small enough to allow in depth research without becoming unmanageable.
Having now waded through the approaching 400 pages of the work which was completed ten years after its conception, I will attempt to do it justice in a few hours of consideration.
Put in a nutshell, it truly is a history of things mechanical in agriculture for a period of some 6000 years and, coupled with this, it outlines the history of the agriculture of the island for the same period. I am in complete awe of the man, it was a mammoth undertaking. It tells the evolution of machinery from mans' first efforts to the modern sophisticated engineer designed implements. All these were developed to make farming more efficient and alleviate the toil of farm labourers.
The work contains a fascinating collection of photographs many rare if not unique which in one book provides a major contribution to agricultural heritage. It also develops a wide range of statistics of the mechanisation of the islands and its implications. Together with this are his excellent sketches/drawings of early implements and excellent descriptions of their working principles and their place in the evolution of farm machinery.
What actually makes this work in my opinion so important is that it spans uninterrupted a period of some 6000 years in detail and in context a truly exceptional outcome, It is a ground breaking contribution to agricultural engineering literature and, unlike many history tomes, it is 'a good read'
It starts by setting the scene with historical notes on agriculture in Jersey dealing with major changes and their implications.
His second chapter, 'The Beginning', deals with early hand tools from wood and stone, antler and bone as used in the title. It is an interesting well researched section of early mans' efforts to till the soil.
The third chapter deals with the development of first the Ard and then the plough. Following chapters first discuss the influence of the bronze and iron ages, and the use of draught animals; and then simple horse-powered and steam engines and threshing machines.
The next section was a surprise (and as a boy of Somerset a pleasure!) cider crushers and presses, yes Jersey had scrumpy!!
After dealing with tractor power and soil engaging implements, the book turns to barn machinery, dairy equipment and other miscellaneous items found on the farm. All are dealt with in the same detail and care.
I can only finish by recommending this book to you. Whether your interest is engineering on the farm, agricultural history or the development of machines, I hope you enjoy the work as much as I have.
M J Hann --Journal of the Institution of Agricultural Engineers Landwards
Congratulations are due to the author for undertaking this mammoth work. His undoubted enthusiasm for all things mechanical in agriculture shine through. He tells the story of the evolution of machinery from the first rough efforts of man to the work of today's very clever and sophisticated engineers - men who, especially since the agricultural revolution, have designed implements to make farming more efficient and prestigious and to alleviate the former hard and thankless toil of the agricultural labourer. The adaptation of machines to suit our Jersey conditions is well researched and most interesting. A fascinating collection of unique historic photos and statistics ensures that this part of our agricultural heritage is recorded before it vanishes. I have memories of our first Miracle Milker and our first little grey Fergie in the 1950s - how excited we were - those were the tops! Now we marvel at today's modern dairy units and the massive multi-purpose tractors and machines that work the land. The progress continues.
Mervyn Billot's research spans the years 4,OOOBC to AD1960. His perseverance over the past 1O years in a ground-breaking contribution to this large subject deserves our grateful thanks for the unselfish communication of his knowledge. I am privileged to have been invited to write a this foreword - it merits a large circle of readers. I like to think that many people will, as I have done, find great pleasure in reading this book. --Foreword by Anne E Perchard MBE