One thing you don’t see on farms much now are the various van salesmen. They’d travel from farm to farm selling stuff. The vast majority of it was at least quazi-legally acquired.
You’d get the ‘gate salesmen’ who’d turn up with an open pickup loaded with metal gates. Sometimes they’d got a load cheap, perhaps picked up at a bankruptcy sale; sometimes they’d picked up some cheap steel and had a mate who could weld. Some of the latter gates could be good value, especially if they’d picked up some decent steel angle-bar cheap. At least with angle-bar you can see the thickness of the metal you’re buying. Gates made out of welded steel tubes take a lot more sussing out. I’ve seen tubing used where galvanizing the damned stuff probably doubled its weight!
Then there were the chaps selling clothes. They would pick up seconds from the Lancashire mills or stock clearance from shops closing down and they’d stack it all in the truck and head out. I remember as late as the 1980s one lad proudly presented for our inspection a dozen boxes of shirt’s he’d found, still in their wrappers, when he’d bought out the entire stock of an old clothes shop. They were the old style, with separate collars which were attached by studs. Far more importantly they were so long that when you wore them, you were sitting on them when you sat down. Men had a damned sight less back problems brought on by working in a cold draught when they wore shirts like that.
Then there were the tool sellers, the purveyors of carpets and rugs, canned foods where the labels had suffered in storage, honey in five gallon drums, patent medicines for people or for livestock, and any number of others. They worked on the principle that they acquired it cheap and sold it for whatever mark-up they could get.
I suppose there isn’t the market any more. In 1950 there were 196,000 dairy farms in the UK, now there might still be over 10,000. The number of other farms types of farm has also declined. Not only that but with less than a third of the manpower in farming compared to what there was in the 1960s, people are just too damned busy. On top of this, when some bright spark comes into your yard to quote you a price, it’s the job of a moment to ask google for a price comparison.
Also I suspect that people are now so busy and so stressed that they’re more willing to tell a time wasting salesman to leave; normally using a two word expressing ending in ‘Off’, the first word having between four and six letters.
What you have to remember is that whilst some of these traders you saw once and then never again, some were fixtures, you’d see them most years. They’d built a market for themselves, their stuff was OK, the prices were OK, and they were good enough to deal with. Not only that but by definition, it was all delivered to the yard.
Most of them have sort of faded from memory now, there’s a couple I might recognise if I bumped into them somewhere. Yet there’s one I’m never likely to forget. I haven’t a clue what her name was but if I went onto any farm in South Cumbria or North Lancashire and asked if ‘Honest to God’ had been recently they’d know exactly who I meant.
She (and it was a she) was unusual in that I don’t remember many other women selling gates. She had her husband with her, but he said nothing, he merely lifted gates of and on the pickup. (He seemed to have taken his role from watching Fanny Cradock and her husband Johnnie.) I don’t remember her starting a sentence with anything but ‘Honest to God……’ Trust me; she started a lot of sentences. But to be fair to her, she certainly saved you the trouble of starting your own. It was a conversation that verged on the monologue. I think her sales technique was just to overwhelm you with a constant barrage of spiel until you bought something if only to get rid of her.
It once took us over an hour to get rid of her, we were obviously two courteous. Far too courteous because she kept reappearing every year. Finally she turned up on a day when my parents were both away. I was, by definition, at least twice as busy as I normally was and drove down the yard with the tractor going flat out to find her and her husband standing by their truck looking for a victim.
She flagged me down and shouted something.
I replied, “I cannot hear you for the tractor.”
She shouted something else, longer this time.
I replied, “I’ve got to keep the tractor at full rev. I cannot let it stop.”
This was perfectly true, if the tractor wasn’t at full rev there was a chance I might have heard her, and be blowed if I was going to stop it and waste half an afternoon.
She shouted something else, perhaps it was more eloquent this time, I don’t know, it might even have been beseeching.
I replied, “Sorry, cannot hear you, have to go, needs fixing.”
With that I drove off round the corner in among the buildings. I left the tractor running full rev until I saw her and her husband drive out of the yard.
They came back one more time but we were lucky, we saw them coming and managed to disappear.
Oh yes, in case I forgot to mention it, a collection of tales is available at
For a mere £0.99