Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Ashley Cooper, one of Suffolk's leading arboricultural historians, to the Parish Room on December 10th. On a cold winters evening, a packed house of nearly 60 people were enthralled by his astonishing knowledge of plants, farm machinery, farming methodology and the historical context in which they all sat.
Ashley began with Joseph Andrews, a Sudbury apothecary and botanist whose preserved plant and herbarium collection is the oldest in existence, in the Natural History Museum in London. Andrews was a colleague of John Ray of Braintree, the ‘Father of botanic science' and son to Robert Andrews of Sudbury, who was a member of the landed gentry and who, with his new wife, famously figured in the painting by Thomas Gainsborough titled Mr and Mrs Andrews.
Ashley then showed us many images of rare local orchids and other plants, before discussing farming methods and how improved knowledge of horticulture, including different plant varieties and improved drainage, coupled with increased mechanization, dramatically enhanced yields to enable Britain to feed its ever increasing population.
The picture of the day was of an 18 horse team dragging a ‘mole plough' through a field - quite an extraordinary site. The plough leg generates vertical fissures in the soil that extend from the surface layers downwards into the mole channel; this removes water from the surface layers and rapidly transfer it into the drain created by the cylindrical foot at the bottom of the leg. Quite how the team of horses and following machinery was turned at each end of the field remains a bit of a mystery to modern day farmers.
Ashley's story then flowed seamlessly into all aspects of local life, including former brickyards, potteries and limekilns of the Sudbury-Halstead area, local hop-growing and 'straw-plaiting', the immigration of Scottish farmers, the growing resistance to paying 'Tithes' and the recollections of old horsemen, shepherds, threshing contractors and farmworkers.
Throughout his talk, which included copious images of local views and other old photos, Ashley kept the audience fully involved and there was much discussion over tea / coffee and mince pies - it really was an incredible tour de force by a most accomplished and authoritative speaker.
Our next event is our annual thank you to members, when Len Manning is sure to enthrall us with his war escapades as a rear gunner in that most iconic of WW2 bombers - The Lancaster - absolutely not to be missed.
Andy Sheppard 12th December 2014