Former student, Margaret, reflects on her career

March 2021

Image for press release - Former Writtle University College student Margaret Reeve
(NOTE: This is an archived press release.)

We're celebrating International Women's Day by sharing a Q&A with former Writtle student Margaret Reeve. Margaret left Writtle in 1969 with a National Diploma in Agriculture and continues to work within the agri-food sector.

She reveals what it was like to enter a male-dominated industry in the 1960s and how the skills she gained at Writtle supported her career.

 

Tell us about your time at Writtle:

 "Writtle was the entry to 50 years (and still continuing) of a fascinating, varied career in and around Agriculture. 

"For a female brought up in London during the 1950s and 60s, without any, but the most tenuous, connection to farming, to announce on leaving an old fashioned Convent school (where the girls were being prepared to make 'Good' marriages, and not expected to work except as a temporary measure) that she wanted a career in Agricultural Research was bound to cause consternation. 

"My father sent me to a Lancashire farm for three months, to be 'cured'. 

"Inevitably, I loved every minute of it, even though I spent hours scything thistles as the farmer did not need a student and had only taken me as a favour to his Landlord. I came home, still determined, and it was decided that an Agricultural College was the next step."

Why did you choose to study at Writtle?

"I had decided, having studied the requirements for entry to the Agricultural Research Council, where I hoped to work, that the course I wanted should provide the National Diploma in Agriculture, which was considered to be the equivalent of a degree but with a more practical angle. 

"Unfortunately, it turned out that the colleges that offered this course, did not allow females to study General Agriculture. The majority did not enrol women in the college at all but  a few would allow them on Poultry or Dairy courses, which were considered 'Female Interests'.

"Even Writtle did not advertise that it was possible for females to follow the NDA course, although a tiny number had been accepted in previous years and there were many on the Horticultural courses.

"However, we learnt that Writtle had a more modern outlook and that the Principal, Ben Harvey, might be open to considering my application. It was not suitable for me to make this approach, so my father went to see him! Eventually they agreed that should I find work on a farm for twelve months to get some experience, I could join the NDA course in the autumn of 1967.

"Finding a farm prepared to take on a girl, with absolutely no experience, was difficult. I went for a few interviews and the majority really wanted someone to help with the housework and the children with the occasional foray to clean the dairy or feed the poultry when required. 

"Eventually my grandmother was approached. She was the chairman of the local Women's Institute and her secretary worked at the Lackham (Wiltshire) Farm Institute and knew all the local farm families. (Networking was an essential tool even in those days!) Pressure was put on a go-ahead Somerset dairy farmer, whose current student had just left, and he was persuaded to meet me.

"The wretched man wanted a strong youth who could do all the heavy tasks, as he had a bad back. In the teeth of the barrage from a battalion of Women's Institute Ladies, I was duly installed in the attic above the dairy and paid the fabulous (to me) sum of £9.00 a week. I had never been so well off, I had nothing to spend it on and rarely left the farm, so the money I saved saw me comfortably through my years at Writtle.

"The farm had a hundred strong dairy herd and a large unit of laying hens and I settled down to work. Within six weeks the poor farmer was rushed to hospital to have a back operation leaving the running of the farm to me. His very elderly father (who entertained me with tales of his adventures making his fortune in Australia just after the First World War) came daily to clean out the cowstalls.

"The farmer's wife had two small children and did not normally venture beyond the farmhouse garden, so she confined herself to cooking vast meals. I thrived on the challenge and, despite labouring under the terrible conviction that somewhere was a shed full of starving animals I'd failed to discover, I survived and, more importantly, so did the farm.

What stands out from your time at Writtle?

"At this great distance of time, the Writtle years are bathed in an unlikely rosy glow so the highlights are more snapshot memories than highpoints of enjoyment!

"My first memory is of arriving at Writtle. All the girls, who lived in, were housed together, safely distant from the main campus, in an Edwardian villa called 'Longmeads', under the strict supervision of Mrs Manning.

"It must have been a thankless task for her trying to control a gaggle of girls who saw themselves as quite adult enough to organise their own lives. Certainly in our room, one of the inmates made good use of a handy drainpipe to come and go regularly, after the front door was firmly locked.

"My first sight of a large room with at least six beds ranged around the walls was a tremendous shock. Even at my strict and Spartan boarding school, girls older than 11 had not shared bedrooms. I know most of the others were equally taken aback, but we settled down, made friends and enjoyed sharing each other's lives and gossip. In our final year, we moved to the newly built 'tower block' on the campus, exclusively for females and there we had our own rooms - and far more freedom.

What are your memories of the lecturers?

"All the lecturers had different styles of teaching, and some subjects were easier to digest than others, but the most memorable lecturer we had was Dr Kenchington. 

"He was a Senior Lecturer and, I imagine, approaching retirement and was one of the most colourful characters in the college. He lectured us in Horse Husbandry, which was still on the curriculum despite there being virtually no working horses on the farms. 'Doc Kench', clad always in old fashioned riding breeches and leather gaiters, would act out the part of the horse as he explained the mysteries of keeping horses and the various ailments that might afflict them."

How did you spend your free time?

"There were regular 'Hops' held throughout the year (though whether we danced to live bands or to records, I have no recollection). The Twist was still the most popular dance - not that all of us could master it - and with such a tiny percentage of female students, one would imagine that we would have been extremely popular? Alas no, we were too few! From the beginning, every weekend the majority of the course would decamp, en masse to Hockerill (the local ladies' teacher training college), following the example of most of the student body, and imported their partners from there.

"Apparently, a large number of these partnerships lasted a lifetime judging by the number of ex-Hockerill wives who have appeared regularly at our re-unions. Of course, all three of us did have boyfriends (and not always the same ones?) but they came from other courses rather than our own."

Have the skills you gained during your course helped your career?

"In every job I've had, some part of what I learnt or experienced at Writtle has illuminated an aspect of what I have to been asked to do. 

"Sometimes it has been the more formal side when just having an NDA will open doors, or having stayed awake during a Mechanics lecture meant I still retained a memory of the mechanics of a combine harvester and could suggest the cause of a problem, mid harvest (this was well before the current computer-run beasts, then a lot could be done with a hammer, a shearbolt and a length of baling twine!).

"Often it has been the farms I worked on in the holidays - lambing in Northumberland (so cold we ate five breakfasts), or harvesting under Arc lamps, through the night, in the vast openness of Suffolk. The oddest things stay tucked in the memory. Very recently I was able to estimate the amount of wheat left in the granary using a method of heights and triangles that I'd forgotten learning."

What would you say are your career highlights?

"My ambition, when I went to Writtle, was to get a job on one of the research farms run by the Agricultural Research Council (a branch of the Civil Service, long since disbanded or at least amalgamated into something else!) but my hopes were dashed when I was firmly informed that no women were allowed in any form of practical research or in any employment on the farms.

"I was offered the chance to join a team working for the Medical Research Council who were based in North London and I was to run a large farm animal unit. Sadly, the project never got off the ground.

"I left having found another research job, but never took it up as I got married and retired to Dorset with my husband to manage an extraordinary and fascinating coastal beef farm made up, partially, of land reclaimed from Poole harbour by a vast sea bank.

"When, two years and a lifetime later, I was faced with supporting myself and my six month old daughter, I determined to return to the peace of farm life. 

"With incredible luck, I found a job rearing calves on a Somerset farm which came with a cottage. The farm was owned by an elderly widow and overseen by a local Land Agent who also managed several other smaller farms mainly owned by his retired army colleagues who had bought land after the war, or their widows.

"Five years later, the owner died leaving the farm in trust for a grandson to inherit when he was older. In the meantime, the Agent ran the farm for the Trust and, as the old foreman retired, I took over the day to day running of the 400 acres with a large suckler beef herd, a flock of Dorset Horn sheep and a sprinkling of arable. 

"In the less busy moments I was 'loaned' to some of the other managed holdings when stock work needed doing and regularly went to the local market and gradually took over buying and selling bunches of cattle for the various owners when the agent was taken ill.

"Eventually the idyll had to end and the farm was handed over to the grandson who came with his own staff. I moved to a neighbouring farm to set up a sheep enterprise on an arable farm with a large acreage of un-ploughable hillside. It was an interesting project and the sheep did a good job but the two farming brothers were not natural stockmen and decided that they would prefer to contract out the sheep rather than own their own flock. 

"Before I had time to be disappointed, I was head hunted by the local auctioneers, R.B.Taylors in Yeovil, who wanted me to run their Cattle Private Sales department, valuing and selling Dairy Cattle from farm to farm when there were not sufficient numbers to hold an on-farm auction sale which was the core business of the firm. 

"It was the early 1980s and a time when thousands of in-calf Holstein/Friesian were exported every year to mainland Europe as we were producing the high quality animals they wanted for their rapidly increasing dairy herds. Finding the large bunches required to fill the specialist dealers orders was a challenge, though some farmers started to breed extra cattle specifically for this market and just needed me to negotiate the best price for them.

"I missed practical farming and, having bought a cottage in the village, I rented buildings and odd pockets of land and filled them with a small breeding flock of sheep and beef calves that I reared to stirks. So much for having spare time!

"Dairy quotas came in whilst I was working there and brought a number of farmers deciding to sell up with a subsequent increase in on-farm auctions. All the staff were involved in these, getting the details, writing catalogues (and proof reading them!), preparing the cattle and working at the farms on and before sale day. 

"I enjoyed this side as well, although we worked under very high stress and for long hours (we covered Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Wiltshire as well as Somerset) and the tempers of some of the auctioneers were on very short fuses! My poor daughter got used to waiting patiently on the school steps, doing her homework in odd corners and became an expert in consuming meals in the back of the car.

"Eventually, the unremitting pressure made me realise that I needed to reassess the balance of my time so that I could be available to carry out parental duties, especially now that sports fixtures and Pony Club made chauffeuring an imperative.

"I took a post as a part time Milk Recorder for the Milk Marketing Board, intending to stay for six months 'to give my brain a rest', I finally left thirty-one years later!

"I increased the size of my smallholding and even got a Jersey House Cow who caused great amusement as I walked her, on a halter, with the pony in my other hand, down the village High Street on the way to their daytime grazing.

"With fewer workers on farms and the average age of farmers rising, part time work was easy to find. I helped a semi-retired Dairy Farmer who had taken up breeding and showing pedigree Charollais sheep, having been one of the pioneers who exported them from France in the late 1970s. He was very successful and I learnt a lot about preparing sheep for show and found it was incredibly time consuming and every detail had to be perfect if the coveted championships were to be won.

"When he retired completely, I transferred my allegiance to the famer I still work for, who then had 300 breeding Mule ewes on an arable farm, with half a dozen thoroughbred race horses of various ages.

"In 2002, a road traffic accident whilst on holiday in America caused us life changing injuries. Nevertheless, I was able to be back in the lambing shed the following year, and also back in the milking parlours of Somerset, although I reduced the farms I visited each month from twenty to ten. I gradually gave up my own farm animals until my last ewes were sold in 2017. 

"In 2014, I decided that 31 years was long enough to subject 'my herdsmen' to the constant moaning about cold fingers during early morning milking and trained my replacement to take over. On the same afternoon that I gave in my notice, I was offered my first house sit and the business has spread, entirely by word of mouth, ever since (including several of the farmers I had previously milk recorded for!)

"By this time, the flock of ewes on the neighbour's farm had reduced to 50 as age and infirmity took their toll on the amount he wanted to do. I now take over the flock entirely from January to the end of May, organising the feeding and lambing – it is rather like being given a lifesize toy farm to play with and certainly gives me as much pleasure!

"For the rest of the year I visit whenever anything needs doing to the sheep and often just to discuss future plans over a cup of coffee! I hope this arrangement will continue for many more years but I have ceased to fret over the future as, throughout my life, as soon as one career plan ends, another arrives, there is always something that needs doing in farming."

Do you have any advice for today's students?

"Take the opportunity to try as many different things as possible. Don't just stick to the familiar, and talk (and, even more, listen to) as many other students as you can. Never will you be offered the chance to explore such a wide and diverse group of interests, opinions and experiences as you will be presented with at Writtle."