Work Hard or Starve*





The things we do as allotmenteers must have the local residents** wondering.


The Plantation Owner’s Wife and I recently took reams of newspapers and old supermarket apple boxes up to the plot and painstakingly pegged them out over our growing potatoes: Arran Pilot, Desiree and Roosters. We also used ripped fleece but didn’t have anywhere near enough to do the whole job.

It was an emergency measure to keep off a predicted late frost as we simply don’t have enough fleece (which is, if anything a redeeming sign of some sanity perhaps). The rows have already been earthed up and the haulms looked really healthy.

On the way out, stopping to introduce ourselves to some newbies we spotted a stack “stuff” piled against the “dungeon”. The dungeon is our name for a concrete sectional garage that was initially used as shop, store, rent-collection office and general “dumping ground” by the committee when we first took on a plot.

Since then, go-ahead, community minded committees (and, yes I was a part of these committees, so forgive a certain lack of modesty) acquired a couple of freight containers, expanded the site shop and community involvement so that the dungeon is becoming “surplus to requirements”. The current committee, it appears had cleaned out this old kit and what was leaning against the wall was free of charge (ask anybody who knows me: my favourite price!)

The newbies were, in the finest of allotment traditions, grabbing tools that they didn’t already have: reminding me of a time when we only had a spade with a wonky handle, a shovel (with no handle) and a digging fork with a bent tine. We encouraged them to take whatever they thought they needed: they could repair or cannibalise it, couldn’t they?

And the application of a wire brush and a lick of paint can, after all, make such a difference … and next time you come to dig there’s maybe a spade each; and the work gets done so much faster!

We pick up a spade (for our daughter who, even as we swoop, is setting up raised beds at her house), two Dutch hoes (which will find their way to both of our daughters), a stiff-bristled broom and an unusually shaped tool that, held onto a stave that looks too spindly with two bent nails and a Posi-drive screw, looks something like a draw hoe with a cast iron blade that comes to a point. Ideal, I am thinking, for making furrows to plant peas.

Back at home the spade takes very little effort: some earnest hammering to remove lumps of concrete, a wire brush, some emery cloth, some left-over Hammerite (gold of all colours!) and hey presto!


I am more circumspect with the “hoe”, removing the nails and screw first (easy enough), then wedging the blade securely before beginning to remove the rust, which is more advanced than on the spade: years of it rather than months. Looking closely I can see letters (?) appearing. My default metal cleaner comes into use, half a cupful of gone-flat Coca-Cola brings a sharpness tot he metal (goodness only knows what it does to your insides then!).

Yes, definitely!


I recognise the  “broad arrow” symbol as that of the War Department. The numbers then, presumably, a date. The penultimate year of World War Two. Why on earth does a horticultural implement have this stamped on it. And Brades? Somebody’s name?

I fire up the computer and simply type the whole thing into a search engine. Following one or two diversions to selling sites I come across the following information:

BRADES is a brand name of implements cast by a Birmingham company William Hunt and Sons (WHS is another of their brand names (not the bookshops, by the way)). The following from Wikipedia:

“The founder of the company, William Hunt, was an edge tool maker at Rowley Regis, near DudleyWorcestershire, in the late 18th century. In 1782 he purchased the Brades Estate at Oldbury, near Birmingham, and established a new works there known as Brades Forge, or simply as The Brades. By 1805 they were also manufacturing steel on the site, which was now known as the Brades Steel Works. Around 1793, Hunt took W. Cliffe into partnership, and for a short period the firm was known as Hunt and Cliffe: this name appears in the company’s first ledger, dated 9 May 1794. This partnership dissolved around 1803, and Hunt continued trading on his own account until 1809, when he took his sons into partnership and the firm became known as William Hunt & Sons.”

While on the internet I also find this striking, if somewhat chilling, image:


Vintage Military Tools & Equipment Gallery

The Implement, Intrenching, pattern 1908 – Head, Mark II replaced the Mark I issue with List of Changes entry §15905, dated 4th August 1911

Note that this is similar to the Mark 1

Stores Ref. J1/JA 6022 Implement, entrenching, Patt. ’37, helve, Mark II, complete with bayonet adaptor. This version had an adapter fitting on the end, so that a “spike” Bayonet from the Lee-Enfield No. 4 Rifle could be fitted to it, for use as a mine probe.

This picture (one of many), I found particularly fascinating. Looking closely at the rear of the “business end” of the blade I have been renovating it is clear a piece has been, accidentally or deliberately removed. Perhaps the stave it is now fastened to is not it’s original either. And, clearly, given this most peremptory of research, this is a military entrenching tool; for digging in, latrine digging, sandbag filling. Once I know this I view the thing in a far different light. The pattern is from 1908, so similar tools would have dug trenches in the Great War.

How would they have been carried: one per soldier? Strapped to the turrets of tanks? By certain troops only?

Was the one I have involved in the D-Day invasions? What, if any campaigns did it witness?

Was it still in military use beyond the end of the Second World War? My own father-in-law (God bless him, no longer with us) was a post-war conscript stationed in Egypt (where he learned to dislike tinned pineapples because they were served ad nauseum) and, ironically, one of his tasks was the routine clearance of minefields.

And the sixty-four thousand dollar question: how did it get to our allotments site?

A real shame that the current committee didn’t look more closely at what they wre about to discard. The “entrenching tool” would have made an excellent addition (a “shed prop” maybe) in what was conceived as a “World war One Legacy Garden, meant to commemorate those from the parish whose lives were changed by service in the ’14 – ’18 war and any subsequent conflicts. In fact a couple of wooden D-handled forks that were also part of the clear out would have helped to set the scene, just stood in the plot.

I am sure the local historians*** would like to have a gleg at this, so take it along to their regular open morning. I – unfairly – permit myself a smug smile as they, speaking too soon, identify it as a potato hoe. They are, however, intrigued by the little research I have done and I leave it with them for a while. They may be able to add more to the knowledge …

… and, hopefully, it still has years of functional work left in it. They knew how to make things back in those days.


* WHS was also a brand mark: the piece-workers there referred to it, perhaps only jokingly  as “Work hard or Starve” (Trust me this’ll make more sense when you’ve read the whole piece!)

**especially the house directly next door where they have fake, plastic flowered globes suspended from a wall as hanging baskets and impossibly green artificial grass around their outbuildings.

**Cheslyn Hay and District Local Historical Society




One response to this post.

  1. Very interesting, thanks for sharing


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