The barn fire at Lower Mount Farm and the chickens that were lost took me back to the 1930’s, when we were coming out of another recession of 1929 and things were pretty tough for village folks. In those days people even in the smallest council house garden kept a few chickens, which although kept in a pen, could be classed today as free range. They had a chicken house or coop in which to roost and lay their eggs, and a pen in which they could scratch for insects, worms and other food. Of course, they were fed scraps from the kitchen such as greens and vegetable peelings and scrap fat. Most people had a kitchen garden or an allotment to grow vegetables.
I am now going to describe how my father and mother managed their lives in that time period and through the war. We had quite a large kitchen garden area in which were a pigsty and a chicken house and run. In the early years of their married life, my father kept three or four pigs to fatten up and when ready he would take them to Colliass’s Slaughterhouse in Bourne End to slaughter. My father also besides at that time being a journeyman butcher was also a licenced slaughterman and when required did all of Ernie Colliass’s slaughtering for him. So my father and then, what he did not require to cure for bacon or ham slaughtered the pigs, was sold in the butchers shop on “The Parade”. As a matter of fact he apprenticed slaughterman at the Cookham Slaughterhouse, which use to be behind Dudley Sims butchers shop and later Jack Smith Butcher in the high street.
I strayed a little off the subject in the last paragraph, but back to the chickens, as they became the main product at Widbrook coming up to Christmas. Every March my father would buy through the mail nine dozen day old sexed cockerels from Sterling Poultry Farms in Andover, Hampshire. These would be dispatched by train in the morning and would arrive at Cookham Station in the afternoon. My father would pick them up from the parcel office and bring them home. My mother then took over and looked after them feeding them on mashed hard-boiled eggs and fine ground maize. She kept them warm in the kitchen until they big enough to move to a pen on the lawn. When big enough and had got their first feathers my father the moved them to bigger pens on the common to feed on the longer grass, but to now receive more solid food including waste scraps of butchers fat from the shop. During this period the odd bird was lost to cause unknown or it was found that some of the cockerels were pullets, that of course was a plus and were moved to the henhouse at the top of the garden. In that pen my father selected a cock each year for breeding stock, as he did like to raise his own hens where possible from his own stock, putting a clutch of thirteen eggs under a broody hen. Twenty-one days later we had a mother hen and a brood of young chicks, all home bred.
Every night the cockerels on the common as were the henhouse in the garden locked up to prevent being raided by foxes. By December these birds had put on quite a good weight and coming out at a dressed weight of between six to eight pounds. About two weeks before Christmas my father would start killing about twelve birds a night and he and mother would sit in the shed and pluck them by lantern light. Next morning they were taken to the shop where he would dress them and they would go into the large walk in cooler that he had, ready to be picked up by customers for Christmas.
The chicken ark shown in the photo above is similar to the size but not the shape as my father built his square to hold about twelve birds. They were moved every day on to fresh grass. Water towers were in each ark as was the chicken run and always treated with Permanganate of Potash to keep the birds healthy.