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COTTERILL, Thomas (c1837-1901) – Hop drier

Thomas Cotterill, referred to as Tom, features in Chapter III of A H Savory’s Grain and Chaff from an English Manor:

Among the men who were bequeathed to me, so to speak, by my predecessor, Tom was one of whom I always had a high opinion.  Tall, vigorous and well made, one recognised at once his possibilities as a valuable man.  He was somewhat cautious, taciturn, very sensitive and reserved, but would open out in conversation when alone with me.  As quite a young man he had worked at the building of the branch line from Oxford to Wolverhampton, via Worcester, the “OW& W” or “Old Wusser and Wusser” as it was called, until taken over by the Great Western Railway.  The latter, extending from London to Oxford was, I believe, one of Brunel’s masterly conceptions, being without a tunnel the whole way.  But the new line had to pierce the Cotswolds before reaching the Vale of Evesham and Tom had many yarns about the construction of the long Mickleton tunnel.  Among them was a tradition of the cost, so great that guineas laid edgeways throughout its length would not pay for it.

It was a treat to watch Tom’s magnificent physique when felling a big tree, stripped to his shirt with sleeves rolled up, and his gleaming axe slowly raised and poised for a second above him before it fell with the gathered impetus of its own weight and his powerful stress.  Biting time after time into the exact place aimed at, and at the most effective angle possible, the clean chips would fly in all directions until the necessary notch was cut and the basal outgrowths, close to the ground around the sturdy column, were reduced, so that the cross-cut saw could complete its downfall with a mighty crash.

Tom was always the leader of my team of mowers when the grass was cut for, with the large staff I employed on purpose for the all-important hop-gardens, I never wanted, till towards the end of my time, to make use of a machine.  The steady swing of his scythe, with scarcely an apparent effort, the swish, as the swathe fell beneath its keen edge, and the final lift of the severed grasses at the end of the stroke, all in regular rhythmic action, were very fascinating to watch.  At intervals came a halt for “whetting” the blade, and the musical sound of rubber (sharpening stone) against steel, equally adroitly accomplished, proved the artist at his work, with a delicacy of touch which, perhaps in different circumstances, might have produced the thrills with which Pachmann’s velvet caress or Paderewski’s refined expression enchant a vast and rapturous audience.

As a land-drainer, too, I loved to watch him standing in the slippery trench, with not an inch more soil moved than was necessary, lifting out the decreasing “draws” and leaving a bottom nicely rounded exactly to fit the pipes, and finally the methodical adjustment of each pipe, with the concluding tap to bring it close to the last one laid.

When I had to arrange for the harvesting of my first hop crop, it was necessary to find a man who could be entrusted with the critical work of drying the hops and Tom was the man I chose.  I had my kiln ready, constructed in an old malthouse, on the latest principle and in time for the first crop.  The kiln consisted of a space about 20 feet square, walled off at one end of the old building, but with entrances on the ground and first floors.  Beneath, in the lower compartment, was the fireplace, a yard square, and 16 feet above was the floor on which the hops were dried.  Anthracite coal was used for fuel, the fire being maintained day and night throughout the picking – the morning’s picking between 1 pm and 12 midnight and the afternoon’s picking between 1 am and 12 noon.  Tom was therefore on duty for the whole 24 hours, with what snatches of sleep he could catch in the initial stage of each drying and at odd moments.

The process requires great skill and attention; at first he and I, with what little knowledge I had, puzzled it out together, he having had no previous experience, and night after night I sat up with him till the load came off the kiln at midnight.  A slight excess of heat, or an irregular application of it, will spoil the hops, the principle being to raise the temperature, very gradually at first, to 30 or 40 degrees higher at the finish.  Hops should be blown-dry by a blast of hot air, not baked by heat alone.  The drier, of course, has to keep a watchful eye on the thermometer on the upper floor among the hops – Tom always called it the “theometer” – regulating his fire accordingly and the admission of cold air through adjustable ventilators on the outside walls.  This regulation varies according to the weather, the moisture of the air and the condition of the hops and calls for critical judgment and accuracy.  Often, tired out with the previous ordinary day’s work, we had much ado to keep awake at night and it was fatal to arrange a too comfortable position with the warmth of the glowing fire and the soporific scent of the hops.  Then Tom would announce that it was “time to get them little props out” which, in imagination, were to support our wearied eyelids.

When we decided that the hops were ready to be cooled down, to prevent breaking when being taken off the drying floor, all doors, windows and ventilators were thrown open and the fire banked up and, while they were cooling, he went to neighbouring cottages to rouse the men who came nightly to unload and reload the kiln and then I could retire to bed.

Tom was devoted to duty and was so successful as a hop-drier that he soon became capable of managing two more kilns in the same building, which I enlarged as I gradually increased my acreage.  In a good season he would often have £100 worth of hops through his hands in the 24 hours, sometimes more.  He was the only man I ever employed at this particular work and throughout those years he turned out hops to the value of nearly £30,000 without a single mishap or spoiled kiln-load – a better proof of his devotion to duty than anything else I could say.

He was a very picturesque figure when “crowned with the sickle and the wheaten sheaf, Autumn comes jovial on” and he was cutting wheat, his head covered with a coloured handkerchief, knotted at the corners to protect the back of his neck from the sun which must have been much cooler than the felt hat – a kind of “billycock” with a flat top – which he habitually wore.

Tom had a tremendous reach and got through a big day’s work in the harvest-field, but nearly always knocked himself up after two or three days in the broiling sun, developing what he called “Tantiddy’s fire” in one forearm; this is the local equivalent of St Anthony’s fire, an ailment termed professionally erysipelas, but I have never heard how it is connected with the saint.

Tom was not much given to the epigrammatic expression of his thoughts, like some of the other men, but he had a vein of humour.  A relative of his used to come over from Evesham to sing in our church choir and I remember a special occasion when the choir was somewhat “piano” until this singer’s part came in; he had a strong and not very melodious voice and the effort and the effect alike were startling.  Tom was in church at the time and had evidently been watching expectantly for the “fortissimo” climax; he told me afterwards that “when S opened his mouth I knew it was sure to come.”  It did!

I have mentioned Tom’s cautiousness; he had a way of assenting to a statement without committing himself to definite agreement.  I once asked him who the leaders had been in a disorderly incident, being aware that he knew; I suggest the names, but the nearest approach to assent which I could extract was, “If you spakes again you’ll be wrong.”

Thomas Cotterill was born about 1837 at Keynsham, the son of William and Prudence Cotterill.  The Cotterills moved to Aldington in the 1840s and lived at Thatch Cottage, Village Street.  At the time of the 1851 census, both Thomas and his father were working as agricultural labourers for Richard Ashwin of Aldington Manor.  However, shortly after that it seems, from Savory’s book, that Thomas took a break from agricultural work to work on building the railways.  The Oxford to Wolverhampton branch line was opened in 1854 when Thomas would have been about 17.

Thomas Cotterill was back in Aldington by May 1860 when he married Elizabeth Knight at Badsey.  They had a daughter, Sarah Ann, born later in 1860.  

Thomas and Elizabeth remained living in the same cottage at Aldington until the 1901 census.  Thomas died in the last quarter of 1901 in the Evesham area, but was not buried at Badsey.  Elizabeth, who went to live at Bengeworth, died in 1916.