".....I'm prompted to write by the item about flax -again! I think I told you how flax became such an important crop here in the Second World War because, cut off from our usual supplies from Europe, we needed the fibres to make tents, webbing and rope for the armed forces. Flax was grown in England, but we just didn't grow enough. I have a photo of a distant cousin as a little girl along with a gang of 8 women field-workers in long skirts and cotton sunbonnets labelled 'Renie in the flax fields' taken in Lincolnshire at some time in the First World War (about the same time as your Grandpa grew it). Each woman holds a bunch of flax in her arms but no tools of any sort and a close look with a strong magnifying glass seems to show the roots (which are quite small) are still attached to the plants. That photo could equally well have been taken in the US as here - much of Lincolnshire is very flat and prairie-like. I don't know if it was a job usually done by women or if they were doing it because so many men were away fighting.
England was quite backward with respect to mechanisation of farming compared with the US and even in the Second World War flax had to be harvested by hand. Each county had to meet a quota of acres planted and farmers were told what to grow with no choice about it, even when they knew perfectly well that the crops they were instructed to plant were unsuited to the local soil and climate. It was not a popular crop partly because it was unfamiliar and most farmers had neither the knowledge nor the equipment to handle it. Today, any machinery used to sow or harvest oil-seed rape/canola can be adjusted to handle flax-seed but even if Grandpa had a seed drill it may not have been capable of sowing the seed, which is very small and slippery, so he would have had to broadcast it by hand and it would have been very different to handle compared with wheat or oats or corn.
Not only was harvesting incredibly labour intensive but also judging the best time to do it was difficult. If it is harvested too early, while the crop is green then the valuable oil-bearing seeds would be unripe but harvest too late, when the plant is brown, then the fibres will have begun to break down. I suppose if you were growing it for either fibre or seed but not both then it wasn't so difficult but I can't see any farmer passing up the chance of two crops from one! Harvesting also coincided with the time for lifting main crop potatoes - another labour intensive crop and vital food for a country so hard pressed by attacks on the Atlantic convoys. I have also heard it said, but can't find any information to confirm this, that 'it takes a lot out of the soil' and modern advice suggest it is only included in a rotation system every 4 to 5 years. In WWII, when artificial fertilizers were in such scant supply (and they were fairly new-fangled anyway) flax was one of the few crops, along with onions, carrots, potatoes and sugar beet on which they were allowed to be used. Yet again there was a difficult compromise; fertilizers would produce good long fibres but if the plants got too big and tough it would be impossible to harvest them by hand. Knowing this you can see why it was such a risky crop for Grandpa to grow. Thank goodness he did well out of it but you imply that it was a risk he didn't take unless hard pressed and possibly not one he took again.
Here is a major diversion vaguely related to the above, which I hope will appeal to the general historian in you. I said I had been delving into my own family history and looking through work my Mum had done on her grandfather's family. They came from Kent (the county in the most south-eastern corner of England) and had been worked on by several other family members. One of them had sent her a copy of the Will of Thomas WHERWELL, a bricklayer and my 7x great-grandfather, written in 1686! Old Wills are some of the most fascinating family documents because they tell you so much and at one time they even had inventories of the person's belongings attached to them. By the way, reading a 17th century Will is a doddle compared with reading Suetterlin but then it is at least in English The relevant item in the Will is that Thomas left his wife Jone:
" all that messuage or tennement and one hemp spott there unto belonging lying in Smeeth at a Certaine place there called Smeeth heth [Heath] now in the Tener or occupation of Thomas Tayler to have and to hold unto the said Jone my well beloved wife during the terme of her naterall Life and after her decease to my Son Thomas Whorwell and his heires for Ever"
There are several interesting points here: firstly this implies that Thomas (a humble bricklayer) owned two properties. There was the one he was living in and one he had rented out to Thomas TAYLOR. Secondly, he owned a piece of land specifically for growing Hemp. Confusingly, old documents sometimes do not clearly distinguish between hemp and flax so the word Hemp-spott may refer to an area where either flax or hemp was grown.
At the time Thomas made his Will the famous diarist Samuel Pepys was employed at the Navy Office and it was largely through his able administration that the Navy became such a well run institution. The Royal Dockyard of Chatham, which would have been a great consumer of hemp products, lay in the Thames Estuary on the north Kent coast and so almost a local market. Hemp was a very useful crop producing fibre that could be put to many uses such as making rope, caulking ships, and much fabric. The correct name for cloth made of hemp fibre was canvas and it was used both for sail making, clothing and household 'linen'. Real linen, made from flax, was expensive and the sheets he bequeathed to his son Thomas and daughter Cristian (sic), mentioned later in the will, were probably made of hempen cloth. In a country whose only naturally available fibre for making clothing was wool, anything lighter and less scratchy was very desirable for summer clothing or garments worn next to the skin. Like flax, hemp was very labour intensive to process, so much so that it was uneconomical if labour had to be employed thus it suited the small farmer or small-holder who could use unpaid family members. Was this true of your Grandpa? As a result large quantities were imported. So useful was hemp that 'Tudor governments encouraged the growth of hemp on a larger scale than heretofore, by requiring all farmers with 60 acres or more of land for tillage to sow at least ¼ acre with 'Linseed, otherwise called Flax or Hemp-seed' [Acts (1532)]'.
So it seems that growing flax (and hemp) has always been a difficult and risky business, which makes me wonder why it was so widely grown in Bohemia. Was it that the climate was generally more favourable or that (as I suspect) the semi-slave work force just had to put up with what they were told to grow and the landowners profited from their labour?
P.S those ribbon sandwiches sound a bit like a savoury version of the delicious traditional English dessert called Summer Pudding. You line a well-buttered pudding basin with a single layer of white bread carefully cut to fit. The basin is then filled with gently softened and sweetened fresh summer fruits such as raspberries, redcurrants and blackcurrants. My Mum just used raspberries because that's what we had from the garden. The basinful was topped off with another layer of sliced white bread. On top of this went a saucer that fitted within the basin and then a pile of weights belonging to our kitchen scales. The whole thing was stood in another saucer (to catch over-flowing juices) and it was put in the fridge for at least 24 hours. The weights were removed and the pudding was turned out (a nerve-wracking process) onto a serving dish and presented as a most delectable cold dessert. I believe it is traditional to serve it with fresh cream but that was beyond our pockets so we ate it just as it was and my mouth is watering now at the memory.
An afterthought about that recipe ☺ that's just too entertaining NOT to share:
"...Some additional notes for clarity regarding the pudding:
1) The bread should have the crusts removed.
2) The fruit for the summer pudding is softened by gently heating in a saucepan until the juices run before pouring it into the bread-lined basin.
3) The pudding is judged ready to serve when the juice has thoroughly saturated the bread and turned the whole pudding deep red so it is a good idea to use a glass basin. It helps the turning out process to run a thin, flexible knife around between the pudding and the bowl before
I love raspberries and they have always been a luxury fruit. Mum grew two rows of a very old variety called Lloyd George and they were prolific and delicious. I appointed myself chief raspberry picker and regarded it as a very serious duty, diligently checking the bushes daily and greatly enjoyed the fresh fruit served with junket (curds and whey) and summer pudding in the summer, raspberry jam and the Christmas trifle made from bottled raspberries in the winter.
One year, when I was about 17, it was time to do the bottling but Mum wasn't very well. I'd watched her do it many times and with the confidence of youth assured her I could do the job. Jar after jar of bottled raspberries was stored in the very back of the deep store cupboard under the stairs. All seemed well until a few weeks later we heard unexplained loud bangs. We couldn't find where they were coming from until Mum needed her portable typewriter, also stored in the back of the cupboard. Disaster! The bottles of raspberries had fermented and exploded, filling her typewriter with sticky red juices so that it looked as if it had been disembowelled. Not only had it made a dreadful mess of the typewriter and everything else in the back of the cupboard but there would be no raspberry trifle at Christmas.
It was all my fault. We used commercially made Kilner jars and I had carried out the bottling process but hadn't put in the necessary rubber sealing rings. We couldn't leave the remaining jars for fear they also would explode but we didn't want to throw the fruit away either. I felt dreadful about it and in my despair suddenly had the idea of turning it into raspberry wine. Using a very large bucket and a big plastic bag held closed by an elastic band in lieu of an airlock we allowed the remaining jar contents to finish fermenting. I can't remember how we bottled it but it was an outstanding success, fruity and slightly spritzig, and as soon as I had a home of my own I started home brewing. I've never had enough raspberries to make raspberry wine again but I've now been making 'country wines' i.e not made of grapes, for nearly 40 years so some good came of that unfortunate accident. I also still bottle fruit using Mum's surviving original Kilner jars but have always been very careful to put in the rubber seals, although it is now getting very difficult to find new ones.
When we were moved out of London and had a really large garden one of the first things I planted was raspberries. The soil was really too alkaline to be ideal but I was determined that my children would have the same puddings, trifles and jam that I did. I lovingly cared for those bushes for years but no fruit did they produce. I tried every gardening trick I could think of, but all to no avail. In despair I contemplated taking out all the bushes and growing something else but the children protested loudly. I should have taken notice of this. Years later, when they were grown up, they confessed that they had regularly disappeared up the garden and eaten every single fruit! I still haven't quite forgiven them…
What a blessing you are, Su!