Sidney C Darby. Agricultural Engineers.

Memories of the good and bad old days of this old Wickford firm.

I was an apprentice agricultural engineer for `Sidney C Darbys Agricultural Engineers` in 1959, which was sadly burnt down in the late 1960s. I started there in September 1959 after leaving school in the July. My first day there, I was put under the wing of a man named Frank Harris, and he showed me how to grind metal pins for `Mactrac`, the contractors that were in the process of widening the River Crouch after the 1957 floods of Wickford.  I remember I also had the job of painting all the new chairs to be fitted into the Wickford Doctor`s surgery in London Road.

Some of the names I remember of the men that worked there were—Ben Sharp, who was the foreman, Ben Playle (engineer), Bill Brooks (Welder), Bill Ripper (Master ploughman), Percy White (Tractor shop ), Trevor Crooke (Garage), Jack Stock (Manager), Ben Brock,(Yard forman),Ted Pearce (Garden machines), Bill Lepper (Stores), Don Sainsbury (Spray shop and lorry driver), Derek Little (Auto electrician) and Dave Dolman and Bill Aball (Salesmen). 

Bill Ripper was a prize winning ploughman,and did all the demonstrations at shows for ‘International Tractors’, of which ‘Darby’s’ were the main agents. Out in the back yard were all the old tractors they took in part exchange, some were complete, and some had been broken up for spares, most of these old tractors had engines that ran on TVO, (tractor vaporising oil) which was a refined paraffin oil. There was a large tank on brick pillars where the TVO was stored to sell to the farmers who still ran old TVO tractors.

I always looked forward to being told by the the foreman, that I was to go and help Ben Playle when he was called out to a job on some farm machine that had broken down.  I don`t know why Ben always asked for me, maybe it was because I was always keen to help him, and I had a lot of respect for him. Ben always showed me what to do, and how to do it, I learnt a lot from Ben. It was with much sadness that a few months later that I was told that this lovely man had passed away. He was only in his 40s, I was very, very upset. When Ben`s funeral passed Darby`s on its way to Wickford`s cemetery, all the workshops/stores/offices stopped work, and we all stood to attention outside Darby`s on the pavement to pay Ben our last respects. I will say that the tears were running down my cheeks.  

For the heating in winter in the workshops, we had two coke stoves. One in the main workshop and one in the welding shop. These were lit in the mornings by us apprentices, and of course being young lads and trying to find the easy way to light these stoves, we poured a small jar of TVO onto the wood to get it going, which did the trick. Well, on one particular morning, the stove in the welding shop did not want to go, so we got a half full bucket of TVO and poured it onto the warm coke where it vaporised , there was a huge explosion and the top of the stove blew right through the tin roof leaving a gaping hole.

Another trick one of the lads did on a Field Marshal tractor, was try and start it so that the engine was running back wards, which on a two stroke single cylinder diesel you could do for a little while if you knew how. What he did not know, was the owner had just come out of the office to pick it up, and he was standing behind him. He did not have time to stop the engine, so when the farmer put it into reverse gear it went forward, crashing through the doors of the paint shop. The lad owned up, and got the sack the next day.

In those days, all apprentices at Darby`s were just really cheap labour, as we were only paid 1/1d an hour (just over 5p). A packet of 20 Players Weights cigarettes back then was 3/0d ( 15p ). The skilled workers were paid 5/0d an hour (25p) , and we was expected to do a man’s work on the cheap. I was put in charge of the welding shop, when Bill Brookes who was the welder went on holiday. I was only 16 years of age!  I was expected to do a skilled man`s job, repairing and welding broken farm machines and trailers etc. What would H&S have said about that today ?

Back in those days there were no health and safety rules, and one of the lads was out in the old tractor yard helping to start a very old `Case` TVO tractor with one of the mechanics. They had been trying to start this old girl for two days, (no electric starter on this old tractor!).  So it was a starting handle job, and just for a joke this lad said, “ I’ll just look down the exhaust pipe to see if I can see what’s wrong!”  And the mechanic that was in charge of this young lad carried on cranking the engine. (How silly can you get?) The tractor gave a massive explosion in the exhaust pipe, blowing out this lads eye. He was rushed to hospital and they managed to save his sight. (I believe they had to put the eye back into its socket as it was hanging down on his cheek).

Another character I remember, was a farmer from Stow Maries, called Percy Blancoe, a real countryman. He use to tell us lads lots of stories from the old days on the farm. He had lost his thumb on his right hand, and it use to amuse us lads how he could make a perfect cigarette with only 4 fingers. He aways smoked a tobacco called `Darkie Shag`(a name I’m sure would be banned today!) The only shop that stocked this brand was `Adcocks`the news agents in The Broadway. And Percy would make the weekly trip to Wickford via a lift from his friend Eddie, who was a representative for Darby`s and lived in Southminster. Eddie would pick Percy up on the way to work in the morning once a week,and then take him home at night. So then Percy had to spent the whole day in the workshops chatting and entertaining everyone until it was time for Eddie to take him home.

When I was told that I had been promoted to help out in the auto electrician department under the guidance of the auto electrician, Derek Little, I was over the moon. I was then put to work to dismantle all the old electric cables and conduit in the blacksmith’s shop. I was told all the cables were dead and all the electric power had been cut off and made safe. I propped a metal ladder onto the top of the metal beams that supported the roof of the blacksmith’s shop, the roof was leaking and the floor was wet. And with a metal hacksaw I proceeded to saw through the metal conduit (metal tubes to protect live electric cables). I started to saw away, and half way through I had a rest. I looked down and saw that the conduit and cable I was cutting through, fed the large electric bellows/air blowers for the forge. For some reason that to this day I cannot explain, I climbed down the ladder and switched on the electric blower for the forge, and to my horror it started working. If I had continued cutting through that conduit and cable I would not have been here to write these true stories today. And that old Fordson Major tractor that I saved from the scrap man years later, would now be in the scrap yard in the sky, and I would have been up there driving it ! Happy Days !!


1950 Fordson Major TVO.
John Wernham.
Engine stripped down.
John Wernham.
As good as new.
John Wernham.

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  • Really interesting reading all the above as my late father Ben Cootes started his career as an Agricultural engineer at Darby‚Äôs. He later became self employed and worked for many local farmers, in particular working a lot with the Keelings. As a young boy I would spend a great deal of time with him travelling around farms all over Essex. Can still remember him starting the Field Marshall tractor with a cartridge. Also remember being with him while the Keelings were thrashing on farm at Hanningfield, which is now under water.

    By John Cootes (24/08/2020)
  • Yes, I also remember Jim Munden, who took over the running of Darby`s from the 1960s, and how the Crocodile tears were running down his eyes when he told me I was no longer needed, and gave me a weeks notice to leave.   

    By john wernham (22/02/2016)
  • Is there any chance that I can ask Gillian Price, for a photo of her late uncle Ben Playle, as I would love to have a photo of him, as he was such a wonderful man. The only man that really helped me when I was a young teenager, just trying to make my way up in the world.

    Many thanks. John Wernham.    

    By john wernham (09/02/2016)
  • How amazing to hear about Ben Playle. He was my Dad’s uncle and best man at his wedding. My father remembered going out with his uncle to the different farms to repair the machinery in his school summer holidays.

    By Gillian price (03/04/2015)
  • I remember the name Wernham, a family who lived, I think, in Rettendon. However I share John’s love of steam Traction Engines. In the 1940s I was farming at Poplars Farm, and when I was old enough to be ‘allowed out’ my brother Brian and I used to go to meet Jack Keeling on his engine, as it came along Warren Road, towing its Barnwork and either a baler or tyer, depending on whether the straw was to be used for animal bedding or thatching. (Baler=bedding.- Tyer=thatching.(wheat straw only). We knew the Thresher was on its way as it could be heard for miles, as it crushed stones on the road under each piece of kit as they all had iron wheels, and they had a special ring. The iron wheels on the barnwork and baler did get replaced in later years, but after combine harvesters stated to appear.  I also recall that once when the thresher was coming to Poplars, it stopped at the pond at the end of the chase, for the engine to take on Water and it got a bit too close to the edge, and broke the bank down, but luckily it went no further and was able to get itself out.

    The Picture of the Fordson Major tractor brings back my memories of Alby Allen, who lived in Woodham Ferrers. He had ‘one of they new things’ and I used to go tomato picking for him on his holding in Crows Lane. Yes, tomatoes were able to be grown outside at one time.

    Refering back to John’s days at Darbys, I knew Jack Stock, who, in the 1960s, was working for himself, dealing with garden machines.

    Another of the Darby’s people is Jim Munden, who was, in the 1950s, manager of Darby’s workshop. He lives in retirement at Danbury, aged 84, still drives his Mercedes car, and plays golf at Bunsay Badgers. He has a very useful knack of being able to find other players’ golf balls. He himself still hits a very straight ball, and is a pleasure to play with. He tells me that he may have some detail of the Darby Digger.

    By dennis smith (04/02/2014)
  • Great to read the above. My Father was Algy Churcher, who was Sidney Darby’s fellow director. I was apprenticed with the firm until 1951, when I left to do my national Service in the RAF. I never went back as I felt too much of the land which we serviced was vanishing under buildings, and eventually I was proved right, and the Company, having been sold to a man who wanted to knock it all down anyway, went bust!  But happy days! I would be pleased to hear from anyone who remembers those days.

    By Brian Churcher (19/07/2012)
  • What a lovely story. I well remember the sort of tractors that John writes about (especially the TVO aspect). In 1944 my first job (for about six weeks) was for a man named Mr Keesing who was an agricultural contractor and owned/operated a steam traction engine plus ancillary equipment then named as a “Threshing Tackle”. He also owned a tractor as described by John Wernham. It was a terrific experience for me as a young boy chugging along from farm to farm when I was allowed to sit alongside Mr Keeling atop of the traction engine and also allowed to steer it, albeit for only a short distance. (Few cars around during the war). Farmers would usually give us eggs for lunch which we used to fry up on a long handled shovel in the boiler. One day somewhere in Thundersly we did some chaff cutting and the farmer told us that as we were were short of coal type fuel for the traction engine we could attach the huge leather drive belt from his TVO tractor to the chaff cutter. I stood about 20 yards away from the tractor all day filling huge sacks of chaff and finished up being as sick as a dog because of the TVO exhaust fumes.  An experience I will never forget.  What halcyon days they were in Essex then.

    By Peter Watts ( Australia) (19/11/2011)

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