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Farm Boys Reunion 2024

Former YMCA “British Boys for British Farms” held a poignant reunion at North Cadbury Court on 23rd May. It marked ten years since their first reunion here in May 2014, which was filmed by the BBC’s Countryfile, a very special occasion for everyone at the court.

After the second world war a large part of the house was lent to the YMCA, as part of a scheme to train under privileged city boys who wanted an entry into farming. Between 1948 and 1966 several hundred young men learnt their trade here and many have returned from farms all over the world to revisit.

Former farm boys and their wives at North Cadbury Court

Memories of North Cadbury Court

The day was an opportunity to remember their time at the court and they were treated to tours of house, cheese making and a ploughman’s lunch. The day brought back many recollections of their time here, which included arriving at the “big house” from Castle Cary station and realising it was a huge change from the city. Some were homesick in the early weeks.

“I remember the dorms (which are now bedrooms on the top floor), climbing out of the windows onto the parapet, writing letters on Sundays home from there, smoking on occasion and having dorm competitions.”

“Playing football in what’s now the squash court when it was wet. Travelling by bicycle early in the mornings to our farms for milking, sometimes it was pitch black and there were a few mishaps as a result.”

“Being cooked for by ‘Auntie’ who ran the kitchen and in the first week helping with domestic tasks like scrubbing the floors. Being supervised and guided by the warden (there were a number over the years) who found local farm placements and provided much support, to ensure we settled.”

“Being tested by our farm host. For example clearing out a blocked drain. I stuck my hand down it without a second thought, pulling out all the muck, I knew I was being tested.”

“Going to church on Sundays and noticing the vicar’s pretty daughter – we all adored her!  The vicar had been a Japanese prisoner of war and had his tongue cut out so had learnt to talk again.”

“Playing Monopoly in the sitting room and cricket on the lawn outside the main house on summer evenings. Having lectures in what is now the snooker room. On occasion having boxing matches in the North Hall.”

The History of BBBF

The largest and oldest youth charity in the world, the YMCA, started a new scheme in 1932 called British Boys for British Farms. It had seen a desperate need for young men to find employment and make a better life for themselves.  At the same time, farming was in a sorry state and needed a bigger skilled workforce. Boys were referred from towns and cities across the UK. Some came from less wealthy backgrounds or left school with few qualifications, so didn’t have the choice of going to agricultural college. North Cadbury Court was one of the farms used for this.

Photo: Paul Warden, private collection

For thirty six years the name British Boys for British Farms was respected in agricultural circles, promoted by the National Farmers Union, the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Labour, the Kellogg Foundation, schools, colleges, employment agencies as well as social welfare departments. Rob Hewlett, a scheme member in 1958, worked on a local farm and got a taste for pedigree cows and went on become estate manager at Boddington Estates in Cheltenham. Some of the boys went on to farm institutes or agricultural colleges as well as working abroad in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. One BBBF boy became a missionary farmer in Formosa, now Taiwan.

Photo: Paul Warden, private collection

In 1961 the YMCA also started British Boys for British Horticulture Training Scheme, known as BBBH at Wilderwick, East Grinstead and continued at Park Hill near Derby, from 1966 until 1968. These were the only two BBBF centres out of the 14 to run both BBBF and BBBH training schemes. Some of the BBBH boys went on to work in several Royal Gardens and at Kew Gardens. In 1966 there was an informal approach from Buckingham Palace seeking advice from the YMCA BBBH staff about the possibility of a residential training centre at Windsor.

Photo: Paul Warden, private collection

In 1995 Barbara Vessey, a former BBBF matron whose husband was a warden, published an illustrated book entitled: “British Boys for British Farms: The Story of the YMCA’s Farm Training Scheme”, published by the YMCA.

In her book she says: “Such a scheme needs no monument in brick and stone. Its memorial is in the life of those who passed through the hostels, learned to love the countryside and found great satisfaction in working with nature and producing good quality crops and livestock.

“Many who left the city streets at the age of fourteen or fifteen, made their way by hard work and enthusiasm to farm on their own account. Together with all those who became advisers and teachers, managers and agents, or who supported the agricultural industry in related occupations, the contribution of this very basic farm-training scheme to the economic life of Britain was significant and long lasting.”

BBC Countryfile’s Adam Henson finding out about the life of the trainees. He joined them for the first ever national reunion of British Boys for British Farms at North Cadbury Court in 2014.
Jamie and Rory Montgomery talking to the farm boys

For further information about the scheme contact Stephen Milner, email: [email protected] or 01305266197

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