William Pilbeam, Chicken crammer!

William John Pilbeam was born on 4 April 1849 in Warbleton, Sussex and baptised on 6 May 1849 at Dallington Church to James and Sarah.  James was an agricultural labourer.

When William was 2 he was living with his parents and Ann, aged 9, Harriet, aged 8 and Emily, aged 3 at Rushlake Green at the time of the 1851 census. James was an Agricultural Labourer and Dairyman.  William had five siblings, all born and baptised either in Warbleton or Dallington.

During the 1861 census William was still living at home, aged 12 with his parents. Also at home were Harriet, aged 18, Emily, aged 10 and Lucy Hannah, aged 9. William was working as an Agricultural Labourer on the farm. James was now a Bailiff and Agricultural Labourer on a farm at Tye House, Herstmonceux, (probably down Lower Road near Golden Cross, Herstmonceux).

Little Rigford FarmBy 1871 the family had moved to Little Rigford, Earl’s Down, Warbleton. James, William’s father had died the previous year and Sarah was now a farmer of 20 acres. Harriet, 28 was married to James Martin who was helping on the farm. Emily, aged 23 still lived at home. William, 22 was a gardener.

The marriage of William John Pilbeam and Phillis Funnell took place on 4 April 1877 at the Parish Church, Warbleton, Sussex. William was described on the certificate as a 28 year old bachelor and Farmer from Warbleton and Phillis was described as a 28 year old spinster from Warbleton. Both fathers, James Pilbeam and John Funnell were Farmers and both deceased. The witnesses were Lucy Hannah Pilbeam, sister of the Groom and James White, Phillis’s stepfather.

By 1881 William had taken over the farm at Little Rigford and was living with his wife Phillis and their first sons, William, aged 3 and Thomas, aged 2.  Sarah, William’s mother, by this time, 67 years of age had moved to a cottage, Golan Cottage, Warbleton with Emily and her daughter Edith, aged 4. There is no mention of a husband for Emily.

At the time of the 1891 census Little Rigford Farm had become Rushford Farm, (still in the Pilbeam family to this day). William was a Farmer and Chicken Fattener. With them were children; William, aged 13, helping on the farm, Thomas, aged 12, Caroline, aged 8, George, aged 6 and Lucy, aged 3.

Chicken Fattening or ‘cramming’ was carried out on several farms in the Warbleton area and for a short time proved to be very profitable. Poultry farming was especially suited to small farms because of the skill and supervision required. The farmers organised themselves into two groups, rearing and fattening. Fatteners were often called ‘higglers’ and after collecting lean chickens from the rearers they would keep them for a month or so and sell them deadweight to the central markets in London, sent by train from Heathfield. In 1893 at a time when William was a chicken fattener more than one million chickens were sent to London.

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The chickens were fed with oats and separated milk that was produced on the farm and the manure used on the farm. Thus a farmer could run a farm and cram chickens to help his family survive at a time when agriculture was generally on the wane in the Weald. To dispense with labour, the chickens, previously fed by hand were now crammed by a machine worked by a treadle. Apparently chicken cramming was a lucrative business and earned a lot of money for the young farmers who took part in this dubious activity!

The machine could be worked by one man, who could work the treadle with his foot and hold the bird with his two hands. The cram, mixed to a paste was poured into a hopper and one press of the foot would plunge a measured quantity of the cram directly into the crop of the bird, along 8 inches of rubber tubing which had been forced down its throat. Chicks could quadruple their weight in several weeks.

After killing, the chickens would be plucked, usually the stubbing (pinching out the new feathers and any remaining stubs carried out by women) and then turned quickly over a flame to singe remaining feathers. Then they were powdered with flour, placed in a press, breast down to give the appearance of a plumper breast and packed and sent to market.

By the time of the 1901 census William was still living at Rushford Farm. He was aged 51 and a farmer, however there is no mention of chicken cramming still be carried out on the farm. Living with him and Phillis were Caroline, aged 18, George, (my great grandfather) aged 16 who was working on the farm and Lucy, aged 13.

William died on 26 May 1919 at home on the farm at the age of 70 years old.  He died from Apoplexy 1 hour and the informant was his son, George Pilbeam, who by that time was living at Blackdown, Punnetts Town.  He was buried at the Independent Chapel, Cade Street, Punnetts Town and left a will with the sole beneficiary being his wife, Phillis.

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