Brian Dye's field memories Part 10

The story of the Webb grab set me thinking about muck spreaders. We were agents for what used to be known as the Rolls Royce (or Cadillac) of muck spreaders, the Atkinson Spreadall. This spreader was painted the best colour possible for a muck spreader.


It had a rubber belt floor that carried the muck down to the rear shredders and flails. The machine worked well. As well as being good at spreading muck, the machine could be used for spreading lime sludge. This is a by-product from the sugar beet industry and is a mixture of soil from the sugar beet and lime that had been used in the process of producing sugar. The waste water containing the materials is pumped from the factory into huge settlement lakes. Before the start of each beet season, the sludge from these lakes is cleared and spread back on the land. The lime reduced the acidity of the soil and the factory gets rid of a waste product. The cycle is complete and every one is happy.

A number of contractors owned machines in our area and all were involved in sludge spreading. We have three large beet factories around us. Wissington near Downham Market on the edge of the black soiled fens, Cantley, near Norwich where the sugar beet industry started in England during the 1920s and Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk on the heavy clay soils of Suffolk. These factories generated large amounts of sludge and so it was a profitable side line for a farmer to own two or three Spreadalls to spread this on other local farms. The factory transport would deliver the sludge to the fields, tip it into a large heap, then along would come the contractor with his Webb and spreaders.

We sold the Webb Grabs for loading the spreaders and the spreaders so we were happy too. The one unpleasant job on these spreaders was fitting a new floor belt. This was about five feet wide and twelve feet long and made of very heavy rubber. It usually required replacement after a few years of carting muck or lime sludge. So all the bolts were nice and rusty. To replace the belt meant the removal of the complete side of the spreader, ratchet drive to the floor movement roller and lots of lovely 1/4 and 5/16th bolts. With nice rounded rusted heads on which the spanners or sockets would not grip.

In those days, there was no such thing as portable angle grinders. The only method of removal of rusted bolts open to the fitter was a hammer and sharp chisel. During the cold days of winter when most of the spreading was done, the occasional whack on the hand with a three pound hammer did wonders for the concentration when cutting off dozens of these bolts.

I was always told to look where the hammer is to strike rather than the cutting end of the chisel. This ensures you hit the right place. But occasionally one lapses. I have the bruises to prove it. (I also got into trouble whilst building scenery for our local amateur dramatics group by watching the place where the hammer should strike and hitting a colleagues toe but that's another tale).

When it came to refitting the belt the heavy rubber was un-yielding and extremely weighty when fitting it over the drive and idler rollers. It nearly always had to be tapped into place with a fourteen pound hammer. Then came the job of refitting the side of the machine and truing up the floor by use of the adjusters so the belt ran central. The adjusters had to be freed off with liberal amounts of easing fluid and lots of wire brush work. Even on a cold day you could soon work up a sweat.

These machines were used by pig farmers as the slightly more "juicy" consistency of the muck could give problems if transported through the village in a normal chain and slat type of machine. Mind you, it did wonders for the English Rose.

So all the time you were working on the machine you were accompanied by the smell of either the lime sludge or pig muck. Both these are pretty potent. People did not stand beside you for long at the bar of an evening. The smell lingered with you, in your clothes and in your service van for some time after the job was complete.

This was why my line manager always handed out muck spreader repairs to the Service Engineers who upset him.

How did you upset him? By doing things like putting bird scarer bangers into the 45 gallon drums that were used in the workshop for waste bins. In a big workshop, the bang from inside a 45 gallon drum would really echo. (Please do not try this for yourselves. Just take my word).

During the late 1960s some farmers replaced their Spreadalls with the new vacuum tankers that sucked the semi liquid slurry from pits filled from channels in the buildings. Two incidents that occurred with the first of these machines are worth telling.

One involved a tanker that I had demonstrated to the operator. We filled the tank, drove to the field and I showed how to pressurise the tank, then start the tractor moving forward before opening the rear valve to start spreading the tanks contents. We loaded and unloaded the tanker several times and soon the operator felt happy with the machine. I continually stressed that the machine had to be moving forwards before the discharge valve was opened.

It was some days later that I learnt that the operator had not heeded my warnings. Soon after I had left him, he had stopped on the headland, pressurised the tank, opened the discharge valve, then lit a cigarette before moving off. The contents of the tank had been ejected through the hedge and onto the main road that was on the other side. He was not popular with his boss or the users of the road.

The second incident involving a tanker occurred soon afterwards. In this case the operator pressurised the tank and moved off. When he looked back he could not see any slurry being spread. He stopped, increased the pressure in the tank, checked he had opened the valve by tugging the valve release and tried again. Still no slurry was being ejected. He got down from the tractor, leaving the engine and pump running and walked to the back of the tank. There he saw a Hessian corn sack protruding from the discharge valve. So he pulled it!!

It was a warm spring day. He had found it cooling to work with his overalls un-buttoned. No air conditioning in tractor cabs in those days. The jet of slurry hit him full in the bare chest, flowing into his opened overalls and blowing them up like a balloon. It knocked him to the ground where the whole contents of the tank were pumped over him before he could get out of the way.

His wife refused to sleep in the same room with him for some time, even after he had taken frequent baths.