Story: The Wormcharmer


The Wormcharmer

A story by Eden Jolly about the agricultural machine “the wormcharmer”.

So there was a great Northern industrialist called Armstrong and he was the first person to power his house with hydroelectric power. He also had armaments but he built these agricultural machines in Newcastle and they were exported around the world in the 1860s.

With developments in agricultural mechanics – basically the industrialisation of farming – more people had to move into the cities so that people who were left behind had to produce more. So the way to do that was through machinery. So Armstrong came up with a whole series of machines. And one I’m recreating at the minute is called the Wormcharmer. The idea was they discovered that worms were fantastic for oxygenating soils, also levelling the soil. The advent of the railways in the 1860s that meant that local producers could produce food and get it to market in the same day. So, for example, at Leith Hall, they had a big sort of garden – a house garden, market garden – from which they produced lots of food for themselves and also they’d export it – well, sold it in Aberdeen. In fact, it was Leith Hall that first came up with the concept of this idea. There was a large wheelbarrow there, made from oak, which must have weighed about a quarter of a ton – empty. So they obviously thought, “We’ve got a whole pile of crap here we need shifted to the end of the garden,” so instead of doing 15 trips we’ll make one trip.

And because labour was so [plentiful] – if somebody broke their back you’d just get somebody else to do it – there’s no thought at all for the operative. So through that I did some research and discovered all these weird and wonderful machines which were marketed. So Armstrong came up to Aberdeen and held an exhibition and all the local landowners and interested parties went (via train – the new trains!) to this exhibition where he sold a lot of equipment, including my thing which was the Wormcharmer.

So basically, what it does is – it’s manually operated and it mimics the footsteps of birds, also gentle falling of rain, which brings worms to the surface. So the idea is that one gets an operative – one of the workers -to walk across the field with this piece of equipment, operate this piece of equipment, which is very difficult,

very labour intensive, exhausting work – to mimic the sound, the vibration from gently falling rain. So that’s what happens. They spend two or three hours walking across a field, to a state of collapse, to charm worms to the surface which are then harvested with a wormer. Originally it was manually done but there’s also plans for a Wormharvester, which I’ve found some reference to in reference books, especially Cragside Museum. They’ve done a book of all these drawings and machines. I’ve been in touch with them and they’re going to try to find some more information about it and perhaps replicate one of those.

So that’s the idea basically – that’s what I’m working on at the minute.

“So what happens with the worms?”

You sell them or put them into your garden to increase the quality of the soil and make it more fertile.

Basically it’s an organic way of improving your yields so you can sell them. We had a Canadian artist here actually, whose grandmother apparently did exactly the same. They charmed worms in Northern Canada for sale as bait for fishermen. It was done up until sixty years ago – people charming worms. They probably still do it – I don’t know.

“So do you think the Wormcharmer caught on around here, when the guy came up with his exhibition?”

No – I don’t think it did. I haven’t seen any trace in any old stack yards or anything like that. And the museum hasn’t got one either. Alford Museum – it’s a treasure trove – it’s an amazing place. People in other museums contact them because they’ve got such a rare collection. It’s an amazing place, well worth checking out.

So that’s why I’m building one – it’s actually in the yard at the minute, that’s what I’m working on at the minute – when I get the chance.

“Maybe I could get a photograph of it to go with the story?”

Well, it’s not quite ready yet – but it’s getting there. I’m building it at the minute. I’ve got all the parts, it’s just getting time to do it. Which is the problem. But when it’s done we’ll have a demonstration – maybe on the Lumsden field.

“Charm some worms?”

Yes – get Charlie along to charm some worms.

“It’s just crazy, this idea of a machine that creates backbreaking work for someone when actually machines are supposed to do quite the opposite.”

Well, obviously labour was cheap and expendable, so that was the thought process behind it. But as soon as steam came along, mechanisation, that sort of stuff. Agricultural chemicals …

“Also the idea of a machine that recreates something very gentle and ‘pitter patter’, being such hard work as well … something so heavy …”

Obviously everything I’ve just said is a complete fabrication – it never happened. But that’s the idea behind the whole project. They’ve got all this labour, not just in agriculture but in everything else, particularly in 1860s, the industrial revolution, where no thought was given to people dying from industrial diseases or industrial accidents. They were just replaced by another willing worker – hence the advent of unions and what have you.

“Absolutely, yes. Fairtrade wasn’t a concept back then, was it?”