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Mr Cundall's Cow

Saturday 02 January 2021

A cautionary tale of the perils of greed.

I was now in my mid-teens and it was time to think about leaving home. To do so I would need money and in the summer of 1947 I began the search for an employer. Not just any employer mind. I wanted someone who could provide me with an education of sorts. I needed to learn new skills which would set me in good stead for my future life.

The winter of 1946-7 had been harsh. Across the country herds of livestock froze to death and there had been food and fuel shortages. As usual, my father had no money and I thus needed to find someone who would pay me as opposed to the free labour that my father had come to expect.

I maintain to this day that your first employer should be tough. Someone who will break you. Someone who will be satisfied with nothing but hard toil. It will set you up for life.

I found the very man in Mr Frank Cundall, a horse dealer and farmer who lived at Phoenix Farm near Brompton, a village that lay seven miles to the west of Scarborough.

I was 16 years old when I went to work for Mr Cundall and he was a slave driver. He expected long working hours, starting at seven in the morning and working through until seven in the evening. If the jobs weren’t done by seven then you worked until the day’s labours were complete. I’d ride out ten horses then I’d muck them out, followed by various odd jobs around the farm. I enjoyed the work and the summer of 1947 was blissful as we basked in a heat wave, perhaps compensation for the hard winter that went before.

Besides the dozens of horses on the farm Mr Cundall also had a cow, and every day the cow needed milking. Mr Cundall was fed up of milking it himself and was constantly in search of someone who could relieve him of his milking duties. None of Mr Cundall's staff would ever admit to being able to milk a cow as they knew what would follow. I'd milked cows since I was a child but it was something I would never let on. However unbeknown to myself I must've carelessly let it slip out at some point.

One afternoon I was approached by Mr Cundall. He was carrying the milk bucket.

“Michael”, he shouted across the yard. “Michael, get yerself over here”.

I knew what was coming and pretended not to hear but I was never going to get away with it.

“Michael, I’ve been told that you know how to milk a cow. I want you to milk my cow this evening before you leave, and after that milking the cow will be your final task of the day. D’yer understand?”

And with that Mr Cundall turned and walked away. It was an order, whether I said that I could milk a cow or not would make no difference and there was little point in protesting.

“Oh hell, another job”, I said under my breath when Mr Cundall was out of earshot. I’d milked many a cow on my father’s farm so I knew exactly what to do but it wasn’t a task that I would look forward to carrying out.

That evening I had made plans to go to The Bay Horse for a drink and to meet some local girls, but before I could leave the farm I had Mr Cundall’s bloody cow to milk.

To please my employer I had to get the milk bucket full to the top and then carry it up to the farm house. If I failed on any of these counts then there’d be hell to pay.

Evening came and I milked the cow until my hands were sore, yet the bucket was still two inches from being full. There simply wasn’t enough milk to reach the brim.

I desperately wanted to get away from the farm and to the pub but how was I ever going to deliver a full bucket of milk before I made my escape?

As I stood there thinking through my dilemma I could hear a sound. Drip drip drip. A dripping tap. Of course. There was a tap in the shed and thereby lay the answer to my problem.

Feeling upbeat and self-satisfied I carried the bucket over to the tap and I topped the milk up with water, then I took the full bucket to the farmhouse. My work was done and the rest of the day was my own.

The following evening, when my hands started to ache, I remembered the day before and stopped milking. I was alone, how could anyone ever know, so again I topped up the bucket with water.

I did this every evening. Nobody suspected a thing. However, as time passed I’d stop milking earlier and then put more and more water into the bucket. Soon I was only taking half a bucket of milk and topping up to the brim from the tap.

This continued for a while until one morning I heard Mr Cundall bellowing my name.

“Michael,” came the distinct voice. “Michael, get yerself over here young man. I have something to show you”.

As I looked across I saw that he was heading in my direction carrying the milk bucket.

“Oh bugger," I thought to myself as I prepared for the worst. "He's sussed it out".

But Mr Cundall wasn't angry, he was actually far from it, and his brow was furrowed with apparent puzzlement.

“Michael, this cow’s breaking all records”, he said, one eye squinted as if in thought. “Y’know every evening you bring me a full bucket of milk and then each morning I milk her and there’s another bucket full”.

I pretended to mirror his puzzled demeanour, knowing full well what was really going on.

“It must be all that cake we’re feeding her”, I replied thoughtfully.

"Maybe so", said Mr Cundall and scratched his head and walked off.

I’d got away with it for now, but I’d have to keep up the charade and maintain the yield of milk without raising any sort of suspicion. Watering down the milk was set to continue.

Mr Cundall never found out the truth and went to his grave thinking he’d owned a record-breaking cow.

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