Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Ashley back to the Parish Room to share his stories of harvest time, based upon his many talks with old farmers and farm hands from some 35 years ago. Reflecting his local history fame there were nearly 50 guests, including a number of older farm hands who were happy to share their own memories from harvests long ago, so it was a really great talk.
Ashley began by observing that though there were many harvest pictures from all manner of artists, both local and international, for some reason very few actually showed people at work; more often than not they showed harvests after completion, sometimes with workers celebrating or even sleeping (it was such incredibly hard manual labour after all). He then told us about Michaelmas, which in medieval England marked the end and beginning of the husbandman's year, when farm tenancies changed. It was also one of the quarter days when accounts had to be settled, and on manors was the day when a reeve (an office held by a man of lower rank, appointed as manager of a manor and overseer of the peasants) was elected from the peasants. Because it fell near the equinox, Michaelmas was also associated with the beginning of autumn, with hiring fairs held at the end of September or beginning of October.
Brueghuel - Gathering the harvest
Harvest, by Camille Pissaro
George Stubbs - Reapers
Gainsborough - Mr and Mrs Andrews
Samuel Palmer - Harvest Moon
Life then was very different to today. Ashley noted that market towns such as Sudbury had a Corn Exchange (now a fine library), a livestock market and both wind and watermills, respectively now an Airbnb artists retreat and a hotel. He then quoted some lines from ‘The Farmer’s Boy’, a poem by Robert Bloomfield in praise of the infamous flinty substance made from 'three times skimm'd sky-blue - it seems that on long journeys across the Atlantic, shipboard rats would chew through almost anything, including the tough oak boxes in which cheese was packed, though even they were unable to tackle Suffolk cheese:
And strangers tell of 'three times skimm'd sky-blue.'
To cheese converted, what can be its boast?
What, but the common virtues of a post!
If drought o'ertake it faster than the knife,
Most fair it bids for stubborn length of life,
And, like the oaken shelf whereon 'tis laid,
Mocks the weak efforts of the bending blade;
Or in the hog-trough rests in perfect spite,
Too big to swallow, and too hard to bite.
Inglorious victory! Ye Cheshire meads,
Or Severn's flow'ry dales, where plenty treads,
Was your rich milk to suffer wrongs like these,
Farewell your pride! farewell renowned cheese!
The skimmer dread, whose ravages alone
Thus turn the mead's sweet nectar into stone.
It’s enough to put you off cheese for life!
Ashley’s tales were full of anecdotes from farming related memories, including:
Ashley had plenty of memories of animals being driven along country roads and through towns and villages, along with a number from the audience who fondly recalled such times:
We were then told about ‘A tour through the eastern counties in 1722’, written by Daniel Defoe following his return and in which he wrote:
For the further supplies of the markets of London of poultry, of which these counties particularly abound, they have within these few years found it practicable to make the geese travel on foot, as well as the turkeys, and a prodigious number are brought up to London in droves from the farthest parts of Norfolk; even from the fen country about Lynn, Downham, Wisbech and the Washes; as also from the east side of Norfolk and Suffolk, of whom it is very frequent now to meet droves with a thousand and sometimes two thousand. They begin to drive them in August, by which time the harvest is almost over and the geese may feed in the stubbles as they go. Thus they hold onto the end of October, when the roads begin to be too stiff and deep for their broad feet and short legs to march in.
The idea of managing up to 2,000 birds for perhaps three months seems a fantastically hard task to me, but it was done for centuries around many parts of the country, until the arrival of the railways changed things for ever. Turkeys could wear little leather shoes to protect their feet, something geese would not allow, so they were often driven through warm / hot tar followed by sand; this provided protection, prevented their feet from drying out and also had antiseptic qualities.
Ashley then told us of the many and varied crops grown in and around our local area, such as hops, teasels (to raise the nap on cloth), wood, saffron (from which the famous market town got its name), flax, apples, potatoes, wheat and barley etc. Children were frequently absent from school, both for the main arable harvest and also to pick acorns for pig feed, as well as wood to burn. We were told the present school summer holiday almost certainly came from the arable harvest, with schools not breaking up until the harvest commenced. This was then entirely weather dependent as very wet weather could significantly delay the harvest; in 1879 Bulmer school did not start their summer holidays until August 28th, only returning on November 7th.
The process of gathering the harvest in began with the scythers, using the long handled variant of the sickle, with men following behind making the sheaths, or bundles of stalks held together with long stems or possibly twine. Sheaves were then collected together in bundles to dry out, a process locally known as Shocking, which is the Suffolk word for Stooking - or shraving in Essex. If it subsequently rained the sheaves had to be turned, and if blown over by the wind, picked up to complete the drying process. In order to separate the grain from the crop, stooks had to be ‘thrown up’ to the threshing machine, which required farmers to hire manual labour to complete. Harvest time was when labourers negotiated their wages and rents with landowners.
Harry Becker - A study of three scythers
At the beginning of the harvest a dinner called the ‘Feast of the Ingathering’ was held,. At which reapers nominated one of their own as ‘Lord of the Harvest’, to act as their representative to the Lord of the Manor (the landowner who paid them for their harvest work). The Lord of the Harvest enjoyed certain honours, cutting down the first plants and the first to eat and drink at his electoral feast. A second in command was also often elected, jokily referred to as the ‘Harvest Lady’, to act as leader in the fields when the Harvest Lord was off negotiating wages. Reapers celebrated the election with ale and a drinking game, something the church disapproved of. Its hard to be too critical though, because wages for the harvest were fixed up front, and if the weather was poor and the harvest took longer, it was generally too bad and no more money was offered.
Such was the critical nature of the harvest wages we heard that this was often the only time in the year when families could put decent food on the table and perhaps buy some shoes or clothes for themselves and their children. In consequence, Gleaning, or collecting leftover crops from farmers' fields after they had been commercially harvested (or on fields where it was uneconomic to harvest) was of crucial significance to poor families. To control the gleaning process, farmers left a single stook of sheaves, known as the gleaning policeman, in the harvest field. This signal was recognised by all in the village, and while it remained no one was to enter the field to glean. After reaping it was also common practice for farmers to rake the harvested field, in order to ensure that as many stray ears as possible were collected; alternatively he could let his pigs or fowl onto the field to pick amongst the stubble for the remaining grain.
Regulation of gleaning didn’t come just from the farmer however, as there were self imposed rules widely respected by gleaners, primarily the regulation of hours. In many parishes, the beginning and sometimes the end of the gleaner’s working day was governed by the ringing of a bell, usually the church bell, and known as the gleaning bell. Work was conducted according to these ancient customs, and women and children could be seen hurrying off in the early morning to take up their places in some distant field, though not an ear could be picked up before the gleaning bell rang. It was so important to rural societies that it was even sacred; in the Bible God explicitly ordered owners to give the poor a chance to glean in their fields, and it remained a fundamental feature of many rural societies until quite recent times.
Gleaners at work
After the harvest it was also usual for the Lord of the Harvest to go round local farm suppliers, the wheelwright and sadler for example, seeking Largesse with which to celebrate the gathering of the harvest, and from which our modern day harvest festivals descended. Lastly, this was also the time to catch rats and mice, with rat tails usually fetching a penny each. One old reaper told Ashley that one year his dog killed 150 rats in one session, which truly indicates the scale of the problem and the money that was on offer to eradicate these pests.
After a most memorable talk, Ashley was warmly thanked for his efforts; tea and coffee was served and many attendees stayed on for a good chat amongst themselves and to question Ashley further; it was a truly great evening.
21st November: History of Silk
With 50 years experience in the local silk trade, Richard Humphries will tell us:
12th December: Bonfires and Bells
Rituals and Festivals in the Medieval Suffolk Landscape.
Both events are going to be great, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests both new and old to the Parish Room.
Andy Sheppard 19th October 2018