The golden age of the harvest

Jonathan Brown revisits harvests of 150 years ago, when all the work was done by hand and everyone was roped in to help out.

6th March 2017
The golden age of the harvest

In 1863, the farmer of Little Somborne Farm in Hampshire wrote in his diary: “Began harvest on the 2nd August and up to the 25th the weather was delightful, which enabled us to get a splendid wheat crop saved in the best of order and a great portion of barley and oats.” The weather broke at the end of August, but it did not spoil the harvest, which, according to many accounts from around the country, was the best crop of wheat for about 30 years.

Fine weather and healthy crops meant good conditions for the harvest, and most of it was got in quickly – unlike the disastrously wet year of 1879, when some crops were still uncut in November. Bounty had its downside, and the prices fell – the price of wheat was 20 percent less in 1863 than it had been the previous year – but in general, this could be counted a golden year. A golden year in a golden age: one of the first historians of British agriculture coined the phrase ‘golden age’ to describe the 1850s and 1860s, when everything looked rosy for the arable farmer. Prices were good, imports were low. The name has stuck, despite all the revisions of interpretation made by later historians.

 

All hands to the fields

The corn harvest began in early August – a few weeks later than is usual now. It followed hard on gathering in the hay in early summer, making for a very busy few weeks for everyone on the farm – and beyond the farm, too, for the workload was greater than the regular labour force could manage. Every available man and woman, and many a child, was needed to get the crop in.

Farmers in the arable districts were anxious
about the labour force as harvest approached, and complaining of shortages. About a million regular farmworkers were employed in England and Wales in the mid-19th century, but numbers swelled during harvest, especially in the eastern arable counties. To augment their regular workers, farmers turned to  anybody willing to present an able body. The village wives were recruited, and there were all sorts of casual and migrant workers – tramps, gypsies and especially the Irishmen (see box on next page). People used to come out from the towns to help as well, but by the 1860s, the demands of industry were
reducing that supply of workers. The hop harvest
in Kent was the last survival of that practice, petering out in the 20th century.

Cereal crops – wheat, barley, oats – were cut by hand in the 1860s, which was why there was such a great demand for workers. There were machines to do the job: as long ago as 1828, Patrick Bell had built one for his farm in Scotland, but it did not catch on. An American firm showed a redesigned model at the Great Exhibition in 1851, which attracted more attention, but by 1863, few farmers had bought a reaping machine. Each one cost about £25, and most farmers were unsure that was justified for a machine used just four weeks a year. It still seemed cost-effective to employ gangs of men using hand tools, despite the anxiety of finding the workers.

That’s not to say the work in the harvest field had been unchanging. It had metamorphosed, as more efficient scythes and bagging hooks replaced reaphooks and sickles as tools for cutting the corn. There were regional preferences about the use of the tools: Somborne was in a scythe-using zone. Scythes and bagging hooks were bigger and cut with a swishing, mowing action, rather than the sawing of the small-bladed sickle, so the crop was cut more quickly. Each harvester could manage a third of an acre with a reaphook or sickle; with a bagging hook or scythe that became an acre or more.

 

Increased production

Paradoxically, this did not necessarily solve the farmer’s labour problem. He was growing more cereals in the 1860s than 30-40 years earlier, so needed the extra output of the scythe and bagging hook. The higher cutting rate also increased pressure on workers following behind the cutters, for there was fine division of labour. Cutting the crop was done by a group of five or six men with the heavier scythe or bagging hook, although women often wielded the sickle too. The cutters left a trail of corn and groups of workers raked it up to be tied into sheaves, binding it with straw knots. Boys and lads brought out the food for the breaks – ‘elevenses’ and ‘fourses’ in Suffolk.

Sheaves were gathered into stooks, between six and 10 sheaves leaning against each other to allow drying air to flow though. Local custom accounted for the differences in number, so that styles of stook varied across the country. In Kent the ‘hooded stook’ was preferred, in which an additional sheaf was laid on the top as a cap to keep rain off. The ‘Irish mow’ in south-west England was a pile of 20 sheaves. Whatever the style, the rows of stooks gave a characteristic pattern to the harvested fields where they remained to dry for about three weeks.

It was back-breaking work, with all the leaning and stooping into the cutting, and bending to gather up the sheaves. In hot weather it was dry, sweaty and dusty; in wet or changeable weather, trying to cut laid crops was difficult and more taxing. The language among the workers was, wrote Richard Jefferies, a contemporary writer, “not that of pastoral poetry”.

The day was long – 5am till dusk, but the compensation was the extra pay. Harvest was a special deal for regular and seasonal workers alike. A regular farm labourer earning 10-12 shillings a week (typical of large parts of central and southern England) could get up to £1 a week at harvest time, and there might also be a bonus payment at the end. In addition, his midday meal was usually provided, plus all the beer or cider needed to keep him going through a hot day. Casual and migrant workers were paid at similar rates in deals struck with the farmer. Some were at piece rates – cutting and tying wheat at 12 shillings an acre, for example.

It cost the farmer a lot. The £25 he had not spent on the reaping machine could easily be paid in additional harvest wages, but it was important for his business survival. For the labourer’s family, the harvest extra meant survival. Husband, wife and children could all be earning for these weeks, bringing in enough to pay for things beside food. Richard Jefferies noted that harvest wages allowed labourers “to pay rent, back debts, find shoe leather and so forth”.

After the stooks were dried, the crop was carted to the stackyard. Most of the migrant harvesters had gone by now, but the work of loading the wagons and building the stacks continued to draw on local labour beyond the regular men. It was all manual work still; the first machines to lift hay and straw into a stack were introduced in 1863. It was hard work for the horses as well, hauling the heavily laden wagons.

 

The harvest celebration

After the harvest came the celebration – harvest home (called ‘horkey’ in some places). Harvest was one of the great village festivals – the celebration of the successful gathering in of the corn – and shared by all the village.

There were some ancient traditions behind the celebration, the form of which varied across the country. Often there was a grand procession for the last wagon-load of corn brought from the field; the Illustrated London News, a leading weekly magazine, had a picture of one at Swallowfield near Reading in 1860. The band played, a banner was held aloft and the wagon was decorated with the plaited straw corn dollies.

A harvest tea or supper, shared by squire, farmer and labourer alike, was followed by dancing and merry-making. It was this final part of the day that caused consternation among the respectable classes – “unrestrained riot and excess” was how the celebration of 1867 was described in the Essex parish of Foxearth. As a result, the festival was “taken in hand by the clergyman”, and centred on a thanksgiving in the parish church.

During the 1870s, farmers changed their minds about the reaping machine. It was now reckoned to be able to cut the crop at half the cost of using manual labour, and only a driver, and perhaps a lad, was all that was needed to operate it.

There were still jobs in raking and stooking, carting and stacking, but the farmer was less dependent on casual and migrant labour. The harvest field became less crowded and bustling as the machines took over. The next generation of reaper-binder machines required yet fewer workers, and the process continued until we see today’s harvest: an emptier landscape with one man driving the combine supported by two or three others with tractors and corn trailers.

 

Jonathan Brown is a historian of farming
and the countryside. He is Honorary Fellow
at the Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading. Recent books include Shepherds and Shepherding and Farming in the ’20s and ’30s (Shire).

Image: Getty

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