Harvest Home: Tales of Mice and a Man Buried Twice   1 comment


Harvest Home: Tales of Mice and a Man Buried Twice

Why do schools generally start back a week later, after the summer break,  in Britain, compared with Europe and the USA?

English: Corn dolly corn maiden

English: Corn dolly corn maiden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This has to do the grain and hop harvest in Britain which isn’t finished until the end of the first week in September. When compulsory elementary education was introduced to the age of thirteen or fourteen just before the First World War, harvesting the new grain was still very labour-intensive. Although threshing had been mechanised in the 1830s, the crops were still mainly cut by hand well into the twentieth century, so ’all hands’, including those of children of all ages, were required to cut the corn and gather it in quickly, especially if the weather was changeable and showery. Even after Britain became a largely urbanised country, factory workers from the towns were needed to help gather int he crops in many parts of the country, and during the hop harvest in Kent, whole families would take a fortnight’s holiday to work outside on the hop farms, with farmers keeping cottages for them to stay in.

English: Wheat sheaves near King's Somborne Th...

English: Wheat sheaves near King’s Somborne The first and last sheaves of corn to be cut had major significance, grain from the first sheaf would be made into a loaf of bread while the last sheaf was reserved for transformation into a corn dolly; symbolic of Mother Earth or the Corn Spirit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Therefore, any attempt to cajole children back to school before the bulk of the harvest had been safely gathered in would result in widespread absenteeism, and the compromise of beginning the school year a week later was agreed upon. Then, towards the end of September, both in school and church, harvest produce was displayed in tasteful arrangements , while songs, hymns, prayers and stories were used to make up the harvest programme. This tradition is still kept today, with the gifts taken afterwards to hospitals or residential homes for children and the elderly. Sometimes the produce is sold and the proceeds given to charities such as Oxfam or Christian Aid for their work with those in want overseas.

Statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station ...

Statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station in London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John Betjeman, the Poet Laureate, wrote a poem called The Diary of a Church Mouse, in which he comments cleverly on the popularity of the ’Harvest Festival’ through the eyes of a mouse who rather resents the fact that all year round he has to scratch for a living, trying to find something to eat int he church, but at harvest time…

…other mice with pagan minds

Come into church my food to share

Who have no proper business there.

 

 

Betjeman’s mouse is puzzled by the popularity of the Harvest Festival service and declares:

But all the same it’s strange to me

How very full the church can be

With people I don’t see at all

Except at Harvest Festival.

English: corn dolly, Mordiford

English: corn dolly, Mordiford (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, the reason for the fullness of the church goes back centuries before Christ, to the need for man to pay homage to the spirit of life itself which he believed lived in the crop to be harvested, whether corn, wheat, barley, oats, hops or something else. Early man felt that by cutting the crop he killed some of that spirit, and that he could only bring it back to life for the following season by going through some sort of ritual. Many of these ceremonies involved the making of effigies, or ’corn dollies’ from the last sheaf of the crop to represent the continuity of life. Making these remains a popular activity at harvest time, an ancient tradition contrasting with the modern tin cans which make up most of the displays these days.

English: Straw cross, harvest

English: Straw cross, harvest (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The harvest doll was often the last complete sheaf, dressed in a woman’s dress, bedecked with coloured ribbons  and variously called the harvest queen, the Kern baby, the neck and the corn doll. In Northumberland, the doll was attached to a long pole and carried home by the harvester, then set up in a barn where it stood as the centre-piece for the festivities that followed. In Scotland it was called ’the Old Wife’, while in Belfast it was ’the Granny’. In Wales, one of the reapers carried the doll home while the others tried to snatch it away by pouring buckets of water over him. If he got home safely he kept until the sowing in the spring. Then he would produce the doll and feed it to the plough horse, or mix whatever grain was left in with the new seed to be sown. This ensured the continuation of the corn spirit from one year to the next. The feat of cutting the last sheaf was often shared by all the reapers, so that no single one of them could be held responsible for killing the spirit with the final cutting.

As recently as 1947, three devices made of wheat, oats and barley were displayed at harvest time in Great Bardfield Church, near Braintree in Essex. One was a cross on the pulpit, the others were an anchor and a heart on the screen. They represented faith, hope and charity. The harvest custom known as ’Crying the neck’ was common in Devon and was revived in St Keverne in the late twentieth century. The ritual was associated with the ancient belief that the corn spirit lives in the last swathe to be cut and that the last cut had to be shared. With hats off the reapers broke into a long, drawn-out musical cry of ’The Neck’.

Then they all flung their hats in the air, dancing around, kissing the women, shouting and laughing. This last sheaf, or ’neck’, was picked up by a young man and carried to the farmhouse, where a young girl stood with a pail of water. She had to fling the water over the young man as he entered the farmyard. It was then plaited into a ’corn baby’ and kept over the fireplace until the following spring when it was put into the ploughed field, to allow the corn spirit to live again.

As a writer in 1826 reveals, these were widespread traditions. In one evening, he heard several ’Necks’. Mechanisation took some of the romance out of the season, but even then the celebration of the ’Harvest Home’ around the last loaded waggons drawn in by horses, with garlands, ribbons and flowers, continued. As the waggon rolled to a halt, a young reaper would shout:

We have ploughed, we have sowed,

We have reaped, we have mowed,

We have brought home every load,

Hip Hip Hip – Harvest Home!

This would be followed by cakes and beer and dancing. Master and labourer sat down together with no distinction, together with visitors from other farms, who exchanged labourers at harvest time. Many of these traditions finally disappeared with the replacement of the horse by the tractor and then the combine-harvester. However, many have also survived and become linked with Harvest Thanksgiving. Parish churches continued to greet the harvest with a peal of bells and to bless the crops and other produce in the church. Even the corn dolly was allowed to decorate the church door, though often transformed into a cross. In 1843 the vicar of Morwenstow issued a notice inviting parishioners to receive the Sacrament in the bread of the new corn. Thanksgiving is often an Evensong service, with the church decorated all day long with ’all God’s gifts around us’. The beginning of the period of harvesting was marked by a day called Lammas-tide, or ’Loaf mass’.

The advent of new technologies to the British countryside from this time was very much a mixed blessing, therefore, and not just from the point of view of community solidarity. My great-great-grandfather, Henry Tidmarsh, was an agricultural labourer at Great Rollright in Oxfordshire. When still a young man, in the 1840s, he had his arm pulled out just below the shoulder by a threshing machine. As he bent to wipe a nest of mice off the machine, he slipped and fell. He had to try to walk to Chipping Norton, where the nearest hospital was, bleeding to death. When he got news of the emergency, the village doctor went after him with a horse and cart, saving his life. Henry could no longer work on the estate farm with one arm, and compensation was unheard of in those days, so all the family had to live on were seven loaves a week for seven people, charity bread given through the parish as outdoor relief. Together with the vegetables and the fruit out of the garden, they just survived, and avoided going into the recently established workhouse. They had not a thing from the squire and his relations, who lived in the Hall at Great Rollright, whom he was working for, but the parson of the village was quite well off and very kind. He gave Henry a little pony and trap, so that he was able to fetch parcels for people, halting on the hill at Ufton near Leamington, where my grandfather Gulliver lived. They  remembered him going round the village selling pins and needles and cottons, and other haberdashery. He lived into his nineties, and was re-united with his right arm on burial in the churchyard at Great Rollright. He therefore became known in local folklore as the man who was buried twice!

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In the southern and eastern counties of England the dreaded machine had already been the object of attack by the increasing number of unemployed farm labourers during the autumn and winter months when the threshing was traditionally done. Unrest over the impoverished conditions of agricultural labourers following the end of the French Wars had been building for some time, and the threshing machines became a visible symbol of their suffering. The ’riots’ which erupted in 1830 started in Kent and quickly spread as far west as Dorset, as far north as Northamptonshire, and across East Anglia. An imaginary leader, Captain Swing, was invented and under his ’orders’ farm labourers destroyed nearly four hundred threshing machines. However, the uprising(s) did not last long and magistrates dealt sternly with those found guilty of rioting. Six were hanged, over four hundred transported and about the same number were thrown into prison at home. Although the rising did delay the spread of threshing machines, but the problem of low wages remained and increasing numbers of landless labourers decided to look for work in the growing towns and cities. Those who remained on the land attempted to establish unions in order to improve their conditions, but the government did not welcome this development either, and in 1834 magistrates in Dorchester sentenced six men from the village of Tolpuddle to transportation for gathering under a tree in the centre of the village. The mass meeting shown in the picture below was organised to protest against the treatment of the ’Tolpuddle Martyrs’, who were eventually pardoned. Image

However, it was nearly forty years later that my other great-great-grandfather,  Vinson Gulliver, marched through the Warwickshire countryside to help Joseph Arch found the first national union for farm workers, the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union, Beneath the Wellesbourne Tree. By then, conditions were little better than they had been half a century before. Nor did the labourer have a share in the fruits of the earth on which he toiled; the harvester who killed a rabbit bolting from the last of the corn could find himself before the magistrate’s bench. The Justice of the Peace was invariably a farmer himself. So, it took a special kind of courage for labourers to stand together and sing:

Ye tillers of the soil

Assert your manhood then,

You get your living by hard toil,

Then all be union men.

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Image

In her book, Lark Rise to Candleford, recently turned into a popular TV series by the BBC, Flora Thompson describes in great detail Oxfordshire village life during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Here she writes of harvest time:

In the fields where the harvest had begun all was bustle and activity. At that time the mechanical reaper with long, red revolving arms like windmill sails had already appeared in the locality; but it was looked upon by the men as an auxiliary, a farmer’s toy; the scythe still did most of the work and they did not dream it would ever be superseded. So while the red sails revolved in one field and the youth on the driver’s seat of the machine called cheerily to his horses and the women followed behind to bind the corn into sheaves, in the next field a band of men would be whetting their scythes and mowing by hand as their fathers had done before them.

Having no idea that they were at the end of a long tradition, they still kept up the old country custom of choosing as their leader the tallest and most highly skilled man amongst them, who was then called King of the Mowers. For several harvests in the eighties they were led by the man known as Boamer. He had served in the Army and was still a fine, well-set-up young fellow with flashing white teeth and a skin darkened by fiercer than English suns.

With a wreath of poppies and green bindweed trails around his wide, rush-plaited hat, he led the band down the swathes (paths through the corn made by the mowers) as they mowed and decreed when and for how long the they should halt for a ’breather’ and what drinks should be had from the yellow stone jar they kept under the hedge in a shady corner of the field. They did not rest often or long; for every morning they set themselves to accomplish an amount of work in that day that they knew would tax all their powers till long after sunset. ’Set yourself more than you can do and you’ll do it’ was one of their maxims, and some of their feats in the harvest fields astonished themselves as well as the onlooker.

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Image

Questions:

  1. Study the old photographs. Describe each of them as accurately as you can. What points of special interest does each one have?
  2. What information about village life in the nineteenth century can be gained from the photographs?
  3. Photographs are more useful with captions (photos 1-3). What information would you like to know about the photos without captions?
  4. Photography began in the 1820s. How useful are photographs as a source of information about the past, compared to paintings and drawings, like the one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Demonstration?
  5. Compare the information you have gained from photos 1 and 2 with that from Flora Thompson’s book. What do they tell you about the following aspects of harvesting in the late nineteenth century?:

(a)   the parts played by the men, women and children;

(b)   tools and machinery;

(c)  farm workers’ clothes;

(d)   harvest customs.

6.  Examine all the photographs again:

(a) In what ways can old photographs be more useful as sources than written or recorded accounts (oral history)?

(b) What kinds of subjects are old photographs especially useful for?

(c) Are there any dangers of using this kind of evidence without written or oral accounts?

There’s another story, from the mid-twentieth century, about mice at harvest time and it tells how a group of village children on their way to school had to pass a farm, with a field of corn which was ripe for reaping. The day came when the harvester, a modern automatic machine, started to cut the corn, leaving it bound in bails and ready to be carted away. On their way home, the children were very amused to see that the farmer was leaving an area of the corn uncut, in one corner of the field, deliberately going round these few square yards and leaving it standing untidily amid the flattened areas around. The children called out ’hey, you’ve missed a bit, farmer Giles!’ and made rude comments about his eyesight! Ignoring their jibes, the farmer went on with his work the next day, still leaving the patch uncut. It was still uncut when they made their way home that day too. However, on the third morning, they noticed that the patch had been cut, left until the very last. On the way home, the children met the farmer coming up the lane on his tractor, pulling a load of bailed corn. As he stopped on the narrow lane to let them pass safely, one of them plucked up courage to ask him about the patch he had left till last.

The farmer explained that, on the first day, as he had approached that corner of the field on his harvester, he had spotted a pair of field mice in a nest they had made there, with a family of six new-born mice. He couldn’t bring himself to drive straight over them knowing they would all be killed, so he skirted round the nest and left that tuft of corn standing. On the second morning, he looked to see if they were there, which they were, but on the third morning he watched the nest carefully and saw the parents lifting their young in their mouths, one by one, and carrying them to a safe place in the hedge. They had realised the danger and were saving their family. Now that all were safely installed in their new home, the farmer knew he could complete his reaping. That afternoon, the children had an important extra lesson. Not only did they learn about the need for care of wild creatures, but also about not making fun of other people’s actions without knowing the reason for them.    

Questions:

  1. What can stories like this tell us about harvesting and village life in the middle of the last century?
  2. How valuable are oral accounts and traditions in understanding how people lived their lives in the past? What are their limitations compared with other sources such as photographs, factual documents and fiction?

Sources:

Victor J. Green (1983), Festivals and Saints Days. Poole: Blandford Press

Martin Dickinson (1979), Britain, Europe and Beyond, 1700-1900. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

One response to “Harvest Home: Tales of Mice and a Man Buried Twice

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  1. Reblogged this on hungarywolf.

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