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Budapest between the Holocaust and the Uprising, 1946-56: Part Two, 1948-53; Descent into Dictatorship.   Leave a comment

1948-49: The Turning Point

In February 1992, Tom Leimdorfer, my former colleague at the Society of Friends (Quakers), was running a week’s residential course for teachers and teacher trainers in Szolnok in eastern Hungary, in the middle of the great plain (Alföld). After the first session, a Physical Education lecturer from a teacher training college called Katalin asked him if by any chance he was the same Leimdörfer Tamás who once attended the Veres Pálné experimental primary school in 1948-49. She remembered being amongst his group little lady friends!

veres-palne

Veres Pálné experimental primary class 1, September 1948

Tom in top row, extreme right. Bomb damage seen in background

Class teacher Sára Németh

As that academic year got underway, Hungary was effectively becoming a one-party state. It was, and is still often assumed in the west that the communist era in Hungary started at the end of the war. This is far from the case. The Soviet Red Army drove out the previous occupying German troops and the fascist arrow-cross regime of Szálasi was thankfully brought to an end in April 1945. Democracy was restored with free elections, and in fact a more genuinely democratic government came to power than Hungary had known for decades. However, within a year the pressures from Stalin’s Soviet Union ensured that Hungary would be firmly within its economic sphere and the government had few choices. By 1947 the right of centre prime minister from the Smallholders’ party was ousted. The most dramatic political change came early in 1948. The election gave the Communist Party 22.3% of the vote, but their strategy of salami slicing the ‘opposition’ parties came to a successful conclusion with the absorption of the left-wing of the Social Democratic Party into the Communist Party. Those who opposed the move had either been exiled, or, like Anna Kéthly, together with tens of thousands of ordinary members, were expelled. On 12 June 1948 the first congress of the now 1.1 million-strong Hungarian Workers’ Party had begun. Rákósi became General Secretary, with another former Muscovite exile, Mihály Farkas, the left-wing Social Democrat György Marosán and János Kádár serving as his deputies. In its programme, the Party committed itself to Marxist-Leninism, to the building of socialism through the ‘struggle’ against ‘reactionaries’, friendship and co-operation with the Soviet Union and the other people’s democracies, combined with a domestic policy of further nationalisation and comprehensive economic planning. The year 1948 soon became known as the year of the turning point. By this time, as László Kontler has written,

… major battles had been won by the Communists in the war for minds, that is, the struggle for dominance over the network of education and cultural life in general, by transforming their structure and content. As in the political and economic spheres, here, too, the destruction caused by the war, the desire to create something out of nothing and the vacuum which could be penetrated, favoured the most tightly organised force on the scene. The damage caused in school buildings, in educational and research equipment, library holdings and public collections by the warfare or by German and Soviet pillage was matched by the number of casualties of war among teachers and intellectuals, especially writers, who fell victim… by the dozens.

Those who resisted either fled the country or were arrested. By the end of the year other political parties had been banned and wholesale nationalisation was in full swing. Yet the Communists were careful to maintain a the post-war ‘coalition’ of an education system based on liberal democratic and national values without imposing Marxist-Leninist ones. The first National Council for Public Education, created in April 1945 and chaired by Albert Szent-György, the Nobel Prize winning scientist, included such diverse members as the composer Zoltán Kodály. Its main initiative was the transition to the eight-year elementary system which Tom Leimdorfer was now entering, originally proposed in 1940 which, besides skills in literacy and arithmetic, also made the acquisition of fundamental knowledge in the social and natural sciences possible. In the new curriculum, the conservative nationalist traditions were being replaced by more progressive ones. The transition to the new system was completed by the end of the 1940s, despite 70% of teachers not having the qualification to teach special subjects in the upper elementary section. At higher levels of education, the opening of the gates to free university places resulted in a doubling of students, though at the cost of a decline in overall standards. Nevertheless, this and other measures meant that several thousand young people from more humble origins were able to gain access to higher education.

However, the debates over aesthetic and ideological issues related to literature and culture, invariably initiated by the Marxist circle of Lukács, gradually metamorphosed into a witch-hunt against the apolitical or decadent representatives of the western-oriented populist writers. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences was also denounced by Lukács at the party congress in 1946 as a stronghold of reaction, and the removal and destruction of several thousand volumes of fascist, anti-Soviet and chauvinist literature from its library by the political police a few months later bode ill for the future. As in politics, 1948 became the year of the turning point in the cultural status quo, when the winding up of the non-communist press started and the Communists scored their most important success in their Kulturkampf against its most formidable rival, the Catholic Church, with the establishment of state control over ecclesiastical schools. The introduction of the eight-year elementary school system and the nationalisation of textbook publishing had already incited violent protests, especially among the organised clergy. Pastoral letters, sermons and demonstrations denouncing the proposed nationalisation of schools were all in vain: parliament enacted the measure on June 16. About 6,500 schools were involved, about half of them being Catholic-controlled.

Dark years again, 1949-53:

The New Year of 1949 saw the establishment of one party dictatorship under Party Secretary Mátyás Rákosi, whose salami tactics had got rid of all opposition and whose establishment of the feared secret police (ÁVH, commonly referred to as the Ávó) heralded an era of full-blown Stalinist repression. It lasted just over four years, but was all-pervasive. The first victims were some of Rákosi’s former political allies and hence rivals. The most prominent was Foreign Minister László Rajk who was accused of siding with Tito, who had led his  communist Yugoslavia out of the Soviet Block towards neutrality. The perceived threat posed to Soviet hegemony led Rákosi to opt for an astonishment effect to convince people of the need for an ‘iron fist’. The fact that Rajk had worked in the western communist movement before the war lent some plausibility to the fantastic allegations that he was an imperialist agent collaborating with the excommunicated Yugoslavs. Convinced by Kádár that the class enemy must be intimidated and that he therefore needed to accept his role as a ‘scapegoat’, though he would ultimately be spared, Rajk signed the expected confession. The charges against him were made public in June 1949. In October he was executed together with two of his associates paid with their lives for just keeping lines of communication open with Tito. Many others accused in the case were also put to death, jailed or interned later on, in the party terror which lasted until 1953. The proclamation of innocence, exhumation and ceremonial reburial of László Rajk in 1956 was one of the key events leading up to the Revolution. A new constitution, modelled on the Soviet one of 1936, made Hungary a People’s Republic. The role of the state organs at all levels was confined to practical management of issues, while strategic policy and control remained in the hands of the party élite.

Tom’s second school year started in September 1949  in a school nearer home, Bocskai primary school (named after one of the Transylvanian princes who successfully resisted both Habsburg and full Turkish rule). Although it was only 15 minutes walk from home, there were several roads to cross, so in some ways it was a more hazardous journey. It was a dull building, which would have been recognised as a suburban primary anywhere and it had a small dusty playground. Tom was a stranger in a year two class of all boys who were all pleased to see their friends and ignored me. Then, on the second day, a boy with a nice smile and very big ears started to talk to him. They soon discovered that they both only had Mums, but Dani was the middle one of three brothers, while Tom was an only child. They both listened to classical music and Dani had recently started to play the violin, while Tom was in his second year of making very slow progress on the piano. They had both recently learnt to play chess and were both keen on football. Within days they were firm friends, a friendship which was to last a lifetime in spite of distance. Dani’s mother (‘Gitta’) wasted no time in inviting him and his mother to her flat. He remembers that…

She was one of the kindest, most patient and loving people I ever met. She had lost her husband in the final days of the siege of Budapest. Gitta and my mother Edit, having met through their sons, became the closest of friends. Living close to each other, Dani and I were in and out of each other’s homes, played football in the street outside our house (which was safe, unlike the main road outside their large block of flats).  To a large extent our friendship must have been rather exclusive as I have no memory of any of my other classmates till we moved to the middle school in year five and became part of a wider group or little gang of 10/11 year olds.

The school day in Hungary started at eight in the morning and finished before one. They took sandwiches for break time (elevenses). Outdoor playtime during break was carefully structured with organised games or walking quietly in pairs. Tom’s class had the same teacher throughout the three years he was at the Bocskai school. She was an efficient and motherly woman. It was the ‘dark years’ of 1949-52, but school was a quiet haven, if rather dull. At the beginning of each year, they all had to buy the grey textbooks stacked in piles for each year and each subject in the bookshop. These were standard texts for all schools and only cost a few forints. Each year they contained more and more propaganda mixed in with what would be recognised as standard subject matter, especially in history.

By 1954, the number of secondary school pupils was 130,000, nearly double that of the highest pre-war figures, and three times as many students (33,000) went to universities, including several newly established ones. The proportion of young people attending from peasant and working-class origins, formerly barred from higher education, rose to over fifty per cent. The inculcation of Marxism-Leninism through the school system was emphasised at all levels within the new curricula. To satisfy this requirement, the whole gamut of text-books was changed, as Tom mentions above, new ones being commissioned and completed under careful supervision by the relevant party organs. Teaching of foreign languages was confined to Russian which became compulsory from the fifth year of elementary school in spite of the lack of qualified teachers.

For Tom, there was some homework even in the early years of elementary school, but afternoons were mainly free for play. When not playing with Dani, Tom spent much of his time with his grandmother, ‘Sári mama’:

We read books together, played endless board games (including chess and draughts), listened to music on the radio and talked about different performers, went for walks in good weather. Sometimes my cousin Éva came over too and we would play together. Occasionally, Sári mama sang songs from Lehár and Kálmán operettas, read me poems translated from world literature and told me stories of plays. From time to time (with the odd tear in her eye), she talked about my father when he was young, telling me which poems and what music he liked. School gave the basic numeracy and literacy skills, but my education during those year came mainly from my grandmother. With Mami working all day and often tired and stressed in the evening, ‘quality time’ with her had to wait till the weekend.

Among the most immediate and direct effects of the events of 1949-52 on Tom’s family was the loss of property, and for the second time within a few years. Tom’s grandfather’s timber yard had been confiscated under the Jewish Laws during the war. He had re-built the business from scratch as soon as the war was over. However, in 1948, he could see the signs ahead. The nationalisation of the large banks and the companies controlled by them, which was the ultimate test of the Smallholder Party, had been enacted on 29 September 1947. The bauxite and aluminium followed two months later. Then, on 25 March, 1948, all industrial firms employing more than a hundred workers were taken into state property by a decree prepared in great secrecy and taking even the newly appointed ‘worker directors’ by surprise. Ármin Leimdörfer (whose business only employed six or seven) generously offered it to a newly formed large state-owned building co-operative.  He was employed in the new firm and they valued his expertise. A few months later, all small businesses were also nationalised and their owners deported to remote villages. This also nearly happened to Tom’s grandparents twice during 1950-52. On both occasions, the senior management appealed to the political authorities to rescind the order as Tom’s grandfather was deemed essential to the firm and had several inventions to his name. On the second of these occasions, all their furniture was already piled on the lorry before they were allowed to return to their flat. Tom’s great-uncle Feri also lost the garage he owned, but kept his job as a much valued architect.

Just five years after surviving the Holocaust, many Hungarian Jewish people, in some cases entire families, were deported from the cities to distant farms in the country together with so-called class aliens, aristocrats, Horthyites and bourgeois elements, ordered to leave behind their apartments and personal belongings and to perform forced labour. It was no longer the upper and middle classes who were the objects of the communists’ ire, but any person belonging to any class who could be branded as an enemy in Rákosi’s system. During the eight years of this reign of Stalinist terror, mostly between the period 1948 to 1953, 600,000 Hungarians were made subject to legal charges taking away their rights, many of them being placed in detention by the police and juridical authorities. By adding family members to this number, the number of citizens affected increases to more than two million, out of a total population of less than ten million.  

The deportations also had the effect of freeing up accommodation in Budapest for workers the government wished to bring in from the provinces. There was also housing shortage as the result of war damage. Without legal proceedings, 13,000 ‘class enemies’ (aristocrats, former officials, factory owners, etc.) were evicted from Budapest, together with a further three thousand from provincial towns, to small villages where they were compelled to do agricultural labour under strict supervision. The official justification was their unreliability during a time of imperialist incitement and sharpening of class struggle, but the reality was their removal to satisfy the need for city housing for the newly privileged bureaucratic class. As living space became rationed, Tom’s small family flat was deemed too large for just his mother and himself:

She acted quickly to offer one room (my room) to a friend of hers whom we always called by her familiar name of ‘Csöpi’. If Mami thought that she had prevented a forced flat share with strangers, she was to be disappointed. We still had the small room next to the kitchen, the one designed for domestic staff, which Bözsi had occupied midweek during the immediate post-war years. The district authority allocated that room to a couple from the provinces. They were not unpleasant people, but the situation was difficult for everyone with shared kitchen and bath room for three very different households (one single young woman, one couple, my mother and me). Mami and I shared the largest room in the flat. The large sofa was turned each night into a wide twin bed. The room also housed a baby grand piano, a large bookcase, a coffee table and a very large old desk, which was my pride and joy as I was allowed full use of it from an early age. The wall opposite the window had the large ceramic stove jutting out into the room (next to the piano). Our room had the french window leading to the small balcony and the stairs to the garden. We shared the garden with Csöpi, but the couple just had the small room and use of kitchen and bathroom all of which opened from the entrance hall. The windowless dining area also opened to the entrance hall, then had two doors: one to our room and to Csöpi’s room (my old room). Our two rooms also had an intercommunicating double door, which did not give either of us any privacy, though we kept it closed…

… It was assumed that the couple who were `brought in’ had some party links, so it was always best to keep a low profile. All blocks of flats had wardens and the wardens were paid to keep an eye on the residents and to inform the secret police of any trouble or suspicious activities by the standards of the state. Residents gave wardens gifts in order to try to keep in favour, as false accusations were quite common.

Our warden lived in the flat below ours, which now would be called a ’garden flat’. Their front window looked out to our garden at knee level, but they only had access to the yard at the back. He was a cantankerous middle-aged man with a liking for too much alcohol, but he had a kind and forbearing wife. Mami made sure that whenever we had a parcel from my uncle Bandi in England, the warden had a present. Occasionally, the warden would appear on our doorstep, somewhat embarrassed, and ask a few questions about a visitor he had not seen before. It was all part of his job.

The shocking figures, combined with Tom’s eye-witness evidence, reveal the supreme inhumanity of the régime not just in terms of the scale of the deportations but also in the dehumanising effect of the housing measures in poisoning private relations, breaking consciences and confidences and undermining public commitments. For anyone who has read George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1948, it is not difficult to imagine how varying degrees of distrust pervaded individual relations, if not necessarily in their families and with intimate friends, surely with colleagues, neighbours, fellow members of clubs and choirs. On one of my first visits to Hungary, in July 1989, a Catholic priest commented that, for him, growing up in Budapest, 1984 was not a work of fiction. It described exactly what life was like in Hungary in the period 1948-53. The gap between the official proclamation of the people’s democracy and the reality of their helplessness against the obvious violations of its principles made people apolitical in a highly politicised age, turning them away from civic service.

Meanwhile, the communist state embarked on a 5-year plan of heavy industrialisation. The three-year economic plan, whose task was bringing reconstruction to completion, through the restoration of pre-war production levels, had been accomplished ahead of schedule, by the end of 1949.  The building of Ferihegy Airport, just outside the capital, begun during the war, was also completed. Huge investments were made to enhance industrial output, especially in heavy industry. Planned targets were exceeded, at the expense of agriculture. In respect of the latter, the earlier gradualist approach had been abandoned by the Communists in the summer of 1948. Although the organisation of co-operative farms was their long-term goal from the outset, they realised that the sympathy of the peasantry depended on land reform, and therefore they supported it in the most radical form possible. Even in early 1948, a long and gradual transition to cooperative farming was foreseen, but in view of the June resolution of the Cominform, which censured the Yugoslav party  because of its indulgent attitude to the peasant issue. Rákosi also urged the speeding up of the process, setting aside a few years to its accomplishment. Smallholders were forced into large agricultural collectives managed by party bosses (large landowners had already fled to the west and their land was confiscated). Eventually, the cooperatives were quite successful, but in the first years the effects were devastating. Food production slumped by half and food shortages became the order of the day. In spite of the fact that its share of national income was the same in agriculture as for industry, the former suffered from low investment.  When Tom’s uncle visited from Britain, where ration books controlled the austerity of 1947, he was surprised that war-devastated Hungary still had food in plenty. But by 1951, queues for rations of milk, bread, cheese and meat were the order of the day. Tom remembers standing in food queues after school, keeping a place for his grandmother.

The entirely unreasonable project of transforming Hungary, whose mineral resources were insignificant, into a country of iron and steel established an imbalance in the national economy to the extent that, while the population in general was satisfied with the modest increase in living standards compared with the terrible conditions of 1945-6, the target of reaching pre-war consumption levels was unrealistic. Meanwhile, Hungary’s foreign trade relations were undergoing a profound transformation. By 1949, the Soviet Union took over Germany’s place as its foremost foreign trade partner, a process sealed by the signing of a treaty of friendship and mutual aid between Hungary and the Soviet Union in February 1948. This was followed by the establishment of an entire network of exchange through the creation of the Council of Mutual Economic Aid (COMECON) on 20 January, 1949. The Soviets realised that they could save the expenses of dismantling, transporting and reinstalling equipment and, in addition, use Hungarian labour while exerting greater control over the country’s domestic economy, by creating or reorganising companies of key importance in shipping, air transport, bauxite exploitation, aluminium production, oil extraction and refinement, as mixed concerns. Tom Leimdorfer comments on the combined effects of these economic policies on ordinary people:  

With everything nationalised, gradually all choice in items of clothing also disappeared. Worse still, there were actual shortages of items likes shoes or socks or shirts. These were quite unpredictable and probably partly due to rumours and panic buying. Occasionally, one would hear that clothing items of a certain size were available at a particular outlet (by now all stores were also state-owned or directed co-operatives), but there would soon be a shortage. Long queues would form and the item would soon disappear. Large quantities of other items would be lying around unsold. The state denounced the rumours as being started by enemies of the communist state. It is possible that they had a point, but the ridiculous system of supply led planned production was probably mainly to blame. A certain factory had a target to produce a quantity of a certain product and that had to be fulfilled, irrespective of what was actually needed. Workers and managers who fulfilled or exceeded their targets were given prizes (‘Stakhanovite’ medals with small financial bonuses), those who failed faced disciplinary action.

There was a culture of fear in the workplaces. People were regularly denounced as enemies of the state and investigated. Someone could be denounced for pre-war right-wing connections, for having been a ‘capitalist’, for having links with the west or for supposed fraud or misdemeanour at work. Actually, there was a lot of fraud, mainly perpetrated by those who thought they were safe. In fact, nobody was safe as they could be denounced by others who wanted their job or who wanted to climb the political ladder within the party. One close friend who experienced the horrors of the ‘knock in the night’ was Gyuri Schustek, who had been at college with my father. He was taken for interrogation by the secret police for allegedly falsifying documents in the workplace. At one point, he was told at gun point to sign a false confession. He kept his nerve and refused. After several months, he was released without explanation or apology. He never knew who denounced him or why. Such experiences were quite common.

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The main organ of repression, the ÁVH or Ávó, was separated from the Ministry of the Interior and put directly under the authority, first of the council of ministers, and then of the Defence Committee. Its permanent staff originally consisted of 28,000 officers, striking at individuals or refractory groups or rivals of the leaders upon direct orders from them, based on ‘evidence’ collected from about 40,000 informers also employed by the the political police. Records were kept on about one million citizens, or over ten per cent of the total population. Of these, around two-thirds were prosecuted and nearly 400,000 served terms in prisons or internment/ labour camps, mostly in quarries and mines. By 1953, the tide of persecution had turned on the creators of the system itself, including the chief of the political police. About eighty leading party members were executed, tortured to death or committed suicide in prison, and thousands more zealous communists served prison terms.

There were a few ‘show trials’ and presumed disappearances to Siberia. More likely, prominent figures who were or were deemed to be in opposition to the regime served lengthy terms of imprisonment, some with hard labour. One distant relative, the poet György Faludi (his hungaricised name from Leimdörfer) spent time working in stone quarries and later recorded his experience in the book ‘My happy days in hell’. 

For most people, however, it was all much less dramatic. Just an all-pervading atmosphere of fear and distrust, families teaching their children not repeat conversations they heard at home, everyone careful not to be overheard in public places. The language of the school and the workplace (which had to be really ‘politically correct’) was totally different from private conversations. The state controlled media was not believed by anyone (not even when it happened to tell the truth) and listening to low volume radio broadcasts of the BBC World Service or the right-wing ‘Radio Free Europe’ was both risky and difficult as they were often jammed by state-generated radio interference signals.

It was not all negative, of course. The communist regime improved the health service and education, especially in rural areas, and eliminated absolute poverty. There was no real starvation, homelessness or unemployment. There was improvement in sports facilities and Hungary gloried in its near invincible football team and the 16 gold medals at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. The pervading mood, however, was drabness and fear.

While the mobility between the main sectors of the economy was as yet insignificant, the project of social levelling advanced towards the ultimate communist ideal of a classless society with no private property, an ideal which was not against the wishes of a broad cross-section of society. As a result of the land reform, the nationalisations, the mass forced removals of officials from their posts and the deportations, ‘genteel’ Hungary, the peculiar amalgam of post-feudal, capitalist and liberal-nationalist values was, as Rákosi claimed triumphantly, thrown into the dustbin of history. The business and middle classes who had championed them either emigrated or metamorphosed into service industry or factory workers and engineers. Previously sharing over forty per cent of the national income, they now accounted for a mere ten per cent, while the mass of rural paupers became small proprietors or kulaks, before they too were consigned to history’s dustbin by the intensification of the class struggle in the 1950s. People were told that the reason they could not buy butter or eggs was because the kulaks who were hoarding and hiding their produce.

The party operated an immense system of patronage through which non-measurable benefits (mainly job promotion) could be earned; and for the party élite various perquisites were available according to rank, in a salient contradiction to the professed ideal of equality and the frequent calls to ever tighter austerity in the interest of a glorious future. Among the bulk of the population, a silent resentment grew. Aversion to the personality cult and the ideological terror, the hatred of police repression, bewilderment at the stupidities of economic planning and anger at the anomalies it caused, and the utter exasperation and disillusionment with the régime in general were sentiments occasionally expressed in strikes and perceptible across the Hungarian social spectrum by the time Stalin died on 5 March, 1953. Besides sparing Hungary and other eastern-central European countries from having to ‘import’ a new wave of terror from  the USSR, which had begun in the previous months, the ensuing power struggle and its outcome favoured important changes in the tone and methods, if not in the content and substance, of the communist régimes. With the permission and even on the insistence of Moscow, the process of de-Stalinisation could be started throughout the Soviet bloc. 

Sources:

See part three, following.

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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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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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.

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