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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Harvest Home

As a small boy, my mother took me to evensong at our village church. My father was lead tenor in the choir with a strong voice. During festivals, the choir processed around the church and my father carried the banner, whilst singing. Often he would change to descant as he passed our pew which amused my mother, a ready wit, and she would rib him on our return home.

One of our favourite festivals was harvest, around the end of September or early October on the Sunday nearest the harvest moon and the autumn equinox. Processing around at harvest was difficult as the church was overflowing with bread, small “stooks” of wheat, carrots, parsnips, potatoes and other vegetables arranged around the lectern, the font and every space in the church. At harvest, we sang “We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land” and my mother’s favourite “All things bright and beautiful”, among other familiar hymns. Another harvest hymn is “Come ye faithful people come, raise the song of harvest-home”

Harvest Festivals as we now know them have only existed from 1843 when the Rev Robert Hawker in Morwenstow, Cornwall introduced one and they quickly spread. Earlier there had been a festival around the first of August also known as Lammas with bread made from the new wheat crop, but this was lost when King Henry VIII rejected the Catholic Church.

Dorsetshire Folk-Lore by J S Udal provides a quotation from William Barnes published in Hone’s Year Book saying Harvest Home was “formerly celebrated with great mirth but now a declining usage, was a feast given by the farmer at the end of harvest, or when his hay and corn were got in… Some years ago the ‘harvest home’ in Dorset was kept up with good old English hospitality”.

“When the last load was ricked the labourers, male and female…all made a happy groupe, and went with singing and loud-laughing to the harvest-home supper at the farmhouse, where they were expected by the good mistress. The dame and her husband welcomed them to a supper of good wholesome food, a round of beef, and a piece of bacon; and perhaps the host had gone so far as to kill a fowl or two, or stick a turkey, which they had fattened. The plain English fare was eaten from wooden trenchers, by the side of which were put little cups of horn filled with beer or cider”. “With the cloth removed one of the men, stood and grasped his horn of beer to propose the health of the farmer, “Here’s a health unto our miaster – the founder of the feast….”. “After this would follow a course of jokes, anecdotes, and songs in some of which the whole company joined”.

Udal also added his own memory of a West Dorset Harvest Home in which the party went outside after the meal and the men circled a large tree, removed their hats and held them in front of them. They stooped to the ground and chanted “We have ‘en”, the first word commenced in a low tone as they gradually raised themselves up, finally saying “have ‘en” quickly. This was repeated three times when they all shouted “Huzza!”. A similar ceremony is described by Grimm in Teutonic Mythology in which the men in Lower Saxony at the end of the harvest waved hats and beat their scythes three times shouting “wauden” to the god Woden. Udal suggests that the Wessex cry of “We hav’en” might be a survival of an old invocation to the god Woden of their Saxon ancestors.

Thomas Hardy tells us in Far from the Madding Crowd how Sergeant Troy held a harvest home for the workers, although the work was not completed. Eight ricks remained unthatched and a thunderstorm threatened and disaster was only averted by the quick thinking of Gabriel Oak, the sheep farmer and Troy’s wife, Bathsheba.

Forward to the First World War, when a schoolboy organised for several boys and himself from Trowbridge High School, Wiltshire to help the war effort by harvesting on a farm and also have a seaside holiday. He was Dr John (Jack) Pafford, now deceased, who had spent several holidays at Weymouth and so arranged for them to help Farmer Lenthall at Manor Farm, Burton Bradstock.

Some years ago Dr Pafford gave me an article he had written about their experiences, which I have transcribed: The boys were all between 16 and 17 years old and arrived in mid-July, cycling down from Wiltshire, staying for just over 4 weeks. The farm supplied straw for bedding and the boys brought their own blankets, clothes and cutlery, etc. They kept clean by bathing frequently in the sea at Freshwater or West Bay. After two nights in the Manor Farm barn, they moved to Marsh Barn, near West Bay, which was still a barn with a shepherd’s cottage. In rotation, they prepared cold food for breakfast, lunch and supper, with a hot meal as high tea. They harvested fields in Burton, near Marsh Barn and Shipton Gorge which had been ploughed by Government Order to produce cereals, probably winter-sown wheat, barley and then oats. A horse-drawn binder machine reaped, gathered into sheaves and bound them with string. They followed the binder, picking up sheaves and forming them into stooks. The stook was made up of 8 sheaves with heads upward. A threshing machine travelled from farm to farm and when it was arriving at their farm they moved the sheaves into it. They were paid 3d per hour, including Saturday mornings. They left with good feeling on both sides and had all been happy but conscious that there was a war on. Perhaps this is why they did not have a harvest home or supper.

This year, after a hot sunny July with little rain we saw field grass cut by an unusual machine and wrapped in plastic into bales. The field looked as if it was covered in “black puddings”.

Bridport History Society meets on Tuesday 9th October at 2.30 pm in the United Church Main Hall, East Street, Bridport for a talk, after the AGM, about “To Buy a Whole Parish: Rousden and the Peak Family” by Nicky Campbell. All welcome, visitors entrance fee £3.


Cecil Amor, Hon President Bridport History Society.


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