OFF THE RECORD
Summer wasn’t all fun and relaxation for our ancestors, as Alan Crosby explains
Why summer was a time of toil for your forebears
How did our forebears spend the summer? Perhaps we imagine them enjoying long sunny days and swigging cider in the shade of a spreading tree, before frolicking in the warm evenings. I’ve just been looking at some Victorian paintings of harvest-time in the Surrey hills, which show the golden corn standing in great stooks in the field, while a group of young men and women sit at the edge of the field with a wicker basket or hamper containing their lunch. Across the field a team of horses pull a heavy wagon laden with a mountain of corn sheaves, on top of which three men perch precariously (no health and safety in agriculture in those days). It’s an idyllic scene, conveying the idea that the days of summer were always days of sunshine, and that harvest was a time for pleasure.
The reality was somewhat different. Summertime meant long, arduous days of sweat and toil and exhaustion. Every hour that was available had to be used to the full, in order to get the precious harvest in before the next rain came. The labours began with haymaking in early summer, and continued through to harvest-time months later. And neither was it simply a case of cutting the corn or scything the hay – there were all sorts of other tasks to be done. Raking and piling the hay; baling and bundling it; using forks to toss the bundles onto a cart; unloading it at the barn; making sure the hay was properly dry; and finally piling it in the barn ready for use.
Then came the harvest – hot, backbreaking and dirty work, hands scratched by the sharp stalks, eyes full of dust, sweat pouring down. The corn had to be brought back to the farm, then threshed (the introduction of threshing machines was a godsend) and finally winnowed to separate the grain from the chaff. Before mechanisation this usually involved tossing the grain into the air inside the barn door, using a great sheet of coarse material with a strong person at each corner. The heavy grain fell back onto the sheet, while the lighter chaff blew away in the breeze. The air was filled with clouds of dust and fragments of husks. The grain was taken for storage, while the chaff was collected and used for fuel or for stuffing pillows and mattresses.
The work was not yet over – the cornfield had to be gleaned, a task that was usually allotted to women and children. They had to race the voracious flocks of birds that would descend on the cornfield immediately after harvest, and the swarms of rats and other scavengers that suddenly appeared. The gleaners, bent double and staring at the ground, walked methodically across the field, picking up stray heads of corn that had fallen by the wayside and putting them in the sack or wicker basket each of them held.
For several weeks the whole community was engaged in these activities, which began in the early morning and went on until late in the summer evening, maximising the benefits of the long daylight. People finally tumbled into bed, dirty and exhausted, to snatch a few hours’ sleep before the next wearying day. Given all this, it comes as no surprise to learn that in many rural parishes the baptism rate in March, April and May was significantly lower than in other months of the year. Beds were only for sleeping; other pleasures had to be deferred, and harvest-time gave little opportunity for procreation.
But come mid-September, with the hard labour over, the nights beginning to draw in, and the communal celebrations of harvest home, merriment and harvest feasts generously washed down with cider and ale, things were very different. No wonder that the baptism rate in June and July might well show a very significant increase!
Summertime meant long, arduous days of sweat and toil and exhaustion. Every available hour had to be used to the full
DR ALAN CROSBY lives in Lancashire and is editor of The Local Historian