Sum­mer wasn’t all fun and re­lax­ation for our an­ces­tors, as Alan Crosby ex­plains

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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