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Bygone Harvest Scenes

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The harvest in the UK in bygone times

A guest contribution by Neil Cryer

In the past, a good harvest was desperately important. Bread was a staple food which required flour. The pages in the above menu look at each of the main activities that contributed to a good harvest while this page looks at some related matters that are less known.

What cereal is corn?

When I was growing up in England in the 1940s, the main cereal crop was wheat which was used for the staple food of bread. Therefore, when anyone talked about corn, it was always assumed that they meant wheat. I seem to remember that the Americans or Canadians regarded corn as a different cereal, so that when the UK ordered a consignment of corn from them, shortly after the Second World War, what we got was not what we expected.

Other cereals were grown in the UK but to a lesser extent than wheat.

Guest contribution

The three types of cereal grown in the UK

Of the three types of cereal - wheat, oats and barley - barley was by far the worst to handle due to its coarse, prickly ears. It would play havoc with men's arms, making them very sore.

V. John Batten

Cornfield pests

Guest contribution

Rabbits

Rabbits were a curse to practically all farmers, eating off young corn plants around the headlands of fields, often for 20 yards or more into some fields. In turn of course, they helped the nation with an important off-ration meat supply.

V. John Batten

Incidentally I was always told that farmers never minded our trampling into the corn early in the year when it was just sprouting because it split the shoots and so produced a higher yield. I am not at all sure how true this was.

Why wheat in cornfields used to be so tall

The cornfields were very different from those of today.

This was before advances in the development of hybrid seed to produce shorter corn and earlier ripening corn. The corn of my childhood in the 1940s and 50s was much taller than that of today. I remember, as a young child, getting lost in a cornfield in late summer because it was taller than me and I couldn't see my way out. I'm sure that the farmer wouldn't have approved of my being there, trampling into his corn, but that is a different story.

Why harvests of bygone years were so reliant on the weather

The tall corn meant a longer growing season than for today's hybrid varieties. This in turn meant a later harvest which was much more reliant on the weather. A wet summer and early autumn could ruin the crop. If the wind and rain blew it down onto the ground, it was impossible to cut and would quickly rot anyway. A ruined crop not only meant a significant financial loss for a farmer, it also had dire consequences for the country.

So as soon as the corn was ripe, everything stopped to bring in the harvest.

The huge effort to bring in the harvest

So during harvest time, everyone in any way associated with the farm worked from dawn to dusk. Evan school children were allowed off school. There was some mechanisation but each stage of bringing in the harvest required different tools or machines and a great deal of skill and manpower.

Harvest suppers and harvest festivals

Because the corn took so long to ripen and because the 'gathering in' was so dependent on manpower and the weather, there was great rejoicing and relief when it was complete. There was the celebration known as the 'harvest supper' for the farmhands and their families - and a good many other people as well - and there were special thanksgiving church services - usually in early October - known as harvest festivals.

Here is the first verse of hymn traditionally sung at a harvest festival.

THE HARVEST HYMN

Come, ye thankful people, come
Raise the song of harvest home
All is safely gathered in
Ere the winter storms begin.
God our Maker doth provide
For our wants to be supplied
Come to God's own temple, come,
Raise the song of harvest home.

Why bringing in the harvest is no longer widely celebrated

Harvest festivals are no longer widely celebrated. This is because with the development of the shorter hybrid corn, ripening is earlier and no longer so dependent on the weather. There is more mechanisation, no longer does everything stop to bring in the harvest and there is the general assumption that the harvest will inevitably be brought in safely.

Page contributed by Neil Cryer

Text and images are copyright


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