DAVID ARNOLD - How beer fuelled a country labourer’s life 150 years ago

Farming the way it was a century ago. The work was very hard. In this photograph wheat is being harvested and tied into bundles called 'shocks'. SUS-150505-121830001 SUS-150505-121830001

Farming the way it was a century ago. The work was very hard. In this photograph wheat is being harvested and tied into bundles called 'shocks'. SUS-150505-121830001 SUS-150505-121830001

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A Sussex rector, Mr H D

Gordon, wrote a history of his parish in 1877.

The impressively large Tithe Barn at Alciston. SUS-150505-114241001

The impressively large Tithe Barn at Alciston. SUS-150505-114241001

It included a fascinating insight into the old Sussex field routine as related to him many years previously by an aged labourer. It’s quite astonishing how much this man’s working day was lubricated by such copious quantities of beer!

“Out in the morning at four o’clock. A mouthful of bread and cheese with a pint of ale. Then off to the harvest field. Rippin and moen (reaping and mowing) till eight. Then morning brakfast and a small beer. Brakfast – a piece of fat pork as thick as your broadbrimmed wideawake hat is wide. Then work till ten o’clock. Then a mouthful of bread and cheese and a pint of strong beer. We called it ‘farnooner’s lunch’ (farnooner being forenoon). Work till twelve. Then dinner in the farmhouse; sometimes a leg of mutton, sometimes a piece of ham and plum pudding. Then work till five, then a ‘nunch’ and a quart of ale. Nunch was cheese, ‘twas skimmed cheese though. Then work till sunset, then home and have supper and a pint of ale. I never knew a man drunk in the harvest field in all my life. Could drink six quarts and believe that a man might drink two gallons in a day.

“All of us were in the house with the usual hired servants and those specially engaged for the harvest. There were two thrashers and the head thrasher used always to go before the reapers. A man could cut half an acre a day, according to the goodness of the job. The terms of wages were £3.10s for the month.

“When the hay was in the cock or the wheat in shock, then the Titheman come; you didn’t dare take up a field without you let him know. If the Titheman didn’t come at the time, you tithed yourself. He marked his sheaves with a bough or bush. You couldn’t get over the Tithe man. If you began at a hedge and made the tenth cock smaller than the rest, the Titheman might begin in the middle just where he liked.

“You didn’t even dare set your eggs till the Titheman had been and ta’en his tithe.”

When the Church developed into the base for the organisation of local affairs, tithing became the formal means of financing the clergy. The first mention of them in written law in this country came from a synod held in 786AD when the provision of tithes was established as more of a strong recommendation than an obligation. Several hundred years later the system had become more or less compulsory and people were expected to give a tenth of their annual produce to the parish clergyman. Back in those early days it was a matter of delivering actual produce such as crops, cattle and eggs, even fish, to the parish tithe barn, from where it was disposed of to raise money for the incumbent vicar.

Tithe barns were often enormous structures. In medieval days their size reflected the wealth of their locality and signaled just how affluent the church had become. The largest surviving example in East Sussex is believed to be in Alciston, a village in the shadow of Firle Beacon.

Tithes were an obvious source of discontent to almost everyone who had to provide them.

In 1836 the Government of the day passed a Tithe Act that allowed for an annual cash payment of a tithe rather than the provision of produce. In 1868 the compulsory payment of parish tithes for the maintenance of the church was abolished and made solely voluntary.