KEVIN GORDON - ‘More beer, less rats’ for Harvest Home

Harvest Home to celebrate the end of the harvest
Harvest Home to celebrate the end of the harvest

Isn’t it wonderful to see the fields around our area golden with crops? We have had a good year and the farmers are already beginning to gather in the harvest.

In the past this would be a very important time of the year and the farmers would be keeping a ‘weather-eye’ out for a change in the skies.

Rain and storms could wreak havoc with the fields and destroy a potentially bountiful harvest within a few hours.

Harvest would start about now and last into September or maybe even October. The start of the harvest would be a time of very hard work for most agricultural labourers who would usually work from day break to dusk to ensure the harvest was gathered in safely.

The thoughts of long, back-breaking work would be tempered with the knowledge that there would be a ‘Harvest Home’ celebration at the end, which was one of the highlights of the rural year. The earliest mention of a harvest home was in the 13th century, although the practice undoubtedly goes back to pagan times. In some years when the weather was fine the harvest would be early. Exactly 200 years ago, the Sussex Advertiser reported on 23 August, 1815: “The uninterrupted operations of the sickle and scythe give great activity to our farmers in housing their corn and, should the fine weather continue, several farms in this neighbourhood will have celebrated Harvest Home by the end of the present week.”

A few years later in 1819 it was another very early harvest and the same paper reports: “A finer week than the last never presented itself and should the weather continue, the farmers will have to boast of an earlier harvest home than the oldest of them ever before experienced”.

Jim, one of the famous Copper family of Rottingdean, remembered the harvest gangs setting off at the crack of dawn in hay carts heading for the Downs. The gangs consisted of virtually every able bodied man in the village with young boys joining in too. A team of seven men and three boys could build a stack containing at least 20 wagons of hay every day. They would work from 6am to 8pm every day. Lunch would be at 10.30am, dinner at 1pm and bate (tea) at 5pm.

The very last load of corn would be brought to the village in a procession on a decorated cart preceeded by musicians and virtually the whole village would participate. Writing in 1598, a German visitor reported watching the last load of corn being decorated with flowers while the accompanying villagers sang and shouted as loud as they could until they reached the village barn. Often houses along the route would be decorated and the church bells would be rung.

Corn from this last load would sometimes be made into corn dollies which would be kept over winter and ploughed back into the soil the next spring to maintain the continuity of the land. This was undoubtedly a pagan practice although it was borrowed by the clergy and corn dollies were often displayed in the local church.

The church would also arrange a service to give thanks for the harvest. (Although a harvest festival was usually a bit later in the year when all vegetables, not just the corn, had been gathered). Corn from the last load was strewn across the church floor. When the procession got back to the village it was time to celebrate the harvest home.

The meal would be laid on by the farm owner in the largest building in the village or in fine weather it would take place in the village streets.

The family of the farmer and the wives of the workers would spend all morning ensuring there was plenty of food for all, and of course plenty of beer too. Traditional food was beef, bread, potatoes, plum pudding and gingerbread.

In some villages the men ate together, with the wives and children having a lighter meal. There would be plenty of toasts to the health of the landowner, the monarch and the army and navy - although my favourite Sussex toast was simply “More Beer - Less Rats”.

The afternoon would then be spent in playing games, usually cricket, although romance was often on the cards (probably brought on by the large amounts of alcohol). Harvest home was the autumn equivalent of Valentines’ Day when men often proposed.

The Sussex Advertiser in 1827 reports that the custom of harvest home would be celebrated but ‘not as it used to be in better times’ although it was by no means a dead tradition.

In 1831 Harvest home was celebrated in Fletching in traditional style, with the local land owner Sir Thomas Wilson supplying a substantial dinner for his workers and their wives and families with a plentiful supply of good ale, followed by cricket in the afternoon and dancing in the evening.

In September 1867 a huge harvest home was held at Glynde Park with hundreds of guests and games including cricket and stoolball.

One of the last harvest homes I have found was in Litlington in 1878, when it is reported that the workmen employed by Thomas Brown of Litlington and Charles Bradford of Charleston used the nearby Litlington Tea Gardens to celebrate. There was a slap up meal followed by many loyal toasts. In the afternoon there was a cricket match (Charleston won) The evening was spent in a ‘decorated arbour’ with more singing and drinking.

It is likely that harvest home continued in some form until the mechanisation of the harvest about a hundred years ago. Large numbers of men were no longer needed and the onus of celebration moved to the later harvest festival.