Sunday 11th August 2013 - Harvesting 90 Years Ago
There's a combine harvesting the Glebe field next door to us as I write so no sitting outside in the sun today! Time to seek out the late Ernie George's piece on Harvesting from his 'Seasons' collection instead. He has dated the accompanying sketch 1921.
My father told me that during his childhood, the standing-corn was cut with sickles, bound into bundles or sheaves and tied with ropes of twisted corn-stalks. Later the sheaves were safely gathered in and stacked in field barns around Chitterne's boundary and in the granary barns of the Chitterne farmyards, until the sheaves were flailed and winnowed, and the corn gathered up in sacks. The corn-stalks were taken outside and built into a round straw-rick, the roof of which was thatched with combed wheat-straw, to be used later throughout the year for covering the floors of stables, cow byres and stockyards, and some for sale as thatching yelms.
In my boyhood harvesting was different! The standing corn was cut and tied in sheaves by a binder machine. This clever machine, drawn by two shire horses, cut the corn, gathered it into sheaves and tied it with binder string before ejecting the finished article onto the stubble. This generally happened a week or two before our village school broke-up for the summer holidays, so some of us older boys would go out into the reaping, in after school hours, to help with the 'hiling'.
We gathered up the sheaves that the binder had dumped on the stubble and built 'hiles'; three pairs of sheaves with the ears together and the bottoms forked out, stuck firmly into the stubble, and one sheaf each end to cover and brace the 'hile', that was the norm! Round and round the harvest field we went in pairs hiling the sheaves into neat stacks, leaving an avenue between the lines for the horse and wagons when they gathered-in.
When the school summer holiday proper started we would go to the farm foreman of the farm where we had obtained 'leading' jobs. The foreman usually sent my pal Jack and I to New Barn stables (about a mile and a half east of our village). "Be there by seven sharp mind!" he would say, "Owd Tom will set you about yer business!" When we got to the field barn stables Owd Tom, the head carter, would greet us with a growl or a chuckle, depending what mood he was in, and set us about some small tasks around the stable yard whilst he and his carters harnessed up the cart horses. When the cart horses came clumping out he would yell:
"CUM YER YEW YOUNGUNS!"
There were four of us boys by now and whilst the other carters backed the 'shav-horses' into the wagon shavs and hitched them up, Owd Tom would grab one of the trace horses and tie each end of a long rope lead rein over the collar and hames to the bit link each side of the horse's mouth.
"NOW LOOK YER! You be gwain out leadin' and I'll tell ee the same again as I did last yer. To start yer hoss gie-un a light flick on the back wiv the rope, say 'Tch, Tch, KIMAWN!'. To make un goo left, t'ards thee say, 'KUM YER!' and pull on the left-hand rein. To make un turn right, away from thee, say, 'WUG AWF!' and pull on yer right-hand rope. To make un stop, say, 'WURR!' and pull with bofe hands!"
'Tis over sixty-five years ago since Owd Tom uttered those instructions, but I can still remember them as though 'twer yesterday!
Owd Tom then told us to take over our trace horses from the carters and hook the trace-chains to the wagon-shavs. Then he and the carters would clamber aboard the wagons and us boys would lead-off down to the harvest field. They always referred to our jobs as 'leading', I suppose because we were meant to be in charge of the lead-horses.
On arrival at the harvest field at about 8am the farm foreman would be there, hand on hip, directing the position of the rick bedding and the elevator and the horse and pivot arm for turning the elevator-drive.
Out between the avenues of hiles led off the boys, talking away to their horses. On board each wagon was a pitcher and a loader, and so work of pitching the hiled sheaves to the loader on the wagon commenced. Then a quizzical look at me from the pitcher, standing by the next hiles.
"Tch. Tch, KIMAWN Blackbird,"away with a jerk, along to the next hiles.
"WURR!" pulling to quite a gentle stop, which brought a broad grin from the carter-loader.
Up and down, and stopping and starting, until the wagon was fully loaded. The loader slid down from the top and Blackbird and I set off for the rick. There we pulled the wagon-load close in to the bottom of the elevator and I unhitched Blackbird and hooked him up to the empty wagon standing by. Then off back to the hiles to start all over again. In turn the other boy-leaders did the same until there was a regular stream, going to and from the rick and the hiles.
At midday everything stopped for half an hour while we all had our 'nammit', then another half hour stop at 4pm for tea. Then we went on again until half-past seven, when we helped unhitch the horses and the carters rode them off back to the stables to a well-earned feed and drink and grooming, before being turned out to grass in the paddock for the night.
Us boys would trudge off back down to the village and home, with red sunburnt faces and arms and knees, feeling quite important after our first day's work. As the weeks went by, and the fine sunny days, our faces and limbs turned brown, and we all became quite proficient at LEADING.
Ernie uses a couple of old Wiltshire words in the piece:
HILE is apparently only found in Wiltshire, otherwise known as a STOOK, or group of sheaves stood together
NAMMIT was a packed lunch, usually an onion, or a turnip, and a chunk of bread