Essex history: Looking back at our harvesting heritage
PUBLISHED: 11:11 24 July 2020 | UPDATED: 12:28 24 July 2020
Advances in agricultural technology have meant that the harvest scene across the county is much different today than decades ago. Hannah Salisbury from the Essex Record Office looks back at times gone past
Most of us today are fairly far removed from the processes that go into producing the food that we eat. Agriculture has become increasingly mechanised and employs fewer people, while more and more of our food is imported.
Life was, of course, very different for our ancestors, when the majority of the population was involved in agrarian work one way or another. Most of us, if we trace our family tree, are bound to find ‘ag labs’ (agricultural labourers) among our ancestors in Victorian census records.
From the mid-19th century, Essex farmland was predominantly arable, the main crop grown being wheat. Much of the work was still done by hand and the main source of power was horses. At this time of year, our ancestors would have been fully occupied with the work of getting in the year’s harvest.
Extra labour would be drafted in to help with this enormous task. In August 1812, farmer and diarist William Barnard of Harlowbury had up to 25 men engaged in reaping on his farm. The efforts of women and children, who were of course paid less than the men, were also essential in ensuring a successful harvest.
Grain crops were cut with a scythe, then gathered and bound into sheaves, which were then stood up to form stooks, and left to dry in the field. These would then be stacked onto a waggon and taken back to the farmyard for threshing, to separate the grain from the straw and chaff.
Threshing machines had been invented in the early 19th century, but most of this work was still done by hand with flails. These are tools consisting of a rod hanging from a long handle, which would be swung at a pile of grain to separate its constituent parts.
Depending on the weather, the harvest would usually finish some time in September. Once the crops had been brought in, women and children were allowed onto the fields to glean any grain that had been left behind.
It is easy to end up seeing this period as a golden age of rural life, but life as an agricultural labourer was hard work. Wages were usually low and housing standards often poor, as labourers worked extremely long hours to scrape a living.
The results of the year’s work were at the mercy of the weather; a crop could be wiped out by a severe storm, leaving little for the farmer to harvest. In a bad year, the winter would be a struggle, with a shortage of feed for animals, but good harvests could bring problems of their own – as grain flooded the market and prices would fall.
Hopefully at the end of the harvest the workers would have had some respite, and traditionally the farmer would provide a feast for his workers.
In a good year, the community could have taken comfort and satisfaction in the food they had safely brought in and look towards starting the whole process of planting, growing and harvesting all over again.