‘The Frolic of the Day’: Harvest Work and Forms of Labour

The harvest was the heartbeat of the preindustrial economy, and how the associated work was organised provides valuable insights into the character of labour relationships (something we have explored in an earlier blog post). Here, project PI Jane Whittle marks the season with some reflections on a remarkable account of the wheat harvest in north Devon. 

Jane Whittle

A few weeks ago I was browsing through Charles Vancouver’s General View of the Agriculture of the County of Devon, published in 1808, and was startled to find the following description of harvest work in north Devon:

The wheat being ready to cut down, and amounting from 10 to 20 acres, notice is given in the neighbourhood, that a reaping is to be performed on a particular day, when, as the farmer may be more or less liked in the village, on the morning of the day appointed, a gang, consisting of an indefinite number of men and women, assemble at the field, and the reaping commences after breakfast, which is seldom over till between eight and nine o’clock. The company is open for additional hands to drop in at any time before the twelfth hour, to partake in the frolic of the day. By eleven or twelve o’clock the ale or cider has so much warmed an elevated their spirits, that their noisy jokes and ribaldry are heard from a considerable distance, and often serve to draw auxiliary force within the accustomed time. The dinner, consisting of the best meat and vegetables, is carried into the field between twelve and one o’clock: this is distributed, with copious draughts of ale and cider; and by two o’clock the pastime of cutting and binding the wheat is resumed, and continued without other interruption than squabbles of the party, until about five o’clock, when what is called the drinkings are taken into the field, and, under the shade of a hedge-row or large tree, the panniers are examined, and buns, cakes, and all such articles are found, as the confectionary skill of the farmer’s wife could produce for gratifying the appetites of her customary guests of the season.

After the drinkings are over, which generally consume from half to three-quarters of an hour (or even longer, if such can be spared from the completion of the field), the amusement of the wheat-harvest is continued, with such exertions as draw the reaping and binding of the field together with the close of the evening. This done, a small sheaf is bound up, and set upon the top of one of the ridges, when the reapers retiring to a certain distance, each throws his reap-hook at the sheaf, until one, more fortunate, or less inebriated than the rest, strikes it down: this achievement is accompanied by the utmost stretch and power of the voices of the company, uttering the words very indistinctly, but somewhat to this purpose: – we ha in! we ha in! – which noise and tumult continue about half an hour; when the company retire to the farm-house to sup, which being over, large portions of ale and cider enable them to carouse and vociferate until one or two o’clock in the morning. [145-7]

The following day the crowd move on to the next field or farm that needs harvesting. Vancouver makes his views clear noting that harvesting is ‘so heavy an expense, and with practices of so disorderly a nature, as to call for the strongest mark of disapprobation, and their immediate discontinuance’. But he also observes that ‘the labourers thus employed in reaping receive no wages’ instead they enjoyed the farmer’s hospitality. This included not only the food and drink received on the day, but also a ‘harvest frolic’ and a period at Christmas when ‘the house is kept open night and day to guests’ for a period of three or four days.

The practices described are in such sharp contrast to the normal depiction of agricultural labouring and harvest work in this period that they raise a whole series of questions, organised here under three headings: traditions of the Harvest Home; the survival of earlier practices; and the organisation of work.

Harvest Home

The customs of ‘harvest home’ – the celebrations and feasting when the last of the harvested crop was brought into the farm, are described in a number of other sources, including those from the early modern period. Henry Best, writing in the early seventeenth century, describes a harvest supper provided for ‘all the worke folks and theire wives (that helped them that harvest)’. Richard Carew’s Survey of Cornwall (1602) describes harvest dinners, bearing similarities with the north Devon ones: ‘though it beare onely the name of a dinner, yet the ghests take their supper also with them, and consume a great part of the night after’. Robert Herrick’s ‘Hock Cart’ poem, although written in Devon in the mid 17th century and depicting the harvest home, probably describes practices in Northamptonshire or Kent, on the manors of the Earl of Westmoreland to whom the poem was addressed. Folklorists such as John Brand in his Observations of Popular Antiquities (edited by Henry Ellis in 1813, originally published by Brand in 1777, and relying heavily on Henry Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares of 1725) discuss both the customs of bringing the harvest home, and harvest feasting, from across England. These practices have also been discussed by historians such as Felicity Heal in her book on Hospitality (1990), and Ronald Hutton in Stations of the Sun (1996). As Heal notes, the harvest meal for workers is well evidenced in medieval records, rewarding both ‘boon workers’ – unfree tenants carrying out labour services, and wage workers. So the practice of celebrating harvest is well documented: but none of these sources mention harvest work as unpaid reciprocal labour undertaken by neighbours in return for food, as Vancouver describes for north Devon.

Survival of earlier practices

Does Vancouver’s description represent a survival of earlier, traditional practices that were once common in this and other parts of England? I very much doubt harvest was ever conducted this way in eastern England. In areas with a higher proportion of arable land, it would not be an effective way of organising the large quantity of labour needed for the most crucial phase of the agricultural year. But this description relates to part of northern Devon, a region Vancouver defines as bordered by the Bristol Channel to the north and west, by Somerset to the east, and stretching as far south as Great Torrington and South Molton. It contains parts of Exmoor, and is a region of predominantly pastoral agriculture and small family farms, and relatively sparsely populated. It is the fact there is relatively little arable to harvest, relatively few agricultural labourers, and many farms of a similar size that surely make this an effective system for attracting and rewarding a harvest workforce. We have no evidence of such practices existing at an earlier date – folklore accounts concentrate on the Harvest Home celebrations, not on the type of worker or how they paid. If wage accounts survive, such practices would be marked by an absence of wage labour, and an excess of expenditure on food and drink: we’ll keep looking for those, but they are by nature hard to identify with certainty.

The organisation of work: hours, payment, gender

To me, with my ‘forms of labour’ hat on – the most interesting thing about the description is the way harvest work was organised. There was no monetary payment; men and women worked alongside each other; the hours of work were relaxed; and work was evidently a source of enjoyment and sociability (hence Vancouver’s disapproval). Many county Views of Agriculture, which were published 1793-1813, describe the hours of work during harvest (and at other times of the year) as six till six (See for instance Billingsley on Somerset (1795) p.152, or Brown on the West Riding of Yorkshire (1799) appendix p.22). The tone of the writers also indicates the degree of subservience that was expected of workers, and the social distance between farmers and labourers. In return of course, harvest wages were the highest of the year, whereas in north Devon it appears the workers received no pay. The absence of wages can indicate subservience, or even slavery. Here, however, it appears to indicate the complete opposite: mutual respect. If you are social equals, it is insulting to pay your neighbours for helping you out: hospitality is offered instead, the very epitome of good neighbourliness. It appears that to attract the necessary workforce, women and men, farmers had to make the work enjoyable. This was achieved with tempting food and drink, relaxed discipline as long as the job was done, by welcoming everyone who could contribute, and by showing them respect in the form of a generous open house, not just on that day, but at other times of the year. It is also noticeable that women are actively involved in reaping the harvest. Elsewhere in Devon the crop was reaped by men and bound by women, whilst in other regions only men were employed by this date. It seems likely that what Vancouver found so morally repellent was not just the quantities of alcohol consumed, but practices which stood in sharp contrast to early nineteenth century ideals of class and gender. To me, though – it sounds like a great way to work!

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