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At the end of the l9th century much of the corn was cut by hand using the scythe, and then gathered into sheaves by the sickle. The farmer and workforce, after first cutting around the borders of the land, then worked in rows, and men and women who followed the men with scythes made the corn into sheaves. They first made a binder with a handful of straw and then bound what they had gathered with sickles. These were then stacked and left to dry, and later some of the wheat harvested in this way would be threshed with the primitive flail.

The barn floor would first be well swept, and the sheaves opened and spread out in layers. With great dexterity, on the part of the threshers, the flail soon came into action, swinging in all directions, and never missing its aim. The barns were built with wide doors on each side, opposite each other and a wood floor was laid between the doors for use in threshing the corn. The doors were open and the wind passed through carrying out the "doust." It was arm-aching work, but very little corn remained on the stalks. The reed was gathered into large bundles and the corn and chaff swept into a heap with a besom broom. This exercise went on all day until the stacks were all threshed.

The winnowing machine was placed in the middle of the barn, the doors of which were thrown wide open to create a draught. Then we took over the handle and the mixture of corn and chaff was thrown into the machine. Soon the chaff, locally termed "doust " was flying into the farmyard and the golden corn was passing into a bucket set at the side, later to be sacked and sent either to the miller or corn merchant.

The final stage was combing the reed. This was an occupation for a wet day, when the barn worker combed bundles of reed of all loose straw and chaff using a large wooden framed comb with iron teeth. The reed was used for thatching straw ricks, and the farmhouse and farm buildings. Before the thatching could be done two more barn activities had to be performed, rope spinning and spear or spar making. This was really the work of craftsman and hundreds of yards of strong straw rope could be made by a good worker in a day with only one tool the "wynk."

The reaping and harvesting of the wheat is attended with so heavy expense, and with practises of so disorderly a nature, as to call for the strongest mark of disapprobation, and their immediate discontinuance, or at least a modification of their pastime after the labours of the day. 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. This company is open for additional hands to drop in at any time before the twelfth hour, to partake of the frolic of the day. By eleven or twelve o'clock the ale or cider has so much warmed and elevated their spirits, that their noisy jokes and ribaldry are heard to 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 the squabbles of the party, until about five o'clock, when what is called the drinking's 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 skills of the farmer's wife could produce for gratifying the appetites of her customary guests at this season.

After the drinking's are over, which generally consume from half to three-quarters of an hour (and 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 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 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 with the utmost stretch and power of the voices of the company, uttering 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 farmhouse 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. At the same house, or that of a neighbouring farmer, a similar scene is renewed, beginning between eight and nine o'clock in the morning following, and so continued through the precious season of the wheat-harvest in this country. It must be observed, that the labourers thus employed in reaping receive no wages, but in lieu thereof, they have an invitation to the farmer's house to partake of a harvest frolic; and at Christmas during the whole of which time, and which seldom continues less than three or four days, the house is kept open night and day to the guests, whose behaviour during the time may be assimilated to the frolics of a bear-garden.

Vancouver, Charles. General View of the Agriculture of the County of Devon. London: Richard Phillips, 1808 p. 145-147

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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