The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Plough Monday in Dorchester

Jo Draper tells how an ancient custom was revived in the county town

The Iwerne Minster Folk Dancers perform the Dance of the Plough at Dorchester in 1939. The Fool (centre) is about to be revived by the plough. Rolf Gardiner is at the front on the right.

Plough Monday was an ancient rural ritual, celebrated on the first Monday in the year after the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and so falling in the cold and dull first weeks of January. Some say it was to mark the start of work after the long Christmas break, others that it marked the beginning of the ploughing season, but this seems very late. Undoubtedly it had been celebrated in Dorset in the past, but by the 19th century it had gone and is not actually mentioned in any records.

In Derbyshire, where it survived into the 19th century, it was a very aggressive way of demanding money – the labourers dragged a plough around the parish collecting dole. Admittedly the labourers were adorned with ribbons and accompanied by a band and a fool, but the forfeit for not giving money was having your pathway, door stone or dunghill ploughed up.

This does not seem a cosy, picturesque custom suitable for revival, but revived it was in Dorset in 1938 – and simultaneously by two very different groups of people. In Dorchester, Freddie James, Agricultural Trades Union worker and Mayor of the town from 1934 to 1936, had decided that this was a festival worth reviving because it marked the beginning of the farming year. He said, ‘When we cease to recognise the importance of the plough, it will be a bad day for this country. This Festival will help agriculture, for the more people think about its real meaning, the more honourable will they find the profession. There is a greater skill required in handling a plough than in some of the leading crafts of the day.’ He managed to coincide Plough Monday with a visit by the Minister of Agriculture, who addressed a large meeting of Conservatives at Weymouth and then came up to Dorchester to ‘toast the plough’.

The ‘lock’ of wreathed swords in a Plough Monday dance

Freddie James was a great organiser of public events, with Union Sports in Colliton Park from the late 1920s, huge 5 November celebrations (in 1935 Mr Killjoy was incinerated), Dorset Agricultural Exhibitions from 1935 and the largest Peace Rally in England in 1936. Plough Monday was one of many, but it had a far longer tradition than the others, and Freddie wore the smock in which he often appeared for public occaisions.

The Dorset County Chronicle found this first Plough Monday ‘a festival of strange contrasts. While “God Speed the Plough” was toasted by farm workers from all parts of the County in old Dorset ale in the Town Hall, young people of the town were celebrating the festival by dancing to the rhythm of a modern band in the Corn Exchange.’ Freddie provided traditional Dorset Blue Vinney, as well as beer, and in the Town Hall was a plough ‘standing on a platform draped with the Union Jack’. Downstairs in the Corn Exchange, ‘another plough dominated the dais from which the band was playing.’ Upstairs, ‘ancient Dorset songs, handed down from father to son’ were sung, and ‘far into the night the walls rocked to the tune of the “The Plough Song”, “The Farmer’s Daughter” etc.’

May Day or ‘Spring Festival’ at Springhead, with festoons carried by dancing women. Their dresses were of unbleached calico with hand-embroidery.

The Evershot Mummers performed their traditional play, having recently broadcast it on the radio, and there were also dancers from Springhead, Fontmell Magna. Rolf Gardiner had been farming in the Springhead area since 1927, promoting the then very unfashionable organic farming, and rural traditions. He described all this as ‘ecology in action’. By 1938 Springhead had a well-established yearly round of festivals, meetings, summer schools and work camps, all with music and dance. Springhead saw music as central to life. The two- or three-week summer schools were not, according to Gardiner, ‘merely artistic training and enjoyment: it was to realise the point at which life enters and becomes form; it was to experiment with a form of social and facultive discipline of which polyphonic music was a perpetual symbol.’ May Day or ‘Spring Festival’ was a particular celebration, with festoons, garlands, a dancing procession and village sports. Harvest was another, with a feast in the barn. Gardiner thought, ‘Each estate should organise festivals and occasions of social rejoicing. We require engineers of social affection as well as engineers of economic and technical efficiency.’

Plough Monday fitted well into this yearly round and Springhead took the festival much more seriously than Dorchester did. Having thought of reviving Plough Monday at exactly the same time as Freddie James in Dorchester, they got together with him and included the Dorchester celebrations in their lorry-based tour. The sword and morris dancers from Springhead performed ‘a dramatic presentation of the long-sword dance, the types of which still flourish in parts of Yorkshire’. Gardiner inadvertently shows the difficulty of reviving a tradition with no information surviving about it in Dorset – Yorkshire dances, indeed! The eight dancers were accompanied by a Fool, a ploughman and an accordion player, picking up a fiddler where they could. The Fool is eventually ceremonially killed, and brought back to life by the touch of the plough.

Freddie James in his smock at the Barracks, Dorchester, in the 1936, probably during the Carnival. Winifrede Marsden, with the flowers, was Dorchester’s first woman mayor.

Gardiner remembered, ‘This conjunction of a Springhead pageant with an event organised by the Agricultural workers of Dorset aroused a widespread interest. Attempts by the Press to give it a “quaint”, “old-time” connotation have been quenched.’ Gardiner saw it as ‘a modern expression of a renewed purpose to connect the life of the soil with the life of the spirit, to bring back to economic effort the magic of true symbolism’. It is not surprising that the Press saw these dances, and indeed Plough Monday in Dorset, as quaint – even the local papers thought the ex-Mayor in a smock and sword dancers in the streets rather olde-worlde.

Plough Monday 1938 was an extraordinary occasion – Conservative Minister of Agriculture, Springhead dancers, Evershot mummers, at least three ploughs, dancing and singing into the night and more. W S Morrison, the Minister of Agriculture, said he was ‘glad to see gathered together here the three props of the industry – landowners, farmers, and workers, whose constant co-operation is essential to the prosperity of farming’. But 1938 was not a good year to revive an old tradition. World War 2 started the next year, and Plough Monday altered itself into Plough Sunday in the churches. Rolf Gardiner recorded that Freddie James told him, ‘We’ll ’ave a Plough Zunday-like. Special service in our vinest churches. Parson’ll bless the plough in the middle o’ the church. Varm-worker’ll read the Lessons. Zpecial ’ymns, and all the volks callen fur God’s blessen on the Land.’

And indeed, that was how the new tradition continued. In 1948, for example, Freddie James organised Plough Sunday, with on the Monday following a ‘social gathering when Mr. James again donned his smock’ to welcome many guests, including MPs. He then gave them a classic Freddie James speech on how farm workers’ wages should be increased, and rural education for their children improved. Three weeks later he was dead.

This plough survives in St Mary’s Church, Dorchester

1 Dorset County Museum
2 Dorset County Museum
3 Peter Booton