We have him
Jo Draper looks at harvest-time traditions in Dorset
Published in September ’10
Seedtime and harvest are the important times for arable farming – ploughing and harrowing the land ready for the seed and the sowing of it, and finally cutting the corn and getting it back to the barn or rick. Sowing and preparing the land were long jobs, but harvest was even more labour-intensive and chancy. Putting off ploughing or even sowing is possible, but corn has to be harvested when it is ripe.
The end of harvest, when all was successfully gathered in, was always celebrated. This is the turn of the farming year, with Michaelmas (29 September) much more important than 1 January. Leases of farms changed then, before the new crops went in.
Until the late 19th century the power for harvesting came from people and horses, and virtually everybody helped. When Dorchester caught fire in 1613 the fire spread because most of the inhabitants of the town were out in Fordington Fields helping with the harvest, and while townsmen’s participation had become less in the 19th century, in the villages many still participated.
Volunteers did not cut the corn – this was a specialised and hard job, done by a team of men who worked together. Usually there were four of them, stretched out in a line, stepping and cutting at exactly the same time, and stopping to sharpen the scythes simultaneously. If they weren’t disciplined like this, they would cut each other with the long sharp scythes. William Saint remembered being fascinated by the team at Piddletrenthide in the 1870s thinking that they seemed ‘to mow together as one machine’.
Mowers were the heroes of the harvest – others bound the corn into sheaves, stooked the sheaves (grouping them upright together to dry) and later loaded them onto carts for transport home. (Arranging the sheaves on the cart was very skilled as well – as with rick-building the sheaves had to be arranged carefully or the cartload or rick collapsed).
Harvest Home was the celebration of the end of all this work, and usually included the farmer feeding all the labourers a hearty supper. Hardy’s famous Harvest Home in Far from the Madding Crowd is held in the great barn, and ends unhappily because the labourers get horribly drunk on brandy. Beer or cider was the more usual, and getting fairly drunk normal.
West Dorset preserved several traditional celebrations into the later 19th century, and when Symondsbury started to celebrate Harvest Home on a village basis rather than by individual farms, the Dorset County Chronicle sent a reporter to see what happened on the second of these group Harvest Homes in 1858. Because many of the inhabitants were involved it was like a coronation or peace celebration mixed with club walking, with a procession ‘including first the females who had assisted in the late harvest, neatly clad in summer dresses, and the men who had borne the heat and burden of the work’ all with lots of flags. ‘Large numbers of ladies and gentlemen, with the villagers in their holiday best’ were assembled near the church to admire the procession, and all went inside for a harvest service, followed by dinner and tea in a field. Triumphal arches adorned the entrance to the church (evergreens with ‘Praise God for the Harvest’ in ears of corn): another arch at a farmyard was ‘adorned with the emblems of agriculture, and surmounted by a crown of ears of wheat; with ‘Harvest Home’ inscribed one side and ‘Plenty’ in corn the other.
Very nice, but what happened next is the amazing bit: ‘The foreman of the reapers advanced to the middle, while the others form a circle around him; they take off their hats and bend successively three times towards the centre, repeating in a subdued tone, something like the hum of an immense hive of bees “We have him” which is said to intimate that they have completed the harvest.’ After cheering, the whole thing was repeated twice again. In 1858 ‘The females afterwards went through the same customs, much to the merriment of all around.’
This must have been a truly old tradition, and maybe the uppity females of the mid-19th century were pushing their way in. J S Udal, who collected the folklore of Dorset, caught up with this ceremony twenty years later in 1872, in West Dorset – this time on a single farm rather than a whole parish, and the men seem to have surrounded a tree for a very similar ceremony except that they started ‘in a very low tone, the men the while slowly and gradually raising themselves up’ and the hurrahs were very loud. Here also the women performed the same ceremony – after the men, of course.
‘We’ve got him’ is still the traditional cry for the completion of agricultural tasks much smaller than the harvest. The last chicken or sheep or whatever to be caught is always greeted in this way, rural humour suggesting that this was the one we were looking for, for some arcane purpose, and all the rest of the work was irrelevant.
Udal recorded that the entrance gates of all the farms were decorated with ‘arches of evergreen, flowers, corn etc. crowned with sickle and scythe swathed in bands of wheat and barley’, and the newspapers also mention crowns of wheat and sheaves being used in the decorations. Oh, why are there no photographs of these Harvest Home farmyards? The traditions survived well into photography.
Nearby Eype included the locally-produced rope in its ceremony – the thirty mowers were enclosed in a circle of rope ‘first saying the actual words “We have ’em” and giving the hurrahs, and then the females went through the same ordeal, some of them rather shyly’ (Bridport News, 10 September 1875). A tiny remnant of this tradition was recorded (at Symondsbury again, by Barbara Kennett) probably about 1900-10 when the Harvest Home had been converted into Harvest Festival in the church ‘the people all went to the thanksgiving service in the beautifully decorated Church in the afternoon and then wandered round the rectory and manor gardens. Meanwhile, the old men of the village whooped seven times around the tree in thankfulness for the harvest’. The full-blooded universal ceremony with all the mowers has been reduced to the old men. The wheat had been cut by machine so there were no mowers to do the ceremony properly. Happily all this was followed by the traditional harvest supper.
Harvest festivals – inside the church, We Plough the Fields and Scatter, symbolic sheaf on the chancel steps etc., were invented in about 1850, and at Symondsbury in 1868 the church already provided a Harvest Service, but only as a small part of the celebrations. The Rural Dean attended the 1868 Harvest Home at Symondsbury and in his inevitable speech at the lunch he said that he found the ‘rational and pleasing festivities’ he had seen a vivid contrast with ‘the intemperate harvest-homes of bygone days’, which were so bad that the clergy had had to desert them. One of the farmers was much more amusing – he thanked his labourers ‘and if in the course of the last year any intemperate language had escaped him or his friends [the other farmers]; if any hasty remarks had been made that was unjust, he expressed their regret.’ This caused great laughter – a farmer using intemperate language, or making hasty remarks?
Symondsbury was moving from the old-fashioned farm-based harvest home to a more temperate one based on the whole parish and even including visiting ladies and gentlemen and the church. The cries of ‘We have him’ were originally partly to announce that the harvest was completed on that farm, hopefully before others had. From 1867 this competitive element was removed, with everyone celebrating on a fixed date, together. I bet all the farms still competed to finish first and noted everyone else’s progress.
4, 5 Dorset County Museum