Harvesting at Station Farm in the 1920s
This memoir was written in the 1980s by Iris (Miggie) Mignon Branch (née Calver). Miggie’s son Chris Branch sent us the text along with photos from the family album. All the photos are from Station Farm, Stanhoe.
Miggie Calver was born in 1909 and lived at Station Farm with her parents Thomas and Edith, her elder sisters Marion, Marjory, Ethel and Helen, brothers Arthur, Harry and Harcourt, and Helen’s son Dick (born 1923). In 1930 Miggie left Stanhoe to find her fortune in London. She married in 1932.
Harvest in the 1930s was much the same procedure as in 1917 when I was employed as a hold ye girl (see below), aged 8.
For people working on an arable farm, harvest was the end of the farming year, reflecting the fruits of their labour. Their attitude towards harvest was a mixture of pride and determination to finish the job as quickly as possible. Speed was encouraged by the method of payment: a fixed sum of money (£11.00 in 1930) for the complete harvest, irrespective of how long it took.
Harvest hours were long. Even in good weather we had to wait for the corn to dry out from the overnight dew, so work normally started at nine o’clock and continued until dark – around nine in the evening.
The men took three breaks for meals: elevenses, dinner, and fourses (“farses”). Dinner was generally a hot meal brought by the womenfolk in billy cans. The famous Norfolk “swimmer” dumplings were a great favourite. The women would sit with the men while they ate their food and then walk the mile or so back home, returning in the afternoon.
By 1917 corn was no longer reaped by hand. Instead, a horse-drawn machine called a binder cut the corn and tied it into bundles called shoafs.
The horses walked alongside the binder on the stubble left by the previous cut. To prevent the horses from trampling the standing corn, the first cut in each field therefore had to be done by hand, an operation called “opening the field”. Men with scythes cut a path for the horses and tied the first shoafs by hand with string.
After the corn was cut, it was put into “shocks”, each made from 12 shoafs stacked in an inverted V-shape. This kept the rain off and allowed further ripening in the field.
Meanwhile a site was prepared for the new corn stacks in the stack yard. The bottom area of each new stack was covered with straw to a depth of two feet.
Next the shoafs were moved from the field to the stack yard. This required two four-wheeled wagons, each drawn by two horses. Two men known as loaders worked on each wagon. They placed the shoafs on the wagon to a height of 15 feet. Two men known as pitchers used pitchforks to lift the shoafs up to the loaders.
Why was I called a hold ye girl? Because my job was to holler “Hold ye!”.
Two wagons were used for the harvest. While one was loading up in the field, the other was unloading at the stack yard where the new stack was being built.
Each hold ye boy (they were usually boys) took his loaded wagon to the stack yard and brought the empty wagon back to the field.
Before a wagon was moved, the hold ye boy shouted “Hold ye!” to warn the loaders so that they would not be thrown off by the sudden movement.
Building the stack
Because the corn might not be threshed for several months, it had to be stacked carefully in a way that would not fall down nor let in water. Corn stacks came in various shapes and sizes, basically either round or rectangular. Building a stack was a highly skilled operation.
Shoafs were unloaded from the wagon and passed to the stacker, who built up the stack with the straw end of each shoaf pointing outwards. For the first six feet of the stack the shoafs were lifted by hand. For the remainder of the stack, which was 25–30 feet high, a mechanical elevator was used. The elevator was powered by a horse walking in circles, pulling an arm which drove the various pinion wheels.
When no shocks were left in the field, the remaining loose straw – which of course had corn attached – was gathered by a horse-drawn rake. I have heard of women gleaning but have no experience of this; I think gleaning died out after the 1914–1918 war.
After the harvest
Ultimately the corn would be threshed to release the grain, but this was not regarded as part of the harvest. Threshing (“trosh’n”) took place between harvest and Christmas, or when the farmer needed money, or when straw was needed in the stock yards.
Once the pasture fields were no longer producing grass, the cattle were moved into the stock yard and fed on hay. As the yard became full of cattle muck, straw was added to keep it dry. Over the winter the the floor of the yard would get higher and higher as more straw was added and trampled down by the cattle. If straw ran short, more corn was threshed.
When fields were ploughed or the stock yards became too full of muck, the yards would be “mucked out”. This fresh muck was generally stacked near the fields to dry out and mature. The muck from the previous year would have rotted down to produce manure and this was spread on the field after ploughing, to enrich the soil and encourage growth of the new year’s crop.
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