Making hay in times past with the ‘Lord of the Harvest’

It is a countryside ritual that few “townies” now get to see, but the annual harvest was once a universal experience. This year, with much of the usual workforce absent, it may be again – but in the meantime this selection of obscure pictures from the archive recalls haymaking in its heyday.

30th June 1934:  Girls in bathing costumes ride home on a load of hay after helping out with the harvest, at Torquay.  (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
30th June 1934: Girls in bathing costumes ride home on a load of hay after helping out with the harvest, at Torquay. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

The practice of combining a summer holiday with paid work in the fields has all but died out now, but was once a popular way of extending the season. Some say it is the reason for the long school break that persists today.

The popular image of corn ripening under the August sun is supposedly where the expression ‘golden days’ comes from – the phrase having been coined in the 19th century when prices were high and imports low.

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England has never observed a thanksgiving for the harvest in the same way as the Americans, but the completion of the annual crop gathering has traditionally been marked by a celebration supper, often comprising several main courses and puddings and accompanied by music and drinking games.

June 1922: Rick making on a Bedford farm. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

In 19th century Shropshire it was the custom to dress two men in sacks filled with prickly plants and assume the character of the “old sow”.

The gaiety of such events was entirely genuine at a time when farming was a matter of life or death – a successful harvest meant there would be enough food for the winter. Even today, the commercial viability of many farms hinges on this time of year.

For roaming labourers, too, the harvest has long been a dependable source of income, and customs varied from one county to another on how the work was procured. In Norfolk, it was the standard practice for workers to announce their arrival by solemnly dragging their scythes along the ground. A ‘Lord of the Harvest’ would then be delegated with the task of negotiating rates of pay.

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1929: A combine harvester, cutting and threshing the barley in one action. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

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1928: A tractor mowing down corn in Kent. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

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1922: Women loading hay on a farm in Bedford. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
circa 1936: A farmer harvesting his corn crop with a horse-drawn cutter. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1907: Workers load corn onto a trailer during the harvest at Dennis Bros Farm, Kirton, Lincolnshire. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)