Dorsetshire Customs, & C.
Harvest Home — Hay making — Matrimonial Oracles — Midsummer Eve — Peace in 1814 — Country Pairs— Perambulations.
By William Barnes
Harvest Home, formerly celebrated with great mirth, but now a declining usage, was a feast given by the farmer at the end of harvest, or when his hay and corn were got in. "O fortunutos nimium, sua sibona norint, ugricolus," says Virgil; how happy, if they knew their bliss, are farmers 1 yet this, like all other happiness, has its alloy. The farmer's seed is scattered upon the surface of his field, where it receives the attentions of a nurse, and yet sometimes perishes with his hopes; he has anxieties for the firstlings of his flock, exposed to the storms of March, and many die from inclemency; bad weather, unhealthy and thin crops, fluctuations of market, loss of cattle, inroads of thieves, and unfaithfulness of servants, often disturb the farmer's peace; and, if he have not a just confidence in the wisdom and goodness of God, he is an unhappy and ill-tempered man. Some years ago the "Harvest-home" in my native county, Dorset, was kept up with good old English hospitality. When the last load was ricked, the laborers, male and female, the swarthy reaper, and the sun-burnt hay-maker, the saucy boy who had not seen twelve summers, and the stiff horny-handed old mower who had borne the toil of fifty, all made a happy groupe, and went with singing and loud laughing to the " harvest-home supper" at the farm-house, where they were expected by the good mistress, dressed in a quilted petticoat and a linsey-wolsey apron, with shoes fastened by large silver buckles which extended over her foot like a pack-saddle on a donkey. The dame and her husband welcomed them to a supper of good wholesome food,—a round of beef, and a piece of bacon, and perhaps the host and hostess had gone so far as to kill a fowl or two, or stick a turkey, which had fattened in the wheatyard. This plain English fare was Eaten from wooden trenchers, by the side which were put little cups of horn filled with beer or cider. When the cloth was removed, one of the men, putting forth his large hand like the gauntlet of an armed knight, would grasp his horn of beer, and standing on a pair of legs which had long out-grown the largest holes of the village stocks, and with a voice which, if he had not been speaking a dialect of the English language, you might have thought came from the deep seated lungs of a lion, he would propose the health of the farmer in the following lines:—
Here's a health unto our miaster
The founder of the feast,
And I hope to God wi' all my heart
His soul in heaven mid rest;
That every thing mid prosper
That ever he tiak in hand,
Vor we be all his servants.
And all at his command.
After this would follow a course of jokes, anecdotes, and songs, in some of which the whole company joined, without attention to the technicalities of counterpoint, bass, tenor, and treble, common chords and major thirds; but each singing the air and pitching in at the key that best fitted his voice, making a medley of big and little sounds, like the lowings of oxen and the low bleatings of old ewes, mixed up with the shrill pipings of the lambs at a fair. The conversation commonly turned on the incidents of the summer: how the hay-makers overtook the mowers, or how the rain kept the labor back; how they all crept in a heap under the waggon in a thunderstorm; how nearly some of them were crushed under the load that was upset; who was the best mower or reaper in the village; which field yielded the best crop; and which stack was most likely to heat.
Hay-making is one of the most pleasing occupations of an English summer. The bright green of the smooth mown fields, bordered by "hedge-row elms," the sweet smell of the new hay, the bustle and merry songs of the busy hay-makers, and the waving uncut crops, are to the peaceful mind of a thinking observer really charming. In the hay-field the master distributes his men with the same attention to their abilities as the manager of a theatre casts the characters of a play among his performers. The younger and less experienced are set to rake the hay up unto ridges, called in Dorset "wales,"
or to put it up into cocks; some of that numerous class of laborers who have more strength than wit are sent to pitch or unload; the next "grade," as brother Jonathan says, is that of the loader, who must be a man of some little talent, to build the load upright, and make it firm by properly putting in the binding masses at the corners; but the highest rank is that of the rick or stack-maker, who, besides having a proper knowledge of the mathematical lines under which haystacks are commonly comprehended, must be a man of activity and strength. The ground-shape of the rick is either a circle or a parallelogram, which is to be correctly kept; the rick must be upright, rounded out in the middle, and then go off into a cone or pyramid; and the rickmaker must so fix its size that it may take all the hay intended to be put into it, without spoiling its shape and without waste or want I or, in the expression of the hay-makers, "with none to leave and none to lack."
Matrimonial Oracles, and Midsummer Eve.—When we thinkon the consequences of a woman's marriage—that she may be dragged into R long train of evils, and her heart be broken by a profligate or indolent partner—or be led smiling in well-being through life, by a man of virtue and good sense:—when we see a happy girl, and imagine what may be her fate— subjected to the unkind treatment and coarse language of a boor, or have her mind soothed and exalted by the conversation of a well-acting and right-thinking Christian man;—whether, like another Penelope, she is to regret the absence of a husband wandering in other lands, or navigating the stormy deep; to be united to a home-dwelling partner, and make with him a pair as inseparable as the two staves of a piece of music for the pianoforte, and as like in sentiment as the two texts of a biglot Bible;—whether she is to inhabit the " flaunting town," or to live in the quiet farms and fields;—when we think and reflect that her destiny depends upon him whom she chooses for better or for worse, we cannot be surprised that young females hanker to know what sort of men the fates have given them for husbands, even at an early age.
In my childhood, a time when—as Petrarch says of old age—little lovers may be allowed
"Sedersi insiome, e dir che lor incontra,"
to sit together, and say whatever comes into their heads; when the pretty name of Flora or Fanny was not a whit more charming to me than Tom or Jack; and when a pound of marbles, with half a score of shouting boy-playmates, were as pleasing as a dance with a party of smiling, rosy girls; I recollect some of my female friends, while gathering flowers in a meadow, would stop, and, plucking a large daisy, pull off the petals one by one, repeating at the same time the words
"Rich man, poor mau, farmer, ploughman, thief;"
fancying, very seriously, that the one which came to be named at plucking the last petal would be her husband. Another way of knowing the future husband (inferior only to the dark words of that high priestess of the oracles of Hymen, the tunning gypsey), is, to pluck an e'en teh-leaf, and, putting it into the hand, to say,
"The even ash-leaf in my hand,
"The first I meet shall be my man."
Then, putting it into the glove, to say,
"The even ash-leaf in my glove,
"The first I meet shall be my love."
And, lastly, into the bosom, saying,
"The even ash-leaf in my bosom,
"The first I meet shall be my husband."
Soon after which the future husband will make his appearance, and the lass may observe him as accurately as she will.
Midsummer Eve, however, is the great time with girls for discovering who shall be their husbands; why it is so, more than any other, I cannot tell, unless, indeed, the sign Gemini, which the sun then leaves, is symbolical of the wedding union: but, however that may be, a maiden will walk through the garden at midsummer, with a rake on her left shoulder, and throw hemp-seed over her right, saying, at the same time
"Hemp-seed I set, hemp-seed I sow,
"The man that is my true-love come after me and mow."
It is said by many who have never' tried it, and some who have, without effect, that the future husband of the hemp-sowing girl will appear behind her with a scythe, and look as substantial as a brass image of Saturn on an old timepiece. Or if, at going to bed, she put her shoes at right angles with each other, in the shape of a T, and say,
"Hoping this night my true love to see,
"I place my shoes in the form of the T."
they say she will be sure to see her husband in a dream, and perhaps in reality, by her bed-side. Besides this, there is another method of divination. A girl, on going to bed, is to write the alphabet on small pieces of paper, and put them into a basin of water with the letters downward; and it is said that in the morning she will find the first letter of her husband's name turned up, and the others as they were left.
The celebration of Peace, in August, 1814, took place when I was a boy, old enough to enjoy the merry doings at my native village, and to remember them till now. The respectable inhabitants subscribed largely to treat the poor with a public dinner of beef and pudding, and strong beer. Their festival was held in a field by the river side, where several hundreds of people, young and old, sat down at two long lines of tables. Their hearing was gratified by the lively music of a band; and their taste and smell by the savour of a wholesome old English meal, at which they held their noses for an hour over the steam of boiled beef, or thrust them at intervals into the cool deepening vacuum of the beer jug. Their sight was afterwards indulged with spectacles o' village merry-making; and their feelings by the twistings aud twinings, and spirit stirring hop, skip, and jump agitations of the dance: gallopades were not then invented, or two thousand people might have hopped along in a string, like a row of little mop-stem-riding boys on their wooden horses. Among the sports were Jumping in sacks, thus performed :—half a dozen men were put into as many sacks, which were tied round their necks, and gave them the shape of a row of blacking jars in a shop. In this state they were to hop a given distance for the mastery; and, as they could not erect themselves into the natural perpendicular of the human body, when they fell down, there were what may have been called resuricction men, to help them up There was Grinning through horse-collars, in which the winner is he who can thrust through it horse's collar the ugliest sample of a human face, either by showing the odd substitutes which nature might have stuck in his head for features, or else by distorting them into something still mort unlike, and uglier than natural features Besides these there was Running by young women, a sport in which the victress received a white holland shift; not without having shown, however, by the high upflinging of her " light fantastic toe" in the race, that she could mark her initials, and, at least No. 2, upon it. Running for the pig with the greased tail was a famous general chase, in which the individual who caught the pig by the tail became its lawful owner—when, after many long strides and hard strainings, many a breathless wight overtook the galloping porker, and grasped the slippery little member, " Heu omnit effusus laborf" it slipped through the fingers, and the trotters carried off the head, hams, and sides, at full speed, till a dexterous victor made them his own. An effigy of Buonaparte was also carried about: this the good people first hung, then shot, and lastly burnt; thus securing the arch enemy of England by various deaths, as, in a suit at law, the plaintiff secureth the defendant by the various counts in the declaration.
The Fair Day is to the milk-maids and striplings of some villages one of the brightest in their calendar. As the time approaches to it, their joy rises, like the mercury in a barometer at the coming of fine weather. The children lessen their outlay for toys and sweetmeats, and hoard the saved pence; and the trite observation on meeting friends, that "it is fine weather," gives place to the earnest question, "Be gwain to fa-yer o' Monday V Some time ago, on a fine day in September, I went to a famous fair, held at the foot of one of the green hills of Dorset. When I first set out I walked along the still shady lanes alone, but, as I drew near the fair-place, I commingled with a stream of people, all tending to the same point. There were groups of white-gowned, redfaced lasses, led by their swains with bunches of flowers stuck in the but onholes of their long blue coats, and switching in one hand a tough ground-ash stick. I had not a fair mate myself, and could well listen to their observations. "How much money hast got vor fayer 1" said a ruddy little boy to another, whom he had a little before overtaken. "Sixpence," said the other, with a grin of satisfaction; thumping his hand on his pocket, and erecting his body into a posture of dignity he thought himself entitled to by his wealth. Alas, I thought I, how true is it that our wants are only imaginary, and that riches and poverty are only relative terms! this boy is proua to go to lair with bad sixpence, while many spendthrifts think themselves stinted if they have not hundreds to squander in things as worthless as those that will be bought by him. With these thoughts in my mind, my attention was drawn to the rude, though well-meant, salutation of a Dorset swain, who, seeing a friend forward, crept softly behind him, and with the full force of an arm which had perhaps been long exercised in mowing, or swinging the flail, laid his stick athwart his back, upon which his acquaintance looked round, and received his assailant with a hearty shake of the hand. I was by this time in the fair, where the din of drums and horns at the shows, the loud invitation, " Walk up, walk up," of the showmen, the hum of voices, the squeaking of fiddles, and the creaking of rattles, made altogether a medley of sounds which, supposing with Pope "all discord harmony not understood," would have been very pleasing to my ear, but for my ignorance of harmony. Seeing a merry-Andrew come out at one of the shows, I went up to listen to a few of his nijch-repeated, though still laugh-stirring jokes. He was surrounded by a crowd of starers, with their faces all worked up into grins, so exactly like his own that they seemed reflections of his own—like the faces you would see were you to twist your mouth to the expression of drolling laughter, and look into a multiplying glass. The dense crowd around the show was, however, suddenly scattered by a bull. He had escaped from the cattle fair, to exhibit himself at full run among the standings, where he was received with chuckles and shouts by those who were out of his way, and with screams from women and children in his line of race: after a short peep at the humours of the fair, he was prevailed upon to retire, and leave the bipeds to their former fun. I withdrew with the coming on of the evening: as I wound round the hill the noise of the fair died gradually away, and I reached my home in silence.
A Perambulation, or, as it might be more correctly called, a circumambulation, is the custom of going round the boundaries of a manor or parish, with witnesses, to determine and preserve recollection of its extent, and to see that no encroachments have been made upon it, and that the landmarks ha'e not bean taken away. It is a proceeding commonly regulated by the steward, who takes with him a few men and several boys who are required to particularly observe the boundary lines traced out, and thereby qualify themselves for witnesses, in the event of any dispute about the landmarks or extent of the manor, at a future day. In order that they may not forget the lines and marks of separation, they "take pains" at almost every turning. For instance, if the boundary be a stream, one of the boys is tossed into it; if a broad ditch, the boys are offered money to jump over it, in which tbey of course fail, and pitch into the mud, where they stick as firmly as if they had been rooted there for the season; if a hedge, a sapling is cut out of it, and used in afflicting that part of their bodies upon which they rest in the posture between standing and lying; if a wall, they are to have a race on the top of it, when, in trying to pass each other, they fall over on each side,—some descending, perhaps, into the still stygian waters of a ditch, and others thrusting the "human face divine" into a bed of nettles; if the boundary be a sunny bank, they sit down upon it, and get a treat of beer, and bread and cheese, and, perhaps, a glass of spirits. When these boys grow up to be men, if it happens that one of them should be asked if a particular stream were the boundary of the manor he had perambulated, he would be sure to say, in the manner of Sancho Panca, "Ees, that 'tis, I'm sure o't, by the same token that I were tossed into't, and paddled about there lik a water-rot, till I wor hafe dead." If he should be asked whether the aforesaid pleasant bank were a boundary,— "O, ees it be," he would say, " that's where we squat down, and tucked in a skinvull of vittles and drink." With regard to any boundary perambulated after that, he would most likely declare, "I won't be sartin; I got zo muddled up top o' the banks, that don' know where we ambulated arter that."
The Year Book of daily recreation and information: concerning remarkable men and manners, times and seasons, solemnities and merry-makings, Antiques and Novelties, Forming a Complete History of the Year; and a Perpetual Key to the Almanac by William Hone, 1832
Willam Barnes Society Members Annual Summer Lunch
12:00 till 15:30
William Barnes at Stock Gaylard Oak Fair 2018
14:30 till 16:00
Celebrating William Barnes with Tim Laycock and Friends
10:30 till 12:00
Morning Service of Remembrance at St Peters, Dorchester
19:00 till 21:00
2018 Annual General Meeting of the William Barnes Society