Old English Harvest Customs
Hoaky is brought
Home with hallowin'
Boys with plumb cake,
The cart followin'.
—From Poore Robin, 1676.
IN one of the fine old Homes of England, the
tapestry lining the Withdrawing Room represents
a scene which must have been very familiar
to the ladies whose diligent fingers accomplished
this large piece of handiwork. It is a "Harvest
Home" of more than a hundred years ago; and as
the light from the huge logs burning on the hearth
flickers on the figures it almost seems as if the
gayly decorated horses are drawing on the cart
laden with sheaves, as if the girl enthroned on the
top of the corn is waving the small sheaf she holds
overhead, and as if the harvesters are really dancing
around; that in another moment the lad riding
the leader must sound his pipe, and the old man
following the dancers make a merry tune come out
of his fiddle-strings. The Harvest is over, and the
"last neck" is being carried home in triumph,
held on high by the Queen of the Harvest, until it
can be deposited in the centre of the supper-table
in the big farmhouse kitchen.
This tapestry hangs in a house in Cornwall, a
county in which, from its remote southerly position,
many traditions have lingered. Among such traditions
those connected with the harvest are probably
some of the most ancient; handed down from
generation to generation from the days when the
Romans first brought civilization to England and
left their stamp on the harvest as well as on the language,
laws, numerals and the roads of this county.
Until the beginning of this century, Ceres was
the name given as a matter of course to the queen
of the harvest; and in Bedfordshire two figures
made of straw were formerly carried in the harvest
procession, which the laborers called Jack and Jill,
but which were supposed to represent Apollo, the
Sun God, and the beneficent Ceres, to whom the
Romans made their offerings before reaping began.
The merry queen of the harvest, worked in the
tapestry, had no doubt been chosen after the usual
Cornish fashion. The women reaped in Cornwall,
while the men bound, and whoever reaped the last
lock of corn was proclaimed queen. As all were
ambitious of this honor, the women used to hide
away an unreaped lock under a sheaf, and when
all the field seemed cut they would run off to their
hidden treasures, in hopes of being the lucky last.
When a girl's sweetheart came into the field at
the end of the day, he would try to take her sickle
away to finish her work. If this was allowed, it
was a sign that she also consented to the wedding
taking place before the next harvest.
The last lock of corn being cut, it was bound
with straw at the neck, just under the ears, and
carried to the highest part of the field, where one
of the men swung it round over his head, crying in
a stentorian voice, "I have it, I have it, I have it!"
And the next man answered, "What hav-ee, what
hav-ee, what hav-ee?" Then the first man shouted
again, "A neck, a neck, a neck, hurrah!" This
was the signal for the queen to mount the "hoaky
cart," as it was called, and the procession started
for the farmhouse.
Over the borders in Devonshire, the custom of
"crying the neck" varied a little. The men did
the reaping and the women the binding. As the
evening closed in, the oldest man present collected
a bunch of the finest ears of corn and, plaiting
them together, placed himself in the middle of a
circle of reapers and binders. Then he stooped
and held it near the ground, while all the men took
off their hats and held them also near the ground,
and as they rose slowly they sung in a prolonged
harmonious tone, "A neck, a neck, a neck!" until
their hats were high over their heads. This was
repeated three times; after which the words
changed to "We have-'en, we have-'en, we
have-'en!" sung to the same monotonous cadence.
The crying of the neck, as it echoed from field to
field, and from hill to hill, on a fine evening, produced
a beautiful effect, and might be heard at a
A musical cry of this sort was also common in
Norfolk, Suffolk and Gloucestershire; but the
words sung were "Hallo, largess!" One of the
men was chosen lord of the evening and appointed
to approach any lookers-on with respect, and ask
a largess, or money, which was afterwards spent in
drink. Meanwhile the other men stood round with
their hooks pointed to the sky, singing:
In Gloucestershire, Ceres rode the leader of the
Hoaky Cart, dressed in white, with a yellow ribbon
round her waist.
The last in-gathering of the crop,
Is loaded and they climb the top;
And then huzza with all their force,
While Ceres mounts the foremost horse.
"Gee-up," the rustic goddess cries,
And shouts more long and loud arise,
The swagging cart, with motion slow,
Reels careless on, and off they go.
Stevenson in his Twelve Moneths, date 1661,
goes on to describe the arrival of the procession
at the farmhouse:
The frumenty pot welcomes home the harvest cart, and
the garland of flowers crowns the Captain of the reapers.
The battle of the field is now stoutly fought. The pipe and
tabor are now briskly set to work, and the lad and lass will
have no lead on their heels. O! 'tis the merry time when
honest neighbours make good cheer, and God is glorified in
His blessings on the earth.
In Herefordshire "crying the neck" is called
"crying the maze;" the maze being a knot of ears
of corn tied together, and the reapers stood at
some distance, and threw their sickles at it. The
man who succeeded in cutting the knot won a
prize and was made Harvest King for that year.
In the same county there was a rough custom of
the last load being driven home by the farmer
himself at a furious rate, while the laborers chased
the wagon with bowls of water which they tried to
throw over it. In the more stately processions the
horses that drew the Hoaky cart were draped with
white, which Herrick, the Devonshire parson-poet,
describes in his poem of Hesperides, 1646:
Come, sons of summer, by whose toil
We are the lords of wine and oil;
By whose tough labours and rough hands
We rip up first, then reap our lands.
Crowned with the ears of corn now come
And to the pipe ring Harvest Home.
Come forth, my lord, and see the cart
Dressed up with all the country art.
See here a maukin, there a sheet
As spotless pure as it is sweet;
The horses, mares, and frisking fillies
(Clad all in linen, white as lilies:)
The harvest swains and wenches bound
For joy to see the hock-cart crown'd.
About the cart hear how the rout
Of rural younglings raise the shout;
Pressing before, some coming after—
Those with a shout, and these with laughter.
Well, on, brave boys, to your lord's hearth
Glittering with fire, where for your mirth
You shall see, first, the large and chief
Foundation of your feast, fat beef;
With upper stories, mutton, veal,
And bacon (which makes full the meal;)
With sev'ral dishes standing by,
And here a custard, there a pie,
And here all tempting frumenty.
The harvest supper in Northumberland was
called the "Kern Supper," from a large figure
dressed and crowned with flowers, holding a sickle
and sheaf, which was named the "Kern Baby,"
and, being carried by the harvesters on a high
pole with singing and shouting, was placed in the
centre of the supper table, like the Devonshire and
Cornish Neck. Rich cream was served on bread
at the Kern Supper, instead of meal; a custom
which was reversed in a sister northern county,
where the new meal was thought more of than
cream, and the feast was called the "Neck Supper,"
in its honor.
There was one more quaint ceremony for the
laborers to accomplish, after the feasting was over,
connected with the completion of the rick or stack.
This was formed in the shape of a house with a
sloping roof, and as the man placed the last sheaf
in the point of the gable he shouted, "He's in,
he's in, he's in!" The laborers below in the
stackyard, then sang out, "What's in?" and the
rickmaker answered with a long harmonious sound,
"The cro' sheaf," meaning the cross sheaf.
It has been thought that there used to be one
universal harvest song used throughout England,
but the words and music are not preserved as such.
Some curious songs are performed by the laborers,
where harvest suppers are kept up. A very popular
one has a chorus ending with:
And neither Kings, Lords, nor Dukes
Can do without the husbandman.
The majority are drinking songs, and there is
reason to fear that the ale and cider that flowed at
harvest-time, conduced in no small degree towards
the unbounded revelry of these old celebrations.
At the same time the country people of England
in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were
for the most part very simple and ignorant, and
their childish exuberance of spirits may have been
but the natural expression of life in a perfectly
unartificial state. They were men and women who
could live for the hour while the sun shone, who
could laugh and dance like children who have no
fear, and, as George Eliot says, who "cared not
for inquiring into the senses of things, being satisfied
with the things themselves."
But the change was coming. The old women of
Cornwall lamented loudly when their sickles were
taken away, and the corn was "round-hewed" by
the men with a kind of rounded saw.
"There was nothing about it in the Bible," they
said; "it was all reaping there."
The round-hewing was but a step, to be speedily
followed by the scythe, and then by the steam
reaper. And it often happens that the steam
engines do not leave the field until the corn is carried
to a temporary rick in the corner and threshed
on the spot.
Farewell to the Hoaky Cart, the crowns of flowers,
the Kern Baby, and the Cro' Sheaf!
With the puffing snort, the whirr and smoke of
the engine, came the downfall of the ancient ceremonies.
If the corn is threshed in the field and
carried away in sacks, there is no time for the
triumph of Ceres, or the decking of "Necks."
The laborers are no longer "satisfied with the
things themselves." They are keen for the shilling
they will earn for overhour work, and in some
counties prefer it to the gathering of master and
men round the harvest board; and the drink makes
them envious instead of merry.
Times are hard. The great iron rakes clear the
fields and there are some farmers who no longer
say with Boaz:
Let her glean even among the sheaves, and reproach her
not, and let fall also some of the handfuls of purpose for
her, and leave them that she may glean them, and rebuke
It seems as though the old happy gleaning days
were also numbered. Those days to which the
villagers look forward from one year's end to
another! The hour at which gleaning may begin
is made known in some parishes by the church bell
tolling at eight o'clock, after which the children
troop off with their mothers to the wide fields.
The sun may shine with fierce August fervor, the
children's arms and the mothers' backs be weary
to breaking, and the corn gathered be only enough
for two half-peck loaves—yet there are charms in
the long days in the fields, in the strawberries
picked in the hedge, and the potato pasties eaten
under the rick, and when the church bell tolls
again at nine o'clock there are still many lingerers
in the fields.
The world is growing grave and old, and it is
sad to think that many of the simple old-fashioned
enjoyments of past years are fading away. Still
there is another side to the inevitable law of
change; for out of the relics of the worship of
Ceres, out of the ashes of the ancient customs of
revelry, a phœnix has arisen, grand and hope-inspiring,
and that carries back our memories to days
before the Romans were conquerors of the world,
and when the most ancient of all nations, the Jews,
used to celebrate their yearly feast of Ingathering.
When first Harvest Festivals in Churches were
proposed they were looked on with suspicion, for
somewhat similar services had been swept away by
the iron hand of the Reformation. But thankful
hearts and good common-sense have worn out the
suspicion, and the day comes now in each year,
when every Church in England is decked with
sheaves of corn, grapes, torch lilies, dahlias, sunflowers,
and all the splendors of autumn, and when
glorious Te Deums, and hearty Harvest Hymns
rise in thanksgiving for the blessings on the
Once more the ancient cry of "Largess" is, as
it were, revived. But now it is largess for the
poor, beloved by God, it is largess for the suffering
ones, who watch in pain, it is largess for home and
foreign missions, that all may be safely gathered
in to the great final Harvest.
It is also customary for a Festival to be held in
the Cathedrals of the principal county towns.
And there are few nobler sights than to see the
Nave of one of these magnificent old buildings, on
a market day, so full of men and women of every
position in life, that they are sitting on the bases
of the pillars, and standing in the aisles; and
there are few nobler sounds than to hear that
mighty congregation burst into singing:
Come, ye thankful people, come!
Raise the song of Harvest Home!