Welsh Social History
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Threshing in 'The Old Farmhouse'
Threshing in 'The Old Farmhouse',
The Welsh author, D.J.Williams describes the old art of threshing by hand in his
book Hen Dy Fferm (the Old Farmhouse)
'Threshing with a flail was over in the neighbourhood long before my time, but there
was still an old flail to be found here and there on a beam in a barn, together with
a scythe and cradle are to be found as curiosities from old times. There was a flail
in our house when we moved to Abernant. It was a borrowed flail I believe, but on
a few occasions I saw my father, who had learnt the way in his early days, beating
out a thrave (a couple of dozen sheaves) or two with it for the poultry when Indian
corn was scarce in the shops. But I heard a lot about the great threshing feats -
so many bushels threshed out of a stock of black oats from the bottom of Ca' Pant,
and getting up 'before the blind dogs', as they used to say, at four or five o'clock
in the morning and threshing for two or three hours before going to breakfast at
seven, after which they would begin an ordinary day's work. He wrote, 'I remember
the scar my grandfather carried on his face till his death, after an awkward blow
that his son John struck when he was a boy learning to turn the arm of the flail
properly round his head'.
After the First World War farming was transformed by the introduction of more and
more machinery. A stationery engine driven by steam was used to drive other machines
- soon to be replaced by petrol or diesel machines. But before this hand methods
had prevailed for tasks such as chopping gorse for horse feed. The simplest method
of cutting was to place the gorse in a stone trough and then beat it with a wooden
beetle until it was soft. Nevertheless by the late 18th C. hand operated chaffing
boxes had become common. Gorse or possibly a mixture of gorse and straw, was placed
in the wooden trough of the chaff cutter and clamped in place with a wooden block.
In order to push the gorse along the trough, it was usual in N. Wales to wear a wooden
'glove' or box on the hand, a device known as dynolen bren.
The custom of feeding animals, especially horses and calves, with gorse remained
in vogue in some parts of Wales until the 20th C. - gorse mixed with straw, hay or
bran was regarded as very nourishing for animals. The gorse known as eithin Ffrengig
(French gorse) or eithin bras (coarse gorse), was grown especially for feeding
purposes, and on some farms a field of gorse was regarded as being as valuable as
a field of hay. In Pembrokeshire, for example, children were given the task of collecting
gorse seed, and in that county 'gorse sales' were commonplace in the 19th C. high
prices being paid for fields of one year old gorse.
Shearing day was a great social occasion attended by farmers or their representatives
from many miles around. In the past it was essential that the farmer himself, rather
than a servant attended a neighbours shearing, for although no money payment was
made, the upland farmer depended entirely on voluntary co-operation to complete his
As an example a week prior to shearing day, the farmer with no assistance but that
of his sure footed pony and four well trained dogs collected the sheep from the mountain
side. Some twenty five of his neighbours congregated in the shearing shed and the
annual task of shearing commenced. With hand shears originally but later replaced
by power driven blades, the shearer began the task by cutting a strip down the animal's
belly followed by sweeping cuts around the body of the animal. The fleece was then
rolled into a bundle and the sheep inspected and marked to indicate ownership; ears
clipped or marked with colour. For some time this would continue until the whole
flock was shorn. Shearing time was a good excuse for bantering between the shearers,
and in the past the day ended with an impromptu concert in the shearing shed, for
every locality had its folk singer or raconteur who made a point of attending all
the shearings in the district.
It was not just the plough and then the tractor, it was also the combine harvester,
the second great mechanical accelerator of modern farming, that needed more space,.
The old method of cutting corn by hand was with the scythe. Then one man could mow
an acre a day. With a binder and two teams of three horses ten acres could be cut
and tied in one day: while if two men were equipped with a tractor and a combine
harvester they could cut and thresh up to twenty acres a day. A horse drawn mower
with two men took more than two man-hours to cut an acre of grass; a tractor mower
with one man took an hour.
A gang of potato planters working without machinery took eighteen man-hours to sow
an acre; while by automatic planting the same acreage was done in six hours.
The first combine, an American machine, arrived in the U.K. in 1927 by 1945 there
were still only 3000 in the country. Much of the crop was still cut and bound in
sheaves - indeed there were still men with scythes who cut round the perimeter of
the field to open up the crop for the binder. There were no grain dryers, so the
sheaves were stooked in the fields to dry - they were then ricked and later threshed.
The next step was the steam traction engine to provide power to do the threshing,
but it took a lot of labour. It used to take about ten men to keep the process going.
Two or three to take off the threshed corn from the drum: one man would be bagging
the chaff. In addition you'd have one man to take the chaff to the barn and collect
water. Then there would be two or three pitching sheaves from the stack on to the
threshing machine. Finally you'd need another couple of men to build a stack of loose
straw that came off the elevator.
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