Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

How did your farming ancestors harvest a wheat field?

drawing of a harvest
Illustration from Book of the Farm, 1852 (amended. orig. image PD)

The teamwork involved in harvesting a field of wheat.

For thousands of years before the invention of the steam engine and mechanised farming, wheat fields were mown (reaping) by the hard labour of men and women using the simple tools of sickles, scythes and rakes. It was back-breaking work, often in scorching temperatures at the height of summer.

This example using scythes is from 19th century Britain before the wide-spread use of machinery. Harvest-time was dependent on a good dry spell of weather. When the wheat was ready for reaping, the farmer or farm steward organised and directed the labourers. The scythe-men (1) were the first to start. There were three main designs of scythes in Britain at this time. The image above has three men using all three types.

As they began to swing the scythe and cut the wheat, the wheat was caught in a cradle on the scythe and fell onto to the ground to their left in a neat and square line. This was known as the swath. They aimed to have the swath cut the same length. The reaper tried to keep the scythe close to the ground to maximise the length of the cut and to keep what was left in the ground, the stubble, as short possible. However, hitting the ground with the scythe meant it would need re-sharpening. A good reaper could cover thirty yards before the scythe required re-sharpening.

loading the cart
Loading the cart in Falmer, Sussex.
Image courtesy of Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove. CC-BY-SA

Following on behind were women and older children, the gatherers (2), who first made a band ready to tie up the wheat. The band was made from a hand-full of wheat. The swath was then laid on the band ready for the bandster (3) to tie the swath up, and for the other two bandsters to stack the completed sheaf with others, creating a stook. The stook was then ready to be loaded onto a cart and taken away for threshing and winnowing to separate the wheat from the stalks.

Finally came the raker (4), who with a specially designed stubble rake, cleared the ground of any loose stalks of wheat ready for them to be banded up by the bandster. They were placed near the stook, but were treated differently in the threshing process as they could contain dirt and stones picked up during the raking process.

It was said that a good mower followed by a woman and bandsters could reap an acre to acre and half in a day.

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Ebay is a good source of old images of Essex towns and villages. If you're looking for pictures to add to your family tree album, then try one of the auctions, or there are several 'Buy It Now' shops offering postcards which have been touched up and improved - so if you're unsure about bidding, try these. Link already formatted for Essex Postcards. Browse through or type the name of the location in the Ebay search box.