by Ronald Bailey
In ancient Rome a harvest feast was held in honour of Ceres, the goddess of Corn and Virgil gives us a glimpse of the procedure: Before the sickles touch the rip'ning wheat On Ceres call; and let the lab'ring hind. With oaken Wreaths his hollow temples bind; On Ceres let him call and Ceres praise. With uncouth dances and with Country lays.
The Ancient Britons and the Saxons also had their harvest feasts and Customs, and it has always puzzled me, seeing that no village can hold a carnival without crowning a queen, why the organisers of the harvest home festivities have never bothered about Choosing a Harvest Queen. If they did, they would be doing no more than reviving an old English custom. There might be practical difficulties about reviving that other ancient custom, the "carrying of the last load, “but a "Harvest Queen," in a white dress, a crown of flowers, and a sheaf of corn in her hand, parading the village in a decorated farm-cart, would be a distinct departure from the somewhat stereotyped programmes We were accustomed to in pre-war days.
A CHURCHWARDEN'S IDEA
Although, as I have said, the ingathering of the harvest has been celebrated with some form of rejoicing almost from the beginning of the human race, it is widely believed that harvest homes as we know them originated at East Brent. This is not so. The term "Harvest Home" has been in use for centuries, whereas the East Brent festival dates no further back than 1857.
East Brent‘s Claim to fame was that it was the oldest surviving festival of it's kind, and unless the villagers do something about its revival next year, I fancy their neighbours at Mark will be laying claim to that distinction. I do not like exploding popular beliefs, but a strict respect for truthfulness compels me to say that not only was the East Brent festival far from being the first of its kind but it was not even the creation of Archdeacon Denison. On the contrary, the Archdeacon himself placed all the credit on one of his churchwardens, John Higgs, who doubtless desired to revive something of the spirit of the old harvest suppers which were still being held at farmhouses all over the country when he was a boy.
The Archdeacon, in his autobiography, "Notes of My Life," explains the origin of the festival thus:
"In 1857 my Churchwarden, Mr John Higgs - a constant communicant and near and dear friend - came to see me to suggest having each year a 'Harvest Home' at East Brent. I entered into the proposal immediately and heartily. It had long appeared to me that we wanted recognised holidays for the working men, women and children: and here was a step in that direction. The proposal was generally welcomed as soon as made, and we held our first Harvest Home September 3rd 1857."
A CORNISH RIVAL
Archdeacon Denison added: "At that time there was, I believe, nothing of the kind in this part of England. I understand there have been Harvest Homes in the eastern counties, but I do not know enough about them to be able to give any account of their history."
There was however, at least one other harvest celebration in the west country, for in Baring-Gould's biography of the clever though eccentric Vicar of Morwenstow in Cornwall, the Rev. R. S. Hawker, we read that he introduced a Church celebration for the safe in-gathering of the harvest in years before Archdeacon Denison became Vicar of East Brent. This, it should be noted, was a Church service only, not a village celebration.
It is not often realised that harvest thanksgiving services, which are now universally observed in our churches, were unknown to our great-grandparents. It was not until 1861, in fact, that such festivals were brought before Convocation. In the Prayer Book there is no reference to harvest thanksgiving festivals, though they now share with Christmas and Easter the reputation for being the most popular features in the annual round of Christian worship throughout the world.
It is interesting to note that Dean Alford, a Somerset man, who sometimes stayed in Weston-super-Mare, is stated to have written that famous hymn, "Come ye thankful people, Come," specially for East Brent Harvest Home.
AT THE FIRST FESTIVAL
In my visits to East Brent Harvest Home in pre-war days I had more than one chat with Miss Elizabeth Ham, the last surviving villager who could claim to have attended the first festival in 1857. She was only a child of eight when the festival was introduced, and her memory of that occasion was naturally rather dim, but she never missed one in all the succeeding years, her knowledge of the event was unrivalled. She helped to make many of the banners and mottoes which used to adorn the walls of the great marquee. Every year, she said, they used to add to the collection until in the [Eighteen] Eighties they were so numerous that it was hard to make room for them all.
There was one, Miss Ham told me that had everyone guessing. The rustics - not of course, the Brentonians, who were "in the know" - would look at it this way and that, scratch their heads and then start asking questions. The inscription was in Greek, and the proud local villagers, as if they had been Greek scholars all their lives, would explain that it meant "There's nothing like water." And then there would be an explanation of the fact that it was intended as a complement to the Archdeacon who succeeded in getting the village an unfailing supply of pure water.
"OLD ENGLAND FOR EVER”
If there is no one alive today who attended that first East Brent festival in 1857, we can still see it through the eyes of the "Mercury" reporter whose description is preserved in our files.
"For many years," he wrote, "the festivities of the Harvest Home have been discontinued, save in a few secluded spots, in almost unknown nooks and corners of England; but we are very glad that there is a general movement among farmers in this neighbourhood to resuscitate that old custom of their forefathers. The Earl of Albemarle has set the example in Norfolk, and Archdeacon Denison has started the movement in Somerset."
"On Thursday the first annual festival took place at East Brent, commencing with divine service. The villagers and their friends, all dressed in their best, went to church, where they devoutly prayed, and listened to a sermon preached by Archdeacon Denison. Afterwards the rustic population sat down to a substantial dinner spread in a large tent, erected in the Vicarage meadows. Festooned and decorated at every point, the interior of the canvass erection looked exceedingly pretty. Temperance in all things,' 'Old England for ever,' 'Long live the Vicar,' 'God Save the Queen,’ ‘Agriculture,' and similar mottoes met the eye at every point."
There were several features of East Brent's festival that were time-honoured. The day always began with a service of thanks-giving in St Mary's Church. The bells rang merrily during the morning, and it was usual for the many visiting clergy, the choir, the churchwardens, Brownies and villagers to assemble at the Vicarage and march in procession to the church, headed by a band, which usually played "Onward Christian Soldiers."
Then followed the luncheon, many hundreds of parishioners and visitors sitting down at long trestle tables in a ten-poled marquee, with a decorated dais for the Vicar and his chief guests. This raised platform was often ingeniously embellished. I recall one year when there was a delightful country scene laid out in front of it, with little model rustics working among the sheaves of corn. Over the Vicar's head was a banner:
"Sit ye merry and be ye wise,
and do ye not no man despise."
Some idea of the good things provided may be gathered from the following list of quantities consumed; 456 lbs of beef; 220 lbs of ham; 140 lbs of cheese; 200 lbs of plum pudding; 200 lbs of cake; and 115 quarterns of bread.
The cheese was genuine Cheddar, and often have I seen the late Preb. A. P. Wickham, who was Vicar for many years, take off his coat, roll up his sleeves, and with a large carving knife carve large helpings off the truckle. These were then distributed by the young men-folk to the various tables. The plum puddings were made in huge boilers, specially constructed at the Vicarage during Archdeacon Denison's time. The plum puddings and the bread and cheese were always brought in with processional honours. The plum pudding parade was a great moment for the ladies who had helped to make them. Headed by the brass band they marched around the tent amid the cheering guests. Finally the menfolk paraded with the monster cheese and the huge loaves.
Later there would be children's sports, and a public tea. Merry-go-rounds, sideshows and all the fun of the fair added to the gaiety and then, in the evening, there would be dancing until midnight.
There was something about East Brent Harvest Home which always made you feel it was a genuine expression of thanksgiving, and an unsophisticated attempt at preserving the spirit of Merrie England. Even in the later years, when press photographers, news-reel men and wireless recording vans spread the event's fame further afield, it managed to keep its simple artless spirit. One felt that Archdeacon Denison and his friend John Higgs were still looking down on the scene with an approving eye.