by Ronald Bailey
Few of the oldtime rural festivities and junketings survived the frigid, straight-laced spirit of the Victorian age. Cromwell’s long-faced puritans destroyed most of the gay customs of "Merrie England" and our own side-whiskered grandfathers and whale-boned grandmothers swept away the remaining handful of festivals that had escaped the kill-joys’ severity of the Commonwealth.
The village revels, the mummers, the farm tour of the Yuletide waits, the audit suppers, the gaiety of the Plough Monday, Shrove Tuesday and May Day, the Whitsuntide ales, and a host of other merrymaking occasions have gone for ever. Our Victorian grandparents, living in constant dread of and the wrath to come, were horrified at any undue display of boisterous spirits. Rectors, ministers, lay-preachers, landowners and employers seemed to conspire to save the common folk from the temptation of taking "one over the eight." Their motive was commendable, but the countryside is the poorer for the loss of many customs and festivals which would not have been abused had they survived into this more enlightened age.
ARCHDEACON DENISON'S AIM
The custom of Harvest Home, which before the war was almost confined to our own corner of Somerset, was one of the few traditional observances to escape the Victorian purge. Hitler’s mad ambitions brought our Harvest Home to an abrupt end, but here and there the events are being revived, and if we can ever again hope to see the day when hundreds of pounds of beef and ham and cheese can be obtained off the ration, there is a reasonable Chance that the festivals will be revived in most of the villages, in all their glory.
The survival of this festival is no mystery or Chance. The Harvest Home is essentially religious in its origin. It can be traced back to primitive times, even to pagan Mythology.
The modern local form of celebration owes its existence to Archdeacon Denison of East Brent, who introduced a village feast with the primary object that the whole parish might first of all join in devout thanksgiving for the garnered crops and then spend the rest of the day in "innocent rejoicing." He organised on a communal basis what farmers had hitherto done individually. At one time the harvest suppers were regularly held in barns or farmhouse kitchens, and some of the farm hands would not have thought they had had a good time unless they succeeded in drinking themselves unconscious!
it was to stop some of these excesses and to strike a more pious note that East Brent's Harvest Home was founded, and it has to be said to the credit of these festivals that although fun and feasting are prominent characteristics, the spirit of thanksgiving to the Creator for the safely in-gathered harvest has never been relegated to back place. Thus the celebrations have always won the support of the "clergy and ministers of all denominations” one of the inevitable toasts at the pre-war Luncheons in the large marquees.
The first time I ever went to the East Brent festival I found the canvas walls of the monster marquee adorned with dozens of hand-sewn mottoes and sentiments. Religious and patriotic phrases such as "Love God, Honour the Queen," abounded. There were also numerous aphorisms about the married and single states, and homely bits of advice like "Enough is as good as a feast," and "Moderation in ail things"
Many of these old mottoes and injunctions had been made for the very first Harvest Home in 1857, and presumably they owed their origin to the sampler-making Craze which was then in vogue. Many of the signs were definitely "dated," and were displayed in later years only as Curiosities. Quite a number, l recollect, had "V.R." or "God Bless the Queen" on them. There was also one about Albert the Good. I’m afraid the mottoes got fewer and fewer as the years Went by. Indeed, souvenir hunters were unscrupulous enough to take away some of the oldest and quaintest, and, I suppose, by now, the moths have had most of the others.
One curiously woven banner, which always attracted much interest, had this verse on it:
Beef and pudding, cheese and cider
Are wont to make the waistcoat wider
But let pudding & cider & cheese & beef
Be the rich mans alms: the poor's relief.
With cheese and cider, beef and pudding,
Let no ill thought be found intruding,
But for pudding, cider, beef and cheese,
Give thanks to Him Who giveth these.
A WEEKS FESTIVITIES
Another interesting exhibit read:
May God pour His benison
On Archdeacon Denison;
While another ran something like this:
Fill the bumper fair
Every drop we sprinkle
O’er the brow of care
Smoothes away a wrinkle.
In the [Eighteen] Eighties and Nineties, East Brent had its own drum and fife band which not only headed the plum pudding, cheese and bread processions round the trestle tables, but also took part in church services throughout the year
At one time the East Brent celebrations were spread over a whole week, and not confined, as in later years, to a solitary day. Here, for instance, is what the Archdeacon said about it in a letter to a niece in 1883:
"Harvest Home great success. Rained all Sunday night and Monday to about midnight. Nevertheless, the people indefatigable as soon as huge tents had been got up. Vicarage and village decorated: great work of high art; all completed by midday Tuesday. From early morning Tuesday up to today, Saturday, weather perfect, sun, air; no rain or wind; large company. Took £43 at gate; subscriptions£68; £113 in all; will pay all expenses and leave some balance."
"Wonderful punch, steam merrygo-round, fortune telling, various other amusements; teetotal drinks only; football, etc.; everybody highly pleased; two grand balls; 1,000 people in tent Tuesday night; 500 Wednesday night; had food over on Tuesday enough for poor parishioners' second meal Wednesday. Very fine music, dressing in best taste, manners and general demeanour perfect; no doubt an admirable institution; should be witnessed to be comprehended."
"THE EAGLE IN HIS EYRIE"
All who have dipped into the religious history of the Victorian age are aware that Archdeacon Denison was known far beyond the confines of his own parish and diocese. He played a vigorous part in the nation-wide battle that raged round the Higher Criticism, ritualism and State versus Church Schools.
The old Somerset divine's High Church views and practices got him into endless scrapes locally and nationally and even resulted in a law suit before the Privy Council. It was hardly to be expected otherwise than that those controversial matters should occasionally interfere with the Harvest Home.
The Archdeacon, during his fifty years' association with the parish, was greatly beloved by his parishioners, and they stuck to him through thick and thin, though it is safe to say that very few of them were able to follow him through the intellectual and spiritual intricacies into which he loved to plunge.
In his own parish, however, a simple, kindly soul. His sermons were suited to his rustic congregation, and he was never heard to happier purpose than when preaching to children.
To the outer world the Archdeacon was "the fighting prelate," a formidable controversialist, but at East Brent he was always "Our Vicar." One of the reports of the Brent Harvest Home which appeared in a London newspaper in those days was headed, "The Eagle in his Eyrie," and a clever contrast was drawn between the "zealous old ecclesiastical warrior battling bravely for ‘the faith once delivered to the Saints' (as he understood it) and the genial, fatherly parish priest who was as much beloved by his flock as he was hated by his enemies."
GIBBETS AT ROOKSBRIDGE
The Archdeacon’s popularity in his own Parish was not shared by some religious zealots in nearby villages. Indeed, the litigation which arose out of his views on the "Doctrine of the Real Presence" was instituted in the name of the Rev. Joseph Ditcher, the Vicar at Brent Knoll. The Archdeacon triumphed after a long struggle, and there were great rejoicing and a procession when he returned to East Brent after a further appeal had been made to the Privy Council and the decision of the Court of Arches was confirmed.
Despite the fact that his neighbour-cleric had instituted the prosecution, there was no malice, it seems, for one who was familiar with the whole affair wrote:
"Friendly intercourse with Mr Ditcher was resumed the day after the decision and the Archdeacon testifies that during a subsequent illness no one was kinder than Mr. Ditcher. On the death of Mr. Ditcher, the Archdeacon, by request of the widow, preached the funeral sermon.”
Less pleasant is the picture handed down to us of the demonstrations against the Archdeacon on the occasion of the Harvest Home in 1873. A gallows and a gibbet were erected beside the turnpike road at Rooksbridge, and from them were suspended stuffed effigies in cassocks and shovel hats. Pinned to these clerical figures were placards, bearing such inscriptions as "No Priest," "No idolatry," and "No Popery." At
Brent Knoll another gibbet was put up; with a similar figure hanging from it, and a "No Popery" sign nailed to the Cross beam.
At this distance in time it is hard to understand the excitement the hatred and the bitterness which entered into those doctrinal battles of Victorian days. We have lived to see the day when the parson and the Nonconformist minister sit together at the same festive board: indeed the latter often reads the Lesson or occupies the pulpit at the united church service on Harvest Home Day. Perhaps these Harvest Homes have played a bigger part in breaking down religious bigotry or narrow-mindedness and bringing about unity among the churches than most people realise.