The Harvest Customs and Traditions in Dorset

Harvest HomeExtract taken from the Chambers Book of Days August 1st 1864, details the traditions of Lammas.

LAMMAS – This was one of the four great pagan festivals of Britain, the others being on 1st November, 1st February, and 1st May. The festival of the Gule of August, as it was called, probably celebrated the realisation of the first-fruits of the earth, and more particularly that of the grain-harvest. When Christianity was introduced, the day continued to be observed as a festival on these grounds, and, from a loaf being the usual offering at church, the service, and consequently the day, came to be called Half-mass, subsequently shortened into Lammas, just as hlaf-dig (bread-dispenser), applicable to the mistress of a house, came to be softened into the familiar and extensively used term, lady. This we would call the rational definition of the word Lammas.

There is another, but in our opinion utterly inadmissible derivation, pointing to the custom of bringing a lamb on this day, as an offering to the cathedral church of York. Without doubt, this custom, which was purely local, would take its rise with reference to the term Lammas, after the true original signification of that word had been forgotten. It was once customary in England, in contravention of the proverb, that a cat in mittens catches no mice, to give money to servants on Lammas-day, to buy gloves; hence the term Glove-Silver. It is mentioned among the ancient customs of the abbey of St. Edmund’s, in which the clerk of the cellarer had 2d.; the cellarer’s squire, 11d.; the granger, 11d.; and the cowherd a penny. Anciently, too, it was customary for every family to give annually to the pope on this day one penny, which was thence called Denarius Sancti Petri, or Peter’s Penny.’—Hampson’s Medii AEvi Kalendarium.

What appears as a relic of the ancient pagan festival of the Gule of August, was practised in Lothian till about the middle of the eighteenth century. From the unenclosed state of the country, the tending of cattle then employed a great number of hands, and the cow-boys, being more than half idle, were much disposed to unite in seeking and creating amusement. In each little district, a group of them built, against Lammas-day, a tower of stones and sods in some conspicuous place.

On Lammas-morning, they assembled here, bearing flags, and blowing cow-horns — breakfasted together on bread and cheese, or other provisions—then set out on a march or procession, which usually ended in a foot-race for some trifling prize. The most remarkable feature of these rustic fetes was a practice of each party trying, before or on the day, to demolish the sod fortalice of some other party near by. This, of course, led to great fights and brawls, in which blood was occasionally spilt. But, on the whole, the Lammas Festival of Lothian was a pleasant affair, characteristic of an age which, with less to gain, had perhaps rather more to enjoy than the present”

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the customs and traditions of Harvest Home in Dorset in his book ‘Dorsetshire Folklore’ published in 1922:-

HAY-MAKING

Haymaking

Haymaking in Dorset – DCM © 2015

The season of hay-making would seem never to have been such a period of gaiety and festivity in Dorsetshire as was the case with the “harvest-home” gatherings later in the year. The success of the hay harvest, however, was a very important matter to so large a pastoral community as the county comprised; and without doubt some celebration by way of reward for and appreciation of services loyally rendered, often in long extended hours of work when the weather was uncertain, was indulged in at the conclusion of that harvest. Extra money payments, as in the corn harvest, have largely taken the place of social gatherings and festivities amongst the labourers in which their employers once freely joined. Still in many places at the ingathering of the hay an extra jar of cider or ale would be brought out, and the men would sit down and have a chat amongst themselves and, perhaps, a song or two ; whilst at the close hats would be raised and ” hip, hip, hurrahs ” would be given.

In later years, both in hay and corn harvesting, machinery has taken a very active part in reducing the amount of manual labour employed in these operations, which at its introduction went sorely against the conservative feelings of the Dorset peasant. This feeling was just as strongly expressed as in the great industrial centres in the North where labour-saving appliances were ever on the increase; and sometimes took the form of reprisals by way of burning hay and corn ricks as well as the occasional destruction of the offending machinery.

Under these influences in course of time the very names of the old haymakers’ several occupations would be lost. In William Barnes’s early days—a century ago—these were numerous and distinctive. We are fortunate in having him to record what they were. Here is a description which he gives in his Glossary (1863) of what haymaking was like in his time (s.v. Häymeäken).

“Hay-making consists of several operations which with fine weather, commonly follow each other in Dorsetshire, thus : The mown grass—in zwath, swath,—is thrown abroad—tedded, and afterwards turned once or twice ; in the evening it is raked up into little ridges—rollers,—single or double, as they may be formed by one raker, or by two raking against each other ; and sometimes put up into small cones or heaps, called cocks. On the following morning the rollers or cocks are thrown abroad in passels—parcels,—which, after being turned, are in the evening put up into large ridges—weals ; and the weals are sometimes pooked, put up into larger cones—pooks,—in which the hay is loaded. In raking grass into double rollers, or pushing hay into weals, the fore raker or pickman is said to rake in or push in, or row or roo, and the other to close.”

Barnes had already preserved many of these terms in two of his charming dialect poems, one on “Häymeäken “, and the other on “Häy-carrén” (pp. 51-2), which afford so delightful a picture of rustic life in the hay-field that one feels inclined to say, too:

“I do long to toss a pick,
A pitchén or a-meäkén rick.”

HARVEST HOME

The celebration of the ingathering of the corn harvest is common to all our counties and to most countries. Full accounts of these festivals and their significance may be found in Brand’s, Hone’s, and Chambers’s works, as well as in those of less known writers.

It is to the late William Barnes that we might expect to look for a fitting description of a Dorset harvest-home feast, or supper, and we find it in an account,—as particular and as life-like as a painting of an old Dutch interior—of what usually took place on these occasions, which he contributed to Hone’s Year Book (p. 586), from which I take the following extract:—

“Harvest Home, formerly celebrated with great mirth but now a declining usage, was a feast given by the farmer at the end of harvest, or when his hay and corn were got in … Some years ago the ‘ harvest home ‘ in my native county, Dorset, was kept up with good old English hospitality.

Harvesting

Reapers gathering the harvest – DCM © 2015

“When the last load was ricked the labourers, male and female, the swarthy reaper and the sun-burnt hay-maker, the saucy boy who had not seen twelve summers and the stiff horny-handed old mower who had borne the toil of fifty, all made a happy groupe, and went with singing and loud-laughing to the harvest-home supper at the farmhouse, where they were expected by the good mistress, dressed in a quilted petticoat and a linsey-wolsey apron, with shoes fastened by large silver buckles which extended over her foot like a pack-saddle on a donkey.

“The dame and her husband welcomed them to a supper of good wholesome food, a round of beef, and a piece of bacon; and perhaps the host and hostess had gone so far as to kill a fowl or two, or stick a turkey, which they had fattened in the wheat-yard. The plain English fare was eaten from wooden trenchers, by the side of which were put little cups of horn filled with beer or cider. When the cloth was removed one of the men, putting forth his large hand like the gauntlet of an armed knight, would grasp his horn of beer, and standing up on a pair of legs which had long out-grown the largest holes of the village stocks, and with a voice which, if he had not been speaking a dialect of the English language, you might have thought came from the deep-seated lungs of a lion, he would propose the health of the farmer in the following lines :—

‘Here’s a health unto our miaster
The founder of the feast,
And I hope to God wi’ all my heart
His soul in heaven mid rest;
That everything mid prosper
That ever he tiak in hand,
Vor we be all his sarvants,
And all at his command.’

“After this would follow a course of jokes, anecdotes, and songs, in some of which the whole company joined, without attention to the technicalities of counterpoint, bass, tenor, and treble, common chords and major thirds; but each singing the air and pitching in at the key that best fitted his voice, making a medley of big and little sounds, like the lowings of oxen and the low beatings of old ewes, mixed up with the shrill pipings of the lambs at a fair.

“The conversation commonly turned on the incidents of the summer ; how the hay-makers overtook the mowers, or how the rain kept the labour back ; how they all crept in a heap under the waggon in a thunderstorm ; how nearly some of them were crushed under the load that was upset; who was the best mower or reaper in the village ; which field yielded the best crop ; and which stack was most likely to heat.”

Later Barnes devoted two of his charming dialect poems to a similar description, which form such a delightful complement to the whole subject that I have no hesitation in reproducing them here in full. They are to be found at pp. 78-80 of the first collected edition of the poems published by Kcgan Paul & Co. in 1879, and again in 1888. (The first edition of Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect was in 1844, whilst the earlier edition of Hone’s Year Book in which Barnes’s contribution first appeared was published in 1832. A change of spelling in some of the dialect words,—particularly the ‘”vowel sounds “,— (e.g. ” ia “, in ” miaster “, or ” tiak “, to ” eä, “) will be noticed in the earlier and later editions of the poems ; a scheme not involving so much a change of pronunciation» perhaps, but, as justified by Barnes in the preface to the third edition of his ” first collection” of poems, published in 1862, on the ground that ” while it affords the Dorset forms of the words to Dorset readers it may make them of more English look and more legible to others “.)

HARVEST HWOME

The vu’st peärt. The Supper.

“Since we wer striplèns naïghbour John,

The good wold merry times be gone:
But we do like to think upon
What we’ve a-zeed an’ done.
When I wer up a hardish lad,
At harvest hwome the work-vo’k had
Sich suppers, they wer jumpèn mad
Wi’ feästèn an’ wi’ fun.

At uncle’s, I do mind, woone year,
I zeed a vill o’ hearty cheer;
Fat beef an’ puddèn, eäle an’ beer,
Vor ev’ry workman’s crop
An’ after they’d a-gie’d God thanks,
They all zot down, in two long ranks,
Along a teäble-bwoard o’ planks,
Wi’ uncle at the top.

An’ there, in platters, big and brown,
Wer red fat beäcon, an’ a roun’
O’ beef wi’ gravy that would drown
A little rwoastèn pig;
Wi’ beäns an’ teäties vull a zack,
An’ cabbage that would meäke a stack,
An’ puddèns brown, a-speckled black
Wi’ figs, so big’s my wig.

An’ uncle, wi’ his elbows out,
Did carve, an’ meäke the gravy spout;
An’ aunt did gi’e the mugs about
A-frothèn to the brim.
Pleätes werden then ov e’then ware,
They ate off pewter, that would bear
A knock; or wooden trenchers, square,
Wi’ zalt-holes at the rim.

An’ zoo they munch’d their hearty cheer,
An’ dipp’d their beards in frothy-beer,
An’ laugh’d, an’ jok’d–they couldden hear
What woone another zaid.
An’ all o’m drink’d, wi’ woone accword,
The wold vo’k’s health: an’ beät the bwoard,
An’ swung their eärms about, an’ roar’d,

Enough to crack woone’s head.

Second Peärt. What they did after Supper.

Zoo after supper wer a-done,
They clear’d the teäbles, an’ begun
To have a little bit o’ fun,
As long as they mid stop.
The wold woones took their pipes to smoke,
An’ tell their teäles, an’ laugh an’ joke,
A-lookèn at the younger vo’k,
That got up vor a hop.

Woone screäp’d away, wi’ merry grin,
A fiddle stuck below his chin;
An’ woone o’m took the rollèn pin,
An’ beät the fryèn pan.
An’ tothers, dancèn to the soun’,
Went in an’ out, an’ droo an’ roun’,
An’ kick’d, an’ beät the tuèn down,
A-laughèn, maïd an’ man.

An’ then a maïd, all up tip-tooe,
Vell down; an’ woone o’m wi’ his shoe
Slit down her pocket-hole in two,
Vrom top a-most to bottom.
An’ when they had a-danc’d enough,
They got a-plaÿèn blindman’s buff,
An’ sard the maïdens pretty rough,
When woonce they had a-got em.

An’ zome did drink, an’ laugh, an’ roar,
An’ lots o’ teäles they had in store,
O’ things that happen’d years avore
To them, or vo’k they know’d.
An’ zome did joke, an’ zome did zing,
An’ meäke the girt wold kitchen ring;
Till uncle’s cock, wi’ flappèn wing,
Stratch’d out his neck an’ crow’d.

To these Barnes has added ” A Zong of the Harvest Home ” (p. 80), of which the refrain to each of the six verses is:

“The happy zight—the merry night—
The men’s delight—the Harvest Hwome.”

Again, many years later, in his ” Fore-say ” to this work, Barnes speaks of the decline of the old-time celebrations of this festival. He says: “The feasts of Harvest-Home in which the work-folk were invited to

‘the hall
where beards wagged all,—'(Thomas Tusser: Five Hundred Points of Husbandry)

to share of mirth and meat under the smiles of the master and mistress, as tokens of approbation of their work, are now less customary than they formerly were, as in these commercial days it seems to be felt that the clock measures all the workman owes his master and the paytable all that the master owes to him.”

As Brand says (i, 443), ” Different places adopt different ceremonies ” ; but that which seems to me to conform most to the Dorset ritual on these occasions is that of ” crying the knack “, or ” neck “, in the neighbouring counties of Devon and Cornwall, and in which there seems not only a strong affinity but traces of considerable antiquity. (Conf. Shropshire Folk-lore, pp372-3)

In 1873 I contributed an article to Notes and Queries (Ser. iv, xii, 491), describing ” A Dorsetshire Harvest-Home ” in West Dorset, which I had recently attended, and this I now reproduce :

“It was my good fortune to be present in September last at one of those old-fashioned gatherings in the West of Dorset, a harvest-home, and I thought that perhaps an account of such a quaint and time-honoured custom might not be unacceptable to some among the readers of ‘ N. and Q.’, especially as these congenial meetings are becoming scarcer year by year and ere long bid fair to rank amongst the things that have been. Small sums of money are now in many places given to the men, women, and boys instead of the usual supper, a practice that I am sorry to say seems to be on the increase, and which I here offer up my voice to protest against.

” I say ‘sorry’, first, because it denotes a departure from old customs, and, secondly, because the purpose for which the alteration is intended is, it seems to me, but very imperfectly carried out. At the time of such a general holiday in the parish the labourers of one farm do not seem willing to disperse quietly to their own homes and husband the few shillings they may have received as ‘largess’, whilst their fellows are enjoying themselves on another farm ; but rather to keep up a harvest-home of their own in the village ale-house, though, I need scarcely say, not of so orderly a character as that of the bond fide supper ; and which, to tell the truth, they themselves much prefer, for a ‘ Dorsetshire labourer ‘, though he may be poor, is none the less Conservative.
“On the day appointed for the celebration of the harvest, the labourers from the several farms attended afternoon service in the parish church, dressed in their best clothes, the church being decorated in the usually seasonable manner. The entrance-gates of the principal farms were likewise decorated with an arch of evergreen, flowers, corn, etc., crowned with a sickle and scythe swathed in bands of wheat barley, the whole surmounted by appropriate mottoes.

“In the evening tables were laid out in the kitchen of a size sufficient to accommodate the men, women, boys and girls employed on the farm, the ‘ master ‘, assisted by such members of his family as might be, sitting at their head and carving a grand rump of Old English beef.

“As soon as the company had partaken of as much beef and plum-pudding as was considered desirable an adjournment was made to a large tree that stood near the homestead, where the following quaint custom—peculiar, I was informed, to the west of Dorset—took place. (it would seem to be somewhat similiar to the custom of ‘crying the knack’, which obtains to Devon and Cornwall)

“The men formed themselves into a circle, and each taking off his hat and holding it out in front of him, stooped to the ground; then, led by one standing in the centre, chanted the words : ‘ We have ’em ‘ (or ‘ ‘en’). The first word, ‘ We/ is commenced in a very low tone, the men the while slowly and gradually raising themselves up, and so prolonged till they have almost reached their full height. They close the sentence by saying ‘ have ’em ‘ more quickly. This is done three times. They then shout ‘ Huzza ! ‘ once. Again they stoop down and go the same performance ; finishing up this time with two ‘ huzzas’. This is repeated once more, and finally wound up by huzzaing three times. As soon as the men have finished the women come forward and go through the same ceremony. This, when well performed, a not altogether unimpressive or unmusical effect. The words, I believe, bear reference to the conclusion of the harvest and the sheaves of corn being satisfactorily ‘ had ‘ in.

“The discharge of small cannon, (the peculiar care of the boys) likewise gave considerable éclat to the whole proceeding. This over, the party returned to the house and entered upon a course of singing and drinking, not unmixed with dancing in the back kitchen.

“The first song was, of course, in honour of the ‘ meäster ‘, and unenriched by the Dorset vernacular indulged in by the toast-master, was in the following words :—

‘Here’s a health unto our master,
The founder of the feast,
And when that he is dead and gone,
I hope his soul may rest.
I wish all things may prosper,
Whatever he takes in hand.
For we are all his servants
And serve at his command.So drink, boys, drink!
And see that you do not spill.For if you do,You shall drink two,
“Tis by your master’s will.’
“This song is repeated till everybody present has drunk the health.

‘Here’s Mrs’ (or Mr’s) good health !Let the glass go roundAnd the trumpet sound,— Huzza ! huzza ! huzza ! Down fall all the re-bels,We long to see the day,—Con-fusion unto themThat set ’em up again ! Huzza I huzza i huzza !Confusion etc.’

“This, like the last, was repeated till all had drunk.

“Then followed the curious and laughable custom of’ drinking to your love over the left arm ‘. Each man, while the following verse was being sung, was obliged to drain his mug or horn-cup of ale by holding it in his right hand, and passing it outside of and over his left arm, which would be thrown across the chest. Great merriment was afforded when some of the older hands, through age or other infirmities failed to accomplish this in a satisfactory manner. The words sung were the following :—

‘ As I was a-riding over a mountain so highI saw a pretty girl that plea-sed my eye,She plea-sed my eye, but pla-gued my heart;From this cup of liquor we never will part;’Twill do us no good,—’twill do us no harm.”Here’s a health to my love, over left arm, over left arm! “Here’s a health etc.’

“This was continued till all had satisfactorily passed the crucial test. Songs of a more general character and sundry speeches followed; and eventually the proceedings were brought to a close about midnight by the whole company joining in the National Anthem, ‘ God Save the Queen.’ ”

The following version, similar but less ornate, of the ” whooping ” ceremony,—as it was called in the district,—was given me as having been performed at a farmhouse in the same neighbourhood as the last. At the end of the harvest a jar of cider or ale and two small cups were taken just outside the yard, when all the labourers would gather in a circle round the jar, which is presided over by the oldest man amongst them, and, taking off their hats and standing in a stooping position, would bow slowly down to the ground, whilst singing in a low, guttural, drawling tone, ” We-e-e-e have ‘en ! ” They then stand upright again and holloa ” hurrah ” once. This is gone through a second time, when the ” hurrah” is given twice. Again, a third repetition, when three ” hurrahs ” are given. They then have a drink all round; after which they return mostly for songs or dances after supper. I have been told that these cheers were often heard at a distance of a mile or two!

At the time I sent the above account to Notes and Queries I was not acquainted with Jacob Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology—or, rather, Stallybrass’s translation of it,—in four volumes, which were not published till 1880-8. After I had read it I was struck by the very strong resemblance to the Dorset ” whooping “, as it is called, that exists in the custom of the people in Lower Saxony invoking their great god Woden at the conclusion of the harvest. Grimm states (i, 154) that it is usual to leave a clump of corn standing in a field to Woden for his horse.

Mr Wellen of Charlton Marshall at a Harvest Festival, taken 1940

Mr Wellen of Charlton Marshall at a Harvest Festival, taken 1940 – DCM © 2015

He then describes (p. 156) a custom in Schaumburg where the people, having finished the mowing of the corn, or having purposely left only a small strip standing which they could cut down at a stroke, then at the finish would raise their implements aloft, beating the blades three times with the strop, while each would spill a small quantity of beer on the ground and then drink himself. They would then wave their hats and beat their scythes three times and cry aloud, ” Wôld-wôld-wôld” which, Grimm says, a Schaumburg man pronounced as ” wauden “. They would then march home shouting and singing. If the ceremony were omitted the next year would bring bad crops of hay and corn.

It is a pity that Grimm did not know of the custom as existing in western Dorsetshire, which I have described above. I wonder whether he would have agreed with the suggestion that I now venture to make, that the Dorset labourers’ cry in this corner of old Wessex of “We hav’en “, repeated three times, is but a survival of the old invocation to the great god Woden of their Saxon ancestors, still continued from time immemorial at these harvest celebrations but of which the real significance and meaning have been lost.

Shortly before I left England in 1889 I was anxious to test this resemblance still further, so I invited certain of the farm labourers belonging to the same West Dorset parish—Symondsbury— in which the ceremony had been performed in 1873, after they had attended the now usual harvest festival service at the old parish church, to do their ” whooping ” on the lawn in front of the Manor House close to the church. They went through it all in much the same way as their predecessors had done, and again the close affinity to what Grimm had related was borne in upon me. Out of compliment to him I added a further Teutonic association that was by no means unacceptable to the performers. I made the men drink the healths from a tall seventeenth century pewter tankard, or loving-cup, with covered lid (of which there were one or two similar ones in the Victoria and Albert Museum at South Kensington), of a capacity of several quarts, which had formerly been the property of some civic company or guild in some German town (to judge from the inscription), this being the first opportunity I had had of putting it to anything approaching its former use. It would be a strange but not inappropriate incident if it should again, after so many years, have assisted in the survival of an ancient Teutonic festivity.

I have since obtained from locally printed sources and otherwise a few songs or verses that were sung at harvest-home gatherings. Several of these, as I have already pointed out, may also have been sung at sheep-shearing feasts in the days when these feasts were more worthy of the name. The main toasts were evidently the same. In particular the one sent by Mr. T. H. Garland to the Dorset County Chronicle (which had reprinted my paper from Notes and Queries), wherein he added that he was a West Dorset man and had for many years witnessed the old customs to which I had alluded.
The following verse appeared in the Bridport News in 1874 as having been sung at the same place as my account referred to:

“When the wheat is all ripe the harvest begin,The farmer the fruits of the earth gather in ;In the mornings as soon as the reap hooks are grindWe repair to the field for to reap and to bind.”

Another couplet ran :—

“When the harvest is over to our master’s we will steer, And wet a good supper with a drink of strong beer.”

The following toast was given by a farm labourer at a harvest home at Blandford in 1849 (” N. & Q.,” Ser. v, x, 306. For a more correctly rhyming Worcestershire variant see the same volume, p. 375) :—

” Drink, boys, drink, and see you do not spill;
If you do you shall drink two,
For ’tis our master’s will.”

“Horses strong, sheep healthy,
Barns full, money plenty.”

A correspondent in Notes and Queries in 1878 (Ser. v, x, 375) speaks to his having heard, some forty years previously, the same refrain

” Drink, boys, drink, and see you do not spill;
If you do you shall drink two,
For ’tis our master’s will.”

at a sheep-shearing feast in the lower part of Dorsetshire, when each man was supplied with a small cup of about the third of a pint to drink the customary healths in.

Forfeits.—Amongst the amusements at harvest home suppers forfeits appear to have been sometimes indulged in (though such games were usually set apart for Christmas), when songs or rhythmic jingles were sung with the object of entrapping the unwary. The following were given me as having been used at harvest homes in the parish of Stoke Abbott, also in West Dorset.

One of the company leads off with the following rhythmic jingle, followed by the others :—

“Green grow the leaves on the hawthorn tree,Some grow high and some grow low; With my ringo and my jingoWe seldom disagree,And the tenor of my song goes merrily— And the tenor of my song goes merrily.”
The leader alone then sings :

” Twenty, nineteen, eighteen—”
The next one in rotation :
” Seventeen, sixteen, fifteen—”
The next, in their order :
” Fourteen, thirteen, twelve—”” Eleven, ten, nine—”” Eight, seven, six—”
The last in rotation chimes in with ” Five, four, three “—and they all add:
“And the tenor of my song goes merrily.”

When this is done the person next to the leader begins it over again, and it goes on as before, except that when he comes to the figures he starts with ” Seventeen, sixteen, fifteen “—the next to him taking it up as before, and so on to the end. This over, the third person in rotation commences the strain, beginning the figures at ” Fourteen, thirteen, twelve “—and so on as before until the whole is exhausted.

Should anyone make a mistake in repeating his portion he must pay forfeit, which, on these occasions, generally consists in being made to drink something.

Here is another one from the same place :—

“O splice the cable-rope,
The rope it is so fine;*
And with a sugar loaf we’ll have
A glass of currant wine ;
And if the wine is sharp
The sugar makes it sweet;
What greater joy in all the world
When two sweethearts do meet!
With my Rider, Ready, Rum,
My Rider, Ready, Rum,
So drink half your liquor, boys,
And say no more than ‘ Mum’.
So drink off your liquor,
boys,And say no more than ‘Mum’!”

  • *Possibly a covert allusion to the excellent quality of the hemp grown in the neighbourhood. So highly was it esteemed that a statute, 21 Henry VIII, provided that cables intended for the use of the Royal Navy should be made from hemp grown within a certain radius of Bridport, within which radius the parish of Stoke Abbott is situated.

The above rhyme is sung by all the company together, after which the leader, and any one who may be initiated in the game, endeavour to entrap the person sitting next them into answering more than the permitted ” Mum ” by accusing him, truly or otherwise, of having made a mistake in singing or in drinking more than half the liquor at the wrong time, so as to entail a forfeit. The verse is then gone through again, and the next person is interrogated with the like object, and so on in rotation until all have been subjected to the ordeal.”

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The History of the Dorchester Gallows

Dorchester GallowsFrom the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 32, 1911, an article written by the Rev. S. E. v. Filleul, M.A.  entitled ‘The History of the Dorchester Gallows’

In Speed’s plan of the town of Dorchester, published in 1610, the gallows is clearly located at the angle of what is now called Icen Way, and South Walks. It is depicted, not in the gibbet form, such as one might have frequently seen at cross-roads in the country, with the wasted frames of highwaymen hanging in irons, rattling out their unwholesome sermons to passers-by as long as they held together; but in the usual pattern of two uprights with a crossbeam connecting them. The drawing is suggestive enough of a certain width between the two uprights, giving space enough for the two-wheel cart to pass through that bore the victim and his coffin. Standing between the posts, while the rope was being adjusted, it formed the platform which relatives and friends mounted to bid their last farewells, and upon which the black-gowned priest stood to the end exhorting to confession and repentance.

Dorchester Gallows highlighted on John Speed's Plan of the town

Dorchester Gallows highlighted on John Speed’s Plan of the town

The street now called Icen Way was not so named in years /gone by. It started as ” Gaol-lane,” from the gaol at the corner of High East-street; then a section was known as Bell-street,” taking this name from the Bell Inn, which stood just above the present gasworks. Here the condemned were allowed to halt and take their last earthly refreshment. The final section up to the fatal mound was ” Gallows Hill.” Upon this spot thousands must have suffered the cruel lingering death by strangling that our murderous laws condemned man, woman, and child to suffer for even a theft to the worth of 5s. Here, periodically, following the Assizes, the State provided its public spectacles of torture, thinking to terrorise evil-doers and improve the morals of the people. Up the narrow lane from gaol to gallows the dismal processions with the jolting cart constantly climbed. Sometimes, as a heretic or a traitor, the condemned would be dragged by the heels along the rough road, or upon a hurdle or sledge, with frightened horses kicking and plunging. At the end of his journey still keener suffering awaited him, to be hung, and even before death, disembowelled, and then quartered. The crowd was always ready for the pastime, of which it never grew weary. It was mostly a bloodthirsty crowd that drank and cursed and jeered around the gallows, but many there must have been that pitied and prayed when some ragged, trembling lad was led up to close a life that had hardly begun, or as they saw husband and wife or parents and children ruthlessly parted when the last terrible moment arrived.  Dorchester gallows have a long, grim tale to tell, for they were the County gallows, fed by the County gaol.

The Dorset Martyrs, Bronze maquette, 2/8. Dame Elisabeth Frink RA, 1986. One of eight maquettes made in the creation of the statue group erected at Gallows Hill, South Walks, Dorchester. A memorial to those Dorset men and women who died for their faiths during the religious troubles of the 16th and 17th centuries, and in particular to those who were executed at Gallows Hill, South Walks.

The Dorset Martyrs, Bronze maquette, 2/8. Dame Elisabeth Frink RA, 1986.
One of eight maquettes made in the creation of the statue group erected at Gallows Hill, South Walks, Dorchester. A memorial to those Dorset men and women who died for their faiths during the religious troubles of the 16th and 17th centuries, and in particular to those who were executed at Gallows Hill, South Walks. © DCM

A hundred years after these early plans of the town were drawn by Speed, the gallows was removed to another place. It is shown, still of the same design, standing on the west side of the Amphitheatre, between it and the Weymouth-road, in the engraving of that place to be found in ” Grose’s Antiquities.” The date of the picture is 1755. And Stukeley, in his ” Itinerary,” written in 1723, tells us that ” the amphitheatre was in greater perfection before the gallows was removed hither by an unlucky humour of the Sheriff; since when the parapet at top is on that side much beaten down by the trampling of men and horses at executions.” He seems to speak of the gallows as having been recently removed, further on, when he says, “the parapet is now 3 or 4 foot high, but much ruined on that side next the gallows, since last year at an execution.” However, there is some reason for supposing that the removal was a little earlier than this. The celebrated burning of Mary Channing took place in 1703, and upon the floor of the amphitheatre. Female criminals were frequently burnt alive at that time, and for some years afterwards; perhaps it was the punishment of the worst, in the place of the drawing, hanging, and quartering which would have been the fate of a man. Had the gallows still been in its old position, she would probably have been burnt on Gallows Hill, and not at the amphitheatre. Therefore it seems most likely that the gallows was removed about the year 1700, from that place to the Weymouth-road site. I am making rather a point of this date, because it seems pretty evident that the Monmouth rebels suffered on the old site of Gallows Hill, and not .on the new site.

Maumbury Gallows Engraved by J. Newton, 1786, for Grose's "Antiquities"

Maumbury Gallows Engraved by J. Newton, 1786, for Grose’s “Antiquities” © DCM

The gallows by the amphitheatre seems to have been in regular use up to the time that the new prison was built, facing North-square, about the year 1795. At that time, or soon after, the humane method of despatching prisoners more rapidly, by giving them a longer drop, was allowed. This seems to have been provided for in executions at the prison. An Execution Bill of 1807 describes the hanging of three men on “the new drop upon the lodge of the Castle at Dorchester.” I have a broadsheet giving the sentences of prisoners at the Lent Assizes at Dorchester in 1801. There were 48 cases tried, almost all for thefts. Several were sentenced to transportation for very small offences, ten were condemned to death, one being a woman, Lydia Hiskins, for stealing a banknote. Plainly up to that date harsh measures had not succeeded in curing the poor people of their belief in the right to live by hook or by crook.

But by this time the efforts of men like Fielding and Romilly to obtain more wise and humane treatment of criminals were beginning to tell, and though death sentences were passed according to law, they were not always carried out. In the large scrap-book volume belonging to this Museum library there are several specimens of the broadsheets printed and sold in the streets after executions at the beginning of the last century. These are usually headed with a coarse woodcut of the typical gibbet, and the felon hanging, and generally give an account of his offences and of his last moments These specimens date from 1819 to 1833. They record deaths for burglaries and arson. The so-called “new drop,” which was in use for some fifty years seems to have been arranged over the stout low archway which formed the entrance into the prison from North-square, the predecessor of one lately removed. Some still living remember the body of the last criminal executed there, hanging on the skyline, a woman, Martha Brown, who had murdered her husband.

Then the scene was shifted to a spot within the walls of the prison, overlooking and within sight of the meadows by the river. Many can still tell of the thousands that used to gather below the gaol at the “Hang Fairs.” By daybreak the best places were taken, and the waiting .time was spent in drinking, fiddling, and dancing. The time, it is said, of the executions in early days determined by the arrival of the coach from London, which might possibly bear a reprieve at the last moment. The “Royal Mail”. coach was timed to arrive at the King’s Arms at 9.30 a.m., after 13½ hours run from London, via Salisbury. In Cutler’s ” Original Notes of Dorchester ” the story is told of a poor fellow who declined to halt at the Bell Inn for a parting glass with the constables; listening to his earnest request, they hastened their business, and turned him off just as the postmaster came shouting up the hill bearing a delayed reprieve. They cut the rope in a moment and fetched a surgeon. He could only shake his head and announce “Too late.” ” Sarved him right,” cried the indignant beer swillers standing around, “he should have stopped for his drink.” “Quite the contrary,” retorted the surgeon, with ill-timed levity, “I will stake my reputation on the fact—the poor fellow has taken a drop too much.”

The Mercy Weight. One of two weights made of lead, from Dorchester Prison, dating from the 19th century. These were attached to those executed by hanging, to give weight.

The Mercy Weight. One of two weights made of lead, from Dorchester Prison, dating from the 19th century. These were attached to those executed by hanging, to give weight.

The last public execution was in 1863, when two men named Preedy and Fooks suffered on the same day. The case of Preedy aroused much interest. The Rev. Henry Moule, Vicar of Fordington, visited him in the prison constantly to the last, and afterwards published a book of 94 pages, entitled Hope against Hope,’ giving an account of his life and repentance. Many thousand people assembled on this occasion. Two enterprising brothers erected a temporary grandstand in the meadows, with seats at 2s. 6d., which was so well patronised that it collapsed beneath the weight of sightseers, and they subsided into the mud below. In Mr. Thomas Hardy’s tale of The Withered Arm,’ a day of this kind provides a terrible page of reading. The saddler’s shop in High-East-street which from long custom supplied the new rope required for the gallows has only been closed this summer. This was of the best quality, always of hemp, probably supplied from Bridport; and the old Hangman’s Cottage at the bottom of Glyde-path-hill still stands, where the busy official, the last bearing the name of Davies, once lived. And a curious memorial is preserved in the Dorset County Museum, the two lead weights, engraved with the word ‘MERCY,’ provided by a humane governor of the gaol, to hasten the end of Silvester Wilkins, a very light subject, executed in 1833 for arson at Bridport. The last death sentence carried out at Dorchester was in May, 1887. I was in the neighbourhood at the time, and heard that the hangman sold the rope at so much a foot in one of the public houses afterwards ; but this I can hardly believe.

Hangmans Cottage. Colliton Park, The Walks, Dorchester.

Hangmans Cottage. Colliton Park, The Walks, Dorchester. © DCM

Out of the gloom that gathers round the history of the Dorchester gallows in past centuries, two or three figures, or groups of figures, stand out distinctly, and whilst on the subject it seems a fitting opportunity to recall them. One and the latest has been already named, the unfortunate Mary Channing, but 18 years old, burnt in the Amphitheatre in the year 1703. It was a peculiar case of murder that brought her to this end, but the punishment was not unusual. One female at least suffered in this way 18 years before, after the Monmouth Rebellion ; and the worthy Lady Lisle was condemned to this death on the same account at Winchester, though her sentence was altered to hanging after petition to the King. But the burning of Mary Channing was made a kind of county fete; 10,000 spectators gathered to view it. No doubt the nature of the spot chosen and the good view of the stake provided in this well-arranged theatre, accounted largely for the crowd that gathered, and that made the event so memorable.

The earliest recorded executions of note were those of Roman Catholics in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, on the charge of high treason. Hutchins gives the names of six that died on the gallows. Four of these suffered on the same day, July 4th, 1594; one, John Cornelius, the principal rebel, was hung, drawn, and quartered. His head was nailed to the gallows, but the Sheriff removed it at the prayer of the townsmen, who suffered ill-luck, it was thought, in consequence of it. Cornelius was born at Bodmin, but was captured while resident at the house of Lady Arundel, near Chideock. In Alfred Mark’s ‘Tyburn Tree’ a curious account is given in Strype’s words of the finding of his skull together with three others, in Blackfriars, when clearing away rubbish after the Fire of London. It had evidently been carried away from Dorchester by some sympathising coreligionists. Strype narrates the discovery of four pewter cases containing a head each. He says, “one of these pots I saw, with the head in it, in October, 1703, being in the custody of Mr. Presbury, then sope maker in Smithfield, which pot had inscribed in the inside of the cover, in a scrawling character (which might be used in the time of Henry VIII.), I. Cornelius. This head was without any neck, having short red hair upon it, thick, and that would not be pulled off ; and yellow hair upon the temples ; a little bald on the top (perhaps a tonsure), the fore-part of the nose sunk, the mouth gaping, ten sound teeth, others had been plucked out; the skin like tanned leather, the features of the face visible. The other three heads had some of the necks joined to them and had a broader and plainer razure, which showed them priests. These three heads are now dispersed. It is probable they were at last privately procured and conveyed abroad, and now become holy relics. Who these were, there is no record, as I know of ; nor had any of them names inscribed but one.” The identity of this I. Cornelius with the Dorchester victim was not discovered till some years later. I have the engraved portrait of I. Cornelius from one of the old Books of Martyrs, with the Latin inscription beneath : “Pio Cornelius Anglus Soc. Jesu (Jesuit) Novitius Dorcesta pro Catholica fide suspensus et sectus, an. 1594.” From another Book I have the portrait of John Slade, a Dorset man, who was ” drawn, hanged, bowelled, and quartered ” for maintaining the Roman power ; but the sentence was carried out at Winchester.

Lastly, we come to the batch of prisoners, 13 in number, who were condemned by Judge Jeffreys, and suffered on the old Gallows Hilll. In the Western Martyrology ” the dying speeches of three of this number are given us – Matthew Bragg, Thomas Smith, and Joseph Speed, with special details of their deaths. The 13 were hung in succession, one after the other. Smith being the first by particular order of the Judge. The bodies were treated in the manner usual for traitor, an exception being made of the body of Matthew Bragg, which was given by the Judge to his friends for burial. He was probably an innocent man, and felt, to have been so by his persecutor after the sentence was passed. but foolishly he had pleaded “not guilty ” and so lost all chance of justice. The speeches were made from the ladder, up which the prisoner climbed to reach the noose let down from the crossbeam by the hangman. ‘The cart no longer figures at this particular point in the proceedings. When the speech was finished the ladder was turned over, and so, in the common language of those days, the prisoner was “turned off ” and launched into eternity. They were probably drawn on hurdles in most places to the gallows; “sledges ” is the name given to the rude vehicles used in Dorchester and Lyme. At Lyme Regis two sets of horses refused to draw the sledge; they ended by kicking it to pieces, and the prisoners therefore went on foot through the streets. The quarters of 12 men were distributed in Dorchester and the neighbourhood, the head of one being fixed on a spike that till lately was an interesting ornament of the porch of St. Peter’s Church. This spike is now preserved in the museum. There is no entry in the Borough Records of any expense connected with the executions ; it was outside their department. But a horrible set of entries is to be found in the Weymouth records ; they are published in Moule’s Catalogue of Charters, &c., of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis,” The Mayor of this borough was ordered through the Sheriff to prepare a gallows for the execution of 12 persons, It was erected on or near Greenhill, in the confines of the borough. Thirty-two quarters and six heads were distributed in the villages round, while 16 quarters and six heads were reserved for Weymouth itself. Then the bill of costs is given— “Disbursements for the gallows, burning and boiling the rebels executed per order at this town—£l5 14s. 3d.”

From the “Western Martyrology” we gather that the ghastly preparations for the final disposal of the bodies went on in the sight of the victims. Roger Satchel, at Weymouth. is described, when delivering his dying speech from the Ladder, as ” pointing to the wood that was to burn his bowels.” The barbarous proceedings conducted at Weymouth were no doubt repeated at Dorchester and at other towns. I notice also in the same book the statement that “some scores died every week of small pox “ in the gaol. This, I think, must be an exaggeration, as there is no indication of a corresponding number of burials in our Burial Register. Eighteen only are there entered as ” prisoners ” at that time. Yet possibly friends who could afford it removed the dead to their own churchyards, all over the country, and a much larger number could thus be accounted for.

I am thankful to have reached the end of this short history of Dorchester gallows. The saddest of recollections are awakened, and even after so long a time, resentment kindles at the thought of so much injustice suffered often by helpless and defenceless prisoners. One can enter into the spirit of Dryden when he wrote of the gallows of Tyburn Tree:-

“Oh Tyburn I couldst thou reason and dispute,
Couldst thou but judge as well as execute;
How often woulst thou change the felon’s doom
And truss some stern Chief Justice in his room”.

In a short article written by R. A. H. Farrar, M.A. from the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 88, 1966 entitled ‘The Dorchester Gallows’

The, Dorchester Prison mosaic, 4th Century. A tinted photographic lithograph. John Pouncy, 2nd December 1858. Using one of his new experimental photographic processes. This mosaic was presented to the Dorset County Museum by the Governor of Dorchester Prison in 1885, after its removal from the Prison chapel where it had been relaid in 1858. It was set on the north wall of the museum staircase masked by the overhanging portrait of James John Farquharson, 1857.

The Dorchester Prison Mosaic, 4th Century. A tinted photographic lithograph. John Pouncy, 2nd December 1858. Using one of his new experimental photographic processes. This mosaic was presented to the Dorset County Museum by the Governor of Dorchester Prison in 1885, after its removal from the Prison chapel where it had been relaid in 1858. It was set on the north wall of the museum staircase masked by the overhanging portrait of James John Farquharson, 1857. © DCM

The late Lady Pinney’s essay, published in 1966 in the Hardy Monographs series, on Thomas Hardy and the Birdsmoorgate Murder 1856, recalls to the writer his own interest some years ago in some of the circumstances of the execution of Martha Brown. This was due primarily to the fact that it was in digging her grave, in the burial yard of Dorchester Prison, that the mosaic was found that is now fixed to the staircase wall of the County Museum, although it was not until the burial of James Seal, executed on the 10th August 1858, that rediscovery led to its excavation by Governor J. V. D. Lawrance and subsequent relaying in the former prison chapel.

The writer was of course led at that time to the valuable history of the Dorchester gallows published in our Proceedings, Vol. 32 (1911), by the Rev. S. E. V. Filleul. Since it does not appear that his account, now over 50 years old, has been enlarged on, it may be worth pointing out two errors, one of which, relating to the removal of the gallows from Maumbury Rings, had been stated correctly elsewhere, and the other bearing on the execution of the unfortunate Martha Brown.

Dorchester Prison Mosaic

Dorchester Prison Mosaic now hangs on the staircase wall of the Dorset County Museum masked by the overhanging portrait of James John Farquharson, 1857. © DCM

Filleul’s first error (excluding a mis-dating of 1703 for the 1706 execution of Mary Channing at Maumbury by burning following strangulation) was in supposing that the gallows outside the Rings remained in use until the new prison was completed on the present site in 1795. An entry in the pocket book of William Cummg, M.D., for 2nd December 1766, quoted by Boswell Stone in Proceedings, Vol. 24 (1903), p. 36, tells us that “This Day the Gallows removed fm Maumbury and a new One erected on Fordington Down at expense of ye County Cost of £4.” Newton’s view showing the gibbet at Maumbury, published anachronistically in Grosse’s Antiquities in 1786, was engraved in 1755, as Filleul was aware.

The second error concerns the position of the gallows at the County Gaol. Filleul comments on the hanging of Martha Brown over the lodge formerly existing at the North Square entrance to the prison, supposing that this was the ‘new drop’  which had been in use, as he said, for some 50 years, the site then being ‘shifted to a spot within the walls of the prison, overlooking and within sight of the meadows by the river.’ Martha Brown was indeed executed. on 9th August 1856 over the North Square lodge  in full view of the young Thomas Hardy and a great concourse of sight-seers, but this was an innovation. as the contemporary files of the Dorset County Chronicle, listed by Lady Pinney. make clear. It was not repeated, owing to the resultant dislocation of traffic in the centre of the town, and two years later, when James Seal met his end, it was once again upon the traditional ‘new drop’, over the monumental main entrance lodge that still grimly but elegantly overlooks the meadows.

According to Filleul the last execution in Dorchester was in May 1887, and the last public execution that of Preedy and Fooks in 1863, so Jim Lane of Blackdown, whose memories were taken down by Lady Pinney in 1926. was at fault in according this unenviable distinction to poor Martha.

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