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8 August 2022

From the NS archive: Hay-making

14 June 1913: The secrets of a farm labourer’s life.


Educated city dwellers may consider farm labourers “unskilled”, but, as a writer who signs as “CM” points out in this 1913 piece, the making of hay is a hugely complex process. “What does the onlooker know about it? Simply nothing. It all seems so easy, like fiddling, in fact,” they write, when even learning to use the instrument at hand – a scythe – requires practice. The following process depends upon “tactics and strategy”: you can’t mow a grass field in just any direction, and knowing when it is time for cutting is an art in itself. Then there is the method, which comes with a range of new vocabulary to master – to rew, to pook, the rick. “It is an endless procession of activity, experience, knowledge and cleverness which is represented by one haystack,” CM writes. And then foolish outsiders come along and kick, roll and throw about the hay for sport.

One of the silliest lies an educated man can believe is that a good agricultural labourer is unskilled, or that a town baker or tailor can by any wizardry be turned into any sort of a farm hand. How long does it take for a boy to become a Greek professor? Shall we say fifteen years, working eight hours a day, and two hundred days in the year?

It takes fifteen years to make a boy into a sound farm hand, but he works six and a half days a week, and on three hundred and sixty days of the year. Moreover, he has no honour and hardly any pay for his success. There is not a single rural picture in this year’s Academy that shows the slightest knowledge of this great and severe art. The secrets of the labourer’s life are entirely hidden from those whom he serves with the first necessaries of their lives.

Take “the simplest of operations,” which we have all seen, hay-making. What does the onlooker know about it? Simply nothing. It all seems so easy, like fiddling, in fact. To swing a scythe does not appear impossible; to learn to drop the heel lightly and to use the body turn can be mastered, possibly, in a hard month. But to whet, to stand under the blade and with a loose wrist make it sing the right note, that demands a greater fineness. Even when both these difficulties are overcome, and the learner can sweep the meadow, leaving no ridges and tussocks, he will only be at the alphabet. The discipline of mowing is exact. All have to begin and end at the same instant, and to keep the stroke like oarsmen in an Oxford Eight. Scythes are more dangerous weapons than oars. A man must not pause to wipe his eyes, still less to drink or to jest, until all are ready.

But let us suppose our agricultural private has learnt the use of his weapons and his drill. Still there remain tactics and strategy. You cannot enter a grass field and mow in any direction. The position of the rick has first to be determined, and the work must begin from that focus, else you would have to carry the dry hay, first cut, over the drying, last cut. Then grass does not stand upright when ripe. It bows from the prevalent wind.

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It is an art in itself to know when the exact time for cutting has come. The seeds must not be too loose or they fall out. The undergrass must be as full as it will grow. A week too early and the blades will shrivel overmuch. A week too late and the fat is out of the ear. Let us suppose all these problems neatly solved, more remains. Our climate is not always dry. To turn the swathes under a darkening sky is to court disaster. Rain does not harm fresh-cut grass, but it plays havoc with made hay. To rake the wet grass into rows, small rows and then large rows, technically called “rewing,” is not only difficult, but it needs nice judgement. The meadows are mostly in ridge and furrow, once having been under the plough. The furrow swathes dry slowlier. If rain comes it may be necessary to ted the rews into pooks or haycocks. You, urban or suburban sir, would roll the rews up into balls, leaving wisp scattered on all sides. The labourer would smile and politely tell you there is a deal of difference in pooking. His pook is deftly lifted and dropped so that it falls in an artful thatch which shoots the rain aside: yours conducts the drops within.

But if Jove smiles and the grass dries, the moment to carry requires also a practised eye. The hay must be of a certain colour. It must rustle with a soft and silky note. Will you pitch, or load? To pitch requires strong dorsal muscles, and the knack of years. You find your fork holds but a few handfuls, but the artist next you picks up huge masses, leaving the ground almost clean. His pile leaps gently into the cart, and yours tumbles back again. Worse than that, your fork is apt to play dangerously about the legs and hands that are aloft. Well, load then! You mount the cart, and overwhelming seas of hay follow you unrestingly. You push it here and there, climb on it and tread it into uneven heaps. It is horribly slippery, and most confusing. The horse moves and down you slide in an undignified heap on the hard Earth. You have not been so smitten since you saw the headmaster in the break.

Then there is the rick. To plan it is a mastery. How do they know the tonnage of the cut? The rough stuff goes under, and an even building rises by magic, so many feet by so many, bellying out, arching on the top. Yet there are no plumb-lines and measures at work for these builders. They are being overwhelmed all the time with blocks of material, yet they achieve symmetry. If you think this an unskilled matter, try it. You must not cover your rick too soon, nor with impervious materials. You must thatch it only when it has done drawing, steaming, and settling sufficiently, if only you can thatch, which, by the way, takes years to learn. Then, when all is done, one rick is no more like another than one wine is like another. If wind and weather, skill, judgement, strength, precision, time and all are right, you may have poor, fusty and dark stuff, while your neighbour over the hedge has good bright hay. Your horses will be coughing in the winter, and his be as sound as bells. Alas! you had too many cow parsnips, docks and chervils in your crop: he had rich clover, because of his basic slag last year or because he spudded in time, or because you chose an exposed quarter for your rick, or because you cut on the wrong side to begin with.

It is an endless procession of activity, experience, knowledge and cleverness which is represented by one haystack; and when it is achieved no one will think the better of you for having achieved it – not the stupid townsman, he will think you a mere lout; not the patient country man, he will think you an unprofitable servant, who has only done what he ought to have done. One word more. It does not please the hay-makers to have their hay kicked, rolled and thrown about in sport. They will often endure these antics, but that is because they are patient and polite, and even at hay-rolling time, that weary, back-aching toil, they submit to extra work rather than offend foolish and pitiless outsiders.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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