THRESHING seems to be the normal way of spelling the word. Thrashing was my father’s preferred way of saying it or, in Norfolk dialect, it is troshin’. But however you say it, the process involves the separation of the seeds from the stalks of corn.
Before the first application of machinery this meant the use of a flail. If you have never seen a flail-and I don’t think I have ever seen one in use-it consists of two sticks joined by a chain or rope. The longer of the two sticks is held in both hands while the shorter one is used to beat the corn, thus knocking the grain out onto the ground. You might think this a boring and tiring job that any farm worker would be glad to see the back of, but this was far from the case.
The long winter months provided employment for the horsemen who were slowly ploughing the fields but other, less skilled labourers, had nothing to do but threshing. This at least provided them with a modest income during the winter. When the farmer could thresh his corn by machine this source of employment dried up, leaving the workmen penniless, hungry and increasingly angry.
The Captain Swing riots spread across south-east England during the summer and autumn of 1830, with many threshing machines being destroyed. Besides threshing machines, the rioters also hated the Poor Law and the operation of tithes; the workhouses were an inhumane way of supporting the poor while the operation of the system of tithes, a tenth of the farmer’s income that went to the Church of England, placed a heavy burden on the farming community. Many of them were Baptists or Methodists who resented this religious tax. Quakers refused point-blank to pay it and consequently had to find some other employment than agriculture. However these two institutions, the Poor Law and tithes, did not provide the obvious targets that the machines did.
Many people were in sympathy with the agricultural labourers and juries were in many cases reluctant to convict when the legal system swung into action against the rioters. However the heavy hand of the law eventually saw many men transported to Australia and some were even executed, although most capital convictions were eventually reprieved.
The threshing machine, which caused such problems 200 years ago has itself been replaced by the combine harvester. Threshing machines are now museum pieces. To demonstrate a threshing machine you need corn that has not been cut by a combine. Every year back in the 1970s you would find threshing machines at work as an antique feature. This was a winter activity, as you see from the leafless trees in the picture. You might still find a threshing machine at work, but I haven’t seen one for years; though it is only fair to say I have not been to any traction engine rallies for years either.
Although the use of a steam engine was much quicker than the use of a couple of horses on a treadmill (the earlier kind of power threshing), and that was far quicker than the man powered machines that started the whole thing off, it was still a laborious process. The engine driver had to get up early in the morning to raise steam, and the threshing machine had to be placed in just the right position to connect with the belt drive of the steam engine. Men had to be on hand with pitch forks to keep the machine fed and other men removed the threshed straw; still more bagged up the grain into sacks. By contrast no one is involved in the actual threshing in a combine; it takes place automatically in the bowels of the machine. One man drives the harvester and one drives the tractor which takes the trailers full of corn away.
Note how much of the equipment used in threshing was made in East Anglia. The Burrell traction engine was made in Thetford (it could equally have been a Garrett of Leiston) and the Ransome’s threshing machine was made in Ipswich. Their factory was near the quay and they had their own railway to carry the goods to the quayside. From there ships would carry Ransome’s farm machinery for export across the world. The founder of the firm was a Quaker, born in Norwich, who travelled to Ipswich as a young man and established what was to become a flourishing business. After several changes in ownership Ransome is still known as a producer of lawn mowers.
If you wish to learn more about 19th and 20th century farming you should read my blog on Sheaves, Stooks and Stacks, published June 21 2012.
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