Friday, 22 August 2014

Speed The Plough

It's harvest time of course but, like the agricultural year, I'm always a bit mixed up these days. So here's a post that would have probably been better to arrive in January. It starts off with this remarkable object spied in the Farmland Museum at Denny Abbey..... case you don't recognise it, it's a plough. Not just any old plough but a very old plough indeed. Its design means that we can date it to before 1730. Before it took up residence in the museum it made its home in Bassingbourn church.
A plough in a church? Yes, that's what I said - in this church.....

I've always liked Bassingbourn church, mainly for its bright red clock, you don't see many of them. But that's not answering the question of how come there was a plough in church. Nobody really knows but I suppose in past times there would always have been a connection between agriculture and religion - it makes sense to pray for good weather in this country! On a Sunday at the beginning of January each year, the start of the agricultural year, the plough would be blessed in a special church service. The day was known as Plough Sunday - and the day after was, naturally enough, Plough Monday. 

Now those of you with long memories will remember my visit to Whittlesea to the Straw Bear Festival back in January (This post and the four following it). The festival keeps alive the antics of our ploughboy forebears who on the Monday following Plough Sunday took to the streets and either danced or acted out rough little plays to entertain and beg for money. They took the plough with them and, if money was not forthcoming from the wealthy of the town, they'd plough up the path leading to the house.

The tradition varied from one village to another. In Norfolk Plough Sunday is remembered in a rhyme found in Cawston church

God spede the plow
And send us all corne enow
Our purpose for to mak
At crow of cok
Of the plwlete of Sygate
Be mery and glade
Wat Goodale this work made

You've got that, haven't you? 

Now in 1799 a violinist called John Moorehead composed a tune which he called "The Naval Pillar" which was then used in a play entitiled "Speed The Plough". Under that title his tune spread across the western world like wildfire. For those who like to argue about the country of origin of tunes it is interesting to note that Moorehead was born in Scotland, emigrated to Ireland and then worked in England. Make your own mind up!

Meanwhile here is a nice video I found on You Tube of the tune being played in The Ship Inn at Blaxhall in Suffolk (which I hope the original videoist won't mind me including here).

Shame there's not more pubs like that!

I've just done a bit more research, prompted by a question from Nilly Hall via a comment. Plw is just an old spelling for plough, while lete might be a lane. Plwlete is indeed said to be the name of a lane in Sygate. However a plowLIGHT was also a lamp which was kept burning in front of images in early churches, this lamp being paid for by the ploughmen of the parish. The origin of Plow Monday celebrations was to raise money for the maintenance of the lamp. Although the plowlights disappeared after the Reformation money was still raised for various good causes and was called Plowlight Money. The poem I quoted is to be found on a beam of the gallery in Cawston church and suggests that the construction was paid for with money raised in this way. So plwlete might have a double meaning - a kind of joke which was popular at that time. Wat Goodale is written as though it's the name of the builder but could also be read as 'what good ale', another pun of the same sort

Take care.


  1. I've never seen a red church clock before, I quite like it! I'd love to go to the straw bear festival one year. I love things like that.

  2. Could you give us a clue about, "Of the Plwlete of Sygate"? That's the bit I don't understand.
    Good to hear more about our forefathers standing up to the stingy "high-ups", as my granny used to call them!

    1. Sygate is a hamlet in the parish of Cawston, erroneously called Southgate on Ordnance survey maps. Plwlete I'm not sure about but plw could be plow perhaps, and I think lete is a lane. Maybe, maybe not.

    2. Also see the original post above, which I've updated. And thanks so much for that comment which led me to dig a little deeper.

  3. A wonderful stirring tune! And a coincidence, - Charles and I farmed for forty years on a veteran's project in the community of Cawston, British Columbia - the land was all sage brush when we first started to develop the project and luckily we had ploughs that were a little more advanced than that ancient one you show to get the land ready for planting the orchards. This new world Cawston was named after an early English settler named Cawston....we could have used a pub just like this wonderful lively one at the end of a dusty day of ploughing.....

    1. Not much dust at ploughing time around here, more mud!

  4. A shame indeed! I think the little girl on the table would have danced if offered the least encouragement.

  5. I'm guessing that the plow was used to plow a field at the church and was stored inside. Real simple. And I love that photo of the gents dancing in the streets!

  6. That one lady played a hot squeeze box. That would be fun to learn to play.

  7. I loved this post John - it all goes to show how very important the plough was in days gone by (still is but now they are so huge and pulled by tractors - I wonder what our ancestors would have thought of today's modern machinery).

  8. Great post. I seem to recall some 70's folk/rock song called Speed the Plough - I may have delve into my archives!

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  9. I would love to visit a pub like that! Excellent post, John. I'd heard of Plough Monday but didn't know about the history of it. The old plough is really something to see.


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'll try to answer any questions via a comment or e-mail within the next day or two (no hard questions, please!).