Sunday, 2 October 2011

What Hawker Did To Horkey

October is a magical time of year. Harvest is gathered in. The fields turn from pale yellow to rich earth-brown. The trees change to reds and gold. The birdsong of summer departs and is replaced by the wild cry of winter geese and swans over the fenland.

The end of harvest must always have been a cause for celebration since it's a time of hard work, often against the clock and the vagaries of the weather, and it's completion must have once meant that people wouldn't starve during the winter.

I can never remember how much of the following I learned from my father, my grandmother and others, and how much I've read from books in the succeeding years, but I know that in Cambridgeshire there was always, in days gone by, a feast to mark the end of harvest. From books I know that this was known as Horkey Night, though I've a suspicion that it was known locally by a slightly different name.

The last load brought in from the field would be topped out with a bough from an oak tree, the Horkey bough, and the horse pulling the cart would also be decorated. In the evening a feast would be held in one of the farm buildings. Food was provided by the farmer and after eating their fill the workers and their families would entertain themselves by singing the old songs and dancing.

Now, what about Hawker? Well, The Rev Hawker was the vicar of Morwenstow in Cornwall during the 19th century - and a right old reverent was he! Hawker dressed eccentrically in a yellow poncho and a pink hat and famously excommunicated his cat for mousing on the Sabbath! He was also a noted poet who wrote the Cornish anthem "And Shall Trelawney Die". He spent many hours in a driftwood cabin of his own making, overlooking the sea, where he wrote poetry and smoked opium. The cabin is now one of the National Trust's smallest properties.

And Hawker it was who first introduced the idea of the Harvest Festival into the English church. The celebrations were of course 'sanitised' by the church; the dancing was no more and Victorian hymns replaced the old songs.  Whether Hawker killed off Horkey is hard to say; by this time many farm workers across the country had chosen to have a cash payment at the end of harvest rather than a feast. Harvest Festival also made the end of harvest more real to an increasingly urbanised population.

A couple of further random thoughts:
  • the idea of a "barn dance" must surely be a modern, urban invention. The barn was the most important building on the farm and would seldom be standing empty, least of all at the end of harvest.
  • my grandmother also told me once that the menfolk of the family would only ever go to town (Cambridge, some eight miles away) once a year, at the end of harvest. There they would buy new clothes for the next year. This could perhaps be a survival from earlier centuries when men would be hired by the year. There were fairs known as 'hiring fairs' held in October and the men and women would dress in their best clothes to be hired for the next twelve months' work on the land or in the big houses.

"And after we've reaped it of every sheaf
And gathered up every ear,
With a drop of good beer, boys,
And our hearts full of cheer
We will wish them another good year"

Take care.


  1. You tell such interesting tales, John. Today's post is very distant from the life of a guy who lives in an American suburb in the 21st century.

  2. We spent many happy holidays in Morwenstowe when our son was a young boy. The hut where Hawker say looking out to sea was on a really steep cliff and quite dangerous. Thanks for reminding me of him - I haven't thought about him for years John.

  3. Thanks, John, for introducing me to the Rev. Hawker. An opium-smoking priest who excommunicated his cat for mousing on Sunday, indeed! I'll have to read more about him! Jim

  4. Wonderful stuff - thanks for sharing.

    A barn darn here in Ontario was usually just after the barn bee raising, before it would actually have ever been used.

    Opium smoking priest - well ahead of his time I'd say.

  5. I've come across the Rev Hawker before but had no idea he smoked opium! Even Harvest Festival is mostly a travesty of what it used to be especially in towns and cities where the harvest bounty all appears in tins and packets. No wonder children these days have no idea where their food actually comes from! Given a choice between Horkey Night and the sanitized version I'm afraid I'd have been at Horkey Night every time:)

  6. Hello John,I loved your photographs, especially the one of the wheat. The idea of an excommunicated cat really made me laugh.... Jane x

  7. I live in farm country in Eastern Ontario. Even those of us who don't farm keep an eye on the weather and the crops. There is a collective sigh of relief when each crop is successfully harvested. It's a good feeling to know the barns are full.

  8. There are many such customs in the countryside. Probably in every country, certainly in Germany too.

    It is such a pity that we have lost them and that characters like the Rev. Hawker no longer exist. How much more colourful our world would be, how much more leisurely.


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