[This material comes from Chapter 9, "Tools and Rural Industries," in Gertrude Jekyll's Old West Surrey: Some Notes and Memories (1904). One of her interesting observations in this introduction to her subject: very sophisticated argricultural technology, though constructed of iron, utilized horses. In other words, the mechanization of agriculture preceeded the steam engine and the gasoline engine. GPL]
THE greater number of the hand-tools in use in country places have gone on, without appreciable change of form or method of using, for hundreds of years. These tools have come by their forms simply from necessity, and when they have arrived at what is most convenient for an unchanging kind of use, there they remain. The form and size and weight have become fixed for certain classes of work. There may be slight local distinctions, and the tool may be in two or three sizes, but that is all. . . .
One of the few changes in the form and use of hand-tools that has occurred within my recollection has been in those used for the reaping of corn. Before my time, but well into the early half of the last century, wheat was reaped with the sickle. It was shaped like the reaping-hook, but had a finely-toothed edg'. The under-side of the blade towards the edge was ridged transversely, much like a toothing-plane, so that the edge was a saw. When I was a biggish child, strong and delighting in any bodily exercise, I sometimes had a day in the harvest-field. My reaping-hook — rip-hook it was always called — is the third from the top in the picture; the two above it are older ones that have seen more wear.
Anyone who has never done a day's work in the harvest-field would scarcely believe what dirty work it is. Honest sweat and dry dust combine into a mixture not unlike mud. Hay-making is drawing-room work in comparison.
Nowadays, when wheat is not cut with a machine, it is 'fagged' — with the fag-hook, the lowest tool in the picture. It is a much heavier tool, and the way of using it is quite different; 'ripping' and 'fagging' are quite distinct. The fag-hook has a square crook or step, just after it leaves the handle, bringing the blade into a lower plane than the hand. This is to protect the hand in slashing through brambles and rough stuff in hedge-trimming and to save the knuckles from being skinned against stumps. The blade of the reaping-hook goes straight out of the handle.
In reaping, the left hand grasps a handful of the stand- ing corn and the tool cuts it with a sharp, dragging action. In fagging, the left hand holds a light stick or a small hand- ful of stiff-strawed corn, and with it bends back the stems to be out. The tool is used .with a slashing action. The work is quicker and easier.
I have lately asked several farmers and work-people why corn was ever cut by the slower and more laborious process of reaping, for the fag-hook is no new tool. It was always in use for trimming hedges and cutting rough grass in odd places. No one has given me a; satisfactory answer. Trying to think what the reason may have been — for I know that the old-time farmers were shrewd folk, not given to wasting labour, even when it was much more plentiful — I can only come to the conclusion that the slower and more careful method allowed the corn to stand and ripen a few days longer before being cut, and that with the rougher methods of the tag-hook it has to be cut a little greener.
Fagging cuts closer, leaving less stubble, but there is no gain in the end. 'It isn't picked up so close.' Some of the older people say that in fagging a 'man leaves his wages on the ground.'
In the older days of reaping, when every straw on the. field was taken in the hand, it was a good day's work for a man to reap an acre, though I have also heard of a woman reaping an acre; even in this neighbourhood, where the acre is reckoned at 'eight score,' that is to say, 160 rods. Down in Sussex, Chichester way, they reckon it at only 'six score,' equal to 120 rods.
This old abuse of different measures, and also of various measures of capacity, within districts by no means distant from each other, still largely exists. It seems almost incredible that there should not be standard measures of capacity throughout the country, but so it is; for instance, there is or was the Winchester bushel, of a different capacity to the ordinary bushel, and so on.
The distinction of 'strike measure ' and 'heaped measure' is of course reasonable, whatever the standard may be; 'strike measure,' level with the lip of the bushel, being used for grain, or peas, or anything that will lie close, and heaped measure for potatoes, or apples, or anything of a size or shape that leaves cavities between.
- "From Hand Labour to Machine Work in agriculture": Work and New technologies in the Victorian Era
- Dibbling Wheat
- "Agricultural Labourers." The Cornhill Magazine, Vol. 29 (1874): 686-697]
1 February 2009