First East Brent Harvest Home

East Brent Harvest Home is the oldest surviving communal harvest home in Somerset, having been started by famous archdeacon George

East Brent Harvest Home is the oldest surviving communal harvest home in Somerset, having been started by famous archdeacon George Anthony Denison in 1857. There are those who say that East Brent's was the first harvest home ever, but this is incorrect. It was certainly the first communal event of its kind in Somerset, but the in-gathering of the harvest has been celebrated almost since man first tilled the soil, and the harvest supper at the farmhouse to mark bringing in the last load was a widely observed custom in old-time rural England.Archdeacon Denison became vicar of East Brent in 1845. Baring-Gould's biography of that remarkable character, the Rev R S Hawker, vicar of Morwenstow, in Cornwall, records that he introduced church celebrations for the safe-gathering of the harvest in 1843, two years before the archdeacon came to East Brent, and 14 years before the first harvest home in the village. But today East Brent's celebration can claim to be the oldest in the country, for its old rivals have gone.Harvest homes are a comparatively modern innovation, and it was not until 1861 that such festivals were brought before convocation (provincial assembly of the Church of England), and they finally became an accepted feature of the church's calendar. Although they are now a regular feature of Christian worship throughout the world there is no reference to them in the Prayer Book.The famous harvest hymn, Come Ye Thankful people, Come, was written by Dean Alford, a Somerset man, especially for East Brent Harvest home. In his volume Notes of My Life, Archdeacon Denison tells the story of how East Brent's celebration originated. "In 1857 my churchwarden, Mr John Higgs - a constant Communicant and near and dear friend - came to me to suggest having each year a harvest home at East Brent. I entered into the proposal immediately and heartily."It had long appeared to me that we wanted recognised holidays for the working men, women, and children; and here was a step in the right direction ... and we held our first harvest home, September 3, 1857."The archdeacon added: "At that time there was, I believe, nothing of the kind in this part of England .... I have read and heard of (and have seen) other schemes of harvest home arrangements, but not one which was I think so good as our own."The archdeacon's claim was well justified, and the event has always had a big reputation.The Mercury's report of the first East Brent harvest home opened with the comment: "For many years the festivities of harvest home have been discontinued, save in a few secluded spots in almost unknown nooks and corners of England, but we are very glad that there is a general movement among farmers in the neighbourhood to resuscitate that old custom of their forebears. The Earl of Aldemarle has set the example in Norfolk, and Archdeacon Denison has started the movement in Somersetshire. On Thursday the first annual harvest home festival took place at East Brent ...."Here is a description of one of the early East Brent events: "Never were two evenings more pleasantly spent than Tuesday and Wednesday at East Brent. How much happier would it be for ourselves, and all England, if we could see in every village what we saw in East Brent schoolroom.... What was the sight? The whole of 'the village train from the labour tree' seated around some of the best old English fare, doing what no other class of man can do in such spirit - making an excellent feast ...."Just after 3 o'clock the bells of the parish church burst forth in sweet harmony which, echoed by the neighbouring hill, seemed to fill all hearts with mirth."The men now began to gather thick and fast, and at 6 o'clock, the school bell was rung and the door opened. "How they poured in, one after another, an endless string. Huge joints of meat decked with flowers, large banners on the walls, and plum puddings by the dozen. How the meat went, and then the puddings. And so the dinner was over. Waistcoats strained, then sweat poured down, the cider was quaffed, and they were happy!""The next evening the school-room was again filled, but this time it was by the poor women to partake of tea, when bread and butter, cake, ham, tea, and other good things were soon made use of in a truly interesting manner."There were 500 people at the first harvest home, but a few years later the number had become 6,000, and the event was spread over several days!Writing to his niece, a daughter of a Bishop of Salisbury, in September, 1883, Archdeacon Denison said: "Harvest home great success: rained all Sunday night and Monday to about midnight. Nevertheless, the people, indefatigable, as soon as the huge tents had been got up in rain, set to work, vicarage and village to decorate; great work of high art; all complete by mid-day on Tuesday."From early morning Tuesday up to today, Saturday, weather perfect, sun, air; no wind or rain; large company. Took £45 at gate; subscriptions £68-£113 in all; will pay all expenses and leave some balance."Wonderful pinch, steam merry-go-round, fortune telling, various other amusements; teetotal drinks only - football, etc. Everybody highly pleased; two grand balls, 1,000 people in tent on Tuesday night, 500 Wednesday night; had food over on Tuesday enough for poor parishioners' second meal Wednesday."Very fine music, dressing in best taste, manners and general demeanour perfect; no doubt an admirable institution; should be witnessed to be comprehended. Dancing from seven to eleven Tuesday night; to twelve Wednesday night, then I told them they were to go. They cheered and thanked, and in 10 minutes tent was cleared, and all went away quietly."I am told that the merry-go-round's man made £20, costing me nothing. Punch cost £1 1s., and did not send round plate, and so other amusements costing me nothing, but leave to be present in outer field .... They tell me that our attraction was so great that the landlord of Brent Knoll Inn says he lost £10 or £12 by us."A Miss Elizabeth Ham, who sang in the choir of East Brent church for over 70 years, and who was interviewed many years ago when she was over 80, said she recalled the first East Brent harvest home."We used to dance the polka and the lancers at the harvest homes in the old days," she said, "and that is why these old dances have been kept in the dance programme even down to modern times. Archdeacon Denison was keenly interested in the festival, and never left until the last dance."In former years the women and girls of East Brent used to compete keenly with each other in decorating the walls of the huge marquee with samplers and other needlework giving expression to aphorisms, maxims, old saws and the like. Some of them have survived. The sentiments were no doubt copied from old cider mugs and crockery, but there were also original ones.The best known and probably oldest ran:Beef pudding, cheese and ciderAre wont to make the waistcoat wider,But let pudding and cider, cheese and beefBe the rich man's alms, the poor's relief.With cheese and cider, beef and pudding,Let not ill thought be found intruding.But for pudding and cider, beef and cheeseGive thanks to Him who giveth these.The chairman's seat was lavishly decorated with flowers and sheaves of corn, and behind it was: May God pour his benison on Archdeacon Denison.Many of the tent decorations were of pictorial character. The bishop was honoured with the arms of the see (diocese), the ringers and the choir with emblems of bells and musical scores, while the offices of clerk and sexton were symbolised by a bell, spade and bunch of keys.There are legendary stories about the quantities of food and drink consumed at East Brent harvest home. The tradition of carrying the monster loaf, cheese, and puddings in procession is still maintained.Way back in 1938, before the Second World War changed everything, East Brent was expecting a harvest home crowd of about 1,400. Food consumption was expected to include 1,080lbs of meat, 150 quarterns (4lb) of bread, and a giant cheese which was carried in by four men on a trencher. Drink provisions included 120 gallons of beer and 60 gallons of cider.In those days the famous puddings were always boiled in the huge boiler in the vicarage kitchen, which was removed in later years when the vicarage became Rossholme School. As an illustration shows, the boiler is now a water butt!In 1938 the puddings were cooked by Mrs Elizabeth Edwards, who had done this task for 33 years. She was planning to make 100, and this was her recipe: 65lbs of suet; 60lbs of flour; 31lbs of demerara sugar; 14lbs of mixed peel; 6lbs of citron; 14 dozen eggs; 15lbs of sultanas; 45lbs of currants; 2lbs of mixed spice; 2lbs of almonds; 2lbs of coconut; two dozen nutmegs; two dozen lemons; two gallons of milk; and three bottles of brandy.In those days the puddings were handed one by one through the vicarage window and carried by the women helpers to the tent, headed, of course, by the band.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on September 3, 1966


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