Thursday, 22 June 2017

With farmer Higginbotham on the meadows collecting in the hay around 1890

This remains one of my favourite pictures of that time when we were still a rural community.

We are on the meadows in a field farmed by the Higginbotham family sometime around 1890.

Now I can be fairly confident of that because the picture comes from the Higginbotham collection and the boy on the horse might well be the last of the family to have farmed this land and live in the farmhouse on the green.

Much of their land was concentrated out to the west of the village hard by the river and was meadowland and we are out there with them as the cut grass is being collected.

After it was cut, stacked and left to dry it was loaded onto the wagon with rakes and pitchforks which required a large amount of skill and hard work.

Each person had a specific job.  Some were employed to lift the hay up to the men on the wagons.

On top of the wagons these men would take the hay and build it into a square load.

To get some sense of the sheer hard work and skill that was involved, we only have look at the photograph of hay making around 1890.

To lift the hay from the ground to the height of the stacked wagon did indeed require strength and stamina.

And great care had to be taken in building the hay load. There was no rail on the wagon and if the load were not evenly distributed the hay might fall off once the horses began to pull the load.

Even the best stacked hay load might have an accident.

And just such an accident happened to the farmer John Joseph Briggs during the “harvest home”  which was the old custom where the last wagon loaded with the harvest would be decorated and escorted back accompanied by wives workers and children some of whom sat on top.*

But when the load overturned he abandoned the practice.

Hay making was an intensive period and there was often extra work for the casual labourers and it also attracted village children.  Some may have come to watch while others will have tarried after bring food from home for their fathers.

They are there in many pictures of hay making and harvest time and this day on the meadows is no exception.  They are sitting close to the wagon amongst the hay.

But I rather think given the date and the clothes of some of the children in the picture old Higginbotham has caught the interest of a group of the newcomers whose parents had been settling down in the properties around Martledge and the station in the last decades of the 19th century.

Unlike our village children the daily routines of the agricultural world was both different and exciting.

And so being allowed to hold that broad wooden rake and stand beside the hay maker was something to talk about that evening.

But despite the idyllic scene this was hard work and wages reflected that fact.

In the middle years of that century wages at harvest time ranged from 15s a week to 18s, 21s and even 24s, which compared well with task work which might pay between 14s and 21s and special work like drainage bringing in 5s for men and 7s 6d for boys.

So there we have it, hay making on the meadows sometime in the 19th century.

Picture; collecting hay from the Higginbotham collection

* Briggs, John Joseph, Melbourne 1820-1875, edited by Philip Heath Melbourne Historical Society 2005.  John Joseph Briggs farmed Elms Farm just south of Derby and kept a diary

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