The Harvest Home was for many years a major celebration in the village, as may be expected in a predominantly agricultural community. Very full reports were carried in the Reading newspapers and short notices were frequently included in papers from as far away as Manchester, Nottingham Dundee and Guernsey. While “the last load home” was always celebrated, from 1865 things were done on a more lavish scale. There was a full day of celebration and entertainment on a weekday in late September or early October. The date never seems to have been set very far in advance and depended on the weather (which around the turn of the century was very variable) and state of the crops; sometimes less than a month’s notice was given. In 1907 the weather appears to have been very poor and only a Harvest Festival service in the church took place, the other celebrations being cancelled. In 1870 the Harvest Home took place on Thursday 29 September, having been put off until the arrival home of Mr and Mrs Benyon. They had been in Switzerland for several months and were delayed on their journey home by the Franco-Prussian War which necessitated taking a longer route through Prussia and Belgium. The celebrations were again cancelled in 1897 after the death of Mr Benyon.
The 1865 celebration, on Wednesday 20 September, started with a service in the church decorated for the occasion: “Brilliant bouquets of flowers adorned the window sills, the curves of the arches were traced in evergreens, corn and flowers, over the doors were placed crosses formed of dahlias and other flowers; and the font was chastely decorated with graceful ferns, intermingled with choice flowers. On the communion table were sheaves of wheat, oats and barley and the chancel was in other parts decorated with plants of rare foliage. Every pillar of the church, too, was tastefully entwined with wild hops”. After the service the men formed into a procession and were led to lunch by a brass band under Mr Davis from Reading to a large new tent in the park where they sat down to a hearty meal of roast beef and plum pudding. After the meal Mr Benyon made a speech and proposed the loyal toast. The Rev ALC Heigham then called on the company to give three cheers for Mr and Mrs Benyon and to drink their health. At four ’o clock the children from the Sunday and day schools, with those from the Bradfield Union Workhouse, formed a procession and marched to the terrace of Englefield House for tea, headed by the band of the Union Workhouse “…which is composed of a number of very small urchins who play very cleverly on penny whistles”. While the children had their tea the men again assembled in the tent where they were treated to bread, cheese and beer in liberal quantities and after tea all assembled in the park for sports. In the evening a dance was held in the Long Gallery, where Mr and Mrs Benyon joined in “…mingling freely amongst the company and taking partners indiscriminately”.
From 1868 lunch was taken in the Long Gallery and in 1869, learning that Mr King from the home farm had been in the habit of giving prizes in his part of the parish for well-cultivated gardens and for root crops, Mr Benyon undertook to do the same for the whole village. The produce show was therefore added to the day’s programme in 1870.
The garden produce show was rather more restricted in scope than now, being limited to classes for the best cottage garden and various vegetables. Prizes were awarded in two divisions: Labourers and Mechanics, and later there was also a separate class for Garden Labourers. Classes for children were usually limited to wild flowers and collecting queen wasps, and there was a single cookery class for cooked potatoes. There was a rule that anyone who won the prize for the best garden or best collection of vegetables could not also win any other prize although this was sometimes forgotten, as the results from 1891 show.
The Harvest Home celebrations continued in the same format until 1914 and from then there was only the Harvest Festival Sunday service in the church.
© 2021 Richard J Smith