I swore I wasn’t going to get involved this year. I’ve got enough. But I had such an exciting phone call last night…
They’re shearing today (I know, I know, I can hear the cries of ‘get a life’).
We’ve had some warmer days, and off we go. I can get in the spare room, and there aren’t any fleeces in the shed – there never are at this time of year; they’re all washed and in the loft but that’s beside the point; semantic quibbling. This particular farm have lovely sheep, interesting breeds – some BFL crosses – and, my weakness, some coloured fleeces. I’ve said I’ll have one.
I’ve been thinking about sheep shearing as a result. There’s no doubt that this is the time for it, even though the Limbourg Brothers represented it in July in the Tres Riches Heures.
Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, in which the sheep-shearing festival is so important, had its first recorded performance on 15 May – officially Whitsuntide in Jacobean London, a favourite time for staging similar pastoral dramas, but I’m happy with the near coincidence. And that got me thinking about sheep-shearing feasts.
They used to be such a significant part of the farming year, and the rural year as a whole, and yet they’ve gone, leaving barely a trace in the memory. Well, other than folk songs (which usually seem to connect sheep shearing and beer, quelle surprise), and mentions in literature which usually need explanation nowadays. The importance of the feast, Autolycus and associated almost-anarchy in the Winter’s Tale; Bathsheba’s feast – sorry, Belshazzar, but I couldn’t resist subverting your feast – in Far From the Madding Crowd… gone.
Mind you, I always found the image of Bathsheba Everdene inside with the shearers outside rather unsettling – rise up, boys! – so perhaps it’s just as well that some aspects have gone:
‘At the shearing supper, a long table was placed on the grass plot beside the house, the end of the table being thrust over the sill of the wide parlour window and a foot or two into the room. Miss Everdene sat inside the window, facing down the table. She was thus at the head without mingling with the men.’
But they were actually disappearing when Hardy was writing, or at least farmer participation was becoming less common. For instance, William Hone (The Every-day Book) wrote of feasts in the 1820s that they were ‘fast sinking into disuse, as a scene of mirth and revelry, for the want of being encouraged and partaken in by the “great ones of the earth”…’
But who cared about the presence of the boss, when it came down to it? The celebrations were one of the ‘four feasts in the year for us folk’ – J. Arthur Gibbs, quoted in A Cotswold Village, 1898. He went on to explain: ‘First of all there was the sowers’ feast, that would be about the end of April; then came the sheep-shearers’ feast – there’d be about fifteen of us as would sit down after sheep shearing, and we’d be singing best part of the night, and plenty to eat and drink… ‘[the other feasts were for the reapers in July, and the harvest in September].
And some of the songs survive. The best known, and most often quoted – possibly because it was a favourite of the Copper family of Rottigdean, a family every twentieth-century, middle-class folk-song collector appears to have visited – is often known as ‘The Black Ram’, and basically celebrates beer. By the way, the ‘master’ is the leader of a shearing gang, not the farmer – and note, incidentally, how shearing has become an exclusively male occupation. Yes, sheep had gradually increased in size and weight since the Middle Ages, but the explanation for the exclusivity is undoubtedly more social than practical:
Come all my jolly boys, and we’ll together go
Abroad with our masters to shear the lamb and ewe…
When all our work is done, and all the sheep are shorn,
then home with the captain, to drink the ale that’s strong
It’s a barrel of the hum-cap, which we call The Black Ram
And we do sit and swagger, we swear that we are men
And yet before the night is through, I’ll bet you half a crown
That if you hadn’t a special care, that Ram will knock you down.
Marking the end of shearing seems to have been almost universal. In Perthshire, there are records – which I find very difficult to believe – of shearers ending a heavy day’s clipping with a little celebratory hammer-throwing or shot-putting. I’m afraid I’ll go for a spot of Black Ram and a feast in the credibility stakes…
Some of the old Suffolk people interviewed in the 1950s by George Ewart Evans, the oral historian, talked about the feasts they remembered. Bands of shearers were formed from men who had quite different jobs the rest of the year – working on the herring boats, for instance – and the ‘sheep-shearing frolic or supper’ would take place before the company dispersed. Singing was a central feature of the Suffolk frolic, but with songs specifically relating to sheep-clipping (Evans cites a version of The Black Ram, but there are plenty of others). And the getting together with friends and neighbours, some of whom you might hardly see the rest of the year, is another common feature, of course, here as elsewhere. In Wales, for instance, there’s the ‘cyfnewid’ – exchange – tradition of each neighbour gathering in turn, helped by the others.
Sheep-shearing in Nantglyn, by John Thomas, approx. 1885.
National Library of Wales
On the North York Moors, the gatherings for shearing were widely anticipated. And the food at the feasts, as you might expect from North Yorkshire, could be spectacular. Marie Harley and Joan Ingleby note that ‘Forty-four men are remembered sitting down to a meal at High Row Mires, Hartoft. “Nearly a feast” was put on beginning at ten o’clock, with special clipping-day cheesecakes cooked with butter spread on them, for dinner a hot roast and baked suet pudding followed by plum pudding with rum sauce, and later [!!] a cold supper included pease pudding…’ (Life in the Moorlands of North-East Yorkshire, 1972)
I’m willing to bet that the ‘cheesecakes’ were proper Yorkshire curd tarts, and now I must go and get a cuppa and a slice of something. Ahem.