Henfield Museum houses an interesting collection of farm implements from bygone days, many of which have been donated by local farms; one such tool is a flail from the 14th century Rye Farm. Consisting of two pieces of wood, one light rod several feet long called the handstaff or helve and one shorter rod, the beater or swipple, joined together by a thong, the flail was traditionally used to separate cereal grains from the plant by hand, a process called threshing. With a flail, one man could thresh 7 bushels of wheat, 8 of rye, 15 of barley, 18 of oats or 20 of buckwheat in a day (one bushel equals about 35 litres). Machine threshing slowly overtook the flail and made rapid progress after 1850. Andrew Meikle (1719-1811), a Scottish millwright, was credited with inventing the first threshing machine which was initially powered by horses then steam.
In the early days this progress was met with considerable resistance, especially in the South, as hand threshing provided much needed employment to at least a quarter of agricultural workers during the winter months. When farmers tried to introduce threshing machines it proved a catalyst for riots. These riots became known as the Captain Swing Riots - Captain Swing was a mythical figure whose name was used to sign threatening letters that rebel labourers sent to farmers – it was reputed that the use of this name was a reference to the ‘swinging’ motion of the flail. Amongst many paintings in the Museum depicting life in and around Henfield, is one of a threshing machine by local artist, Veronica Burleigh (1909-1999) who moved to Blackstone in the 1970’s. She was a member of the Society of Women’s Artists from 1932-1991 and studied at Slade School of Art under Henry Tonks. Both her mother and father were also well regarded Sussex artists and some of their paintings are on display at Brighton Museum.
VITA BARNES (MUSEUM VOLUNTEER)
Extract from the March 17 edition of The Parish Magazine.
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