Blaker Family of Sussex - Reminiscences
AFTER the hay was made came harvest, and I can recollect two different modes of cutting corn. The first was with the old reaping-hook or sickle, and was probably nearly or quite identical with that mentioned in the Bible. The straw was divided at a considerable distance from the ground, leaving stubble a foot or more high, which had to be cut afterwards. It was a grand covert for partridges. The sickle tapered to a point and for the last five or six inches had no cutting edge, the centre only being sharp. After the sickle came the "swap-hook." This did not taper to a point like the reap-hook, but was much wider, and was of the same breadth to the end, where it ended by an oblique margin from the back to the edge. By means of the swap-hook, the straw was cut close to the ground and a much fewer number of ears of corn were left for the gleaners. Both of these have now been superseded by the reaping machine, which not only cuts the corn but binds it into sheaves. The men usually employed on the farm cut the corn, and frequently were assisted by their wives and elder children who made the bonds, that is, united two wisps of straw, by a particular form of knot, just below the ears, and with these tied up the sheaves. But many casual labourers were necessary. These casual labourers were chiefly Irish or gypsies, with a few others who came from any neighbouring town for the harvest. The Irish kept the village in a state of excitement, mixed with a little fear. They were full of fun and mischief and reckless and regardless of consequences, especially after receiving wages, most of which was spent in drink. The Irish slept in barns and outhouses, or even under hedges, as did also the gypsies at times, though these latter lived chiefly in their caravans. They were most uncertain in their habits and would leave their work half done at a minute's notice or no notice at all and go to another job. They differed altogether from most of the gypsies of the present day. As a rule they had dark olive complexions, black hair and dark bright eyes. "Black as a gypsy" was a common expression. They spoke English well, but, I believe, among themselves used a language of their own. How they lived was a mystery, for they only worked by fits and starts for a few days together, and their time was generally spent in telling fortunes, begging and selling matches and other small articles which they brought to the door; besides this they had no visible means of getting a living. Perhaps a lurcher dog or two which accompanied almost every caravan, as well as the disappearance of poultry which took place when the gypsies were in the neighbourhood, might have been a clue towards solving the mystery. I well recollect, very many years ago, one rainy afternoon, which prevented their working, watching a family of gypsies in a barn. I think the family must have consisted of the father and mother and several children, one daughter nearly grown up and two or three acquaintances. They all sat or lay about upon the straw doing absolutely nothing, while one or two of the girls kept singing a peculiarly plaintive and monotonous but soothing and agreeable tune in a language, I believe, I did not know, for I could not catch a single word.