A Threshing Day on a Farm in the 1920 ("Millie Day")
MFC Paper 50 by Allan Rose 1981
In those days all threshing contractors had mills which were pulled on the road by steam engines, and powered by them when working. The engines with which I was familiar were “Fowlers”, the first one being, I think, 5 Nominal Horse Power (N.H.P.) and the second one 7 N.H.P. The mills were 4‘ 0″ or 4′ 6″ drum width, and were made by firms called, as I can remember, “Marshall”, “Clayton & Shuttleworth”, Crighton” and “Allan Brothers”, but there must have been more. Later on, in the early 1930’s, there was a 5′ 0″ Marshall working in our area.
In the 1920’s the mills separated the grain from the straw and chaff, the grain dropped into sacks and the straw falling onto an elevator which could be raised and turned to left or right of the mill. The chaff fell on to ground under the machine.
Preparations for a days threshing really began during harvest when stacks of grain were built in two parallel lines opposite each other, and about 12′ 0″ apart.
Preparations for the actual day were something else again! Sacks for the grain had to be got home, about a ton of coal for the engine was needed for a full days work, and had to be placed near by. Water had also to be provided, by hose or water cart, twine for sack tying, and ropes for fixing down the straw.
The working team of men and women had to be engaged and were divided out as follows:— Two women to “lowse”, that is, to cut the twine binding the sheaves, three men to fork the sheaves from the stacks on to the mill, two and sometimes three men to weigh, tie and remove the sacks of grain, four or five men to build the “sow” or straw stacks and one man to remove the chaff, about 14 in all.
The two mill men fed the sheaves to the mill and tended the engine turn and turn about.
The outfit usually reached the farm in the early evening, between 5 and 7 o’clock, depending on the distance to travel and the time of finishing work that day.
Lighting in those days was by paraffin lantern. Two white lanterns hung on the front of the engine and a red one hung on the rear of the mill.
Setting up and levelling the mill and placing the engine behind it didn’t take long, and the fire would then be drawn out. Kindling material got ready for the morning, and the cover tied over the engine, and the mill men were ready for their tea and home to bed.
By 7 o’clock in the morning the engine would have “steam up” and the driving belt in place and more or less prompt 7 o’clock the throttle gently opened and the hum of the mill meant that a hard days work was starting.
As all the men and women knew what to do there was no confusion, the men who were to fork the sheaves to the “lowsers” pulled the thatch from the stacks and started pitching, and in a matter of minutes the first of the grain was running. A slight adjustment of the grain screen might have to be made.
The screen is an adjustable wire drum, along the inside of which flowed the grain. The small weed seeds fell through first, further along 2nd quality grain dropped, and the first grade seeds flowed over the end.
Sometimes the “hummler”, which was a sort of heavy pipe with a shaft running along the centre and which had a lot of blades set at an angle and revolving at the same speed as the threshing drum, about 1100 R.P.M., and which beat off the “yarins”, that is, the beard of the barley had to be closed or opened a little to suit the type of grain being threshed.
Unless the mill had to be shifted, work was continuous till “tea break”, about 9 o’clock, then on again until 12 o’clock, dinnertime, then from 1 o’clock to 4 o’clock, giving an 8 hour day.
In some districts where there were few or no barn mills, the portable mill would move from farm to farm threshing a half day at some and a full day at others and the farm workers from each moving with it.
In our district there was little of this method and casual hands had to be engaged and paid, as far as I can recall about 10 shillings (50 pence) for an 8 hour day.
I have used the local Scots word “lowser” which is probably a corruption of “losener”, dating from the time before self-tying reaper-binders, when all sheaves were tied with straw bands when gathered behind the scythe, or later, behind the “back delivery” reaper which preceded the binder.
The amount of grain threshed out in a day varied a lot, but would have been some 14 to 18 tons, I think. As the straw weighed about the same, that meant that some 28 – 36 tons of material was being handled by man power alone.
The sacks of grain weighed 2.25 cwt. for wheat, 2 cwt. for barley and 1.5 cwt. for oats, and were usually built up 2 high and covered with straw and tarpaulins. These sacks were hired from the Railway Co. at a cost of half penny per week, as I remember.
At about 4 o’clock threshing ceased and the mill was got ready for the road, lamps lit and with a final shout of “Cheerio” the throttle would be eased back and they would be on their way to the next farm to do the same job there.