Harvest was an incredibly important time in the lives of our ancestors, one that not only determined the success of the year’s work, but also the fate of the people involved. A successful harvest was a celebration, but if the harvest were to fail, this would often mean a long, potentially fatal winter ahead.
The final step of the yearly harvest is the threshing. Threshing is the process of removing the edible wheat or corn from the stalk of the plant, so each separate component can be used for its intended purpose – whether that be as food, thatch, animal bedding or something else.
Traditionally carried out with a flail, two pieces of stick joined by a leather band. The process of threshing was physically demanding and very time consuming. Machines to do the work were first developed at the end of the eighteenth century and could carry out this important job at least 12 times faster than by hand. Wind, water or horsepower could drive threshing machines. However, steam became the most popular method with mobile steam engines driven to the field in order to complete the task.
The process, when done by machine, is completed by a threshing drum, run by the steam engine. The grain is separated from the stalk and comes out of the end of the threshing drum into bags. The stalk then comes out of another section.
We sometimes have a steam powered threshing machine onsite in the autumn, threshing triticale – a wheat/rye mix with long stalks, suited for both thatching and animal bedding, as well as grain which we use to feed the ducks and poultry on site and oats which we use to feed the horses.
The vehicle in the images shown that is used to power the threshing machine, is a Burrell 3935 7nhp Traction Engine, named ‘Surprise’. This class of machine was manufactured by Charles Burrell & Sons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It has a robust and compact design, making it suitable for a variety of tasks on the farm, including powering the threshing machine. Nhp stands for ‘nominal horse power’, which means that this engine could carry out the work of seven horses!
‘Surprise’ was ordered in 1922 by J P Morgan to power a sawmill on his estate at Wall Hall, Aldenham Herts. She had various owners until 2004 when she was deemed to require boiler work and was dismantled. She was recommissioned in 2019 and attended her first event in August that year, after a 15 year absence.