11.14. Threshing Machines

The worst job on the farms at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, was threshing the corn with a flail. The flail was an instrument of two wooden rods joined together at a hinge. The worker hit the corn stalks on the ground of the barn, so as to separate the individual seeds from the stalk. The job was very tiring, it was done continuously for eight hours (with a pause for lunch), it made the clothes dirty, and there was a lot of dust in the air. (It was also dangerous, as an inexperienced man could hit himself on the back, with the backward movement of the outer rod!). But the work was financially important to the workers, as it made up more then 25 % of the work time outside the hay months and harvest month, and was paid better (+ 50 % to + 75 %) than the daily field-work. 

Ralph Hedley (1848-1913), “The Threshing Floor”, painted 1898. http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/hedley/paintings/3.html

(Eight hours a day!)

The Threshing Machine (or “Thrashing Machine”) was invented in Scotland by Andrew Meikle in 1784, and was introduced in the Southeast of Scotland and in Northumberland from 1790 to 1800. From 1800 to 1815 it was introduced into all the wheat areas of England; although more in the North, as it was financially more efficient on large farms. It was welcomed by the farmers, as it reduced the labour costs and made life easier for the men. At first it was supposed that the men would suffer financially, but in fact they did not lose their income, but rather were transferred to non-field jobs. The farmers were also interested in the machine, because there was a scarcity of men in the countryside in 1792 to 1815, as about 400,000 had been recruited into the armed forces, and they did not have enough workers; if there had not been this scarcity, it would have been more difficult to find work for the men who had been displaced from the flail work. 

“Experience has however fully proved, that the apprehensions then entertained were without foundation; because at no period has [sic] the working classes been more regularly employed, and better paid, than since the thrashing-machine was generally introduced.”

(The Farmer’s Magazine, Vol. 11, 1810, p. 53)

“VIII. In this country where hands are scarce, it is particularly useful, there being full employment in the fields for those who used to thresh; and as that laborious work generally fell to those who were advanced in years, and consequently less fit for active life, humanity may rejoice that they are, by this machine, freed from it, for their earnings were only in proportion to their labour.” [i.e. if they did not have the bodily strength to work all the day, they were not paid for the whole day]

(Young, Annals of Agriculture, Vol. 15,  1791, Letter of Mr. Wilkie, Yorkshire, p. 489)  

“The Threshing-machine is unquestionably one of the most valuable implements that has been either invented or introduced into Scotland, or any other country, in the present age. The saving of manual labour, and that of a very severe kind, by means of this invention, is perhaps beyond calculation, while the grain is separated from the straw, in a more perfect and expeditious manner, than what has hitherto been accomplished by any other instrument hitherto adopted.”

(Board of Agriculture / Sir John Sinclair, General Report of the Agricultural State, and Political Circumstances of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1814, p. 226)

“It is observed that the ten pounds per year that appears to be saved by the mill towards paying of the principal, as a farmer, he does not mean it for that purpose, nor to deprive the labourer so much of his employ, but is happy in finding himself so situated, as to get his corn ten per cent. cleaner thrashed, and with so much dispatch, and in so little time, that he can take his labourers to any business the farm may require, such as pruning fences, close or open draining; and so much cash that is saved by thrashing, laid out yearly in the employ of labourers, for those uses on the farm, will pay him fifty per cent. Better, and improve the farm more than keeping one man ten months in the year batting (a provincial phrase for thrashing) in the barn, or even to half the time, and thrashing with the flail. There is not one labourer in twenty, but who would rather do any labour on the farm, than thrash; and if he thrashes it clean, it is well; but if foul, and you find fault, the answer is, “get somebody else”, and he mostly quits your employ.”

(Board of Agriculture / Sherwood, Neely & Jones, General View of the Agriculture of Lancashire, 1815, pp. 169-170)

“The advance in the price of threshing, between the two years in question, may be attributed to the same causes as the advance of other labour connected with the farm, with the general objection labourers now have to that employment, whose capacities are adapted to any other method of obtaining a livelihood; and many will go miles for employment, sooner than thresh corn.”

(Arthur Young / Board of Agriculture, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Norfolk, 1804, letter from the Parish of Marsham, pp. 517-518)

The inventor, Mr. Mikle (or Miekle) wrote to Arthur Young in 1789 to give him some information (and he was also interested in selling his invention!)

“As to the queries you have pointed out to me, I shall answer them in their order.

  1. What is the expense, if erected, to go by wind, by water, by horses?- Answer; the expense, to go by two horses, is 60 l. sterling. To go by water or wind depends on the situation, and will come about 30 l. more than by horses.
  2. How many quarters of corn, wheat, and barley &c. does it thrash in one day?- Answer: it will thrash about thirty-seven quarters of barley or oats in ten hours; grain of the same quality takes one man to thrash seven bushels in the same time. Wheat and other grains in proportion to their quality and length of straw.
  3. What hands are necessary to attend it?- Answer: four hands are employed, viz. one feeding in the corn to the machine, one handing the sheaf of corn to the feeder, one throwing the sheaf to the door, and one driving the horses.
  4. Does it thrash clover?- Answer: clover has never been tried in this country, nor do I think the clover of this country fit to make trial off.
  5. Does the corn, in the straw, pass through any operation to prepare it for the mill?- Answer: none.
  6. How long will it work in common without repairs?- Answer: that depends greatly on the care that is taken of the machine, as she may go many years without any.
  7. Can common workmen repair it?- Answer: they can.
  8. Have you a patent for it?- We have.” 

(Arthur Young, Annals of Agriculture, Vol. 11, 1789, “Account of a New Thrashing Machine.”,by Mr. George Mikle, of Alloa, North Britain; pp. 62-64)

The process of the threshing machine was that the sheaves of corn were fed “head first” into a funnel, the heads of corn were broken by iron rods fixed to a revolving drum, the individual grains were deposited in a box, and the stalks fell to the ground. The drum could, using gearing, be moved at a high speed and with much force, as the motive power could be given by a windmilll, by a watermill, or by horses walking around in a circle and attached to the machine by a beam of perhaps 6 yards in length. 

The machines usually required two men, one woman, and two boys, plus two to four horses. They could thresh quantities of wheat at about 5 times the speed of men with flails.

(Arthur Young, Annals of Agriculture, Vol. 11, 1789, “Account of a New Thrashing Machine”, by Mr. George Mikle, of Alloa, North Britain; pp. 62-64)

The process of the threshing machine was that the sheaves of corn were fed “head first” into a funnel, the heads of corn were broken by iron rods fixed to a revolving drum, the individual grains were deposited in a box, and the stalks fell to the ground. The drum could, using gearing, be moved at a high speed and with much force, as the motive power could be given by a windmilll, by a watermill, or by horses walking around in a circle and attached to the machine by a beam of perhaps 6 yards in length. 

The machines usually required two men, one woman, and two boys, plus two to four horses. They could thresh quantities of wheat at about 5 times the speed of men with flails.

There were also small, hand-powered, threshing machines, which only cost 8 pounds:

Hand Threshers at Work, Berkshire, 1809

(Board of Agriculture / William Mavor, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Berkshire, 1809, plate facing p. 138)

The machine is probably being used for smaller crops, not wheat; it appears that there is no saving in labour.

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