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Plough Monday

Plough Monday

A farmer’s lot is not an easy one as there is always work to be done somewhere and nothing demonstrates this better than ‘Plough Monday’. Not that long ago the success of the harvest would mean the difference between having food on the winter table or not. So it is no startling revelation that the moorland farmers would invoke whatever help they could get from divine sources. No sooner had the last dried up holly berry fallen from the Christmas wreath than it was time to start preparations for the coming year’s crops. Traditionally Plough Monday occurred on the first Monday after Twelfth Night (5th January) as this was when the Christmas festivities officially ended and serious work resumed. A key tool of the forthcoming labours was the plough and so this would be cleaned and sharpened ready for work. However, all was not quite lost, as tradition saw Plough Monday as a day of ceremony or basically a ‘ramsammy’. It was also a chance for the young men to recoup some of their Christmas expenses with the odd coin or two, oh and then to promptly spend it down the ale-house.

So what happened on Plough Monday? It is thought that originally this was a day when the Lord of the Manor would put on a feast for the local peasantry to mark the beginning of the working year. Sometime in the 1500’s Thomas Tusser penned the following verse:

Good huswives, whom God hath enriched ynough,

forget not the feasts that belong to the plough:

The meaning is only to joy and to be glad,

for comfort with labour is fit to be had…

Plough Monday, nest after that twelftide is past,

bids out with the plough, the worst husband is last:

If plowman get hatchet, or whip to the skreene,

maids loseth their cocke, if no water be seen.

Now before everybody starts reporting the site for obscene language there are a couple of things that must be understood. In early times the tradition was that all the workers had a competition to see who could be up and at their chores the earliest on Plough Monday. If the ploughman could get any of his work-a-day tools by the kitchen hearth before the maid had a kettle of water boiling then she forfeited her Shrove-tide cock, hence, “maids loseth their cocke, if no water be seen.” Having done a good days work the labourers would then be rewarded with a celebration supper washed down with bucket loads of ale and cider. In earlier times some villages would drag a plough into church for a blessing – “God Speed the Plough,” and all that. This ceremony normally took place on the first Sunday after Epiphany (6th January). I know, I know, but what happened on Plough Monday? Well, tis like this, the young men of the village or town would drag a plough around the streets. In some places the men would wear white shirts and have their faces blackened with soil, this could vary a bit if the soil was red. They would then go from house to house asking for small donations for the ‘plough’. Which if the local inn was called the ‘Plough’ nothing could be closer to the truth. As with any ‘street collection’ there could be a penalty for anyone who did not dig into their pockets deep enough. In some cases it could be that the plough was brought into the alleged ‘miser’s’ garden and dragged around a few times. Now this is one aspect I could never get my head around – you don’t ‘dosh up’ so you must pay a penalty, fair enough, but the penalty is that you get your garden nicely ploughed in readiness for your ‘teddies’ – well thank you very much, see you again next year. In some parts of the moor it was the common practice to decorate the plough with any seasonal flora that was available. Having collected enough ‘bribe money’ the lads would then retire down to the ale-house and then wait for the famous Tavistock Badger to pay them a visit. I don’t know if it was just a family thing but I can remember uncle always sprinkled a, “drap o’ firejuice,” on the plough shares before the first furrow was cut. It must have been a pretty serious belief because it was unheard of for any relation of old ‘John Barleycorn’ to go anywhere but down his throat.

In order to add some extra clout to the devotions to the ‘Spirit of the Harvest’ it was also imperative to plough the ‘neck‘ or ‘corn dolly‘ which was taken from the previous harvest into the first furrow ploughed either on or just after Plough Monday. To do this would ensure a good harvest but to fail to observe this tradition was to invite ‘tare and rook’ to decimate the growing crop. It appears that the tradition of Plough Monday died out on the moor around the late 1900’s but the church blessing has been revived by some Young Farmer’s clubs.

Personally I think this is a tradition that should be revived on a national basis. It seems that however long one’s Christmas Break is, there is always that sinking feeling on New Year’s Day that work begins the following morn. Well with this idea there would be one last fling before the serious stuff resumes. Still I suppose the way things are these days it would have to be a two day event as the following day would be needed to recover from the bucketfuls of ale and cider – which put into context would be head-blowing lager and iced Magners cider.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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