ALAN STROUD WRITES: UNTIL the middle of the last century, harvest time was a major event on the Isle of Wight.

For a month, an army of casual labourers would invade the Island’s fields and meadows until all was safely gathered in.

An entry in the Northwood School diary in August 1886 confirms it was all hands to the pump: “A small attendance the last two weeks as the children are kept at home to carry meals to the harvest field for their fathers.”

And no wonder — the harvest took every pair of spare hands. It took 30 men a whole day to cut a ten-acre field of wheat by hand — a task that now takes a combine harvester barely two hours.

And today there’s no waiting for weeks for the threshing machine to come and separate the grain from the stalks — the combine does it all, there and then, in one smug, effortless go.

In a County Press article in 1935, Katherine Hearn, a local historian, described a working day for harvest workers at Heasley Manor in the 1830s: “Thirty men were taken on during harvest. They began work at 4am with a pint of small beer, called a ‘dewlip’.

“At 7am breakfast was served, of pork, IW cheese, home-made bread and another pint of small beer.

“At 11am, another pint was served, and at noon the dinner cart arrived in the field. At 4pm the ‘nammet’, bread and cheese and small beer, was also sent out into the field.”

Contrary to popular belief, the workers were not drunk all day. ‘Small beer’ is a second, much weaker, brew from the brewer’s mash and had little, if any, alcohol in it.

Some did manage to get a real drink, though. For many years, County Press editor Walter Sibbick, wrote a column under the pen name ‘Vectensis’, featuring accounts of rural life.

In 1952 he wrote: “Arthur Williams, of Gatcombe, tells me the last man to brew real farmhouse beer in the Island was the late Henry Orchard, of Chale.

“Mr Williams had some there in 1906, and tells me it was ‘jolly good stuff’. He says Albert Henton, of Loverstone Farm, Chillerton, can remember helping to brew farmhouse beer in a large tub which had four taps at different levels — No. 1 was ‘Admiral’, No. 2, ‘Knock me down’, No. 3, ‘Six o’clock’, and No. 4, ‘What the little pigs wrassel for’.

“The first was for dealers who called, to get them into good humour for a deal. Once the men in the harvest field were given the wrong mixture and they were all good for nothing by teatime.”

In 1961, Vectensis came face to face with the future: “Last week I made my first close acquaintance with a combine harvester when I watched Mr Scott Blake and his men cutting a field of barley at Blackwater.

“My mind went back to my boyhood when I was thrilled to lead the ‘trace-hoss’ while the sheaves were loaded on the waggon; or when the mowers, wielding their scythes with a regular swish, laid the cut corn in neat swaths, and at intervals stopped at the cry of ‘whet!’ to draw their whetstones and strike a sweet-ringing note as they put a keener edge on their blades.

“Today’s changes left me with a nostalgia for the more peaceful, more musical harvesting of yore.”

In 1983, Colin Fairweather and I made recordings of Islanders, then in their 80s, talking about their childhood and working lives.

Among them was my wife’s grandmother, Lily Young, who at 13 started work as a maid at Dottens Farm, Gurnard.

“Harvest time at Dottens was wonderful,” she said. “There’d be about 30 men to cut it and then it was made up into great big ricks to store it and then a month or so later, when it had dried out, the thresher would come.

“Oh, lovely sound it was. Course, the rats used to get into the rick and when they came rushing out we’d hit ‘em on the head. Some of the mice used to escape but the dogs was pretty hot on ‘em.”

Fred Long, well-known Porchfield farmer, told us in 1984: “You never had no trouble to get haymakers those days. Soon as the grasscutters started rattling, there was about four blokes looking over the gate, ‘Any chance of a job?’

“We’d get the hay in with ‘em and take it in the rickyard and then make ricks of it.

“You’d get four or five hay ricks — some of ‘em was 20 yards long and about eight yards wide.

“They was all in a line through the rick yard. Used to look a treat, all thatched in.

“Perhaps you finished harvest first and somebody next to you still had some out. Well, you went and helped them get it in so it didn’t get wet, but I think today they’d be more likely to laugh at you if you got some corn out there getting wet.

“There ain’t the sort of camaraderie between farmers as what there was in my young days. You was all the peasant-farmer type, born and bred to it.

“You never had businessmen trying to farm, and there wasn’t everybody rushing about as if they was going to die tomorrow morning about eight o’clock, like they do now on farms.”

Quite what Fred would think of farming today, we can only guess.