As we move from summer into autumn and our farmers have brought in the harvest, some communities will be holding Harvest Festivals to commemorate this.

This week I have asked local historian Neil Rees to tell us more about this long-standing tradition.

By Neil Rees


In the days before mechanisation, whole communities, including children, were needed to help bring in the harvest. Schools broke up to allow teachers and children to assist on the farms, which is the origin of the long summer school holidays.

Six weeks was considered necessary in Bucks, being four weeks for the hay harvest, and then two weeks for the corn harvest.

Harvest Thanksgivings

The Book of Common Prayer, used by the Church of England, provides for special Thanksgiving prayers for specific occasions such as rain after drought, peace, deliverance from plague, and for plenty.

In years when there was an abundant harvest a Harvest Thanksgiving Day was called to thank God for the harvest. One such Harvest Thanksgiving held by the English settlers in New England in 1621 is the origin of the American Thanksgiving tradition.

Following an abundant harvest in 1842, the Church of England called for Harvest Thanksgiving services to be held on October 2, 1842. The mid-1840s were then years of poor harvests known as the Hungry Forties, particularly the Irish Potato Famine. When there was a great harvest again in 1847, a national Harvest Thanksgiving Day was set for October 17, 1847 when churches made collections for poor relief in Ireland. Poor harvests again followed, but in 1854 there was another bumper harvest. A national Thanksgiving Day was set for October 1, 1854.

Abundant harvests followed in five consecutive years from 1855 to 1859. In these years Harvest Thanksgiving services were held in places of worship across England to thank God. Originally the last sheaf or sheaves of corn might be brought into the church, but over time church interiors started to be decorated more elaborately with flowers, vegetables and fruit. By the 1860s the idea of annual Harvest Thanksgiving services had become established as a popular event. These church services became normal across all denominations by the late 1870s. Harvest hymns with biblical themes were written for them, and many are still sung today.

There was no set day for Harvest Thanksgivings. They were held one Sunday usually in September or October, depending on the local harvest. Collections were typically taken for the Bucks Infirmary in Aylesbury. These days the produce is often given to a local Food Bank.

From 1863 there was a United Harvest Thanksgiving held for all the non-conformist churches in High Wycombe, held at the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Priory Road.

It started with a great tea in the hall, followed by a service at the chapel. In 1875 it was attended by 800 people. The tradition was continued into the 1920s.

Harvest Suppers

After the ingathering of all the harvest and the final cartload was taken home to the farm, it had been the tradition for farmers to give a feast called a Harvest Home or Harvest Supper, or also called a “Hockey” in Hertfordshire.

The fare was traditionally roast beef and boiled vegetables, followed by plum pudding, with plenty of beer. It was typically in a barn, and but was sometimes in a local pub. Farmers and workers sat together as equals.

They gave toasts, and had singing and dancing into the late hours.

The vicar was often invited to say a prayer before the meal. One such vicar Rev Henry Alford junior, son of Rev Henry Alford senior, vicar of Aston Sandford near Aylesbury, wrote a hymn called “Come, ye thankful people, come, Raise the song of harvest home!” This was published in 1844 and has been a popular harvest hymn ever since.

The farm Harvest Home tradition was dying in the Wycombe area in the Victorian era. One farmer who still continued it into the late 1850s was Mr Atkinson, who held an annual harvest home at the Rookery in Marlow.

Forty labourers sat down for a meal in two marquees. Later friends and neighbours were invited and they went into the late night dancing to tunes from the Wycombe Brass Band. Even then, the local newspaper remarked that this was old-fashioned.

Harvest Festivals

As the Victorian era went on, it became more common in villages that all the Harvest Homes and the Harvest Thanksgiving were being combined into a parochial Harvest Festival.

Instead of each farmer providing supper for his own workers, they waited until all the farmers had finished harvesting, and then made a parish-wide Harvest Supper.

These were typically held in a large marquee in the rectory garden or in a field, and the supper was before or after a Harvest Thanksgiving church service. The first recorded such event in Bucks, was at Waddesdon in 1854.

In 1857 the idea was adopted in Prestwood. From 1861 they were held at Chalfont St Giles when about 400 people went to church, and then had dinner in a marquee in a field. A great advocate for them was Disraeli also took up the idea at Hughenden from 1863.

A Harvest Thanksgiving service was held at St Michael’s Church, Hughenden which was decorated with flowers and foliage. Then about 200 farmers and labourers of his tenantry had a harvest lunch in a marquee in the field near the church.

In 1864 Wooburn Green held a parish Harvest Thanksgiving which was followed by harvest tea for 1,000 people in a large marquee.

Harvest Festivals in pubs

Harvest Thanksgiving services were also held in places like schools and public houses, usually led by a local church minister. Pubs which had their own Harvest Festivals in the 1950s were the Wendover Arms, Desborough Avenue; the Rifle Butts, London Road, Wycombe Marsh; and at the Bird in Hand, West Wycombe Road, High Wycombe.

A harvest festival was also held at the Black Horse at Lacey Green organised by licensee Mr A Ridgley.


These traditions continue. It is common that rural churches and primary schools have a Harvest Thanksgiving in September or October, and some churches still have a Harvest Supper. Why not join one near you?