Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Agricultural tools used for harvesting cereal crops

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project


1905.74.4 Ancient iron socketed sickle

1905.74.4 Ancient iron socketed sickle

A sickle is a curved, hand-held agricultural tool typically used for harvesting cereal crops or cutting grass for hay. The inside of the curve is the cutting edge, and is serrated. The farm-hand swings the blade against the base of the crop, cutting through the stems with a sawing action. The sickle was superceded in the nineteenth century by the scythe which was more comfortable and by mechanised combine-harvesters and tractor machinery.
We have many sickles in our collections:

1897.69.1 .1-2 Sickle & flail from Minster Lovell purchased from Bateman
1899.78.11 .1-3 Old sickle made at Blackbeck, Cumberland, used until 1825, and two blades of similar sickles purchased from William Downing Webster
1899.21.1 small iron sickle with screw-thread at end for fixing into a handle. From unknown locality, not definitely English. Probably part of a multi-bladed mechanical reaping-machine. Henry Swainson Cowper was the donor. John Anstee of the Museum of English Rural Life did not believe it was English
1904.39.1-6 3 iron reaping sickles and 3 sickle blades without handles, formerly used in reaping at South Leigh, Oxfordshire; obsolete by 1904. Donated by Reverend Arthur East of South Leigh, near Witney.
1905.20.1 Sheffield-made sickle, bought at Ripon in 1904 for 1/-. Donated by Cecil Vincent Goddard
1905.74.4 Ancient iron socketed sickle found in the Thames, Marlow and donated by Sydney Gerald Hewlett
1911.29.47 Old reaping-sickle, Littlemore, Oxon, obtained around 1894 but used until circa 1840. Donated by Percy Manning.
1912.55.16-20 Suffolk Reaping hook or sickle, "flasher" (a sickle-shaped long knife used with reaping-hook) and gathering-hook of iron wire used in reaping, "Bale" or gathering fork, attached to scythe when used for reaping corn. All donated by James Edge Partington
1939.5.1 Old English sickle, donated by Gordon Busby from Minster Lovell Oxfordshire, used by his father & grandfather.

1940.5.60-2 3 specimens of the toothed reaping-hook, or sickle, one time common in the British Isles. No 62 has the maker's label "Thomas and Joseph Hutton". According to notes made by museum staff:"A member of the firm (at Sheffield) states that it would be hand-made fifty years ago or over", the letter being dated Feb. 1949 donated Walter William Skeat. Correspondence from Thomas Bagshawe to Beatrice Blackwood concerning the origins of sickle 1940.5.62 Bagshawe states that 'I have since been able to reach the maker of this in Sheffield. She ... says: "We should be able to tell you more about the sickle you mention if we knew the colour of the label, the length of the sickle, whether it has teeth, if so how many to the inch?" I know the sickle has teeth but forgot to take note of the colour of the label, its length and number of teeth to the inch. . . . It is only the second sickle I have ever seen with its maker's label.' [27 December, 1948]. In the second letter, Bagshawe writes that 'Mrs M.G. Hutton, widow of the last head of the firm writes: "I am returning the sketch of the sickle which we cannot place except that it would be hand-made fifty years ago or over." The firm of Hutton goes back to at least 1666 on which date one Richard Hutton was born. He became apprenticed to the sickle trade. The family comes from Ridgeway, Sheffield, and the present firm of T. & J. Hutton & Co. Ltd., is located at the same place. [13 February, 1949].
1945.11.174 Sickle, with saw-edge of the mid 19th century Unknown donor (possibly Henry Balfour)
1947.5.9 iron sickle probably from Essex donated by Violet Murray, described as 'ordinary' by donor
1949.11.2 Sickle, curved iron blade. Used by John Wilkes' mother, Emily Wilkes. Made by Tomlin, Kettering (stamp on blade just distinguishable). Size 2 Wigginton, Oxfordshire
1949.11.3 Sickle, made by Tomlin, Kettering. Size 3. Donated by John Wilkes via Beatrice Blackwood Wigginton, Oxfordshire
1949.11.4 Sickle, made by Tomlin, Kettering. No size (larger than 1949.11.3 [size 3]). Blade fixed with scrap of leather. Handle has been badly worm-eaten (treated). Again donated by John Wilkes via Beatrice Blackwood Wigginton, Oxfordshire

Fagging tools

1911.29.48 Fagging hook donated by Percy Manning

1911.29.48 Fagging hook donated by Percy Manning

1911.29.49 Fagging stick donated by Percy Manning

1911.29.49 Fagging stick donated by Percy Manning

'Fagging-hooks' and 'sticks' are small hooked scythe-like tools used to cut crops and straw close to the ground. The fagging-hook is used at arm's length.

According to the Museum of English Rural Life at Reading:

'the smooth-edged hook succeeded the serrated sickle for reaping corn in many places about 1860-1870. Fagging tools have sharp blades and are heavier and wider than sickles and used with a different action. Instead of grasping the corn, the reaper held back the stalks or drew them towards him with a short crook called a fagging stick and slashed through the straw rather than sawing it as with a sickle. A larger quantity of corn was cut at one swing, though time was taken up with sharpening the blade. The hooks are still used today for trimming hedges and cutting crops close to hedges or walls that cannot be reached by machine.'

We have several examples:
1911.29.48-49 "Fagging-hook" and "fagging-stick", Cowley, Oxfordshire, 1896. donated by Percy Manning
1933.51.7 Large iron 'fagging-hook', Devon. Donated by Henry Balfour


Chaff is the term for the husks of corn or other grain which has been separated by threshing or winnowing. However, it is also used for hay or straw which has been cut into very short lengths. A chaff-cutter is the machine which cuts the short lengths. It turns the coarse fodder into a form which is more palatable for livestock. We have one chaff-cutter:
1958.8.3 Iron blade of obsolete box chaff cutter, length 34.5 inches. Tang and loop at one end for attachment to the cross-piece at the business end of the machine. Other end tanged, originally bearing a wooden handle. Mr W. Currill or Curill, the donor, aged 75, collected this at Hockmere Street, Cowley and remembers, as a child, seeing such chaff-cutters in use.


1949.11.1 Flail donated by John Wilkes

1949.11.1 Flail donated by John Wilkes

A flail is an instrument for threshing corn by hand, consisting of a wooden staff or handle, at the end of which a stouter and shorter pole or club, called a swingle or swipple, is hung so as to swing freely. It separates the grain from their husks. We have a few examples:
1902.37.2 Flail for threshing, Broomfield near Chelmsford, Essex donated by Miller Christy
1911.29.51-2 2 old threshing-flails, Littlemore, Oxon. Donated by Percy Manning
1920.13.1 Long-handled corn-flail used for threshing on Hinnings House Farm, Ravenglass donated by William Henry Walker
1920.14.1 Long-handled flail used for threshing corn on Burnthwaite Farm in Cumbria donated by William Henry Walker
1939.5.3 Swivel-flail, used by his father & grandfather, donated by Gordon Busby from Minster Lovell Oxfordshire
1909.59.16 Old Oxfordshire threshing-flail purchased from William H. Parker, a dealer in Oxford.
1949.11.1 Flail with leather hinge. Donor (an old man) used it during the 1939-45 war in an emergency. Belonged to his father. Donated by John Wilkes via Beatrice Blackwood Wigginton, Oxfordshire
1961.7.10 Sussex flail; in two parts joined by leathern thong, 2' 7" and 3' 11". Dated 1894. Used for threshing corn. Donated by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew via Frank Norman Howes

Winnowing tools

1903.44.2 Man using a winnowing basket, Cambridge. Photo purchased from Francis Darwin.

1903.44.2 Man using a winnowing basket, Cambridge. Photo purchased from Francis Darwin.

1903.44.1 Winnowing basket

1903.44.1 Winnowing basket

To winnow is to expose grain or other substances to the wind or current of air so that the lighter particles, the chaff, are separated or blown away, so that only the grains remain. We have one example from England:
1903.44.1 Winnowing basket (vannus) Cambridgeshire. Now almost obsolete donated by Francis Darwin, son of Charles Darwin

Miscellaneous harvesting tool

1947.5.8 Winding handle for binding corn donated by Violet Murray probably from Essex. The donor described it as 'more unique' than other objects she donated [sic]
1931.58.8 Balance for testing the weight and quality of cereals, ENGLISH, 19th century Donated by Henry Balfour

Further reading






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