Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Haymaking tools, and things made with hay and straw

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

Hay (cut and mown grass, dried for fodder) is a harvested crop. Straw (the stems or stalks, dried and separated by threshing of cereal crops) is a by-product of harvesting. Hay was used to feed livestock when pasture was not in good condition. There is an Essex hay-band twister made by Arthur Lee of White Roding, Essex and donated by Miller Christy considered to be of old fashioned form even in 1907 [1907.28.1] in the collections. There is also an hay-band twister for making hay or straw rope to bind trusses from Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire and used by the Busby family. This was donated by Gordon Busby [1939.5.2] A related artefact is the rope of horse hair used by shepherds for carrying hay and holding it in place on windy hillsides in the 19th century. Horse hair was believed not to swell, contract or rot. Makers often plaited in one colour to indicate the maker and another for the year of making. The rope had been used by the donor, W.F. Pratley's father, who had been born in 1826.

The museum also a series of items associated with straw-splitting for the straw plaiting industry, many from Bedfordshire which was considered a centre for this activity. These were called wanzers (from the verb to 'wanze', to diminish or render lean (OED definition)). A set of 24 brass straw-splitting instruments and bundle of split straws was donated by Francis Williams in 1912. They were used about 50 years ago by villagers and schoolchildren in the straw-plaiting industry (straw-hat making etc) in Bedfordshire villages. The set was in a tin box in which it was kept on the mantleshelf of a cottage near Luton where the instruments were used [1912.90.1-26] The donor remarked in a letter to the Curator of the PRM on 17 December 1912, 'I have been offered a set with the split straws for 6/-. They have acquired a similar set for the Herts Museum here & the man has another set, picked up in a village near Luton...'. One is a set of 13 tools of wood with bone blades, used for splitting straws for the straw-plaiting industry from Edward Burnett Tylor [1917.53.420] Another are 3 steel straw splitters into 4, 6 or 7 strips from Bedfordshire donated by Henry Balfour [1897.6.7-9] Further items, donated by James Edge Partington, were an instrument for flattening straw, and additional straw splitters from an old cottage in Wymondley, Hertfordshire [1905.17.1-3] Similar objects were obtained from Kidlington in Oxfordshire [1911.78.1], a wanzer from Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire [1896.64.7], 3 more from Blockley in Worcestershire [1898.57.6-8]. The wikipedia entry for straw-plaiting describes the process:

The straw of certain varieties of wheat cultivated in [the Bedfordshire region] is, in favorable seasons, possessed of a fine bright color and due to tenacity and strength.[sic] The straw is cut as in ordinary harvesting, but is allowed to dry in the sun, before binding. Subsequently straws are selected from the sheaves, and of these the pipes of the two upper joints are taken for plaiting. The pipes are assorted into sizes by passing them through graduated openings in a grilled wire frame, and those of good color are bleached by the fumes of sulphur. Spotted and discoloured straws are dyed either in pipe or in plait. The plaiters work up the material in a damp state, either into whole straw or split straw plaits. Split straws are prepared with the aid of a small instrument having a projecting point which enters the straw pipe, and from which radiate the number of knife-edged cutters into which the straw is to be split. The plaiting of straw in the counties of Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Berkshire and Hertfordshire formerly gave employment to many thousands of women and young children. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_Plaiting accessed on 21 January 2008]