For those of you not familiar with the "Horkey", here is a brief explanation of the tradition, and our evocation of it:
The horkey is a Suffolk (East Anglian?) celebration of the end of the harvest. It is fairly well documented in local literature. Spike Mays in "Reuben's Corner" and other work refers to the practice at the turn of the century. George Ewart Evans, who conducted some ground breaking work in oral history in East Anglia, makes frequent references to the tradition in his books, particularly "Ask the fellows who cut the hay".
There are several aspects that Little Egypt have borrowed. When fields were being reaped by hand, some stooks of corn were left in the field to indicate that the field was still being worked. When those last stooks were removed, it was taken as an indication that gleaning could begin. When the last load of the harvest was removed to the barns, the waggon was "topped out" with an oak bough - the horkey bough - another indication that the harvest was over. As an evocation of this (NOT a recreation), we carry an oak bough through the village to our various dancing points (see my last mailing).
The sight of the horkey bough reaching the farm was a sign that the harvest celebration could take place. This normally took place at the farm, or a local hostelry. Often the farmer would provide some of the celebration meal, but the rest would be gathered together by the harvest team themselves, making use of money they had obtained by "Hollering Largesse" - demanding money from local tradespeople, or from peple who had stopped to watch them at work. Our collecting pot, known as Little Neville echoes this tradition, and our evening barn dance calls up the horkey feast.
The horkey feast was a challenge to the digestion and livers of those involved - just like any Morris ale, really - with singing and dancing and impromptu "turns".
The harvest was carried out by the ordinary farm workers, but they undertook a separate contract with the farmer for the harvest period, at a set rate, and for a set time.
One contract reads:
"We'll cut and secure all the corn in a workmanlike manner, make bottoms of the stacks, cover up when required, hoe the turnips twice and turn or lift the barley once, turn the pease once - each man to find a gaveller. For six men, two lads and a boy, for Twenty Four Fine Days, thirty pounds. Should any man lose any time through drunkenness, he is to forfeit five shillings to the company."
The "fine days" contract was to cover for bad weather. Apparently some contracts didn't specify this, and the men could lose out if it rained. The foreman of the farmworkers was normally elected "Lord of the Harvest" and also took charge of the horkey festivities. His second-in-command was called the Lady of the Harvest. Little Egypt begin our evocation by electing a Lord and Lady to supervise the day. I have no idea if the Horkey predates Victorian clerical attempts to sanitise the Harvest; I suspect the bough may be a hint that it does. One local semi-retired farmer still puts a bough on the front of his Combine Harvester as a reminder of the old tradition, and was highly delighted to hear that we in Little Egypt had resurrected the idea. As I have said, we only claim to be evoking an old idea, and wouldn't dare to claim that our celebration is a tradition, except that we have done it for three years, and anything over two years old is a tradition in a side as recently formed as ours.
Go forward to full details of the 1999 Horkey.