Mell-suppers and mell-acts, a long lost tradition of the harvest

A fine view of Roseberry and Black Bank.

Today is the autumnal equinox and a reminder that from now on the hours of darkness will exceed that of daylight.

By now harvest should be largely over. In our modern society harvest passes us by with hardly a notice.

The day before yesterday I wrote about ‘The Maid of the Golden Shoon‘ which Blakeborough suggested originated as a ‘Mell Act‘, performed in connection with the ‘Mell Supper‘.

The Rev. Canon Atkinson defines the ‘mell-supper‘ as the “supper given by the farmer to his work-people on the conclusion of the harvest1Atkinson, Rev. J. C. “Forty years in a moorland parish; reminiscences and researches in Danby in Cleveland” 1891. Page 240.. Even when Atkinson was writing this the tradition of the mell-supper was dying. It was “just a good substantial meal for those who had taken part in the gathering of the grain, and possibly a few friends invited by the farmer and the young folk, generally the farm lads and other hired help, had their table set in the kitchen, whilst the farmer, his family, and their guests enjoyed themselves in the dining-room.”2BLAKEBOROUGH, RICHARD. Chats with our Grandmothers. CHAT IX. MELL SUPPERS| Northern Weekly Gazette | Saturday 16 March 1901 | British Newspaper Archive’. 2022. Britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk <https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0003075/19010316/202/0014> [accessed 17 September 2022]

By then the advent of machinery on the farm would have greatly reduced the manual labour needed. At the turn of the 19th-century, it was not uncommon for a farmer to employ from thirty to sixty hands during the harvest time — shearers, binders, stookers, and bandmakers3Ibid.. As well as those handling the horses. The mell supper then would have been a real party.

Two traditions associated with mell suppers were mell acts and mell dolls. The latter was a corn dolly, made of the best storks, fashioned in the shape of a lady or small stack and bedecked with ribbons and plaited straw. After supper, the tables were cleared and carried out, and the seats arranged in one corner for a fiddler and pipes and mulled ale handed round. The Mell Doll was then presented in the centre of the barn. Everyone joined hands in a circle round it and singing commenced4Ibid..

The mell act was a sort of simple play/recitation presented by a group of the young lads and lasses, each having learnt their part throughout the summer. Often resentment with the local squire and clergy crept into the words, but unfortunately these were rarely written down5Ibid.. Not dissimilar to the party piece at the Christmas office do taking the mickey out of the management.

There is also a mell cake, which recipe can be found on the internet.

  • 1
    Atkinson, Rev. J. C. “Forty years in a moorland parish; reminiscences and researches in Danby in Cleveland” 1891. Page 240.
  • 2
    BLAKEBOROUGH, RICHARD. Chats with our Grandmothers. CHAT IX. MELL SUPPERS| Northern Weekly Gazette | Saturday 16 March 1901 | British Newspaper Archive’. 2022. Britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk <https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0003075/19010316/202/0014> [accessed 17 September 2022]
  • 3
    Ibid.
  • 4
    Ibid.
  • 5
    Ibid.

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