Ploughing is the initial stage of preparing a fine tilth to grow the next season’s crop. Plough Monday – the first Monday after the twelfth day of Christmas – was traditionally the start of a new ploughing season and was celebrated by ploughmen in fancy dress hauling a plough through the village collecting money for the festivities. Any householder failing to contribute was at risk of having their garden ploughed!
The implement used in ancient times has been called an ard. It was little more than a stout stick with an oak guiding handle attached, the tip being strengthened by flint or iron. A true plough, beginning to be used in the Anglo-Saxon period, has three important parts – a share, coulter and mould-board (wrest). The share digs into the ground raising a sod that is then cut by the coulter which is a sharp knife or disc. The resulting broken sod is pushed to one side by the mould-board. There are several designs used in different parts of the country and for different purposes. Most had wheels at the front to take some of the weight of the plough but others did not – swing ploughs. Although heavier to use, swing ploughs allowed the ploughman more control and avoided the problems of clogged wheels on sticky soil.
Ploughing was such an important aspect of farming that an area of land a team of 8 oxen could plough in a year became a unit of measurement, particularly for tax purposes. In much of the country this was called a carucate but, in Kent, the term sulung was used. Both these terms were derived from old words for plough. There is considerable debate as to what these units represent in modern acreage, figures varying between 120 and 240 acres. At the time of King Edward the Confessor, Brook was reported as having one sulung of arable land (Domesday Book). The term acre is thought to originate from an area that two oxen could manage to plough in a day.
Oxen (castrated bulls) were used to pull ploughs for many years and some teams were still in use in the early 20th century. However, horses gradually replaced oxen from the medieval period onwards, particularly as new breeds became larger and stronger. There was considerable debate amongst farmers for centuries as to which draught animal was better but much would depend on local circumstances and practice. Horses were more versatile and intelligent but cost more to feed. Sometimes a horse was used to lead a team of oxen.
The picture shown is that of a Kent turn-wrest plough – used between the 16th and early 20th century – which was particularly good for the local heavy soils and on steep downland surfaces. The mould-board could be moved and the angle of the coulter altered so that the sod was thrown to the opposite side. These were changed at the end of the furrow so that, as the plough was turned round and taken in the opposite direction the new sods would fall onto the previously ploughed land so avoiding deep furrows and prominent ridges. Overall, this improves drainage.
Examples of these ploughs, and many others, can be seen at the museum.