Next week it’s Plough Monday. It is the first Monday after Epiphany (January 6 or ‘twelfth night’ as it is also known) and celebration seems to have covered much of the eastern half of the country, particularly in small rural villages.
The Balsham Plough Monday Club consists of a group of men who either live in, or are connected to Balsham. They raise money for good causes on the night of Plough Monday and bi-annually at the traditional Balsham Feast.
In much earlier times this day marked the beginning of the winter ploughing season when agricultural labourers returned to work from their short but unpaid Christmas holiday. Prayers would be said in church for a fertile growing season followed by a bountiful harvest together with the lighting of the ‘plough candle’. In one early recorded instance, money collected from Plough Monday paid ‘to keep of the plough candle alight’.
The tradition went through various changes and it became a way to collect money for ‘vittles’ for the farm labourers and their families during the hard winter time. Earlier villagers recall that Plough Monday was an event with about 40 – 50 people traveling around the streets. Most of the male population were agricultural labourers in early 1900s and with many laid off over the Christmas period. They made their own music with an accordion or concertina, possibly molly dancers accompanying them. They made a lot of noise by dragging chains and using whips. One villager remembers going round with the Plough before the First World War when the custom discontinued although Balsham still practised it in some form until 1936, briefly resuming in the 1950s.
The revival came after a few locals, over a pint or two, wondered how they could raise funds for charities and in particular, the Church Tower Fund. As a result, on a bitterly cold night in January 1972, the refurbished wooden plough was brought out from Lower Farm accompanied by 6 men acting as the horses and an assorted group dressed in smocks with string-tied breeches, plus a top hatted squire and his Betsy (a man dressed as a woman). They toured Balsham, calling at as many houses as possible collecting money. A grand sum of £75 was raised. In 1974, the Cambridge Morris men joined them and performed their own Plough Monday dances with music and songs. This successful partnership continues to today.
These days there are organised stops at houses with food and drink which allows more time to socialise, entertain and raise awareness of what Plough Monday is about. It has become one of the highlights on the village calendar and the Christmas holiday is not truly over until Plough Monday has been celebrated. The aim is to raise money for a charity of choice and preferably a Balsham one. On the night there is a street collection, with a raffle. It finishes at one of the local public houses where festivities continue, often until the small hours. And the next day, well it’s known as Harrowing Tuesday of course!
It is fund-raising which justifies such activity on what is often one of the coldest nights is the traditional ‘horseplay’. There is a great deal of banter among the ploughmen, Morris Men and followers. The cries of ‘pity the poor ploughboy’, ‘gee-up’ and ‘whoa there together’ with a rattle of collecting tins and sparking of hobnail boots means Plough Monday is with us once again.