Pictures of Harvest Festivals are amongst the most frequent early survivors of photographs of church or chapel interiors. The modern Harvest Festival, as it is known in churches today, was really invented by the Rev Robert Hawker, vicar of Morwenstow in Cornwall, in the 1840s. He was as colourful and eccentric as they come but devised the notion of a service in which the produce of the fields was brought into the church and used as decoration as an act of thanksgiving. The idea of the service quickly caught on and became a big part of the year for most churches, whether urban or rural. Harvest Festivals became and remain very popular with Unitarians, it would be interesting to study when and how they began to be incorporated into the cycle of services.
I don’t have any information to hand as to how harvest services spread and became popular but I see that in 1881, for instance, Alexander Gordon introduced the first Harvest Festival service to the First Presbyterian, Rosemary Street congregation in Belfast. This must be quite late, I would imagine. Was that something he had previously done over the preceding twenty years at Norwich, Hope Street, Liverpool, or Aberdeen? It would be an interesting avenue to pursue.
With the gradual development of photography as a medium, pictures were taken of churches and chapels. However, the difficulty – for all except the most skilled photographers – of taking good interior shots, and also, perhaps, a reluctance to take a picture of a scene that was so familiar as to be seen as hardly worth recording means that early shots of interiors of chapels and meetings houses are not that common. This seems to change when it comes to Harvest Festivals and a number of pictures that I have of now closed churches were taken to show off the harvest decoration that had been thoughtfully and faithfully put there by some parishioners.
In the recent posts about Nantwich Unitarian Chapel I asked if anyone had any photographs of the interior. Andrew Lamberton has again found a fascinating image. He has sent me this picture of the area around the organ decorated for harvest. There is no date on the picture and it is very difficult to be at all precise although I would guess it was taken probably in the first decade of the twentieth century.
I gather the organ was installed in the 1870s so the picture shows a decorated scene around the organ sometime after that date. As I have mentioned in previous posts the chapel of 1725-26 was rebuilt and ‘turned’ in 1846-49 and this picture would appear to show the area on the plan between the windows and marked as ‘former site of Pulpit’ in Christopher Stell’s Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting-houses in the North of England:
It’s hard to make out too much detail in the photograph but it confirms the description also found in Nonconformist Chapels and Meeting-houses in the North of England (page 28) that the pews which incorporated original features from the 1720s were laid out in tiers:
“Seating: against E and W walls, two tiers of pews, partly reconstructed, include much early 18th-century fielded panelling, fronts renewed. The centre pews also incorporate original material.”
It is not an easy thing to take a picture of what is a dark wood-panelled interior while including the main source of light from two large windows. The light floods in through the window and the dark areas remain dark. But for all its limitations we have in this print a rare and useful image of a long forgotten building.