The Gleaning Trial of Mary Simpson

In the 17 and 1800's poor people were under nourished and  often relied on harvesting natural produce such as wild blackberries as well as making use of  produce on farms for which it was not commercially viable to harvest.

One of the most common of these was called gleaning during which poor people would search fields that had contained corn or wheat after harvest and collect and grain that had been spilled or left on the fields.

In the absence of a regular Police Force most farms had bailiffs whose duties included ensuring the security of crops and equipment.

Saul Bawtree was a prominent resident who resided at Southminster Hall and cultivated the surrounding land with wheat.

Bawtree was sympathetic to the poor and allowed them to glean his fields immediately the harvest had been completed before he allowed his livestock into the fields to graze on the stubble and any standing wheat that had been missed.

In 1795 the harvest was underway at Southminster Hall with about a third of a nine acre wheat field in Marsh Road cut although the cut wheat had not yet been bound.

A local resident called Mary Simpson arrived at the field and started to glean.

Simpson was confronted by the farm bailiff who reminded her of the conditions laid down for gleaning by Saul Bawtree.

Simpson would not be deterred and  replied ' She'd be damned if she would not glean as she liked" and filled a small cart with grain from the field.

The bailiff reported the incident to Mr Bawtree who complained to a Magistrate and as a result Mary Simson was summonsed to Court.

Before the trial was held Mr Bawtree agreed that if Mary Simson acknowledged the offence and apologised he would drop the charges but Mary refused.

She subsequently appeared at Essex Quarter Sessions in October 1795 where she was found guilty and sentenced to a short term of imprisonment.

The importance of the case in legal terms was to acknowledge the ownership of the waste grain as being that of the land owner and to confirm that gleaning could only be carried out with the land owners approval.