Threshing Barns 1000 Years of Rural History

Threshing barns in Britain have a history that goes back to nearly 1000 years. They are so familiar and we are so used to seeing them in the rural landscape, that we take no notice of them.

These barns were central to the agricultural practices, and if you look close enough, you should be able to track their evolution. From the time when medieval peasants would thrash the corn by hand with flails, right up to the cutting edge technology from the Industrial Revolution – the steam driven threshing drum.



These barns, originating in the medieval period, were a cornerstone of rural life, designed to meet the essential task of processing harvested crops. In the earliest times, around the 12th century, threshing barns emerged within the framework of the feudal system, where they were integral to the manorial estates.

Timber framed threshing barn at Court House, Herefordshire, England.
Timber framed threshing barn at Court House, Herefordshire, England.

Lords of the manor provided these communal barns for their tenants, a practice that facilitated the collective processing of the harvest, underscoring the communal nature of agricultural labour in medieval Britain.

As agricultural techniques progressed and the socio-economic landscape of Britain transformed, so too did the design and function of threshing barns. Initially, these structures were simple and utilitarian, constructed from materials readily available in the local environment.

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Timber-framed barns were predominant in areas rich in forests, while stone and brick were favoured in regions where these materials were more accessible. The architectural evolution of these barns mirrored regional styles and construction techniques, making each barn a reflection of its locality’s unique character and resources.

Threshing Barns Maximising Efficiency

The design of threshing barns was inherently practical, aimed at maximising efficiency in crop processing. The typical barn featured a large, open space with a high roof, providing ample room for the labour-intensive tasks of threshing and winnowing.

This forms part of the Grade II listed thrashing barn from the 1840s. Elsham Top Farm, North Lincolnshire, England
This forms part of the Grade II listed threshing barn from the 1840s. Elsham Top Farm, North Lincolnshire, England

The introduction of innovations such as large, hinged doors and strategically placed windows enhanced ventilation and light, crucial elements for effective crop processing. Over time, these barns became more sophisticated in response to technological advancements, incorporating features to accommodate threshing machines and later, mechanised equipment.

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The evolution of threshing barns is also a testament to the adaptability of rural communities to technological innovation. The transition from manual flail threshing to machine-driven processes in the 1700 and 1800s marked a significant shift in agricultural practices.

This period saw a gradual move away from communal threshing floors to more private, farm-based operations, reflecting broader changes in agricultural ownership and labour patterns. The introduction of steam power further revolutionised threshing, increasing productivity and reshaping the rural economy.

Threshing Barns Architectural Features

The primary role of the barn was to safeguard the grain harvest and facilitate its processing. This was traditionally achieved by threshing small quantities of the crop with a flail to dislodge the grains from their husks.

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This activity predominantly occurred on the threshing floor, which, while often illuminated by large double doors on both sides, did not always imply the passage of carts through the threshing bay for unloading.

Prior to the advent of mechanical threshing, the barn’s doors, located on either side, were opened to enable the wind to assist in the winnowing process, effectively separating the grain from the chaff.

In many instances, carts were simply reversed out after offloading. Unlike other parts of the barn where the flooring might consist of compacted earth, the threshing floor demanded a more robust construction to endure not just the impact of threshing but also the wear from vehicles and horses traversing it.

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Materials used for the threshing floor varied, including stone flags, timber boards, or bricks, with a preference for timber emerging in late 18th and early 19th-century agricultural discourse. Timber was favoured for its perceived gentleness on the grain, reducing the risk of bruising and thus preserving the quality of the harvest.

Threshing Floors in Threshing Barns

Nowadays, many barns have seen their original floors replaced or covered with concrete to accommodate modern farming equipment. However, traces of traditional threshing floors occasionally remain, offering valuable insights into historical agricultural practices. In barn conversions, these distinctions between the threshing floor and other areas can be preserved, highlighting the unique function of this segment of the barn.

“Midstrey” is a term found in Southern England referring to the specific type of projecting porch seen on a barn. This threshing barn is from the 1700s. Image Credit: Alan Murray-Rust

After the threshing process, the task of separating the grain from the stalks and then from the chaff, known as winnowing, was essential. As threshing accumulated a substantial amount of grain, the mixture of grain and chaff from each threshing cycle could be stored in corn holes.

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Such storage solutions were typically found in aisled barns, where a temporary storage space could be established by installing boarded walls along the aisle next to the threshing floor.

Another storage method involved creating a raised platform for storing sacks of grain until winnowing could take place. This elevated storage not only kept the grain off the ground but also protected it from rodents, ensuring the harvested grain remained safe and uncontaminated.

The Shape of Threshing Barns

Typically, a threshing barn was a large, rectangular building with a thatched or tiled roof. The walls were made of local materials, such as timber, stone, or brick, depending on the region.

Threshing barn at Pirton Court Farm, the tall doors indicate its use for threshing purposes. Image Credit: Jeff Gogarty
Threshing barn at Pirton Court Farm, the tall doors indicate its use for threshing purposes. Image Credit: Jeff Gogarty

The interior space was dominated by a wide central aisle, flanked by raised platforms where the harvested crops were stored. The central aisle was the threshing floor, where the grain was separated from the chaff using flails or, later, threshing machines.

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The barns often featured large, opposing doors aligned with the prevailing wind to facilitate the winnowing process, where the chaff was blown away from the grain. Ventilation was a crucial aspect of the design, not only for winnowing but also to prevent the stored crops from rotting.

The Threshing Process

Threshing was a labour-intensive process crucial for preparing the harvested grain for use or sale. Initially, this was done manually with flails, a method that remained common until the 19th century.

Cereal crops are characterised by their long stalks (straw) atop which sit the ‘ears,’ that house a dozen or more mature grains. Harvesting these crops involves a crucial step called threshing, where the aim is to dislodge these grains from the ears.

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This is achieved through a vigorous shaking or beating of the harvested crop, facilitating the grains to fall free. The residual fragments left after the grains have been extracted are referred to as chaff – as the saying goes, separating the wheat from the chaff.

The flail, consisting of two sticks bound together, developed from the primitive technique of employing a solitary stick for threshing. this method, alongside earlier ones, was chronicled by pliny the elder in his work from the first-century BC, natural history, where he notes: “in certain places, cereals are threshed with a threshing board on the threshing floor; elsewhere, they are stomped by a herd of horses, and in some areas, beaten with flails.”

Steam thrashing machine
Steam threshing machine at the Great Dorset Steam Fair

The introduction of threshing machines in the late 18th and early 19th centuries revolutionised this process. These machines, initially powered by horses and later by steam engines, significantly reduced the labour required for threshing and increased efficiency.

Social and Economic Impact

Threshing barns were more than just agricultural buildings; they were social and economic hubs in rural communities. The threshing process often involved the collective effort of the community, with neighbours helping each other through threshing bees, a practice that strengthened communal bonds.

The age of steam had arrived.

Economically, the efficiency of threshing had a direct impact on a farm’s productivity and profitability. The introduction of threshing machines, therefore, had significant implications for rural economies, leading to increased grain output and less dependence on manual labour. However, this technological advancement also contributed to social changes, including the displacement of agricultural workers and the consolidation of farms.

Decline of Threshing Barns

In the 1700s, there were attempts to develop a mechanised threshing machine. Michael Menzies, a Scotsman, was granted a patent in 1732 for a machine powered by water to operate multiple flails, although it didn’t achieve much success.

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The first significant step towards a functional design was taken by a Scottish farmer named Leckie around 1758, who devised a “rotary machine” featuring cross arms on a horizontal shaft within a cylindrical casing. Despite its limited success, it highlighted the potential of rotary motion for threshing and indicated the direction future designs should take.

An old abandoned threshing machine that really does need saving. North Ockendon, Havering, England. Image Credit: Glyn Baker
An old abandoned threshing machine that really does need saving. North Ockendon, Havering, England. Image Credit: Glyn Baker

The real breakthrough in threshing technology came in 1786 with Andrew Meikle, another Scot, who invented a threshing machine that dramatically improved the efficiency of separating grain from stalks.

This machine introduced a process where loosened sheaves were fed into it, and through the action of fluted rollers and a beating cylinder equipped with iron-shod beaters or wooden spars, grains were knocked out of the ears of corn.

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Operating at a speed of 200 to 250 revolutions per minute, this machine not only separated the grain but also efficiently processed the straw and chaff through a series of mechanical steps, concluding with the preparation of the output for winnowing.

This innovation led to the development of the “peg-mill” in Scotland, which became the prevailing design for almost a century and was widely adopted in the United States. In Britain, however, the introduction of high-speed drums posed significant safety risks, leading to the enactment of the Threshing Machine Act in 1878, which required the installation of safety guards on these machines.

High House threshing barn, Lambley, Northumberland, England
High House threshing barn, Lambley, Northumberland, England

Threshing typically occurred some time after harvesting due to the high cost of threshing machines, which were unaffordable for many farmers. Consequently, a single machine was often rented out and circulated among local farms.

This arrangement meant that when a farm could thresh its harvest depended on both the prevailing weather conditions and the machine’s availability.

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The advent of combined harvesters in the 1900s, which could harvest, thresh, and winnow in a single operation, rendered traditional threshing barns obsolete. Many of these historic buildings fell into disuse, were repurposed, or demolished.

Despite this, numerous threshing barns have been preserved across Britain, cherished as symbols of the country’s agricultural heritage.

These structures are appreciated for their architectural beauty, historical significance, and the glimpse they offer into the rural life of bygone eras. Conservation efforts and adaptive reuse have given many threshing barns new life as homes, event venues, and community centers, ensuring their preservation for future generations.