2 April 1999

CHARM OF BRASSES…

DURING the early part of this century my family worked a coastal farm in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The shire horses used were highly prized, and often graced the show ring at many of the county shows and ploughing matches.

While their everyday harness was plain and designed for utility, when on show the horses were adorned in all their finery, their harness bedecked with gleaming brasses and fresh white daisies.

Horse brasses are, essentially, good luck charms and their development can be traced back many thousands of years. Early farming communities regarded the power of nature and the elements with superstitious awe, and accepted the need to appease supernatural forces in order to ensure a good harvest.

Consequently, the horses, the most important source of power available to the farmer, were afforded every possible physical and spiritual protection. Whilst early charms took the form of simple patterned discs and polished stone pendants, the last true amulets are the familiar horse brasses. Surviving examples exhibit a tremendous variety of designs which serve to ensure that the folklore they represented then endures today.

The sun has long been worshipped for its life giving properties and the sun-symbols on many brasses reflect this. Another design, the crescent moon, was considered a magical source of energy and fertility.

Not all brasses are silent. Noise was considered to be a method of frightening away evil spirits and some brasses were moving parts, designed to jangle with the movement of the horse. Brass fly-terrets or swingers, which were fixed to the bridle or harness saddle, often incorporated bells for the same reason.

In addition to the mystical emblems, more work-a-day designs reflected the occupation of the owner. While most examples exhibit farming associations displaying horse and harvest themes, some show trades – barrels indicating brewers and sacks representing corn or coal merchants.

Brasses today are to be found just about everywhere, and are dismissed by many as cheap souvenirs. However, those illustrated are genuine, dating back to the 19th century, and were handed down to me by my grandmother. They have formed the basis of a large and much cherished collection and it is through these that I, and my own descendants, remember our farming heritage.

Nina Carne