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THE BRITISH WORKMAN: First Places


CHAPTER II

FIRST PLACES

THE first experience of service that the boy Blades had was at a farm in the parish of Skerne, situated about three miles from his home. The little lad was rather under the average height for his years, but thickset, strong, and healthy. To this his first 'spot' he set off in good heart one morning on foot, accompanied by his father. His impedimenta were of the scantiest description, consisting of a small bundle, which contained a single change of apparel; he had no other worldly goods but the clothes he wore, which were of the ordinary fashion of that day, with a smock as an overall; he also wore leggings and gaiters. The journey was quickly made, and they reached their destination in the course of an hour or so. The name of this farm was Copper Hall. This was no mansion, but an ordinary farm-house; and it is worth notice in passing that a considerable number of such houses are termed 'halls' in this part of the country.

The farm was rented by one Nancy Goodlass. In those days the wives of farmers were never called 'mistress' by the country folk, but 'dame'. Dame Goodlass, though possessed of many good qualities, was said to have been a somewhat peculiar old lady, and in appearance very like a witch. She had all sorts of queer imaginations concerning the house, which was said to be haunted. And certainly there was ground from time to time for supposing that there was something unusual about the place ; for not long after young Blades' arrival the lads were aroused one night about twelve o'clock, when there was such a strange rumbling that the foreman said he was certain there was 'summat wrang'. They lit their lantern, rushed out, found the doors open, and the animals running about in all directions. This occurred not once or twice, but frequently; and no one could account for it; nor was the mystery, apparently, ever fathomed.

Dame Goodlass' house was reckoned a 'good meat spot', the food being abundant and wholesome. The men and lads would be up about four in summer, and have breakfast at six. This consisted of good bread, milk ad libitum, beef, and bacon. As an extra on Sundays a mug of tea was allowed, tea at that time costing sixpence an ounce. Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays were known as 'good pot-on days ', when they had something additional for dinner, half a stone of beef and bacon being cooked, with hot rice and apple dumplings, which latter were sweetened with treacle: they were large, and were much liked by the men; the dinner always began with the dumplings. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays they would have meat pies at dinner instead of beef and bacon. For tea there would be a basin of boiled milk, with bread, beef, and bacon. Cups and saucers were never used: instead they had wooden basins for milk, mugs for tea, and wooden trenchers at dinner for meat. The bread was of the best, and made of good wheat-meal flour. This was far more wholesome and nourishing than the whiter bread of the present day.

The first business in the morning and the last at night to be attended to was the horses. These animals were always treated with the greatest care. Their 'suppering up', which took place about 8 p.m., was looked upon much in the same light as the men's meals. When that Important work was done the men would return to the House, 'lowse their beeats' (take off their boots) and be off to bed. They all slept in one large room or 'chamber', as it was called, six in all --foreman, wagoner, third man, groom, 'the lad', and young Blades; and there they passed the night, as it was described to me, 'as happy as pigs !', often dreaming of their horses, and imagining that it was still 'suppering-up' time. Such in general was the daily routine at this farm.

The boy Blades was a willing and intelligent lad, and soon settled down to the ways of the place. Being the youngest of the servants he had all manner of odd jobs to do, such, for instance, as 'pulling' turnips, feeding cows and pigs, cleaning up firesides, gathering eggs, bringing in fire-'eldin' (kindling), and making himself generally useful about the house. All this, however, was like child's play to him, and he delighted in it, as he did in all work.

The winter of that year was a very severe one, ljke many another at that period, and our Willie had his feet frost-bitten, which gave him a good deal of trouble; but he managed to carry on. He had not been engaged at Martinmas, and so he was not bound for a year, as the servants hired at that time invariably were. Accordingly, he stayed on till May Day, and then returned to his home. He never knew if he had any wages ; if so, which is somewhat doubtful, they would be handed to his father, and the amount would be a mere trifle. The boy always kept his eyes open, and so, even in this short period, he learnt a good deal; and what he learnt he never forgot.

After this he remained at home for two or three years, during which time he went off and on to the village school, which had recently been established, and got a good grounding in elementary subjects; and in the intervals he was constantly helping his father in various ways, and sometimes in work which in these days no boy would ever be able, or even allowed, to do. For instance, he would sometimes take a hand on the top of his father's horse threshing-machine along with two women, one of whom would cut the sheaf bands while the other 'shakked them up ', and the lad himself would 'serve' the machine; that is, would supply it with the corn to be threshed while the machine was in motion. At this time he would be but eleven years old or less. This was a remarkable achievement for so young a boy. When he had reached the age of twelve he left home again and went to his second place, which was at a farm called Houndale, near Nafferton. Here again the engagement was not for a full year, but only from harvest to Martinmas.

It will easily be understood that in farm, as in all other service, an immense deal depends for the comfort and happiness of the servants upon the character, temper, and capability of the wife of the house. In this case the dame did not reach the requirements necessary to make the place a good one for those in her service, for, among other things, her temper was short and unreasonable. And hereby hangs a tale which had rather an amusing ending.

The lad's work at this farm was somewhat different from that of the previous one in consequence of the harvest being included in the period of service. His main duty at that season was to bind sheaves after the scythe, or rake after the wagon. When the 'leading' (carting) of the corn has been completed, as every countryman knows, pigs and geese are sent into the stubbles to feed on the ears of corn remaining in the fields; and a good time they have of it. Hence Michaelmas is the right season for a goose to appear on our dining-table. Now these pigs and geese need 'tenting' in the stubbles, and this duty fell to Willie Blades at Houndale. There was a goodly number of these creatures, and the boy's time and attention were fully taken up with his task.

One afternoon while watching his flock and herd, all of a sudden a local migratory instinct asserted itself in the geese, and with a loud cackling they all took wing and flew away home, and the lad was left alone with his pigs; and in due time these animals were driven to the homestead. On his arrival the housewife was furious, and wanted to know what he meant by letting the geese come back before the time; 'Whyah,' replied the boy with good reason, 'ah couldn't flee eftther 'em'. However, this did not satisfy the old lady, for she instantly took off her slipper, gave poor Willie a sound ' braying' therewith, and sent him to bed without his supper. But a nemesis followed upon this act of injustice, as we shall see.

One day the old dame made ready to take her butter, eggs, poultry, and so forth to market. She and her goods were conveyed, as was usual in those days, in a common agricultural cart. The bodies of these carts could be 'skell'd', or tipped up when necessary, and were secured by means of a 'joggle-pin', as it is called. When going to market the floor of the cart would be strewn with clean straw, and the dame would sit in a chair surrounded by her stuff. In this fashion, then, the Houndale farmer's wife proceeded to market on the day in questlon.

Now it is characteristic of the Yorkshireman, whatever may be his age, when he has been the victim of any act of cruelty or injustice, not to remain passive under it. He will not say much, if anything, about it at the moment, but he bides his time until a favourable opportunity occurs for paying off the score. And in order to do this he lays his plans with the utmost care, even down to the minutest detail, so that there may be no hitch in carrying out the act of retributive justice. It was so in this case, and with, no doubt, the co-operation of one or more of Willie Blades' fellows.

I cannot refrain from recording what took place on this memorable occasion in our forceful and inimitable East Yorkshire dialect exactly as my now well-nigh nonagenarian friend William Blades related to me this incident of his boyhood. The reader will, I feel sure, understand the drift of it without difficulty:

'Yah 1 daay t' aud woman was fittlin' for market. Ah helped ti put t'eggs inti t'cart. T'shippert 2 sat up at fore-end. Ah had a stool for her ti git in, an' t' aud lass sat iv a chair. Ah see'd t'joggle-pin oot; an' ah says ti misen, "Noo, aud lass, ah've getten ya." Ah fasten'd t' hetch 3 up : then gam com on. Sha tell'd ma ti gan an oppen t' top yat 4 . Ah oppen'd it, an t' shippert oppen'd t' next yat, an' ah laay aback o' t' hedge. When he gat ho'd o' t' meer's heead, he gav a bit of a click; up went t' cart; ower went t' aud lass an' all t' stuff inti t' middle o' t' rooad. Aw, bairn, ah was pleeas'd. Sha nivver wallop'd ma na mair.

  • 1 Yah = one
  • 2 T'shippert = the shepherd
  • 3 Hetch = the back-board of a cart.
  • 4 Yat = gate
The trap was well laid, and we can imagine what fun the lads got out of it. I was told that they laughed over it times without number for long enough. The time at Houndale passed pleasantly enough after the punishment meted out to the ill-tempered housewife, and Martinmas soon arrived. On that day the year's service of all the men ended, and each received his pay for the twelvemonth, somewhat after the fashion of the bluejacket when his ship is put out of commission. But in the case of young Blades no agreement had been made as to the wages for his few months' service ; and so when he went in to his master along with the others and was asked how much he wanted, the boy had not the least idea what to say, even when pressed with further questions on the point. Accordingly the matter was settled with the boy's father. What the sum paid was never appeared, but it would be something very insignificant.

Of Blades' next place but little need be said. The farm was close to his home, and his duties lay mainly about the farmstead. He was called the 'house-lad', and his time was fully occupied in milking seven cows twice daily, assisting in preparing the men's breakfast, dinner, and supper, helping to wash up, collecting eggs, heating a large brick oven with the aid of a long fork until it was white hot, in which the bread and pies were in due time baked, and in making himself generally useful. In return for these services for a full year he was well fed and lodged, and at the end of the time he was paid the sum of thirty shillings. The land here was wet, and the place was not a comfortable one; so that the boy was glad when his year's service came to an end.


Transcribed by Graham Metcalf © 2002