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THE BRITISH WORKMAN: Severe Winters

CHAPTER IV

SEVERE WINTERS

THE winter of 1852 was one of great severity. In that year the snow lay thick upon the ground for eight weeks or more, and work on the farms was much retarded. By this time Blades had got into the full swing of farm work, and was now engaged with a farmer named Kingston in the parish of Bessingby, which lay near the sea. There were terrific winds and storms all along the coast that winter, and I was told that Bridlington Bay was so full of ships sheltering for weeks together under Flamborough Head that the Bay looked almost like a plantation, so crowded together were the masts. These storms, however, proved to be a blessing in disguise to the farmers; for when they were at their height the east wind tore up huge masses of seaweed; and one Sunday night word came that for long stretches an the coast the shore was banked up with wreckage.

The farmer Kingston was not slow in availing himself of his opportunity. At daylight on the following morning all was in a state of animation at the farmstead. Every available horse and cart on the place and from the neighbouring farms were brought into requisition. Some of these carts were large and long, capable with three horses of drawing nearly two tons. Down to the shore they went with all speed, and hundreds of loads of seaweed were brought up and stacked at the farm. This work, of course, had to be done according as the tides suited, so that day or night made no difference with the work. It was, as we say in Yorkshire, 'throng deed' For weeks together, Blades told me, he never had his clothes off, nor went to bed; he slept when and where he could, very often along with the horses in the stables; frequently, as he expressed it. he was 'wet thruff as muck', but he never caught cold. At times the stables and cowsheds were so crowded with the extra horses that in order to feed them the men had to crawl under the animals' bellies. The most had to be made of the time, and frequently the farmer came and urged the men to press on with the work, using every kind of persuasion to that end, sometimes by the offer of rewards, at other severer measures were adopted, calling out to the men to 'wap' on', Which was followed by language not always parliamentary. There was always an abundance of food and drink, and of the latter the men could have almost anything they liked-ale, rum, and other liquors of a more or less potent kind. Without these extra refreshments the work would never hare been carried through in the way it was; and Willie Blades worked as well as any of them ; and as a reward for his labours the farmer told him that he might have a smoke out of his long pipe! Altogether it was an extraordinary performance, and one that could not possibly be done by the men of this generation. They would not look at it. This episode is worth recording, for it shows what obstacles the men in those days over-came without a murmur.

After all the seaweed had been stacked it was mixed with the ordinary farmyard manure, and in due course spread upon the land. The results were remarkable; for not only were the ensuing crops greatly increased in bulk, but the salt in the seaweed killed all the grubs. Mr. Kingston, the farmer, must have been a man of action and considerable bodily strength, for he evidently worked as hard as his men; and on one occasion he was waylaid by two men who wanted to rob him; but he overpowered them unaided, after a severe struggle, and got off free.

This was a good place for young Blades, and he was thoroughly happy in his work, though at times it was rough and hard. He was the head cow-lad, and had six or seven of those animals to look after; and often when his morning's work was done with them he had to yoke horses to a cart to fetch turnips from a field a mile away, and this he did several times in the course of the day. Horse threshing-machines were in pretty general use at that time, but on this farm, which was a large one, two flails were kept going besides, during the winter, to thresh oats and barley for the horses and pigs. They had here a huge barn through which a wagon and four horses could be driven. This would be one of the old tithe-barn type, of which there were many at that time; and very picturesque objects they were on the countryside. It is to be regretted that so many of these interesting old buildings have been destroyed in recent years.

At this time our lad was but thirteen years of age, and his bodily build still kept its short and thick-set character. He repeatedly has told me that he did not grow much till he was seventeen, when, as he expressed it, his 'joints were loosened' through working at a cutting machine. But however that might be, he ultimately reached the height of six feet within a quarter of an inch, and his strength, to which we shall allude later, was prodigious. Whether from his good nature, or the shortness of his stature at this time, or probably from both combined, he was always a favourite with the farm lasses, who were often nearly as strong as the lads; and they used, as he said, to 'chuck' him up in their arms. He always described himself as being 'all of a lump' until he was seventeen. His subsequent growth and late development at that age was a case which I imagine must be very rare: I have never heard or a similar one. He stayed here one year, and spent the next at a farm in the neighbourhood as groom-lad. This was not an attractive place; the land was wet; and, in the season for it, he was ploughing al day, his wage being six pounds a year.

The following Martinmas he got hired to a farmer called Turner at Danesdale on the Wolds. Blades described it as bring the best 'spot' in his life. The farm was one of seven hundred acres. The farmer himself was then an old man, and so a great deal devolved upon his wife, who, fortunately for the household, was a kind and motherly old lady, who looked after the lads well, and consequently they were much attached to her, and obeyed her behests implicitly. Although the Crimean War was then raging, and the necessaries of life very dear, there was no lack of good food at Danesdale.

The wages of a farm labourer at that time were eight shillings a week with 'meat', and fourteen shillings without; and it was said that men could live better then on even twelve shillings a week than on double that amount shortly before the late war.

Doctors in the early fifties were few and far between in the Wold country, and as far as the farm lads were concerned they were seldom, if ever, needed; and I do not suppose that, as a class. there was any more strong and healthy than were the agricultural labourers on the East Riding farms at that time. But Dame Turner of Danesdale was determined to take every precaution, and in this, as I daresay in all matters, she acted on the principle that prevention is better than cure; and so she administered her prophylactics to the lads herself with great regularity. She had apparently but two kinds of physic - emetics and purgatives. It would seem that the farm lads never had anything serious the matter with them; but that made no difference, and at stated periods she had them all up before her, saying ' Noo, lads, com', when she gave to each such doses of 'stuff' as she thought would do them good and stave off all ailments. Her favourite medicines were salts, senna, and a concoction which they called 'yerby tea', which was made from a certain herb that grew in the garden, the name of which I failed to ascertain ; but Dame Turner had great faith in the efficacy of this special 'tea', and when the lads came up to her one by one she asked them no question, but simply and peremptorily said 'sup that', which order they instantly obeyed. The lads had the utmost confidence in Dame Turner's treatment, and they became much attached to the old lady, who from all accounts must have been a fine character of the old school; and her genuine kindliness of heart was well summed up in Blades' words when he told me that 'she was a mother to as all'.

The farm men and boys were thoroughly happy in their work here, and took not only an interest, but a genuine pride and delight in it. The changing seasons with their corresponding changes in the tilling of the land, the sowing and ingathering of the crops, to say nothing of the work connected with the sheep, beasts, and horses, threshing days, delivery of corn at the nearest railway station for the West Riding markets and so forth, prevented any feeling of monotony in the work of the farm.

Occasionally, too, something more or less exciting would take place, as, for instance, when a bull was slaughtered, which was every Christmas at this farm, and I daresay at many more. I cannot here describe the whole process, but, when it came to the point of killing the animal, the method adopted seemed peculiar, though, I believe, it was not unusual. A gun was produced and loaded with a good charge of powder; and, instead of shot a tallow candle was rammed down the barrel, snuff-end first; the gun was then fired off at the bull's head, and the animal instantly fell dead. After the cutting up and so forth, the meat was 'pickled', and, as Blades expressed it, 'it sarved 'em all year'. The farm hands did not at all object to salt meat occasionally; in fact, when used in that way it was looked upon as rather a wholesome thing than otherwise.

This Danesdale farm was such a good place that Blades stayed on for two years. During that time peace was declared after the Crimean War; and when news was brought to the farm the men were busy carting manure in the fields; the farmer then came up and told them to unyoke the horses at once; cheers were raised, and there were great rejoicings. They had what was described as a 'regular do'; and, if there was a little excess in the way of drink on that occasion, it was certainly overlooked by the master himself, who was said to have been rather fond of his glass, one of his specialities being rum, which he sometimes kept in a teapot, presumably with the idea of deluding any who might chance to see him in the act.

The hardships of the poor during this and the pre ceding year were very severe. With flour at three shillings and sixpence, and even four shillings, a stone many families would have been at starvation point had it not been for the help given by farmers and others, and for the gleaned corn, which went a long way in supplying many families with bread through the winter. At this time the farm men and lads were in clover compared with the conditions as regards food and clothing in their families at home.

William Blades gave me a very graphic picture of what went on at his own home in Nafferton in the way of diet at that time. For breakfast there would be some kind of brown or barley bread and treacle, a basin of water, and possibly an occasional 'sup' of milk. Tea was at a prohibitive price; the nearest approach to it they could ever come at was when the landlord of the neighbouring inn would give the mother the used tea leaves, which produced a drink with the faintest flavour of tea, and might be likened to water 'bewitched', as the saying is. For the children's dinner there would be a kneading bowl on the floor in which were mixed the broth which they got from a farm three days a week, mashed potatoes, with pepper and salt, with perhaps a dumpling or two in addition; the children sat round on the door with wooden spoons, and ate away as quickly as they could, and when the meal was ended their mother would come to them with the words 'say your grace, and away you go '. The evening meal was similar to breakfast, except that they might have perhaps a bit of cheesecake or apple pie in addition. This went on daily all through the Russian War, though on Sundays the father would have a small portion of meat. The clothing, too, was of the simplest, and all the children wore smocks and clog shoes : these latter were much cheaper than leather boots and shoes, they kept the feet dry, were not uncomfortable to wear, and were said to be warmer than the ordinary foot-gear of the children. Clog shoes were, and I daresay still are, largely used in parts of the West Riding and Lancashire. They are best made of alder wood.

But in spite of these privations, it does not appear that the health or this family, nor that of the people generally, suffered in consequence. And in this connexion it is worth noting that during the late war the death-rate in Denmark fell by thirty per cent., when that thrifty and much-enduring people had to subsist on a diet consisting almost entirely of rye-bread, barley porridge, greens and other vegetables, and milk--a proof, if proof were needed, that hard living does not impair the health, but rather the reverse.

The contrast between life at the farms and the cottages was then very great. With wheat at the high price it then was the farmers did extremely well, and many of them made considerable fortunes. Wool, too, sold well; and seeing that sheep were, and still are, very largely bred on the Wold farms, this commodity added considerably to the farmer's income.

The two winters that Blades was at Danesdale were very rigorous. During one of them the snow covered the ground for eight weeks, and the surface was frozen so hard that he walked from the farm to Kilham, a distance of three miles, in many places over the tops of the low hedges. For thirteen weeks never a plough was yoked; and there were oats out in the fields at Christmas.

This farm was, as we observed, a fairly large one. Blades had four horses to look after. They were splendid animals, and each one was said to have weighed nearly a ton; the boy went with the third wagoner. His wages were £8 for the first, and £9 for the second, year.

Though he was then but fifteen he could carry three bushels of wheat, which would weigh about fourteen stone, as easily as any of the men.

The value of soot as a fertilizer of the soil has long been appreciated, though its use in bygone years was much more general on the Wold farms than it appears to be at the present day; in fact, its use now has wellnigh vanished, the reason being, not that soot has lost its value as a fertilizer, but because the men cannot be induced to handle it.

It may well be imagined that the spreading of soot upon the land, seeing that the work had to be done by hand, was one of the most unpleasant jobs that fell to the lot of the farm men, for soot is apt to be very adhesive when it comes in contact with human flesh. Nevertheless, this dirty work was not without its amusing side. Of course special preparations had to be made for the work, which at Danesdale was carried on extensively. One year no less than five hundred quarters of soot were spread over a hundred acres of land, for which the weather conditions had to be favourable.

It was obviously impossible for the men to be dressed in their ordinary garb in the performance of this work; no suit of clothes could possibly stand such an ordeal, and no amount of brushing and washing could restore them quite to their original state. Moreover, it took several days to complete the task. Where, then, it may be asked, were the men to sleep? Of necessity their ordinary beds, as well as their ordinary garments, had to be discarded. What was to be done? Sleep they must have, and they could not repose in the open fields, for it was then winter. And so the only thing to be done was to provide a special soot chamber for the men to sleep in, which might be termed a veritable 'Black Hole'. What they slept on I cannot say for certain, probably on heaps of straw with horsecloths, and possibly soot sacks for 'happings '. Their sooty clothes they never doffed from beginning to end. These operations connected with the soot continued for a fortnight, But when at length the work was completed the question came as to how the lads were to be restored to a state of cleanliness. They were as black as Hottentots. It was quite impossible for them to clean themselves, and so some one else must do it for them. And now the fun of the thing began. A huge scalding-tub was brought into requisition, into which the men plunged one after another like sheep into a 'wash-dyke'. The servant lasses then came with brushes and other cleansing articles and proceeded to operate on the lads and men with all the force at their command. The scene can be better imagined than described, and I must leave the reader to picture the process here employed for the eradication of soot from the human frame according to his own thinking. It was perhaps best summed up by Blades himself who described it to me as 'a merry time', and one which the men looked forward to with enjoyment. With the occurrence of such lively episodes, agricultural life in those days could scarcely be described as monotonous !


Transcribed by Graham Metcalf © 2002