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THE BRITISH WORKMAN: Personal


CHAPTER IX

PERSONAL

We must now say something of the personality of our hero, which was certainly a remarkable one in many ways.

It was in his old age that I first knew him, and, judging by his appearance as an octogenarian, he gave one the idea of having been in his younger days a man of splendid physique and handsome appearance. In height he was scarcely less than six feet, and in his youth at some village feast he once attracted the notice of a recruiting sergeant who tried to induce him to join the Queen's Guards; but this offer he declined. One of his most striking features was the shape of his head, which was distinctly dolichocephalic (1) in type, and he might well have been a descendant of the Iberian long-headed men who, together with the broad-headed Celts, inhabited our Wolds in prehistoric times, traces of whose physical characteristics and mode of life have been discovered in the tumuli which cover the whole face of this part of the country.

(1) dolichocephalic = anthropological term meaning `long headed`.

Another noticeable feature of our stalwart Eastridinger was his nose, which was of a pronounced Roman type, and rendered even more so through an accident which nearly cost him his life. This was caused by a backhanded blow from an axe when he was engaged with others in felling some trees. Had the blow struck him an inch or two higher it would almost certainly have killed him on the spot. Though laid up for many weeks, he made a wonderful recovery; and, strange to say, the blow in no wise disfigured the contour of his face. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about him was his powerful build, which gave him prodigious strength, of which I must here give a few instances.

When he had attained to manhood he was engaged for a time as foreman to a farmer at Foston-on-the-Wolds. While there he was sent with two other men for a load of sand from the seaside, not far away. A certain quantity of it was put into a large sack, the whole of which weighed about forty stone. This had to be put into the cart somehow, and accordingly the men got two stout poles which they used as a 'hickin-barrow', as we call it, and by this means they raised the sack and put it on Blades' shoulders, who then carried it up hill about twenty yards, and the men tipped it into the cart.

On another occasion, at the same farm, a sack of wheat weighing twenty stone had to be moved a distance of a hundred yards. One of the men standing near said to Blades, 'Thoo can't hug (carry) it'; 'Yes,' he replied, 'ah can, an' thoo on t' top on 't'. The sack was then raised on to Blades' shoulders, and the man actually got on the top of it, and thus he carried this heavy load the whole distance. What the man weighed I cannot say, but probably not less than eleven or twelve stone.

When he was twenty-one years of age he could hold out four and a half stone in each hand, and, as he expressed it, 'could knap 'em aboon heead'. Again, he once carried two sacks of carrots tied together, and weighing twenty stone, on his back, a distance of three hundred yards. But perhaps the most remarkable tour de force of this Hercules took place one Martinmas at the Driffield hirings. The town was, as usual, crowded with people, stalls, shows, and all manner of attractions for the young folks. Among these latter was a man with a machine of the usual type for testing strength of pull, and furnished with a disk and pointer indicating the force of each pull in stones and pounds. Seeing a number of lads standing round, of whom our friend was one, the man called out that he would give half-a-crown to any one who could pull the pointer completely round. All eyes were now turned towards Blades, for they knew their man, and one of his friends urged him with the request: ' Noo, Bill, thoo mun try.' Blades then stepped forward, laid hold of the handle, and with a gigantic pull he brought the pointer completely round, which caused a bell at the top to ring, so that there was no mistake about it. The lads were delighted with their champion, but the man in his astonishment and disgust tried to shuffle out of his bargain by saying that Blades had somehow used his knees unfairly. There was nothing whatever in this objection; however, to avoid further dispute, and to settle the point finally and beyond further question, he was requested by his friends to ' tak ho'd on't again', which Blades promptly did, and once more he performed the feat by making the bell ring out clearly. It was evident that the test was perfectly fairly done, and they all looked to the man to pay his half-crown; but again he demurred, alleging some ridiculous excuse or other for non-payment. This raised the bystanders to a state of great fury, and they threatened the man that if he did not instantly pay up they would give him a thrashing and smash up his apparatus, which they certainly would have done had he not at once made good his offer, which he then did with a bad grace. I asked Blades what was the limit of the register of the pull; he said he could not be sure, but thought it might be about sixty stone. But whatever it was, it is practically certain that such a feat had never been performed since the machine was made. At this time Blades weighed sixteen stone.

Another instance I remember his telling me of, which indicated great strength of arm. This was at a time when he was engaged in draining, of which kind of work he did a great deal after he had finished with farm service. Draining is notoriously hard work, and for that reason men worked shorter hours, and received higher wages for this than they did for ordinary work. He was once working in a deep drain along with a number of men; on one side of the drain was a high bank, to the top of which from the place where he stood was fifty feet. From that level he was able to throw a 'spit-ful' of clay clean over the top of the bank, a 'spit' being the long narrow spade used in draining.

Again, when he was in service he once threw a sack of corn weighing 13 ½ stone, the sack weighing 4 lb., clean over a wagon.

In point of intelligence Blades was a man above the average, and during the short time he was at school he made the most of his opportunities, so that he was able to read and write well; and being naturally goodnatured, he was wont, when in farm service, to impart knowledge to some of his fellow servants who were anxious to learn. His favourite book was the Bible, which I soon discovered he knew well. He told me that he had read the Bible through twice; and by the word Bible our people always mean the Old Testament; the New Testament, with which he was very familiar, is called simply the Testament. For some years he acted as parish clerk at Nafferton, which would tend to make him still better versed in Holy Scripture. He was naturally fond of music, and he well remembered the Church music of his boyhood, which was of a very primitive kind; for, apparently, they had no sort of accompaniment, but the note at starting was given from a pitch-pipe, and one of the men used to lead the singing. Later in life he learnt to play the fiddle, and he could acquit himself sufficiently well to occasionally earn by this means a nice sum of money.

He was once travelling on one of his mowing expeditions; it was a wet summer, and therefore there were many days when he could not work; he was a long way from home, and had spent all his money, when by chance he came to a large public-house where there were a goodly company gathered together; he had a companion with him, and soon after they had entered the room and had settled down, Blades was asked if he could sing; his reply was in the affirmative, and he then proceeded to give them a song which was much in vogue at the time ; he rattled it off in fine style, and the chorus was taken up with gusto by the assembled guests. They were all delighted, and naturally treated him to a pint of ale. After wetting his whistle with that refreshing beverage he was requested to give them another song. He had not his fiddle with him, but said he could do better if he had one. By a piece of good luck the landlord of the inn happened to possess one, which was immediately produced and tuned up, when Blades gave them another song with a kind of violin obbligato. The company were in raptures with his singing and playing. The weather being hot and the room crowded, the effort of the combined vocal and instrumental performance being also great, Blades worked himself up to a great state of perspiration, and such was the success of his musical efforts that the entertainment was kept up till two o'clock in the morning. Blades then felt that he would be glad of a rest, and asked if he might stay the night, adding that he could 'lig' (lie) quite comfortably in the stable. The landlord's wife would not hear of this, but forthwith made him up a bed in the house; for this and a good breakfast she made no charge ; and not only so, but gave him a cordial invitation to stay another night. This, however, he was unable to do, and he and his mate proceeded on their way; and when they sat down by the roadside and counted up the collection that had been made for the musician's benefit they found it amounted to a few pence over a sovereign.

My mention of Blades becoming overheated by his exertions on the occasion just referred to, reminds me of an incident my friend, the late Rev. E. S. Carter, the well-known cricketer, once told me of. He was for some years rector of Thwing, a parish on the high Wolds where our Yorkshire Doric was spoken by the older folks with great purity. There was to be a concert in the village one evening, when the parish clerk, who was a Yorkshireman of the old school, and like most of his congeners had complete confidence in his own capabilities, was to play two violin solos for which my friend had to vamp the accompaniments. After his first practice, which he went through in dashing style, he turned to the lady organist, who happened to be standing by, and said: 'Ah think ah maade oor rector fair sweat!'

One of William Blades' most remarkable mental equipments was his accurate and retentive memory, even down to minute details of everyday life which had taken place sixty or seventy years ago. If I suddenly asked him of some event from those early days, he not only would accurately record it, but would also furnish me with a number of quite unimportant circumstances connected with it. I remember his once telling me that as he lay awake at night, which he frequently did, the events of his early life used to appear before his mind like a clearly defined picture.

Owing, no doubt, to early home influence, as well as to instruction received at school, Blades was possessed of strong religious sentiments, which he retained unimpaired all through his life. In his younger days in many of the country conventicles, members of the congregation were accustomed to give vent to their feelings audibly, and Blades deplored the falling off in that respect in the more orderly conducting of the services of the present day. As he once said to me, that if he felt Hallelujah he liked to shout Hallelujah !

He was, moreover, a man of a very kind and sensitive nature. Frequently, when in course of conversation on some subject that had touched his feelings, I have seen tears pouring down his cheeks. This combination of great bodily strength with great tenderness of heart is remarkable, but by no means uncommon. I remember once a naval chaplain of much experience telling me of the extreme gentleness, not to say tenderness, of the men in the ships in which he had served, and adding that if he were laid up through illness he would prefer a bluejacket to any other nurse.

Perhaps one of the most pleasing points in William Blades' character was his extreme modesty with regard to his own powers and performances. I remember at one of our interviews speaking to him about the great variety of work and interests in which he had been engaged and had succeeded so well ; to which he quietly replied: 'Well! ah owt ti knaw a bit o summat'; the fact being that he knew a vast deal about a multiplicity of things connected with country work and life, although his knowledge was by no means limited to agricultural pursuits.

Among other of his good qualities was his humanity to animals, and this gave him a remarkable power over them. He controlled his horses almost entirely by words. At one of his places he had a horse that was blind; but by his gentle management it did its work as easily as one that could see, and knew perfectly well when it was approaching the end of a furrow. This sense of direction in animals, birds, insects, and fishes is very marvellous, and one which baffles explanation, the migratory instinct of birds being perhaps the most wonderful of all. A horse, too, if once it has travelled a certain road will generally find its way home, if left to its own devices, when the driver himself is uncertain of the way.

I remember Blades once describing to me how to 'rig-set' a furrow, as it was called. When a field has to be ploughed, the first thing to be done is to 'rig-set' a furrow, that is to say a perfectly straight furrow has to be ploughed across the field. For this, great skill is needed; for, after certain marks have been set up as guides for doing the work, both accuracy of vision is required and careful management of the horses, on which everything depends for keeping the line straight; this Blades used to do almost entirely by talking to the animals, and they seemed to understand him perfectly. By kind and gentle treatment horses, like elephants, can be made to do almost anything we want them to do.

In the many interviews I had with William Blades I could not fail to notice, not only his genuine kindness of heart and tenderness of feeling, but also the honesty, straightforwardness, and manliness of his character. One of his favourite sayings was 'be real'; and on that principle he certainly always seems to have acted himself; and in word as well as in deed he always gave me the impression of being eminently straight. His sense of humour was keen, and in disposition he was always cheerful, contented, and happy.


Transcribed by Graham Metcalf © 2002