A few years ago I had occasion to visit the village of Nafferton, which is one of considerable size, lying at the eastern edge of the Yorkshire Wolds, and in one of the richest corn-growing districts of the country. The place was very familiar to me, for I had known it from my earliest childhood, and had often visited it since those far-off days, and a stroll through its streets and lanes always brought back in vivid colours many happy memories and hallowed associations.
In the middle of the ' toon ' (town), as we always used to call it in our vernacular, there is a picturesque pond of extensive area, whose water, which issues from strong springs in the chalk, is strikingly bright and clear ; and it used to be my delight as a boy to watch the numerous ducks, moorhens, and dabchicks swimming and diving in the transparent water ; and it always aroused my boyish interest to mark the length of time the last-named birds could remain below the surface, and wonder at what point they would reappear.
This pond went, and still goes, by the name of 'The Beck', our East Yorkshire term for a brook ; though here it was the fountain-head of a stream, and not the stream itself, which flows out of it.
It was by the side of this piece of water that I happened to be walking on the occasion just referred to, and watching the waterfowl as I had watched them hundreds of times before, when I met a man coming towards me. He was quite a stranger to me, but I could not fail to notice him, for he was of striking appearance - tall, and remarkably upright for his age, which was then considerably over fourscore years, as I afterwards ascertained. Although, as I observed, he was a stranger to me, it appeared that I was known to him both by sight and by name, and as we drew near he accosted me and introduced himself. I discovered at once by the purity of his dialect that he was an East Yorkshireman of the old school. I at once felt attracted to him by his manner and speech, and this favourable impression I never afterwards had occasion to modify. I returned with him to his dwelling hard by, and after some conversation with him I soon perceived that he was a man of no ordinary character. He had been engaged in agriculture for the greater part of his long life, so that he was thoroughly familiar with all the details of husbandry, and well versed in much besides.
This was the first of a long series of visits which I subsequently paid him. He was possessed of a surprisingly retentive memory ; indeed, for accuracy in minute details connected with events long past I cannot remember ever to have met any one equal to him ; so that in course of time I gained from him a vast amount of interesting information connected with his early life and work ; moreover, this knowledge was imparted to me frequently with touches of humour which greatly delighted me. As he unfolded to me by degrees the story of his career, I was able to make mental and other notes of his observations, and I had frequent and abundant proof of the strict accuracy of his statements.
It is round the life of this remarkable and interesting personality that the following pages mainly centre.
William Blades, for such was the name of my venerable friend, was born at Nafferton on April 20, 1839. He was one of a family of twelve children ; his father, like himself, having been engaged in husbandry. At that time of day wages were low and the necessaries of life dear, so that the bringing up of a large family like this was a matter of great hardship and difficulty. In fact it was often surprising to see how some families grew up at all under such privations.
The house of the Blades family was, like all the houses of the agricultural labourers, small, consisting of two rooms on the ground floor called the ' house ', or living - room, and the parlour, with two bedrooms above. In many of the cottages at that time there was over one or other of the sleeping chambers a space or area, it could not be dignified with the title of room, which was frequently used as a sleeping place for some of the children ; it was just possible to get a small bed or two in it ; and there they slept arranged in their beds in the manner shortly to be described. So contracted was the space, that getting in and out of bed the youngsters had to exercise great caution so as not to knock their heads against the rafters of the roof. This upper area always went by the name of the 'cockloft'. There was one such in the house of the Blades family, of which our friend has vivid recollection ; for whenever he and his brothers made too much noise, as children are wont to do on going to bed, their mother would come up to them with what she called her cat-o'-nine-tails, and flagellated them therewith, asking no questions, but letting them one and all ' have a taste of it', as I was told. This always had the desired effect. In addition to these rooms there was what was called a ' backer-end ', which was a kind of a leanto shanty at one end of the house, in which all sorts of odd jobs were done, including the threshing of the gleaned corn in winter, and where various tools, implements, and all manner of 'kelter', as we call it, were stowed away. At that time nearly half the houses in the village were thatched. These had their advantages and disadvantages. They were warm in winter and cool in summer; but they suffered, like many other kinds of houses at that time, from an insufficiency of light and ventilation, owing to that most hateful enactment known as the window tax, which was practically a charge on sunlight and air, two of the main essentials to health. It may be wondered how a family of twelve, besides the parents, could be housed in so small a dwelling; but it must be borne in mind that as the children reached about the age of eight years they went out to service. This was the usual custom in those days. I remember asking a certain woman in one of my former parishes who had a large family and a small house how she managed to stow them all away, when she replied, 'Ah oots'em as ah ins 'em'. It was so in this case. When there was an addition to the family the eldest had to go out to service. But even thus it must have needed great economy of space to find room for seven or eight children and the parents. Here it could only be done by three sleeping in one bed in the cockloft; and this was accomplished by one of the three lying crosswise at the foot of the bed, while the parents slept in the parlour, so that practically all the domestic work and family life were confined within the narrow limits of the 'house' or living-room.
It would seem that the health of this family did not suffer appreciably in consequence of this contracted domestic space, for by far the greater part of the children's time was spent in the open air, and the air here was remarkably pure and invigorating. I once asked Blades what was his earliest recollection. This he said was 'in berry time'; that is to say the time when gooseberries were ripe in their garden. These were a sore temptation to his brothers; and so they persuaded him, as being the 'fiercest', to make a raid upon them. The boy was discovered in the act, and received a sound 'skelping' from his mother which he never forgot. So much for the precepts of 'The Proverbs of Solomon'. I must here explain that 'Bill' being the 'fiercest' does not imply that he was of a cruel or savage disposition; far from it. It merely means that he was the most plucky of the brothers. This characteristic was exemplified all through his long life in bravely facing its trials and difficulties, of which he encountered not a few. In this humble abode, and under a discipline not too indulgent, to say the least of it, this boy's earliest years were spent; and they were years far from unhappy.
Public Elementary Schools in the early part of the last century were few and far between, and those that did exist were very different from those of the present day. In most villages, however, there was a school for young children kept by some dame, or by a pedagogue who was not seldom a lame man, or one afflicted with some bodily infirmity, who carried on their schools entirely on their own lines without interference from school authorities, education departments, inspectors, attendance officers, medical officials, architects, and other officials, whose duties I am unable to define precisely, and whose attentions to the working of our present-day school system must at times, one would think, be some what harassing to the teachers and managers. Far be it from me to minimize in the slightest degree any good work which may be done by any of these officials; but when we consider the many millions of money spent annually on education in this country I am thoroughly convinced that we do not get anything like our money's worth for this huge expenditure, and that a large proportion of it might as well be thrown into the ocean for all the practical and permanent good that it does to the children. One hears even now complaints on all sides that the children in our elementary schools cannot read nor write properly; nay, that they cannot even speak intelligibly. Only quite recently one of our County Court Judges remarked that it was 'perfectly shocking how young people talked nowadays. They mumbled and made a mess of the good old English words; and this could be said of many educated people too.'
But to return to the educational opportunities in our village of Nafferton about the period 1840-50. There were at that time two or three small schools in the place. One was kept by a certain old dame named Baron who dwelt in a small house in, or close to, the churchyard, and instructed a dozen or so of young children. The range of subjects taught was a very limited one, being confined to the alphabet and reading. Writing and arithmetic were not included in the syllabus! But Dame Baron was a good old soul, and she taught her tender flock what we call in Yorkshire 'behaviour', and probably the first elements of the Church Catechism. She was not exorbitant in her charges, for her school fees amounted to the modest sum of one penny a week, and for this trifling fee the parents would certainly get their money's worth. Another school of a similar kind was kept by an old lady named Preston. She used to sit in church with her scholars and by the aid of a wand about six feet long she exercised a salutary discipline over her flock; for when any of them misbehaved, a sharp dig in the back from Dame Preston's wand of office instantly reduced them to order.
The third school was somewhat more pretentious, and was kept by one Thomas Smith, and was situated hard by the 'Black Hole', which was a kind of dungeon in which drunkards and other bad characters were for a brief space incarcerated. 'Tommy' Smith, as he was called, was rather a notable personage, for, besides being the village schoolmaster, he also had the office of parish clerk. He was a man greatly respected in the place, and there is a tablet to his memory on the south wall of Nafferton Church recording his death, faithful services, and virtues, namely, that he died on November 17, 1856, aged 94; and further, that he held the office of parish clerk for 36 years, and that of schoolmaster for 58 years. He always wore a tall hat, long-coat, breeches, and gaiters. I can, as a small boy, just remember the old gentleman as he sat beside the reading desk in Nafferton Church, of which my father was vicar for some ten years. This, by the way, is rather a long link with the past, for 'Tommy' Smith was born as long ago as the year 1762.
In Thomas Smith's school the Bible and Church Catechism were taught regularly; and besides these the children were instructed in reading, writing, and 'summing', which was the term generally used for arithmetic in those days. The school fee was three pence a week. Master Smith does not appear to have been an over-strict disciplinarian, at least in his later years; for the boys used to play small practical jokes upon him without any severe consequences. He used to spend a portion of his time during school hours in knitting, though apparently he did not instruct his pupils in that art.
Such, then, was the kind of education given in most of our villages in the early part of the last century, and we must think no scorn of it, for it was thoroughly good as far as it went; it cost the nation nothing, and the parents were willing to pay for what they got for their children. It is to be regretted that school fees had to be abolished when education was made compulsory. There was no outcry against them, and people generally value more what they pay for than what they get for nothing.
The range of subjects taught in these unpretentious schools was certainly limited, but probably more thoroughly taught than they are in the more imposing buildings of the present day. The value, too, of instruction in the Church Catechism was great and lasting; it gave the children a guide and rule of their duty to God and man which was priceless. It is for lack of the realization of those duties on the part of the masses at this time that so many of the ills and troubles of our country are due. Of this there can he no doubt.
Objections are frequently made even by professedly religious people to the teaching of the Catechism, but these objections can almost always be traced to ignorance on the part of those who make them. Let me give a single instance.
Quite recently I was told by one who had held an important educational office for a considerable number of years of a case which well illustrates my point. There was a certain church school in Yorkshire, the buildings of which had got a little out of repair. The sum requisite to make good the dilapidations was only about twenty pounds. But the parish was a poor one, apparently, and there was a difficulty in raising this modest sum. And so a wealthy landowner in the neighbourhood who, though not a churchman, was an excellent man, and very charitably disposed, was approached in the hope that he would put his hand in his pocket and produce this, to him, mere trifle. But alas ! He absolutely refused to do so, saying that he never contributed anything to any school where the Church Catechism was taught! On being asked what possible objection he could have to the teaching of that formulary, he gave the following amazing reply as a reason for not giving even the smallest donation to any such school, namely,'that parents have no responsibility for the teaching of religion to their children; all that is handed over to the godparents!' Scarcely less absurd and ignorant are many other of the objections which are raised to the teaching of the Catechism in schools. But into these I cannot here enter.
In order, however, to show what importance was attached to the teaching of the Catechism in olden days, it appears from the returns to a series of questions issued by Archbishop Herring to his clergy in the Diocese of York in the middle of the eighteenth century, that in the vast majority of the parishes this formulary was taught, though generally speaking, the secular teaching was of the slenderest description. In one parish, for instance, it was said 'we have no school in our parish but an old woman !' In another parish on the Wolds there was an endowment of nineteen shillings for which the schoolmaster taught two poor children; and the parish clerk also taught sixteen. in other cases a poor woman or two might perhaps teach a few children to read. It appears to me to be quite as necessary to teach the Catechism in these days as it was a hundred years ago. Only last year at a meeting of the National Society the Lord Mayor of London said that he himself 'knew of no teaching which more fitly inculcated what was best in the English character than that contained in the old Church Catechism'. But this by the way.
To the charge, then, of Dame Baron and Master Thomas Smith was William Blades entrusted in the earliest years of his schooldays, and received lessons in knowledge and conduct which stood him in good stead throughout his life.
Meanwhile, his father's family was a growing one, times were hard, and house-space contracted; and so it was decided that 'Billy' should be sent to farm service. He was then only eight years old, and it was no uncommon thing at that time for children, whether boys or girls, to go to service of some kind or other at that early age. His days at home in spite of work and hard living were perfectly happy, and he never seems to have had any ailment; moreover, he gave it as his opinion that the general health of the people then was better than it is now. No doubt such ailments as small-pox, and others due to bad sanitation and defective ventilation of the cottages were more prevalent then than at the present day, but what Blades gave me to understand was that the peoples' constitutions generally were more robust than they are now. There is probably a good deal of truth in that statement, for had it been otherwise one does not see how the people, both men and women, could possibly have done all the work they did.
As regards health, all nervous complaints appear to be much more prevalent than they were in early Victorian days; this no doubt is due to the high pressure under which we now live; rapid motion, noise, and excitements of all kinds. One never heard of children having rheumatism in my younger days; now it is quite common. I attribute this largely to the kind of food children eat, especially in the way of sweets and chocolates; these things they consume in enormous quantities on all occasions, even our churches are scarcely free from them, to say nothing of theatres, railways, buses, cinemas, and all other places of amusement. In walking the streets of any town we cannot fall being struck at the immense increase in recent years of confectioners' shops. In earlier days children were content with a moderate supply of peppermints, acid drops, and bulls-eyes; the last named, by the way, seem quite to have gone out of the fashion. I have on several occasions, out of mere curiosity, inquired of shopmen if they sell bulls-eyes; but they only stare at me, and have not the remotest idea what they are. I was travelling by train quite recently, and beside me sat a young lady with a dog. Of course, she very soon produced her packet of chocolate, and proceeded to consume some; but not content with that, she next distributed some to the dog. We may well ask to what limits will the chocolate craze extend. These apparently are not yet in sight. Huge motor vans laden with chocolates and sweets of all kinds scour the country from end to end, and their burdens are distributed in every town and village. Millions are spent every year upon this kind of stuff, which might be spent in a more health-giving way, for example, in fresh fruit, which is far more wholesome than an excess of chocolate in every shape and substance, with which our country is fairly saturated; though, we may add, there is nothing harmful in chocolate if used in moderation.
There was apparently no regular doctor in Nafferton in Blades' boyhood; the nearest approach to one was a certain cattle doctor or veterinary surgeon, as we should now call him, named Cross, who, according to our Yorkshire habit, was always dubbed 'Doctor' Cross. This man would generally attend to the simple wants of the people who sought his aid, which cornmonly was given in the form of certain pills on which his fame seems mainly to have rested. These pills he manufactured in considerable quantities, and frequently he would call in the assistance of some of the village boys, of whom Blades was one, to roll up these globules in the prescribed fashion, and when a sufficient number had been thus manipulated the 'Doctor' would give the lads a penny apiece, with which they were mightily pleased.
My belief is that our friend Blades was perfectly right when he asserted that the health of the people was more robust in his early life than it is at the present time. If the food of the cottager was more simple and scanty than it is now, it was less adulterated and more sustaining. Take bread, for instance, the chief article of food. One does not know now what a loaf of bread contains; it may look white and tempting, but it is not nearly so sweet, satisfying, and sustaining as the bread of my boyhood, which, though perhaps not so white, contained nothing but the flour of wheat. In this connexion one is reminded of the words of the Psalmist: 'He should have fed them also with the finest wheatflour; and with honey out of the stony rock should I have satisfied thee.' The finest wheat-flour; that and nothing else is what is needed for making the best and most wholesome bread.
The question of the adulteration of food generally is one which always demands the most careful attention, for on this the health of our people very largely depends; and it would be well if a stricter watch on the part of our medical authorities and inspectors was kept over the sale of food of all kinds. The use of tinned meats has increased enormously in recent years. These, too, need careful supervision, for their effects as bodily nutriments cannot always be relied on. The same thing applies to beer, which in olden days formed such a considerable part of the food of the people. I have long been convinced that it is not so much the quantity of beer that a man drinks that is injurious to him as its quality. Beer that is made of the best malt and hops only is one of the most wholesome beverages that any one can drink. Certainly far better than the excessive tea drinking which is now so prevalent. From the first thing in the morning, even before they get up, till late at night people, and ladies especially, drink tea. This cannot fail in course of time to act injuriously to the nerves and digestive organs. Time was when beer was almost universally drunk by people of all classes in this country, and many brewed it privately for their own household use. Beer so brewed was commonly of the best; this was what the farmers frequently provided for their men. It was ale of this kind that the first Sir Tatton Sykes of Sledmere brewed in large quantities; and a glass of this wholesome beverage was never refused to a wayfaring man who chose to ask for it. Sir Tatton himself, who lived to be over ninety, was said to prefer apple-pie and ale for his breakfast to anything else. Whether he ever drank tea or not, I cannot say, but if so, I imagine it would be in very small quantities. The bare idea of that famous old squire drinking tea before rising in the morning is ludicrous if not unthinkable !
I once asked William Blades if he still continued to drink beer, which in his younger days he found so refreshing and sustaining. He replied that he did not; adding that the beer of the present day did not agree with him. To one who had been accustomed to drink good home-brewed ale, this result was not surprising To whatever cause or causes it may be attributed, there can be no question that the habits of the people generally are more temperate now than they were a generation or two ago; and I am convinced that if all beer was made of nothing but good malt and hops there would be even less intemperance than there is at the present time. But on this subject I cannot here further dwell.
Village life in the middle of the last century was very different from what it is at this day when so many of our countryfolk are attracted to the towns. Our villages used to present a much more lively appearance than they do now. Many more trades were followed in the country than there are at present. Every considerable village had its tailors, shoemakers, blacksmiths, carpenters, carriers, shopkeepers of various kinds, tinners, turners, and many more. There was more life in our Wold villages generally: motor-cars and buses now rush through these places, but they do not add to their real life. They come and they go. The sports and pastimes of the people were often of a rougher kind in the olden days than in these. Such sports as cock-fighting and badger-baiting were then only too common. At Nafferton, for instance, cock-fights would be frequently organized on Sunday morning at 11 o'clock when the people were in church. These contests took place in the malt kiln of a certain mill situated in the village. A barrel of beer would be provided for the occasion, when about fifteen spectators would be present. A good deal of betting went on, and many who did not attend would put bets on the cocks, which were kept by one John Fardin, who let them roost in his house. But these and other cruel sports which took place in many of our Wold villages are now happily abolished.
Transcribed by Graham Metcalf © 2002