THE BRITISH WORKMAN: The Yorkshire character




In the foregoing pages we have been speaking mainly on matters connected with the East Riding of Yorkshire, especially that part of it which is known as the Wold country, and I have always regarded this as a district where the Yorkshireman's characteristics are very typically displayed. It has been my lot in life to mix with people of every class of society, from the humblest to the highest, through a long course of years, so that I have had specially favourable opportunities of noting the marks and peculiarities of my fellow countrymen on this eastern side of our great county; and I should consider myself very lacking in observation if I had not acquired a fairly accurate knowledge of those features and characteristics of the people among whom I have lived and associated for so long a period.

It will not therefore, I hope, be thought out of place if I here give as accurate and complete a sketch as I can of what is commonly called the Yorkshire character, about which much has been written from time to time. And this the more, seeing that my old friend William Blades is himself a native of these parts, and is possessed of many of the best and most striking lineaments of the true Yorkshireman.

The first point to be considered in giving an account of the Yorkshire character is the subject of race, which in this case is a mixed one, consisting of British, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Scandinavian. And I have always held that it is the mixture of the blood of these four races which go to make up the physical and mental qualities of the people who inhabit this part of our country, and give them their strength and idiosyncrasy. We must remember that Eboracum, being the capital of Roman Britain during their long occupation of the country, cannot fail to have left a deep and abiding impression upon the inhabitants, and especially when we bear in mind that York was a Roman colonia, which meant much more than a mere military occupation; for the veteran soldiers had allotments of land assigned to them, and thus there would ensue in course of time inter-marriages with the British. Moreover, when the Roman armies were withdrawn from Britain after their four centuries' rule of this country, the British population was not left as it was before the Romans came here, as is commonly supposed, but was very largely Romanized ; so that there was a blend of Roman and British elements, and traces of that blend must exist to some extent in our people at this day. When it is said that the Romans left Britain, we must not suppose that they took everything away with them. They left us a civilization, and many traces of their race which are still by no means obliterated.

As for the Scandinavian element in our Yorkshire folk, there is no part of England where that is so strong as it is in that side of the country known as the Danelagh, of which our East Riding formed part. And so penetrating was this influence, that at the present day hundreds of our place-names may be traced to Danish sources, and our ancient folk-speech is very largely made up of Danish words. This Scandinavian strain is far stronger than any other in forming the characteristics of the present-day Yorkshireman.

In point of physique our East Riding Woldsmen are above the average in height, and the same may be said of their mental equipment. They are active in mind and body, good athletes, and until the War demoralized the people, they were excellent workers; and in that respect they far surpassed the southerner. Their innate intelligence and powers of observation make them good judges of character. They will soon 'reckon a man up', as we say; and if he has any weak points in his armour the Yorkshireman is not slow to take advantage of them. He is, moreover, not only extremely independent, resulting in a certain roughness of manner which means nothing offensive, but he has also great confidence in his own powers. Even a farm lad who understands his work is quite capable of saying, 'Ah reckons ah a'e'nt sa mich ti larn'. This bluntness of manner always strikes the south countryman very much, and it is certainly a point not in our favour; but in spite of this rough exterior our Yorkshire folk have wondrously warm hearts, only they do not carry them on their sleeve. Moreover, they are very slow to express their feelings, however strong they may be. This often gives a stranger a totally wrong impression of our people.

I remember once having a conversation on this point with a high ecclesiastical dignitary. He instanced the case of a certain incumbent who for many years had been a most diligent and faithful parish priest; but in spite of all his labours, his parishioners gave no visible sign that they appreciated in the slightest degree what he had done for them. At length he became quite disheartened, and decided to resign his benefice. But no sooner had he made this known than his parishioners expressed not only surprise, but the greatest regret at the step he had taken. To which he replied: 'If only you had shown a tenth part of the appreciation of my services during all these years that you do now, I should never have left you.' As a comment on this, my ecclesiastical friend added, 'If only you Yorkshire people would add a little grace to your grit, you would be a really great people'. This impeachment I felt to be perfectly true and just. There is no reason why the Yorkshireman should not exercise a little graciousness in his intercourse with others; and if he did so it would not detract in the least from his good qualities, but, on the contrary, would greatly adorn them.

Although the 'Tyke' is not demonstrative as a rule, yet, when occasion requires, he will give his mind very strongly, not to say bluntly, and, as some would think, rudely. He is no respecter of persons and status, as such. This outspokenness, though not a pleasant trait to meet with, has at least this advantage, that you always know where you are with him.

The love of bargaining is a very noticeable feature in the Yorkshireman's character, and in that work it is not easy to get the better of him ; he fairly revels in the contest. He enjoys it as the ordinary man would in playing some absorbing game.

Many years ago I was acquainted with the Rector of a parish on the Wolds; he was a south countryman, a man of literary tastes, a good scholar, and a shrewd observer of human nature, especially in the case of his parishioners and their congeners, whose love of bargaining always greatly impressed him. On this Point he once thus expressed himself: 'No people can bargain like these; they delight in it for its own sake as in a game of quoits, or pitch and toss. To squeeze another sixpence, or reduce payment by half that amount affords them the keenest enjoyment. When two men meet in the street, one having something to sell, they haggle an endless time to induce each other to relent a little. When the first difficult step is let down, they go on relenting cautiously, with a contest over each rung of the ladder, till there remains perhaps a shilling between buyer and seller. But to give way would imply defeat to one of them, and they stand for half an hour over that sixpence, and at last part with: " If thoo finnd yan at t' price ah 'll gi'e tha a sovereign " ; and the other, "An' ah'll laay tha a sovereign on 't ". But they look forward to a renewed duel. That day week they will be at it again in the same place, and the whole process will be repeated, with the same result. All bargains are finally crowned by the seller standing something to drink.' This picture of a Yorkshire bargain can scarcely be said to be overdrawn ; and I have little doubt that our venerable friend, William Blades, would have been quite capable of holding his own in such-like transactions; indeed, I know for certain that he made many extremely good bargains.

With this love of bargaining it need scarcely be added that the Yorkshireman keeps a tight hold on his purse. He has to see his course very clearly before he can make up his mind to part with even a small sum of money. But although it is difficult to extract a subscription from him for some deserving object, he is lavish in his hospitality. He will always entertain you right royally, and give you the best of what he has. For this good quality I know of none to surpass him. A Yorkshire 'Tea' is an affair of which the south countryman can form no conception.

Connected with his keenness for making and keeping money is his difficulty in understanding how people can act from disinterested motives. To give an illustration of this : I remember hearing of a lady who had a servant who was ill, and thought a change to the sea-side would do the invalid good. When this, however, was proposed to the mother, the offer was at first refused, but afterwards agreed to, the mother confessing that though she had thought over and over again about it she could not understand, as she expressed it to the mistress, 'what good it would do you to get her to Scarborough'. But it must not be supposed that our Yorkshire folk are insensible to kindnesses shown them, for I have had frequent proofs that they are not so, though they may not express their gratitude effusively.

Their independence too is sometimes shown in an amusing way. You ask a man to do a piece of work, perhaps even when he has been out of work for some time, and he replies after a little hesitation somewhat in this fashion: 'Well then, to oblige you I'll come.' A similar case happened to a friend of mine who was on some occasion giving an entertainment one evening at his vicarage. Meeting one of his parishioners on the road, he gave him a cordial invitation to the feast. After thinking it over, the man replied: 'Well, Mr. S., I'll try and oblige you.' The fact was that the man was delighted to come, but that was the way he accepted the invitation. As a parson of my acquaintance once put it, 'they (the Yorkshiremen) are never obliged except when a bill is paid!'

Another marked feature in their character is the quiet strength of their determination not to give way when once their minds are made up; and this frequently happens when they are obviously in the wrong; but the Tyke will never admit that he is in the wrong, he will always try, somehow or other, to justify himself; and this obstinacy will often lead him astray; but, on the other hand, an honest Yorkshireman is as proud of his integrity as the one careless of rectitude is of his own stubbornness. Our Yorkshire old word 'stunt' (which has nothing to do with the modern use of the word) exactly expresses that extreme assertion of self-will which we have just described, and when once a Yorkshireman has started to stunt, it is quite useless to attempt to do anything more with him.

We can scarcely reckon any one a Yorkshireman who is not also a sportsman, or at least is possessed of the sporting instinct, so strongly is sport ingrained in the nature of our people. Many of them seem almost to live for that and nothing else. And if there is one kind of sport more than another which grips them tightly, it is anything in which horse-flesh is concerned. In the eyes of the sportive Yorkshireman a noted jockey would be of much greater account than the most famous statesman, or the most illustrious General or Field Marshal; a successful trainer of horses, like John Scott of olden days, would be held in higher esteem than any Prime Minister; his name would be handed down from father to son for generations; the names and pedigrees of his famous horses would be treasured in the memory, and traced back with unfailing exactitude through a long descent, while the names in many families would scarcely be known beyond those of their grandfathers; in short, the pedigree of the highest nobleman in the land is, in the eyes of the Tyke, as nothing compared with that of a winner of the Derby. Even the place where bloodstock is bred is looked upon almost as holy ground. In the days of the famous old Sir Tatton Sykes, Sledmere would be regarded by the sporting fraternity as the capital of the East Riding, if not of Yorkshire itself!

Famous jockeys and trainers when they pass away are not forgotten; their names and exploits are had in re membrance, and handed down from generation to generation.

Soon after I came to live in Beverley, a well-known Local jockey died. I did not know him personally, but I was told that he was a man greatly respected by all who knew him, and exemplary in every relation of life. On the day of his funeral the town was thronged with people, many of whom came from distant places. I doubt very much if so large a concourse would have assembled had it been the funeral of one of our great statesmen.

No doubt many of the famous jockeys are perfectly straightforward and upright men. The only notable jockey I ever knew personally was one of that sort. He had won the Derby three times, and almost every other great race in the country. He was known far and wide for honesty and straightforwardness on the race-course as elsewhere, and he died respected by all who knew him. There is no reason why all jockeys should not be men of that stamp.

Yorkshiremen, especially the East Ridingers, live well, dress well, and before the War were excellent workers; in all these respects far before the south countryman. Taking them altogether, they are the most well-to-do people in His Majesty's dominions.

The artistic taste of the country folk is at a low ebb; but although the houses are hideously ugly, they are, as a rule, kept scrupulously clean; indeed cleanliness is one of the people's virtues.

In Wales it is no uncommon thing to meet with a 'prydydd', or poet, among the farming class; in fact they pride themselves not a little on their literary tastes and effusions. But the idea of any of our East Riding farmers turning poets brings a smile to one's lips. In all their notions they are eminently practical and matter-of-fact. Sentiment counts for nothing among our people. If by some very remote chance a Yorkshire farmer did turn poet, his subject, as a friend of mine once observed, would take the form of a 'hippic' rather than an epic !

In all worldly ways our country folk are shrewd and canny; slow to make known their views, and cautious in the extreme. If a stranger comes among them, although very good judges of character, and quick in reckoning a man up, it will be a considerable time before they will express their opinion of him, and trust him; they must prove him first.

Betting on all kinds of sport is very prevalent in the great county, and it is remarkable how eagerly the sporting columns of the evening papers are scanned by the masses; that is the first item they look at.

Generally speaking, the Yorkshireman is no respecter of dignities and titles, as such; noble lords, squires, clergy, doctors, are frequently spoken of without any prefix to their names; and in the case of the medical profession it very commonly happens, by a sort of peversity, that when an M.D. is mentioned, if he receives any prefix at all, it is generally 'Mr.'; but if the practitioner is not entitled to any degree he would very probably be dubbed Dr, So-and-so. I am not at all sure that even a veterinary surgeon might not frequently be styled Dr. this, or that ! In one case I know of he certainly was.

I have already alluded to the Tyke's independence; and one particular form of it is shown in his unwillingness to be forced to do anything. As a straw is enough to show the direction of the wind, this point to which I refer may be illustrated by a small incident which came under my observation many years ago when I was travelling by rail in the East Riding.

I was sitting in the forepart of the train, when we stopped at a by-road station where a number of market folk alighted. The ticket collector took his stand immediately opposite my compartment, and as the passengers approached him he made the usual demand-'Tickets, please'. Almost the last to reach him was a man who appeared utterly unconcerned, made no attempt to give up his ticket, and seemed inclined to take no notice of the request, and to pass by; whereupon the official called out to him in a peremptory tone--' Ticket, please'. The man hesitated, and made a sort of pretence at fumbling in his pocket, and said in the most casual way, 'Ah deean't knaw 'at ah a'e yan'. After further delay he at last produced the ticket, which of course he knew all the time was in his pocket, but his action was a sort of protest to being put under any sort of compulsion. If the collector had not asked the man for his ticket, he would probably have handed it up without demur.

In all his ways the Yorkshireman is, as I observed, practical, 'and he looks at everything from a strictly utilitarian and economical point of view. In the days of my youth I remember once going to a country tailor for a suit of clothes. He produced a number of patterns, and, as I was turning them over to make a selection, he drew my attention to one which he thought would be very suitable; to my taste it was hideous; and as he continued to press it upon my notice I asked him why he recommended it so strongly, to which he replied: 'It hides muck weel'. I therefore declined it, and I dare say he thought me very foolish in so doing.

Our people are so matter-of-fact in their speech that anything like sarcasm is often thrown away upon them. They take everything literally; even things said in jest, especially if the meaning is at all hidden, will often be understood as if they were spoken in sober earnest. This has frequently happened to me in the course of my experience. Still there is no doubt that, as I have already stated, the Yorkshire folk have a strong vein of humour in their nature, and their wit is keen and caustic.

My sketch of the Yorkshireman's character would be very incomplete if I failed to make note of his steadfastness towards those he has trusted and made his friends. He may be somewhat slow in making up his mind to give you his confidence, but when once he has come to a decision to trust you as a friend, it will be your own fault, generally speaking, if you forfeit his friendship. This is one of the finest and most marked traits in his nature.

Transcribed by Graham Metcalf © 2002