THE BRITISH WORKMAN: Mowing in the West




When Blades had attained to full manhood he was his own master, and was free to go where he liked, and choose his own line of work. By this time he had had a vast amount of experience in all agricultural operations, in fact there was practically nothing in which he was not perfectly competent whether in the tilling of the land or in the management of the various animals of the farm; he was a good hand at driving a team of horses, and thoroughly understood their ways, managing them more by talking to them than by any severer measures. He had his long whip no doubt, but this would be more for ornament than use; it put a sort of finishing touch on the whole turn-out; and a wondrously pretty sight it was to see a well-equipped Wold wagon and horses with the wagoner astride the near-side pole horse. The wagons themselves were graceful in their proportions, and admirably made. Few, indeed, would credit what skill is required to make one of our Wold wagons properly; even to turn out a single cart- or wagon-wheel is of itself a fine art. And as for the horses, they were indeed splendid creatures, well bred, well fed, and very powerful. Once Blades had four under his charge at some farm, the name of which I have forgotten, which, as he said, weighed not far short of a ton apiece. All the horses, when yoked for a journey on the road, were beautifully groomed, till their coats fairly shone again; the stout harness necessary for these animals was bright and clean, and the metal parts well polished. On each side of the horses' heads there would be coloured rosettes with streamers; their tails were neatly groomed and bound at the base with coloured ribbons; on the top of the head was fixed an ornamental 'brush', as it was called; and hanging down by leather straps from the collar on either side were the 'swagger balls', the name of which is significant; bells also would sometimes be attached to some part of the harness. The wagon might be laden with fifteen or so quarters of corn for delivery on to the railway, and thence to the West Riding markets. All the sacks would be neatly and securely packed in rows. And lastly there was the wagoner himself, a lad, say, of eighteen summers, a fine, strong, healthy-looking young fellow, well clad, and wearing on his head a 'raddidoo' or wide-awake hat, with perhaps a peacock's feather or some other embellishment at the side. Coming down a slope the horses would rattle along at a trot, and, on ascending the opposing hill, they would stretch their massive limbs till wrinkles would appear on their quarters, and make quite light work of it all. The sight of one of these well-furnished teams is one which any one would stop to look at and admire. Alas ! since the War these wagoners' teams are not by any means what they used to be. The lads do not take the same trouble and pride in turning them out smartly; but let us hope that in time they will regain something of their former glory.

But to return to our hero. Our East Yorkshire farm labourers did not usually go very far away from home after leaving service; as a rule they found work of some kind not distant from their old 'hoof'. But at this period of his career Blades was an exception to the general rule, and his inclination took rather an adventurous turn.

There are parts of the extreme west of our great county where but little corn is grown, the land being nearly all pasture; and so, when hay-time begins, the farmers have to get extra hands for mowing and winning the hay. The wages paid for this work were then looked upon as good. Tempted partly by this, and partly by a desire to see a little more of the world, Blades determined to try his luck at this kind of work in a remote part of the West Riding. This only involved an absence from home of a few weeks; and accordingly he risked the venture.

Most journeys in those days were made on foot by the working classes. Even the women would trudge miles to market every week, carrying generally a heavily laden basket, though some, no doubt, went in carriers' carts. It was, then, by nature's means of locomotion that Blades made his long journey to the west.

Haymaking in that part of the country usually began about the first week of July; and so, one day about that time in the year 1862, he made preparations for leaving home, and started on his journey at 4 p.m. His luggage consisted of a bundle which contained his spare clothes, and his 'ley' (scythe). The blade of his scythe was six feet long, and for travelling it would be bound with a band of hay and tied to the shaft. These and the bundle together weighed about a stone and a half. His first objective was York, which was distant from his home at Nafferton about thirty-five miles over the Wolds, and across the Vale of York. He was now about twentythree years of age, and a tower of strength. He went at a steady, though not slow pace, for he was in no particular hurry, and whatever snatches of sleep he got were generally under hedges. After walking thirty miles his burden, as he said, 'began to weigh', but he plodded on till he reached York, which he did at five in the morning. Here he pulled up at an inn in Walmgate, where he rested for three hours and refreshed himself with food and ale, getting a nap meanwhile.

His next destination was Leeds, for which he started at 8 a.m., and arrived there by way of Tadcaster between 5 and 6 p.m. Thence he went on to Skipton, and finally reached a place called Conistone, having previously fallen in with a farmer at Grassington named Lelland who hired him for his hay harvest at a wage of £4, together with lodging, food, and washing. The season happened to be a wet one, and so the work was somewhat prolonged; but he was content with his bargain, for he was well treated, with an abundance of good food; and, this being a dairy farm, there was always a superfluity of milk; in consequence of this good feeding Blades gained half a stone in weight by the end of his time. The country round Conistone was wild and hilly, not unlike that of the Bronte country about Haworth. The high lands were rocky and bleak, but there was good pasture land in the valleys, and stone walls for hedges were to be seen everywhere.

For nine summers in succession Blades was hired for the hay harvest with the farmer Lelland at Conistone, and they ultimately broke their agreement for the sake of a sovereign, which Blades afterwards regretted.

It sometimes happened that he would fill in a few days' work with another master after he had finished at Conistone. One of these occasions was when he was hired for a short period by a farmer at Grassington to help him to get in his hay; this man was of a hospitable nature, and treated his people generously; they were all like one family. On the last day they finished up the work at 10 p.m., after which the farmer treated his men to a sumptuous repast of roast beef and plum pudding, and I know not what besides, with ale in abundance. There was much conviviality, which they kept up till two o'clock in the morning. Late though the hour was, Blades and another man had to make their way back to Conistone, some four miles distant. Part of the road lay through a wood, and when they reached this wood it suddenly became extremely dark. They had a dog with them named ' Gadie'. The dog went on some little way before them, and as they stumbled along through the wood it suddenly turned, came up close to their feet, and appeared very uneasy. The men felt certain that there was something unusual ahead of them, but what it was they could neither see nor hear. Blades' companion was for turning back, imagining, no doubt, that there might be some footpads lurking by the side of the path ready to waylay them; but, encouraged by his friend, the two pushed on cautiously, the dog now following close behind. Presently they saw the outline of some large object immediately in front of them. Many timorous people would at that time have supposed it to have been a 'barguest', and would have fled in terror. On closer inspection, however, the fearsome object turned out to be nothing worse than a donkey standing right across the way, which discovery provided the two with no little merriment for what remained of their journey. I mentioned the name of the dog (Gadie) in this connexion, because many of the canine names in the West Riding dales are extremely ancient, and this is one of them. Mr. Lucas, in his interesting Studies in Nidderdale, alludes to this, and tells us that the name 'Rake', probably derived from Old Norse, Rakki (a dog), may well be a thousand years old. Another of these names is 'Gess' (g hard). I once had a dog so called, and when people asked me his name I replied 'Gess', and they went on guessing for ever so long, until at length I enlightened them !

Mowing grass in a meadow is one of the hardest pieces of work a farm labourer was called upon to do. I say was', because this work is now done almost everywhere by machinery. The men now would have neither the will nor the stamina to do the work as it was done a generation or two ago. It was delightful to watch a good mower at his work, as I have done many a time in my younger days, and also taken a hand with the scythe for a brief space, so that one learnt by experience what exacting work it was. Sometimes three or four men would mow together, and woe betide him who did not keep his proper place and swing. The swish of the scythe through the fresh scented grass, as well as the whetting of the blade with the 'strickle', smeared over with grease and fine sand, producing an edge like a sharp knife, were familiar sounds like music in one's ear. These with many another country sight and sound--the thud of the flail on the threshing floor, the picturesque company of harvesters in the corn-field, the women and children wending their way homewards with their bundles of gleanings, the song of the plough-lad at his work, uniting his cadences with the trills of the skylark-are now things of the past, reminding us of happy days and associations never to return.

One of the chief of Blades' powers of work and endurance was displayed in mowing grass, and soon after leaving Conistone an opportunity presented itself of showing his capabilities in that line, which were certainly very remarkable, if not unsurpassed. He got engaged to a farmer at a place called Silsit (1), which was situated some thirty miles from where he then was. He did not know the farm, and the way to it was strange to him, but he followed the directions that were given him as well as he could. He had walked many miles and it was now getting towards midnight, but fortunately the moon was shining, which, together with a certain hill, were his main guides. He was now not far from his destination, but before he could reach the farm-house he had to cross the river Wharfe. The current was rapid, and there were many rocks and stones with deep holes here and there. He had his scythe and bundle with him, which impeded his progress considerably, and so he had to pick his way from stone to stone with the greatest caution. He had got a certain distance safely, but when near the middle of the stream he stepped on a stone which looked a safe one, but unfortunately it was on a slant, and he went clean over head into a deep hole, out of which with some difficulty he scrambled together with his scythe and bundle, and by degrees gained the opposite bank. He did not know where he was, but felt that he could not be far from the Silsit farm. He looked about, but could see nothing to guide him, so he shouted at the top of his voice. Presently a light was seen about a field off, and a voice called out 'Mak' for this leet'. This was a man with a lantern who had come to seek the wayfarer whose cries of distress had been heard. He was now quickly at the haven where he would be, and with not a dry thread about him. As he drew near to the house he saw a bright glow inside, which was a welcome sight indeed; and as he crossed the threshold he was greeted by the housewife with the salutation 'Then thoo's drawn up'; ' Aye,' said Blades, 'an' ah've been over head'. This was evident from the state of his garments, which were all in a sodden state. It was now well past midnight, and the farmer, who had given up all hope in the arrival of his man, had retired to rest, and it was well that the wife had not lost her faith and had sat up for the new-comer. She was a woman of a kindly and hospitable disposition, and bade Blades come up to the fire which was blazing on the great open hearth, and divest himself of his saturated clothes. Meanwhile she had got together a dry suit, and as he was putting the things on one by one she could not but notice his splendid physique, and as she gazed on him in admiration she exclaimed 'Thoo's a real 'un !' Ample refreshment was quickly provided, to which full justice was given. The wet garments were put before the fire to dry, and the family retired to their bed-chambers.

* (1) Silsit = Selside?

It had been arranged that the grass mowing should start on what was now that morning. It was midsummer, and the season very hot. The farmer, whose name was Hayton, had determined, like a wise man, to make his hay while the sun shone. The wet clothes were dry by 3 a.m., and Blades, who could well have done with another six hours' sleep, arose at that hour, along with the farmer and his two sons. After partaking of some refreshment they proceeded to the meadow, which they reached at a quarter before four.

Farmer Hayton's sons were fine strong lads, and good mowers, especially the elder one, who prided himself not a little on his achievements with the scythe; and the father gave Blades to understand that he wanted some one to master him and take the conceit out of him, to which Blades modestly replied that he might possibly be able to give them something to do; 'Then', added Hayton, 'thoo's just mah clip'.

The meadow was one of five acres, and the three mowers started in regular order. It might be supposed that Blades after his long walk the previous day, and his ducking at the end of it, was not in the best of 'fettle' for hard work at this early hour, and with so little rest meanwhile. His scythe, too, had been laid by for a considerable while, and was not in good trim, for it needed some hours' mowing and whetting to bring its edge to perfection. The farmer's sons were fresh and strong, and they slashed away at the grass at a great pace, feeling that their credit was now at stake. Blades was able to keep pace with them, but it punished him severely with his long scythe with a blade of six feet, and not yet in proper working order; whereas the lads' 'leys' were keen-edged and less in length by four inches. So things went on till breakfast time at about six o'clock. There was now an abundance of good food, and plenty of firstrate home-brewed ale; and at the conclusion of the meal our Eastridinger felt like a giant refreshed; his scythe, too, was now in perfect working order; and, as he turned once more to his companions, he said 'Noo, lads, ah a'e ya' (now, lads, I've got you). At it they went without pause till 10 o'clock, the time for 'drinkings', which meant a snack of food and beer, which carried them on till dinner at noon. The sun was now pouring down on their heads with a heat of 105 deg.; it was melting work, and Blades could see that his two antagonists were feeling their task intensely, especially the elder one; but they hung on with dogged determination; Blades' heart, however, was in his work, and he was evidently master of them. He had two shirts, and when one was completely saturated he hung it on the hedge to dry, and put on the other, and so on till dinner-time. When that hour arrived, the farmer was there with his daughter, who had brought out the viands, which consisted of a quarter of a sheep with vegetables and other comestibles, and beer ad libitum, of which liquor in the course of the day Blades consumed a couple of gallons; but it was good, unadulterated stuff; as our mower said, it fed him, and without it he could not have accomplished what he did that morning.

When they sat down to meat in the shade, Blades felt as if he could have eaten half the mutton himself; but as for Herbert, the elder son, he was so completely done up with the task Blades had set him, that he could not eat a morsel; a cloud overshadowed his brow, and he slunk off home in disgust, utterly crestfallen. Thus the two were left to finish cutting the five acres alone, which they did at 9 p.m., and the whole of the field was 'led' by 11 p.m. the following day, so rapidly was the hay made under the favourable weather then prevailing.

As every one knows who has seen a meadow mown, the grass, immediately it is cut with a scythe or a machine, lies in heaped up rows across the field, and these rows have to be spread about with forks or other appliances in order that the hay may be made as speedily as possible.

Now there was one special feature with regard to Blades' mowing to which I would draw particular attention, for I do not remember to have heard of anything quite like it before. It seems that by the size and shape of his scythe, and by a peculiar motion of his feet in making his strokes he was enabled to leave the grass spread over the surface instead of its lying in rows. This, of course, was a great saving of labour; and it was owing to this fact, aided no doubt by the extreme heat of the sun, that on this occasion the whole field was made into hay and stacked before the close of the following day, as I just observed. Seldom, if ever, could such a day's mowing have been accomplished under similar conditions as that which Blades achieved on this occasion. It was something to be proud of, and a day's work that should put to shame that of the ordinary British workman of the present day.

There must have been a certain amount of oats grown in the neighbourhood of Silsit, though Blades did not here engage in that special work. But it used to be a fine sight to see perhaps half a dozen men mowing oats here or elsewhere, keeping perfect time with each other, and taking nearly three feet in depth and eight feet in width at each stroke, while the action of depositing the cut corn might be said to have been almost graceful. A good set of men could cut three acres apiece between 5 a.m. and sundown.

In speaking of oats I am reminded of the oat cake which was, and perhaps still is, commonly used as an article of food in parts of the West Riding. It was made of fine oat meal, and rolled out into a large and thin sort of cake. But besides this there was another and rougher kind of cake called 'slap and rattle', which Blades told me was commonly used in parts of the country where he worked. This was harder and rougher than the ordinary cake, and I was told that you could see through it. It was eaten with butter.

The engagement with the farmer at Silsit being now completed, Blades turned his face homewards. The distance from where he was to Nafferton could not be far short of a hundred miles; the chief part of the journey he again made on foot. On this occasion his 'carriages' were less than on the outward journey for he left his scythe at Silsit, expecting to return there the following year, which, however, he never did. All he took with him was a carpet bag which he carried suspended over his shoulder on a good stout stick. It was near the commencement of this journey that an event happened which nearly cost him his life.

He stayed the week out with the Hayton family and started for home one Sunday morning about the end of July. His first stage was to a Place called Deepdale, about twelve miles distant. He naturally wished to take the shortest cut, but of this he had no knowledge. He therefore made very careful inquiries of the route from his vanquished fellow-mower. The country he had to cross was a wide open one, mostly moorland, and therefore very difficult to find your way across unless you kept to the regular roads. However, after receiving very careful directions from the farmer's son, Blades decided to risk it.

The morning was bright and sunny, and being only lightly impeded with baggage and in splendid training, he felt capable of walking any distance. He had not proceeded very far before he came to the top of a wide sort of moor, enclosed all round by a high wall. It was somewhat like a crescent in shape, about a mile across, with a depression in the middle, so that it was impossible at once to see over the whole surface. Our wayfarer got over the wall and entered this large enclosure of a thousand acres. He had not got very far from the wall when, to his horror, he saw a whole herd of half-wild looking cattle rushing towards him with their tails up, bellowing, and tearing up the ground, about a hundred in all, and among them ten young bulls. There was no time to retrace his steps and make again for the wall. To run would probably have been fatal to him. Almost before he had time to think the animals were up to, and surrounding him. What to do he knew not. He thought it. was all over with him. Suddenly something said to him 'stand still '. Meanwhile the beasts were becoming more and more threatening and excited, when one of the young bulls from behind made for him, evidently intending to toss him, but its horns caught the bag on his back and sent it flying ever so far behind him, and tearing off at the same time one of the handles. This proved his salvation, for no sooner had the bag reached the ground than the animals, according to their wont, rushed up to it to examine it, sniffing round it, and tossing their horns about. This for the time being drew off the herd's attention from Blades, who instantly took advantage of the opportunity and made for a quarry close by, and slid down the steep side to a place of security. There he remained for a full hour to recover his equilibrium, for he was trembling from head to foot for some time; but by degrees his nerves returned to a comparatively normal state, and he was able to survey the whole herd from his place of safety, and he described them as 'a grand lot'. By degrees they dispersed, and he was able to pick up his damaged bag and go on his way, which he did by making a detour from the road he had started upon.

Ultimately he arrived at Deepdale, where he called at the house of a friend named Hesletine, who expressed surprise at seeing him, and inquired where he had been ; 'Ah've been amang mi bullocks,' said Blades, and he then proceeded to relate the fearful ordeal he had just gone through. Hesletine fully realized the great risk that his friend had run, for he knew all about the habits of this herd of cattle, and he said he would not have ventured to go among them for all the estates of the Duke of Devonshire, on whose property the walled enclosure was situated. Blades always had a suspicion that his mowing antagonist at Silsit well knew the danger of the route he had advised him to take, and he connected this with the episode in the mowing field.

Blades stayed with his friend at Deepdale for the remainder of the day, which was a help to him in recovering from the shock he had so recently experienced. By 10 p.m. he was fully rested and refreshed, and at that hour he again started on his homeward march. He reached Pateley Bridge at about eight next morning; he thence made for York, where he arrived at 8 p.m., and after getting thoroughly refreshed and rested there he walked straight back to Nafferton, and was ready for work again the next day.

Walking long distances has now gone out of fashion; indeed, few people, comparatively speaking, know how to walk properly, and still fewer would ever think of undertaking a journey on foot like this of William Blades just described. Of the male population the best walkers in these days are those who have served in the army, and it is easy to distinguish them from others who have not had the benefit of drill and marching. And as for the female pedestrians, the high-heeled shoes now worn by them so impair and impede their natural gait that it must be uncomfortable, if not positively painful, for them to walk any great distance, and their cramped and unsteady steps are often distressful to behold.

To save themselves a walk of even a few hundred yards people will often board a passing car, when the walk would be much better for them, to say nothing of saving their pence. Were it not for such games as tennis and golf very little exercise for the limbs would be taken by ladies, but it is not everybody by any means who goes in for these games. But after all said and done, there is no better exercise for the human frame than walking, and if people want to preserve their health to old age I say walk all you can.

Some time after his period of farm service came to an end William Blades entered upon a life of great variety and activity, and he appears to have succeeded in every thing to which he turned his attention. He was specially clever with machinery, and for seven years he drove the engine of a threshing-machine, whose owners lived near his home at Nafferton. He was able to take the machinery to pieces when anything went wrong and put it together again, thus saving his employers considerable expense from time to time. Threshing, of course, only went on at certain times of the year, and so he had many other irons in the fire.

He married when he was thirty-two, and about that time he started a shop in the village which his wife and a servant girl attended to when he was engaged in other work; this went on for a considerable number of years, after which his wife's health gave way and the shop was let.

Blades had had so much experience with horses cattle, and sheep, that he became an exceedingly good judge of animals, and his knowledge of them was of the greatest service to him in later years.

For many years he continued to clip sheep for farmers in the neighbourhood, for which work he was always in great request. He also did a considerable amount of draining, which was very arduous work, and consequently the hours for it were shorter than for ordinary work, the day extending from 8 a.m. to 4 pm. At one time he took a draining job for £85, and made a profit of £10. He had fourteen men under him who were paid a pound a week; this would be about the year 1872, and in speaking of that time to me Blades described it as 'grand days them'; so it would almost seem that the harder the work the more he revelled in it.

He was so interested and skilful in all operations of husbandry that about this time he rented nine acres of arable land near his home. It was not in good condition when he took it in hand, but he acted on the sound principle that if you do well to the land it will do well for you. Accordingly, he gave it a good dressing of manure amounting to about ten loads to an acre. This land was worked thoroughly well in ploughing, harrowing, and rolling. He took great pains too in sowing his corn so that it should look well when it came up. He sowed broadcast, in which work there is needed considerable practice and skill. He would have, when sowing, a bushel of corn in the ' hopper' or basket containing the seed-corn, which was hung by a strap across the shoulder, and sometimes also called a 'seed-lip'. So successful was Blades in this work that the corn came up in rows as straight as a plumb-line; and when a neighbouring farmer came to view the field, he said that he had never seen wheat come up so well. On that occasion the land produced eight quarters of wheat to the acre; and by degrees, due to good husbandry, it became worth seven shillings an acre more than when he first acquired it.

In course of time Blades owned two horses and three cows, besides pigs. He always treated his animals well, and one of his horses displayed great intelligence. It would come to his call in the field, and when he had to convey two pails of milk home some distance off, he mounted the animal with a pail on each side, and, seemingly knowing the nature of its burden, it went so steadily that the milk, which would be thus carried twice daily, was never spilt. How to mount a horse with two pails of milk unaided by any assistant would be a feat sufficient to tax the ingenuity of most men to the utmost; in this case, however, it was performed with unvarying success. One of the pails was set on a gate-post, and by some skilful manoeuvre which I am unable to describe, but which the horse seemed perfectly to understand or adjust itself to, the mount was effected. Among his livestock Blades told me of a cow that he once possessed, which certainly was a very remarkable animal and brought him no small gain. He bought her originally as a heifer for eighteen pounds. She turned out to be an exceptionally good milker. When she was at her prime she gave seven gallons of milk daily, and eighteen pounds of butter a week. But the most exceptional feature about this cow was that her milk was so rich that the cream was never put into a churn in the ordinary way, but was so thick that it was pulled off from the milk in lumps and put into a 'pankin', or large earthenware vessel, and after being stirred about for some time with the 'pankin'-stick, it was turned into first-rate butter. After keeping this cow for three years a farmer offered to buy her for twenty-two pounds, which offer was refused. While in Blades' possession she produced thirteen calves, after which he sold her and got another. I do not remember ever to have heard of a case quite equal to this.

Scarcely less successful was Blades with his pigs, of which animals he must have been a good judge; he once bought eleven of them for a pound apiece, and after keeping them for nine days he sold them for thirty shillings each; these same animals were eventually sold for six pounds each.

For some time Blades acted as assistant to a bricklayer at Burton Agnes, and by this means he became quite skilful in that trade, so much so, indeed, that he was able to erect the walls of his own outbuildings; and he also built the chief part of a house in a neighbouring village, which was said to have been the best constructed in the place.

About the year 1890 he started on a totally new venture, and one which gave him occupation for a good many years. This was the trade of a fellmonger.

Of all occupations that of a fellmonger must be, we may suppose, one of the least attractive. Having to deal with and manipulate dead animals of all sorts--horses, cattle, sheep, swine, even an occasional donkey, must be, to a novice at all events, a very unsavoury business; but like everything else people get accustomed to it, and think nothing of it. Moreover, it is said to be a paying concern, which may tend somewhat to mitigate the unpleasant nature of the trade. In this case the business was carried on with considerable success and profit.

It would be unseemly for me to enter into any details connected with this unpalatable subject, even if I were competent to do so. This must be left to the imagination of the reader.

One instance, however, was such a remarkable one that I feel I may without impropriety allude to it here. This was the case of a cow which had belonged to a neighbouring farmer; it was a most valuable animal. so much so that the owner averred that he would not have taken a hundred pounds for her. Being out in the field one rather severe night the animal caught cold, which ultimately caused its death, although at the time it was in a perfectly healthy state. Blades purchased the carcass for a moderate sum. The flesh weighed ninety-two stone, and being of a generous turn of mind he gave away many pieces among the poor of the village, saying to each recipient as he gave it 'tak' that yam (home)', which they were only too thankful to do. Besides this, the carcass produced about thirty stone of tallow, and the hide weighed five stone. At that time raw tallow was worth a shilling a stone, and, when rendered, half a crown. Altogether a profit of three pounds was made by this transaction.

Only on one occasion was a dead donkey brought to the yard, which was perhaps as well, for this animal's skin, which was likened to gravel, was so tough that it spoilt two good knives. It took him longer to skin this animal than a horse.

At this time Blades had two horses and conveyances, three cows, and twelve pork pigs to attend to besides other work, so that he was always kept very fully occupied. In his fellmongering business it seems that, as he expressed it, 'everything went for a use', and there was money in it.

Transcribed by Graham Metcalf © 2002