Fordlow might boast of its church, its school, its annual concert, and its quarterly penny reading, but the hamlet did not envy it these amenities, for it had its own social centre, warmer, more human, and altogether preferable in the taproom of the ‘Wagon and Horses’.
There the adult male population gathered every evening, to sip its half-pints, drop by drop, to make them last, and to discuss local events, wrangle over politics or farming methods, or to sing a few songs ‘to oblige’.
It was an innocent gathering. None of them got drunk; they had not money enough, even with beer, and good beer, at twopence a pint. Yet the parson preached from the pulpit against it, going so far on one occasion as to call it a den of iniquity. ”Tis a great pity he can’t come an’ see what it’s like for his own self,’ said one of the older men on the way home from church. ‘Pity he can’t mind his own business,’ retorted a younger one. While one of the ancients put in pacifically, ‘Well, ’tis his business, come to think on’t. The man’s paid to preach, an’ he’s got to find summat to preach against, stands to reason.’
Only about half a dozen men held aloof from the circle and those were either known to ‘have religion’, or suspected of being ‘close wi’ their ha’pence’.
The others went as a matter of course, appropriating their own special seats on settle or bench. It was as much their home as their own cottages, and far more homelike than many of them, with its roaring fire, red window curtains, and well-scoured pewter.
To spend their evenings there was, indeed, as the men argued, a saving, for, with no man in the house, the fire at home could be let die down and the rest of the family could go to bed when the room got cold. So the men’s spending money was fixed at a shilling a week, sevenpence for the nightly half-pint and the balance for other expenses. An ounce of tobacco, Nigger Head brand, was bought for them by their wives with the groceries.
It was exclusively a men’s gathering. Their wives never accompanied them; though sometimes a woman who had got her family off hand, and so had a few halfpence to spend on herself, would knock at the back door with a bottle or jug and perhaps linger a little, herself unseen, to listen to what was going on within. Children also knocked at the back door to buy candles or treacle or cheese, for the innkeeper ran a small shop at the back of his premises, and the children, too, liked to hear what was going on. Indoors, the innkeeper’s children would steal out of bed and sit on the stairs in their nightgowns. The stairs went up from the taproom, with only the back of the settle between, and it gave the men a bit of a shock one night when what looked at first sight like a big white bird came flopping down among them. It was little Florrie, who had gone to sleep on the stairs and fallen. They nursed her on their knees, held her feet to the fire, and soon dried her tears, for she was not hurt, only frightened.
The children heard no bad language beyond an occasional ‘b ——’ or ‘d ——’, for their mother was greatly respected and the merest hint of anything stronger was hushed by nudges and whispers of, ‘Don’t forget Landlady’, or ‘Mind! ‘Ooman present’. Nor were the smutty songs and stories of the fields ever repeated there; they were kept for their own time and place.
Politics was a favourite topic, for, under the recently extended franchise, every householder was a voter, and they took their new responsibility seriously. A mild Liberalism prevailed, a Liberalism that would be regarded as hide-bound Toryism now, but was daring enough in those days. One man who had been to work in Northampton proclaimed himself a Radical; but he was cancelled out by the landlord, who called himself a ‘true blue’. With the collaboration of this Left and Right, questions of the moment were thrashed out and settled to the satisfaction of the majority.
‘Three Acres and a Cow’, ‘The Secret Ballot’, ‘The Parnell Commission and Crime’, ‘Disestablishment of the Church’, were catchwords that flew about freely. Sometimes a speech by Gladstone, or some other leader would be read aloud from a newspaper and punctuated by the fervent ‘Hear! Hear’ of the company. Or Sam, the man with advanced opinions, would relate with reverent pride the story of his meeting and shaking hands with Joseph Arch, the farm-worker’s champion. ‘Joseph Arch!’ he would cry. ‘Joseph Arch is the man for the farm labourer!’ and knock on the table and wave aloft his pewter mug, very carefully, for every drop was precious.
Then the landlord, standing back to the fireplace with legs astride, would say with the authority of one in his own house, ‘It’s no good you chaps think’n you’re goin’ against the gentry. They’ve got the land and they’ve got the money, an’ they’ll keep it. Where’d you be without them to give you work an’ pay your wages, I’d like to know?’ and this, as yet, unanswerable question would cast a chill over the company until some one conjured it away with the name of Gladstone. Gladstone! The Grand Old Man! The People’s William! Their faith in his power was touching, and all voices would join in singing:
God bless the people’s William,
Long may he lead the van
Of Liberty and Freedom,
God bless the Grand Old Man.
But the children, listening, without and within, liked better the evenings of tale-telling; when, with curdling blood and creeping spine, they would hear about the turnpike ghost, which, only a mile away from the spot where they stood, had been seen in the form of a lighted lantern, bobbing up and down in the path of a solitary wayfarer, the bearer, if any, invisible. And the man in a neighbouring village who, on his six-mile walk in the dark to fetch medicine for his sick wife, met a huge black dog with eyes of fire — the devil, evidently. Or perhaps the talk would turn to the old sheep-stealing days and the ghost which was said still to haunt the spot where the gibbet had stood; or the lady dressed in white and riding a white horse, but minus her head, who, every night as the clock struck twelve, rode over a bridge on the way to the market town.
One cold winter night, as this tale was being told, the doctor, an old man of eighty, who still attended the sick in the villages for miles around, stopped his dogcart at the inn gate and came in for hot brandy and water.
‘You, sir, now,’ said one of the men. ‘You’ve been over Lady Bridge at midnight many’s the time, I’ll warrant. Can you say as you’ve ever seen anything?’
The doctor shook his head. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘I can’t say that I have. But,’ and he paused to weigh his words, ‘well, it’s rather a curious thing. During the fifty years I’ve been amongst you I’ve had many horses, as you know, and not one of them have I got over that bridge at night without urging. Whether they can see more than we can see, of course, I don’t know; but there it is for what it is worth. Good night, men.’
In addition to these public and well-known ghost stories, there were family tales of death warnings, or of a father, mother, or wife who had appeared after death to warn, counsel, or accuse. But it was all entertainment; nobody really believed in ghosts, though few would have chosen to go at night to haunted spots, and it all ended in: ‘Well, well, if the livin’ don’t hurt us, the dead can’t. The good wouldn’t want to come back, an’ the bad wouldn’t be let to.’
The newspapers furnished other tales of dread. Jack the Ripper was stalking the streets of East London by night, and one poor wretched woman after another was found murdered and butchered. These crimes were discussed for hours together in the hamlet and everybody had some theory as to the identity and motive of the elusive murderer. To the children the name was indeed one of dread and the cause of much anguished sleeplessness. Father might be hammering away in the shed and Mother quietly busy with her sewing downstairs; but the Ripper! the Ripper! he might be nearer still, for he might have crept in during the day and be hiding in the cupboard on the landing!
One curious tale had to do with natural phenomena. Some years before, the people in the hamlet had seen a regiment of soldiers marching in the sky, all complete with drum and fife band. Upon inquiry it had been found that such a regiment had been passing at the time along a road near Bicester, six miles away, and it was concluded that the apparition in the sky must have been a freak reflection.
Some of the tales related practical jokes, often cruel ones, for even in the ‘eighties the sense of humour there was not over-refined, and it had, in past times, been cruder still. It was still the practice there to annoy certain people by shouting after them a nickname or a catchword, and one old and very harmless woman was known as ‘Thick and thin’. One winter night, years before, when the snowdrifts were knee-high and it was still snowing, a party of thoughtless youths had knocked at her cottage door and got her and her husband out of bed by telling them that their daughter, married and living three miles away, was brought to bed and had sent for her mother.
The old couple huddled on all the clothes they possessed, lighted their lantern, and set out, the practical jokers shadowing them. They struggled through the snowdrifts for some distance, but the road was all but impassable, and the old man was for turning back. Not so the mother. Determined to reach her child in her hour of need, she struggled onward, encouraging her husband the while by coaxing, ‘Come on John. Through thick and thin!’ and ‘Thick and thin’ she was ever after.
But tastes were changing, if slowly, by the ‘eighties, and such a story, though it might be still current, no longer produced the loud guffaws it had formerly done. A few sniggers, perhaps, then silence; or ‘I calls it a shame, sarvin’ poor old people like that. Now let’s have a song to te-ake the taste of it out of our mouths.’
All times are times of transition; but the eighteen-eighties were so in a special sense, for the world was at the beginning of a new era, the era of machinery and scientific discovery. Values and conditions of life were changing everywhere. Even to simple country people the change was apparent. The railways had brought distant parts of the country nearer; newspapers were coming into every home; machinery was superseding hand labour, even on the farms to some extent; food bought at shops, much of it from distant countries, was replacing the home-made and home-grown. Horizons were widening; a stranger from a village five miles away was no longer looked upon as ‘a furriner’.
But, side by side with these changes, the old country civilization lingered. Traditions and customs which had lasted for centuries did not die out in a moment. State-educated children still played the old country rhyme games; women still went leazing, although the field had been cut by the mechanical reaper; and men and boys still sang the old country ballads and songs, as well as the latest music-hall successes. So, when a few songs were called for at the ‘Wagon and Horses’, the programme was apt to be a curious mixture of old and new.
While the talking was going on, the few younger men, ‘boy-chaps’, as they were called until they were married, would not have taken a great part in it. Had they shown any inclination to do so, they would have been checked, for the age of youthful dominance was still to come; and, as the women used to say, ‘The old cocks don’t like it when the young cocks begin to crow’. But, when singing began they came into their own, for they represented the novel.
They usually had first innings with such songs of the day as had percolated so far. ‘Over the Garden Wall’, with its many parodies, ‘Tommy, Make Room for Your Uncle’, ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’, and other ‘comic’ or ‘sentimental’ songs of the moment. The most popular of these would have arrived complete with tune from the outer world; others, culled from the penny song-book they most of them carried, would have to have a tune fitted to them by the singer. They had good lusty voices and bawled them out with spirit. There were no crooners in those days.
The men of middle age inclined more to long and usually mournful stories in verse, of thwarted lovers, children buried in snowdrifts, dead maidens, and motherless homes. Sometimes they would vary these with songs of a high moral tone, such as:
Waste not, want not,
Some maxim I would teach;
Let your watchword be never despair
And practise what you preach.
Do not let your chances like the sunbeams pass you by,
For you’ll never miss the water till the well runs dry.
But this dolorous singing was not allowed to continue long. ‘Now, then, all together, boys,’ some one would shout, and the company would revert to old favourites. Of these, one was ‘The Barleymow’. Trolled out in chorus, the first verse went:
Oh, when we drink out of our noggins, my boys.
We’ll drink to the barleymow.
We’ll drink to the barleymow, my boys,
We’ll drink to the barleymow.
So knock your pint on the settle’s back;
Fill again, in again, Hannah Brown,
We’ll drink to the barleymow, my boys,
We’ll drink now the barley’s mown.
So they went on, increasing the measure in each stanza, from noggins to half-pints, pints, quarts, gallons, barrels, hogsheads, brooks, ponds, rivers, seas, and oceans. That song could be made to last a whole evening, or it could be dropped as soon as they got tired of it.
Another favourite for singing in chorus was ‘King Arthur’, which was also a favourite for outdoor singing and was often heard to the accompaniment of the jingling of harness and cracking of whips as the teams went afield. It was also sung by solitary wayfarers to keep up their spirits on dark nights. It ran:
When King Arthur first did reign,
He ru-led like a king;
He bought three sacks of barley meal
To make a plum pud-ding.
The pudding it was made
And duly stuffed with plums,
And lumps of suet put in it
As big as my two thumbs.
The king and queen sat down to it
And all the lords beside:
And what they couldn’t eat that night
The queen next morning fried.
Every time Laura heard this sung she saw the queen, a gold crown on her head, her train over her arm, and her sleeves rolled up, holding the frying-pan over the fire. Of course, a queen would have fried pudding for breakfast: ordinary common people seldom had any left over to fry.
Then Lukey, the only bachelor of mature age in the hamlet, would oblige with:
Me feyther’s a hedger and ditcher,
An’ me mother does nothing but spin,
But I’m a pretty young girl and
The money comes slowly in.
Oh, dear! what can the matter be?
Oh, dear! what shall I do?
For there’s nobody coming to marry,
And there’s nobody coming to woo.
They say I shall die an old maid,
Oh, dear! how shocking the thought!
For them all my beauty will fade,
And I’m sure it won’t be my own fault.
Oh, dear! what can the matter be?
Oh, dear! what shall I do?
There’s nobody coming to marry,
And there’s nobody coming to woo!
This was given point by Luke’s own unmarried state. He sang it as a comic song and his rendering certainly made it one. Perhaps, then, for a change, poor old Algy, the mystery man, would be asked for a song and he would sing in a cracked falsetto, which seemed to call for the tinkling notes of a piano as accompaniment:
Have you ever been on the Penin-su-lah?
If not, I advise you to stay where you haw,
For should you adore a
Sweet Spanish senor-ah,
She may prove what some might call sin-gu-lah.
Then there were snatches that any one might break out with at any time when no one else happened to be singing:
I wish, I wish, ‘twer all in vain,
I wish I were a maid again!
A maid again I ne’er shall be
Till oranges grow on an apple tree
Now all you young chaps, take a warning by me, And do not build your nest at the top of any tree, For the green leaves they will wither and the flowers they will decay, And the beauty of that fair maid will soon pass away.
One comparatively recent settler, who had only lived at the hamlet about a quarter of a century, had composed a snatch for himself, to sing when he felt homesick. It ran:
Where be Dedington boo-oys, where be they now?
They be at Dedington at the ‘Plough’;
If they beent, they be at home,
And this is the ‘Wagon and Horses’.
But, always, sooner or later, came the cry, ‘Let’s give the old ‘uns a turn. Here you, Master Price, what about “It was my father’s custom and always shall be mine”, or “Lord Lovell stood”, or summat of that sort’ as has stood the testing o’ time?’ and Master Price would rise from his corner of the settle, using the stick he called his ‘third leg’ to support his bent figure as he sang:
Lord Lovell stood at his castle gate,
Calming his milk-white steed,
When up came Lady Nancy Bell
To wish her lover God-speed.
‘And where are you going, Lord Lovell?’ she said.
‘And where are you going?’ said she.
‘Oh, I’m going away from my Nancy Bell,
Away to a far country-tre-tre;
Away to a far coun-tre.’
‘And when will you come back, Lord Lovell?’ she said,
‘When will you come back?’ said she.
‘Oh, I will come back in a year and a day,
Back to my Lady Nancy-ce-ce-ce.
Back to my Lady Nan-cee.’
But Lord Lovell was gone more than his year and a day, much longer, and when he did at last return, the church bells were tolling:
‘And who is it dead?’ Lord Lovell, he said.
‘And who is it dead,’ said he.
And some said, ‘Lady Nancy Bell,’
And some said, ‘Lady Nancy-ce-ce-ce,
And some said,‘Lady Nan-cee.’
Lady Nancy died as it were today;
And Lord Lovell, he died tomorrow,
And she, she died for pure, pure grief,
And he, he died for sorrow.
And they buried her in the chancel high,
And they buried him in the choir;
And out of her grave sprung a red, red rose,
And out of his sprung a briar.
And they grew till they grew to the church roof,
And then they couldn’t grow any higher;
So they twined themselves in a true lovers’ knot,
For all lovers true to admire.
After that they would all look thoughtfully into their mugs. Partly because the old song had saddened them, and partly because by that time the beer was getting low and the one half-pint had to be made to last until closing time. Then some would say, ‘What’s old Master Tuffrey up to, over in his corner there? Ain’t heard him strike up to-night’, and there would be calls for old David’s ‘Outlandish Knight’; not because they wanted particularly to hear it — indeed, they had heard it so often they all knew it by heart — but because, as they said, ‘Poor old feller be eighty-three. Let ’un sing while he can.’
So David would have his turn. He only knew the one ballad, and that, he said, his grandfather had sung, and had said that he had heard his own grandfather sing it. Probably a long chain of grandfathers had sung it; but David was fated to be the last of them. It was out of date, even then, and only tolerated on account of his age. It ran:
An outlandish knight, all from the north lands,
A-wooing came to me,
He said he would take me to the north lands
And there he would marry me.
‘Go, fetch me some of your father’s gold
And some of your mother’s fee,
And two of the best nags out of the stable
Where there stand thirty and three.’
She fetched him some of her father’s gold
And some of her mother’s fee,
And two of the best nags out of the stable
Where there stood thirty and three.
And then she mounted her milk-white steed
And he the dapple grey,
And they rode until they came to the sea-shore,
Three hours before it was day.
‘Get off, get off thy milk-white steed
And deliver it unto me,
For six pretty maids I have drowned here
And thou the seventh shall be.
‘Take off, take off, thy silken gown,
And deliver it unto me,
For I think it is too rich and too good
To rot in the salt sea.’
‘If I must take off my silken gown,
Pray turn thy back to me,
For I think it’s not fitting a ruffian like you
A naked woman should see.’
He turned his back towards her
To view the leaves so green,
And she took hold of his middle so small
And tumbled him into the stream.
And he sank high and he sank low
Until he came to the side.
‘Take hold of my hand, my pretty ladye,
And I will make you my bride.’
‘Lie there, lie there, you false-hearted man,
Lie there instead of me,
For six pretty maids hast thou drowned here
And the seventh hath drowned thee.’
So then she mounted the milk-white steed
And led the dapple grey,
And she rode till she came to her own father’s door,
An hour before it was day.
As this last song was piped out in the aged voice, women at their cottage doors on summer evenings would say: ‘They’ll soon be out now. Poor old Dave’s just singing his “Outlandish Knight”.’
Songs and singers all have gone, and in their places the wireless blares out variety and swing music, or informs the company in cultured tones of what is happening in China or Spain. Children no longer listen outside. There are very few who could listen, for the thirty or forty which throve there in those days have dwindled to about half a dozen, and these, happily, have books, wireless, and a good fire in their own homes. But, to one of an older generation, it seems that a faint echo of those songs must still linger round the inn doorway. The singers were rude and untaught and poor beyond modern imagining; but they deserve to be remembered, for they knew the now lost secret of being happy on little.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00