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A Vision of the Past 11 & 31 May 1899

Milton Lilbourne > A vision of the past by Fred Gale, 1899

"A VISION OF THE PAST" by Fred Gale, part 1

(From "The Globe", Thursday 11 May 1899)

There is a little village in the wild down country in the West of England - where I was a welcome guest at the Vicarage ever since I was a very young man - which I claim to have been one of the most primitive places in England, and remained so down to a somewhat recent date, as the late vicar died in 1892, having begun the eightieth year of incumbency by the same family, as he succeeded his father, who was inducted in 1813. The natives are doubtless of pure Anglo-Saxon blood, as is testified by the predominance of light flaxen hair and blue china eyes of the children.

The late vicar loyally bowed to the times, and saw the introduction of a school board, parish board and other innovations in later years without a murmur, and himself, some twenty years ago, with the assistance of friends in the county, had had his church done up and re-pewed; and it was nearly time, as the churchwardens had in the past mended the vicarage pew when the woodwork had gone with the lid of a packing-case, on which was painted in large letters the name of some former resident of the parish, "Wine - With Care - This Side Up."

When I first went down there, in 1846, I fancy very few of the cottagers, old or young, could read or write; and the Sunday costume was smock-frocks for the men and red or blue duffel cloaks for the women; and the young farm labourers clattered in and out and went up into a gallery and stared into vacancy. Upon my word, it was a primitive place.

The patriarch of the village was "Old Jemmy" (his name is of no consequence) who was "a very warm man" - ie. rich; a bachelor, who had a small farm, who rose wi' the "buds" (birds) mostly, and went to bed wi' the buds, and, except on Sunday, always wore a smock frock. He lived in his kitchen - that is, the large central room on the ground floor, low-pitched, with an enormous open fireplace, with two seats, one on each side inside the chimney place. The chimney was so vast that you could see, by looking up, the sky; and if it snowed the snow came down and hissed on the great blocks of wood, which rested on dogs. Half-way up the chimney was a recess, a kind of birch cupboard without a door, the bacon loft where the flitches of bacon were cured in the wood smoke.

The floor of the room was composed of large slabs of stone, which were kept beautifully white; and from the beams hams and flitches of bacon, after being cured in the chimney, were hung round the kitchen. Old Jemmy's farm alone would "keep the pot boiling"; and he bought and sold, and measured timber, and contracted for rustic house buildings, and numerous other things, and was the common arbitrator in all village squabbles.

Generally about Easter time in the early spring I spent a week at the Vicarage, and Jemmy used to come up and ask "when he should swing the pot," which was his invitation to dinner, always with the same remark: "I suppose I must put dinner back an hour, till twelve; eleven is my usual time, but you Lunnon folks are so terrible late lie-a-beds."

As to the dinner, the viands and drink which appeared on the table are unknown or forgotten now; all home grown or home made. The banquet was in the kitchen. Jemmy, in a clean white smock frock, at the head of the table, faced by the parson and surrounded by a few of the leading inhabitants of his own rank - well-fed, apple-faced men, who had lived in the neighbourhood from childhood. The tablecloth was of grand old damask, one of the heirlooms, and white as the driven snow; and on it were solid, massive silver spoons and forks, each of which had come into the family and had a history of its own. There were two or three priceless "rat-tailed" spoons and forks, heavy to handle.

The only attendant was Zcharlot, as Jemmy called her, a strapping old woman, tall and upright as a dart, who was cook, housemaid and everything to Jemmy. She and her master were on a very intimate footing, and she joined in the conversation, cheered on the guests to the dinner, put Old Jemmy right when there was a lost chord in one of his old stories - and sometimes there was a quarrel about whether things happened before or after the rick burners were hung; and so on.

The dinner itself was a wonderful feast of fowl and flesh, including, inter alia, the "Martinmas beef" which Macaulay speaks of, ox-beef which had been in pickle for a month. "And what be the pudden, Zcharlot?" "What's that you? You wait till she comes. You'll vind it good enough." And sure enough it was - a wonderful apple pudding, with cream and other compounds.

And when that was removed, Old Jemmy said "Now I suppose it is all over, and we'll have a bit of cheese and a glass of my Grammer's aile." "No you won't," says Zcharlot. "There's summat else." And she placed before each guest a red-hot marrow bone with etceteras; and we wound up with the cheese and a glassful of "Grammer's aile." There were special glasses for this, which held about as much as a big claret glass, as it was like the strong beer spoken of by Nyren, "Real Boniface - ale that would make a cat speak - ale that would flare like turpentine in the fire." The banquet was never "disgraced" with wine, but consumed with home-brewed beer drawn out of a barrel from the adjacent cellar; perfect nectar, and not "clamber-crown" like the Grammer's ale, which had to be sipped slowly, as a pint of it would have blown your head off.

When we had laid down our knives and forks, and made a ring round the blazing wood fire, there was old brown brandy and Hollands for those who liked it, and old rummers - round tumblers on a single gouty leg- for those who were men enough to tackle it; while the old stories about past times and past people went round - about the old Lady of the Manor, whom I remember very well, and at whose house I dined several times. She was a tall, stately old single lady, who lived in a grand old Elizabethan house with a bowling green and shrubberies, and a wilderness with fishponds in it. Hers was one of the oldest families in England, and her lineal ancestor took a great part in the Parliamentary Wars as a Royalist and lost his head for Charles I. In the mansion is a bedstead on which Charles I once slept. She was quite one of the old school, and drove in an open phaeton drawn by two long-tailed white ponies, and ridden by a lightweight postilion. She was kind and hospitable to a degree, but if anyone of the modern school touched her pride, her temper was like fire and tow; she had not the comfort of swearing, which much relieved Queen Bess when her monkey was up.

It is within the last twenty years that I paid a somewhat long visit to that neighbourhood; and though the railway had come, and much change was observable, there was then, and is still in outlying villages, a strong savour of the old leaven. In the country lanes, during recent years, some nice-looking old woman has bobbed a curtsey because she thought "I was one of the Quality," and I have taken off my hat to her and stopped her and had a chat; and it was funny when I asked about some of the things of the past to see the sparkle in her eye when I raked up old memories and she found that I had been a child of the soil seventy years ago.


(From "The Globe", Wednesday 31 May 1899)

I suppose it is fair to adopt for the second time a heading to an ephemeral "turn-over," which, like the May-fly, is born in the morning and dies at night, and I do so for the purpose of adding a few words to illustrate the primitive worship in some rural districts, and the change when State education came into force. I carefully avoid expressing any opinion as regards the School Boards and Parish Councils.

The relics of an old church in the district about which I am talking still exist, and were only removed from the church to the vicarage within the last 25 years, when the church was restored. They are a grand old iron bass viol, made by the village blacksmith a century ago, on which he probably played in the gallery, the panels of the front of which were six in number, and are carefully preserved at the vicarage. The artist's name, probably that of the village painter, is at the corner, and the date 1720. On one was a ship in full sail; on the second an organ with three little turrets, with a half-moon on each; on a third a Phoenix rising from the ashes; on the fourth and fifth side views of the church (north and south) with two angels blowing trumpets sailing over them, one in a blue and the other in a red bathing gown, and on the sixth King David, with a crown on his head, sitting on a three-legged stool playing the harp. I saw them last Autumn, and the Royal Arms represented a rampant lion and unicorn unlike anything ever seen or imagined.

Shortly before Old Jemmy's decease - Old Jemmy being the hospitable farmer, whose dinner party I described in the former article under this title - I was at the church in full view of that "gallery of pictures," and the old man had been told to wear a cap in church, and he bought one at a fair, and there he was with a brown fustian cap on his head, profusely ornamented with guns and pointers, with his broad-rimmed spectacles on and his white locks flowing on his shoulders. And there being no music that day, the old man stood up and made a general enquiry, "Where be the music?" "The rats ha' knawed a hole in the bellows of the organ, Sir," answered one of the school children who sat in the aisle. "Stand up, little maids" was his reply. "All people which on earth do well," and he gave the keynote himself, and away went the choir and congregation. As the parson passed his pew to the pulpit he pulled his gown (no surplice services then in that district) with a loud remark: "Ah, parson, that old tune will never wear out."

The School Board was against the grain at first, and, although religious education was barred in Government schools, the parsons accepted "the inevitable," and the children have done wonderfully well, and, as one of them wrote to me, have made the Sunday School much more valuable. The only difference he had with the Government inspector who came to examine the Board School was about the pronunciation of the word "wood". "Spell the word," asked the Inspector. "Now, what is that?" "Ood," said the boy. "Nay! Nay! You forget the 'w'. Try again." "Ood," answered the boy. "Quite right, boy," struck in the parson. "It is 'ood'". And to the Inspector he remarked, "We are all of the old Anglo-Saxon breed down here, and 'ood' is what you call 'wood' in London." And he emphasized this theory on the way to his house for luncheon. A little child had her bootlace down. "Come here, little girl," said the Inspector; "we like tidiness, and your lace is down." Tableau: Little girl, with her thumb in her mouth and her little china-blue eyes fixed on him, staring at him. "Sally, lass, hitch up thy latchet," the parson said. "Ees, Zur," was the answer. "Did not I tell you that you London inspectors don't know our dialect?" And both laughed and went in to lunch at the Vicarage.

The country parsons for the most part hardly ever went away from home, except on county business or an occasional run with the hounds, or a day's fishing or shooting, and knew every old man and woman and child in it; and they were much attached to them. "There is one thing which pleases me to think of," one of them remarked. "We have always four or five litters of cubs in this parish, and they can always find a fox, and I have always had a foxhound puppy to walk." He would not have the advowson - which was his own - sold, but let the living lapse to the diocese on his death.

Old embers of the ancient fires are still burning, and here and there you may find some people as primitive as they were a century ago. On the Queen's fifieth anniversary, I was on the downs in conversation with an old shepherd, who did not rightly know the age of himself or his old bob-tailed sheep dog, with a shaggy coat like worsted, and two differently coloured eyes. A seat on a hurdle did me good, and some tobacco to the old man brought the fire into his eyes. "Man and boy," said he, "I have always been with the 'ship' (sheep) on these downs." Only once had he been into a town, and that was to "hang fair," to see the rick burners hung.

In a long talk he asked me, "as a learned gentleman from Lunnon," "if it were true that the Queen was a-going to give up and let the King of France help she." The French seemed to be on the rustic mind of that period, as doubtless some of those who fought in the Peninsula and Waterloo were recruited from the district, and resided there as old warriors; and even so late as the first Autumn Manoeuvres an old farmer associated the movement with the French. A regiment was waiting on the banks of the canal for the Engineers to come up, and throw pontoons across; as, according to the rules of the campaign, all bridges were supposed to be blown up. "There be a bridge half-a-mile away," he shouted to the officer in command. "That bridge is blown up," was the reply. "No it baint," was his answer, "I just rid over wi' my old 'meer'. Go across and put the French out."

The school-master has been abroad in that district now. The cause of the general ignorance of the past was that farmers would not help education, and preferred getting hold of young boys for scaring crows, minding pigs, or such-like things, and thought learning was a waste of time when youngsters could earn a little money.

Very many of the clergy of those districts were men of good birth, whose fathers represented the old county families, and who thought the Army, the Church or the Bar the only harbours of refuge for their sons; and those who were kind and genial with all classes in the villages, when the School Boards and Parish Councils became inevitable, often found that in very many parishes they were elected as chairmen of one or both as a matter of course.

Many old arts will die out owing to civilization - needlework to wit. There are very few who can execute the beautiful needlework which is shown on old samplers which hang up on cottage walls; and when the "smock frocks" for children in the fashionable world came into fashion, the London milliners had to search through country villages to find old women who knew the smock-frock stitch. Perhaps at the same time London ladies found out the "Barn Door dance". Well! Old memories are very pleasant and don't hurt anyone.

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