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Ch. 16: Old Wiltshire Days

Old memories--Hindon as a borough and as a village--The Lamb Inn and its
birds--The "mob" at Hindon--The blind smuggler--Rawlings of Lower
Pertwood Farm--Reed, the thresher and deer-stealer--He leaves a
fortune--Devotion to work--Old Father Time--Groveley Wood and the
people's rights--Grace Reed and the Earl of Pembroke--An illusion of the
very aged--Sedan-chairs in Bath--Stick-gathering by the

The incident of the unhappy young man who was transported to Australia
or Tasmania, which came out in the shepherd's history of the Ellerby
family, put it in my mind to look up some of the very aged people of the
downland villages, whose memories could go back to the events of eighty
years ago. I found a few, "still lingering here," who were able to
recall that miserable and memorable year of 1830 and had witnessed the
doings of the "mobs." One was a woman, my old friend of Fonthill Bishop,
now aged ninety-four, who was in her teens when the poor labourers, "a
thousand strong," some say, armed with cudgels, hammers, and axes,
visited her village and broke up the thrashing machines they found

Another person who remembered that time was an old but remarkably
well-preserved man of eighty-nine at Hindon, a village a couple of miles
distant from Fonthill Bishop. Hindon is a delightful little village, so
rustic and pretty amidst its green, swelling downs, with great woods
crowning the heights beyond, that one can hardly credit the fact that it
was formerly an important market and session town and a Parliamentary
borough returning two members; also that it boasted among other
greatnesses thirteen public-houses. Now it has two, and not flourishing
in these tea- and mineral-water drinking days. Naturally it was an
exceeedingly corrupt little borough, where free beer for all was the
order of the day for a period of four to six weeks before an election,
and where every householder with a vote looked to receive twenty guineas
from the candidate of his choice. It is still remembered that when a
householder in those days was very hard up, owing, perhaps, to his too
frequent visits to the thirteen public-houses, he would go to some
substantial tradesman in the place and pledge his twenty guineas, due at
the next election! In due time, after the Reform Bill, it was deprived
of its glory, and later when the South-Western Railway built their line
from Salisbury to Yeovil and left Hindon some miles away, making their
station at Tisbury, it fell into decay, dwindling to the small village
it now is; and its last state, sober and purified, is very much better
than the old. For although sober, it is contented and even merry, and
exhibits such a sweet friendliness toward the stranger within its gates
as to make him remember it with pleasure and gratitude.

What a quiet little place Hindon has become, after its old noisy period,
the following little bird story will show. For several weeks during the
spring and summer of 1909 my home was at the Lamb Inn, a famous
posting-house of the great old days, and we had three pairs of
birds--throstle, pied wagtail, and flycatcher--breeding in the ivy
covering the wall facing the village street, just over my window. I
watched them when building, incubating, feeding their young, and
bringing their young off. The villagers, too, were interested in the
sight, and sometimes a dozen or more men and boys would gather and stand
for half an hour watching the birds flying in and out of their nests
when feeding their young. The last to come off were the flycatchers, on
18th June. It was on the morning of the day I left, and one of the
little things flitted into the room where I was having my breakfast. I
succeeded in capturing it before the cats found out, and put it back on
the ivy. There were three young birds; I had watched them from the time
they hatched, and when I returned a fortnight later, there were the
three, still being fed by their parents in the trees and on the roof,
their favourite perching-place being on the swinging sign of the "Lamb."
Whenever an old bird darted at and captured a fly the three young would
flutter round it like three butterflies to get the fly. This continued
until 18th July, after which date I could not detect their feeding the
young, although the hunger-call was occasionally heard.

If the flycatcher takes a month to teach its young to catch their own
flies, it is not strange that it breeds but once in the year. It is a
delicate art the bird practises and takes long to learn, but how
different with the martin, which dismisses its young in a few days and
begins breeding again, even to the third time!

These three broods over my window were not the only ones in the place;
there were at least twenty other pairs in the garden and outhouses of
the inn--sparrows, thrushes, blackbirds, dunnocks, wrens, starlings, and
swallows. Yet the inn was in the very centre of the village, and being
an inn was the most frequented and noisiest spot.

To return to my old friend of eighty-nine. He was but a small boy,
attending the Hindon school, when the rioters appeared on the scene, and
he watched their entry from the schoolhouse window. It was market-day,
and the market was stopped by the invaders, and the agricultural
machines brought for sale and exhibition were broken up. The picture
that remains in his mind is of a great excited crowd in which men and
cattle and sheep were mixed together in the wide street, which was the
market-place, and of shouting and noise of smashing machinery, and
finally of the mob pouring forth over the down on its way to the next
village, he and other little boys following their march.

The smuggling trade flourished greatly at that period, and there were
receivers and distributors of smuggled wine, spirits, and other
commodities in every town and in very many villages throughout the
county in spite of its distance from the sea-coast. One of his memories
is of a blind man of the village, or town as it was then, who was used
as an assistant in this business. He had lost his sight in childhood,
one eye having been destroyed by a ferret which got into his cradle;
then, when he was about six years old he was running across the room one
day with a fork it his hand when he stumbled, and falling on the floor
had the other eye pierced by the prongs. But in spite of his blindness
he became a good worker, and could make a fence, reap, trim hedges, feed
the animals, and drive a horse as well as any man. His father had a
small farm and was a carrier as well, a quiet, sober, industrious man
who was never suspected by his neighbours of being a smuggler, for he
never left his house and work, but from time to time he had little
consignments of rum and brandy in casks received on a dark night and
carefully stowed away in his manure heap and in a pit under the floor of
his pigsty. Then the blind son would drive his old mother in the
carrier's cart to Bath and call at a dozen or twenty private houses,
leaving parcels which had been already ordered and paid for--a gallon of
brandy at one, two or four gallons of rum at another, and so on, until
all was got rid of, and on the following day they would return with
goods to Hindon. This quiet little business went on satisfactorily for
some years, during which the officers of the excise had stared a
thousand times with their eagle's eyes at the quaint old woman in her
poke bonnet and shawl, driven by a blind man with a vacant face, and had
suspected nothing, when a little mistake was made and a jar of brandy
delivered at a wrong address. The recipient was an honest gentleman, and
in his anxiety to find the rightful owner of the brandy made extensive
inquiries in his neighbourhood, and eventually the excisemen got wind of
the affair, and on the very next visit of the old woman and her son to
Bath they were captured. After an examination before a magistrate the
son was discharged on account of his blindness, but the cart and horses,
as well as the smuggled spirits, were confiscated, and the poor blind
man had to make his way on foot to Hindon.

Another of his recollections is of a family named Rawlings, tenants of
Lower Pertwood Farm, near Hindon, a lonely, desolate-looking house
hidden away in a deep hollow among the high downs. The Farmer Rawlings
of seventy or eighty years ago was a man of singular ideas, and that he
was permitted to put them in practice shows that severe as was the law
in those days, and dreadful the punishments inflicted on offenders,
there was a kind of liberty which does not exist now--the liberty a man
had of doing just what he thought proper in his own house. This Rawlings
had a numerous family, and some died at home and others lived to grow up
and go out into the world under strange names--Faith, Hope, and Charity
were three of his daughters, and Justice, Morality, and Fortitude three
of his sons. Now, for some reason Rawlings objected to the burial of his
dead in the churchyard of the nearest village--Monkton Deverill, and the
story is that he quarrelled with the rector over the question of the
church bell being tolled for the funeral. He would have no bell tolled,
he swore, and the rector would bury no one without the bell. Thereupon
Rawlings had the coffined corpse deposited on a table in an outhouse and
the door made fast. Later there was another death, then a third, and all
three were kept in the same place for several years, and although it was
known to the whole countryside no action was taken by the local

My old informant says that he was often at the farm when he was a young
man, and he used to steal round to the "Dead House," as it was called,
to peep through a crack in the door and see the three coffins resting on
the table in the dim interior.

Eventually the dead disappeared a little while before the Rawlings gave
up the farm, and it was supposed that the old farmer had buried them in
the night-time in one of the neighbouring chalk-pits, but the spot has
never been discovered.

One of the stories of the old Wiltshire days I picked up was from an old
woman, aged eighty-seven, in the Wilton workhouse. She has a vivid
recollection of a labourer named Reed, in Odstock, a village on the
Ebble near Salisbury, a stern, silent man, who was a marvel of strength
and endurance. The work in which he most delighted was precisely that
which most labourers hated, before threshing machines came in despite
the action of the "mobs"--threshing out corn with the flail. From
earliest dawn till after dark he would sit or stand in a dim, dusty
barn, monotonously pounding away, without an interval to rest, and
without dinner, and with no food but a piece of bread and a pinch of
salt. Without the salt he would not eat the bread. An hour after all
others had ceased from work he would put on his coat and trudge home to
his wife and family.

The woman in the workhouse remembers that once, when Reed was a very old
man past work, he came to their cottage for something, and while he
stood waiting at the entrance, a little boy ran in and asked his mother
for a piece of bread and butter with sugar on it. Old Reed glared at
him, and shaking his big stick, exclaimed, "I'd give you sugar with this
if you were my boy!" and so terrible did he look in his anger at the
luxury of the times, that the little boy burst out crying and ran away!

What chiefly interested me about this old man was that he was a
deer-stealer of the days when that offence was common in the country. It
was not so great a crime as sheep-stealing, for which men were hanged;
taking a deer was punished with nothing worse than hard labour, as a
rule. But Reed was never caught; he would labour his full time and steal
away after dark over the downs, to return in the small hours with a deer
on his back. It was not for his own consumption; he wanted the money for
which he sold it in Salisbury; and it is probable that he was in league
with other poachers, as it is hard to believe that he could capture the
animals single-handed.

After his death it was found that old Reed had left a hundred pounds to
each of his two surviving daughters, and it was a wonder to everybody
how he had managed not only to bring up a family and keep himself out of
the workhouse to the end of his long life, but to leave so large a sum
of money. One can only suppose that he was a rigid economist and never
had a week's illness, and that by abstaining from beer and tobacco he
was able to save a couple of shillings each week out of his wages of
seven or eight shillings; this, in forty years, would make the two
hundred pounds with something over.

It is not a very rare thing to find a farm-labourer like old Reed of
Odstock, with not only a strong preference for a particular kind of
work, but a love of it as compelling as that of an artist for his art.
Some friends of mine whom I went to visit over the border in Dorset told
me of an enthusiast of this description who had recently died in the
village. "What a pity you did not come sooner," they said. Alas! it is
nearly always so; on first coming to stay at a village one is told that
it has but just lost its oldest and most interesting inhabitant--a
relic of the olden time.

This man had taken to the scythe as Reed had to the flail, and was never
happy unless he had a field to mow. He was a very tall old man, so lean
that he looked like a skeleton, the bones covered with a skin as brown
as old leather, and he wore his thin grey hair and snow-white beard very
long. He rode on a white donkey, and was usually seen mounted galloping
down the village street, hatless, his old brown, bare feet and legs
drawn up to keep them from the ground, his scythe over his shoulder.
"Here comes old Father Time," they would cry, as they called him, and
run to the door to gaze with ever fresh delight at the wonderful old man
as he rushed by, kicking and shouting at his donkey to make him go
faster. He was always in a hurry, hunting for work with furious zeal,
and when he got a field to mow so eager was he that he would not sleep
at home, even if it was close by, but would lie down on the grass at the
side of the field and start working at dawn, between two and three
o'clock, quite three hours before the world woke up to its daily toil.

The name of Reed, the zealous thresher with the flail, serves to remind
me of yet another Reed, a woman who died a few years ago aged
ninety-four, and whose name should be cherished in one of the downland
villages. She was a native of Barford St. Martin on the Nadder, one of
two villages, the other being Wishford, on the Wylye river, the
inhabitants of which have the right to go into Groveley Wood, an immense
forest on the Wilton estate, to obtain wood for burning, each person
being entitled to take home as much wood as he or she can carry. The
people of Wishford take green wood, but those of Barford only dead, they
having bartered their right at a remote period to cut growing trees for
a yearly sum of five pounds, which the lord of the manor still pays to
the village, and, in addition, the right to take dead wood.

It will be readily understood that this right possessed by the people of
two villages, both situated within a mile of the forest, has been a
perpetual source of annoyance to the noble owners in modern times, since
the strict preservation of game, especially of pheasants, has grown to
be almost a religion to the landowners. Now it came to pass that about
half a century or longer ago, the Pembroke of that time made the happy
discovery, as he imagined, that there was nothing to show that the
Barford people had any right to the dead wood. They had been graciously
allowed to take it, as was the case all over the country at that time,
and that was all. At once he issued an edict prohibiting the taking of
dead wood from the forest by the villagers, and great as the loss was to
them they acquiesced; not a man of Barford St. Martin dared to disobey
the prohibition or raise his voice against it. Grace Reed then
determined to oppose the mighty earl, and accompanied by four other
women of the village boldly went to the wood and gathered their sticks
and brought them home. They were summoned before the magistrates and
fined, and on their refusal to pay were sent to prison; but the very
next day they were liberated and told that a mistake had been made, that
the matter had been inquired into, and it had been found that the people
of Barford did really have the right they had exercised so long to take
dead wood from the forest.

As a result of the action of these women the right has not been
challenged since, and on my last visit to Barford, a few days before
writing this chapter, I saw three women coming down from the forest with
as much dead wood as they could carry on their heads and backs. But how
near they came to losing their right! It was a bold, an unheard-of thing
which they did, and if there had not been a poor cottage woman with the
spirit to do it at the proper moment the right could never have been

Grace Reed's children's children are living at Barford now; they say
that to the very end of her long life she preserved a very clear memory
of the people and events of the village in the old days early in the
last century. They say, too, that in recalling the far past, the old
people and scenes would present themselves so vividly to her mind that
she would speak of them as of recent things, and would say to some one
fifty years younger than herself, "Can't you remember it? Surely you
haven't forgotten it when 'twas the talk of the village!"

It is a common illusion of the very aged, and I had an amusing instance
of it in my old Hindon friend when he gave me his first impressions of
Bath as he saw it about the year 1835. What astonished him most were the
sedan-chairs, for he had never even heard of such a conveyance, but here
in this city of wonders you met them in every street. Then he added,
"But you've been to Bath and of course you've seen them, and know all
about it."

About firewood-gathering by the poor in woods and forests, my old friend
of Fonthill Bishop says that the people of the villages adjacent to the
Fonthill and Great Ridge Woods were allowed to take as much dead wood as
they wanted from those places. She was accustomed to go to the Great
Ridge Wood, which was even wilder and more like a natural forest in
those days than it is now. It was fully two miles from her village, a
longish distance to carry a heavy load, and it was her custom after
getting the wood out to bind it firmly in a large barrel-shaped bundle
or faggot, as in that way she could roll it down the smooth steep slopes
of the down and so get her burden home without so much groaning and
sweating. The great wood was then full of hazel-trees, and produced such
an abundance of nuts that from mid-July to September people flocked to
it for the nutting from all the country round, coming even from Bath and
Bristol to load their carts with nuts in sacks for the market. Later,
when the wood began to be more strictly preserved for sporting purposes,
the rabbits were allowed to increase excessively, and during the hard
winters they attacked the hazel-trees, gnawing off the bark, until this
most useful and profitable wood the forest produced--the scrubby oaks
having little value--was well-nigh extirpated. By and by pheasants as
well as rabbits were strictly preserved, and the firewood-gatherers were
excluded altogether. At present you find dead wood lying about all over
the place, abundantly as in any primitive forest, where trees die of old
age or disease, or are blown down or broken off by the winds and are
left to rot on the ground, overgrown with ivy and brambles. But of all
this dead wood not a stick to boil a kettle may be taken by the
neighbouring poor lest the pheasants should be disturbed or a rabbit be
picked up.

Some more of the old dame's recollections will be given in the next
chapter, showing what the condition of the people was in this district
about the year 1830, when the poor farm-labourers were driven by hunger
and misery to revolt against their masters--the farmers who were
everywhere breaking up the downs with the plough to sow more and still
more corn, who were growing very fat and paying higher and higher rents
to their fat landlords, while the wretched men that drove the plough had
hardly enough to satisfy their hunger.

W. H. Hudson