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Ch. 6: Shepherd Isaac Bawcombe

A noble shepherd--A fighting village blacksmith--Old Joe the collier--A
story of his strength--Donkeys poisoned by yew--The shepherd without his
sheep--How the shepherd killed a deer

To me the most interesting of Caleb's old memories were those relating
to his father, partly on account of the man's fine character, and partly
because they went so far back, beginning in the early years of the last

Altogether he must have been a very fine specimen of a man, both
physically and morally. In Caleb's mind he was undoubtedly the first
among men morally, but there were two other men supposed to be his
equals in bodily strength, one a native of the village, the other a
periodical visitor. The first was Jarvis the blacksmith, a man of an
immense chest and big arms, one of Isaac's greatest friends, and very
good-tempered except when in his cups, for he did occasionally get
drunk, and then he quarrelled with anyone and every one.

One afternoon he had made himself quite tipsy at the inn, and when going
home, swaying about and walking all over the road, he all at once caught
sight of the big shepherd coming soberly on behind. No sooner did he see
him than it occurred to his wild and muddled mind that he had a quarrel
with this very man, Shepherd Isaac, a quarrel of so pressing a nature
that there was nothing to do but to fight it out there and then. He
planted himself before the shepherd and challenged him to fight. Isaac
smiled and said nothing.

"I'll fight thee about this," he repeated, and began tugging at his
coat, and after getting it off again made up to Isaac, who still smiled
and said no word. Then he pulled his waistcoat off, and finally his
shirt, and with nothing but his boots and breeches on once more squared
up to Isaac and threw himself into his best fighting attitude.

"I doan't want to fight thee," said Isaac at length, "but I be thinking
'twould be best to take thee home." And suddenly dashing in he seized
Jarvis round the waist with one arm, grasped him round the legs with the
other, and flung the big man across his shoulder, and carried him off,
struggling and shouting, to his cottage. There at the door, pale and
distressed, stood the poor wife waiting for her lord, when Isaac
arrived, and going straight in dropped the smith down on his own floor,
and with the remark, "Here be your man," walked off to his cottage and
his tea.

The other powerful man was Old Joe the collier, who flourished and was
known in every village in the Salisbury Plain district during the first
thirty-five years of the last century. I first heard of this once famous
man from Caleb, whose boyish imagination had been affected by his
gigantic figure, mighty voice, and his wandering life over all that wide
world of Salisbury Plain. Afterwards when I became acquainted with a
good many old men, aged from 75 to 90 and upwards, I found that Old
Joe's memory is still green in a good many villages of the district,
from the upper waters of the Avon to the borders of Dorset. But it is
only these ancients who knew him that keep it green; by and by when they
are gone Old Joe and his neddies will be remembered no more.

In those days--down to about 1840, it was customary to burn peat in the
cottages, the first cost of which was about four and sixpence the
wagon-load--as much as I should require to keep me warm for a month in
winter; but the cost of its conveyance to the villages of the Plain was
about five to six shillings per load, as it came from a considerable
distance, mostly from the New Forest. How the labourers at that time,
when they were paid seven or eight shillings a week, could afford to buy
fuel at such prices to bake their rye bread and keep the frost out of
their bones is a marvel to us. Isaac was a good deal better off than
most of the villagers in this respect, as his master--for he never had
but one--allowed him the use of a wagon and the driver's services for
the conveyance of one load of peat each year. The wagon-load of peat and
another of faggots lasted him the year with the furze obtained from his
"liberty" on the down. Coal at that time was only used by the
blacksmiths in the villages, and was conveyed in sacks on ponies or
donkeys, and of those who were engaged in this business the best known
was Old Joe. He appeared periodically in the villages with his eight
donkeys, or neddies as he called them, with jingling bells on their
headstalls and their burdens of two sacks of small coal on each. In
stature he was a giant of about six feet three, very broad-chested, and
invariably wore a broad-brimmed hat, a slate-coloured smock-frock, and
blue worsted stockings to his knees. He walked behind the donkeys, a
very long staff in his hand, shouting at them from time to time, and
occasionally swinging his long staff and bringing it down on the back of
a donkey who was not keeping up the pace. In this way he wandered from
village to village from end to end of the Plain, getting rid of his
small coal and loading his animals with scrap iron which the blacksmiths
would keep for him, and as he continued his rounds for nearly forty
years he was a familiar figure to every inhabitant throughout the

There are some stories still told of his great strength, one of which is
worth giving. He was a man of iron constitution and gave himself a hard
life, and he was hard on his neddies, but he had to feed them well, and
this he often contrived to do at some one else's expense. One night at a
village on the Wylye it was discovered that he had put his eight donkeys
in a meadow in which the grass was just ripe for mowing. The enraged
farmer took them to the village pound and locked them up, but in the
morning the donkeys and Joe with them had vanished and the whole village
wondered how he had done it. The stone wall of the pound was four feet
and a half high and the iron gate was locked, yet he had lifted the
donkeys up and put them over and had loaded them and gone before anyone
was up.

Once Joe met with a very great misfortune. He arrived late at a village,
and finding there was good feed in the churchyard and that everybody was
in bed, he put his donkeys in and stretched himself out among the
gravestones to sleep. He had no nerves and no imagination; and was
tired, and slept very soundly until it was light and time to put his
neddies out before any person came by and discovered that he had been
making free with the rector's grass. Glancing round he could see no
donkeys, and only when he stood up he found they had not made their
escape but were there all about him, lying among the gravestones, stone
dead every one! He had forgotten that a churchyard was a dangerous place
to put hungry animals in. They had browsed on the luxuriant yew that
grew there, and this was the result.

In time he recovered from his loss and replaced his dead neddies with
others, and continued for many years longer on his rounds.

To return to Isaac Bawcombe. He was born, we have seen, in 1800, and
began following a flock as a boy and continued as shepherd on the same
farm for a period of fifty-five years. The care of sheep was the one
all-absorbing occupation of his life, and how much it was to him appears
in this anecdote of his state of mind when he was deprived of it for a
time. The flock was sold and Isaac was left without sheep, and with
little to do except to wait from Michaelmas to Candlemas, when there
would be sheep again at the farm. It was a long time to Isaac, and he
found his enforced holiday so tedious that he made himself a nuisance to
his wife in the house. Forty times a day he would throw off his hat and
sit down, resolved to be happy at his own fireside, but after a few
minutes the desire to be up and doing would return, and up he would get
and out he would go again. One dark cloudy evening a man from the farm
put his head in at the door. "Isaac," he said, "there be sheep for 'ee
up't the farm--two hunderd ewes and a hunderd more to come in dree days.
Master, he sent I to say you be wanted." And away the man went.

Isaac jumped up and hurried forth without taking his crook from the
corner and actually without putting on his hat! His wife called out
after him, and getting no response sent the boy with his hat to overtake
him. But the little fellow soon returned with the hat--he could not
overtake his father!

He was away three or four hours at the farm, then returned, his hair
very wet, his face beaming, and sat down with a great sigh of pleasure.
"Two hunderd ewes," he said, "and a hunderd more to come--what d'you
think of that?"

"Well, Isaac," said she, "I hope thee'll be happy now and let I alone."

After all that had been told to me about the elder Bawcombe's life and
character, it came somewhat as a shock to learn that at one period
during his early manhood he had indulged in one form of poaching--a
sport which had a marvellous fascination for the people of England in
former times, but was pretty well extinguished during the first quarter
of the last century. Deer he had taken; and the whole tale of the
deer-stealing, which was a common offence in that part of Wiltshire down
to about 1834, sounds strange at the present day.

Large herds of deer were kept at that time at an estate a few miles from
Winterbourne Bishop, and it often happened that many of the animals
broke bounds and roamed singly and in small bands over the hills. When
deer were observed in the open, certain of the villagers would settle on
some plan of action; watchers would be sent out not only to keep an eye
on the deer but on the keepers too. Much depended on the state of the
weather and the moon, as some light was necessary; then, when the
conditions were favourable and the keepers had been watched to their
cottages, the gang would go out for a night's hunting. But it was a
dangerous sport, as the keepers also knew that deer were out of bounds,
and they would form some counter-plan, and one peculiarly nasty plan
they had was to go out about three or four o'clock in the morning and
secrete themselves somewhere close to the village to intercept the
poachers on their return.

Bawcombe, who never in his life associated with the village idlers and
frequenters of the alehouse, had no connexion with these men. His
expeditions were made alone on some dark, unpromising night, when the
regular poachers were in bed and asleep. He would steal away after
bedtime, or would go out ostensibly to look after the sheep, and, if
fortunate, would return in the small hours with a deer on his back.
Then, helped by his mother, with whom he lived (for this was when he was
a young unmarried man, about 1820), he would quickly skin and cut up the
carcass, stow the meat away in some secret place, and bury the head,
hide, and offal deep in the earth; and when morning came it would find
Isaac out following his flock as usual, with no trace of guilt or
fatigue in his rosy cheeks and clear, honest eyes.

This was a very astonishing story to hear from Caleb, but to suspect him
of inventing or of exaggerating was impossible to anyone who knew him.
And we have seen that Isaac Bawcombe was an exceptional man--physically
a kind of Alexander Selkirk of the Wiltshire Downs. And he, moreover,
had a dog to help him--one as superior in speed and strength to the
ordinary sheep-dog as he himself was to the rack of his fellow-men. It
was only after much questioning on my part that Caleb brought himself to
tell me of these ancient adventures, and finally to give a detailed
account of how his father came to take his first deer. It was in the
depth of winter--bitterly cold, with a strong north wind blowing on the
snow-covered downs--when one evening Isaac caught sight of two deer out
on his sheep-walk. In that part of Wiltshire there is a famous monument
of antiquity, a vast mound-like wall, with a deep depression or fosse
running at its side. Now it happened that on the highest part of the
down, where the wall or mound was most exposed to the blast, the snow
had been blown clean off the top, and the deer were feeding here on the
short turf, keeping to the ridge, so that, outlined against the sky,
they had become visible to Isaac at a great distance.

He saw and pondered. These deer, just now, while out of bounds, were no
man's property, and it would be no sin to kill and eat one--if he could
catch it!--and it was a season of bitter want. For many many days he had
eaten his barley bread, and on some days barley-flour dumplings, and had
been content with this poor fare; but now the sight of these animals
made him crave for meat with an intolerable craving, and he determined
to do something to satisfy it.

He went home and had his poor supper, and when it was dark set forth
again with his dog. He found the deer still feeding on the mound.
Stealing softly along among the furze-bushes, he got the black line of
the mound against the starry sky, and by and by, as he moved along, the
black figures of the deer, with their heads down, came into view. He
then doubled back and, proceeding some distance, got down into the fosse
and stole forward to them again under the wall. His idea was that on
taking alarm they would immediately make for the forest which was their
home, and would probably pass near him. They did not hear him until he
was within sixty yards, and then bounded down from the wall, over the
dyke, and away, but in almost opposite directions--one alone making for
the forest; and on this one the dog was set. Out he shot like an arrow
from the bow, and after him ran Isaac "as he had never runned afore in
all his life." For a short space deer and dog in hot pursuit were
visible on the snow, then the darkness swallowed them up as they rushed
down the slope; but in less than half a minute a sound came back to
Isaac, flying, too, down the incline--the long, wailing cry of a deer in
distress. The dog had seized his quarry by one of the front legs, a
little above the hoof, and held it fast, and they were struggling on the
snow when Isaac came up and flung himself upon his victim, then thrust
his knife through its windpipe "to stop its noise." Having killed it, he
threw it on his back and went home, not by the turnpike, nor by any road
or path, but over fields and through copses until he got to the back of
his mother's cottage. There was no door on that side, but there was a
window, and when he had rapped at it and his mother opened it, without
speaking a word he thrust the dead deer through, then made his way round
to the front.

That was how he killed his first deer. How the others were taken I do
not know; I wish I did, since this one exploit of a Wiltshire shepherd
has more interest for me than I find in fifty narratives of elephants
slaughtered wholesale with explosive bullets, written for the delight
and astonishment of the reading public by our most glorious Nimrods.

W. H. Hudson