An Old English Home and Its Dependencies/Chapter 9
AS the sun to the planets so stands the manor-house to the farms on the manor; that is to say, so far as the relations of dignity and dependence go. But the sun gives to its satellites and receives nothing, whereas from the lord of the manor come the loan of land, of house, and of farm-buildings, for which loan the tenant pays a rent, that is to say, so much interest on so much capital placed at his disposal. An old English farmhouse that has not been meddled with is a very interesting study. It represents to us the type of our manor-houses before the reign of the Tudors. Owing to the prosperity which England enjoyed at the cessation of the Wars of the Roses our gentry rebuilt their houses, and rebuilt yet again, as fashions changed, so that we have very few of the manor-houses left that were erected before Tudor times.
The old farmhouse in England is in plan very much what the old manoir was in France. I will take a plan and give a drawing of that of Anseremme on the Meuse near Dinant. This has the parish church attached to it, as it not infrequently was to the manor-house in England.
The dwelling-house forms one side of the courtyard. The other sides are occupied by farm-buildings, stables, cart-sheds, granaries, etc.
To reach the front door of the house one must wade through straw trampled by cattle and oozing with manure. Our forefathers did not mind that. Our farmers of the right sort love it. A farmer whose heart does not glow at stable and cowstall manure has missed his vocation. But everything in its place, and the unfortunate feature of this paving of manure was that it adhered to boots and entered the house. This mattered little when halls were strewn with rushes. But when polished oak boards and next carpets came in, the entrance to the house had to be altered, so that at least the women-kind need not tread over ankles in manure before entering the house.
Where there is a farmhouse there must be a court in which the cattle can run, and where better than under the eye of the master and mistress.
But there was, and is, another, and more serious, drawback. Wells have been sunk close to the houses, and very generally in intimate relation to the courtyard. The result is that in a great many cases the water in the wells becomes contaminated. It is really amazing how many centuries have rolled by without people discovering the fact that such proximity produces contamination, and such contamination leads to diphtheria, or typhoid fever. But stupidity is ever with us, so I do not wonder. Here is a fact. In a certain village of over a thousand inhabitants, that I knew, there is a National School, which having an endowment commands the services of a first-class schoolmaster. Now it fell out that water from a beautiful spring among the hills was brought into this village, and a tap placed outside the schoolmaster's residence.
Said the village schoolmaster to himself, "If I use this water I shall have to pay the rate. If I don't I cannot be called upon for it. I will get all my water from the well in the adjoining farmyard." He did so, and his young wife and child died of diphtheria.
Now, if a man like a cultured schoolmaster at the close of the nineteenth century will act like this, is it a marvel that our forefathers, who were without the means of knowing better, should have made such mistakes?
A merciful Providence must have brooded over our ancestors and protected them; how else is it possible that they were not all swept away, and none left to be the progenitors of our own enlightened selves?
I suppose that systems adapted themselves to their surroundings and to what they assimilated, and our forbears got into the way of fattening and thriving on bacilli, germs, and all like horrors.
But to return to the farmhouse.
In one that is well-conducted, the court in which pigs wallow, bullocks poach the litter, ducks waddle, and find nutriment in what would be death to all other creatures, is the nucleus and treasury, the cream of the whole farm. Having considered the plan of the Walloon Manoir, look at a plan of an old English farm congeries of buildings. Is it not clear that—omitting the church—the type is the same?
The old-fashioned farmer, like the old-fashioned squire, did not ask to have a view of distant horizons from his windows, but sought to look upon his stock and see that it throve.
It was, may be, more riskful to leave cattle about in the fields in former days, though I am not very sure of that. England was always a quiet, law-abiding, well-conducted country. And perhaps the cattle at one time may have been driven into the pen for the night, about the master's house. His court was his kraal.But that was long, long ago, when there were wolves and cattle-lifters in the land. In ordered times only ewes at lambing time, and cows about to calve, and young bullocks were kept in the courtyard; and the calves that the dairymaid had to feed, by dipping her hand in milk and then giving it to the long-legged, silly creatures to suck.
The cows were milked in the fields, and milked by the dairymaids. Then that fashion was abandoned, and cows were driven to the stables to be there milked, and these cowhouses were so deep in manure as to dirty the skirts and white stockings of the maids, so they withdrew from the task, and now only men milk the cows.
Alas for the dairymaid! That charming, merry, innocent ideal of a country girl. Indeed to be a milkmaid and to be merry were almost synonymous in the olden time. Sir Thomas Overbury, in his "Character of a Milkmaid," says: "She dares go alone, and unfold her sheep in the night, and fears no manner of ill, because she means none; yet, to say truth, she is never alone: she is still accompanied with old songs, honest thoughts, and prayers, but short ones."
In the "Character of a Ballad-monger," in Whimzies, 1631, we find: "Stale ballad news, cashiered the city, must now ride fast for the country, where it is no less admired than a giant in a pageant: till at last it grows so common there, too, as every poor milkmaid can chant and chirp it under her cow, which she useth as a harmless charm to make her let down her milk."
In Beaumont and Fletcher's play, The Coxcomb, Nan, the Milkmaid, says:
"Come, you shall e'en home with me, and be our fellow;
Our home is so honest!
And we serve a very good woman, and a gentlewoman;
And we live as merrily, and dance o' good days
After evensong. Our wake shall be on Sunday:
Do you know what a wake is? we have mighty cheer then."
Who does not remember old Isaac Walton and his merry ballad-singing dairy-maid?
Pepys, in his Diary, 13th October, 1662, writes: "With my father took a melancholy walk to Portholme, seeing the country-maids milking their cows there, they being there now at grass; and to see with what mirth they come all home together in pomp with their milk, and sometimes they have music go before them."
"When cold bleak winds do roar,
And flowers can spring no more,
The fields that were seen
So pleasant and green
By winter all candied o'er:
Oh! how the town lass
Looks, with her white face
And lips so deadly pale.
But it is not so
With those that go
Through frost and snow,
With cheeks that glow,
To carry the milking pail."
On May-day was the festival of the milkmaids. I can remember, in 1845, seeing Jack in the Green and Maid Marian parading in the Strand.
Pepys, in his Diary, on the 1st May, 1667, enters—"To Westminster; on the way meeting many milkmaids with their garlands upon their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them."
In a set of prints called "Tempest's Cryes of Lon'on," one is called "The Merry Milkmaid," whose proper name was Kate Smith. She is dancing with her milk-pail on her head, decorated with silver cups, tankards, and salvers, borrowed for the purpose, and tied together with ribbands, and ornamented with flowers. "Of later years, the plate, with other decorations, were placed in a pyramidical form, and carried by two chairmen upon a wooden horse. The milkmaids walked before it, and performed the dance without any encumbrance."
In a curious German account of London and London life, written by Otto Von Rosenberg, and published at Leipzig in 1834, is a picture of a milkmaids' May dance; but in London it had become a chimney-sweeps' performance in place of one of milkmaids. In the country it maintained its character as a festival of dairy-maids. Rosenberg thus describes it:
"A hobbledehoy youth leads the procession with a three-cornered cocked hat on his head, pasted over with gilt paper. Eyebrows and cheeks are strongly marked with paint. A coat of gay colour flaps about his body, and this coat is imitated from the uniform of a French field-marshal, and is sown over with flowers and ornaments of gilt paper. Over his right shoulder hangs a red silk band, to which a wooden sword is attached. His knee-breeches and stockings are white. He is followed by a figure from head to toe buried under a conical structure, which is woven round with fresh , and at the summit has a crown. This object has no other purport than to hobble after the rest.
"To complete the trefoil is a girl who stands in no way behind Netherland damsels in beauty and lively movements. Her hair, which in the morning had been carefully done up in braids, becomes disengaged by the action and heat, and her incessant leaps and twirls, and finally falls about her shoulders like that of a fury. She wears a low dress and short sleeves of white very transparent texture reaching to her calves, and exposing below rather massive feet, which are wound about with green. In her hand she waves a great wooden spoon, and this she extends to the windows for gratuities. But as she dances through the streets she brandishes this great spoon above her head, like a witch who is invoking a spirit."
Alack-a-day! The milkmaid is a creature of the past. Now in farmhouses there is great difficulty in getting any girl to work. They want to go to the towns, or consider themselves too highly educated to do menial work.
And the sower, the mower, the reaper and thrasher are also extinct.
I remember as a boy repeatedly watching a sower pacing up and down a field strewing the corn to right and left from the wooden seed-lap carried in front, and thinking what a picture it made. Now corn is sown with a drill.
In the very early morning, as the sun rose and the dew was on the grass, it was pleasant of old to hear the musical whetting of the scythe, and then the hiss as the blade swept through the herb and shore it down. That is no more. The grass is mown in the meadows by the mechanical mower, and on the lawn by a contrivance whose movements are anything but musical. In former days also the harvesting was a real delight. The reapers, with their hooks, worked their way along in rows. It cannot be better described than in the Harvest Song, well known in the south-west of England:
The corn is all ripe, and the reapings begin,
The fruits of the earth, O we gather them in;
At morning so early the reap-hooks we grind,
And away to the fields for to reap and to bind;
The foreman goes first in the hot summer glow,
And he sings with a laugh, my lads, all of a row.
Then, all of a row! then all of a row!
And to-night we will sing boys, All of a row!
"We're in, says the catchpole, behind and before,
We'll have a fresh edge and a sheaf or two more.
The master stands back for to see us behind;
Well done, honest fellows, bring the sheaves to the bind.
Well done, honest fellows, pare up your first brink,
You shall have a fresh edge, and a half pint to drink.
Then, all of a row! etc.
"And so we go through the heat of the day,
Some reaping, some binding, all merry and gay.
We'll reap and we'll bind, we will whistle and sing,
Unflagging until the last sheaf we bring in.
It's all our enjoyment wherever we go,
To work and to sing, Brothers, all of a row.
Then, all of a row! etc.
Our day's work is done, to the farmhouse we steer,
To eat a good supper and drink humming beer;
We wish the good farmer all blessings in life,
And drink to his health, and as well to his wife.
God prosper the grain for next harvest we sow,
When again in the arrish we'll sing, Boys, hallo!
Then, all in a row! etc."
When the reapers had cut nearly the whole field they reached a portion that had been purposely left, and this, instead of attacking in row, they surrounded, shouting "A neck! a neck!" and of this the last sheaf was fashioned, and on top of it was a little figure formed of plaited corn, and this was conveyed in triumph to the garner.
My old coachman, who had served three generations of my family and had seen four, was the last man who made these corn-men in our neighbourhood, and long after the custom had been abandoned, he was wont on every harvest thanksgiving to produce one of these comical figures for suspension in the church. The head was made of a tuft of barley, and flowers were interwoven with the rest.All this is of the past, and so also is the
an essex farmhouse
What a robust, rubicund, hearty fellow is our old English farmer. The breed is not extinct, thank God! At one time, when it was the fashion to run two and three farms into one, and let this conglomerate to a man reputed warm and knowing, then it did seem as if the "leather pocketed" farmer was doomed to extinction. But it is the gentleman farmer who has gone to pieces, and the simple old type has stood the brunt of the storm, and has weathered the bad times.
What a different man altogether he is from the French paysan and the German bauer! The latter, among the mountains, is a fine specimen, his wealth is in oxen and cows. But the bauer, on arable land in the plains, is an anxious, worn man, who falls into the hands of the Jews, almost inevitably. Our farmers, well fed, open-hearted, hospitable, yet close-fisted over money, would do well to learn a little thrift from the continental peasant. On market days, if they sell and buy, they also spend a good deal at the ordinary and in liquor.
At a tythe dinner I gave, in another part of England from that I now occupy, the one topic of conversation and debate was whether it were expedient on returning from market to tumble into the ditch or into the hedge, and if it should happen that the accident happened in the road, at what portion of the highway it was "plummest" to fall.
On market days is the meeting of the Board of Guardians, and on that Board the farmer exercises authority and rules.
An old widow in receipt of parish relief once remarked: "Our pass'n hev been preachin' this Michaelmas a deal about the angels bein' our guardgins. Lork a biddy! I've been in two counties, in Darset and Zummerset, as well as here. Guardgins be guardgins whereiver they be. And I knows very well, if them angels is to be our guardgins in kingdom come—it'll be a loaf and 'arf a crown and no more for such as we."
In North Devon there was a farmer, whom we will call Tickle, who was on a certain Board of Guardians, of which Lord P. was chairman. Now Mrs. Tickle died, and so for a week or two the farmer did not take his usual seat. The chairman got a resolution passed condoling with Mr. Tickle on his loss.
Next Board day, the farmer appeared, whereupon Lord P. addressed him: "It is my privilege, duty, and pleasure, Mr. Tickle, to convey to you, on behalf of your brother guardians, an expression of our sincere and heartfelt and profound regret for the sad loss you have been called on to endure. Mr. Tickle, the condolence that we offer you is most genuine, sir. We feel, all of us, that the severance which you have had to undergo is the most painful and supreme that falls to man's lot in this vale of tears. Mr. Tickle, it is at once a rupture of customs that have become habitual, a privation of an association the sweetest, holiest, and dearest that can be cemented on earth, and it is—it is—in short— it is—Mr. Tickle, we condole with you most cordially."
The farmer addressed looked about with a puzzled and vacant expression, then rubbed his chin, then his florid cheeks, and seemed thoroughly nonplussed. Presently a brother farmer whispered in his ear, "Tes all about the ou'd missus you've lost."
"Oh!" and the light of intelligence illumined his face, "that's it, es it. Well, my lord and genl'men, I thank y' kindly all the same, but my ou'd woman—her wor a terr'ble teasy ou'd toad. It hev plased the Lord to take 'er, and plase the Lord he'll keep 'er."
The ordinary farmer is not a reader—how can he be, when he is out of doors all day, and up in the morning before daybreak? We complain that he does not advance with the times; but he is a cautious man, who makes quite sure of his ground before he steps.
The County Council, at the expense of the ratepayers, send about lecturers, who are well paid, to hold forth in village schoolrooms on scientific agriculture, the chemistry of the soil, and scientific dairying.
No one usually attends these lectures except a few ladies, but on one occasion a farmer was induced by the rector or the squire, as a personal favour, to listen to one on the chemistry of common life.
He listened with attention when the lecturer described the constituents of the atmosphere, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen. At the close he stood up, stretched himself, and said: "Muster lecturer! You've told us a terr'ble lot about various soorts o' gins, oxegen and so on, I can't mind 'em all, but you ha'nt mentioned the very best o' all in my 'umble experience, and that's Plymouth gin. A drop o' that with suggar and water—hot—the last thing afore you go to bed, not too strong nor too weak neither, is the very first-ratedst of all. I've tried it for forty years."
And then he went forth, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "That chap, he's traveller for some spirit merchants, as have some new-fangled gins but I'll stick to Plymouth gin, I will."
A friend of mine was Mayor for a year in a town, the name of which is unimportant. Being of a hospitable and kindly turn, he sent invitations to all the farmers in the neighbourhood who were within the purlieu of the borough to dine with him on a certain evening, and at the bottom of the invitation put the conventional R. S. V. P.
To his surprise he received no answers whatever. The invitation, however, was much discussed at the ordinary, and the mysterious letters at the close subjected to scrutiny and debate.
"Now what do you makes 'em out to mane?" asked one farmer.
"Well, I reckon," answered he who was addressed, "tes what we're to ate at his supper. Rump Steak and Veal Pie."
"Git out for a silly," retorted the first, "muster bain't sach a vule as to have two mates on table to once. Sure enough them letters stand for Rump Steak and Viggy (plum) Pudden'."
"Ah! Seth! you have it. That's the truth," came in assent from the whole table.
But what a fine man the old farmer is—the very type of John Bull. That he is being driven out of existence by foreign colonial competition I cannot believe. He is a slow man to accommodate himself to changed circumstances, but he can turn himself about when he sees his way; and he has a shrewd head, and knows soil and climate.
In George Coleman's capital play, "The Heir at Law," Lady Daberly says to her son Dick, "A farmer!—and what's a farmer, my dear?"
To which Dick replies, "Why, an English farmer, mother, is one who supports his family, and serves his country by his industry. In this land of commerce, mother, such a character is always respectable."
- Bilder aus London, Leipzig, 1834.