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Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events/Peter Barker, the Blind Joiner



Peter Barker was born on July 10th, 1808. At the age of four he was deprived of sight by an inflammation of the eyes, and ever afterwards he was—

"dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrevocably dark; total eclipse,
Without all hope of day."

The loss of his sight caused Peter from an early age to cultivate music, and he became a skilful performer on the violin; and as he grew up to manhood he frequented the village feasts, dances, and merry-makings all round the country, as a performer on that instrument. This led him into habits of intemperance. But he had a strong will, a tender conscience, and seeing that he was sinking in his own respect and in that of others, he determined to abandon his musical profession.

But he must earn his livelihood; and he determined to become a joiner. He fell to work to make a chair, succeeded in the first attempt, and for the rest of his life followed carpentering as his profession. He handled his tools with all the dexterity of a practised workman; his shop was always in order, the tools in their proper position in the rack, or in his hands. The only peculiarity about his instruments was in the foot-rule he used for making his measurements, the lines on which were marked by small pins, of different numbers, to indicate the different feet on the rule. The idea of having his rule thus marked was suggested by a lady who interested herself in his welfare. She wrote to a manufacturer of carpenters' rules in London, to inquire if such a thing could be had as a rule with raised lines and figures; the answer was that no such rules were made. Failing to procure an article of this kind, she suggested the making of the measurements on it with pins; and this was carried into effect.

The articles made by this blind workman were firm and substantial, the joints even and close, and the polish smooth. It is said that a cabinet-maker at Leeds, having heard reports of the blind joiner's skill, procured a chair he had made, and showed it to the workmen in his shop, asking them their opinion of the chair. After examining it, they said that they thought there was nothing particular about the chair, only it was a thoroughly well-made, serviceable one. "So it is," said the master; "but—will you believe it?—the man who made it never saw it: he was blind from a child." Their indifference was at once turned into amazement.

The writer of a memoir of Peter Barker[1] says:—

"We have frequently seen him at work, and were it not from the more frequent handling of the articles operated on, and the nearness of his fingers to the edge of the chisel or saw, there was nothing apparently to distinguish his manner from that of an ordinary workman. In 1868 we found him at work in the church, repairing the seats, and watched him for some time before he was conscious of the presence of any one. He showed us what he had done—lowered the fronts of both the pulpit and reading-desk, the one twenty inches, the other a foot: brought forward a pew some three feet, and refronted it with panels of old carved oak, which he asserted was very difficult to work over again; showed us a piece of carving which he, in conjunction with the churchwarden, had only discovered the day before, and which was upwards of 200 years old; led the way into the belfry, giving a word of advice to be careful in ascending the old rickety stairs; showed the clock, which he had under his care to keep clean and in going order. At this point, while seated on a bench, he gave us a narrative of his first acquaintance with the clock, which we give in his own words as nearly as we can remember:—[2] "You see, our clock is yan o' these aud fashion'd hand-made 'uns, not made exact and true by machinery as they are now, but ivvery wheel cut an' filed by hand. Aud Snow, a notified clock-makker 'at lived up aboon abit here, had the managing of her a lang time, at so much a year. He used to come just at t' time when his year was up, give t' aud clock a fether full o' oil, tak his brass, and there was no mair on him till t' next year. At last she gat as she wadn't gang at all; she wad naither turn pointers nor strike. T' foaks i' t' toon were sadly dissatisfied; they neither knew when to get up nor gang to bed, as they had done afore, when t' clock was all reet. T' church-maister sent for t' clock-maker, and he come an' come ageean, an' fizzled an faff'd aboot her, but nivver did her a farthing's worth o' good. At last he was forced to give her up as a bad job; she was fairly worn out, an' she wad nivver be no better till she was mended with a new un; and that's aboon twenty year sin, an' t' aud clock's here yet. Then Johnny Gill, another clever fellow, took her under hands, and she lick'd him as fairly as she'd deean aud Snow. I was i' t' church by mysel one day, I hardly know what aboot, when it com' into my heead 'at I would try my hand at her; I nivver had deean nowt o' t' sort; but if ye nivver try, ye nivver can dea (do) nowt. So t' first thing I did was to give her a reet good feelin' all ower her; an' then, heving settled all her parts fairly i' my mind, I fell to work and took her to pieces, bit by bit, got all t' works out of her, and cleaned her all ower reet soundly, particularly t' pivots, and then gav 'em all a sup o' nice oil; then I put her together ageean; efter a few trials I got her all reet, got her started—she strake an' kept time like a good un. Efter I finish'd I com' doon, an' into th' church garth, and wha did I meet there but Mr. Shann, our vicar at that time, and just as I was meeting him t' clock strake ageean. 'What's that, Peter?' he says. I says, 'It's t' clock, sir!' He says ageean, 'What does this mean, Peter?' I says, 'It meeans t' time o' day when t' clock strikes.' He began o' laughing, and said, 'You're a queer fellow, Peter. I mean who made the clock strike?' 'Oh,' I says, 'I've deean that mysel, sir. I've been at her a goodish bit to-day, an' I think I've gotten her put all reet at last.' 'Well done, Peter, you're a clever fellow,' he says. 'But you sha'n't do all this for nothing. I shall let the churchwardens know what you have done. You must have some reward.' 'Varry weel, sir,' I says, and so we parted. And he was as good as his word. When t' churchmaisters met, he tell'd 'em all aboot it, and they allowed me four shillings for my job; and I was to have ten shillings a year for keeping her ganning ivvery year efter."

In the month of July, 1865, the clock did not strike correctly. As Peter told the tale himself:—"I was i' t' shop when I heard her at it, two or three times. I stood it as lang as I could; at last I banged down my teeals (tools), and says to mysel', 'I'll mak thee either strake reet, or I'll mak thee as that thou'll nivver strike ageean.' Away I went, spent an hour over her, gat her reet, and she's kept reet ever sin'."

His biographer says:—"Once on a visit to Peter's cottage, we found a window had been recently inserted, according to his statement, to make the fireside more lightsome—Peter having been mason, joiner, and glazier himself. In short, he appeared to be able to do any kind of work that he had the desire or the will to do. He was an expert in the art of netting—fabricating articles in that line from the common cabbage net to the curtains which adorn the windows of the stately drawing-room. As a vocalist he sang bass in the church on Sundays. He was also one of the bell-ringers; and during the winter months the curfew bell is rung at Hampswaite at eight o'clock every evening. When it was Peter's turn to ring he took a lighted lanthorn with him—not for the purpose of seeing others, but that others might see him.

"He always fattened a pig in the winter season, and had a method of measurement of his own for ascertaining how much weight the pig had gained every week; and to such measurement and calculation the pig was weekly subjected until he attained the proper bulk and weight. Peter generally bought his pig himself, and for that purpose attended the market at Knaresborough, where the bargain was cause of much amusement to the onlookers. When the pig was pointed out which was thought likely, the seller had to seize the same, and hold it still as possible, until Peter had felt it over and ascertained its points, and passed his judgment on its feeding qualities."

Peter learned to read with his fingers in 1853, and was given a New Testament with embossed letters.

He was very fond of children, and would play tunes to them on his fiddle at his shop door of a summer evening, whilst they danced and sang. He had made this fiddle himself, as well as the case in which he kept it.

So delicate was Peter's touch that he was able to tell the hour on a watch by opening the case and running his fingers lightly over the face.

Peter in his youth had a romantic courtship, and married a wife. She presented him with a son, born in 1846; and died on June 3rd, 1862. The boy, who was his father's constant companion and delight, died the following year, on Jan. 19th, 1863, leaving the poor blind joiner's house completely desolate.

After a few weeks' illness, Peter died in his cottage, near the churchyard gate, on February 18th, 1873, at the age of sixty-five.

  1. Published by T. Thorpe, Pately Bridge, 1873.
  2. The strong provincial dialect is somewhat modified in this, or it would be unintelligible except to Yorkshire readers.