The Circle of Life!

mikes fatherIt’s hard to believe in today’s politically correct health conscious society, an adult could possibly say to an 11 year old boy, ‘The best thing you could do lad, is have a pint of ale and a pipe full of tobacco’.

Rightly or wrongly, this was the advice given by my Great Grandfather Herbert Wright to my father Horace Spencer in 1906! There was however a sound reason for this advice and I’m quite sure the old man had his son’s best interests at heart.

In 1895, Herbert Wright was the landlord of the ‘Railway Inn’ at StowPark on the B1500 – between Sturton-by-Stow and Gainsborough, now a private house. He was also a dealer in ‘fallen’, or dead animals, known as ‘The Cad Man’, or ‘Knackerman’. Most villages had one, as the density of farm animals was much greater then, than today. With no mechanical transport, all movements of carcasses were by horse and cart. As one might imagine, loading a dead horse or cow weighing half a ton or more, on to a cart three to four feet off the ground, presented somewhat of a problem. Knackermen were an enterprising breed, and soon devised specially adapted two wheeled ‘Knackers’ carts to ease the operation.

Once in the yard, the carcass was carefully dismembered, the skin going to a tannery, the better bones were sent to a cutlery factory for handles and the remainder was boiled to make tallow glue, or fertilizer, nothing was wasted! Local footballers were known to visit the yard, to soak their boots in the oil to keep them supple and buy ‘Horse Liniment’ to rub on their aching joints.

Many country landlords were similarly obliged to supplement their income, plying various trades in an attempt to provide a reasonable living for their families. It must be remembered, pubs at the time only sold drink, although, some did take in lodgers.

The clientele of ‘The Railway Inn’ consisted of local farm workers, passing horse traffic and railway workers from the nearby station and goods yard.

Like many country pubs ‘The Railway’ had several acres of land on which Great Grandfather kept pigs, chickens, a cow and of course horses – being the main form of transport at the time. In some respects, it was yester-years version of ‘The Good Life’, a largely self sufficient enterprise which provided most of the food for the family, the difference being, this wasn’t for amusement, but out of sheer necessity.

Great Grandfather was well known for his eccentricities and like most old men he despised change. In later years when traffic lights were first introduced into Gainsborough, he would tell ‘Taffy’ his pony to, “Git on” and drive his Trap straight through on red, saying, “I’ve bin cumin’ ere long before they I’ver thought a’ bloody traffic lights.”

 Born at Welbourn in 1855 to a family of Wheelwrights. He was known in our family as ‘Pretty face’, apparently, not for his good looks, but for his habit of telling the Grandchildren they had ‘pretty faces’.

He took over the ‘Railway Inn’ in 1895, the same year my father was born .An article in the ‘Chronicle and Leader’ reporting his and my great Grandmother’s diamond wedding celebrations during his 80th year, with an accompanying photograph taken in the bar of the Railway Inn, reports him as saying, “I want you to take my photograph playing dominoes with these other old boys.”

He goes on to say how he had happy memories of the, “Good old days”, and how he would, “Stop off school”, to help his mother brew beer.

The beer they had in those days was the proper stuff!”

“Forty years ago beer was 3d a pint’, now it’s 6d and 9d, and nowhere near as good.”

His companion William Deeks of Marton – far right in the photograph – is quoted as saying, “I used to walk to school with my friend; we used to smoke half an ounce of tobacco on the way, and had a quart of ale for lunch.”

mrs herbert wrightOn Father’s 11th birthday November 8th 1906, Great Grandfather decided it was high time he learned something of the finer arts of the ‘Knacker’ trade, which it was thought at the time, father might eventually follow him into. Father, who by all accounts was a quiet and sensitive lad, had little enthusiasm for the job, being more interested in music – two more dissimilar professions would be difficult to imagine?

However, Great Grandfather provided him with one of his leather aprons, tied around his waist with a length of binder band, and instructed him to, “Sit on the bench in the yard with ya back to the wind.” “You’d best start on something small,” he said, dragging a dead sheep from the shed, bloated to twice its normal size. Dropping it at Father’s feet, and placing a large pointed knife in his hand, he instructed him as to where he should make his primary incision. Unaware Great Grandfather had retired to a safe distance and wanting to complete the procedure as quickly as possible, Father plunged the knife into the sheep. He was instantly engulfed in a cloud of foul smelling gas, putrid liquid and more than his fair share of maggots, as the rotting carcass hissed and groaned like a huge deflating balloon; He dropped the knife, ran to the other side of the yard, and was violently sick. Great-grandfather – quietly amused, wiped him down and explained,

“The fost un’s always the wost son.”

Father – doing his best not to cry – maintained his distance from the foul smelling carcass. Great Grandfather chuckling to himself, wandered off towards the house, returning few moments later smoking his second best pipe, and carrying a pint of bitter.

“Ere lad, keep having a puff on this, it’ll help kill the smell.”

“And if you av’ a swig of ale now and then, it won’t taste quite so bad.”

I never knew whether or not father managed to complete the task, but without doubt, it must have had a profound and long lasting effect on him. Two years later at the age of 13, he left home and joined the ‘Royal Marines School of Music’ in Portsmouth as a ‘Band boy’, stating his age to be fourteen – the minimum allowable entry age at the time. After serving for a year, this deception was discovered and as a result, he lost a years pay.

He served in the Band aboard the Battle cruiser H.M.S Lion throughout the First World War, and fought at the battle of Jutland, during which he was awarded 5 shillings ( 25p) for good shooting. The long standing mystery of why anyone would receive such an award when the ships engaged in battle were several miles apart was solved when I was interviewed in the early 1990s by a military historian carrying out research for a television programme on ‘Jutland’.  I discovered it was not for shooting a rifle as I had assumed, but the aiming of the huge 13.5 inch guns which battered the German fleet into submission and eventual withdrawal from the battle.

Following his discharge from the Navy in 1919, father spent most of the 1920’s in the ‘Orchestras ‘on the Transatlantic Liners – in particular the ‘Mauritania’- and played in both ‘Silent Movie’ Cinemas and the Music Halls, becoming known as one of the finest Percussionists in the north of England.

On the 5th of March 1936 – eight years before I was born – Great Grandfather died aged 81. My parents, brother and sister returned to StowPark, where father took over as Landlord of the ‘Railway Inn’, the place of his birth.

Mike Spencer


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