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HE Dorset landfolk, like others, have been and still are given to superstition, though, indeed, I cannot give and have not found any clear definition of superstition.
They have believed, and most of them still believe, in witchcraft, ghosts, and charms, and mystical healings of diseases, such that the treatment seems no more likely to heal the patient than Sancho Panza thought an anointing of the kneepans would soothe the headache. Some olden Dorset cases of so-thought witchcraft are markworthy as betokening some trustworthiness of tradition.
I was told many years ago that there was a corner of Leigh Common, Dorset, called "Witches' Corner," Some years afterwards I had from a friend some depositions taken on cases of witchcraft among some of the craft in Dorset and Somerset between the years 1657 and 1663. In one of them a witness who was one of the set swore that they were wont to hold fore-timed meetings at night in sundry places, and among them in Leigh Common. This showed that the tradition as it reached me was well grounded.
I knew as a boy a good old woman who, in her youth, had lived as a maid with my grandmother and father, and heard her tell how, when she was
[From a Sketch by A. F. Lydon.
a housemistress, she had been bewitched; and that she had seen her tea-kettle go up the chimney and come down again, and hang itself, or be hung aright, you may guess by whom,-on its hook; and she believed it.
I know not how far the teaching that there is no such thing as a ghost or soul, seen or unseen, may send the poor man to another step or two, that there is no such thing as a soul, or ghosthook, or God. As to the spiritualism of the day, it may be that the canon of the writers of the Greek or Latin drama may be worthy of attention, "Never make a god appear but for a reason worthy of a god." So neither a ghost.
Sometimes there will happen a coincidence such that we cannot wonder if it confirms our simple people in their belief in ghostly presences. I know of one when I was a small boy. I several times heard my father say, when he had come by a halter-path on my uncle's farm (Pentridge), that he had seen the lady or woman again come towards him (from a spot in the field), and then vanish; and some years after this the bones of a child were found at that very spot. I am willing to put this only as a coincidence.
There was formerly down in Blackmore, near Revel's Inn, a mansion-Grange House-which
belonged to the Napiers. It was for many years empty, and was at last pulled down, though not ere it had been long enough forsaken of flesh and blood to be thought haunted. On some night there was a merry meeting at the inn, where, however, was no good ball-room, and they took up lights and other house-gear to the Grange, where they soon began to thread the mazy dance, and make the old room ring once more with music and laughter. It happened that a man came, on his way home, near enough to the house to see, as he saw with awe, the long-forsaken house gleaming with light, in which figures, too tall for fairies, glided, like sprites, in a dance. Light, indeed, he deemed their footsteps to be, for he thought them no others than the ghosts of the Napiers once more in a joyful revel of their youth.
Some high holidays of Dorset people have been those of their great fairs, such as Woodbury Hill, Shroton, and others, which are now dwindling, but to which were formerly brought stores of all kinds of wares for the life-gear and house-gear of Dorset homes, and of which housekeepers were wont to buy in a year's stock. I have heard that since the pack-horse times, and in those of the road-waggon and coach, a ball-room was put up at Shroton Fair, where, on the pleasure-day, young ladies were brought out in a county-ball.
The old customs of eating "fermety" (frumenty) at Easter and gooseberry pudding at Whitsuntide is not quite lost from Dorset.
The 5th of November is now kept up at Dorchester with a splendid torchlight procession of men in masquerade, who march through the High Street into Poundbury, the Campus Martius of the town, and end their evening with a bonfire and a show of fireworks. I believe, however, that they would be quite as willing to take their fun from the name of Cromwell, who emptied the House of Parliament, as from that of Guy Faux, who meant to blow it up.
Down to this time mummers come round in this reighbourhood at Christmastide to strut their half-hour on the floor of any house into which they may be called. They are mostly big boys, bedizened with paper, and tinsel, and ribbons. Some of them are heroes, who fight with wooden swords, and the drama opens with the Turkish knight, who, as he proclaims with true heroic boasting, comes
To fight King George of England,
And if his blood is hot,
He'll soon make it cold.
Before an English household, of course, King George kills him, and the doctor who is called to him brings him to life again, and for some time the quack doctor seems almost a match for the man-killing wooden sword.
Among the games of Dorset boys is that called marrels, which is the olden game of nine men's morris. It has come down from early times, not from father to son, but from boys to boys, and, by a stream of boys' folk-lore, which goes on at about the same level of boys' oldness; so that
when a boy reaches that level of years, he learns it from those who have so learnt it from others. To this under-stream of boy and girl lore belong the making of many toys and game-tools, and girls' round games, and game rhymes or nursery rhymes.
Among the merrymakings which have become less lively than they were formerly is the village feast (festa), or wake, which was mostly kept on the holiday or vigil of the dedication of the church, and folk were wont to go to the feast of their friends in another parish, with the understanding that they hoped to see them at their own.
At these feasts were games of running, leaping, and ball-games, and some dancing; and at some of them a rough manly game-cudgel-playing, which has now, for many years, died out. The parish of Hinton St. Mary, with other places, at times had, for some years, a stage for this game of skill, and some men of Blackmore won a high name in it. In this game the brave man mounted the stage and strutted as a proud challenger of all the world; and soon another from among the crowd tossed his glove up on the stage, and the all defying hero picked it up, thus taking the chal lenge; and then each man, having been gaffled (padded over some of the softer parts of the body), took in his left hand a pot (shield stick), with a guard of wicker-work over the hand and a cudgel in his right hand, shook hands with the other, and so began their play in which the one that first drew blood from the other's head was winner, and the man that drew blood by the most skilful and lightest touch, without further hurt to the head, had the highest honour; for the aim of the rules was that the player should draw blood without flesh, and not, like Shylock, flesh without blood. I happen to know that at a cudgel-playing at Lydlinch, on a stage put up on the heads of barrels, near the Three Boars' Heads; while the players were hopping round each other, very like cocks in a fight, some of the lower barrels tipped over, and the others followed them, and barrels, and the planks, and fallen players on them, rolled down the road.
It may not be easy to mark the moral hue of cudgel-playing among games good or evil. I do not wish to see it rife among us again, but I cannot rate it with the brutal sports of bull-baiting and cock-fighting, in which men set beasts and birds to tear each other. It differs little from fencing with the sword, being the defence of the body by a stout stick, with which a homely man walks, and which he may wield against a footpad instead of a sword, which he would not be likely to have under his hand.
The bodily hurts from cudgel-playing were not, I believe, more to a hundred of players than those to as many of cricketers or football players. The feasts have been mostly put down, and it has been thought that they, and even yearly club meetings, have brought young folks together for the worse rather than the better; but the girls were at the feast with their elders and brothers, and the late Rev. H. Moule, vicar of Fordington, had yearly, for many years, his club-walking, followed by a tea, and a highly-enjoyed evening, with music and reading, and I cannot see why our villagers could
HERE is very little matter in the newspapers that is more uninteresting to the general reader than the reports of the wool-sales held in London during the year. These reports consist of nothing more than the names of the ports of shipment-I speak now of the merino wool that comes from Australasia-the various brands, the specifications of the state of the wool, i.e., whether "greasy" or "scoured," together with the quality, and lastly the realised price per pound. But when, in due course, they reach the hands of those who had sent their contingent from this (southern) hemisphere, they become objects of the liveliest interest, for there are many small sheepowners whose prosperity, or the reverse, very much depends upon the prices brought by their wool in the London markets.
Many persons, however, who are regular attendants at the sales and who are perfectly familiar with the bales of wool as they see them at the stores in Coleman Street, E.C., probably have but the vaguest ideas of an Australian wool-shed when shearing is in progress.
Having been on a visit to an Australian sheep station during shearing-time, I will endeavour to relate what I saw.
But first of all let me give the reader some general idea of the extent and characteristics of one of these stations. The property which I am about to describe is situated in the Riverina dis
trict of New South Wales. The country, which is flat, is pretty thickly timbered, though there are several large plains within the boundaries of the run; whilst in other parts a tree, known as the Boree, grows very freely. These trees, from their graceful appearance and bright foliage, form a pleasing contrast to the sombre hues of the everlasting gum-tree. The station which was my temporary home during the spring of last year, though a small one, is as well managed, and probably more highly improved, than many more extensive squatting properties. Its area is about 125 square miles, or 80,000 acres, but although to English landowners this would seem a very large estate, it is not considered so in Australia, where it is a common thing for squatters to reckon thei land by hundreds of thousands of acres.
The run is divided by means of wire fences into about thirty-five paddocks, the largest being 11,500 acres, and the smallest three acres in extent. In these paddocks are no less than seventy-five tanks, which are filled by the rain, and which are invaluable for watering the sheep in dry seasons. The word "tank," however, must not be understood to signify an iron or lead cistern, for it means nothing more nor less than a large excavation in the ground. These tanks are sometimes made large enough to contain 10,000 cubic yards of water, so that however dry the season may have been, there will always be a
supply of water. To "put down" a tank involves a good deal of labour, for the work is done by a machine somewhat resembling a plough, which is drawn by bullocks.
In addition to the tanks there are several wells in various parts of the run, in which water has been struck at a depth of from eighty to two hundred feet. Other improvements consist of stock and drafting yards for mustering the sheep and cattle. The homestead stands on slightly-rising ground, and is surrounded by a garden, which is, at the spring of the year, full of beautiful flowers. Outside the garden fence on the north side is a level extent of greensward, which terminates on the right in a gentle slope to a pretty lagoon surrounded by willows and box-trees. On the left are the stables and horse yards.
Looking out of the sitting-room windows, the wool-shed can just be seen through the trees, about a quarter of a mile distant, and this brings me to my subject—“Sheep-shearing."
Let me try to give the reader some idea of the internal arrangement of an average Australian wool-shed.
In this instance there is accommodation for thirty-two shearers. A passage divides the shed into two distinct portions. The upper or northern half is occupied by the sheep and the shearers only; the lower by the wool and those who have charge of it from the time it leaves the sheep's back till it is on the dray which is to take it to the nearest railway town. Outside passages running parallel with the length of the shed constitute the shearers' territories, and are called the "shearingboards." The space between these passages is taken up entirely with sheep-pens. In the shed in question there is room for about 500 sheep, and as the thirty-two shearers turn out from 1,500 to 2,000 sheep per diem, the pens have to be supplied three or four times during the twelve hours.
On the other side of the dividing passage we come to a long table called the "skirters' table." The top, however, is not in one piece, after the usual manner of tables, but consists of a number of strips of wood laid parallel to each other, about an inch apart. The object of this is to enable the loose fragments of wool to drop through to the floor beneath, and these are made up into bales by themselves under the name of "locks."
Near the skirters' table there is a very much shorter table, but made on the same plan as the other. This is the "classer's table."
of these anon. On either side of the classer's table are four bins-eight in all-for the reception of the wool after it leaves the classer's hands. On each bin is fastened the ticket denoting the particular class of wool to be put into that bin. To the right of the table we read: 1st Combing," "2nd Combing," "Dingy," and "Super"; and on the left, "1st Pieces," "2nd Pieces," Clothing," and "2nd, or Dingy Clothing." From the size of the various bins we may get a fair idea of the class of wool bred on the station, for they will be so arranged as to accommodate the wool that has hitherto been most plentiful. For example: the 1st and 2nd combing bins are much larger than the others, excepting, of course, the
"pieces" bins, because the "combing" wools of the 1st and 2nd quality largely preponderate over the other classes.
"But," the reader may ask, "what is the difference between combing' and 'clothing' wools?" To that question an expert only could give a proper reply; but from my own observation the "combing" wool is longer, finer, and more silky than the "clothing," which is short, and the fibre. coarse. The former is the superior class of wool.
Between the outer wall of the shed and the left-hand bins is another table, which is devoted to the piece-pickers' use.
Passing the classer's table and the bins, we come to the wool-press. This machine consists of a box about ten feet high, which is divided into two unequal parts, and the screw-press itself, which fits exactly into the box, working easily up and down in it. The lower and smaller part of the box, which is stationary, is about four feet high and eighteen inches square, the upper division being six feet high, with of course the same area. This portion, however, can be pushed back from the lower to allow of the latter being filled with wool. When this is done it is put in its proper place and also filled, and then the screwpress is brought to bear on it till the wool which filled the two boxes is all pressed into the lower box.
The space between the press and the main entrance is occupied by the bales till they are weighed and branded, and then they are stacked in the storeroom just opposite the main entrance.
Having thus endeavoured to give a general idea of the appointments and working of the shed, let me have the pleasure of conducting the reader through it, when, instead of being quiet, empty, and clean, the first half is full of sheep, and the second of wool-men and boys being everywhere.
In order to become acquainted with the whole process, let us follow that flock now being driven into the upper end of the shed, and accompany the wool till it emerges at the other door in the shape of neatly-sewn and branded bales.
First, then, with great noise of bleating, and evident astonishment and protest at the unwonted aspect of affairs, the sheep are driven up the slightly sloping passage into the shed, where the gates of the two inner rows of pens are waiting hospitably open to receive them. Being now fairly in the shed, we will stay one moment to accustom our ears to the various sounds, which are at first somewhat confusing; and then we can the more readily follow our woolly friends through what must be to them an exceedingly trying and astonishing ordeal.
My companion will probably be struck with the energetic demeanour of a little man, who is roused to the greatest activity by the arrival of our sheep. Waving his arms and imitating the sheep-dog's bark, he is here, there, and everywhere amongst the newcomers, driving them from the inner to the outer pens. His business is to keep these pens full of sheep, so that the shearers may not lose time for lack of material. Every now and then, however, the cry of "Sheep, ho!" warns him that whilst his back was turned some pen
has become empty. But we cannot wonder at an occasional lapse, for it is an arduous task for one man to keep sixteen pens full of sheep when thirty-two other men are doing their utmost to empty them.
And now let us watch that shearer, who has just finished a sheep and is whetting his shears preparatory to making a fresh start. I may mention that shearers are paid by their "tally," ie., by the number of sheep they have shorn, so that it does not pay a man to waste time.
But let us return to our muttons. His shears being sharpened, the shearer goes into his pen for another "subject." Having chosen his victim, he watches his opportunity, and seizing the animal by the shoulders, he half lifts and half drags it from the pen to the shearing-board. Some men, more lazily inclined, catch the unfortunate sheep by the hind leg, and drag it, all kicking and struggling, to its fate. By this time, however, our shearer has got his sheep on its back, with its head resting against his knee, and is commencing operations. With rapid and skilful hand he first removes the belly-wool, and then proceeds to the somewhat easier task of stripping the sides and back. But look! either through carelessness engendered by over-confidence, or through trying to shave the skin too close, he has made a great gash, which makes the poor sheep wince. He immediately calls out, "Tar here!" and a boy appears with a tar-brush and smears it over the wound. This application, though by no means pleasant at the time, is of great use in keeping off the flies and in hastening the healing process. At last our sheep is shorn, and is summarily dismissed with little or no thanks through the small door leading into the yards outside the shed; and the fleece is lying on the floor, reminding one very much of those ladies' cloaks which are lined with white fur, for the wool which looks so brown and dirty when seen on the sheep's back is beautifully white and lustrous beneath the surface.
A shorn sheep presents a most melancholy contrast to its state previous to the denuding process. Then it was a not uncomely beast of full and rounded proportions, giving one the idea of comfort and enjoyment of life; now, as it stands all white and shivering, with perhaps several gashes in its skin, and its head, especially if it is a ram with large horns, seemingly out of all proportion to the rest of its body, we say that its beauty has indeed departed, and that it is an object to be pitied rather than admired. But to resume our inspection.
Now that the sheep and its wool have parted company, we have nothing more to do with the former, and when the animal disappeared through the aforesaid little door he passed from us away like a dream, never to return-until next shearing. But here comes a barefooted boy, who gathers up the fleece and carries it to the skirters' table, where he flings it out to its full extent. Thereupon it is, as we see, taken in hand by four men, two on each side of the table, who take off the ragged edges and make the fleece a little more regular in shape. This is called "skirting" the
fleece. The edges, or "pieces," are passed to the piecepickers, who sort them according to their quality.
The fleece, when skirted, is rolled up, and we now follow it to the classer's table. At one end of that table stands an energetic little man clothed in a big apron, who is busily examining the fleeces as they come pouring in from the other table. He is the classer, and occupies no mean position in the economy of the shed. But see him now, as he examines the fleece we have watched on its travels up to this point. He is evidently taken with its appearance-for the wool is more than ordinarily long and silky and bright-and turns it over several times before delivering his verdict. At length he says, "Super," and hands it over to a small boy, whose duty it is to deposit it in its proper bin. This he proceeds to do with as important and energetic an air as if that was the essential part of the whole process.
Turning thence to the wool-press, we see that three men are engaged in this branch of the department. As they are not quite ready to begin a fresh bale, let me make use of the spare time in explaining their respective duties. The head man, or "boss," of the three has to receive the fleeces from his mates and stamp them down in the press-box; the second prepares the cases for the wool as they are wanted, and also supplies the fleeces from the bins; whilst the third does the millinery part of the business-viz., sewing the "caps," or covers, on to the bales when they have been pressed.
The number of fleeces in a bale depends of course upon the size of the fleeces, but taking it all round, the average will be found to be about one hundred. These three men turn out from twenty-five to thirty bales per diem.
But now the press is empty, and the presser is fetching the first fleeces of the new bale. As he gives them to his mate who is standing in the lower box, he calls out the number. About fortyfive are sufficient, when well stamped down, to fill the lower box; and then they run the upper into position exactly above it.
Having inserted a sliding-board to act as a floor to the top box, the "boss" scrambles up and establishes himself therein in readiness to receive the fleeces as they are handed up to him. Gradually, as the box fills, he rises higher and higher, until at last he is standing on a level with the top. All this time the fleeces have been counted, so that when he calls out, "No more," they know exactly how many are in the bale, and thus the tally is kept.
The real press-work now begins, and having drawn away the shelf between the boxes, two of the men seize the ropes that are attached to the handle of a great wheel which sets the screw in motion. The work is comparatively easy at first, but as the pressure increases, they have to put to more strength, and towards the end the third man adds his quota, till at last, after much clanging of machinery and perspiration of men, the bale is compressed within the desired limits. The cap," which had previously been fastened by the corners to the under side of the press and has