“’Well, I’s getting thee character’, said the farmer, nodding agreeably. ‘And it’s all right, me lad. You can start Monday.’
‘Aye’, says the youth.’ And I’s getting thine, and I’s not coming.’”
Negotiations at the annual hirings in the old Lake Counties were canny affairs, where master and man sought each other out to get the best deal and arrange their lives for the coming year.
A hiring receipt from Egremont for Martinmas, 1855, testifies that John Porteus,- his confirmation is marked with an x – agrees to hire with Isaac Borrowdale for the ensuing half year for the sum of five pounds five shillings. The last of such agreements were still being made in Carlisle almost a hundred years later.
There’s a photograph of a sea of flat caps crowding Main Street in Keswick in 1929. Every man, young or old, carries a straw in their cap or between their lips to show they are for hire. In Lowther Street in Carlisle the city council attempted to order the proceedings with boards to separate the boys and girls, but the milling crowds, anxious to obtain work, ignored them and carried on as they had done for centuries.
And the work was much as it always had been. Men and women would form a row and on their hands and knees, side by side, in rain or shine, they would proceed wearily across the immense field weeding turnips. Or they might walk behind three sturdy plodding Clydesdales guiding the plough across the furrowed hillside at Low Plains, Calthwaite.
If they didn’t work on the farms, they might work on the roads. An old man, clay-pipe in mouth, sits with his sacking–covered legs spread-eagled behind his wheelbarrow taking a well-earned break in the sixty hours a week he spent breaking stones. Those stones might have been used in Alston where Mr Kirsopp in his top hat supervises the crouching workmen as they relay the sets. Or they might have found their way to the Honister Pass where a team of puffing steam rollers, belonging to Henry and William Douthwaite of Skelton, struggle to smooth the steep and twisty gradient.
Not everyone worked. Like Miss Olivia Graham of Edmond Castle, near Brampton, in 1912, they might sit grandly at the wheel of a 20hp Flanders Tourer and benefit from the labours of others.
And when they were freed from their sixty hour week or their fourteen hour day as house servants, the working people might get together, as in 1893, “at the foot of Cockermouth’s distinctive clock, known locally as Neddy. Uniformed soldiers, farmhands, lassies in long dresses, and the lads and men in caps, boaters and hard hats” had gathered to watch the start of a cycle race.
Or they might go to Grasmere Sports, where, standing on a carriage looking over the heads of the crowd, they could see the wrestling. They could watch men like the mighty George Steadman, who, weighing eighteen stone and with a grip of iron, “wrestled like a lion”. He stands proudly in his wrestling tights and embroidered knickers alongside the most amazing array of silverware, belts and cups and shields and teapots. He was the Cumberland and Westmorland Heavyweight Champion of the World for thirty years.
This second volume of Lakeland Yesterday is Irvine Hunt’s fifth volume of old photographs. Irvine led the way in the publishing of old photographs of the people and life of the Lakes with his first book, Lakeland Pedlar, many years ago. Quality pictures of shephers, milkmaids, cockfighters and concert parties testify years of assiduous collecting on Irvine’s part. This is an extremely well-selected collection that has been thoroughly researched. Together with a detailed, well-informed text, these wonderful photographs provide an excellent social history of the county as it was a century ago or more.