Wednesday 8 November 2017

'Cat's Heads and Yowlers' by Karen Maitland

A Humber Sloop, the 'Harry' from Barton on the Humber
A few years ago, I had the privilege of editing the autobiography of an elderly gentleman who had grown up on the banks of the Humber estuary on the east coast of England. His father had sailed sloops laden with coal down the canals from the coal mines in the heart of England to the clay works at Barton on the estuary, before sailing across the treacherous North Sea to Holland with cargoes of clay tiles. There were no engines on these sloops. They relied on wind, currents and the skill of the boatmen.

To bring a sloop, under sail, with such a heavy cargo alongside the loading jetty involved a three-point turn, in which bow and stern lines had to be fastened to the shore with precisely the right timing and at the correct length, to enable the force of the surging water to turn the ship around, all this in an estuary notorious for its lethal cross-currents. To make his job even more tricky, because of the shifting sand banks in the Humber, they needed the spring tides to be able to unload and load the cargoes, which only occurred once a fortnight, so if the sloop failed to make it to the clay works to meet those tides, it would mean many days of costly delay.

Illustration from 'Pomona Britannica'
showing the four best apple varieties 
grown at Hampton Court
The elderly man, who’d spent his childhood among the clay-workers, also told me how in cold wet weather the skin on the clay-diggers’ hands would split open, leaving raw cracks deep enough to balance an old penny upright, a trick which was often demonstrated to horrified visitors in the pub who would reward the old workers with a pint of beer. Such details of the human cost can never be found in formal factory records.

I was reminded of his stories recently, when I attended an apple harvest celebration in Cornwall, where visitors were invited to sample the fruit from over fifty old varieties, once thought to be lost, but which are now carefully being nurtured again, not least to provide a vital gene bank of the old apple varieties which will be badly needed should new diseases attack our modern hybrid crops.

As I wandered among apples of all shapes and flavours with wonderful old names such as – Cornish Gilliflower, Count of Wick, Cat’s head, Ellison’s Orange, Pig’s Snout, Sops in wine, Fair Maid of Devon & Slack ma girdle – I was reminded that it is not just the gene-pool of plants and old rare breed animals we need to preserve for the future, but the old skills and knowledge of crafts, farming and industries as well, many of which, are fast disappearing.
Ellison's Orange growing at Barton on the Humber
Photographer: David Wright

At the same time, I was editing the book about the Humber, I had also volunteered for a project to record elderly people talking about their lives as farmers and craftsmen in times when everything was done by hand. The idea was a good one, to preserve their voices and their knowledge for future historians. But sadly, in a few short years, the machines on which those tape-recordings or floppy discs were made have become obsolete and many local libraries, archives and museums have thrown away the recordings, because they have no means of playing them. Only those memories were which transcribed and printed have survived, an invaluable resource for future historical novelists like me, and for any future generations who may need to relearn those vital skills.

In meantime, we must treasure the names of those long-vanished occupations, in the way we savour the taste of those old apples we came so close to losing forever. So, I leave you with just a few of my favourites –

Medieval Occupations during the farming year circa 1470-1475

Fripper – A person who bought and sold second-hand clothes, or a broker who lent money to those who pawned their clothes.

Gatward – goat herder

Mouldiwarp catcher – Mole catcher

Death hunter – A Victorian street pamphlet vendor who specialised in selling copies of salacious deathbed confessions, final speeches delivered from the gallows and lurid accounts of murders.

Escheater – someone who appropriated land for the king when the landowner died without an heir. Regarded by many as legalised theft, the title of the office gave rise to the word cheat.

Mueman – a maker of little cages for birds or small pet animals

Purefinder – a child or elderly person who collected dog dung from the streets to sell to leather tanners to treat hides before tanning in a process known as puering.

Saintier – a bell founder or maker of church bells.

Yowler – a 17th century assistant to a master thatcher, who handed him the yowles of straw.


Jean Gill said...

Informative and thought-provoking. I like the reminder to appreciate the history we're living amongst. This too will pass!

Leslie Wilson said...

How interesting!There was so much skill in sailing the old ships.

I know the term Purefinder; and did you know that white dog poos were particularly prized. The purefinders used to store the poos in their lodgings sometimes, till they had enough to take to the tanneries. Ugh!
I've had cat's head apples from the local fruit farm before it closed down, and I grow Cornish gillyflowers in my garden. They're a temperamental fruiter and you don't get many, but they taste wonderful. There is also Howgate Wonder, a delicious cooker which you can eat raw too, sweet but with an edge of tartness. We have a young tree of that, too. It's possible to get a lot of the heritage varieties to grow, and some, like Howgate Wonder, make very healthy, disease-resistant trees. I think the reason they have died out commercially is because nowadays people want apples that travel well and will last a long time on supermarket shelves. The Tydemans Early Worcester that we get fruit on from August to mid September definitely doesn't fit this bill!