By Geoffrey Mather
The Lancashire of weft, warps and weavers was also where, if fun were not invented, it scarcely existed at all. Fun did not come down a wire or out of the sky and it was no worse for that. It lay in such things as running and jumping, wrestling and reading; in going to conversaziones (concerts: and whatever became of them?), in feats of various kinds - of eating prodigiously or fasting relentlessly - or wrestling bears at fairs (a Lancastrian who wrestled one such animal is alleged to have said, on being defeated, ‘I would have beaten yon mon if he’d taken his fur coat off’).
Newspapers reflected this fun, and they gave considerable space to Old Customs. As a trainee journalist on what was then called The Northern Daily Telegraph, I had a news editor named TC Colling, who employed me at £1 a week, but only after asking how many languages I spoke. I could speak two at the time: English and dialect, neither particularly well, but I said three, and included French, because my guess was that he would be either unable or unwilling to put me to the test. I was right.
I watched him mellowing and whitening down the years, and somewhere in this time he became an Old Customs man. He knew, as I knew, that people love old customs like they love their dogs. They harbour them in far-off recesses of the mind to be stroked in silent recollection, or in pub talk. Somewhere in old tin boxes, a man will keep yellowing cuttings of some claim, monstrous or otherwise.
TC’s name was Cuthbert, but he was never anything other than Mr Colling to everyone, including his second wife. In due time, he became a victim of mine. I had moved to the nationals and he still sat at his desk concerned with East Lancashire both past and present.
Old customs are minefields for the unwary. Consider treadling a goat, grain humping, huffling a pig, or going to watch a dancing troupe known as the Britannia Cocoanutters. It takes a clever, possibly a three-language, man to discern the true and false in them.
Treadling a goat is an invention of mine. There is no such thing. So is grain humping at Preston Docks. Huffling a pig... well, I am not sure about that. If you believe that Lancastrians in pubs kicked a pig around in stockinged feet then you believe in huffling. The Britannia Cocoanutters existed and, so far as I know, exist yet. They find pleasure in dancing around with blackened faces.
I had been bemused for some time by newspaper pictures of old men with big moustaches standing at the doors of butchers’ shops. The captions were similar: ‘Little would you guess that this is now where the new town hall stands,’ and so on. I wrote to TC a letter which went something like this:
“It has no doubt come to your notice that in the old days, there was a custom on Haslingden moors known as bunting, or treadling, a goat. You will remember it well. The idea was that you put a number of iron hoops in the ground and the first man to bunt, or treadle, a goat through all the hoops without the goat’s horns touching the tops or sides was awarded a hot barm cake and a pint of mulled ale.
“I well recall an old gentleman named John o’Jacks who was a champion bunter. One day he turned up for a match a bit the worse for drink, so that instead of bunting the goat, the goat bunted him. Laugh! We did laugh, sir! It so happens that I still have my old treadling irons and I thought you might like to look at them, but I would be much obliged if you could return them, as they are of great sentimental value.”
The treadling irons were, in fact, hoops from brewery barrels, large, ungainly things kindly provided by the then landlord, Bill Martland, of the Adelphi pub across the road from the newspaper office. I delivered them to the front counter and left them there. The letter bore a fictitious name and a non-existent address on Haslingden moor, which is vast and possibly uncharted. I then had the satisfaction of seeing my Old Custom printed in full and in black type and waited for years for it to appear in an authentic book on old Lancashire. It has not done so yet, and I am surprised. There’s time...
As for the hoops, I have no doubt that TC returned them and I had a vision of an old postman somewhere in the moorland grass, trudging about at the age of 103 wondering what in God’s name he was carrying on his back and trying to find an address totally unknown at the GPO. At this disastrously late stage, I apologise to him for involving him in something that was none of his business.
Being the inventor of an old custom gives one panache. I was encouraged by the experience and decided to take on another Old Customs expert employed by the same newspaper. Harry Kay, a man of great humour, had a column in which he frequently referred to a jumper named Jack Higgins.
Higgins was, indeed, a remarkable jumper. He could leap across a canal, put out a lighted candle floating in the middle with one foot, and land on the other bank without apparent effort. He could also jump over heaven-knows-how-many barrels, and there were pictures to prove it. One of these pictures was printed so many times that the metal block was almost worn away. The story always ended with the same words (since the story was never re-written): ‘He was a jumper was Jack Higgins.’
I thought we needed a new hero, so I wrote to Harry (a man with whom I drank, incidentally), in these terms:
“Whatever happened to the humpers at Preston Docks? Many’s the time I remember, as a child, seeing them carrying their huge sacks of grain from the cargo boats in endless procession, moaning their old Lancashire songs ... ‘Hook and carry, hook and carry.’ My old grandfather was one of the first humpers and the only man who could carry two sacks at one go. Hack was his name. Hack Jiggings. He was known far and near for his exploits among the humpers, and even at the age of 94 he was still to be seen humping his two sacks and moaning those old songs.
“Well, one day, he was humping and he went between the ship and dockside in an almighty splash, and some said it was the drink, and some said it was his age, but he never really got back into form again and he has gone into legend with others of his kind.”
The last sentence read, ‘He was a humper was Hack Jiggings.’
The whole letter was printed and not a word was said. Not one contradiction. I met Harry Kay in the pub some time later and he just stared at me, laughing gently. I suppose he guessed the truth, but he made no reference to it. It takes a gentleman to do that.
Geoffrey Mather, former assistant editor of the Daily Express in Manchester, joined the Accrington Observer for 12s 6d a week and was bought out by the Lancashire Evening Telegraph for £1 a week. The above is adapted from his book Tacklers' Tales (Carnegie), published in 1993, and still in print. Now he writes a regular column, often with news of old colleagues, on his own website, UK North Perspective: http://www.northtrek.co.uk/
Always worth a look.