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Wednesday, October 26, 2011


I have just been re-reading (for the nth time) this book by “Richard Hillyer”. The biography, to the age of about 17, of a boy born into a farm labouring family in 1901. Totally self educated, he managed to reach university and ended his long life (died 1980) as a Canon of Durham Cathedral having written a number of books. His real name was Charles James Stranks and the village he calls “Byfield” in the book is Hardwick in Buckinghamshire, UK.

Without sentiment or pastiche he brings out the grinding poverty of the farm labourer’s existence at the beginning of the last century – yet manages to convey the pride, courage and dignity which went with it. Elements of John Clare’s work come to mind.

It is available for a song on Amazon and worth every moment spent reading it. I thoroughly recommend it.

I was born in 1938 in a country village which had changed little from the years he describes. The Second World War was in progress as I became sentient to my surroundings. The young men had left the village to go to war. The dignified and respected elders, many with bishop-like mien, were left to labour on the farms. Tractors and fuel went to the war effort. The horse and cart ruled once more.

My maternal grandparents were farm workers, living in a tied cottage. With my own father away at the war I spent much of my time with my grandfather who was Horseman on that farm; a farm dedicated to fruit orchards, nut platts and some beef cattle; a horse and cart was ideal to thread its way through the orchards and along the narrow winding lanes between. The warm, sweet smell of hay in the horse stable comes to mind, as I write this.

Grandfather with "Duke" c. 1938

My first memory of release from my enclosed world was as a small boy of about 4, sitting on a folded sack on the edge of a cart, beside my grandfather as he took the horse about 3 miles to a village blacksmith for re-shoeing. It seemed to take for ever as we clopped along what is now a fast main road which I have since traversed, under power, in less than ten minutes.

Not all was good though. My grandfather caught a bad chill through being out in the rain and the farmer hounded him back to work too soon. This brought on pneumonia and he died in 1944, aged 54 (but will always be “ancient” to me). My grandmother had to leave the tied farm cottage within a month. Always a fighter, she had all the house contents taken to the village hall and auctioned them off. Then she entered service as a housekeeper, only retiring at 75 to come and live with my mother.

Like “Richard Hillyer” I came from such a background and attended the village school. Like him, my “prospects” would have been to enter a similar life had my mother not instilled a love of reading into me. Because of this I passed the exam to attend the local grammar school (the “11+”). There are those that denigrate grammar schools and this entry exam, but because of it I, a fairly poor country boy, was able to make my way in the world. I shall be forever grateful to her and that chance.


Kay McKenzie Cooke said...

Thanks for telling part of your story. Fascinating. I must look out for that book. I am into reading history lately. I love the photo of your grandfather with the horse. Such photos are precious treasures.

Barrett Bonden said...

Makes my middle-class suburban upbringing, two years older, seem dull and uncolourful. Perhaps that's why I enjoyed a longish spell of vandalism during the years 5 - 10. Vandalism was in the air, at the time, and on a much larger scale. If I were writing my memoirs I might say I was looking to get myself "thrown" (an important distinction between those who were merely escorted) into jail so there'd be meat for my CV.

The only overlap with you seems to be horse-drawn vehicles. Coal was delivered that way and that's how the rag-and-bone man arrived. But I have the imnpression other enterprises used them for transport. I can't remember what. Our street led off a steepish unmade access road. To prevent horse-drawn vehicles from running amok during the descent a metal shoe was placed under the cart's back wheel, turning it briefly into a very abrasive sledge. A good reason why that road's surface remained untarmacked for more than a decade after the war.

Avus said...

Thanks for calling by. Yes, do try to get the book, I am sure you will enjoy it - beautifully written.

"dull and uncolourful", eh? The Chinese have a saying (or curse) "may you live in interesting times".
Yet my Grandmother's distress and loss of all was the making of her in the end. She spent that last period of life working for grateful families (public school teachers), went on holidays with them and worked in Canada for a couple of years.
I well remember Grandad often fitting that metal shoe (the "sprag")under the cart wheel, since the farm was halfway up a hill. I guess it did not do the road surface much good, but they were in better condition than they are now.
Pot-holes and ruts were dealt with promptly by the parish "Roadman" who patrolled with his hand-cart and tools, clearing ditches, sweeping roads and mending holes with tarmac heated over his portable stove. Every parish had one then. Now we suffer from unkempt, littered verges and dire road surfaces. Progress.....?

Lucy said...

A vivid memoir, well worth waiting for!

Isabelle said...

Very interesting, both you and the book, which I shall read.

Very different from my upbringing not that many years later in a suburb of Edinburgh. We did have the occasional horse-drawn cart, though.

Avus said...

Yes, it's been a while since I published. A case of "blogger-block" I guess.

Good to hear from you again. Do get the book. It deserves to be read and his story remembered. I spent a good deal of time researching his background and am profoundly impressed with how a simple farm boy made his way to be a Canon of Durham.
After university he was, for many years a missionary in Japan, then a parish priest, then warden of a theological college.
What spark within inspired all this, I wonder?

herhimnbryn said...

... and so I guess, part of my history too.

I remember Nanny B working for Mr T. I think you took us to visit her once while she was there. She was indeed a determined woman.

Thankyou for introducing me to the book. Have read it twice now and the inside cover contains some of the stories of your childhood now too. x

Avus said...

Our English rural/family history on a bookshelf in rural Australia. Grandad would never have believed it!

Vita said...

Am mad about the Farmer's callus treatment of your grandparents. Just finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which reminds me of the farmer, and am reading Little Britches by Ralph Moody, which reminds me of your grandfather. You might like Little Britches, which is an autobiography. Immensely like photo of your grandfather and handsome horse.

Re BB and your reply, must say, Terry Pratchett wrote a whole book about Interesting Times.

Avus said...

Thanks for that. Yes, in those times the farmer held all the aces. The farm cottages were his and folk did as they were told or were turned out - no job, no home. A village may have had 4-5 farms and with all the farmers in cahoots it would be very difficult to get further work in that village.
Thanks for the recommendation of "Little Britches". I have ordered a copy through Amazon - it's coming from the US of A!

Vita said...

I just ordered Country Boy, the autobiography of Richard Hillyer, who isn't Richard Hillyer, from Amazon from Texas. When I finish reading it I'll pass it to Linda who loaned me Little Britches.

Avus said...


I hope you enjoy it and would appreciate your comments once you have read it.

Little Britches arrived t'other day and I will read it over Christmas

Lorenzo da Ponte said...

October 27 (when I last commented here) seems like an age ago since in the interim I have undergone a nationality transplant. Never mind, like a simmering volcano, you do me the honour of erupting every so often in Tone Deaf and I will get around to listening to The Great Miserabilist and report. In fact you aren't the only one to have urged me to bend an ear in his direction. My best wishes to you and the missus. The only person I know (that's you not her) who has something good to say about the BSA Bantam, the dustbin-faired Velocette and the Austin Cambridge. Ah, the power of sentiment.