Slaithwaite Notes: Past and Present (1905) - Chapter IX

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Chapter IX. Jacob

We left off with our little hero in the middle of the Tape Mill dam, all wet and struggling in the water and the sludge, for, the former being low, the latter was predominant, to the no small inconvenience of the lad, who had not only lost his faith, but had landed in a most uncomfortable position. However, he had to emerge as best he could, especially as the water had just been turned on to the wheel — a sure and certain sign for all hands to go aloft. Therefore there was nothing for it but go into the mill as soon as he could well gather himself together from his slough of despond. Behold him, then, ten minutes later, in the “Jenny-gate,” with nothing on but clogs, stockings, and shirt, with his master (for fun only) running round to a quick march, in which I joined in the chorus. The event had spread quickly, and brought his mother on the scene just on the point described. The old lady, only too glad to find that things were no worse, was not long in fetching his Sunday clothes, for he had only two suits, so the novelty was a day’s work in his best dress.

The father was one of the old sturdy Christians of that period, a leader at the Wesleyan Chapel, and afterwards a foremost reformer in the cause to which he devoted his life. The children’s children are at the chapel to-day, the best workers and most devoted members. The old Christians of the period were much too severe in their discipline; all meant for the best, no doubt, but it was at times harsh on the young. Jacob knew he had this to face at night when the father came home from the quarry, and it was the only cloud from which he feared a storm. But what mattered it: no great wrong had been done — no doubt a little indiscreet and somewhat foolish action, but surely this was not’ a crime for which a boy was to be hung. The old gentleman was very fair; he had dealt generously with him concerning that great fight with Billy o’ Binns.

This was a great event at the time, and was provoked by the insults and contumely of the young man named, who, working in the upper part of the factory, had, like the rest of them up there, a sort of contempt for the two lads who worked for Jack o’ th’ Hey in the bottom “hoil,” one of the worst rooms that ever mortal was placed in. There was the miserable water wheel to face you — cold, wet, dampy, musty, and dark — a hole for rats, with which we did battle with sticks and stones day through. The stench of the place too was enough to make a city ill. Thank God, there are no such places now, and the wonder is how we ever survived it.

Judge, then, how we resented the wordy insults, when so much bodily misery had to be borne every day. Add to this throwing stones, and calling us “Jack o’ th’ Hey’s rats” was more than we could swallow. So one day, the lads above us having not only thrown but hit us with various missiles, we fully resolved that we would stand it no longer, and Jacob boldly challenged the most aggressive. The news went round the mill like wildfire, for the lads at a factory are as fond of a fight as the boys are at a school, and when night came there was a general muster in the field called Blackmoor Holme, the fighting ground where all our disputes were finally settled. It was a lovely summer’s night; the days were long; hopes ran high; and the warmth of the night about equalled the tempers of the respective parties. Jacob had only one friend, and that was his humble companion, the friend of a life — the present writer, who stood by him in this the great hour of his trial and difficulty.

To do the other side justice, they did not take advantage of their numbers, and agreed to a fair fight, which was no mean thing, the conditions then being so brutal. Clogs, fists, and wrestling were all allowed. The preliminaries were soon gone through. The combatants did not strip, but rolled up their blue aprons tight round their bodies, and so arrayed they entered the ring with the impetuosity of two cocks, beginning to kick and wrestle for all they were worth, and kept at it until one or the other was beaten.

Many were the vicissitudes of that battle. First one and then the other had the advantage. The partisans cheered their respective candidates, until Jacob was fairly pronounced the victor after a good battle, in which wounds were about equally divided. The winner though had a black eye, and how to conceal it from the dear old dad was the only difficulty. These things were a horror to the religious soul of the parent, but he was a man whom the son could trust and honour. He would tell his father all and risk it, come what may. So, when night came, the painful ordeal had to be faced. The father and son met on the threshold. The son flushed, his face marked, and a black eye. “What now?” said the elder, looking like a storm. “Oh!” answered the younger, “ I have had a fight with a boy at the mill who bullied me, insulted me every day, called me names, and at last hit me. Father,” continued the honest lad, “I could not stand it any longer, and could not rest until I had thrashed him soundly for his impudence, and this is just what I have done, neither more nor less.” The dear mother had been an interested listener. Her heart had been touched by the manly recital of her son. With a tear in her eye, and another in her voice, she pleaded with her husband for mercy, appealing to what he would have done under similar circumstances, and asked the partner of her joys and sorrows (mostly the latter then for workers) if the action was not justifiable under all the provoking circumstances. The answer was a sort of dry cough, for he was human and touched: “Lads should love one another, and not fight at any time.” There were to be no more battles, and on these grounds he was let off.

Well, this was the kind of mercy he relied on from his father, not only on this wet occasion, but on many others, which some day may be related for the benefit of the young, to let them see, as it were, two worlds — the one they live in and that of the past — and compare the same with a view to useful lessons. Then, if wisely sifted, much good may be gained, besides glimpses of the past secured, which, little though they may be, might be lost for ever. This is the only plea of the writer, who finds now, unfortunately, more pleasure in the past than the future, but never loses hope in the latter, with which he is most anxious to keep in touch, and, if you like, mix the two for the benefit of both, as a sort of happy, harmless, and pleasant decoction. Though a dull picture badly painted, it will keep alive green memories, and be a record dear of transports past, perhaps never to return to one who treasures these things highly.

The reader will have no difficulty in finding out how easily Jacob got out of the wetting when he had fared so well with the fighting. There was a fatherly admonition, kindly advice, and a Christian commendation to the Lord to keep his sun in the paths of rectitude always.

Slaithwaite Notes: Past and Present (1905) by John Sugden