To change the subject for once, I never knew Slaithwaite at any time have more than one acrobat, and that was Mr. Whiteley, commonly called “Crafty” on account of his smartness, agility, and native wit. He went to all the feasts and fairs, being highly appreciated and largely patronised by the general public, with whom he was a favourite. Sometimes in mid-winter, under depressing circumstances, he would come home to rest and refresh. He lived down Laith Lane, past A. Hall’s, where he would often practise (not to the glory of his neighbours) on the drum and the shepherd’s reeds, two dear instruments which strongly appealed to my youthful imagination; and to-day there is never a Punch and Judy show within my observation but secures my patronage and support, especially if the performer has on a bulged white hat, a long-tailed and tattered coat, with the usual fittings up to the throat for the reed. Altogether this has a charm it is impossible to resist, and which no correct and modern music can surpass, associated as these things are in my memory with Mr. Whiteley; in fact, so strongly did he appeal to my imagination that no greater ambition possessed me than to be apprenticed to him to learn the glorious profession. Since then that idol has been shattered, but the memory of these things is still fondly dear, even here and now, carrying me back fifty years to the Slaithwaite Feast of that far-back period. Then, and up to ten years ago, these feasts were the best in the neighbourhood, visitors coming from all the surrounding districts to swell the village throng. At that time they were held at the Star Hotel, in the croft, and on the Manchester Road side, making a lively scene never to be erased from the earliest impressions of one’s young life. All the week previous, shows, stalls, and the paraphernalia of these things had come by road. As the reader will understand, there was no railway. Dogs were largely used to draw the light carts. I have seen the same in Germany since; and downhill they went like the wind, their drivers indulging in as much chaff as it they had been going to a modern Derby. Behold them on the Monday in all the pomp and pride of their high calling. The circus in the croft; for a hand a clarionet and a trombone, both of which had done long service. It did not ravish the ear with sweetness, but then the performance was good, and this made up. Next to that was Whiteley’s, in the best part of the field, for, being a native, he was favoured. He had a clever boy and a finer girl, who went to London afterwards into a good position, for which she had a special training as a splendid horsewoman. But it was the reed and the drum that carried one away and lives longest. The dolls, as they were called then (marionettes), were very well managed by a gentleman from Paddock, in the cottage now occupied by Mr. H. Shaw. Near to was old Nicholson, who used to balance on his chin a ladder, on which he perched a young donkey: and the dear old partner of his joys and sorrows (very likely more of the latter) used to conjure cleverly. Further on the road would be a wild beast show, then much in go — a sort of aristocratic establishment, better off than the rest in horses, wagons, equipments, band, etc. But the caravan where they spun glass into fancy articles had a pig to tell fortunes, and a small tunnel from which, on applying it to any part of your body, they extracted water was a marvel to the uninitiated. But the outside attractions to this exhibition were wonderful. An old man in rags and tatters — instrument, drum, music, and all. Was he not a study? If the music was not all it should be, who could grumble? He did his best, and earned more than he seemed to get. Then there was the man in the street. Who more jovial and genial a character than Joshua Cock? Whoever honestly gave more for the money? A stick and a glass for a halfpenny, with a tune thrown into the bargain. Sam Whiteley was a noted character at the Star door, with the best nuts and snap in the fair, together with dolls, toys, fruits, the spinners, etc. These latter were a delusion and a snare, robbing the children of their pennies on the red and grey cocks. About seven o’clock in the evening of an early autumn day, was it not a busy saturnalia? The road packed and public-houses full; especially the Star long chamber, where the single-step dancers were to be seen. Any young fellow could dance then. At feast-time he went with his girl to display his talents, which were very great in this direction, and which now is an almost, lost art oft’ the regular stage. Did I say his girl?’ Yes; the most modest were allowed by the etiquette of the times to go with her young man once a year to the public-house. The feast at that time lasted two days. After these two days the showmen would all fold their tents and go away, except “Crafty.” This favourite stayed on for the week; and rare fun there was. Prizes would be given for eating hot porridge, and many scalded mouths have I seen by the foolish vigour of the contestants in too eagerly attacking the boiling beverage. To vary this, a prize pig would be offered, to run in with the evening’s entertainment, which was enlivened and diversified by the smart sayings of Whiteley, who was no mean clown and wit. One of his stories I remember well, but it did not go down, because it referred to an age long passed and to habits not followed by the present generation. It was this, and told against himself and his native village, viz.: That once, whilst performing in Sheffield, he (“Crafty”) told the audience he came from Slaithwaite, whereupon they promptly informed him that he was a d— thief. “Then you may bet,” said he, “I never told that again, as I did not wish to injure myself or stain the fair fame of the town I loved so well.” He came home to die, and Slaithwaite harbours his remains after the many ups and downs on the troubled sea of a showman’s life. Green be his memory, peaceful his ashes; and as he crossed the bar let us hope he met the Pilot face to face.
Slaithwaite Notes: Past and Present (1905) by John Sugden