Heroes do not all come from the wealthy and great. Oh, no; the cottage as well as the hall are regularly supplying bright specimens. Neither are deeds of valour, the achievements in art or development of wealth, the only things which constitute worth and distinction. They have all their degrees, and this time let us take example from the struggling workers who for a lifetime fought blindness with a zeal and success quite praiseworthy. The lads named above were the sons of Mr. T. Walker, Scarr Hall, a slubber at Tape Mill, under Mr. John Horsfall, in the best days of this old Slaithwaite firm. The father was an honest hard worker, with a large family of three boys and a number of girls. The latter were bright and intelligent, well brought up by a good mother, and attached to the Wesleyan Chapel. The dear old creature was so quiet that she was beloved by everybody. She had one great sorrow, which stamped itself on her existence. It was always present, and considerably oppressed her, but she struggled bravely with it, and as far as possible kept it from the afflicted sons, who were unfortunately born very short-sighted — in fact, nearly blind. It was a terrible misfortune to face, but for the sake of the dear ones she never complained, but made their lives cheerful, their surroundings happy, and their hopes as bright as circumstances would permit. Unfortunately there was no school for the blind in and about Slaithwaite, so of education they had none. Food and comforts at home the old birds always provided, and when the lads got bigger they took to the only trade there was for them, and that was driving what were called Midgley’s donkeys, belonging to Messrs. J. and I. Sykes, the old coal dealers, between the hump-backed bridges on the banks of the canal, on which they had boats, and in which they brought house coal and distributed the same largely by the above said process. These teams of donkeys were then a study. Some of the best animals in the kingdom could be found here, and their services were valuable, for roads were none too good. Distances were great and the pay very small both for boy and beast, still everybody seemed only too willing to give a helping hand to the three dark brothers, who were heroically trying to make an honest living rather than go to the overseer for relief. It is wonderful how kind the poor are with one another when misfortune overtakes one of their order, and it is here that greatness of character comes in, which was mentioned at the beginning of this chapter.
To-day — without the least disrespect to the rich, may I say? — if I were begging on the road, sad to relate, if I wanted a crust of bread, I think it would come more freely from the cottage of the poor than from the mansions of the great; though, truth to be told, the latter are not wanting when true charity is required. My dear mother — and I must be pardoned if I have told this story before — made a practice of serving all beggars; a foolish thing to do on the off chance. She, poor thing, said that if any of her boys were starving some poor soul would take pity and give them the return crumb — which she could so ill spare at that time from her humble cottage home.
This kind of thing is what this chapter means in making out nature’s heroism in humble life, and by the manly and womanly way they meet and successfully overcome sorrow and distress. In this sense these lads deserve well of their order for the honest efforts they made to support them, selves; but greatest of all was their natural talent for music, which, untaught, they developed with great success. Loss of sight by a wise providence seems to be compensated by the greater brilliance given to the ear; but, still, what a calamity when it is “all dark amid the blaze of noon”! What those who can see have to be thankful for, and what those in need of this splendid faculty have to mourn! Yet it did not bother them. They made the best of it, always remembering that in one way or the other the Lord would provide. Johnny, the elder, had a violin given to him early in life, and, self-taught, in time became very proficient, and was in requisition at all the neighbouring feasts, fairs, and dances. At the classes taught for the latter he was the never-failing fiddler to supply the tunes. Al feasts and fairs he was a great draw, because in addition to his ability with the strings he had a fair voice, and could sing a good song to his own accompaniment; until at last, too soon, after a long number of years of great usefulness, one fatal Slaithwaite Feast Sunday he was taken to Broad Fields and there ate some raw gooseberries, which gave him a violent attack of cholera and laid him low in a few hours. Thus Slaithwaite lost its blind idol with sympathetic regret.
Billy could play no instrument, but he was the best of them as a singer, and, accompanied by his brother, it was a real treat to hear them at the Star Hotel giving their musical concerts to appreciative neighbours and friends. He dearly loved a song with a good chorus, in which the company could join with a right hearty goodwill, and was also great in a piece where talking was introduced. He lived a fair time, and was honoured in his death.
Now comes the last, poor Neddy. Who has not heard him with his concertina and his songs? — a treat in either, and a charm when combined. He, too, was in great request at public-houses and at dances. What a friend he had in the then genial host, Mr. G. H. Walker, of the Commercial Inn, when this gentleman kept this popular hostelry. At Linthwaite, too, he was a great favourite, and went there up to the time of his death. For years he had not been over well, and kind friends had often helped to smooth his suffering life, and now when he is gone the public have come to the rescue with a gala, which, it is pleasing to know, has realised a fair sum of money, and if not enough, let them try again. There is plenty of music in the Colne Valley to help a fallen brother, a public spirit which will not let those suffer who are left behind, and that strong appreciation of merit and ability to do justice to the memory of the last of the three little heroes.
Slaithwaite Notes: Past and Present (1905) by John Sugden