The Life and Times of Eccentric Yorkshiremen

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Apart from our awed reverence for all things Harrison — and the Mighty Whites — we bonded over a shared love for one of the few rugby league players to turn his hands to art. Possibly the only one. Born in Wakefield, this burly son of a Yorkshire miner studied fine art at the Slade school in London during the week — and at the weekend played rugby league for Leeds RL, as they were then known.

Both works viewed the oval-ball game as a metaphor for identity, community and belonging. Jonny told me that when he appeared in The Changing Room, Storey gave him, and all the other actors in the ensemble, a beautifully-drawn portrait of his own character in the play. The art world has often displayed an unsavoury snobbery towards working-class football and rugby players who spread their wings in this way.

I remember a Monty Python sketch about goalkeepers feeling moved to write poetry about the Yangtse river. It was supposed to be hilarious. When French striker Eric Cantona signed for Leeds United back in the early s, manager Howard Wilkinson was mocked by some broadsheet scribes for suggesting why they might get on. Finding his master's spectacles on the desk one day, Jemmy unscrewed them, and removed the glasses. When the Principal came in, he gravely took up the spectacles and put them on. Finding them dim, he removed them.

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When he was seen demurely to wipe where the glasses had been, and then, with his fingers through the rims, to hold them up to his eyes to see what was the matter, the whole school burst out laughing. The pedagogue demanded the name of the culprit. Jemmy had not the honesty or courage to proclaim himself the author of the trick, and the whole school was whipped accordingly. Jemmy turned out of bed and went outside the door, waited a minute, and then came into the dormitory again. Tom, thou'rt in for it. Thou mun go at once to Lovell for having made an April fool of him and me.

Perhaps you can understand the moral of it now. The Principal kept an old sow. Jemmy used to get on her back, tie a piece of twine—"band" a Yorkshire boy would call it—to the ring in her snout, run a nail through the heel of his boot to act as spur, and gallop the old sow round the yard. This was often performed with impunity, but not always.

The master saw him from his window one morning as he was shaving, and rushed down with a horse-whip in his hand. Jemmy was careering joyously round and round the yard when a crack of the lash across his back dislodged him. He was fed next day on bread and water as a punishment. One night Jemmy and some of his schoolmates got out of the house with intent to rob an orchard.

But one of the day scholars had overheard the boarders planning the raid, and he informed the farmer whose orchard it was purposed to rob, and he was on the look-out for the young rogues. When they arrived he suffered one of them—it was Jemmy—to climb an apple-tree without molestation, but then he rushed forth from his hiding-place and laid about him with a carter's whip with hearty good-will. The farmer went under the tree and shouted to him, "Come down, you young rascal!

I'll strap thee! It's like I should come down to get a whipping, isn't it? The man, highly irate, began to climb the tree after him. Jem remained composedly eating till the farmer was within reach of him, and then he drew a cornet of pepper from his pocket and dusted it into the eyes of his pursuer. The man, half-blinded, desisted from his attempts to catch the boy, in his efforts to clear his eyes, and Jemmy slipt past him down the tree and escaped. Next day the farmer came to the school to complain, and Jemmy received thirty strokes on his back with the birch.

At school hour the master came in, and seated himself in his chair with his usual gravity. But suddenly up he bounded like a rocket; then turned and examined the cushion, very red in the face. The cushion seemed all right when he felt it with his hand, so he sat himself down on it again, but this time much more leisurely. No sooner, however, was his weight on it than up came the needle again, and with it up bounded the master.

If so, thou'd better run two or three times round t' school yard; I did so yesterday to work t' birch buds out o' my flesh. But little Hirst always retaliated in some way. The master used to walk up and down in the evening in the yard behind the school. He wore a foxy wig. Jemmy one evening went into the study where Mr.

Lovell kept his fishing tackle, for he was fond of angling. The window was open; Jemmy cast the hook, as for a fish, and caught the little fox-coloured wig. Then leaving the rod in the window, and the head of hair dangling above the master's reach, he ran down into the school. The Principal was therefore obliged to go upstairs with bald head to his study to recover his wig. This final act of insubordination was too much for Mr.


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Lovell—it touched him in his tenderest point; and he wrote to Mr. Hirst to request him to remove the unmanageable boy from his school. He was fourteen years old when his father took him away, and was little advanced in his learning. Every prospect of his going into the Church was abandoned, but what trade or profession he was qualified for was as yet undecided.

His father wanted to put him to school again, but Jemmy so steadily and doggedly persisted in his refusal to go to another, that his indulgent father ceased to press it. The boy showed no inclination for farming, and no persuasion of his father could induce him to take a farming implement in his hands to work with. His chief pleasure consisted in teaching pigs and calves to jump.

Hirst had a friend at Rawcliffe, a tanner, and this friend persuaded Mr. Hirst to bind Jemmy apprentice to him; and as the boy showed no disinclination to the trade, he was bound to the tanner for seven years. An incident occurred three years after he had entered the tanner's house which tended to cement this attachment closer. Mary went one Saturday to spend the day with an aunt living at Barnsley. Jemmy ferried her over the river in a boat belonging to the tanner, and promised to fetch her in the evening. Accordingly, towards nightfall, he crossed the river, and made his boat fast to a stake, and then walked to Barnsley to meet the young girl.

Mary met him with her usual smile, and tripped by his side to the boat, but in stepping into it her foot slipped, and she was swept down by the current.

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Jemmy instantly leaped overboard, swam after her, overtook her before she sank, and supporting her with one arm, succeeded in bringing her ashore, where several persons who had witnessed the accident were assembled to assist and receive her. Mary's parents showed Jemmy much gratitude for his courageous conduct in saving her life, and the girl clung to him with intense affection; whilst Jemmy, who seemed to think he had acquired some right over her by his having saved her life, was never happy unless he was by her side.

They were always together. She would steal in to do her needlework in the place where he was engaged in his trade, and when work was over they were together walking in the lanes and fields. But in the midst of this happiness a stroke fell on them which for ever altered the tenor of Jemmy's life. Mary fell ill with small-pox.

The whole time of her illness he never slept, and could scarcely be induced to leave her side for his meals. On the fifth day she died. The blow was more than Jemmy could bear, and he was prostrated with brain-fever. That the poor boy had naturally very deep feelings is evident from his having, some few years before, been laid up with fever when his mother died. Hearing of her death whilst he was at school, he became ill and was removed home, where it was some time before he got over the shock.

Mary had taken the place in his vacant heart formerly occupied by his mother, and with years the strength of his feelings had increased. Consequently the loss of Mary affected him even more than that of his mother. In his brain fever he raved incessantly of the poor dead girl, and for several weeks his life was despaired of. By degrees he slowly recovered; but for some time it was feared that his reason was gone. At the end of six or seven months he was able to take a little exercise without attendance; but, as will be seen, he never wholly recovered the blow, and his conduct thenceforth was so eccentric that there can be no doubt his brain was affected.

He left the tanner's, abandoned the trade, and returned to his father's house, where he idled, preying on his fancies—one day in mad, exuberant spirits, the next overwhelmed with despondency. When aged five-and-twenty he took a fancy to a fine bull-calf belonging to his father, which he called "Jupiter," and he began to train it to perform various tricks, and to break it to bear the saddle.

Jemmy next ventured to mount his back.


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  • The young bull stood for a minute or two, as his father said, "right down stagnated," and then began to plunge and kick. Jemmy held fast, and Jupiter, finding he could not thus dislodge his rider, set off, tearing across the paddock towards a thick quickset hedge at the bottom. But instead of leaping it, as Jemmy expected, the bull ran against the fence, and precipitated his rider over the hedge into the ditch on the further side.

    Jemmy was unhurt, except for a few scratches and some rents in his garments, and patches of mud, and picking himself up, raced after Jupiter, nothing daunted, caught him, and remounting him, mastered the beast. After this he rode Jupiter daily, to the great amusement of people generally, especially when he trotted into Snaith on market-days on the back of the now docile bull.

    The farm he gave up, having no taste for agriculture, and he took a house on the bank of the river, not far from his old master's the tanner. The house had a few acres of land attached to it, which he cultivated. The old housekeeper, who had known him since a child, followed him to his new home; and in his stable was a stall for Jupiter. He began to speculate in corn, flax, and potatoes, and having considerable natural shrewdness underlying his eccentric manners, he managed to realise enough to support himself comfortably.

    He rode out with Lord Beaumont's foxhounds, always on Jupiter, who was trained to jump as well as to run. His dress was as extraordinary as his mount, for he wore a broad-brimmed hat of lambskin, fully nine feet in circumference; his waistcoat was like Joseph's coat of many colours, made of patchwork; his breeches were of listings of various colours, plaited together by his housekeeper; and he wore yellow boots. Though Jupiter could keep up with the foxhunters for a few miles, his powers of endurance were not so great as those of a horse, and he began to lag.

    Lord Beaumont would pass Jemmy, and say, "Come, Mr. Hirst, you will not be in at the death. Lord Beaumont always took the hint and invited him to Carlton House to the hunting dinner. His Lordship had a nephew visiting him on one occasion, a London exquisite, who thought he could amuse himself at Jemmy's expense. One day at the meet this young man said to Captain Bolton, "Let us quiz the old fellow.

    When Jemmy came up, the young dandy, bowing to him on his saddle, said, "I wish you a good morning, Joseph. As I wor a-coming up, says I to mysen, 'You're a gentleman. It was agreed amongst them, unknown to Jemmy, that he should be let into a scrape, if possible. Accordingly, after the start, Lord Wharncliffe kept near him, and led him into a field surrounded by a low, thick hedge—low enough for Jupiter to clear without any trouble.

    On the other side of the hedge in one place there was a drinking-pond for the cattle, five or six feet deep, and full of water at the time. Lord Wharncliffe kept close by Jemmy, and edged towards where the pond was; and then, putting spurs to his horse, he leaped the fence, and Jemmy did the same to Jupiter, and clearing the hedge in gallant style, came splashing into the water, and rolled off Jupiter. Lord Wharncliffe, when he saw Jemmy fairly in the middle of the pond, turned back, and alighted, in order to assist him out of the water. He found him half blinded with mud and dirt, trying to scramble out, his clothes completely saturated.

    Jemmy managed to get out without assistance, but it was some time before their united efforts could extricate Jupiter. Lord Beaumont offered Jemmy a change of clothes if he would go to his house, but he would not hear of the proposal, declaring he would see the day's sport over first; and so they rode on together towards the rest of the party, who were halted near Rawcliffe Wood. The fox had been caught after a short run, and the huntsmen were already beating after another.

    Jemmy was greeted with a general titter. Captain Bolton laughed out, and said, "Why, Jemmy, you've been fishing, not hunting. What have you caught? Jemmy looked hard at him—he was in no good humour after his plunge—and said, "I reckon there's a flat fish I know of that I'll catch some day. You've taken the shine out of your smart clothes to-day, Jemmy. Did you say your prayers in it? Jemmy soon saw that he had been the victim of a planned trick, and he determined to have his revenge. He did not carry his purpose into execution at once, lest he should arouse suspicion, but about a month afterwards, when in company with Lord Wharncliffe, he adroitly let drop that he had seen a number of snipe on Rawcliffe moor.

    This moor, now enclosed, was then a wide, open common, full of marshy places, and with here and there bogs covered with a little green moss, deep holes full of peat water, not to be discerned except by those who were well acquainted with them and the treacherousness of their bright green covering. Lord Wharncliffe, Captain Bolton, and some others, made up a party to shoot on the common the following day, and met Jemmy, who undertook to show them where the snipe most congregated.

    They had a good day's sport, and when it fell dusk were returning home, Jemmy beside Lord Wharncliffe, whom he engaged in conversation, and Captain Bolton, with his gun over his shoulder, immediately behind, joining in the conversation at intervals. The moss at once yielded, and both sank to their breasts, and only kept their heads above water by spreading out their arms on the moss.

    In this condition they were perfectly helpless. To struggle was to endanger their lives, for if the web of moss were torn, they must infallibly sink beneath it. He held out his gun to Lord Wharncliffe, and assisted him from the hole. Hirst, I shall take care how I play with edged tools again. But I think it is too bad of you to punish Captain Bolton as well as me. I've no doubt it gives him a deal o' pleasure. As he was helping Captain Bolton out with his gun he said drily, "Sure it's a rare funny sight to see a queer sole angling for a flat fish. The immersed man little enjoyed the jokes at his expense, and he swore at Jemmy.

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    Shall I fling him in again, my lord? He's nowt but what folks would call a little common-place. Having made money by his speculations in corn and potatoes, he resolved to retire from business. He was now forty-five years old. An inactive life, however, did not suit him, so he turned his mind to mechanics, and made several curious contrivances, some useful. He constructed a windmill to thrash corn, but for this purpose it did not answer, though it served for cutting up straw and chopping turnips. His next contrivance was a carriage, the body of which was made of wickerwork.

    It cost him a year's constant application to finish it, and when completed it was calculated to cause a sensation. It was a huge palanquin, with a top like an exaggerated Chinaman's hat, supported on four iron rods, which were screwed into the shafts, the shafts running the whole length of the carriage, and resting on springs connected with the axle of the wheels.

    The sides and back of the carriage were made of wickerwork matting. The axle-case was faced with a clock dial with numbers, and hands connected with a piece of ingenious mechanism, afterwards perfected and patented by another person, which told the distance the carriage had gone by measuring the number of rotations made by the wheels.

    Jemmy used for his hunting-suit a lambskin hat, a rabbit-skin jacket, a waistcoat made of the skins of drakes' necks with the feathers on, a pair of list breeches, yellow, blue, black, and red, stockings of red and white worsted, and yellow boots. Instead of pictures, the walls were hung round with bits of old iron and coils of rope; in one place an old frying-pan, in another a rusty sword, a piece of a chair, or a jug. One evening, after a day's sport, he invited the party to join him for a social evening, and the offer was eagerly accepted, as every one was curious to see the interior of his house.

    He gave them a very fair entertainment, and amused them all the evening with his jokes. Immediately over Lord Wharncliffe's head was suspended a pair of horse's blinkers. The young man was so offended that he demanded satisfaction for the insult. The company tried hard to pacify him, but in vain. Jemmy then whispered in Lord Wharncliffe's ear, and the latter immediately rose from the table, and said, "Now, gentlemen, Mr. Hirst is quite willing to give Mr. Sadler that satisfaction he desires. He has requested my services as second. I have granted his wish.

    As soon as Mr. Sadler can arrange with any gentleman to act as his second, I shall be happy to arrange preliminaries with him. Sadler having chosen a second, the belligerents were desired to leave the room for a few moments until arrangements had been made for the duel. Sadler into the other room, and take a bottle of wine with you; get him to drink as much as possible, and we will manage to make the affair end in fun. The gentleman did as desired.

    Then Lord Wharncliffe and Jemmy, slipping in by another door, proceeded to dress up a dummy that was in a closet hard by in Jemmy's clothes. Sadler was then told that all was ready, and he returned into the room rather the worse for the liquor he had drunk. The pistol was put into his hand, and he was stationed opposite the dummy, which with outstretched arm pointed a pistol at him.

    The signal was given, and Mr. Sadler fired; then Jemmy, who was secreted in a closet hard by, pulled a string, and the dummy fell with a heavy thud upon the floor. Sadler, who thought he had killed his antagonist, was sobered instantly, and was filled with remorse and fear. He rushed to the dead man and then towards the door, then back to the corpse to see if life were quite extinct.

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    Then only, to his great relief, he found that the supposed dead man was made of wood. The company burst into a roar of laughter, and when he had sufficiently recovered from his bewilderment he joined heartily in the mirth raised at his own expense. Jemmy, emerging from his place of concealment, apologised for the offence he had given, and both shook hands. The carouse was renewed with fresh vigour, and the sun had risen an hour before the party broke up, and its members unsteadily wended their way homewards.

    Jemmy had bought a litter of pigs, and entertained the idea of teaching them to act as setters in his shooting expeditions, and therefore spent a considerable time every day in training them. But he never could induce them to desist from grunting. It was impossible to make them control their emotions sufficiently to keep quiet, and this inveterate habit of course spoiled them as setters.

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    When the litter was about six months old, one of the little pigs discovered his potato garden, and that by putting its snout under the lowest bar of the gate it could lift the gate so that the latch was disengaged from the catch, and the gate swung open; by this means the pig was able to get to the roots. Hirst saw the pig do this several times, and he determined to stop the little game.

    He therefore ground the blade of a scythe, and fixed it, with the sharp edge downwards, to the lower bar. Shortly after, Jemmy saw the pig go to the gate, but in lifting it off the hasp the scythe-blade cut the end of the snout off. Jemmy burst out laughing, and called his old housekeeper to see the fun; but old Sarah was more compassionate than her master, and begged him to kill the pig and put it out of its pain. The carriage did not altogether satisfy Jemmy; he therefore enlarged it to double its former size.


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