Here’s a welcome to the busting-out-all-over month of June. As you know, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. An ache for home according to the Greeks, and perfectly understandable if you were in your tenth year of the Siege of Troy. Can you have nostalgia for things you neither remember nor experienced personally? I think so. You may feel nostalgic for what might have been, rather than what was, but does that matter? When I lived in Sussex in the 70s Uckfield was still a quaintish town with characters who would not have been out of place in The Wurzels’ line-up. I knew chaps who could not read or write, and who had never seen a red bus. They were farm labourers, fencers, jobbers, handymen, plumbers. Down at the rugby club I was the one considered rather odd. As one of the local lads told me: “You’ve god a corrrny ole sense o’humour, Bassman.” One vestige of the old days still to be experienced was the sheep dog trials. This was around the time that “One man and his dog” started on television. 8 million viewers at its peak. I became quite interested in the sheep business and in the local history. I can’t really explain why I acquired an old sheep crook and shears. I was never going to use them. Just to touch the past, I suppose. I think we all have a folk memory of how hard times past were, but there were moments of levity, and – lots of beer-drinking. Maybe it is just about possible to argue that life on the land had more to offer than the factory or foundry. I wouldn’t really dare to presume or pronounce. Nevertheless, I think that the surroundings of the South Downs produced men who had a feel for the spirit of the place. I imagine that this was recognised by the Army which of course used to run a regimental system of locally-recruited men of the Shires. One of the old families are the Coppers of Rottingdean. I bought a copy of Bob Copper’s book “A song for every season” in the early 70s and it cemented all the feelings I thought I had about our dear old country. The Coppers were men of the land who even in the terms of the day worked hard and played hard. Bob’s grandfather and father were responsible for a body of old – and some ancient – remembered songs being collected and recorded by the folklorists. The legacy is beyond price, especially when our own times seem to be hell bent on producing a counterfeit version of history. Bob came in towards the end of a thousand years of husbandry practices, and the sheep pastures were disappearing under housing estates. As Bob’s father observed “All you can see is houses, houses, houses. It makes me prostrate with dismal, it’s neither begun nor finished.” Yes, indeed.
Bob Copper’s book (subtitle: “A hundred years of a Sussex farming family”) takes each month of the year and, with the prompt of a suitable old song, describes the activities on the land. Let’s have a look at June. The main event is – sheep shearing. Now, we are used to thinking that sheep shearing is the province of rowdy gangs of Australians, but in those old days it was the custom for the best local shearers to band together and go on tour round the farms to ply their trade. While we are on the subject of Aussies, “dunnock” is an old Sussex word for toilet. None of your “dunny.” I digress. Shearing was a time for backbreaking hard work. All the sheep had to be dipped or washed ready for the cut. Bob avows that in fact really good shearers were few and far between. His Uncle Tommy was a celebrated captain of the “Brookside Shearers”, who worked from Newhaven to Lewes. As captain he wore a hat with two stars, his lieutenant one. A dozen or so handpicked shearers made up the crew along with a wool winder and a tar boy. Cuts had to be treated to stop bleeding and prevent fly infection. Incidentally (another digression) do you recall Call My Bluff, a panel game involving offering three definitions to an obscure word, two of which were false. In its early innocent days a team captain was Patrick Campbell, who had a not-unpleasant stammer. Imagine that now? Anyway, it was noteworthy how many times the obscure word turned out to be a disease of sheep. Poor old ruminants. Captain Tommy organised each aspect of the tour – dates of farm visits, size of flocks, rates of pay and – crucially – estimating the quantity of beer required. He would act as treasurer. What was the workload? Bob was once told that “If you shear forty ship in a day you’re doin’ all right, but I ‘ave shore fifty.” Having been in possession of an old pair of shears I can’t even begin to see how they did it. They were able to choose their weapon before the campaign started, but the cost came out of their wages (3/9 per pair). The repetitive strain pre-power driven clippers must have been considerable. Bob’s book details workloads elsewhere on the farm and we can only conclude that the men must have simply been far stronger than the average these days.
The crew would meet up in a pub to discuss tactics on what was called White Ram Night. The pub in question was the Red, White and Blue Inn at Lewes, just a few doors from where I used to live. Long gone as a pub, unfortunately, but its characteristic green tiling still exists. The chaps would be fined for various misdemeanours on tour, such as leaving wool the size of a shilling on a sheep (bit harsh, that), but all proceeds would go to a shearing supper held on the Saturday after completion of the job, called, er, Black Ram Night. The crew would simply walk from farm to farm, often five miles after work to be ready for an early start next day. They would be put up in the barn with clean straw and a barrel of beer in the corner. They would bring as many sheep as possible into the barn because you cannot shear wet wool, whether from rain or dew. Rising about 4am the men would don their boots, sluice themselves in the horse trough, and get stuck in. They would stop every two hours or so to sharpen the shears, smoke a pipe and have a pint. In the evening they would break at 6pm for bait, often raiding local gardens for a lettuce or two to supplement the bread and cheese – “Joe and ‘Arry.” Work could then go on till as late as 10pm to finish the job by candlelight. A final pint and a smoke of black-shag tobacco, and a few songs. On the final day the allotted farm would hold the largest flock, and the tar boy would be sent to the village store for a bottle of gin (2/6) which would be tipped into the beer. Not sure about that, myself, but they knew best. Wages would be paid out on Black Ram Night. The shearers might have clocked up £60, but half of it might already have been drawn. The fines were handed over to the pub landlord, so with beer at 1/4 per gallon and whisky at three bob there was definitely going to be good cheer. Every song a drink was the rule.
O, a half a pint of Burton
Won’t hurt’n if I’m certain
O, half a pint of Burton won’t hurt’n I’m sure
It’s beginning to sound like a rugby tour but with added backbreaking work. Lots of japes and drinking games, roisterous but never rowdy. Singers were accorded absolute silence till the chorus. A document in a Falmer pub from 1828 shows that the shearers’ conditions were much the same then except wages were lower and singing and smoking frowned on. At least that changed for the better as the century wore on. It was all a matter of very hard, thirsty work.
The way of life just faded away along with all the memorable characters. It just couldn’t stand. Bob’s father carefully costed the running of a large farming machine after the First World War and it came in cheaper than a team of horses. The Copper family remains in great fettle, however, and still performs gigs with the current crop of family members. I don’t pine to have been a labourer from those times, but I do yearn for a world where the Downs kept 200,000 sheep and a man had his own space and more in that world. I remember an interview with Bob where he recounts a typical scene from his parents’ time: father “That’s old Smudger’s cart going by.” Ten minutes later: mother “That’s never Smudger. It’s Sham the bookie.” Ten minutes later, grandpa interjects “Too much argifying. Better have a song.” It sums up a world, hard but simple and comfortable, tuned to the changes of season unfettered by our modern obsession with timeliness and on a very human scale. Nostalgia? Yes, I think so.
The book is still available and there is a lot of material on You Tube.
Words and songs from the Coppers. The June sheep shearing song is at 45 mins.
© Bassman 2021
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file