Picture of Henry Broadhurst

Henry Broadhurst

places mentioned

Blacksmith's Forge and Stonemason's Bench

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I WAS born in the parish of Littlemore, near the city of Oxford, in the month of April, 1840. My father was a journeyman stonemason with a large family, of which I made the eleventh or twelfth member. Our cottage, which stood sonic distance from the village, was the largest of a group of three, the two smaller lying at the hack after the style of an old-fashioned pigeon-cote. In the dark and dreary months of winter, stoats, weasels, and field-mice abounded in the surrounding fields, and my earliest recollections are full of the keen delight which we children took in the untrammelled life of the fields and orchards and brooks. Chief among our pastimes we reckoned a hedgehog hunt, in which we felt a keener zest because of the reward gained from the sale of its quills. Money was scarce enough to make such considerations of value, for the wages of a journeyman stonemason at that time varied from twenty to twenty-four shillings a week during nine or ten months of the year, while the remainder were spent in enforced idleness. Yet, despite the narrowness and privations of the life, I loved my home and the rough, free existence, spent largely in the open air, working in the garden and tending the pigs.

No life is without its drawbacks, and into mine came the inevitable and irksome restraint of education. I was sent to a private school, and for the fee of sixpence a week I received plenty of teaching combined with plenty of stick. The schoolmaster doubtless possessed an excellent capacity to teach, but my capacity to learn was by no means equally large. We held divergent views in the matter of spelling, and when a controversy arose, 1 as the weaker naturally went to the wall, and the man with the cane triumphed. Happily, my services were frequently needed at home, and about the age of twelve I finally escaped the taskmaster and was able to apply myself to more congenial pursuits. These pursuits possessed at least the advantage of variety. When I could be spared from the garden and other work at home I was employed on casual jobs—anything that brought recompense was welcome: digging neighbours' gardens, carrying messages, tending pigs on stubble land after harvest—all was grist that came to the mill. Gleaning was a special delight, and the united efforts of our family in the harvest-field would sometimes result in several bushels of wheat, barley, and beans. In the fruit season we used to take the garden produce to market in Oxford, and if prices proved good our reward took the shape of a dainty called "short cakes" and a little extra sugar—then costing eightpence and tenpence a pound. This meant a little jam for the winter, and for present enjoyment a fruit pudding or apple dumplings.

My first regular employment was in a blacksmith's shop. Life in the forge I found bill of new delights. Blowing the bellows, taking the horses home after shoeing, wielding the heavy hammer while the smith fashioned the shoe with the smaller one, cutting, threads on bolts and nuts, all interested me hugely. I felt myself a person of importance. The blacksmith himself was no inconsiderable person, under the shade of his spreading sycamore. His opinion on all kinds of; subjects was eagerly sought by all sorts and conditions of people. In the village club he was a person' to he reckoned with; at the village feast, bedecked with blue and white ribbons interwoven and festooned, he would proudly bear: drift one of the banners. Big, brawny, and sober, no one dare take liberties with him, but all esteemed him highly. My father, as a chapel-goer, did not believe in the frivolity of village feasts, and therefore wore no ribbons; nor were clubs more to his liking. What wonder then that I, a hero-worshipper like all boys, should set up the black smith on my shrine as the ideal man, with his great frame neatly clothed in black, shoddy coat, and smart trousers somewhere about six inches too long, and rolled up over the boots to show the bright yellow calico lining.

But I was not allowed to worship my hero long. The time came for me, as it had come for my brothers before me, to learn my father's craft. Reluctantly I bade farewell to the forge and the fields, where I had found many friends among the beasts and birds and living things. My work in the forge had lengthened my limbs and hardened my muscles till I was in a physical condition to meet the demands of any employment. I had by this time reached the age of thirteen, and was big, strong, and active beyond my years.

My father's employers gave permission for me to enter the shop as a beginner, and thus opened out the new and broader life of a stonemason. As the youngest employee many duties besides the acquisition of a knowledge of my trade fell to my lot. At eight o'clock in the morning I had to see that hot tea and coffee were ready for thirty or forty men. Then at ten I must start on my tour of "the shop" to see how many pints of beer would he wanted at eleven, and this task had to be repeated at three o'clock. There were plenty of public-houses close at hand, but I must fetch the beer from one nearly a mile away, because the landlord was foreman of the yards—a position invested with large authority. Therefore the duty of fetching the beer meant a long trudge twice a day for me. If a man did not drink beer he was regarded by his fellows as a muff or a "Ranter." Such men were, however, the exceptions. Most of its found it advisable to obtain our. Saturday night and Sunday beer at the same house, so that the foreman must have found the custom from the shop a profitable affair. Such circumstances would be hard to find to-day; the trades-unions have changed all that, as well as the once common practice of paying wages in the public-house, which has now been made illegal.

About this time the second cholera epidemic broke out in England. Oxford did not escape the contagion, and our shop, being situated in a poor district by the river-side, became the centre of the plague's ravages. I can vividly recall the scenes of terrible wretchedness that took place round about the wharf where we were at work, as victim after victim was brought out of the houses by the plague authorities, and carried away to the temporary hospital on the outskirts of the town. Strangely enough, these scenes inspired me with no terror, and every day my father and I walked through the midst of the plague-stricken district to the scene of our labour. Amid such conditions I speedily passed through the stage of initiation into the stonemason's craft. My experience of those days convinces me that most lads will learn their father's trade quicker than any other; while a father naturally interests himself more in the advancement of his sun than in that of one who is not related to him.

I continued to work in and about Oxford for two or three years, chiefly occupied in repairing and enlarging churches and colleges. I must turn aside here to tell an amusing incident which occurred many years afterwards in connection with the university city. Some time after I had entered Parliament I remember having a conversation with dear old Sir John Mowbray, who represented Oxford from 1868 until his death in 1899. Our talk ran on the university, and on his remarking that I seemed to have a good deal of knowledge about the various colleges, I informed him that had been at Christ Church. I shall never forget the look of bewildered incredulity that passed over his benevolent countenance, pain mingling with pity at the thought that I was trying to delude him into a belief that I had been a student at "The House." His relief was instantaneous and perceptible when I gently explained that my connection with Christ Church College was confined to the roof, where I had assisted in fixing a number of new chimney-pots.

I conceived a great affection for the old city which I have never lost. Its grey walls and ancient buildings were always a source of delight, and I would gaze with awe and wonderment at the great men in their caps and gowns as they paced the quiet quadrangles and the broad walks of the college gardens.

An incident which occurred during this period strongly impressed my mind with the necessity of some kind of technical instruction. I obtained employment at Wheatley some half-dozen miles from Oxford, where a new church was being built. By this time I had become fairly competent at my work, and greatly liked it. The first task set me was to work a huge block of stone, weighing probably a ton or more, into a base to carry one of the columns of the church. The design was a square tapering to an octagon and finishing with a circle. The square and the circle offered no difficulties, but how to obtain eight equal sides was utterly beyond my comprehension. To add to my distress my work lay at some distance from the men in the shop, and I was under the constant surveillance of a hard-hearted and uncouth foreman. I only realised my difficulty between the breakfast- and dinner-hours, so that I could obtain no assistance from my mates. My perplexity reached the height of distress. I knew the foreman was no friend of my father, and therefore would give me but a short shrift if he found me in such a dilemma. I was also fully alive to the fact that if I took an undue time over the task my wages would suffer at the end of the week. How I prayed for the dinner-hour its the weary hours dragged by! But all things have an end, and at last my opportunity came. The persuasive power contained in a pint of beer soon induced one of the masons to describe the procedure, which I realised in an instant, with amazement that I had not intuitively discovered the simple process for myself.

While on this point I may digress a moment in order to point out how different was the treatment meted out to a youth in the work yard in those days. Generally the language and manner of the men were coarse and brutal in the extreme. The man was never recognised in the boy, who was regarded as created for the sole purpose of ministering to the fancies of his elders; any lack of ready obedience brought down upon the victim's head a storm of abuse, not un-frequently in the shape of kicks and cuffs.

Henry Broadhurst, Henry Broadhurst, M.P.: the story of his life from a stonemason's bench to the Treasury Bench (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1901)

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