Rhymes from Hertfordshire
Within living memory, men and women had to pick up their trades without night school or text books, let alone technical colleges. This must be the reason, I think why many elderly tradesmen are able to repeat proverbs and rhymes which guided them in their work; I give a few examples below. A partial exception to this absence of text books was Thomas Tusser’s famous “ Five hundredth pointes of good husbandrie” published in 1573. When, as a factory manager, I used to get bogged down by paperwork in the office I remembered his classic dictum “The best donge for the land is its Master’s foot walking over it”
Anyone who has ever helped a blacksmith by working the handle of his bellows will understand the usefulness of this rule of-thumb told me in 1949 by Mr Bysouth, a blacksmith working in Braughing:
And that’s the way to blow.”
A better version of the adage “you get what you pay for” was told me by a fencer and gate hanger when discussing the relative merits of oak post-and-rail or cheaper fences.
“Good work is never dear”
Hertfordshire farm workers may still remember seeing a Dibble used for planting corn. The children who counted the grain into the holes used to repeat this rhyme;
“One for the rook,
One for the crow,
Two to die, and
One to grow.”
It was first told me by a Hertfordshire wheelwright who remembered it from boyhood; but I think it is known in many parts of England.
Sixty years ago, power driven saws were rare, and trees had to be cut into planks by hand. Much of this work was done by travelling sawyers who walked from saw-pit to saw-pit, carrying their 7 foot saws on their shoulders.
The late Mr George Casbon, a wheelwright of Barley (near Royston) told me in 1943 that his father employed travelling sawyers and that he remembered some of their sayings. One is good advice to anyone who has to do hard physical work outdoors:
“Strip when you’re cold, and live to grow old”
It was thirsty work, and sawyers were often heavy drinkers. Two of their sayings reflect this:
And empty pint pots
Are two bad things for Sawyers.”
(deal knots can break a saw-tooth) Another- an answer to an accusation of bad work:
“A Sawyer’s no robber –
What he took off one side
He left on the other.”
A serving woman in a Public House, a grandmother, told me that her mother used to say the following grace after meals. Perhaps it comes from the time of the crop failures of the 1840’s:
“We must thank the Lord for what we’ve had.
If we’d-a-had-more, we should’ve been glad:
But seeing-as-how the times are bad,
We must thank the Lord for what we’ve had”
I will end with a rather sad verse told me by a managing editor now living in St Albans. He said his father, a London undertaker, was asked to have the following verse inscribed on the gravestone of a domestic servant:
“Don’t weep for me now,
Don’t weep for me never,
For I’m going to do nothing
For ever and ever.”