Glimpses of old Gainsborough – Chats with the oldest inhabitant Part III. Taken from excerpts in the Gainsborough News 1894
The ‘oldest inhabitant’ has furnished the subject matter of the two preceding articles, and though he could probably fill a dozen with his old-time stories, I must bring his reminiscences to a close, for the present at all events, with the current article. In my next I purpose striking out in another direction which I hope will not be altogether devoid of interest to my readers. Last week’s chat with Mr Markham dealt with the memories of notable inhabitants of old time Gainsborough. After recording a few of the old man’s earlier recollections of the town, I gave in due order his experience of the old coaching days; reminiscences of Tom Miller and Thomas Cooper, authors of repute; incidents in the visit to Gainsborough of John Wesley, handed down by a deceased inhabitant; sketches of old seamen who sailed and served with King William IV and Captain Cook, a human relic of the old slavery days, Joe Hornby, the banker, and his idiosyncracies; stories of a public house tragedy that occurred in Gainsborough many years ago, and a thieving gang who caused considerable terror in the town and district; and as a fitting conclusion two incidents of a highly imaginative order, verging on the supernatural. Surely here was matter suited to every taste, and the reader who failed to find something to his particular gratification must indeed be difficult to please. Continuing the reminiscences, I shall now proceed to give a number of anecdotes, personal and otherwise, which will, I trust, be equally deserving of approbation; and without preface the old man shall again speak.
‘I knew’ said Mr Markham, ‘Charles Careless, a watchmaker, who was a lineal descendant of Col. Careless, one of the Royalist army in the days of King Charles I. Mr Careless was the possessor, I remember, of a seal which used to belong to King Charles.’
‘Nelly Fish used to be one of the best known characters in Gainsborough. She wore very high pattens, and a sort of gipsy hat; more in the cocked hat style. It was called the Nelly fish hat, and was certainly unique.’
‘Old Martin Jackson was a man who was so unfortunate as to be tossed by a bull when he was walking across Bole fields. After this episode, the epithet of “Old Rive rags” came to be attached to him; and the children used to call out after him “Who scratted the bull?” To which the poor fellow would reply in all simplicity “I did not scrat the bull, you rascals. It was the bull that scratted me!”
“Then there was Dolly Hurst and her water cart. You see, in those days they used to lead the water from the Trent in carts, and sell it a ½d a bucket in the lower part of the town, but up here they were accustomed to charge twice as much. Dolly was a memorable object, whom to see once was never to forget. She wore a blue cotton gown with white spots, and generally smoked a long churchwarden pipe. She invariably carried a great stick or staff, taller than herself, which used to assist her progress as she walked beside the cart.”
“Billy Hayton was a little bow-legged chap, who was apprenticed to Dolly Hurst and her water cart business. He and Dolly afterwards went into chimney sweeping. It used to be said that sometimes Billy would stick in a narrow chimney, through being so badly bow legged; and that on these occasions he received valuable assistance from Dolly, who would feel for him with the above mentioned staff, and help him past the obstacle. Billy got to be quite a gentleman eventually. A distant relative left him a lot of money at Hull, and he gave up chimney sweeping altogether.”
“Tommy Bennett was an old fiddler who used to go to country dances. I once had an adventure with old Tommy. It was in this way. Tommy Bennett used to teach the fiddle to the butler at Gate Burton Hall, and at Christmas the servants got the privilege of making a party. Tommy invited Bool Smith and me to go with him. Well, we were up all night and never went to bed and as we were coming home next morning, there was a man who lived at a house near the Hall invited us in. While we were there, Bool Smith and I contrived to take Tommy’s fiddle out of the case. We put it into a bed and covered it up with blankets. When we set off again Tommy was carrying an empty fiddle case. We got as far as Cont’s mill, but Tom had not discovered the joke, and my conscience began to prick me. So I said, ‘Tommy, are you sure you have got the fiddle in the case?’ He shook the case, and the bow rattled against the lid, and Tommy said it was there right enough. I said, I did not think it was, but Tommy only shook the box again, and assured me the fiddle was inside. At last I could stand it no longer, so I told him plump out that Bool Smith had taken the fiddle out of the case, and we had hidden it in the bed at the cottage where we called. Tommy opened his fiddle case, only to find it empty, and then bestowing on us a look of unutterable contempt, he set off to recover his instrument. We were then four miles from the cottage where we had left it, and the poor old fiddler had a walk of eight miles in consequence of our joke. Old Tommy took the matter so much to heart, that it was two years before he spoke to either of us again.
“I once went with Bool Smith to Lincoln races. Bool had a sovereign and I had sixteen shillings. It was the first time I had seen any ‘thimble rigging’. The men engaged in it had mates with them and every now and then, in order to give assurance to the novices, one of these would come up and venture a sovereign. I lost my sixteen shillings, and then I took Bool to one side, and said. ‘Lend me your sovereign!’ He did so, and I went and laid it down for him, but the trickster had it in his pocket in a very short time. I got so mad that I collared the rogue and said, ‘If you don’t give me my sovereign, I will have a constable called.’ At last he said. ‘Hold your noise, and I will give you five shillings.’ I took the money, and then Bool Smith said, ‘Give me the five shillings.’ However, we compromised the matter by Bool getting four shillings and I having one, and so we returned home poorer but wiser.
Some years afterwards thimble rigging came to be greatly practised again, and a man named Dewdney Fretwell lost £70 at it in Gainsborough. When my father heard of it he said to me, ‘Come, Charles, I think thou art a good hand at thimble rigging.’ I had no idea, that my father had heard of the adventure at Lincoln, and I was never so much dropped on in my life.”
After this spin of reminiscences of old worthies, and the two personal adventures with Bool Smith, my informant told me a couple of amusing anecdotes about former residents of Gainsborough, and their ideas on religion, which I will reproduce.
“There was formerly,” he said “an old Scotch woman living in Gainsborough, and rejoicing in the name of Mally. When she was on her death bed the clergyman went to pray with her, but could make very little impression upon her. At last he said ‘Where do you think you will go when you die?’ To which the obdurate Mally, now in the jaws of death, replied ‘I’ll gang to whaur the best ale’s keepit’.
“Two old men in Gainsborough, were once talking over their half-doors about religious matters. They conversed long and philosophically, and finally one of them, by way of comforting his friend and himself said’ Well, never mind old lad so long as we get to heaven at last’. Whereupon the other, whose religion had suddenly taken a strange turn, threw up his cap and shouted out ‘You may talk about heaven as you like, but owd England for me!’
And now my aged friend ceased his stories, and occupied himself in showing me little objects of personal interest to himself. One of these little articles was an old book of common prayer, and on some spare leaves in the beginning of the book was a chronology of the Markham family, dating back from more than 300 years. The list had been copied from the registers, and the first entry was “Thomas, son of Thomas Markham, baptized in Gainsborough Church, January 12th 1565.” This long connection of the family with the town is most remarkable. Other facts in which my readers may be interested in connection with Mr Markham’s personal history are that he was the sixteenth child of his mother, that his youngest sister, who was the 20th child, died two years ago, and that his mother lived to the venerable age of 87. One of Mr Markham’s sister’s, who died about two years since, was 85 years of age, another sister attained 83, his eldest brother dies in his 90th year, and his second brother lived to be 84. Others of his family also attained a green old age.