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Reminiscences: 1845-1927, by Joseph Sheldon

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Richard Axe

This is a transcription of an autobiography, typed by Joseph in 1927 when he was 81. Much of it was included by Jack Branston in his History of Stocksbridge but this is from Joseph's original book and contains other material not included there. The autobiography contains details on Hathersage, Stocksbridge, Deepcar and the Fox works at Stocksbridge, and provides a few personal recollections of individuals as well.

Joseph Sheldon: Reminiscences. 1845 - 1927

Early Days 1.

The writer of these pages was born at Booths, Hathersage, on September 28th, 1845, being the sixth son in a family of eight boys and one girl. Parents were Mary and Joseph Sheldon. The father and two sons were Millstone Makers, which was an unhealthy trade; its workers as a rule died young. My father, at the age of 55, died, leaving a large family. Our mother died at the same age.

Hathersage, 70 years ago, was an interesting and beautiful place, as it is at the present time. Food, except what the local farmers produced, had to be brought from Sheffield and other places, carriers, carts & horse ‘buses were kept busy, also there were many market carts. The coal required by the householders and manufactories had to be brought by horse and cart from Dore, Dronfield and other places. For many years, Hathersage was a very prosperous little village; besides Millstone Makers, there were three industries., Joseph Cocker & Son., Robert Cook & Son, and Tobias Child. The business was that of wire drawing, Hackle pins, Needles and other articles made from drawn wire. Robert Cook & Sons used to take wires to Padley Mill to be ground – the grinding mill stood near the present Midland Station, Grindleford Bridge. It is claimed that this was the first wire drawing mill in England. There were two other wire mills in Hathersage at that time; one in the middle of Hathersage, owned and used by Cocker Brothers, the other at the top of Hathersage. Both these mills were in active work when I was a young boy. I soured wire at both the mills at the bottom of Hathersage. This process consisted of scouring wire from a black to a bright state. The material used was burnt sandstone, crushed to a fine powder and mixed with oil, a portion of which was placed in a pad of rough flannel or old stockings made into a pad, which was gripped firmly in the right hand and rubbed backwards and forwards on a length of about three feet, then wrapped on two pegs in front of the worker. This operation continued until the whole length was scoured. Wages, two or three shillings a week, for a boy of nine or ten. Perhaps School days should have been mentioned before working days.

At that time, there were two schools in Hathersage. The “Dame School” was conducted by the Aunt of Mr. Cresswell, who was the Master of the Upper School.

The “Dame School” was held over the Hearse House, near the bottom of Hathersage and near to the Upper School. When attending the “Dame School” I remember that I wore a blue pinafore with white spots. Once when crossing the road near the Wesleyan Chapel, I was knocked down by a passing vehicle and was carried to the School Master’s House, near by.

It was a very interesting day for the scholars when the Bread Cart came from Bakewell with loaves of bread for distribution amongst the poor people who were having parish relief. Many times these loaves were brought to the home of the writer.

It was a great occasion when transferred from the “Dame School” to the Upper School. Not only boys but young men attended the Upper School during the winter months, principally farmer’s sons, who gave much trouble to the master. On one occasion, something very interesting passed through Hathersage which was followed by a number of the scholars, on its way to Castleton. These scholars returned late to school, which meant severe flogging by the Master. During the flogging, a scuffle arose between the teacher and the older scholars; the scholars resenting the punishment results. I well remember seeing the teacher and scholars down on the floor. The junior scholars escaped punishment. Although the master was a tall man, I made up my mind to have my revenge when I was big enough. School days, for the writer, were neither numerous nor pleasant and I often played truant, preferring to wander in the fields rather than lessons and cane in school.

Hathersage boys, of which I was one, were much given to fighting in those days, often with one hand fastened behind. In order to see a fight, one of the bigger boys would hold out his arm and say “best cock spit over my arm” meaning that the boy who ventured to spit was considered champion if no one else followed, but usually a second boy followed and a fight was the result. One dreadful practice in some of these fights, was that the fighters were allowed to nip, scratch, lug or bite. In one of these fights, the writer received a severe thrashing from a little Warwickshire boy, who held his opponent’s head down while he gave the thrashing.

When the dams at Redmires were bring made a number of the boy walked there from Hathersage on the Sunday afternoon, instead of going to Sunday School. On their return, one of the boys remembered his sins and was afraid to go home so he stopped in a corner of a field and said his prayers. He has often pointed out the place to his friends when visiting Hathersage. In those days, “Winter” was a time dreaded by the outside workers, especially the Millstone workers, when the frost was in the stone. My father and two brothers often were out of work for one, two or three months, except removing snow from the drifted-up roads in payment of the rates, also for the same purpose, the writer and an older brother walked three or four miles in the direction of Ringinglow to break stones at threepence per load. These were indeed “Hard Times” when the principle meal of the day consisted of potato and turnip pie, with oatmeal crust. I well remember one day, my mother saying that the one who was working must have the food and his dinner was several squares of Yorkshire Pudding with sauce, which I took to him at the wire mill. I also remember seeing the furniture marked and removed from the house until the rent could be paid, although the owner of the house was a relation. It was a great treat to have the opportunity of going an errand, or doing some little thing for a neighbour and receive a slice of bread and treacle or jam as payment. There were two “Saturday Pennies” in the family in those days, but a few years later I think I was the happiest boy in Hathersage when my Mother gave me two pence with which to go to Hope Fair, and this she borrowed from a kind neighbour. New suits for the younger boys depended largely on the Bilberry and Blackberry crops. My Mother, with several of the boys, would go to Bamford Bridge, Eyam Moor, Moscar and other places, sometimes more than three miles from home, gathering bilberries all day. When a sufficient quantity was gathered, they were taken to Sheffield,a distance of ten miles, and sold at 8d. per quart. I remember we usually turned off to the left at Hunters Bar going in the direction of Wesley College, and calling at the houses near there. The same was done during the Blackberry season but the Blackberries grew nearer home than the Bilberries. My Mother usually went, with one or two of the boys, to Sheffield to sell the fruit, walking all the way there and back. When sufficient money was got, suits were bought. This went on for many years.

My Mother was one of the best and most capable women in Hathersage but under the above conditions it was no wonder that both Mother and Father were called Home at the early age of fifty-five and my great regret has been, that when I got to a position when I could have helped them, they were not there to be helped.

Later, I was engaged by Mr. Henry Broomhead, Shopkeeper and Farmer, to do general work on the Farm.

Leaving Home.

Before I was thirteen years of age, I left home to live with Mr. Walker at Leadmill, where I remained three years as farmer’s boy, doing general work. I have always looked back to the years with Mr. Walker as a very happy time. My only special outfit for this, my first situation was a soft felt hat which had been my father’s and was right, however placed on the head. It was made in Bradwell by a firm of Hatmakers. During my stay with Mr. Walker, I learnt to milk cows, mow and thrash corn but my principle work was with the Horse and Cart., fetching coal from Dronfield and Holmsfield, taking wood from the Highlow Woods to these coal mines to be used as pit props. My father was taken ill the day I left home and in twenty weeks, he passed away. On the occasion of my father’s death, Mrs. Frith (mother of Mrs. Walker) gave me a black silk necktie and a pair of low shoes, which had belonged to her husband. Rather old fashioned for a boy of thirteen but were valued and worn by him. I had one difficulty here, as I had two mistresses and when in favour with one I was in disfavour with the other which made it impossible to please two mistresses. Mr. Walker was as good as a father and a true friend all the time I was with them. I always think of the three years at Leadmill as a foundation of a future healthy life.

When at Leadmill I had on three occasions a narrow escape of losing my life. Once I was pulled out of the Derwent when in flood. Another occasion was the time of sheep washing. The sheep were brought from the moors and put in pens by the side of the river. I was one who helped to ring them to the washers, and possibly trying to be clever, I got on the sheep’s back, holding by its horns. Instead of the boy taking the sheep to the Washers it bounded forward in the water but was caught by the men before getting into deeper water and taken safely to land. I was wearing a pair of tight-fitting black cloth trousers and it was with difficulty I walked up the hill to make a change.

I formed some very pleasant companionships with the farmers’ sons in the district, some older, some younger. Recently, I revisited the place and found some of my old companions still living, although more than sixty years since I had seen them. One family named Middleton who still live in the same farm and have lived under three Dukes of Devonshire; four brothers, their ages from 74 to 88; three are still working on the farm. We had a real Derbyshire talk when they knew I was “Joe Sheldon”. Other old associates were visited with equal interest and pleasure and we agreed to have a tea party when next I visit Leadmill.

When in my sixteenth year and only having £8 a year, I was anxious for a situation with more money, but always made Mr. Walker’s my home when visiting Derbyshire.

Coming to Yorkshire.

At that time, many farm servants were hired at the hiring fairs which were held at various towns, Rotherham, Penistone, Bradfield, Hope., etc. It was very interesting to see the young men and women waiting to be hired. On May 13th, 1861, I formed one of that company and was hired at Hope Fair by Tommy Crawshaw of Park Farm, Deepcar, for £9 a year. In a few days after the engagement, I presented myself at Park Farm. The first Monday after my arrival there was Whit Monday which has always been a holiday. When I was told by Mr. Crawshaw to go and work in the garden and hearing the Band playing in Fox Bottom (Stocksbridge) I broke down and wept and could not eat any breakfast. Mr. Crawshaw’s Mother followed me into the garden with some oatcake and cheese and told me if I could not eat I could not work. I gave Mr. Crawshaw a month’s notice but he said I should have to stay a year as he had given me the “fastening penny” which was sometimes a shilling and sometimes more. On the morning when the month’s notice had expired I told Mr. Crawshaw I wanted my month’s wages and he told me I should not get it. I told him I should take him to the Court in Sheffield; he said the case would have to be tried in Barnsley. I went several times to ask for the money but have not got it yet. There lived at that time at Low Laith, two men both old enough to be my father, G.H. and E.D. These men got me to gamble with them at the game of “Odd Lad” a game in which it is very easy to cheat, so they got all my money and left me, a stranger in a strange land, without a penny. During the month’s notice, I went to see Mr. Joseph Crossland who lived at Morehall. He had three farms, Broomhead, Wood Farm and Morehall. He was brother-in-law to Mr. Walker, my late master, they having married two sisters. Mr. Crossland often visited at Leadmill so I knew him well. He took to me kindly and started me as one of his servants. I went to Morehall the morning I left Mr. Crawshaw. Mr. Crossland gave me a flask of home-brewed beer a large teacake and bacon, and directed me to a field behind Broomhead Hall, close to the moors to help in clearing away the twitch. I was very happy during the six months I was at Morehall and learnt to do more advanced farm work, also part of the time, I delivered mile daily in Sheffield, mostly at the Union Workhouse, Corporation Street. At the age of sixteen Mr. Crossland asked me if I could manage three horses on one machine in a fallow field. I told him I thought I could, and I did it on the Morehall farm. Sometimes, I worked on the Wood Farm, and, in the haychamber – there I wrote my first letter, which was to my Mother, who lived in Hathersage.there lived in the house at Morehall, the Horseman, the Cowman, and the writer, who was expected to take many parts. We three sat at a long table against the wall, near the door; three pots of home-brewed beer were placed on the table for us, varying in size according to our ages, also bread and a brown dish containing dripping. We were expected to help ourselves, which we did but got tired of the never-failing bread and dripping. We tried to bring about a change by eating up all the dripping, but to our disappointment there was a fresh supply next day. When living with Mr. Crossland, I exchanged my clothes box, which was a new one, for a double-barrelled pistol with Johnny Grant, the Horseman. There were a number of plum trees at Morehall and one Sunday afternoon some boys came from Deepcar to help themselves. They were caught and brought into the house, and Mr. Crossland said he would let them go if they would kneel down and ask his pardon, but I retired before the kneeling-down process began.

Leaves Morehall for Townend.

Having heard that Mr. Fox of Townend House wanted a boy about my age to live in the house I made application for the situation and had an interview with Mrs. Fox. Mr. Crossland gave me a character written on a scrap of paper which was not even in an envelope which said – “Joe was a good lad” – if it were possible now to choose between that scrap of paper and a £5 note, I would choose the scrap of paper.

I came to Townend on December 2nd, 1861, and walked all the way from Hathersage. This walking seemed to make a good impression as young Mr. Fox came out of the room to see me and to congratulateme on having walked such a long way. My wages were £22 a year and one new suit of clothes and one long silk hat and a pair of white gloves, which I wore when riding by the side of the coachman when he was driving with the carriage and pair to Ebenezer Chapel on Sundays. Sometimes, I took the two maids in the Dog Cart to the same Chapel on Sunday nights. For several weeks I did not like the new situation and did not think I should stay. Mr. Fox was a very severe master and very hard to please.

The coachman, George Ellis, had allowed one of the horses to run away with the Dog Cart. When the bill for damages came in he sent for the Coachman and discharged him at a minute’s notice, at the same time taking a kick at me and saying “Thou will be next”.

My first work in the morning was to fetch the letter bag from the Post Office at Deepcar, kept by Thomas Turton. This was before 7 o’clock. Often when going up the field near to the house, Mr. Fox would be standing at the Kitchen door waiting for the bag. I had to deal with the letter bag later in the day. Letters from the Post Office and this letter bag, at that time, were taken to Sheffield by a man called Tom who had only one arm. I was often kept waiting at the works for the bag till it was time for me to be at Deepcar and had to run after the man sometimes into the Bitholmes before getting up to him.

Another duty was to take dinner from Townend to the works for Mr. & Mrs. Fox. Sometimes, I went on the back of young Mr. Fox’s pony. At that time, what it now the Council Offices, was a stable in which I put the pony. On one occasion, I placed the basket containing the dinner, on top of the a wall inside the Council yard. An old man, called Chapell, who owned a donkey, lived near, and the donkey, evidently attracted by the dinner, came along and upset the basket and contents whilst I was putting the pony in the stable.

The Horses from Townend were taken to be shod to the Blacksmith’s shop at Wharncliffe side, kept by Mr. Thomas Nichols; returning from there one dark November night on the back of the pony, and passing the rocks at the far end of the Bitholmes, suddenly the pony jumped on one side to allow a vehicle to pass which I had not seen, as at that time, it was not compulsory to have lights on vehicles.

Mrs. Fox was very strict but very kind and took an interest in me. Apart from any actual work, she gaveme lessons in writing and for one lesson I wrote out the shortest psalm. She also provided me with books to read. One which I remember was “Old Humphrey’s Country Stories”. On wet Sunday nights, she would come to the Kitchen and give the maids and the boy a Scripture lesson. I remember one lesson about Noah. Before this time, Mrs. Fox had been a teacher in Ebenezer Sunday School. I look back to this time and to the interest, Mrs. Fox took in me, as the beginning of my desire for self-fulfilment.

I joined Mr. Robertshaw’s Bible Class and in March 1864 (The Sunday before the Sheffield Flood) became a Sunday School Teacher and taught in the infant school with Mr. Hepworth. Jonathan and George Jubb were two of our scholars. I passed the London examination for Sunday School Teachers in 1875. The Mutual Improvement Society was a great institution and was a branch of what was known as the Yorkshire Mechanics Institute. I entered the Institute as a dull boy and became its secretary. It usually had two examinations, Higher and Lower. After several attempts I passed the Lower Exam. And two years later passed the Higher.

When going to breakfast one morning and passing Mr. Robertshaw’s house, he came to the door with a document in his hand and said to me “They have made a D.D. of you”. The document contained the exam. results. Advanced classes in French etc., were taught by Miss Figg, afterwards Mrs. Brierley. Many boys, young me, and men no longer young, were attracted to the classes provided for self-improvement. The results were very great and far reaching, giving many young people a start in life which they would otherwise not have had.

Mr. Robertshaw was the life and soul of the work; he had the task of bringing young men under his influence. His work was a very great asset to Stocksbridge and the result of his work is still with us.

At the end of two years at Townend, which, on the whole had been a happy time, I told Mrs. Fox I would like to go the works and learn a trade.  Mrs. Fox said they had been thinking about putting me in uniform and I was to become a footman to young Mr. Fox but she agreed for me to go to the works.

My first job at the works was in the hot sheet mill, doing the work of a (Catcher) which was to stand behind the rolls with a pair of tongs and catch the out-coming piece of sheet steel and carry it down the mill. I did not remain at this work very long but went to work with Matthew Booth, a Mill Wright and after that to Thomas Herbert who had charge of the Steam Engines and heavy machinery. Here I was bound as an apprentice to engineering to serve till I was 22 years of age. At that time, there were only two others serving in that capacity. Nathaniel Crossland and John Whittaker. Before my apprenticeship had expired, I became a married man, my wages being twelve shillings a week and overtime. Meeting Mr. Fox one day in the yard, I ventured to ask him if he could advance my wages. His question was “How much hast thou”? I replied “Twelve shillings a week”. He said “I only had nine when I was an apprentice”. He told me to go and tell the cashier that I was to be paid fourteen shillings a week.

Apprentices after this received 14 shillings a week in their last year. A few years after I was out of my time, Michael Cardens’ health failed and I was expected to carry on when he was absent from the works. The Engineering Department like other parts of the works, had increased very considerably. After several years of ill health, Michael Cardens passed away and I was appointed his successor. I had full charge of what was known as the Light Engineering Department. This gave opportunity for improvements and the introduction of new machinery. One day when Mr. Fox had been going the round of the works he sent for me into his office and told me to go into the Rail mill and see if  I could not devise some method whereby there would be a reduction in the number of me employed in handling the hot rails and billets as they left the rolls, three of four me would pull the hot rail or billet to the hot saw to be cut into lengths. I at once devised a method which released two or three men.

After being in charge of the Light Engineering Department, Thomas Herbert passed away. Then I was given full charge of all the engineering at the works. When my,position became more important I again ventured to ask Mr. Fox for an advance in wages – he held up his hand and said – “Leave that to me” – so the wages question after that was left to him and his successors.

At the end of 45 years diligent service I expressed a wish to retire and left the works in 1907 with feelings of regret, both on my part and on the part of the man with whom I had been so long associated.

I always had a desire to see foreign countries but had not the opportunity before retiring from business. So in March, 1907, I went to Palestine and Egypt, then the year later a trip round the world. Several times since then to Canada, also to France and Belgium, and then had my 81st Birthday on board the Montroyal on my way to Canada.

Since my retirement, much of my time has been spent in public service and at the present time, 1927, I am still a Sunday School Teacher; a member of the West Riding County Council and the Stocksbridge U.D.C., Wortley Board of Guardians. An original member of the Old Age Pension Committee, Stocksbridge Education Sub-Committee, Bolsterstone, and Bradfield Education trusts and Sheffield Royal Institute for the Blind.

In giving this record it has been a great surprise with what clearness and freshness the facts have come to my mind.

My object in telling my little story is that possibly it may help and encourage others.

J.S. May, 1927.

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Richard Axe

These are the two images of Joseph at the front of his autobiography....quite in keeping with his story, I think.


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