Red Winter Journey
written by: Paul Rushworth-Brown
The story of the English War is one of political endeavours, one of religious freedoms and, of course, the right of divine rule ostracised by the strength of a growing democratic political system. Some spoke of the power of government at this time and the fine line between autocratic rule and people’s choice, but what about the common people, those that lived day to day like the Rushworth family and others like them. How might this brazen battle for change have affected their lives? One cannot envisage these changes without first coming to terms with the day-to-day lives of the people and the hardships and adversity they already faced.
Thomas was exhausted from the sixteen-hour day; he collapsed on the hard-backed wooden chair beside the hearth. He puffed on his white clay, long-stemmed pipe and gazed silently into the flames. The greyish puffs of exhaled smoke escaped from the corner of his slightly parted lips. He blinked repetitively, trying to rid his eyes of their dryness.
Thomas took the pipe from his mouth and grumbled, “What news have ya’ heard in the village, William?”
“Apprentices in London, they’re striking and rioting in the streets. Calling on Parliament for change.” William took a seat with him relishing the safety and comfort of their hearth.
They all liked the feeling of the radiant warmth of the fire while hearing the wind howl and blast the snow around outside.
There was a war coming, and Thomas Rushworth wanted no part of it. It wasn’t their war. They were in a battle each day, a battle to put food in their stomachs. Yet, they were to be inexplicably drawn into this drama through no choice of their own. This event would affect the lives of the Rushworths forever.
The village of Haworth was situated on a hillside at the centre of a large rural district near Bradford, green as green in spring and summer, cold and desolate white and insignificantly blank most other times. The land around the village was very hilly and bleak, with the coldest of winds in all seasons except the hottest days in summer. There were few trees, and the surrounds were a moorland filled with fens, bogs and peat.
The village itself was essentially one long steep street lined with stone cottages and daub and wattle cruck houses built in chaos with no idea of order or care. The muddied main road drifted in a northwest and southeast direction with a triangle at the top of the hill. Inhabitants called it the square. The square housed the greatest number of residents, mostly shopkeepers, spinners and weavers that wanted to stay away from Weavers Hill.
Those that didn’t live there lived as tenants, herdsmen and copyholders to Lord Birkhead, herding sheep and farming small 7 to10 acre lots on his lands at Hall Green.
Most of the English wool was exported abroad to Flanders, Bruges, Ghent and Ypres and the foreigners paid highly for it. At the time, spinners, weavers and clothiers working it lived reasonably well. Even the lowliest of poor men and hedge thieves could get a hold of enough rough wool and make a small profit for a time. Eventually, poor quality staples and high asking prices plunged the market into despair. As time went by, looms became quieter and were significantly affected by the growing political unrest. The fear of coming hostilities caused the reduction of trade and the decreasing popularity of English wool.
Thomas Rushworth and his family tried to earn what coin they could from their spinning and weaving of any course wool they could find. The seven acres of barley and a small vegetable garden fraught with worm, beetle and looper kept the wolves of famine from the door.
William’s twin children, twelve-year-old John and Robert were now old enough to know better and old enough to work. They spent their days carding wool and bursting blisters, much to their distaste. For them, the days of childish play and ignorance were gone, and they were now seen as adults and forced to earn their keep.
For the last eight months, the family had been spinning and weaving wool for the manor steward on put out. Thomas knew that he wasn’t paying them the correct coin for their labours, but there wasn’t much he could do, and fourpence per day was better than nothing in desperate times.
Each week Tommy, now a strapping young man, and his father Thomas would make the mile journey to Stanbury and buy the mushy wool that nobody else wanted. It had weathered and worn tips, usually left behind by the brogger, middlemen of some disrepute. If they were lucky and could get a good price, they’d bring it home.
Robert and John would spend their days, their breeches raised above their knees, stomping out the grease and oil in a barrel of stale urine. This they regularly collected from the local alehouses. Thomas, William and their father-in-law John Hargreaves, being avid contributors.
Lucy, Isabel’s sister, and Agnes would turn this unsaleable wool, using a sneaky contribution from the steward’s supply, into saleable yarn and cloth. The women would spend many hours at the spinning wheel. Thomas and William, with the shuttle and warp of the loom. The political upheaval at the time made good fleece hard to come by, as often it was bought in bulk by unscrupulous wool broggers, who hid it away and waited for prices to go up.
Thomas struggled to get the same coin as he had in the past as the use and popularity of fine Spanish wool was on the rise. The introduction of Spanish cloth into Bradford was the last straw. It decimated local production, bringing shepherds and clothiers to their knees.
“What can I do besides ask the steward for more work.” Thomas had little time for the manor steward. His power and fortune continued to grow and grow. It was said that the steward’s sheep herds and lands had increased significantly, built up over time by the misfortunes of others. However, it was known that even he was struggling in the current market.
Thomas had considered complaining about the steward’s indiscretions to the Justice of the Peace. He thought better of it as he knew it would make no difference. The Justice of the Peace was on the side of the rich and powerful. He was well paid by them to keep the peace and dispense with trivial complaints whether they had foundation or not.
Tommy put another piece of peat on the fire and sat on a stool beside his father. The current circumstances did little to brighten his feelings of destitution, a feeling that grew within him like the root of a large tree. He pondered long and hard about how he could lessen his families’ burdens but coming from simple means made this difficult. Tommy felt sad for his father and mother, who weren’t getting any younger, “Look at them. They work from dawn until dark to provide for us.” It was all they could do to keep the pangs of hunger away in the trying times brought on by the uncertainty of the coming hostilities.
Tommy was a splendid young man, well-liked by all in the village and surrounds. He tried hard to make his parents proud of him, and they were. He wasn’t overly confident but was an example of the quiet, strong character type who would progress with age and experience. Tommy’s 16th birthday found him to be a solid but not tall, paler young man. He had long dark hair that feathered down the side of his face. A long fringe which was pushed across his forehead framed his blue eyes. He had the spirit and strength of character that his father could recognise in himself and in his father.
When Thomas gave up the copyholder tenancy, they all believed that becoming a freeman would allow the family more rights and freedoms. They were no longer required to work the demesne of the lord of the manor, well, unless he paid them. They cherished their newfound freedoms for a short time and hoped things would improve. These ideas were soon interrupted by the coming war.
They still had to pay rent to the lord and ten per cent of anything earned as a tithe to the church. Taxes were higher as the government needed funds for the war. Food was scarce, and often grain was unavailable. It was kept from the market by engrossers who sold it for the highest profit. Thomas made do as best they could with tainted droppings from the flour mill owned by the lord.
Due to the labour shortage from the blackness, Tommy knew that he and his father could move the family elsewhere, but “Better the Devil you know than the Devil you don’t,” he told himself.
Tommy, like his father, had the respect and admiration of the locals as a man with a sensible head on his shoulders and one that didn’t make decisions lightly, especially when it came to his family. The villagers knew him as the quiet type who only spoke when he had something important to say. He preferred to think on the subject before deciding. For this reason, they respected his decision and paid him no ill thoughts about remaining at home and not going to war with the other young men.
Tommy’s mother and father were starting to get older now, and the sixteen-hour workdays were beginning to take their toll. “Even more reason to stay and look after them as a good son should,” he believed.
Tommy looked at his father, who sat on his chair beside him; he had dark, greying, straight hair and a grey stubble on his face. His pipe protruded from the side of his mouth. A long grey shirt opened at the top to show bristled grey curly chest hair. He still had strong upper arms, born of hours tending the fields. He wore an ochre-coloured tunic which was open. Dark brown baggy breeches hung down to his knees, where a leather garter held his beige hose in place.
Thomas concentrated on whittling a piece of pinewood, making a toy for the next addition to the family. He held the wood in his left hand and braced his thumb against the wood, drawing the blade towards him as if peeling an apple. He made short and controlled strokes and was deep in thought. He rarely looked up except when the wind blew so loud it sounded as if the shutters would be punched in.
Thomas was a confident, kind man with an adventurous spirit and an amiable personality. He was always the first to help if a family had come on difficult times, well, as much as circumstances would allow. In the summer, he would be the first to offer his assistance to families left poverty-stricken, harvesting their grain or shearing their sheep if the husband or sons were ill or had been taken by the sickness.
They had lived at Hall Green as far back as he could remember, and his father liked to tell tales of what it was like in days past under the reign of the king. He liked to tell stories of his father and mother, Margery, and he would tell stories of how he and Agnes had met and married. She looked up from the spinning wheel occasionally and coughed, correcting him if his story went too far from the truth. She would smile and blush if the account entailed too many specifics of their courting days.
Agnes, Tommy’s mother, sat on a stool spinning yarn at the wheel, humming a pretty tune. Her nimble fingers worked methodically with the teased fleece. The wheel spun with a slow, mesmerising whirring sound, “Tommy, you should sleep, my love,” she insisted.
Tommy smiled with his boyish charm. He spent most of the day mucking out the animal enclosure and repairing the wattle fence at the back of the cottage. He didn’t spend much idle time inside with his mother and father as they were always busy tending to one thing or another. There was always mending to do, baskets to weave, and walls to build to appease his lordship.
Stopping intermittently to untangle a piece of yarn, Agnes often looked up contentedly and smiled if she caught her son glancing at her. She was proud of her Tommy and the man that he had become. He was strong of character, sensible and never strayed from the things that he held most dear.
Their cottage, built some years ago, needed some repair to the damp rot which had snuck into the rafters. Some of the mortar between the stones had started to crack, and rags had been pushed into the gaps between the shutters. There was cracked plaster on the walls, and long wooden poles supported the sides of the thatched roof. When a strong wintery wind rushed over the moors, the cottage shook, and the rafters vibrated with a vengeance intimidating all inside.
A thick wooden ladder at the side of the chimney led to the loft where they kept the straw and hay for the animals. It was also where twins John and Robert slept. They preferred the soft hay to the hard stone floor below.
The thatch roof leaked in places, but John and Robert had learnt to strategically place their mattresses on the edge, in areas closer to the fire. At night when it was raining, they hoped that they were not subject to the annoying drip. On occasion, a leak would find an inlet through the thatch, and one of them would climb under their fur- lined blanket to find their straw pillow soggy and wet. Fixing the roof with new thatch was a job for summer, so their nightly complaints would continue until the snow melted and new water reed cut.
Isabel spun the wheel; she smiled when she noticed Tommy take a glance in her direction. She was a good wife and tended to his needs. They never fought or disagreed, for she knew her place, especially in front of the others. In spring and summer, she only saw Tommy for a couple of hours in the evening, usually because he and his father were always out in the fields. In winter, after the wood was chopped, peat cut, and animals tended to, they could spend more time in each other’s company.
Tommy and Isabel preferred to sleep on a rolled-out straw mattress by the low glow of the fire. Tommy never showed much affection toward his wife in front of the others, but she knew he loved her. She looked forward to the whispers and giggles that they shared at night as they slept close for warmth. It was often the only time they could be together away from the eyes of the others, and it was here that Tommy showed his affection kissing her gently on the neck and shoulders.
Often, in the middle of the night, the dark silence would be disturbed, Thomas and Agnes would awake to grunting and not so quiet love sounds. Once finished, all knew that it was time for sleep and the end of another day until the cock crowed to start the next.
The Rushworths lived a simple life; they had little choice in their one-room stone cottage. There was extraordinarily little room with the loom and even less when the animals were brought in out of the weather and sheltered in the enclosure at the back. Fortunately, for most of the year, they were kept in a keep at the back of the cottage. Winter on the moors was time to reflect on the past season and hunt rabbits. The women and children made wattle baskets and sold them at Haworth markets. They worked hard throughout the year, working the crop, spinning and weaving the wool. There was always a fear of famine in the village, but they were luckier than some and managed to put enough grain, smoked lamb and vegetables away to last them.
A spark flew out of the fire but was quickly extinguished by the dampness of the stone floor, which in spring, with no drainage, often flooded with the melting snow and ice.
The stone at the back of the chimney was darkened with soot and that night’s supper bubbled away in the large iron cauldron hanging above the flame.
The fire in the hearth was the centre point of their lives and the place where they felt most safe against the wintery storms which howled across the moors. At the side of the hearth was a small stone bread oven recessed into the wall but close enough to the fire to rise and bake it. On the other side of the hearth sat a large iron candle holder with two fat homemade tallow candles. The hard wax dripped down toward the stone floor, frozen as if stopped by time. A large, thick, crooked and carved oak mantle jutted out above the hearth. It held Thomas’ pipe stand and various corked ceramic bottles. Leaning against the corner to dry was a hollowed- out tree trunk which Agnes would rest on her knees to wash and cut vegetables for the pottage.
Agnes watched as Thomas knocked the barrel of his pipe on the stones at the hearth of the fire. He proceeded to refill it from the leather pouch which sat on the small wooden table beside him. He carefully ensured the tobacco was not compressed too much as to dampen the flame. He lit a twig on the fire and raised it to the barrel of the pipe, and puffed on the mouthpiece until the tobacco lit.
He gazed at Agnes as she stood and stepped to the cauldron, resting her hand on the chunky oak mantelpiece, stained black from the continually lit fire. The iron chimney crane with hooks allowed her to swing the iron cauldron into a more easily accessible position. She took the metal ladle that hung inside the chimney and slowly stirred its contents.
Split branches, dried peat and manure sat in the corner of the stone fireplace, and all manner of metal skillets hung from the inside wall. Leaning beside the front wall of the chimney was a black iron poker, ash shovel and tongs, which she used to stoke the fire and empty the ash. Water from a wooden bucket nearby was used to thin the pottage when it aged and became too thick.
Isabel stood from the spinning wheel, and hyper flexed her back to counter the added weight from the baby bump extending from her lower abdomen. She was a good woman and knew her place among the others in the household. Being younger, she lacked their experience but more than made up for it in effort. She didn’t feel comfortable moving into her husband’s cottage with his family originally. It had taken her some time to get used to it, but it was better than putting up with the rantings and ravings of her father, who didn’t want her to be with William. Sadly her father forced her out of their house, so it was the only place she could go.
Agnes considered her a good match for her son, and she welcomed her when she arrived. Most importantly, she liked her. Isabel had worked as a servant girl prior and was well versed in the running of a household. She knew how to bake bread, brew ale and was proficient in making pickles, preserves and jellies that they all loved so much. She also spun wool and sold the extra yarn at Haworth markets to earn extra coin. She was very timid and shy to start with but started to feel more at ease with Agnes. It didn’t take long before they became good friends.
The smoke from the sweet aroma of Thomas’ pipe tobacco filled the room. He felt the mark that his father had engraved, with his knife, on the top of the wooden table beside him. He remembered as a child, watching him do it, a sad reminder of times past but not forgotten.
Like his father, family was important to Thomas. Even though he didn’t know much about his father’s folk before he was born, he felt a kinship, a belonging to the dales. He didn’t want to leave and made his intentions very clear to the rest of the family.
Thomas rarely strayed too far from Haworth. He had been to Bradford once as a child. York was a picture in his mind painted by clothiers he met at the Kings Arms. Leeds was a dream, but at the time, he didn’t know that this was all about to change.
Tommy noticed Isabel in Stanbury when he and his father had gone to buy rough wool that nobody else wanted. Their eyes had met through the stalls at the market. Isabel would keep an eye out for him each market day. He could see she had other suitors. He knew Anthony Robinson and Alfred Fuller. It was some time before Tommy plucked up the courage to walk up and talk to her.
Tommy remembered, as a young lad growing up in the old cruck house with Nan Margery and later the stone-walled cottage that uncle William and his father had built for her and his mother, Agnes. Labour was in short supply at the time, so they tended more land, and the lord permitted improvements to the cottage, paying them five pence per day to work his demesne. It was more significant than the old cruck house he remembered as a child; the walls were made of limestone rubble and rendered with lime and sand mortar. This was a better defence against the winter and… there was finally a chimney.
Sadly, Nan Margery was gone now. She had made her peace with God before she went, confessing and repenting her sins for all to hear. She was such an important part of all their lives, and Tommy would often recollect the days before she died.
He was only a youngster then, but he remembered vividly how she called him over while she lay in her bed and quietly whispered to him.
“Wee Tommy, you’re a good lad, and you have the look of yer father about you,” She placed her hand on his lovingly.
“I love you, Tommy, and you make me so proud; look after thy mother and thy father and let no harm come to them when I’m gone. Know that I will always be with you in spirit.”
He didn’t know what to say, so he leaned over and rested his head on her bony hand sadly, “Don’t go, Nan Margery, please don’t go.”
“Ooy there Tommy, tis me time, an’ I’m going to a better place and, besides, I’m tired.” Her breathing was raspy and laboured.
She coughed and took a deep breath, “So very tired,” she closed her eyes and drifted back to sleep.
He turned, going back to sit on the stool beside his father and uncle William, who lovingly placed his hand on his shoulder to comfort him.
Tommy listened to her rasping breath that night. She rested with her deep-set, darkened eyes closed and loose skin sagging below her cheekbones. Her hands were clasped together on top of the blanket. The shadow from the small candle flickered on the stone wall, and the smoke from the flame rose to be absorbed by the stained thatch ceiling above.
Cousin Mary, Mother and Mrs Hargreaves knelt at the side of the bed with their hands clasped together, whispering prayers. Father and Uncle William sat on wooden stools, not saying much but consoling each other by their presence. Then suddenly, the breathing stopped, and all was quiet. Father stood, took a deep restless breath and placed two coins on Nan Margery’s eyes to ward off a haunting. Mother wept softly, and Mrs Hargreaves recited the Lord’s Prayer.
Tommy’s eye filled with a tear then ran slowly down his face like the first drop of rain. He turned away and quickly wiped it on his sleeve before his father or uncle could notice. He didn’t know how to deal with this feeling of sadness, this grey shadow of grief, so he climbed the loft ladder and slept it away.
The next morning, Tommy awoke to the babble of movement and prayers downstairs. He sat up and picked the sleep from the corners of his eyes. John and Robert were absent from the loft. He remembered the events of the previous evening and looked over to notice that Nan Margery’s mattress was empty. He quickly dressed into his brown, cut hand-me-down breeches and frayed undershirt and climbed down the ladder.
The cottage walls, shutters and mirror had been cloaked in black linen, and a curtain hung on a piece of rope that separated the room. He peeked behind the curtain and saw Nan Margery’s body wrapped in a white winding-sheet and placed on planks sitting on wooden stools on the other side of the curtain.
Friends, family and neighbours arrived at the cottage, and two members of the parish accompanied by the vicar’s curate placed her in a black wooden coffin. It was on loan from the burial guild at St Michael’s. The rest of the family met outside to wait for the vicar. When he arrived, the procession made its way across the farrowed field, up to Sun Street, past the manor, onto Main Street.
The residents from the cottages along Sun Street stopped what they were doing and came outside. They held their breath so Margery’s spirit wouldn’t enter them and ducked their heads solemnly. The men removed their felt hats in respect.
An old beggar woman limped toward them from the opposite direction. She used an old carved branch to support her limp. She didn’t look up. She didn’t hold her breath.
The curate, Nathaniel, led with his bell, “Ding, ding, ding, ding, come on, let’s get this over with,” he ruminated, wanting to get back to the rectory and the warmth of the fire. He was young and only recently ordained. The vicar paid him a paltry sum, but at least he was allowed to live in the rectory, unlike other curates.
Nathaniel did the vicar’s bidding; however, he didn’t always agree with his methods. He took into consideration that the vicar had the best intentions, even if they weren’t always conventional. He waited for the day when the vicar was no more. He could take over as vicar and receive the tokens, tithe and contributions from the parish, “Ah, what a good life it would be.”
The vicar led, holding his King James Bible piously in front of him. Thomas, Uncle William, John Hargreaves and John Pigshells followed, carrying the coffin; their heads lowered with respect and sorrow. It wasn’t heavy, for the sickness had reduced Margery’s body to a skeleton. The rest followed slowly behind, including Tommy and his mother, who held his hand tightly for comfort beside her.
At St Michael and All Angels cemetery, the coffin was placed on two stools beside the gravesite of her husband, her feet facing east. Each of the men took off their hats, and Nathaniel rang the bell six times, then one ring for each of the years of Margery’s life. “Bleedin’ ‘ell, I’ll be ringin’ all day fer this old wench, wonder how old she was?” he speculated.
The vicar stood in front of the coffin, his black cassock, white gown, and dark tippet draped over his shoulders.
He cleared his throat, then raised his hand and, with an unemotionally deep voice, began,
“I am the resurrection and the life,” says the Lord. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
The vicar sprinkled holy water on the coffin,
“God of all consolation, your Son Jesus Christ was moved to tears at the grave of Lazarus, his friend.
Look with compassion on your children in their loss; give to troubled hearts the light of hope and strengthen in us the gift of faith, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen”
They all repeated in unison, “Amen,”
After prayers, her body was carefully lifted from the coffin and placed by the members of the burial guild into the pre-dug hole.
The vicar said one more prayer,
“O God, whose Son Jesus Christ was laid in a tomb: bless, we pray, this grave as the place where the body of Margery Rushworth, your servant, may rest in peace, through your Son, who is the resurrection and the life; who died and is alive and reigns with you now and forever. Amen.”
“Amen,” they all repeated.
Murky mists materialised from the cooled earth, and rising sun as those present walked to the mound of dirt beside the shallow grave. They all picked up a handful of rocky soil and dropped it onto Nan Margery’s body. It was a quiet, solemn moment; the heavens opened with a crack of thunder, and the rain started to fall as if signalling the end of her days.
After the burial, all the men who were at the funeral proceeded to the Kings Arms, the women and children to the Rushworth Cottage for black bread, biscuits and ale. Agnes and Tommy started walking back around the horizontally placed tombstones; he gazed at his father, soaking wet but unperturbed by the rain. Standing over the mound of her grave, he clutched his grandmother’s wimple. This disturbed him as he had never witnessed such emotion. His uncle William, standing beside put his arm around his shoulder for comfort. He held his black woollen, felt hat in his other hand and looked downwards at the grave solemnly.
His mother pulled him by his hand, “Come, Tommy, let thy father and uncle say tarreur to Nan Margery in their own way.”
She knew that the two men would not like to be noticed expressing their emotions in public and certainly not in front of Tommy, for in Yorkshire, that’s not what men did.
The drizzle continued as they wandered out of the graveyard, past the pillory holding the now subdued drunkard from the previous night, and along Church Street, which was muddied and wet. They continued downhill past the manor onto Sun Street, past Woodlands Rise, then uphill toward Hall Green. Their cottage, like a spectral vision appearing from the depths of the mist, enticing them home.
A wave of sadness overcame Agnes, and she reminisced, “All those years ago, she knew we were recusant Catholics, but she didn’t care. If it wasn’t for her, we’d probably all be dead. It seems like a lifetime ago now. I’m surprised she lasted as long as she did. At least now she’s at peace.”
A farmer, pulling an ox and cart full of fleece, brought her out of her contemplations, and as he passed them on the road, he doffed his hat, “Condolences, Missis.”
Agnes sadly nodded her acceptance.
He continued up Sun Street. The ox had some difficulty getting tread on the muddy road, grunted and groaned in frustration until the farmer gave him a nudge with his shepherd’s hook, and he found his tread.
The drizzle continued, and their woollen cloaks became saturated and cold. Tommy began to shiver, his feet frozen from the mud which clung to his thin leather boots. The recent events were all new to him, and he didn’t quite know how to act or what to say to his mother, so he said nothing.
The sky was low, grey and bleak, and the weather had set in. They went through the wattle gate between the stone wall and then climbed uphill through the hide to the cottage. He clung tightly to his mother’s hand, trying to keep up with her as she hurried to get out of the rain.
Beyond the cottage, Tommy could see their small flock of white sheep grazing in the brown heather behind the cottage. Agnes shivered, “You’ll have to help me get those sheep out of the weather, Tommy.” There was a chill in the air, and she knew the challenge of winter was approaching.
- Red Winter Journey - June 28, 2022
- Skulduggery - August 1, 2021