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Feather's Miscellany: Henry Wade

John Waddington-Feather's tale tells of the day the employment inspector got more than he bargained for when he called at a Northern hill farm.

I’ve said before that Northern hill-farmers are a race apart, and the hill-farmers around Keighworth especially. They were a hard-nosed lot. Bred it seemed from the sour, rain-sodden soil which they farmed. Anybody trying to make a living from the land up there had to watch his pennies, for there was little profit to be made. It was a mystery how they stuck it year after year, bleak winter after winter, rain-sodden summer after summer. Like their sheep they were bred to it, I suppose, generation after generation evolving into an upland species of farmer peculiar to that region.

They were a conservative lot both in farming and politics. Life was a grim struggle and any profit was hoarded, never shared – not even with their wives. Poor women, they ran their homes on pittances given grudgingly each week after market day; the one of two days a week the farmers left their small-holdings and spent some cash. The other day was their Saturday night trip into town to the Cycling Club, where they treated themselves to a solitary bottle of stout over games of dominoes. They’d play the night away on that one glass of stout, gambling at a penny a time on each game. I can never remember any one of them buying a round of drinks; each one bought his own and made it last the night.

There were exceptions, of course. Jack Forsyte, who farmed next to Henry Wade, was as open-handed as they come; but he was different. Henry always said his neighbour played at being a farmer, for he had a stake in the family mills and the bulk of his income came from them. He’d also been away to a boarding school and college, which distanced him greatly from the rest of the farmers. And again, he never went to the Cycling Club. He was a Freemason and drank at his lodge at the other end of the block to the Cycling Club. He played cards there and the stakes were in pounds, not pence; and drink was bought in rounds, usually whiskies.

He was a ‘gentlemen farmer’ and his manager did most of the work with a couple of labourers. All Jack did was stroll round his farm in the morning with his manager, planning the day ahead or seeing what walls or out-buildings needed mending. Then Jack would take himself off the rest of the day playing golf, or in bad weather snooker at the Lodge. Once a year he’d take his wife on a long cruise and now and again to a Ladies’ Night at the Lodge.

By contrast Henry Wade took his wife nowhere and she worked herself to the bone housekeeping for nothing – just as Henry’s mother had done before her. All was for profit - profit worked hard for - then ploughed back into the farm. There was no icing on Bessie Wade’s wedding cake.

The only visitors to the farm were the man he employed and, more latterly, a woman who came to help Bessie now she was getting old and lame. Sometimes, relations would drop in, but only for tea and a chat. There were no set meals for them, except at Christmas when Henry’s sister and mother were asked to dinner.

But there were more regular visitors to Henry’s farm, inspectors from various ministries: tax inspectors, animal inspectors, land inspectors – and, once, an employment inspector demanding details of the labour Henry employed.

Rumours had gone about that Henry was paying his labourer below the minimum wage. The man was a Pole who, under new regulations, had come over on a work permit from Eastern Europe. The Pole was cheap labour but a necessity, for Henry also was getting on and needed more help.

The inspector turned up one day unexpectedly on Henry’s doorstep. He was a stocky man, neatly dressed, with thick, double-glazed glasses in heavy frames. He carried a large briefcase and when Henry opened the door he said he’d come about the workforce Henry employed.

“You’d better come in,” said Henry, relishing a skirmish with the officious little man before him.

“My name’s Mr Smith – John Smith,” began the inspector, showing his I.D.

“Yer all John Smiths as far as I’m concerned,” said Henry, giving him a sour look, before leading him into a cluttered back-room which served as his office. There Bessie did the accounts. “Now then, what d’yer want, Mr Smith?” he asked, and the way he said ‘Mr Smith’ made it quite clear what Henry thought of him.

“I’ve been sent to check on the wages you’re paying your staff, Mr Wade,” Smith replied pompously.

“Staff?” Henry echoed; then went silent.

“I need a list of your employees and how much they’re paid,” continued the inspector after a long pause, after which he became more assertive than ever.

“Well, said Henry slowly, opening his wages book, “There’s only Stanislaus, who’s just come from Poland, an’ he’s been here about three months now.”

“And you pay him the correct wages?” said the inspector taking the book from Henry.

“I pay him more than t’ minimum wage if that’s what yer mean. He’s a good worker. See for yerself,” said Henry nodding at the book the inspector held.

The inspector examined it thoroughly, then looked up, disappointed. “All seems to be correct there, Mr Wade,” he said at length.

“’Course it’s correct,” said Henry. “I’m allus very careful where money’s concerned. I don’t chuck it away like some folks, but Stanislaus is worth every penny.”

The inspector looked at the book again. “I see you employ a Mrs Wilton. What does she do?”

“She helps my wife an’ my wife pays her. As a matter of fact it’s the missus who does the books. You’ll find nowt wrong with them. She’s very partic’lar.”

The inspector closed the book and handed it back to Henry rather gloomily.

They walked towards the door and he was about to leave when Henry said, “Oh, I nearly forgot, there’s one other bloke I employ – a half-wit.”

“A half-wit!” exclaimed the inspector, the glint returning to his eye. “I hope you’re paying him a fair wage. There was nothing about him in your wages book.”

“It’s because he works for nowt an’ e’s worked here longer than anybody. All his life, as a matter of fact. He still puts in about 12 hours a day, an’ did all the work when he was younger, pays for his own board an’ lodging – an’ sleeps with my wife.”

The inspector look aghast. “I don’t want to know about that, but you say you pay him nothing!”

“Every Saturday night I treat him to a bottle of stout. That’s all he wants,” said Henry with the ghost of a smile about his lips.

“Mr Wade, I want to speak with your half-wit – right now!” demanded the inspector.

“No problem,” said Henry, digging his thumbs deep into his waistcoat pockets as the smile on his face broadened. “You’re speaking to him!”

John Waddington-Feather ©

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