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Feather's Miscellany: A Tale Of True Love

John Waddington-Feather, a master of the short story, tells a most satisfying tale of the birth of true love.

Keighworth wasn’t always the clean, attractive town it is now. Less than a century ago it was a forest of mill chimneys and engineering factories which daily spewed out clouds of smoke and grime over the town. Its two rivers ran black with pollution, which killed off virtually all the wildlife in and around them. Not only wildlife suffered; the town’s manual workers grew up badly housed, under-nourished and often malformed, crippled by lack of protein and vitamins, struck down by such diseases as tuberculosis, smallpox and diphtheria.

But what a change there’s been over the past fifty or so years. The townsfolk now are well fed and looked after by the NHS; many of them overfed, in fact, judging by the number of obese people I see waddling about the town. They all dress well and there are now quite a number of immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe. A very different place from the earlier Keighworth I knew; and it’s about that earlier Keighworth into which my parents and grandparents were born that this little tale is all about.

At the end of the 19th century there was a mill much larger than the rest in Ingerworth, a Victorian suburb on the southern side of the town running out to Haworth and the Lancashire border. It had its own railway station, a couple of pubs and a fine parish church next door to the Railway tavern. A stone’s throw from the church and pub was a large woollen mill surrounded by rows of small terrace houses where the mill workers lived.

Thankfully, only a mile or two away were the open moors where the workers could escape to fresh air and clean countryside. It was there many of the workers hurried on their one day off from work – Sunday; and three times a year when they had more days off; Easter, Whitsuntide and Christmas. Whit Monday was a special day for walking and provided the excuse for a great exodus from the town over the moors to Ilkesworth, a flourishing spa town in the next valley.

And you couldn’t have a greater contrast than Airedale, where Keighworth lay, and Wharfedale, where Ilkesworth was situated. One was rural with farmland, little villages and market towns up its length; but from Keighworth downstream the Aire Valley was dirtily industrial. So the great escape on Whit Monday from Keighworth to Ilkesworth was a trip into Elysium for the mill workers.

On the Whit Saturday mid-day when the Ingerworth mill emptied, the air was filled with the happy chatter of the noisy workers hurrying home. Most of them were women or girls clad in woollen shawls and clogs, the pinafores over their long dresses reeking of mill-grease and weft. All were peaked and wan; their shawls wrapped tightly round their thin bodies. They’d worked long hours, since six that morning, and were eager for the short holiday ahead. Their homes were in the long rows of tiny terrace houses around the mill; but the mill-owners’ homes were at the other end of town at Utworth, grand palatial places in their own grounds, well away from the smoke and grime of the mills which made them their fortunes.
One Whit Saturday the great exodus began as crowds of workers hurried home to change for their annual walks across the moors. They’d all gone through the mill gates, when one man lagged behind, alone. He limped badly and had a large built-up boot on one foot for he’d been born club-footed. He was Frank Wade, a man in his mid-twenties who worked as a warp-dresser at the mill. That is, he set up the long, wooden cylinders which held the threads through which the shuttles threaded the weft when the looms were in motion. It was a skilled job putting the warp in the looms a trade in its own right which Frank had been apprenticed to when he’d left school at twelve. For the first two or three years he’d been an odd-job lad about the mill till he was old enough and strong enough to train as a warp-dresser.

Like the rest of the workers Frank slogged away for long hours and was exhausted by the time he’d finished work; the more so because he had to drag his heavy boot around all day. But for his crippled leg he’d have been a well built young man. He was good-looking, too, with a mane of hair with soft, brown eyes to match. He was a compassionate man, always willing to help his workmates in times of need. He was unmarried and lived by himself behind the parish church where he sang in the choir, which was the main focus of his life outside the mill.

An only child, Frank had been orphaned early on in life, when his parents had died in one of the cholera epidemics which regularly ravaged Keighworth and the towns around. After their deaths he’d been raised by an elderly spinster aunt, and when she died he’d lived on alone in her cottage behind the church. He was now twenty five and a confirmed bachelor it seemed, for no girl looked twice at him and in any case his shy nature was a great obstacle to courtship.

As he limped slowly home that sunny Whit Saturday, he had to cross some waste ground near the mill, and there he heard someone sobbing. Surprised, he trudged over to the fence from behind which the sobbing came and there he found a young woman sobbing her heart out. He recognised her at once. She was Lizzie Brooksbank, whose looms he serviced .

She was called “Ugly Liz” by some of her insensitive fellow workers, for from childhood her face had been scarred with smallpox, and there was no escaping her facial ugliness; yet had they been more sensitive they’d have found other beauty in her, for she was a very loving girl.

Though she was eighteen she might well have been mistaken for a much younger woman her frame was so puny. Like Frank, she’d been orphaned as a baby after her parents had died in the very same epidemic which had killed Frank’s parents; but unlike Frank she’d been raised in an orphanage. She’d a rich head of auburn hair, the one outward feature of her which was attractive, otherwise the rest of her face was repellent.

When he saw her sitting by herself on a rickety wooden seat by the fence, Frank limped across to her.

“What’s up, Lizzie lass?” he asked, sitting beside her.

“Leave me alone!” she snapped back waspishly. “I’ll sort meself out. Ah don’t want any sympathy from thee.”

Frank remained silent a moment, and as the sobbing continued, he said quietly, “Don’t take on so, Lizzie. Cryin’ won’t ‘elp. What’s ‘appened to thee?”

Lizzie glanced across at him and for a moment ceased weeping. “They’ve been makin’ fun o’ me again those lads ‘at work in t’wool shed. “Pepper pot Face” an’ “Cow Face” they called me, then laughed when they saw Ah was upset.”

“Tha ought to ignore them, Lizzie. They’re an ignorant lot, not worth botherin’ abaht. So cheer up.”

But Lizzie didn’t cheer up. On the contrary Frank’s kind words brought forth another flood of tears. Then she blurted out, “ An’ Ah did so want to go walkin’ wi’ em ower t’moors this Whit.”

“Has tha nobody at all to walk wi’?” asked Frank.

“They’d only make fun o’ mi face,” she sobbed.

“So tha’ll be spendin’ t’Whit holiday by thisen?” asked Frank.

Lizzie nodded.

“Well,” he went on softly, “Ah know of somebody else who’ll be alone this Whit. Somebody who can’t even start to walk ower t’moors; somebody who’d be a real handicap to anybody he walked wi’: somebody who’ll be cooped up by hissen all over t’holiday. An’ it won’t stop there ‘cos he’ll nivver be able to go walkin’ wi’ t’others. An’what’s more, tha’s not the only one who’s been made fun of all thi life.”

Lizzie looked across at Frank, then down at his club foot as Frank went on,
“Tha can walk an’ jump an’ run. Ah’ve nivver been able to play out, nivver been able to play football or cricket like all t’other lads, but Ah still enjoy meself in me own way.”

“But they’ve nivver laughed at thi face,” said Lizzie.

“No. They’ve allus pulled me leg,” he quipped back.

Lizzie saw the humour and smiled through her tears at him.

“Tha knows, Lizzie,” Frank continued, “when tha smiles thi whole face changes. It looks lovely. Tha should smile more often.”

Lizzie wiped her eyes and smiled again.

“That’s better,” said Frank, helping her to her feet.
“Come on,” was all he said and gently put his arm around her waist, the very first time any man had done that. “Come home wi’ me an’ share me meal. Tha can share t’whole holiday wi’ me if tha wants. Ah’m noan goin’ anywhere.”

So, dear reader, need I say more? It was the beginning of a beautiful romance which led to a lifelong, happy marriage and in time to a family of two healthy, beautiful girls, who were educated well and didn’t have to work in the mill; nor did their generation have to suffer the scourges of their parents’ generation.

John Waddington-Feather ©

(Acknowledgement: This little tale was inspired by the works of two good friends,
Professor William Ruleman of Tennessee Wesleyan College; and Dr Ian Dewhirst, local historian and former reference librarian at Keighley Public Library. Professor Ruleman has produced an excellent translation of the Austrian writer, Stefan Zweig’s, “Vienna Spring, published by the Ariadne Press, California, ISBN 978 1 572 41173 9, a collection of short stories and novellas, one of which gave me the background to my own tale; as did pictorially the photo from Dr Dewhirst’s first-class local history of Keighley, “The Story of a Nobody, published by Mills and Boon, London.
ISBN 0 263 06436 0 showing young mill-workers in clogs and shawls outside the mill-gates in Keighley around 1890.)


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