WILLIAM, HENRY, SOLOMON, JOSEPH COLES

Known as Moffey, he was the son of the village grocer, postmaster and pig butcher – a man who like his son, had strange notions: i.e. if a boy hit Moffey and Moffey hit him back, his father would get his whip to Moffey. But if Moffey ran home and told his father instead of hitting, the father would take the whip and beat the other boy and Moffey would get thrupence (3d) reward. This sort of upbringing, maybe, was why Moffey was the man he was? He was known as “the man with a double brain” (schizophrenic). To say Moffey was strange was to put it mildly. He walked with a dancing step, going right up on to his toes with every step. We children loved to stop him; we would get almost past him when we would say:

“Hello, Mr. Coles.” Moffey would be chattering away to himself and hadn’t noticed you, then all of a sudden you’d speak his name and it would stop him in mid stride: There he would teeter, one leg extended this way and one that, balanced on his toes of the other foot, like a ballet dancer.

Moffey was a man of many moods. He would laugh and cry at the same time. Also Moffey could curse and rave like a lunatic, he never swore or used bad language but he would curse anyone and make up a rhyme – not very complimentary – about the someone who had upset him. This got Moffey in a lot of scrapes with people; not only villagers but strangers and even the police. Why people treated him as they did, Moffey couldn’t understand, as he so often said :

“I never wished them any harm, or did them any injury yet they go and have me locked up!”

I first knew Moffey before I started school and I was not big or strong enough to help on the farm. I was fascinated with this man, that talked never ending, with tears in his eyes, laughing and crying at the same time, everything was put to rhyme and he was in some ways childish and liked children – he was my friend.

Two men came to work on our farms that summer; Moffey and Artful were both Souldern men: (known as Belchers i.e. bred and born in Souldern and also had fallen in the town pond).

Moffey was a craftsman, so he told me; his job was to mend gates, fences, carts and doors, making troughs and mangers for cattle to feed out of. My father called him a “Rough Carpenter”. I would have said a “Heavy Carpenter!” For the things he made were much too heavy for me to lift or carry.

Father bought loads of rough sawn elm boards, and cords (stacks) of ash poles, we also had lots of willow trees to be lapped (branches cut every two or three years). Moffey was in his element, with all this wood to play with.

Artful Joe was a seasonal worker – just for the summer – for a few weeks, then he would in his own words “hit the road” (but more about Artful later).

Where Moffey got his name from I am not sure. Why? That was different, yes, so he had to have a name, Moffey was put instead of muffin in the lines. “Do you know the muffin man?” The children sang to him, to annoy him:

“Do you know the Moffey man that lives down our way? Yes, I know the Moffey man that lives down your way”. That was enough for Moffey, off he’d go. Why? I don’t know.

He would talk for hours about all and everything. It was a lovely summer and I spent many hours with Moffey and he so loved my company – to give him nails, or to hold a board, to fetch and carry the tools – just the small ones. He had a very quick amusing chatter and was a source of amusement to me on our farm, three miles from Souldern and civilization.

“Hold on, Young John,” he would say. Or when he was preparing a piece of wood,

“Never plane against the grain, turn it round and start again”.

He had many sayings:

“Seasoned Oak – hard as the devil’s forehead.”

If Moffey was confronted by someone over something he’d said about them, he would say,

“If the cap fits you wear it. My word is my bond.” But you could not rely on it.

“Never have, never will wear the coat of many colours,” was another, but his best one, that got him really laughing, tears and excited, was cutting up a fallen tree:

“Sword in hand and clear the field.” I think he really thought he was a knight of old, going into battle with his battle cry, shouting to one and all: “Forward”. There was only me to come forth with battle colours flying. I strode manfully alongside with a sheet of newspaper tacked on a stick for my flag.

Moffey came two or three times a year, as I was a favourite of his, he would ask father if I could help him. So I would go to Moffey and he would greet me, with laughter and tears and a little dance.

Artful came a few years running for the hay and harvest. He slept rough in Chisnell barn. Every night I took Artful’s dinner from our table with a pint bottle of Dad’s parsnip wine. This was a very enjoyable time and most enlightening.

These two “Belchers” who had run away from home, still were running and did many times after – what a wealth of knowledge these two had. If only I had put pen to paper then, sixty odd years ago!

Going back and forth helping Moffey, we would pass Artful who would say to Moffey,

“Bid up!”

Moffey would reply,

“Go a’gen,” time after time, that was all they said. Moffey would laugh with tears and step dance away. Boy-like after two or three times, I asked,

“Henry, why do you and Artful always say that when you meet up?”

Moffey was in his element, he flung his arms about in excitement, with his large red handkerchief, he wiped the tears away, he danced on one leg and then the other, how he kept his balance – it was a marvel!

“It was like this,” he said. “Farmer Dunket was bringing a cow to Souldern town market from Fritwell. As he drove the cow along Foxhall Lane, he was talking to himself. Farmworkers working alongside the lane hedge stepped up to see who was making such a racket. The farmer was pretending he was at the auction sale, and there he was chattering away to nobody:

“How much am I bid? Go on bid up now, Sir. Go a ’gen? Bid up, Sir: Go a ’gen?” So always the farmer was know as “Bid up Dunket, go a’gen.” Over the years, when they met it was their greeting – a sort of Souldern password.

I took a bottle of wine to Artful in the hayfield on my way to Moffey at work in another field. Artful took a pull at his bottle then as I walked away, called after me,

“Ask Moffey if he has ever been in the cookshop with a muzzle on?”

Was Moffey excited? He laughed, the tears ran down his cheeks, he really got going:

“You know what that means, my boy?” he half sobbed, as he danced about. “In prison – that’s the cookshop. Eas, ace, aha!”

Moffey loved cherricurds – the first milkings when a cow has calved. I would take him two bottles and one of milk in my school satchel. If he was on the road or lane and saw me riding my pony carefully with these bottles, it was reward enough for me – with an elaborate wave of his arm, he would try to attract my attention, this failing he ran, crouched dancing steps and waving: It was better than Charlie Chaplin. If he had money: I had sixpence. If not, his pleasure was worth it for me.

One year gales blew several trees down about our farms, Moffey was the most important man, or so he thought. He told everyone he had got months of work to cut up these trees and blow out the roots. Moffey should have known, my father was a very impatient man, farm work could not, and would not, be held up.

“Two weeks is all the time you get, but Mister, you shall have all the help you need, all the workers on the farm, myself included.” Moffey was like a fart in a colander: not knowing which way to go:

“I shall want some gelignite.”

“I’ll get it” said Dad, “If you can use it.” So it was got, Moffey placed placed the charges,

“Stand back,” he shouts. “Well back. One part of you over Souldern” (two miles away) “and the other over Chisnell house” (more than a mile away). There was a muffled thud, it moved the root a few feet but it did split, so the men could, with horse and chain, pull the roots out.

Moffey was a bit overshadowed by the boss being on the job supervising the men, so he dropped a bough on his foot, said he was in great pain, his foot was smashed – he appealed to my brother, Sam, to take his boot off. Sam never had pain and never thought others did.

“Please, Sam” cried Moffey.

“When did you last wash your feet?” asked Sam.

“Yesterday and I put clean socks on as well” insisted Moffey. Sam moved over to Moffey and sat on a bough.

“Take it off steady,” appealed Moffey. “It’s broke I’m sure.“

Grasping the boot in two hands, Sam snatched the boot off and Moffey fell onto the floor. Poor ole Moffey got up and stood on his so called broken foot, then he got his second wind and said,

“I feel awful, I shall have to go home. Sam, take me home with the horse and cart.”

Sam loaded Moffey in the cart and off they went, as they got to Souldern, Moffey started:

“How you going to get me down and out of this cart Sam?” That was soon done, pulling alongside Halfpenny Cottage in Bates Lane where Moffey lived, Sam just unbarred the cart’s back and tipped Moffey out – like a sack of potatoes, no problem. Moffey’s leg was better in a fortnight – when all the hard work was finished!

Moffey had the job of cutting the odd, broken and dead branches of the Parish Oak. He was in his glory, the parish council had given him the wood for his trouble. From six in the morning till dusk he sawed and chopped and made a good job, Darkness came so Moffey stacked the oak in neat stacks on the side of the lane in nice lengths, what we call “Shoulder Sticks.” I have not heard of this other than around Souldern, but it is a recognised perk for outdoor workers (farmers, gardeners, etc.)

A doctor came to our village in the late 1970’s and took up residence at Barn House in the High Street. I saw him a few days after he moved in.

“Jack,” he asked me, “What is a shoulder stick? When I engaged Harry as a gardener, I settled his pay, hours and duties, as he shook hands on the deal he said,

“Of course, there will be my shoulder stick.”

“What does this shoulder stick mean?”

I explained that it was a good bough of wood for the workman’s fire.

This Souldern custom goes back through the years: Souldern Park was common land to the Ockley Brook. The cow common was the land belonging to the church. Village people had rights to have wood from the trees and bushes on this common land, this was then: thorn, alder, willow, ash, hazel, elm, beech, oak, crab and wild cherry, etc: The good old English woods.

But the Land Enclosure stopped that. A wall was built around the Aynho and Souldern commons and ornamental trees were planted, and keepers were employed to patrol the Parkland, as it was now named. Not only was there no wood, we were deprived of our rabbits and game. So the poor robbed the hedges and trees, and workers carried home their shoulder stick from where they could get one. Soon the employers had to give the shoulder sticks to save their trees and bushes.

This fuel shortage was with us right up till the canal was cut through our parish and then cheap coal was brought to Souldern wharf. The population doubled almost in a few years; when cheap coal came both by water and then by the railways.

Even until the present day, if a tree falls or part of it on or over the wall or the Cover wall – as the old Belcher calls it (not the Park wall) – the wood is soon taken. Or if part of the wall falls down, they are, at nightfall, over and claiming their rights.

The Souldern shoulder stick now explained, I will get back to my story of Moffey having cut the wood and left it for the fetching home, the next day.

To other Belchers living close to, at that end of the village, it did not seem fair – it was the Parish Tree. One man had five sons, with a good shed to put it in, and keep it dry till it would be wanted. It would not be wasted; no sooner said than done.

Next morning Moffey went to clear the field, he had a fit, he was in a right old two and eight. He pranced and danced and breathed curses on them, their children, children of their children, unmarried folks, etc going back generations!

Moffey sent for the police. Our policeman, Bert Cox, was a nice chap – he didn’t like trouble or Moffey, as he always would be forever stirring up, or getting stirred up by someone or himself, in one way or another.

Two or three days after, the bobby got his bike out and came riding down to Souldern from Bicester. He was not pleased to be fetched seven miles by Moffey – so he was not at all at his best as he rode through the rain past the Bear Inn at top of Turnpike, and seeing Moffey striding about the allotments with a twelve bore shotgun in his hands, the bobby thought, “I wonder” and rode slowly past Moffey. Moffey saw him go by and quickly ran out on to the roadway. Bert stopped, turned around and came back to Moffey.

“You got a licence for that thing?”

“Yes, the farmer gave me permission to shoot rabbits.”

“Not on the highway, he didn’t” said Bert the policeman. Poor old Moffey, he never did find out who had had wood and it cost him a ten bob (10 shillings – 50p) summons at Bicester. Trouble was he never even shot a rabbit!

Moffey got married rather late in life, both were over fifty. Moffey was a tidy man, everything in its place – he told his wife repeatedly:

“A place for everything, so keep everything in its place.”

Moffey had a double seated toilet built, doing most of the work himself so that they would not be parted, so he said. The funny thing about it was that as he told us many times over the years, the first night his wife started crying.

“What is the matter?” asked Moffey.

“I can’t tell you” cried his bride.

“Tell me” he insisted. “Tell me at once.”

“You’ll be angry” she sobbed.

“Out with it” demanded Moffey. “What is wrong?”

“I dare not” cried Ann, his wife. “I dare not, you’ll be upset.”

“Tell me, I promise you I will not be angry” Moffey implored.

“Dearest, I am over fifty years old, my bones are set, I don’t want you to interfere with me” she sobbed.

“Think no more about it, I give you my word and my word is my bond.”

So if Moffey went to bed first, she put a pillow on his face when she undressed. If she went to bed first, she pulled the sheet over her face when he undressed.

For a few years Moffey see-sawed along, no woman could hope to live happily with so strange a man. The break came after many upsets:

The Moffeys would have the biggest turkey we reared – twenty-eight pounds. Also for Christmas, he had two rabbits and a six pound piece of home cured ham. He would brag to one and all about the food he had, the best turkey in the parish and the most meat, and just for two people. When things upset him he went to the extreme, as with food.

One Christmas he had not got anything, no money, no food. When his father died he was left property for his life only so that he could not sell it. It was tied down to nephews and nieces after his death, some fifteen cottages and three larger freehold properties, some rented weekly, others quarterly: Every three months on the twenty-fifth of March, June, September and December (known as Quarter Days). He had a dozen cottage rents weekly at one shilling and sixpence. Three cottages at a quarterly rent of six pounds and three houses at ten shillings weekly. He lived in one or other. So he didn’t have to pay rent, but excluding that he still had a good income for most of his time – he had two pounds eight shillings or more weekly.

But Moffey wasn’t Moffey for nothing: he drew money in advance, he would employ someone to help with the carpenter business he ran. One way and another he was always in trouble.

One time Moffey had a lovely white cat, it strayed and Moffey offered ten shillings reward. One chap saw a white cat just like it at Fritwell, so he got it one dark night for Moffey. Now the Fritwell cat was a thief and next morning the cat was on Moffey’s breakfast table when he answered the door to the postman – that was against Moffey’s code of conduct: A place for everything.

Moffey got the twelve bore shotgun and the cat and took it out into the garden and shot “the thief and rogue.” He paid a tenant ten shillings to dig a hole and bury it.

When he went to go into his house, his white cat sat on the doorstep. Poor Moffey – he was ’mazed to death with how he had shot the cat, buried it and then it came back and sat on his doorstep! Moffey had no answer but the villagers did – they knew the story.

It came a deep snow one winter, and children were having fun. Moffey never liked snow, he just couldn’t dance along, and if he stood still a snowball came from somewhere bang in his face. Moffey raved and blustered,

“Wants sweeping up or rolling up in a big ball,” he said and back in his cottage he went. We rolled the biggest snowman you ever saw, and then we wedged it right across his doorway. Moffey was snow-blocked for three days and when he did get out, he was very quiet.

Moffey drew his rents in front of time, putting paid to extra weeks. Before long he was drawn months in advance. He was having twice as much to live on than most of his tenants who were farmworkers on twenty eight bob a week, some were on the dole with ten or twelve bob a week. Moffey got into trouble. He got a name and address out of the newspaper and wrote to a man:

“I will come like a thief in the night or a judge on high and burn your dwelling to the ground. Take this warning as final, I mean what I say.”

The police came and took him and locked him up for six months, when he came home the rents were waiting. He lived it up: over-buying food and everything in reckless abandonment and soon he was without a shilling.

This time his wife was threatened, not the first time by any means but she took umbrage this time. Moffey was upset, he couldn’t find his tape measure and his wife said,

“Perhaps you didn’t put it in your tool chest. You may have laid it down somewhere.” That did it, Moffey did his nut. Ann told him, “You mislaid it, you go and find it.”

Moffey said, “I’ll split the base of your skull and scatter your brains over the barn floor with the first tool I pick up off my carpenter’s bench.” Then she had him locked up.

Moffey said “I never wished her no harm and never did her any injury, because I could not: there was not so much as a match stick on my carpenter’s bench, so I could not hurt her.”

Among other things Moffey had a good memory, he could tell you who bought a certain house, when and how much was paid for it. His memory came in useful when he was in prison, no way was his wife going to live in his house after locking him up in jail. So he went right through his barn workshop and house, itemized every bit of timber and every stick of furniture, i.e. the barn: twelve timber, 10 foot by 4 foot by 6 foot, 12 x 3 x 2, 10 x 6 x 5 x 1, all in detail, then 6 x 10 x 4 x 2 x 2 x 12 x 3 x 2 to be reserved for work in hand. Everything else in the barn to be sold. Same in the house, he went through room by room giving the auctioneer a list of everything, then a list not to be sold. So his wife could not stay in the house, he sold all beds and bedding. These details he repeated years after from memory. He finished the recital with

“Everything else in that room to be sold,” banging one hand on the other.

Another of Moffey’s sayings was that if you was telling him something he would say, “Eec, aoee aah, yes,” as you were talking. One boy would try to tell Moffey a long rambling story just for entertainment for the rest of us.

Moffey now had another problem. He had been taken to court by his wife, to pay maintenance. He stuck his toes in, no way would he pay after his wife sent him to prison. The police would suddenly burst in on him and search him and his house for money. Moffey was subjected to this for years and rarely did they catch him with money.

Artful was now done with his roaming and lived in one of Moffey’s cottages, next door to him in fact. One day the police raided Half Penny Cottage. Moffey knew he hadn’t any money, ’though the police knew he had drawn his rents a day ago. As I passed Moffey’s cottage on my way home, Moffey and Artful were laughing and talking. Seeing me, they called me over and told me the police had called and gone away empty handed. Moffey in high delight said,

“Show him, Joe.”

“Come in” said Artful. “Come in and see what I’ve got in the oven.” Opening the oven door – there was Moffey’s money in Artful’s oven. Moffey was in a very happy state.

Sometimes the police took him off to jail, but not often. He kept his street door locked. Being terraced cottages, Artful could give Moffey the nod and he would sit still in the corner of the cottage with the curtains drawn. Two, three or four days the police watched as they were not sure he was in and dare not break in. When the police relaxed their watch, away Moffey would go, weeks or months, one was never sure if he was on the run or in the “cookshop".

Once he was picked up on the island of Jersey, when Artful came out he showed us a photo of Moffey – all in chef’s whites. He’d said he was a chef at the hotel. Villagers could have told the police that he was potato picking not cooking – BUT there was none of us there, and he knew it.

In the year 1929, we moved from Chisnell Farm up into the village of Souldern. Soon we were retailing milk from the pony trap with churn and milk hand-can, serving pint and half pints on the doorsteps around the village.

There were three shops in the village but none sold potatoes or vegetables. We grew potatoes on our farm, hundreds of them. I know: I had to help plant and pick them up – a back breaking job. Father sold potatoes by the sack as he took the milk round, in fifty-six pounds and one hundred weights (cwt) lots. Some people could not afford fifty-six lbs at a cost of three shilling (fifteen pence) so Mother put some scales in a room in the front of the house, adjoining the street, and Father put a cwt sack of potatoes in there and the Callows shops were born.

When the potatoes we had grown were sold one year, we had no more potatoes: It had been a bad year for them in the gardens. We were asked, “Please get some more.” So we bought more new potatoes. We were asked for bananas, oranges and other fruit. I was interested in helping in our shop. Then I did the milk with veg, fruit etc. around in Souldern. Then with fruit, salads and veg I started around eleven villages.

The pony trap and I were a very welcome service for the people. In the villages at this time, many were going off the village farms to work at Morris Motors Oxford and then Alcan Banbury – town factories. Then they started to expand Bicester and Heyford RAF Station, so this created more jobs in the building trade. These workers no longer had potatoes from their farmer boss, nor were they interested in allotments or green gardens. Also big housing estates sprang into being all round Banbury, Bicester, Brackley and every village gained a few Council houses, some more than others.

The awful years of unemployment hit Souldern badly, being in an agricultural county. Many stood at the village street corners and the town well and pond, but mostly at Bates Corner (originally the Town House corner). Bates House was the poor house where destitute families were housed. It was nothing to see thirty to forty Souldern men “propping the wall up” (leaning against the wall).

When building the hay or corn ricks sometimes the rick builder would have to get a shoulder stick or a ladder to prop the rick that was leaning too much one way. These props became known as “Souldernmen."

One day Moffey walked from Souldern to Croughton along the footpaths. As he journeyed over the fields of the Warren Farm, Croughton, Will Truss, the rick builder on that farm, had a rick leaning over with a dozen props. Almost falling over himself, Moffey danced up to inspect. He was so chuffed he took a pencil and card from his pocket and wrote,

“Do I come from Souldern?” in large capital letters and pinned it on one of the leaning Souldernmen props. This was an insult to Will Truss, as well Moffey knew, as he laughed and cried and chattered as he danced along. He didn’t think anyone would know who put the card on the prop but everyone for miles around could recognise Moffey a mile away.

A few weeks after, Moffey saw Will Truss in Croughton village in the company of several other men. Moffey just had to stop to chat – really to stir things up. Will said,

“Some silly so and so had to poke his nose into things that was none of their affair.”

“If the cap fits you wear it,” said Moffey.

“I don’t know why you go around telling people what to do, aren’t you the silly bugger that shot the pig ’cos it wouldn’t go to roost with the hens?“

Everyone laughed and Moffey crept away. The word spread as it did in villages and Moffey was asked hundreds of times,

“Was it you?”

“It was like this ...” Moffey would relate to his amused audience.

My business grew and at 16 years of age, I was the proud owner of an eight cwt Morris lorry which I called a “van” with over ten villages to serve.

One Saturday evening we saw a badger knocked over and killed on the road to Croughton. It was a lovely marked beast with a beautiful skin. We picked it up and laid it on the wing of the mudguard by the spare wheel, hoping to sell it for 10/– (ten shillings – 50p) to someone. But alas, no one that wanted it knew how to skin it. So at 10 p.m. on Saturday night, we were coming home with the badger still warm by the heat of the motor. Then I had a thought of the very man – Moffey.

Our shop (now Jackstart Cottage) was four cottages up from Moffey’s (Halfpenny Cottage). Next to Moffey’s cottage was his barn in which I garaged my van, so I emptied my van at the shop and at 11 p.m. or thereabouts, pulled down alongside Moffey’s to unlock the door and to garage the van – we had (and still have) no street lights in our village.

It was a couple of minutes work to put the badger on the doorstep. I propped it up with a stone under its chin, with it sat so that the front legs were pulled out in front and its two back legs pulled out behind and a half brick wedged in each side – it looked as if it was snoozing on the step – real lifelike. Moffey would be surprised when he opened his door on Sunday morning.

It was midnight before I got to my bed; being Sunday morning I lay in till 7 a.m. As I was dressing there was a bang on the street door and someone shouting through the letterbox.

“Master, quick there is a badger asleep on Moffey’s step.” Dad was at the door in a second,

“Don’t go near it” he said. “I’ll get my shotgun”

Oh,’ I thought, ‘this is going to be good.’ I followed Dad to the street door, standing on the third and top step, I had a good view of the proceedings. To think that not Moffey but my father was the one to be had by my trick!

Meanwhile Father, in his haste, put his trousers on over his pyjamas and pushing two cartridges up the spout of his gun, stalked the badger.

“Keep back” he warned. “Vicious things when cornered: keep well back.”

Good man,” I thought. Walking on eggs shells, you would say that Father gingerly stalked the badger, gun at the ready, finger on the trigger, he slowly and cautiously went. Then two steps away, he jumped forward, kicked the badger over, the gun almost boring through its hide, finger on the trigger ready to blast it to Kingdom come. Moffey thanked Dad. Everyone did – for his bravery.

“It could have been nasty. Fancy it coming right into the village to die.”

I daresay they thought it brought the stone and half bricks to rest on!

Moffey was pleased by the praise of what a lovely skin. “Ecc, ace, aah.” Yes, he was almost tongue tied, but not for long. Off he went to get Will Mold to skin it. “A pound,” said Will. Moffey paid it. Now he had the skin he paid 10/– (ten shillings – fifty pence) to Jessie Finch to take it to the Taxidermist in Banbury. It was a beautiful job, but Moffey was on the run and lost interest in the skin and money was short: He never had three pounds to pay for its return.

It was weeks before I dare tell how it was me that set up the badger on Moffey’s step: I can’t write what Dad said!

I said at the beginning of this chapter that Moffey could curse. Not many could be written here. One that comes to mind when someone had upset him and then tried to talk him round:

Moffey had the electricity put in his cottage, the bill came, not being a normal person, he just went on using it. He’d pay when he was ready. He was cut off – the kettle wouldn’t boil, the light didn’t work, he went mad.

A pair of large pliers in his hand and carrying a ladder, he went into my paddock next to the Crown Cottage to the electric pole and proceeded to mount the ladder. He hadn’t any electricity so there would be none for the rest of the village!

My father and I got him off the ladder, just in time to stop him getting fried. When he had cooled off about six months after, we paid the bill and got the electricity board man to come and reconnect the supply.

“Out!” said Moffey.

“I’ve come to put you back on,” said the man.

“Out!” Moffey told him.

The fellow said “I’m going to put it back on.”

“Over my dead body,” stormed Moffey. “They cut me off, they can please themselves.” Well this went on for a bit, Moffey getting steamed up and put a curse on the electricity man:

“I’ll see you the other side of Hell’s flames into damnation,” he raved. The fellow grabbed his tools and ran.

With so many out of work Moffey’s barn or cottage was refuge to many, daytime or nighttime. He liked company and the men did help him with his work, in return for a shoulder stick or a few logs of wood. Some of the lads would tease him or make fun of his wife’s ‘carrying ons’ (as they called it). Or his shooting the cat, or his supposed shooting of the pig ’cos it wouldn’t go to roost with the hens. Then they laughed. Moffey with sword in hand said,

“Clear the field, come on chaps, I’ve finished for today” and he started to lock up his sheds and barn. “Out of the barn and spin no more yarn.”

Adjoining the barns and buildings was a two-stall stable. This Moffey let to Otto. Now Otto got fed up with Moffey’s chatter when attending his ponies, so he penned the stable door on the inside. Moffey, discovering that he was being kept out, was equal to the occasion and penned him in from the outside and then got lost; leaving Otto penned in the stable till 9 p.m. at night. I heard shouting as I garaged my van. For ten hours Otto was held prisoner. He moved out the next day vowing revenge. As Moffey said,

“Tomfoolery and me never will, nor won’t agree.”

Winter nights, we boys would go and sit and talk with Moffey. One, Aubrey Finch, used to shave him for years until he was called up into the army. (He lost his life at Arnhem.)

“That boys got a barber’s touch,” Moffey would say. How Aub kept a straight face was a marvel, for as soon as we got outside his cottage after shaving Moffey we would have a good laugh at the faces Moffey pulled while being shaved and I kept on talking and asking questions. If Moffey opened his mouth, Aub put the shaving brush soap and all straight in, with a “Sorry, keep still, Henry”. The soap he swallowed kept his bowels open because he just could not stop talking. All I did was ask him a few questions: He was bound to answer.

“You Bad Boys,” you may say, but he was shaved free and his corns trimmed. We rubbed in a bit of salt, least Aub did at my suggestion. Hurt him? No, Moffey swore by Aub – his barber and corn curer.

If anyone was to threaten bodily violence to Moffey or grabbed him in temper, he swung back and forth on one foot, watch in hand:

“Strike me and I’ll have you to Bicester Court. I’ve got the time and place: strike me if you dare. A summons you’ll have, so there!”

He was lucky, I don’t think he was ever struck, not as I remember, but many times he deserved it.

Tree felling was like wine to Moffey. He got excited striding in his dancing step through the village telling one and all where, who and what. One year in the 1920’s a lot of trees were felled in our Souldern Park. The villagers were in every night, any wood that was moveable was taken and stored for one or two winters fuel. Moffey was in and out day after day talking and giving advice nonstop, even when the timber carriages were being loaded he was in amongst the men, tree trunks, and a dozen big horses that dragged the huge trunks out to the timber carriages and rolled them up on to the carriage ready to be securely fixed with thick strong chains. The horses pulled out the other trees with thick ropes.

Moffey got in and under the ropes time and time again. The head carter, a local man Moffey knew, warned Moffey but he kept telling him what to do and what he was doing wrong. In the finish he took the rope off the tree trunk, his three horses had just loaded on the timber carriage, put the noose around Moffey’s neck, spoke to the horses, they stepped forward just enough to tighten the rope, the other end was attached to a big standing tree as an anchor over the top of the loaded timber. Tim, the carter, holding the rope around Moffey’s neck and looking him straight in the face. The horses holding the rope taut waiting for the word of command ready to snatch Moffey up onto the load, in to Kingdom come.

Moffey stood on tiptoe, green at the gills, frightened to death, watch in hand. Seconds, the horse, carter and Moffey stood. All the workers and onlookers held their breath, then Jim with a quick throw unshackled Moffey shouting, “Gee up” to the horses. They went, Moffey dropped his watch and the drama was over. Tight lipped, Moffey slunk away, to change his pants they said. He gave Jim the victory of the field.

The next Christmas Moffey had drawn his rents in advance, no money to come so he’d pawned his silver watch and chain. He said to me

“Johnie, no mirth or glee to me.”

I was the proud owner of fifty red Rhode Island hens in their first full year of lay; lovely birds, (or so I thought). I went into the hen run and got a big six pounder. Then took it to Moffey – not in the daytime, he wouldn’t take charity, but was he grateful? Not he. I went back home, my wife said,

“Was he grateful?”

“No,” I said. “The old so and so said ‘you may as well take it back if you can’t bring me a pound of lard and a packet of stuffing to cook it with.’” We looked at each other and burst out laughing, that was Moffey!

Our son John, three or four years old, was now a favourite of Moffey’s. He was forever popping into Moffey’s, fascinated with his tricks as I had been at his age. Moffey would visit our shop to buy and sample new goods, always with:

“I’ll have some of that new kick-out.” Moffey was always one for creating a sensation but one of the strangest of all he caused through kindness.

There was a fete in a neighbouring village, Moffey walked there and had a look around and made a few purchases, one being gas filled balloons. Moffey had to buy some of them: That was a “new kick-out!”

Armed with five large gas filled balloons Moffey, as night fell, started his dance-walk back home. People in cars looked in amazement at this dancing balloonist, locals shouted:

“Give a run and you’ll take off!” Moffey, with battle spoils held high, headed for home. At 11.30 p.m. there was a banging on my door, going downstairs to open it, Moffey’s voice said,

“Jack open quick or they are gone.”

“What in the blazes?” I asked, opened the door. Moffey was up and down the three steps to the shop laughing, crying and dancing for the young John. He had had no food all day, he had no doubt spent his last few pence on the balloons, walked five or six miles back, been shouted and laughed at. My wife had thought the same: Moffey was soon sat down with a plate of fat home cured ham. “The fatter – the better.” Moffey loved it when the fat was yellow with age.

Moffey loved biscuits, he ate pounds of broken biscuits, cramming handfuls in his mouth at a time and then you stood well back because he couldn’t stop talking and biscuits sprayed in all directions. To use one of his expressions:

“Shot and shell was falling!” You took cover.

The police, and his wife, stopped trying to get money or arresting him. His wife was still living in the village and still worshipped at the Catholic Church. To torment her, Moffey stood at Bates Corner, in the High Street, every Sunday morning, dressed in his Sunday best.

“She promised to go to church together – undivided, she breaks her promise and I stand there, when I can, to remind her. My words my bond: I don’t wear the coat of two colours.”

One night outside our shop, I was loading my van with grocery orders. Moffey had in the last few days returned from the cookshop. It was dusk when someone rode up on a bicycle and dismounted behind Moffey, looking up I saw it was Bert, our policeman, not Moffey – he swung on one leg yapping away. Bert stepped up close behind him, he slapped his hand smartly on Moffey’s shoulder, “Enjoy your holiday Henry?”

“I beat you.”

“Beat us? We locked you up.” I walked in the shop and left them to it. No way would Moffey admit defeat, it could be a long drawn out argument.

Moffey was a colourful character and lived rough, at times overeating and living like a lord, one day almost starving. He died quietly in his bed downstairs by the window of Halfpenny Cottage. I have tried to do as Moffey often said,

“Tell the truth and shame the devil."

When visiting him on winter nights, Moffey would stand facing us, in front of his big open log fire with a big concrete mantlepiece, hands clasped behind him chattering away, rocking back and forwards and every now and then he’d bang his forehead – thump – on that solid lump of concrete. It was a masterpiece he wasn’t knocked out!

Artful Joe was a roamer and a tramp for most of his life but a Belcher as he was a Souldern man. Artful was a bit of a lad, according to the stories that he told me. That first summer when he and Moffey came to work on our farm, most of his stories were told to me in Chisnell Barn, when I went back to collect his plates or take him an extra bottle or jug of wine. But sometimes, as we rode in the hay wagon from Chisnell to Souldern, Clifton and Deddington Farms and some land at Hempton.

I must start from the very beginning:

I got to know Artful very well because he came and lived right in our barn, a stone’s throw from the house. I always took his main meal of the day – whatever we had: Artful had – in fact, he had more. He loved onions always and every time Mother put a – raw, cooked, pickled or green – one or the other with his dinner. His stay would be from three weeks to three months. This was all according to ‘his itch‘. To me this itch was a terrible thing: It made Joe hit the road – that was his reason for deserting me.

Artful was a big red-headed man in his late forties. He always carried a five foot walking stick made out of ash or nut, straight with a good knob on the end – this was to help and defend. He carried a small sack bag with his personal things in. You never saw in that bag, Joe opened the mouth to feel inside for what he wanted – knife, or ’bacca, etc, – he smoked a small broken clay pipe. He always carried his top coat if he went off the farm. His dress was always – heavy hobnailed boots, no socks: This man walked hundreds of miles and never had bad feet.

He washed his feet two or three times a week in the canal, when with us. I was very surprised at no socks – but he had two pieces of cloth (linen, I should think) twelve inches wide by three foot long. First thing Joe did was to wash these and lay them out to dry when he was ready to dress. Sometimes he stripped and had a swim in his birthday suit. He would sit and have a smoke while he dried in the sun, wind or warm summer evening. I never saw Joe with a towel. Then the rough shirt, it was washed in the canal with the foot wraps and was put on with his big thick cord trousers.

Then with care he started to sort of bandage each foot: The foot was placed as near centre longways, one end came up and over the toes, back under the foot over the instep, to the ankle. The other end came back, under the heel, around the ankle – holding the other end. I saw Joe do this a dozen times or more. I never saw anything pinned or a strap of any sort to hold the ends together.

Joe never had blisters or chilblains. I had chilblains on hands and feet every winter, but Mother would not let me have wraps instead of socks.

In the evenings, in Chisnell Barn, when Joe settled back on the hay, with his dinner inside him and a pint of good parsnip wine to wash it down; Joe would lay back with a chuckle and tell me of his exploits. Now the big thing to me was why he had no home and this is how Joe told it to me when I was about seven years old:

At this time, adjoining Souldern Manor was a row of twelve cottages, now demolished and carted away. These cottages, like the present manor were built on common land. The third cross marking the village boundary was a little to the right of the manor on the west front side. This manor was build in 1673. The cottages were built by the poor and homeless, bits of huts first and then a cottage was built with stone from pits in Souldern and sand and gravel mostly from Back Lane by the chapel out of Gough’s Close or sand pits on Inland Farm by Crooks Firs. One man built one cottage and others followed, propping one against another for we had many stonemasons and rural craftsmen in Souldern.

Two members of the Lake family were stonemasons: In my youth Jim – who lived in Foxhill Lane, just up from the Fox Inn – and Reuben – who lived in one of the Old Green Cottages, as they were known, as they were built L-shaped in a long terrace backing onto the manor gardens. Fronting to the south with a beautiful view of the Cherwell valley to the southwest – a beautiful spot, it caught all the afternoon sun. As Dr. Jones said to me one day when he was visiting the eighty and ninety year olds living in the Old Green Cottages:

“John, they never die along here, they just peacefully fade away.”

Now these cottages were built on common land by the owners who lived in them: No rent was paid. Soon a small plot of land in front was cultivated for vegetables and sheds were built with a toilet adjoining. There was a road in front of the cottage and a small flower garden between the road and the cottage. The veg garden dropping away to the south – the other side of the road about a chain long. [A chain measures 66 feet, or 22 yards, or 100 links, or 4 rods or 20.1168 metres].

The ownership of the cottage and garden was passed down from father to son – oldest son first, by the cottage door key and these were known as ‘key houses’ or ‘key cottages’.

Artful Joe was his father’s oldest son and lived with his father. Joe and his wife had four or five children. (I am not sure how many children, as they were ten years and more older than me and I only saw two of them when visiting twenty years later).

When his father died, Joe had the key of his cottage that his forefathers had built. It was his freehold and had been for generations. Joe hoped it would continue so but the parish had taken over all the cottages for 1/– (1 shilling – 5 p) per week. He must pay for the cottage and chain of garden. Joe refused to pay, they said “Get out” but Joe said:

“No you put me out, I am not afraid of no man and in my own house let ’em try to shift me.” The police came and bundled his wife, children and household goods outside.

“You put my family out of our house, you look after them” said Joe – what could he do against six policemen? But leave he did – his wife and children were kept by the parish. Joe was there “missing” as he said from then on, until he was nearly old enough to draw old age pension, at seventy. He never paid any stamps toward it. Of course, the parish, who brought his children up and kept his wife, then paid him a pension, and when in his seventies he lived out his life in a Green Cottage now called Almshouse, paying a rent of 1/6 (1 shilling & 6 d – seven and a half pence) a week for one of the cottages he had been thrown out of.

“I cleared off for three years before this – I was always in trouble for doing some silly thing or another,” he told me.

Artful’s trousers were held in place with a wide thick leather belt, which was held together with a brass buckle – a huge three inch square piece of metal – this was Artful’s weapon of defence. He did brandish his stick ‘to drive or clear away’ but when he was up against it, back to the wall, the belt buckle “fetched ’um down!”

To get Artful to talk, a drop of Dad’s best parsnip wine would do the trick – this, I soon found out. As I was pot boy, I knew which barrel to draw a jug from. One evening I got Artful going:

“Joe how would you fetch ’um down?” I asked. Artful sprang to his feet, then belt in hand, he gave me a demonstration, explaining by word of ‘the putting to flight of three.’

“I’m afraid of no man, bobby or beak” he would say. “These three met me not far from Souldern as I walked towards ’um they eyed me up and down and behind and in front to see that nobody was about.

Oh,’ thinks me, ‘they be going to do me.’ I kept close to cover by the wall and never let ’um get behind me. When I was five or six yards away, I yelled and, belt in hand, I charged straight at ’um – Never let ’um get set,” shouted Artful. I whooped Artful up as he swung and cut with his belt side, stepping:

“Crash – one down,” he shouts.

“Do for him, Joe,” I yelled.

“One is running away – “stop and fight you yellow bellows,” he continues as he stands across the fallen foe – it was only a bag of potatoes but I thought the telling was worth that extra jug of Dad’s parsnip wine.

Artful was not called Artful for nothing and, like Moffey, I loved their company and their tales. It was always a sad day for me when these two had to go. Moffey – it was his chatter – the other workers got fed up with it.

“He was all right,” they said “in short does". A few weeks was enough, same for Dad – so off he went.

Artful never outstayed his welcome, he just hit the road.

Away across the fields, I went astride my pony one autumn evening. Artful had given us a miss that summer. He had had three summers in a row with us and Artful was a roamer. As I rode up to the Green I saw Artful – he was walking along the hedges and ditches with his coat slung over his shoulder and his bag of bits in one hand and his long walking stick in the other. The smoke from the Green Gardens’ bonfires, the dampness of the evening dew on the air, a dozen or more busy lifting crops – the cottagers – with harvest home, burning the potato tops, leaves and rubbish. Artful’s eyes taking it in.

Someone said, “Hello, Joe.” Others heard, some stopped and looked, others worked on making the most of a good evening, but one and all knew that Artful was back. As I looked I wondered how many times had Artful come back to Souldern and walked along that road and seen that scene on his way home? Tonight I know where he would doss (sleep) – in the first clump at the top of our lane leading to Chisnell Farm.

“No man can move me” said Artful many times. “That twenty-one oaks be common land and belongs to Souldern folk, I be Souldern born and bred. There’s where I sleep in the good weather.”

Artful had been working one autumn and had £5 in his pocket. The weather turned bad (this is how he told it):

“I had helped this farmer, he was all behind with his harvest – ’twas up country and they be later than around here when getting the harvest in. He, Mrs, his young son and me, I stopped on and helped thatch ricks and, as it was getting on a bit, I thought I’ll make for Souldern. On me way, the weather broke just as I got to Warwick. I spent most of me money on the way but I’d got this fiver. I had got to have shelter – it was sleeting down and blowing and I couldn’t risk roughing it, but if I went in the spike (workhouse) the guvner would make me pay. They search you and take your keep. I’d picked up with a woman around Warwick and she had a nice head of hair.”

“Had she Joe?” I asked polite-like.

“Yes, that is why I picked up with her. I hid my £5 note in her hair till we come away next morning.”

“What happened to her Joe?” I asked.

“I sold her that same day.”

“You sold her, Joe! I didn’t think you could do things like that and what gratitude for hiding your £5. How much did you get?”

“£2, I think the other bloke with us thought he was getting my £5 as well!”

Artful never accepted a lift when he was on the Souldern road, he’d take a lift up to the village but as soon as we got to the village he’d say:

“Stop the pony – I’ll walk from here.” He only took what he worked for. Artful was not afraid of work but he didn’t like too much of it, sort of in small doses – just so he had a few pounds to see him through the winter. He didn’t cost much to keep in the summer, he slept under an oak tree – “never elm they always attract the lightning.” In the bad weather he slept in the parson’s shed built by the Cover wall in the Parsons Meadow in the rectory: we children were always warned to keep away from Artful’s lodgings.

Artful was soon away, come the spring – the call of the road, he would say. He took his few belongings, mainly a coat, stick and bag and he hit the road. He would say:

“I’ve travelled far and wide and seen a fair bit on me walks. I’ve been in some good places and I’ve been in some rum ’uns. They put me in the cookshop once, hard labour they said. It were a hot summer and there we were ‘digging stone’, they called it, down in this quarry. Great big rocks – big as a horse they dug out, the warder threw me a seven pound hammer and said break ’um up. Two of us started thrashing this rock, the sun beat down, we were in full sun, wasn’t a breath of wind in half an hour, we were stripped to the waist, sweat pouring off us. I thought: ‘I’ve had enough of this’, so I swung the hammer hard as I could, missing the rock, hitting over it so the handle came down on the rock busting the handle. I stood still.

“Get to work,” shouts the warder.

“I can’t,” I said. “I broke me hammer.”

“That won’t get you out of work,” he said. “I got plenty more”. I looked up as he threw another one, he had got a dozen spares so that dodge didn’t work, he was as artful as I was!”

Not long after Artful left his family, he went to sea.

“It was like this” said Artful. “I had walked the country from one end to the other, I met up with a chap who had been on ships working his way around. He knew a bit about ships having lived close to the sea, as a boy-chap (youth) he ran away to sea and knew where to go to get a ship to any part of the world. I got a brother in Canada so I says to him: “I wouldn’t mind working over, how long will it take?”

“Six weeks on one of the cattle steamships, if you don’t mind working down below for the six weeks.”

“Done,” I says. “I’ve been locked up out of the sun for months and it didn’t worry me.” I got a cattle ship and I went to the stokehole and for six weeks, I shovelled coal into them boilers. When I come up on deck we was there! I found my brother – he was doing well – got his own house and family. He was so pleased to see me he gave me a wonderful time. They wanted me to stay with them but after six weeks I moved on. I walked the country for a bit, then I picked up a ship back home. The winters over there were real sum ’ut. I didn’t stop for one!”

As Artful got older he found that the hills got steeper and the winters colder. The summers were getting hotter. It took him longer to walk the miles. So he took one of Moffey’s cottages next to him (now Silverfind Cottage in Bates Lane). He was sixty-odd by now. The parish gave him a few shillings a week. He would work and get a shoulder stick.

We boys would visit him or Moffey for a night or two a week. Artful would tell us a story or he would get his squeeze box (concertina) and play. Sometimes we would sing, always around Christmas time we would join in with carols. Artful would bellow away as he sang. He told us a gang of lads went up to Aynho Big House – to ‘Squire Cartwright’s’:

“One Christmas a dozen of us went, he had us in and gave us plenty to eat and drink. He then asked each of us to sing something. I sang: ‘When shall my labour have an end’ and ‘My joy when shall I seek.’ The Squire looked at me. “Well I will say you have got plenty of volume!” he said.

Colonel England lived in Souldern Manor and was our local Magistrate. Moffey and Artful called him “Old seven Days”. If they were up before him for taking a rabbit or a shoulder stick etc. he never let them off, it was always “Give him 7 days."

The thing about Artful that amused us on our night visits was his refreshment was always in the kettle. On winter nights, it was swinging over the fire, but on the hob was his large brown teapot full of tea stewing. Artful took many drinks of this hot tea straight from the pot, putting the teapot spout in his mouth and sucking the tea straight from the teapot much to our amazement!

To see the two, Moffey and Artful walking together was a sight. Moffey dancing along chattering excited and harmless, always on the defensive, of ordinary build. Artful a big raw-bone man afraid of no man, defiant when walking, he let his knees act as springs. Each step was opposite to Moffey – as Artful’s knees went out as he put his weight on, Moffey went up onto his toes, Artful went down. As a small boy it was very amusing to watch these two walking about the farm and so I was always aware of this ‘hob-bobbing,’ as I called it, of these two Belchers.

One winter’s day, Artful stood with a crowd of twenty five to thirty out of work men at the town house corner.

“See me knock that Bobby’s hat off” said Artful. There had been a three inch fall of snow the day before and most of the men had been laid off. ‘Shut out of work’ was the employers’ term, but to the workers their job was closed down, stopped, no pay, in other words they were shut out. Some of the yellow bellies skeddaddled as he made his snowball, not too big but hard packed. Then when the Bobby was twenty yards by he let fly.

“You have got to hit ’em from behind to knock ’em off ’cos of the strap under his chin,” said Artful. Away went his helmet rolling for yards. A few of the chaps laughed aloud, back came the Bobby. The other chaps quietened down but not Artful, he laughed louder. The Bobby was mad and straight up to Artful he went.

“Dash it were you,” he said. “You dun that.” Artful just kept laughing, the Bobby got red in the face. Artful never said a word, a few of the men kept laughing but nobody answered him back, only thing he could do was to tell them to clear off home. They slowly moved off, laughing down the street.

Artful had one great love – cricket – I have included him in the village sport chapters.