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The Bint Family of Shinfield Fiction and Mary Russell Mitford
 
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Since originally embarking more than thirty years ago on the long and interesting task of seeking out our family history, I have during all that time held on to a rather grubby copy of Mary Russell Mitford's book, "Our Village", her home in the hamlet of Three Mile Cross being part of Shinfield parish, a few miles from Reading.

Mary used our family name in two of her stories and she, in common with our ancestors, buried both her parents at Shinfield Church. Our first proven relatives, John and Mary Bint, were married there in 1750 and it is of course where the Bint children and a number of grand-children were baptised. 

Parish records however do not indicate that Hannah Bint, London Jack, or Isaac the mole-catcher, the subjects of the two stories at the bottom of this page, as being anything other than fictional characters.

We may though, through Mary's pages, capture a more romantic glimpse of 1820s country life and perhaps ignore for a brief period how tough just existing would have been for our Shinfield and neighbouring Arborfield farm labouring ancestors.

 

Our own Hannah Bint (1804) was the daughter of Shinfield born farm labourer Thomas Bint (1769 -1840) and Sarah Appleton (1774-1826) who were married at Shinfield in June 1796. Hannah, who was baptised at Shinfield in September 1804, would have been only fifteen when Mary Mitford arrived at the parish in March 1820. At that time Hannah's family were her parents Thomas & Sarah Bint, one brother - eight year old  Philip, and three sisters - Maria 13, Sarah 10, and Ann 5.

The Reverend George Hulme,  whose wife was from the wealthy Breedon family of Bere Court at Pangbourne, was Curate at neighbouring Arborfield Church in 1818. According to a register his family later passed to a local school, he taught the young Hannah Bint and other local children in the Sunday School at his home, Shinfield Grove. 

There was a period between her mother Sarah's death in 1826 and her marriage to George Burrett in 1828 when Hannah would have been left to take care of the family though, at that time her brother Philip was 14 and  youngest sister Ann 11. 

Husband George who was a farm labourer at the time of his marriage, became one of the earliest school-masters at Arborfield in the 1840s and at some point, probably after her youngest child was born in 1846 , Hannah joined him as school mistress.

In the early 1850s the Burrett family moved with their seven children to neighbouring  Swallowfield schoolhouse where the couple remained as schoolmaster and schoolmistress until George's retirement in the 1870s. 

Did Mary Mitford and Hannah Bint know each other? They both buried their parents at Shinfield Church. We know that Mary Mitford would surely have attended some of the same church services as the Bint family between 1820 and 1850 and being a cleric's grand-daughter and naturally very inquisitive, would have taken an interest in the activities of the local clergy and congregation. It also to me seems unlikely, even allowing for their widely different social levels, that the Bint family would have been unaware of Mary's existence and popularity and her use of the Bint name in her writings. She also for the last five years of her life lived in the village of Swallowfield where Hannah was school mistress. 

 

Mary Russell Mitford, the author of 'Our Village' was buried in the north-east corner of  Swallowfield churchyard in 1855, and Hannah Bint (Burrett) at the same churchyard in 1885.

 

 

 

Mary Russell Mitford (1787 - 1855)

Mary Russell Mitford was born on the 16th of December 1787. She was the only child of her parents, who were well connected; her mother was an heiress. Her father belonged to the Mitfords of the North. Mary was a very precocious child. She describes herself as 'a puny child, with an affluence of curls which made her look as if she were twin sister to her own great doll.' She could read at three years old and she learnt the Percy ballads by heart almost before she could read. 

Miss Mitford wrote: " In common with many only children, I learnt to read at a very early age. My father would perch me on the breakfast-table to exhibit my only accomplishment to some admiring guest, who admired all the more from my being a small puny child, gifted with an affluence of curls who might have passed for the twin sister of my own great doll. On the table was I perched to read some Foxite newspaper, Courier or Morning Chronicle, the Whiggish oracles of the day. ... I read lead ing articles to please the company ; and my dear mother recited ' The Children in the Wood ' to please me. This was my reward, and I looked for my favourite ballad after every performance, just as the piping bull-finch that hung in the window looked for his lump of sugar after going through ' God save the King'. The two cases were exactly parallell."

In 1797, she drew a prize in the Irish Lottery worth £20,000. The child herself insisted on choosing the number, 2224, because its digits made up the sum of her age. On the strength of this, Dr. Mitford built a fashionable town house on the London Road in Reading before moving to 'Bertram House', a small country estate in nearby Grazeley. 

Between 1798 and 1802, Mary was in a good school at 22 Hans Place, London, kept by Mrs. St.Quintin, a French refugee, where Lady Caroline Lamb had been an earlier pupil. 

In 1802, Mary settled at home with her parents and her literary taste began to develop. She read enormously. In 1806, she mastered fifty-five volumes in thirty-one days and, in 1810, appeared her first published work, 'Miscellaneous Poems.'

The next two or three years were brilliant enough; for the family must have lived at the rate of three or four thousand a year. Their hospitality was profuse, they had servants, carriages, they bought pictures and furniture, they entertained. Cobbett was among their intimate friends. The Doctor naturally enough invested in a good many more lottery tickets, but without any further return.

The ladies seem to take it as a matter of course that Mary's father should speculate and gamble at cards, and indeed do anything and everything he fancied, but they beg him at least to keep to respectable clubs. He is constantly away. His daughter tries to tempt him home with the bloom of her hyacinths. 'How they long to see him again!' she says, 'how greatly have they been disappointed, when, every day, the journey to Reading has been fruitless. The driver of the Reading coach is quite accustomed to being waylaid by their carriage.' Then she tells him about the primroses, but neither hyacinths nor primroses bring the Doctor away from his cards. Finally, the rhododendrons and the azaleas are in bloom, but these also fail to attract him.

Long after, she used to describe how she first studied her beloved ballads in the breakfast-room lined with books, warmly spread with its Turkey carpet, with its bright fire, easy chairs, and the windows opening to a garden full of flowers,--stocks, honeysuckles, and pinks. It is touching to note how, all through her difficult life, her path was (literally) lined with flowers, and how the love of them comforted and cheered her from the first to the very last. In her saddest hours, the passing fragrance and beauty of her favourite geraniums cheered and revived her. Even when her mother died she found comfort in the plants they had tended together, and at the very last breaks into delighted descriptions of them.

By March 1820, Dr. Mitford's spend-thrift irregularities had reduced his family to the utmost poverty and it was necessary for Mary to turn to literature for their means of livelihood. The household moved to Three Mile Cross, Shinfield, a village on the turnpike road between Reading and Basingstoke, and lived there in "an insufficient and meanly furnished labourer's cottage". The largest room was about eight feet square. Miss Mitford resided there for more than thirty years, allowing herself only one luxury - a flower garden. She wrote much for the magazines, but soon grew convinced that her talent lay in tragedy, a view in which Coleridge, on reading 'Blanch of Castile,' had encouraged her.

Her mother died on 1st January 1830, and was buried in the parish church at Shinfield, while her father's increasing extravagances kept her poor. She confessed to Miss Barrett that "although want, actual want has not come, yet fear and anxiety have never been absent."

This series of sketches of village scenes and vividly drawn characters was based upon life in Three Mile Cross, a hamlet in the parish of Shinfield, near Reading  where she lived. Shinfield had also featured twice in the works of Thomas Hardy, who called it Gaymead. Its principal appearance was as the setting for The Son’s Veto from Life’s Little Ironies. Sophy, the chief character, even married the local rector in the church there. Later, Hardy wrote of Jude the Obscure working as a decorator in a church near Gaymead, though its exact location is uncertain.

Mary Russell Mitford is one of those lively, unpretentious writers who-without knowing it, since she could not foresee the changes of the next hundred and fifty years - has left us some precious glimpses of a vanished past. Her style is so simple and natural that she could be thinking aloud by the parlour fire, or writing a long and cheerfully familiar letter. 
'Oh what a watery world!' she cries, exasperated with the English weather. 'I will look at it no longer. I will walk on. The road is alive again. Noise is re-born. Waggons creak, horses splash, carts rattle, and pattens paddle through the dirt with more than their usual clink '... She is making her way home through the village of Three Mile Cross, her white greyhound Mayflower bounding before her and the January rain soaking her bonnet and shawl. We are in the early eighteen-twenties. George IV is on the throne, Jane Austen was still alive only a few years ago, and Byron is setting out for Missolonghi. And Miss Mitford, the plump little lady whom everyone in the village knows and likes, is thinking out, for The Lady's Magazine, the next instalment of Our Village, the collection of rural tales and sketches which was to make her famous. 

" The pride of my heart," she writes, " and the delight of my eyes is my garden. Our house, which is in dimensions very much like a bird- cage, and might with almost equal convenience be laid on a shelf, or hung up in a tree, would be utterly unbearable in warm weather were it not that we have a retreat out of doors and a very pleasant retreat it is. ... " Fancy a small plot of ground with a pretty, low, irregular cottage at one end ; a large granary, divided from the dwelling by a little court running along one side, and a long thatched shed, open towards the garden, and supported by wooden pillars on the other. The bottom is bounded, half by an old wall and half by an old paling, over which we see a pretty distance of woody hills. The house, "granary, wall and palings are covered with vines, cherry trees, roses, honeysuckles and jessamines, with great clusters of tall hollyhocks running up between them. . . . This is my garden ; and the long pillared shed, the sort of rustic arcade, which runs along one side, parted from the flower-beds by a row of rich geraniums, is our out-of-door drawing- room. I know nothing so pleasant as to sit there on a summer afternoon, with the western sun flickering through a great elder tree, and lighting up one gay parterre, where flowers and flowering shrubs are set as thick as grass in a field . . . where we may guess that there is such a thing as mould but never see it. I know nothing so pleasant as to sit in the shade of that dark bower ... now catching a glimpse of the little birds as they fly rapidly in and out of their nests . . . now tracing the gay gambles of the common butterflies as they sport around the dahlias ; now watching that rarer moth which the country people, fertile in pretty names, call the bee-bird. . . .

Three Mile Cross, a small and straggling village a few miles from Reading, is still just-identifiable from her descriptions, though now it lies under the arm of a great motorway. It is only too easy to drive through, or over, without noticing it. In the later nineteenth century so great was Miss Mitford's celebrity that it had become a place of pilgrimage, and the cottage where she lived a nostalgic shrine. Today, alas, the little building is a depressing spectacle. The original red brick shows only through gaping holes of crumbling plaster. The cottage has a decayed, unoccupied look, though there are still curtains behind the closed windows.  Margaret Lane

 

ON JANE AUSTEN      Mary Russell Mitford who knew a thing or two about writing a sharp and pointed letter, had this to say about the young Jane Austen and her physical appearance. The report is based on the observations of her mother, who had lived in the Steventon neighbourhood when Jane was growing up.
"Mama says she was then the prettiest, silliest, most affected, husband-hunting butterfly she ever remembers."  she goes on to add, in a bravura performance of downright maliciousness, that Jane had by then (1815):"stiffened into the most perpendicular, precise, taciturn piece of 'single blessedness' that ever existed" and until Pride and Prejudice came out,
"she was no more regarded in society than a poker or a fire screen or any other thin, upright piece of wood or iron that fills its corner in peace and quiet. The case is very different now; she is still a poker, but a poker of whom everyone is afraid."

And later " Of course I shall copy as closely as I can Nature and Miss Austen, keeping, like her, to genteel country life, or rather going a little lower perhaps, and I am afraid with more of sentiment and less of humour. I do not intend to commit these delinquencies, mind I mean to keep as playful as I can ; but I am afraid of their happening in spite of me."

She some years later wrote to her friend Mrs. Hoare on the subject of Jane Austen's works : " Your admiration of Jane Austen is so far from being a ' heresy,' that I never met any high literary people in my life who did not prefer her to any female prose writer. . . . For my own part I delight in her."

 

The last few years of her life were spent in a cottage at the neighbouring village of Swallowfield.   "I am charmed with my new cottage. ... It stands under the shadow of superb old trees, oak and elm, upon a scrap of common which catches every breeze and I see the coolest of waters from my window. "

And seen just beyond her garden fence. " Have you the white wild hyacinth in your parts? "  she asks a friend. " It makes a charming variety amongst its blue sisters and is amongst the purest of white flowers all so pure. A bank close to my little field is rich in both. Have you fritillaries ? They are beautiful in our water meadows, looking like painted glass"

 

Two stories from "Our Village"

 

HANNAH BINT by Mary Russell Mitford

 

The Shaw, leading to Hannah Bint's habitation, is, as I perhaps have said before, a very pretty mixture of wood and coppice; that is to say, a tract of thirty or forty acres covered with fine growing timber--ash, and oak, and elm, very regularly planted; and interspersed here and there with large patches of underwood, hazel, maple, birch, holly, and hawthorn, woven into almost impenetrable thickets by long wreaths of the bramble, the briony, and the brier-rose, or by the pliant and twisting garlands of the wild honeysuckle. 

In other parts, the Shaw is quite clear of its bosky undergrowth, and clothed only with large beds of feathery fern, or carpets of flowers, primroses, orchises, cowslips, ground-ivy, crane's-bill, cotton-grass, Solomon's seal, and forget-me-not, crowded together with a profusion and brilliancy of colour, such as I have rarely seen equalled even in a garden. Here the wild hyacinth really enamels the ground with its fresh and lovely purple; there,

'On aged roots, with bright green mosses clad,
Dwells the wood-sorrel, with its bright thin leaves
Heart-shaped and triply folded, and its root
Creeping like beaded coral; whilst around
Flourish the copse's pride, anemones,
With rays like golden studs on ivory laid
Most delicate; but touch'd with purple clouds,
Fit crown for April's fair but changeful brow.'

The variety is much greater than I have enumerated; for the ground is so unequal, now swelling in gentle ascents, now dimpling into dells and hollows, and the soil so different in different parts, that the sylvan Flora is unusually extensive and complete.

The season is, however, now too late for this floweriness; and except the tufted woodbines, which have continued in bloom during the whole of this lovely autumn, and some lingering garlands of the purple wild vetch, wreathing round the thickets, and uniting with the ruddy leaves of the bramble, and the pale festoons of the  briony, there is little to call one's attention from the grander beauties of the trees-- the sycamore, its broad leaves already spotted--the oak, heavy with acorns--and the delicate shining rind of the weeping birch, 'the lady of the woods,' thrown out in strong relief from a background of holly and hawthorn, each studded with coral berries, and backed with old beeches, beginning to assume the rich tawny hue which makes them perhaps the most picturesque of autumnal trees, as the transparent freshness of their young foliage is undoubtedly the choicest ornament of the forest in spring.

A sudden turn round one of these magnificent beeches brings us to the boundary of the Shaw, and leaning upon a rude gate, we look over an open space of about ten acres of ground, still more varied and broken than that which we have passed, and surrounded on all sides by thick woodland. As a piece of colour, nothing can be well finer. The ruddy glow of the heath-flower, contrasting, on the one hand, with the golden-blossomed furze--on the other, with a patch of buck-wheat, of which the bloom is not past, although the grain be ripening, the beautiful buck-wheat, whose transparent leaves and stalks are so brightly tinged with vermilion, while the delicate pink-white of the flower, a paler persicaria, has a feathery fall, at once so rich and so graceful, and a fresh and reviving odour, like that of birch trees in the dew of a May evening. The bank that surmounts this attempt at cultivation is crowned with the late foxglove and the stately mullein; the pasture of which so great a part of the waste consists, looks as green as an emerald; a clear pond, with the bright sky reflected in it, lets light into the picture; the white cottage of the keeper peeps from the opposite coppice; and the vine-covered dwelling of Hannah Bint rises from amidst the pretty garden, which lies bathed in the sunshine around it.

The living and moving accessories are all in keeping with the cheerfulness and repose of the landscape. Hannah's cow grazing quietly beside the keeper's pony; a brace of fat pointer puppies holding amicable intercourse with a litter of young pigs; ducks, geese, cocks, hens, and chickens scattered over the turf; Hannah herself sallying forth from the cottage-door, with her milk-bucket in her hand, and her little brother following with the milking-stool.

My friend, Hannah Bint, is by no means an ordinary person. Her father, Jack Bint (for in all his life he never arrived at the dignity of being called John,  indeed in our parts he was commonly known by the cognomen of London Jack),  was a drover of high repute in his profession. 

No man, between Salisbury Plain and Smithfield, was thought to conduct a flock of sheep so skilfully through all the difficulties of lanes and commons, streets and high-roads, as Jack Bint, aided by Jack Bint's famous dog, Watch; for Watch's rough, honest face, black, with a little white about the muzzle, and one white ear, was as well known at fairs and markets as his master's equally honest and weather-beaten visage. Lucky was the dealer that could secure their services; Watch being renowned for keeping a flock together better than any shepherd's dog on the road--Jack, for delivering them more punctually, and in better condition. No man had a more thorough knowledge of the proper night stations, where good feed might be procured for his charge, and good liquor for Watch and himself; Watch, like other sheep dogs, being accustomed to live chiefly on bread and beer. His master, though not averse to a pot of good double X, preferred gin; and they who plod slowly along, through wet and weary ways, in frost and in fog, have undoubtedly a stronger temptation to indulge in that cordial and reviving stimulus, than we water-drinkers, sitting in warm and comfortable rooms, can readily imagine. For certain, our drover could never resist the gentle seduction of the gin-bottle, and being of a free, merry, jovial temperament, one of those persons commonly called good fellows, who like to see others happy in the same way with themselves, he was apt to circulate it at his own expense, to the great improvement of his popularity, and the great detriment of his finances.

All this did vastly well whilst his earnings continued proportionate to his spendings, and the little family at home were comfortably supported by his industry: but when a rheumatic fever came on, one hard winter, and finally settled in his limbs, reducing the most active and hardy man in the parish to the state of a confirmed cripple, then his reckless improvidence stared him in the face; and poor Jack, a thoughtless, but kind creature, and a most affectionate father, looked at his three motherless children with the acute misery of a parent who has brought those whom he loves best in the world to abject destitution. He found help, where he probably least expected it, in the sense and spirit of his young daughter, a girl of twelve years old.

Hannah was the eldest of the family, and had, ever since her mother's death, which event had occurred two or three years before, been accustomed to take the direction of their domestic concerns, to manage her two brothers, to feed the pigs and the poultry, and to keep house during the almost constant absence of her father. She was a quick, clever lass, of a high spirit, a firm temper, some pride, and a horror of accepting parochial relief, which is every day becoming rarer amongst the peasantry; but which forms the surest safeguard to the sturdy independence of the English character. Our little damsel possessed this quality in perfection; and when her father talked of giving up their comfortable cottage, and removing to the workhouse, whilst she and her brothers must go to service, Hannah formed a bold resolution, and without disturbing the sick man by any participation of her hopes and fears, proceeded after settling their trifling affairs to act at once on her own plans and designs.

Careless of the future as the poor drover had seemed, he had yet kept clear of debt, and by subscribing constantly to a benefit club, had secured a pittance that might at least assist in supporting him during the long years of sickness and helplessness to which he was doomed to look forward. This his daughter knew. She knew also, that the employer in whose service his health had suffered so severely, was a rich and liberal cattle-dealer in the neighbourhood, who would willingly aid an old and faithful servant, and had, indeed, come forward with offers of money. To assistance from such a quarter Hannah saw no objection. Farmer Oakley and the parish were quite distinct things. Of him, accordingly, she asked, not money, but something much more in his own way--'a cow! any cow! old or lame, or what not, so that it were a cow! she would be bound to keep it well; if she did not, he might take it back again. She even hoped to pay for it by and by, by instalments, but that she would not promise!' and, partly amused, partly interested by the child's earnestness, the wealthy yeoman gave her, not as a purchase, but as a present, a very fine young Alderney. She then went to the lord of the manor, and, with equal knowledge of character, begged his permission to keep her cow on the Shaw common. 'Farmer Oakley had given her a fine Alderney, and she would be bound to pay the rent, and keep her father off the parish, if he would only let it graze on the waste;' and he too, half from real good nature--half, not to be outdone in liberality by his tenant, not only granted the requested permission, but reduced the rent so much, that the produce of the vine seldom fails to satisfy their kind landlord.

Now Hannah showed great judgment in setting up as a dairy-woman. She could not have chosen an occupation more completely unoccupied, or more loudly called for. One of the most provoking of the petty difficulties which beset people with a small establishment in this neighbourhood, is the trouble, almost the impossibility, of procuring the pastoral luxuries of milk, eggs, and butter, which rank, unfortunately, amongst the indispensable necessaries of housekeeping. To your thoroughbred Londoner, who, whilst grumbling over his own breakfast, is apt to fancy that thick cream, and fresh butter, and new-laid eggs, grow, so to say, in the country--form an actual part of its natural produce--it may be some comfort to learn, that in this great grazing district, however the calves and the farmers may be the better for cows, nobody else is; that farmers' wives have ceased to keep poultry; and that we unlucky villagers sit down often to our first meal in a state of destitution, which may well make him content with his thin milk and his Cambridge butter, when compared to our imputed pastoralities.

Hannah's Alderney restored us to one rural privilege. Never was so cleanly a little milkmaid. She changed away some of the cottage finery, which, in his prosperous days, poor Jack had pleased himself with bringing home, the china tea-service, the gilded mugs, and the painted waiters, for the useful utensils of the dairy, and speedily established a regular and gainful trade in milk, eggs, butter, honey, and poultry--for poultry they had always kept.

Her domestic management prospered equally. Her father, who retained the perfect use of his hands, began a manufacture of mats and baskets, which he constructed with great nicety and adroitness; the eldest boy, a sharp and clever lad, cut for him his rushes and osiers; erected, under his sister's direction, a shed for the cow, and enlarged and cultivated the garden (always with the good leave of her kind patron the lord of the manor) until it became so ample, that the produce not only kept the pig, and half kept the family, but afforded another branch of merchandise to the indefatigable directress of the establishment. For the younger boy, less quick and active, Hannah contrived to obtain an admission to the charity-school, where he made great progress--retaining him at home, however, in the hay-making and leasing season, or whenever his services could be made available, to the great annoyance of the schoolmaster, whose favourite he is, and who piques himself so much on George's scholarship (your heavy sluggish boy at country work often turns out quick at his book), that it is the general opinion that this much-vaunted pupil will, in process of time, be promoted to the post of assistant, and may, possibly, in course of years, rise to the dignity of a parish pedagogue in his own person; so that his sister, although still making him useful at odd times, now considers George as pretty well off her hands, whilst his elder brother, Tom, could take an under-gardener's place directly, if he were not too important at home to be spared even for a day.

In short, during the five years that she has ruled at the Shaw cottage, the world has gone well with Hannah Bint. Her cow, her calves, her pigs, her bees, her poultry, have each, in their several ways, thriven and prospered. She has even brought Watch to like butter-milk, as well as strong beer, and has nearly persuaded her father (to whose wants and wishes she is most anxiously attentive) to accept of milk as a substitute for gin. Not but Hannah hath had her enemies as well as her betters. Why should she not? The old woman at the lodge, who always piqued herself on being spiteful, and crying down new ways, foretold from the first she would come to no good, and could not forgive her for falsifying her prediction; and Betty Barnes, the slatternly widow of a tippling farmer, who rented a field, and set up a cow herself, and was universally discarded for insufferable dirt, said all that the wit of an envious woman could devise against Hannah and her Alderney; nay, even Ned Miles, the keeper, her next neighbour, who had whilom held entire sway over the Shaw common, as well as its coppices, grumbled as much as so good-natured and genial a person could grumble, when he found a little girl sharing his dominion, a cow grazing beside his pony, and vulgar cocks and hens hovering around the buck-wheat destined to feed his noble pheasants. Nobody that had been accustomed to see that paragon of keepers, so tall and manly, and pleasant looking, with his merry eye, and his knowing smile, striding gaily along, in his green coat, and his gold-laced hat, with Neptune, his noble Newfoundland dog (a retriever is the sporting word), and his beautiful spaniel Flirt at his heels, could conceive how askew he looked, when he first found Hannah and Watch holding equal reign over his old territory, the Shaw common.

Yes! Hannah hath had her enemies; but they are passing away. The old woman at the lodge is dead,poor creature; and Betty Barnes, having herself taken to tippling, has lost the few friends she once possessed, and looks, luckless wretch, as if she would soon die too!--and the keeper?--why, he is not dead, or like to die; but the change that has taken place there is the most astonishing of all-- except, perhaps, the change in Hannah herself. Few damsels of twelve years old, generally a very pretty age, were less pretty than Hannah Bint. Short and stunted in her figure, thin in face, sharp in feature, with a muddled complexion, wild sunburnt hair, and eyes whose very brightness had in them something startling, over-informed, super-subtle, too clever for her age,--at twelve years old she had quite the air of a little old fairy. Now, at seventeen, matters are mended. Her complexion has cleared; her countenance has developed itself; her figure has shot up into height and lightness, and a sort of rustic grace; her bright, acute eye is softened and sweetened by the womanly wish to please; her hair is trimmed, and curled and brushed, with exquisite neatness; and her whole dress arranged with that nice attention to the becoming, the suitable both in form and texture, which would be called the highest degree of coquetry, if it did not deserve the better name of propriety. Never was such a transmogrification beheld. The lass is really pretty, and Ned Miles has discovered that she is so. There he stands, the rogue, close at her side (for he hath joined her whilst we have been telling her little story, and the milking is over!)--there he stands--holding her milk-pail in one hand, and stroking Watch with the other; whilst she is returning the compliment by patting Neptune's magnificent head. There they stand, as much like lovers as may be; he smiling, and she blushing--he never looking so handsome nor she so pretty in all their lives.
There they stand, in blessed forgetfulness of all except each other; as happy a couple as ever trod the earth. There they stand, and one would not disturb them for all the milk and butter in Christendom. I should not wonder if they were fixing the wedding day.

 

ISAAC BINT THE MOLE-CATCHER 

There are no more delightful or unfailing associations than those afforded by the various operations of the husbandman, and the changes on the fair face of nature. We all know that busy troops of reapers come with the yellow corn; whilst the yellow leaf brings a no less busy train of ploughmen and seedsmen preparing the ground for fresh harvests; that woodbines and wild roses, flaunting in the blossomy hedgerows, give token of the gay bands of haymakers which enliven the meadows; and that the primroses, which begin to unfold their pale stars by the side of the green lanes, bear marks of the slow and weary female processions, the gangs of tired yet talkative bean-setters, who defile twice a day through the intricate mazes of our cross-country roads. These are general associations, as well known and as universally recognised as the union of mincepies and Christmas. I have one, more private and peculiar, one, perhaps, the more strongly impressed on my mind, because the impression may be almost confined to myself. The full flush of violets which, about the middle of March, seldom fails to perfume the whole earth, always brings to my recollection one solitary and silent coadjutor of the husbandman's labours, as unlike a violet as possible - Isaac Bint, the mole-catcher. 

I used to meet him every spring, when we lived at our old house, whose park-like paddock, with its finely-clumped oaks and elms, and its richly-timbered hedgerows, edging into wild, rude, and solemn fir-plantations, dark, and rough, and hoary, formed for so many years my constant and favourite walk. Here, especially under the great horse-chestnut, and where the bank rose high and naked above the lane, crowned only with a tuft of golden broom; here the sweetest and prettiest of wild flowers, whose very name hath a charm, grew like a carpet under one's feet, enamelling the young green grass with their white and purple blossoms, and loading the air with their delicious fragrance; here I used to come almost every morning, during the violet-tide; and here almost every morning I was sure to meet Isaac Bint. 

I think that he fixed himself the more firmly in my memory by his singular discrepancy with the beauty and cheerfulness of the scenery and the season. Isaac is a tall, lean, gloomy personage with whom the clock of life seems to stand still. He has looked sixty-five for these last twenty years, although his dark hair and beard, and firm manly stride, almost contradict the evidence of his sunken cheeks and deeply-lined forehead. The stride is awful: he hath the stalk of a ghost. His whole air and demeanour savour of one that comes from under ground. His appearance is " of the earth, earthy." His clothes, hands, and face are of the colour of the mould in which he delves. The little round traps which hang behind him over one shoulder, as well as the strings of dead moles which embellish the other, are incrusted with dirt like a tombstone; and the staff which he plunges into the little hillocks, by which he traces the course of his small quarry, returns a hollow sound, as if tapping on the lid ofa coffin. Images of the church-yard come, one does not know how, with his presence. Indeed he does officiate as assistant to the sexton in his capacity of grave-digger, chosen, as it should seem, from a natural fitness; a fine sense of congruity in good Joseph Reed, the functionary in question, who felt, without knowing why, that, of all men in the parish, Isaac Bint was best fitted to that solemn office. 

His remarkable gift of silence adds much to the impression produced by his remarkable figure. I don't think that I ever heard him speak three words in my life. An approach of that bony hand to that earthy leather cap was the greatest effort of courtesy that my daily salutations could extort from him. For this silence, Isaac has reasons good. He hath a reputation to support. His words are too precious to be wasted. Our molecatcher, ragged as he looks, is the wise man of the village, the oracle of the village inn, foresees the weather, charms away agues, tells fortunes by the stars, and writes notes upon the almanack-turning and twisting about the predictions after a fashion so ingenious, that it is a moot point which is oftenest wrong-Isaac Bint or Francis Moore. In one eminent instance, our friend was, however, eminently right. He had the good luck to prophesy, before sundry witnesses-some of them sober -in the tap-room of the Bell-he then sitting, pipe in mouth, on the settle at the right-hand side of the fire, whilst Jacob Frost occupied the left- he had the good fortune to foretell, on New Year's Day I80I, the downfall of Napoleon Buonaparte - a piece of soothsayers hip which has established his reputation, and dumbfounded all doubters and cavillers, ever since; but which would certainly have been more striking if he had not annually uttered the same prediction, from the same place, from the time that the aforesaid Napoleon became first consul. But this small circumstance is entirely overlooked by Isaac and his admirers, and they believe in him, and he believes in the stars, more firmly than ever. 

Our mole-catcher is, as might be conjectured, an avid bachelor. 

Your married man hath more of this world about him-is less, so to say, planet-struck. A thorough old bachelor is Isaac, a contemner and maligner of the sex, a complete and decided woman-hater. Female frailty is the only subject on which he hath ever been known to dilate; he will not even charm away their agues, or tell their fortunes, and, indeed, holds them to be unworthy the notice of the stars. 

No woman contaminates his household. He lives on the edge of a pretty bit of woodland scenery called the Penge, in a snug cottage of two rooms, of his own building, surrounded by a garden cribbed from the waste, well fenced with quickset, and well stocked with fruit-trees, herbs, and flowers. One large apple-tree extends over the roof-a pretty bit of colour when in blossom, contrasted with the thatch of the little dwelling, and relieved by the dark wood behind. Although the owner be solitary, his demesne is sufficiently populous. A long row of beehives extends along the warmest side of the garden:-for Isaac's honey is celebrated far and near; a pig occupies a commodious stye at one corner; and large flocks of ducks and geese (for which the Penge, whose glades are intersected by water, is famous) are generally waiting round a back gate leading to a spacious shed, far larger than Isaac's own cottage, which serves for their feeding and roosting-place. The great tameness of all these creatures-for the ducks and geese flutter round him the moment he approaches, and the very pig follows him like a dog -gives no· equivocal testimony of the kindness of our molecatcher's nature. A circumstance of recent occurrence puts his humanity beyond a doubt. 

Amongst the probable causes of Isaac's dislike to women may be reckoned the fact of his living in a female neighbourhood (for the Penge is almost peopled with duck-rearers and goosecrammers of the duck and goose gender), and being himself exceedingly unpopular amongst the fair poultry-feeders of that watery vicinity. He beat them at their own weapons; produced at Midsummer geese fit for Michaelmas; and raised ducks so precocious that the gardeners complained of them as forerunning their vegetable accompaniments; and" panting peas toiled after them in vain." In short, the Naiads of the Penge "had the mortification to find themselves driven out of B-- market by an interloper, and that interloper a man who had no manner of right to possess any skill in an accomplishment so exclusively feminine as duck-rearing; and being no ways inferior in another female accomplishment, called scolding, to their sister-nymphs of Billingsgate, they set up a clamour and a cackle which might rival the din of their own gooseries at feeding-time, and would inevitably have frightened from the field any competitor less impenetrable than our hero. But Isaac is not a man to shrink from so small an evil as female objurgation. He stalked through it all in mute disdain-looking now at his mole-traps, and now at the stars-pretending not to hear, and very probably not hearing. At first this scorn, more provoking than any retort, only excited his enemies to fresh attacks; but one cannot be always answering another person's silence. The flame which had blazed so fiercely at last burnt itself out, and peace reigned once more in the green alleys of Penge-wood. 

One, however, of his adversaries-his nearest neighbour still remained unsilenced. 

Margery Grover was a very old and poor woman, whom age and disease had bent almost to the earth; shaken by palsy, pinched by penury, and soured by misfortune -a moving bundle of misery and rags. Two centuries ago she would have been burnt for a witch; now she starved and grumbled on the parish allowance; trying to eke out a scanty subsistence by the dubious profits gained from the produce of two geese and a lame gander, once the unmolested tenants of a greenish pool, situate right between her dwelling and Isaac's, but whose watery dominion had been invaded by his flourishing colony. 

This was the cause of feud; and although Isaac would willingly, from a mingled sense of justice and of pity, have yielded the point to the poor old creature, especially as ponds are there almost as plentiful as blackberries, yet it was not so easy to control the habits and inclinations of their feathered subjects, who all perversely fancied that particular pool; and various accidents and skirmishes occurred, in which the ill-fed and weak birds of Margery had generally the worst of the fray. One of her early goslings was drowned-an accident which may happen even to water-fowl; and her lame gander, a sort of pet with the poor old woman, injured in his well leg; and Margery vented curses as bitter as those of Sycorax; and Isaac, certainly the most superstitious personage in the parish-the most thorough believer in his own gifts and prediction-was fain to nail a horse-shoe on his door for the defence of his property, and to wear one of his own ague charms about his neck for his personal protection. 

Poor old Margery! A hard winter came; and the feeble, tottering creature shook in the frosty air like an aspen-leaf; and the hovel in which she dwelt-for nothing could prevail on her to try the shelter of the workhouse-shook like herself at every blast. She was not quite alone either in the world or in her poor hut: husband, children, and grandchildren had passed away; but one young and innocent being, a great-grandson, the last of her descendants, remained, a helpless dependent on one almost as helpless as himself. 

Little Harry Grover was a shrunken, stunted boy of five years old; tattered and squalid, like his grandame, and, at first sight, presented almost as miserable a specimen of childhood as Margery herself did of age. There was even a likeness between them; although the fierce blue eye of Margery had, in the boy, a mild appealing look, which entirely changed the whole expression of the countenance. A gentle and a peaceful boy was Harry, and, above all, a useful. It was wonderful how many ears of corn in the autumn, and sticks in the winter, his little hands could pick up! how well he could make a fire, and boil the kettle, and sweep the hearth, and cram the goslings! Never was a handier boy or a trustier; and when the united effects of cold, and age, and rheumatism confined poor Margery to her poor bed, the child continued to perform his accustomed offices; fetching the money from the vestry, buying the loaf at the baker's, keeping house, and nursing the sick woman, with a kindness and thoughtfulness which none but those who know the careful ways to which necessity trains cottage children would deem credible; and Margery, a woman of strong passions, strong prejudices, and strong affections, who had lived in and for the desolate boy, felt the approach of death imbittered by the certainty that the workhouse, always the scene of her dread and loathing, would be the only refuge for the poor orphan. 

Death, however, came on visibly and rapidly; and she sent for the overseer to beseech him to put Harry to board in some decent cottage; she could not die in peace until he had promised; the fear of the innocent child's being contaminated by wicked boys and godless women preyed upon her soul; she implored, she conjured. The overseer, a kind but timid man, hesitated, and was beginning a puzzled speech about the bench and the vestry, when another voice was heard from the door of the cottage. 

" Margery," said our friend Isaac, " will you trust Harry to me? I am a poor man, to be sure; but, between earning and saving, there'll be enough for me and little Harry. 'Tis as good a boy as ever lived, and I'll try to keep him so. Trust him to me, and I'll be a father to him. I can't say more." 

" God bless thee, Isaac Bint! God bless thee! " was all poor Margery could reply. 

They were the last words she ever spoke. And little Harry is living with our good mole-catcher, and is growing plump and rosy; and Margery's other pet, the lame gander, lives and thrives with them too.

 

Traditional molecatchers travelled from farm to farm in order to catch moles. The molecatcher's clients would provide food and lodgings. Also, the molecatcher would be paid for every mole caught; he would earn extra money by selling the moleskins to fur dealers. Also, until quite recently, plumbers used moleskins to “wipe”, or finish, joints in lead piping.

In more modern times (late 19th-early 20th century), British molecatchers were paid over 50p by farmers and gardeners for every mole caught. Fur dealers and plumbers would pay several pence a piece for each of the moleskins.

Molecatchers were very often distinctive local characters, tramping the rural estates in their moleskin waistcoats. It took over 100 good moleskins to make just the two front parts of a waistcoat, so these were a mark of the skill of the molecatcher.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




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