Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves
There have been a lot of royal connections lately on the BBC epic that is ‘Who Do You Think You Are’. Danny Dyer, it turns out, is the rightful heir to the throne and Greg Davies is making a bid for Welsh Independence as the True Prince of Wales.
The silver spoon of my own family history is a more tarnished than polished. I come from a long line of stocky peasants, some involved in nefarious activities, documented as having been bundled aboard ships bound for distant shores which they then promptly hijacked to use in pirate expeditions. It might be said that they contributed a great deal to historic economies with their smuggling and looting. It is probable that many of the glistering golden artefacts gracing the display cabinets of the world’s museums carry the eager fingerprints of my buccaneer ancestors.
There was Wide Jim, so called because it was best to give him a wide berth, that is, out of range of his cannon. His sister, Sorcery Meg was renowned for the fact that she had a sword hidden in her wooden leg, the kneecup serving as handguard in many a maritime duel. Her knicker legs were riddled with a cache of small pistolry. Where Wide Jim traded in the more domestic items, chests, linen presses, tallboys, his sister was keener on the more esoteric market goods. It was Sorcery Meg who visited New Orleans and traded in a fleet of ghost ships crewed by an army of Voodoo dolls each carrying a hair of her head in their own to give them indomitable spirit. And nits probably.
On dry land my antecedents were nothing if not industrious. Squire Hesten, as he was titled by his mother, because he was a very long way from being a Squire, moved from waggoner’s apprentice to entrepreneur when he opened one of the first chip shops in Britain. Vinegar Joe’s thrived until the 1930s when Hitler cordoned off all the fish and then, Squire not being thwarted by this, chose to send the Luftwaffe with a bomb to flatten the plaice (sic).
His brother, Major, got into a fight with a stocky red-haired cove one evening at the Robin Hood over a half of Guinness. Major maintained that his half had been on the bottom as the red-haired opponent maintained that the glass had not been poured for him. There was much dusting of knuckles, cracking of cartilege and widowmaking in the hour that followed with blood, teeth and brains adorning the pints and flagons in place of the usual cherries and umbrellas. A left ear was never found. When at last the red-haired gentleman was wheeled out in a barrow, Major was approached by some city gentlemen who had been waiting for a coach to Leeds. They doffed their silk hats and introduced themselves as Graves and Tombs, bear baiters and boxing promoters to the crowned heads of Europe. Thus began Major’s career as ‘Major Storm’ the World Bare Knuckle Boxing Champion (Northern Slack Belt). In his old age he had a set of dentures made up from the molars, canines and incisors collected from his opponents in the bareknuckle boxing venues of Europe. This travelogue was insalubrious, comprised as it was of sidings, back alleys and ginnels from Helsinki to Palermo.
Bennet Wilding, my great great grandfather once removed from the Midland Hotel, was the Horseman of Shude Hill. In his time the city of Manchester was rammed with horseflesh, that still clopping about on four legs performing its civic duties, and the other being roasted by the leg for the filling of pies. Bennet did not manage his own stables but was itinerant, wandering the city to wrangle the horses where needed. Holding the ancient knowledge of the Horseman’s Word he was responsible for the Great Ducie Street Sticky Flight. A quantity of horses had been rounded up in the yards at Rigger & Poot the glue manufacturers’. The herd grew restive and by late afternoon word was sent that Bennet Wilding must come. A lad had been crushed against the fencing and the horses were trampling each other, rearing up at any who dared go near. Witnesses at the later inquest (see report in the Manchester Evening News 31st April 1877) cited the view of the ‘palisade fencing rising and swelling outwards like a high tide at Blackpool’. The wooden fence panels could be heard straining from Market Street. Hooves sparking against hooves caused a fire to begin smouldering in the hay and sawdust underfoot. Within moments an outbuilding had caught alight, which served only to spook the horses further.
Bennet arrived on his own horse, Nab, a blue roan Brabant he had rescued from a Russian ship at Salford Docks. By this time the gates, iron plated and bolted fast, were bending with the pressure of flanks beyond and the lock had distorted too far to be thrown back. Witnesses recalled how Bennet leaned to Nab’s ear before the two turned back up Great Ducie Street and jumped the gate, Nab flying ‘like Pegasus’ as one witness had it.
As Nab and Bennet wove their way through the horses, Bennet leaned in each ear but the horses, far from calming, grew still more restive, eyewitnesses spoke of the creatures turning northwards, stepping and prancing to align themselves to Bennet’s path. The whinnying reached ear-splitting decibels, the noise was blamed for the breaking of windows in a factory on Great Ancoats Street and could be heard as far off as Tipping Lane. The beasts surged and trampled, Bennet and Nab moving through until the pressure on the boundary was too great and the fencing exploded. Splinters were picked up on Deansgate and Market Street. Several thousand pigeons, roosting on nearby rooftops and windowsills, were speared and later dredged out of guttering for piefilling and sausage rolls.
Thus freed the horses stampeded forth, Bennet Wilding at the head, the beasts running north along Great Ducie Street and out of Strangeways pressing on into the distance. Onlookers commented that the sound of hooves on cobbles was akin to the bells of Hell ringing out their eerie carillon.
Some stragglers were rounded up cropping hedges at a farm at Seven Stars. The remaining herd, some say the numbers ran into the high hundreds, rammaged through surrounding villages, at last finding their way onto the moors at Belmont. The feral herd there prospered for some years and brought forth no fewer than five Grand National Winners: Fruitcake, Damosel’s Fancy, Mr Mackenzie, Hoyle’s Haunt and, most exceptional of all, The Jagger.
Bennet Wilding himself disapproved. He never raced horses, saying it was cruel sport for a kingly creature and nought could prosper that traded on fear.
On his deathbed his great granddaughter, Mabel, asked that he tell her the Horseman’s Word and, since she was a favourite and skilled with animals, he requested a scrap of paper. One was brought from the nearby dresser with a stub of pencil and he made marks upon it. Mabel never divulged what the paper said but it was kept in her pocket always.