In this BBC Archive On Four, historian Alan Dein celebrates the centenary of his mentor George Ewart Evans, collector of Suffolk farming tales. Evans began by chatting to his neighbours over the fireside in the 1950’s and transcribing stories about poaching, shepherding, smuggling and ditching.
The talk was of a hardscrabble life, of leaky roofs and meals of pea soup and pollard dumplings and beef only at Christmas with occasional festivities like the Whitsun fair.
Evans came from a Welsh mining village and he sympathised with the labourers’ stories about the tyranny of the trinity of the parson, squire and farmer. He was a sympathetic listener who asked allowed his community to speak for itself and he captured the stories of people whose traditions had been unbroken for generations, who worked on the land before mechanisation and who believed in magic and folk wisdom and had intuitive understanding of working with animals.
Evans’ eleven books about the working lives and folk stories of Blaxhall are a portrait of every facet of his village and paved the way for books and programmes, both fiction and not fiction, about British agricultural life.
Roy Palmer has spent much of the last thirty years hunting for ballads and using them to weave together a people’s history of England. He has mastered the art of this in a number of excellent books of which this is a great starting point.
This book is utterly superb and should be bought without hesitation. Each song has a melody and words, along with a page or two giving its historical context.
The Long Affray: The Poaching Wars in Britain
by Harry Hopkins
Published in 1985, this life changing book was given to me by Sam Lee.
“A beautiful telling of the age-old battle between peasant and landowner where for the price of a rabbit or a pheasant men were murdered, transported as convicts and executed.
This ancient struggle over game was not just about food for the poor poachers and their families, it was about social rank and the power of the landed gentry, the burgeoning class politics of the time and the harsh realities of rural life.”