Caught by the River

Made in England

Mathew Clayton | 5th June 2018

Mathew Clayton reviews Dorothy Hartley’s 1939 document of rural English industries, recently published in a new edition by Little Toller.

From the preface to the 1939 edition…

All countrymen are not farmers or land workers. They have many other skilled occupations that townspeople know little or nothing, such as thatching, weaving, making saddlery, work in the smithies, in the woods and quarries, and in the brickfields and potteries. This book describes some of the age-old country jobs and tries to explain the skill put into them… All the work described here is alive today.

In the years leading up to the Second World War, Dorothy Hartley travelled round England by car and bicycle, sometimes sleeping rough, recording and sketching rural industries for a column in the Daily Sketch. In 1939 these were turned into a book that has just been republished by Little Toller. It is a total joy to read.

Hartley divides the book by material. There are sections on Wood; Straw, reed, grass, and willow; Stone; Metal; Bricks and Pottery; Leather and Horn; Wool and Feathers. Each one throws up fascinating stories… The Devon fishing village of Appledore, for instance, has its own distinctive fisherman’s jumper that is knitted without any seams, with the name of the ship and harbour written across the front so that if the wearer was found drunk they could be returned to their ship, or if found drowned he could be buried in the right grave. Or when using reed to stuff a mattress, one should wait until at least a year after it has been cut, lest you risk worms growing in it. And how all the floors of northern bar parlours and farmhouse kitchens would be strewn with sand that was then brushed into intricate patterns. There is much emphasis given to the different specialist tools required for each task and the unique language developed round a particular trade. Most of the entries are accompanied by Hartley’s ink drawings and photographs, and as with the whole book, these are practical rather than poetic in their aims.

Hartley’s personality (and, I presume, her values) – inquiring, dogged, sensible, respectful, unshowy, plain-spoken – quietly seep through the pages. Besides simply surveying the broad sweep of work in the countryside, Hartley was also keen to convey that most of these tasks required a lot of skill and knowledge. And reading the book now, almost 80 years from its original publication, it is impossible not to feel sadness at the way subsequent mechanisation has stripped the countryside of much of its richness and variety – so few of the things described by Hartley are still practiced. The Little Toller book also reprints Hartley’s very moving preface to the fourth edition published in 1979. She describes what had happened to the people she had originally written about:

The war left them, but took away their sons, the boys they taught their craft to, and life lost its meaning when they were alone. One after another the old workshops closed down. Old tools went to the scrapyard, for the hands that used them were gone. This is the great change today. These men took pleasure in their work. Their boys decided what they wanted to be and fought to get training for it. Now they ask first, “Will it pay?” Have we lost the single-mindedness of direct drive? Always there will be the opal-minded ones, whose golden mist reflects the ever-changing flame of life, but here, in this book, live the solid men who trusted in their hands and were wise in their work. “They shall not be found where parables are spoken. But they will maintain the state of the world, and all their desire is in the work of their craft”.

How fantastic is that brief paragraph? What a piece of writing! Seek out this book; you will not be disappointed.


Made in England is out now and available here.