Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events/Old John "Mealy-Face"

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Old John M——[1], a character in his way, and a celebrity in his very little circle, was born in the parish of Topcliffe, near Thirsk, on February 20th, 1784.

He was thrice married. His first and second wives I did not know; the third he married March 29th, 1838. She was afflicted with paralysis of her legs during a great part of her later life. She was a charming old woman—religious, amiable, and a general favourite with her neighbours.

Old John had sharp features, an eagle nose, and a prominent chin. He wore drab corduroy breeches and blue stockings. He shaved all the hair off his face. The nickname he bore in the village, where he resided on his small farm, was "Mealy-Face." He obtained it by this means: John was a close-fisted old man, who stinted himself, and his wife above all, in every possible way, for he dearly loved money. He did not allow his wife enough food, and she, poor thing, was wont, when he was out for the day at market or at fair, to bake herself a loaf from which she could cut a hunch when hungry.

Her husband found this out, and was very wroth. When he went to market he pressed his face down in the flour at the top of the bin, and on his return put his face back in the depressions, to make sure that the flour had not been disturbed.

The old man was not without dry humour. The story is told of him that a clergyman called on him one day to say he was about to leave his present sphere of work, "the Lord having called him to work in another vineyard."

"Then," said Old Mealy-Face, "I lay you get a better wage."

"Yes," answered the clergyman, "it is a better living by a hundred a-year."

"Heh! I thowt seah (so)," said John, dryly; "else the Lord mud ha' called while (till) he'd been hoarse, and ye'd niver ha' heeard."

An excursionist met him on Whitson Scar, on the Hambledons. The traveller had come there from Thirsk, hoping to see the glorious view stretching to Pendle Hill, in Lancashire. But a fog came on and obscured the scene. The gentleman coming upon John, who had been to Helmsley on some business or other, accosted him in an off-hand manner:

"Hey, gaffer! there's a fine view from here, ain't there, on fine days?"

"Aye, sur, it might be worse."

"One can see a long way, I'm told."

"I reckon one may if one's got eyes."

"Now tell me, gaffer, can one see as far as America, do you think?"

"One can see a deel furder," answered John.

"You don't mean to say so?"

"Eh, but I do. One can see t' moon from Whitston on a moonshiny neet."

Old John had a famous pear-tree in his garden. Two years running his pears were stolen, and no doubt were sold in Thirsk market, without John being a penny the richer. The old man grimly awaited the thief as the fruit ripened in the following autumn, sitting nightly in his window, gun in hand.

One dark night, just before market-day, he heard some one at his tree. He took careful aim at the spot whence the sound proceeded, fired, and a scream told him his bullet had taken effect. In fact, he had hit the thief in the thigh; but the ball had fortunately penetrated the flesh, and broken no bone.

The pear-stealer was caught, and on the first opportunity brought before the magistrates at Thirsk. The presiding magistrate—I think it was Sir John Galway, but am not certain—deemed it advisable to caution John M—— against too free a use of his gun.

"You know, my good friend, that a gun loaded with a bullet might have killed the man who stole your pears."

"Ah, it might, and it would, but t' gun snecked (kicked) as I were blazin' wi' it."

"If the gun had not 'snecked,' as you call it, the bullet would probably have gone into the poor fellow's heart and killed him dead."

"I'll tak' care it deean't sneck again," said Old John, who had no scruples against shooting a pear-stealer.

Whilst in the parish of Topcliffe I am constrained to relate an anecdote illustrative of Yorkshire shrewdness, though unconnected with Mealy-Face.

An old woman—Molly Jakes, we will call her—died, or was thought to have died, and was buried by the parish. A few days after the funeral the vicar was talking to the sexton, when the latter said, drawing the back of his hand across his nose, "Ye thowt old Molly Jakes were deead, sur?"

"Dead, dead! bless my soul! of course she was."

"Well, mebbe she is neah (now)."

"What do you mean? Speak, for heaven's sake!"

"Nay, sur, it's nowt! Only I thowt efter I'd thrown the mould in as I heeard her movin' and grum'ling under t' greand (ground)."

"You dug her up at once, of course, man?"

"Nay," said the sexton, "I know two o' that," casting a knowing look at the parson. "T' parish paid one burying: who was to pay me for digging her up and putting her in ageean, if she died once maire? Besides," said the sexton, drawing his hand back again across his nose, "Old Molly cost t' parish hef-a-croon a week when she war wick (alive). Noo she's felted (hidden) under t' greeand, she costs nowt. If I'd dug her up and she lived ever seah (so) long, what would ha' t' rate-payers 'a said teah (to) me?"

John M——, once, when I was in his house, told me a curious tale about himself. He was riding one night to Thirsk, when he suddenly saw passing him a radiant boy on a white horse. There was no sound of footfall as he drew nigh. Old John was first aware of the approach of the mysterious rider by seeing the shadow of himself and his horse flung before him on the high-road. Thinking there might be a carriage with lamps, he was not alarmed till by the shortening of the shadow he knew that the light must be near him, and then he was surprised to hear no sound. He thereupon turned in his saddle, and at the same moment the radiant boy passed him. He was a child of about eleven, with a bright, fresh face.

"Had he any clothes on, and, if so, what were they like?" I asked. But John was unable to tell me. His astonishment was so great that he took no notice of particulars.

The boy rode on till he came to a gate which led into a field. He stooped as if to open the gate, rode through, and all was instantly dark.

"I'm an owd customer," said John when he presented himself to be married the third time; "soa, vicar, I hope ye'll do t' job cheap. Strike off two-thirds, as it's the third wife."

John Mealy-Face died at the age of eighty-four, and was buried at Topcliffe on November 5th, 1868.

  1. I suppress the name, as the old man died but lately.