Tattie Howkers and Paddy Lowpers by Harold Slight

This is the story of how the Irish helped to build the North of England and of the many characters who left their mark. It is written with the conviction of personal experience.

If you are interested in the minutiae of social history, of what people eat, how they live (ordinary people that is) this is the book for you. The stories are those recalled by Harold mainly from his grandparents generation, and tell of the everyday life experience of farm labourers and navvies.

It’s packed with interesting little facts and details from the coming of the railways and the geese which ‘glean’ and ‘howk’ the tatties and the women and men whose itinerant lifestyle keeps the rural ‘industry’ supplied in the late nineteenth century.  A range of jobs long since forgotten are detailed and explained and one is taken with the seasonality of the working life.

There are twelve stories covering the everyday experience of as diverse a bunch of working folk as Canal cutters, Tattie-Howkers, Horse dealers and  Irish drovers as well as an epilogue and a lot of pictures which will (I’m sure) look good if you have an enhanced ereader (Kindle Fire, tablet or ipad).  eBooks are particularly well suited to this kind of writing because it is ‘niche’ and of limited interest to a mass market. But to those who are interested in this kind of thing (of which I am most definitely one) it’s a little gem of a book.

It also occurs to me that many writers of historical fiction could do worse than read such a book as part of their research as it shows what life was like for Irish workers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in Cumbria, but provides interesting detail of working class rural life beyond this county.  There’s a lot of fiction written about these times and being able to use a little book such as this as a point of reference is a boon.  These are the ‘details’ which add reality to a fiction and yet are usually ‘forgotten’ elements.

These vignettes of country and farming life are interesting and sometimes surprising, all told in the no nonsense, straight forward style of a man who is interested in recording reminiscences rather than ‘creating literature.’ And it’s much the better for that.  It does what it says on the tin. Harold Sleight is no longer with us, but I’m very glad he wrote these stories down before he passed.  It reminds one what can be lost with the loss of one life.  And might encourage all to delve into their own family histories and stories and see what is worth preserving in e-print.  They may never make the bestsellers list but they will add to the wealth of social history of the ‘ordinary’ people which mitigates against the myth that the celebrity world is the only one of interest to us.  And if you ever wondered what all those ‘odd’ old farm instruments were for, this book may well fill in the gaps in your knowledge.  If you want an insight into times gone by and long forgotten, this will reward your exploration.

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

Available in Kindle and epub formats

Find out more about Harold Slight through The Bookmill