Autobiography of Herbert Barker

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Written in 1954 at the age of 83


Herbert Barker was a direct descendant of Joshua and Rebecca Barker, cloth manufacturers of Fold Head and had a distinguished army career with the KOYKLI for 42 years, fighting in the Boer War, Nigeria and WWI. He retired in 1930 as Major H Barker MC, MBE, MSM TD. Following his retirement he travelled around the world and kept extensive records of his journey. The following is an account of his early life in his own words.

At eighty-three years of age I have been persuaded to try to make this effort to write my autobiography.

We lived in a stone built house in the Heavy Woollen district of the West Riding of Yorkshire.

My Mother never recovered from the confinement of her last child who was born in 1883 and passed away six days later. I well remember a remark made by one of my uncles who attended the funeral of my mother saying to my Father 'Nah John, what art ta going to do with all these bairns about tha, why doesn't tha set thee cap at widow next door'. The Widow next door kept a small Grocer's shop - sure enough, my father took the tip and within six months he was married to her, and we all moved into the shop next door!

Of course, this move was not foreseen by all of us when our loss was first felt, so father first of all (in spite of our tender ages) detailed separate household chores for each of us to perform - my job was to wash the stone-flagged house floor and the front step.

About this time my father, who was a Master Cloth finisher, became unemployed owing to the factory going into bankruptcy and started as a Hairdresser (Haircutting 2d., shaving 1d.) then later launched out as clogger and shoemaker - clogs were worn by almost all factory and land workers in those days.

I always admired my father for the way he rose to the occasion at this period of his life; there was no moaning about his misfortune in being thrown out of work, but an immediate effort was made to earn a living for himself and family, hence the hairdressing saloon followed by the clogging and shoemaking. The latter business was well and truly advertised by making a huge five feet wooden clog, which he hung on an iron bar driven into the wall outside my bedroom window and which went creak creak interminably, throughout the day and night, especially in high winds.

After my father's marriage to the Widow, the hairdressing and clogging and boot making businesses were disposed of, all his energies then being used in developing the Grocery and Provision business. The turnover increased annually, with the result in a few years time, he was on the lookout for a much larger shop; this move took place during my first year's service in the Regular Army, and, it took me quite a time to find my new home, when I came there from the channel islands on my first furlough.

One of my earliest memories was being lifted in skirts (both sexes wore skirts for the first few years of their lives) on to the parapet of a Railway Bridge, on the side away from an approaching train, so that the first I knew of its presence was when huge columns of steam and smoke came billowing up to me. This considerably upset my young nerves, and I thought my father was very cruel to frighten me in that way, but he only seemed to be amused and laughed uproariously.

Opposite our home was a Malt Kiln, and on the ground floor was a large stone cistern into which Barley was placed for washing. The only water supply available came from a village pump nearby from which was attached on these occasions a wooden spout some 100 feet long from pump to cistern; many a long day did I spend in helping to fill that cistern - I never remember getting any remuneration for my services, but I do know that after each occasion, my father always seemed to get a supply of Barley and the usual brewing of good home-brewed Ale took place.

When this cistern was empty and there was thrashing at the farm adjoining and rats were being caught there, the catchers used to bring them and release them in the cistern, then they would place their dogs in the cistern. When the rats realised there was no escape for them they usually turned on the dogs. If it was called sport, it was brutal business.

In the early eighties one of the events which we always looked forward to, was the appearance of the Stage Coach which would round the turn into the straight about a mile away from our home and always travelled at such a spanking pace, that it was all we could do to get to the door to witness it clatter down the main street and out of sight. This was not one of the old time stage coaches, though its outfit was much the same, but an effort to advertise HUDSON'S DRY SOAP - I think it travelled from Manchester to London every month for a considerable period.

Adjoining the Malt kiln was a farm and the church fields leading to the church where my forebears and my young brother Henry aged 9 days are buried; many of my happy childhood days were spent roaming these fields searching for mushrooms or trying to catch Gold and Silver Fish in the stream that meandered through these meadows, placing crossed pins on the railway lines so that passing trains would press them into miniature scissors; running round an old oak tree which grew outside the church fifty times to see whether the Devil would appear, according to local tradition. The old stocks outside the Churchyards were always an object of interest. Many hours were spent sitting on the fences trying to entice the Corn crakes to come to me by the use of a comb drawn across a piece of wood. Many of these now rare birds came to these fields annually.

Regarding my fishing proclivities I shall never forget an incident which happened to me after my father had started his hairdressing saloon. He had appointed me his official latherer; of course my young mind was always yearning for the free and open fields instead of confinement in the Hairdressing Saloon. I used to place empty tin cans with a few crumbs inside, at the bottom of the stream, and lie on my stomach on the banks of the stream, and when gold fish were inside the tin, I would quickly snatch the tin and its contents out of the stream. In this way I accumulated quite a goodly collection of these fish; well, one Saturday morning during a lull in the hairdressing business, I could have been seen flitting across the fields in my Lather Boy's white apron flying in the breeze, and was soon spread-eagled on the bank over one of my beloved tins, and in process of making my snatch, when something got me by the neck and my face was forced down, some three feet into the water below. On recovering from my immersion, I looked up and found my stern-faced father, who remarked 'I'll teach thee to leave thee job to go fishing'. It did not take me long to chase across the fields back to my lathering.

During my school days, it was customary, in those days, to have a half day's holiday on Pancake Tuesday, but on this particular occasion, a few of the bright lads of the school decided to get into the school before the Masters came. I was deputed to go to the Caretaker who lived some distance away from the school, and to tell her I had been sent by the Master, who had arrived earlier than had been expected, for the keys; they were handed to me, thus, quite a good number of the scholars in the know, gained admission to the school, and at once began to barricade themselves in, refusing to hand over the keys at the insistent demand of the headmaster, when he arrived. Those inside the school had a riotous time, but were disturbed not a little, when they witnessed the scholars on the outside of the school, taking part with the teachers in Games in the school playground. As the morning crept on towards noon, and those outside had been given a half-day's holiday, we inside began to think that we had taken up the position of 'Biter being bit', so we agreed to take away all ropes and barricades as noiselessly as possible, and rush the HEAD and his teachers, but as soon as the doors were open, the Headmaster's voice could be heard sternly ordering us all to take our seats, and it was only after we had all written a certain number of lines which took us until 2.30 p.m. that we were allowed to depart for our homes!

My Stepmother (the widow shopkeeper next door) was very good to all of us children, who had so quickly been placed in her care, but as I was the eldest child I missed my mother's love probably more than the others, accordingly I seemed to become very restless and was continually running away from home.

My first effort was to depart (by arrangement with a pal) at 5.30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, dressed in my Sunday best suit - the usual day suit and a few personal belongings made into a parcel. Our destination was Liverpool and probably employment on some ship. Our travels took us through Mirfield, Huddersfield, on to Marsden, but by that time we were getting footsore and our bundles seemed to have become very heavy, so we went to Marsden Station and despatched them carriage paid to Liverpool, to be called for on arrival.

Having divested ourselves of this parcel carrying burden we commenced our climb over the Standedge in a more light-hearted manner, but still by the time we had successfully crossed to the other side, and were dropping down into Bolton, we were glad to find we were able to get a tram into Manchester, which we had decided to make our stop for the night - in fact, we were too tired to do otherwise. It was night-time and the lights were being lit and church bells were calling their congregations to evening service, but our only thought was to find a place to rest our tired bodies and feet. Eventually we found a kind-hearted housewife who took pity on us. We had money, but as we could not foresee what the future had in store for us, we found that her modest charge suited our pockets. She was very kind to us and asked what two young lads (we were both only fourteen years of age) were doing on the road at that hour of the night, and wanted to know what we intended to do when we got to Liverpool; we informed her that it was our intention to get employment on board some ship and sail for some foreign port. We were given two very comfortable beds and both slept like tops. We didn't seem to have been in bed many minutes before our good landlady's voice was calling us to rise and come down to breakfast. We had slept some eight hours at the end of our first day's journey of forty miles. All seemed to be well for the second day's trek, but I suddenly found that I could not get my boots on - my feet were swollen so badly that there was no instep, but our kind landlady soon put that right by providing a bowl of warm water and bathing them for half an hour, which soon reduced my feet to their normal condition, enabling us to start on the final stage of our journey to Liverpool. It is sixteen miles from Manchester to Warrington and another sixteen miles from Warrington to Liverpool, so we calculated that we could walk at least four miles an hour, i.e. a mile each quarter of an hour, thus starting at 8.30 a.m. we ought to be in Warrington at 12.30 p.m. We kept up this speed for a couple of hours, but then our poor feet began to trouble us again and by the time we eventually arrived there, it was 2.00 p.m. Under these circumstances, we considered it would be wiser to spend some of our money reserves and travel the remainder of the journey by train, instead of trying to do the impossible by walking. We arrived in Liverpool that Monday evening and immediately took a room at a modest hotel, where we rested preparatory to our search for a ship on the morrow (Tuesday).

On the Tuesday we toured the docks at Liverpool and at every request for employment, we were asked 'How old are you' and on being told we were only fourteen years of age, we were told that we could not be accepted, unless we had our parents consent - this we knew we could not get (our parents had already told the police to send us back home). The next day we went over to Birkenhead where we met with a similar rebuff. After a whole week of travelling from place to place sightseeing etc. we found ourselves practically penniless on the Saturday night (we had two pence each between us), so, naturally our thoughts turned towards home, so having spent our remaining cash on two pennyworth of bread and cheese each, we commenced our return journey, reaching Manchester again on the Sunday evening (32 miles). As we had no cash to pay for lodgings, we decided to go to the Railway Station, and to pretend that we had missed the last train home, and were soon comfortably stretched out on seats in a Waiting Room, with a good blazing fire. We had hardly settled down to a comfortable sleep, before a stentorian voice disturbed us and wanted to know what we were doing there at 1.00 a.m. in the morning and to get out at once. Again we commenced our weary climb over the Standedge, enjoying a rest with a Night Road Watchman in his hut, with a welcome bright coke brazier; our stay with him lasted until our sleep was disturbed by the sound of the clogs of both sexes wending their way to various factories in the neighbourhood. On we trudged, over the moors, and before evening we were compelled by cravings of hunger to beg for food, which was freely given by a kindly housewife. Passing through Marsden we made our way to Huddersfield, where my companion had relatives who, when they heard of our travels and our penniless condition, gave us a good meal and enough money to pay our train fares home, where I arrived (at the back door) as the whole family were just sitting down to late Tea. My arrival was greeted with great pleasure; it was, indeed the return of the prodigal son, and if there was no 'Fatted Calf' for me, there was quite a lot of good things, quickly spread out for me to eat, whilst they all became interested listeners to the tales of my travels. So ended the first part of my efforts to break away from the parental roof.

Later in the same year as my previous escapade, one of my friends pointed out to me a Poster which requested those wishing to join Her Majesty's Navy as Stokers to apply at a certain hostelry in York between certain hours on stated days. Attractive rates of pay and allowances were given, so we agreed to leave for York by train from Leeds on the day before York Races - this fact is fixed in my mind, because I remember we met all the Race Traffic next day on our doleful journey back home. Our effort to join the Navy as Stokers failed for the same reason as our efforts to obtain employment on board ship - the necessity to have our parents' consent before enlisting. Thus we started at dusk on our return journey home. We spent our last money in buying a meal before leaving York. When darkness fell, it commenced to rain heavily, and before we had travelled a few miles out of York we were forced to look for shelter; espying a haystack in a field, we waded (that is the best description I can give of walking through the wet grass) to the stack and immediately commenced to pull hay out of the stack to enable a hole to be made big enough to get even our head and shoulders into, this is not as easy as it sounds, with a solidly built stack every strand of hay takes quite a lot of pulling out, and makes one's fingers quite sore before an appreciable hole can be made, and all this time it was raining cats and dogs.

Eventually we succeeded in our self-imposed task and shoving our heads and shoulders into the holes we had made, lay down to rest, whether it was the last meal we had consumed, or the unusual circumstances in which we had spent the last hour working on the stack, I cannot tell, but I was suddenly very sick and vomiting, so leaving this unsatisfactory shelter, we waded our way back to the main York - Tadcaster Road, and after travelling another mile, we came to a place where the Railway Line passed under the road, so, as it was still raining, we again waded down the embankment and lay down on the left side of the-tunnel as far from the lines as possible. At last we were sheltered from the infernal rain, but our bed was very hard and stony. We had not been there long before, to our consternation, we could hear the sound of an approaching train, then, the whole of the tunnel was brightly lit up by the engine's fires, which were being stoked and at the same moment the driver and fireman must have spotted us and immediately started their whistle blowing and putting on their brakes. We did not delay our departure, but were soon on the road again, on our way to Tadcaster. It was just breaking dawn and Leeds Race Traffic for York Races began to pass us. We raided some kitchen gardens for various foods, and, spotting another haystack which had been partially cut into trusses leaving quite a lot of loose hay lying about. As the rain had now ceased, we decided we would bury ourselves in the loose hay, but when we lifted up some of it we found some other traveller had forestalled us and was calmly sleeping there already. Quickly replacing the hay, we moved to another side of the stack and burying ourselves in the hay, were soon soundly sleeping. We passed through Tadcaster and Leeds and reached our homes in the evening, very tired and footsore. The first persons I met in the village street were my father and his youngest brother (my uncle) - they were discussing this latest disappearance from home and were agreeably surprised when they saw me approaching in the distance.

When I was seventeen years of age I joined the Dewsbury Detachment of the Yorkshire Light Infantry in 1888. Thus I commenced a Military Career in a Regiment in which I was to be associated for more than fifty years - serving in the Volunteers, Regular Army, and Territorial Force.

I had to travel some three miles each way to put in my drills at Dewsbury, and my Musketry Courses were fired at Hartley Bank, Horbury. The Rifle, in those days, was the Martini Henry, and one had to be very careful when firing (especially in the Standing position) to avoid being knocked off the firing point, the only way to avoid this was to press the butt of the rifle well into the shoulder, which had to take all the recoil. Even if these precautions were taken, one always finished firing practice with a shoulder which was black and blue. When later in my service, the Army was equipped with the Le Enfield Rifle, this recoil was taken by a solid steel rib and steel lug.

I attended annual training in 1888 at Scarborough and behind Raikes Hall Blackpool in 1889. This training in the Volunteers stood me in good stead later on, when I finally joined the Regular Army as a recruit.

In 1888 I again left home and tried to join the Army at York, evidently my father had got wind of where I had gone, because next morning when on the point of being "Sworn In', a telegram was received by the Officer Commanding the Depot, York, asking to delay the attestation as he would arrive early to take me away. When he arrived and gave them my correct age I was released from their charge. My father took me round York and the Minster sightseeing and offered to pay the cost of sending me to America or anywhere else, if I only would promise 'Not to get inside those dreadful barrack walls again'. In those days the art of soldiering was not very popular!

On the thirty-first day of January 1890 I joined the 3rd Yorkshire Light Infantry (Militia), but again my father interfered and purchased my discharge after serving four days!! I see from the Certificate of Discharge that my conduct and character had been 'GOOD' during my four days' service!

During these formative years of my life, until I eventually joined the Regular Army on the 12th October 1891, at the age of twenty years and 2 months, I had worked in the Factory, Gasworks, Tannery, Soap Making, Cotton and Waste Cleaning, and at eighteen years of age I was working alongside adult men, doing the same amount of work and drawing similar wages, so it will be understood, I hope, that in spite of my frequent breaks from my home life, I had not been wasting my young life.

After my enlistment at the Depot Pontefract into the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, my father paid me the usual visit, but he had come to a definite decision that I had decided to become a soldier, come what may, so with the remark (how wonderful that those simple remarks still stick in one's mind all these years after they were spoken) "Tha's made thee bed, and tha must lie in it naw". Because of my Volunteer Service, I was taken away from Recruit's Drill on the barrack square and posted to the 1st Battalion. KOYLI who were stationed in Guernsey and Alderney (Channel Islands) on 17th November 1891.

I was quartered in the Lower Lines at Guernsey, these barracks were occupied by one company, the other companies being installed in the Citadel in Fort George, which was reached after a climb of some 100 steps, one of the hardships of living away from the fort above was (in Marching Order) the awful grind of climbing these steps, especially if one was late for parade. Another of the inconveniences of being down in the Lower lines was that there was no water laid on, and it had to be obtained by a Fatigue Party being detailed daily to turn a large wheel which pumped water into a large Tank, invariably the tank was soon empty, and we often had to use water left in the bowls in the wash house, which had been used by one or even two men before. I spent a very pleasant time, quartered there, because, when not on parade or duty, the shore could be explored, caves entered, shell fish found, and bathing enjoyed.

I well remember, one day when strolling along the shore, seeing a lovely bunch of primroses growing some hundred feet on the cliffs above, and, determined that I would get them, climbing seemed fairly easy, but gradually the cliffs got steeper and steeper, until, when I almost reached the flowers, my feet suddenly began to slip from under me, and I began to fall. I immediately fell flat, dug my feet, knees and fingers into the cliff, this stopped me from falling to the shore below, then after a few seconds of breather, I made a furious dash for the flowers on my way to the top of the cliffs, which I reached safely, but rather shaky in the knees at the risk I had taken and the knowledge of what might have happened to me.

Guernsey 1891

Guernsey was a very pleasant place to live in and it was here where I was given my first stripe and became a Lance Corporal (unpaid). It seemed to me that the lower the rank was and with the least remuneration, the greater were the number of tasks one had to perform and one's time was spent in all sorts of menial work and throughout the night and day held responsible for the good behaviour of a Barrack Room of from twenty to thirty men, who would come in from the Canteen after 10.00 p.m. and play general hell; there were free fights almost nightly (and especially on pay days) and one particularly obnoxious type would revel in getting all the crockery he could collect without being noticed and throw it up to the ceiling until almost every piece was broken. Of course, both fighters and breakers up of crockery and Barrack furniture would have to be taken away, under escort, to the Guard Room, and brought before the Commanding Officer next morning, where punishment was meted out according to the measure of the offence. The fools who wreaked their feelings on crockery and furniture fared worse, as they were placed under stoppages of pay until they had refunded the value of the articles damaged, as well as a spell of detention.

Almost nightly there was trouble in town between our men and the Frenchmen, after they had had drinks and dancing in some of the low dives, then the fun would start and off would come the soldiers' leather pipe clay belts, which would be swung around their heads when attacking the Frenchmen, or defending themselves against attack.

Occasionally, as a young Lance Corporal, it fell to my lot to be in charge of the Piquet, which patrolled the town and had often to arrest any very drunken or riotous soldier and, if he became difficult, he was turned face downwards and the members of the piquet would seize him by the arms and legs and he would be frog-marched to the Garrison Guard Room; the Piquet consisted of a Lance Corporal and twelve men. I know of nothing in my military experience more humiliating than being frog-marched through the streets of a very busy town to the Guard room. Truly, a Lance Corporal's work was many and varied.

Herbert Barker 1954

There is much more information about the life and times of Major H. Barker than is presented on this page and anyone who would like to know more is invited to contact his grandson Sidney Barker.