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Stanley
Local Historian & Old Fart


36804 Posts
Posted -  28/04/2004  :  09:49
[This is a short story written by Wilfred Spencer who was a noted local historian and librarian at Colne. It was published in an anthology called ‘Nowt So Queer as Folk’ which is very rare. It deserves a greater public so I have transcribed it from a copy of the book given to me by Helen Spencer, his widow.]

THE DECLINE OF THE HEN PEN

by Wilfred Spencer

To my mind few sights are more truly and essentially typical of the Industrial North than the hen pen. I'm not speaking of the trim geometric and soulless acreages of well-disciplined paling and wire netting which for a time supplanted the genuine article. These were a degree better than our latter-day egg factories, but were still utterly lacking in the rugged individuality which is the hall-mark of the honest northern artisan and his projection of himself into his rugged, individual and honest hen pen.

They are not entirely departed, though, and if you have a taste for stark reality you can find ugly clusters of them bestriding the ginnels and snickets behind the terraced houses. I did say ugly, but there is something engaging and intriguing about this kind of ugliness. In some curious way it has integrity, and it doesn't - not in the slightest - affect any pretence to be other than what it is. These hen pens do however reveal more of their owners than they perhaps realise.

The fence of each pen is almost invariably black with oft-repeated layers of gas tar, but the half concealed shape of the underlying wood often reveals its origin to have been in the cotton mill. The weaver or tackler who keeps hens seems to have little difficulty in laying hands on sufficient scrap wood from the mill to keep his boundaries in order, though with due regard for the uncertainties of the future, he will do what he can to make this wood last as long as possible. This is where the gas tar comes in handy. Cheap (or so it was) and easy to get hold of, it is liberally applied to every exposed surface. If there is any left the brush is dragged over the wire netting: in fact, the pen is Dot so much painted as engulfed. The roof of the hen hut, where successive layers have cracked and shrunk above the original felt, looks like the back of an ill-favoured crocodile.

This black hide covers an incredible variety of shapes some of them vaguely traditional. There is probably scope here for a regional survey of unique architectural interest, for the favoured type of hut does vary from district to district. But each is, unmistakably, a hen hut: Its narrow band of windows near the floor, and its the entrance, or "pop 'oil" for the birds being its hall mark. This entrance has a somewhat medieval look about it, Norman arch and wooden portcullis with a narrow board reminiscent of a drawbridge sloping up to it.

What goes on inside I'm not so sure. Men in cloth caps disappear into the man-sized entrance with tin bowls and later emerge with eggs, but for aught I know there may be other goings on. There is little doubt that the hen pen is, for many a wife-bound weaver, a refuge and a haven. There was something finely Northern in Priestley's opening of "Good Companions" where the hero is described as gloomily reflecting upon the emptiness and futility of life from the vantage point of his friend's hen house door. In his hen pen a man can be alone and, should the mood be upon him, brood. It is true that the scene of his contemplations may be littered with bits of household jetsam, the discarded slop-stone, the tired rocking chair, the dolly tub or the out-dated mangle. But these he will have diverted to some new, unlikely, but ingenious use in his more energetic moments, and his contemplation of them may bring some solace.

A friend of mine who is getting on now, and whose brother had become a national political figure of some eminence once said to me - expressing a deep and rich philosophy – “Our Tom were allus studying and bothering 'isself wi' politics: but, tha knows, Wilfred, I 'ad my 'ens” The ulcerations of a hectic public life had shortened his brother's life many years earlier but for him the hen pen had brought its own reward.

[‘Tom’ was Thomas Shaw, Minister of Labour in MacDonald’s first Labour cabinet. Jan to Nov 1924.]


Edited by - Stanley on 08 May 2004 16:57:50


Stanley Challenger Graham




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Stanley
Local Historian & Old Fart


36804 Posts
Posted - 26/02/2009 : 06:50
PS. I think I want to be Uncle Mort when I grow up.


Stanley Challenger Graham




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Bradders
Senior Member


1880 Posts
Posted - 26/02/2009 : 09:41
Stanley ...Re Mort.....I used to have a set of four audio tapes from the BBC....I'm going to have a rummage and see if I've still got 'em....

House moves have played havoc with  any "system "  I might have had for  for finding any thing.

Will let you know if I get a result. 


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Stanley
Local Historian & Old Fart


36804 Posts
Posted - 26/02/2009 : 16:46
Good lad...


Stanley Challenger Graham




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Bradders
Senior Member


1880 Posts
Posted - 27/02/2009 : 15:09
Hello Stanley...Haven't found my tapes yet ...but you can listen to "Uncle Mort's  North Country", on the following site , for free.

I listened to the First episode , and there  are several more.

http://chicagojackie.com/

 


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Tizer
VIP Member


5150 Posts
Posted - 28/02/2009 : 12:10
Well, I said I'd get around to this thread eventually. Better late than never. Stanley, I hope you found the book - can you give an approximate year to which the story relates, to put it into context?

Hen pens and coyts were very much part of my life as a child in the 1950s in Blackburn. They were all over the place, but in particular there was a big hen pen behind our council house belonging to a man called Harry Holmes who lived opposite us. He worked for the council (laying flags perhaps) and I think some of his building material came from that source as well as the mills. His hens were as free range as they come - they were in a rolling landscape with a deep valley running through the middle of the pen were a stream flowed. He also kept pigs but I don't remember having problems from the smell or noise - they must have been well-trained pigs! He also used one shed as a garage for his car on the pen.

When I was very young we would go out onto the track behind our house and feed the "chukkies" through the wire fence. Harry would give us eggs and we'd then have chukky eggs for breakfast. As I grew up and became more adventurous there was many a time when Harry chased me out of his pen - and I ran fast because if he caught me it meant a clout on the ear. But he was a good man and would have helped me if ever I got hurt or troubled by other lads.

For a while my Dad and Uncle George rented a hen pen and me and the mates would spend ages playing in old disused sheds and a disused pig sty. But Dad and Uncle were not really committed to it and the project didn't last long.And that's interesting because another branch of my Dad's side of the family had a very big poultry business dating back to the late 1800s. My great-great-grandfather had been a handloom weaver in Mellor but his sons didn't want to have to shift into the mills like many others had to do. Two of them set up a poultry business with their father but my great-grandfather went into Blackburn to seek his fortune instead - he probably didn't like the smell of chickens, and maybe this was passed down to his sons.

Now I live on the edge of a village and still hear cocks crowing - and guinea fowl making a racket! There are still old-style hen pens and coyts out here in the countryside but I wonder whether they will survice into another generation?


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Stanley
Local Historian & Old Fart


36804 Posts
Posted - 01/03/2009 : 09:42
I haven't found the book yet. Published in 1971 I think.


Stanley Challenger Graham




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Tizer
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Posted - 01/03/2009 : 10:30
Published in 1971 but perhaps referring to an earlier age?

Another memory. My Dad had ended up with one of the hen coyts (coops, sheds) on our back garden. It loomed up behind the window of the living room but at least he painted it "railway engine green" over the black. It had two rows of windows on one side and the "pop `oil" that Wilfred refers to at bottom right of that side. (I wonder if everyone out there understands what we mean by "pop `oil"? I haven't heard that pronunciation of "hole" for a long time. So for anyone still wondering, it's the hole that the hens popped out of).

But my Dad didn't have hens in it. He was going through a two-wheeled phase and it housed motor bikes and scooters rather than poultry. It was well-suited to the job, with all the windows - like handloom weavers, bike mechanics benefit from plenty of windows too! It was a very sturdy structure and had double doors at one end. At one time there were three scooters - a Lambretta, a Vespa and a Puch. And I remember an Ariel motor bike too at another time. The floor would be covered with my mum's old baking tins with oil and nuts & bolts in them, and cylinder heads on the bench etc.


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Stanley
Local Historian & Old Fart


36804 Posts
Posted - 01/03/2009 : 15:59
Oh, if you are talking about the story. 1930s I should think. He had Tom Shaw on his mind....

Brad, great site, listened to a 90 minute play yesterday, more to come. UM hatching Warbler egg under his cap.....


Stanley Challenger Graham




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Stanley
Local Historian & Old Fart


36804 Posts
Posted - 17/08/2009 : 06:06
We've got pens on another topic at the moment so I thought I'd bring Wilfred's story back to the fore.


Stanley Challenger Graham




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Stanley
Local Historian & Old Fart


36804 Posts
Posted - 17/08/2009 : 16:35
Just keeping it up for another day... Lovely bit of writing.


Stanley Challenger Graham




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Stanley
Local Historian & Old Fart


36804 Posts
Posted - 25/08/2011 : 08:19
I sat down this morning to write a piece for the paper about the good things in life and it brought this story to mind. Well worth reading again and if you've never seen it before you're in for a treat. Can't believe how few hits it has had. I'll change the topic title.....


Stanley Challenger Graham




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Bodger
Regular Member


892 Posts
Posted - 30/08/2011 : 18:16
During my apprenticeship, 1950 + one of the old fellas who had hens, if anyone asked him where he was going for wakes week his answer was " Pentarryn" and it's not in Wales !!


"You can only make as well as you can measure"
                           Joseph Whitworth
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Stanley
Local Historian & Old Fart


36804 Posts
Posted - 31/08/2011 : 05:24
I like it Bodge!


Stanley Challenger Graham




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