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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 at barnoldswick.freeserve.co.uk
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Stanley
Local Historian & Old Fart


36804 Posts
Posted - 23/02/2009 : 07:40
I put this up four years ago. Worth looking at again in view of the fact that at last something is being done about his collections.


Stanley Challenger Graham




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Bradders
Senior Member


1880 Posts
Posted - 23/02/2009 : 11:12
Great piece Stanley.........

And if the 'en 'uts  are getting a bit thin on the ground, allotments still  provide a rich source of makeshift architecture to study .

Fascinating! 

 


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Tizer
VIP Member


5150 Posts
Posted - 23/02/2009 : 11:33
Oooh, 'en coyts! I'll have to read this one!


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wendyf
Senior Member


1439 Posts
Posted - 23/02/2009 : 13:13
Thanks Stanley, that's excellent, especially as I spend quite a bit of time chatting to my little flock of hens..
Did you know Wilfred Spencer?

Wendy


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moh
Silver Surfer


6860 Posts
Posted - 23/02/2009 : 13:34
I did.  My hubby would love a hen pen, he had one when he was a boy, but they are very tying.


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lancashire lad
Regular Member


151 Posts
Posted - 23/02/2009 : 16:17
There used to be plenty of hen pens years ago ,yes they are tying but also people complain when the cock starts crowing.


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Stanley
Local Historian & Old Fart


36804 Posts
Posted - 23/02/2009 : 17:18
Wendy, no but Helen his widow was a great friend of mine. I met her when I was running the interpretation section at Pendle Heritage. She gave me the book that the story comes from. Lovely lady, cancer got her, great shame.


Stanley Challenger Graham




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frankwilk
Senior Member


3975 Posts
Posted - 23/02/2009 : 19:08
That's the first time I have seen the word " coyts " in over 40 years. eeeeeeeeee that brought back memories of playing on the roofs of the coyts up the back lane.



Frank Wilkinson       Once Navy Always Navy Go to Top of Page
Stanley
Local Historian & Old Fart


36804 Posts
Posted - 24/02/2009 : 07:23
Niggling thing is that I went into the library and looked for the book and I can't find it. Surely I haven't lent it to someone?


Stanley Challenger Graham




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belle
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Posted - 24/02/2009 : 18:30
Great piece..reminiscent of uncle whatshisname? you'll know who i mean Stanley.  i hope you find your book.. i can't abide losing books.


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Stanley
Local Historian & Old Fart


36804 Posts
Posted - 25/02/2009 : 07:28
God, you've got me going again.....  Had to have a quick furtle in the memory banks. Uncle Mort from 'I didn't know you cared' by Peter Tinniswood. I ;ike it because it is one of the best short stories I know. Hardest thing of all to write so they tell me.


Stanley Challenger Graham




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Bradders
Senior Member


1880 Posts
Posted - 25/02/2009 : 10:04
Mort:        "Do yer like Shirley Bassey" ?

 

Nephew:  "No"

 

Mort:    "Neither do I , Lad. neither do I "

 

Lovely......

 

 

Ps. It might not have been Shirley Bassey, but it doesn't matter. 


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Stanley
Local Historian & Old Fart


36804 Posts
Posted - 25/02/2009 : 17:08
"Bugger the sun, give me a good drizzle any day. You know where you are with drizzle."


Stanley Challenger Graham




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Bradders
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Posted - 25/02/2009 : 22:50
YES ! ! !


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Stanley
Local Historian & Old Fart


36804 Posts
Posted - 26/02/2009 : 06:49
I wonder whether the BBC have them on CD..... Must stop writing and have a furtle. I have an idea that it was the TV series that was called 'I didn't know you cared'. Was the radio programme a different title?

Do you remember UM going on about motorways being the ruin of the North....


Stanley Challenger Graham




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