February 25, 2009

Master stick dresser: George Snaith of Elishaw.

By Don Clegg & Clive Dalton

A private man
George Snaith was a very quiet, private man and certainly a person to whom you’d apply the word ‘character’. He was so typical of those Northumbrian farming folk of his generation, who had grown up and lived with no modern conveniences and where hard work was accepted as normal. This applied to both the men and womenfolk on farms.

George lived at the Elishaw farm of several hundred acres near Otterburn with his brother Tom and sister Ellen. They didn’t travel far as their only means of transport was a bike or the bus.

Ellen was known as a fantastic cook, and was famed for her wonderful teas provided at the ‘threshings’ when local farmers went to help each other. The Snaiths had lived at Elishaw for generations and other branches of the family farmed at Blakehope and Hindhaugh.

Blakehope farm near Elishaw where another branch of the Snaith family farmed (Deric Charlton)

A powerful man
I (Don) worked as a Daft Laddie at Shittleheugh which was the farm next door to Elishaw and I remember in particular, his physical strength. He was not a tall man and at that time in the 1950s he would be around 60 years of age.

On one occasion I saw him lift a 16 stone bag of seed oats off the roadside where Billy Lawrence from the Northern Farmers in Bellingham had dumped it. Now remember, 16 stone is two hundredweights (224lbs or 101kg) and to lift it off the ground on to his shoulder and carry it away was an amazing feat of strength. George thought nowt of it.

Sixteen stone bags were common in those days, but most of us struggled to get one up high enough off the ground to carry it without the help of an assistant. The trick was to get a helper to give you a swing with the sack, and then turn underneath it and let it land on your shoulders and then stagger off with it. The timing and mutually-agreed instructions of ‘after three’ were critical. You had to gave total trust in your helper as many thought it a great joke to see you buckle and collapse. George Snaith didn’t have any of these hassles!

Horsepower – Clydesdale v Suffolk Punch
The horse was the farm’s motive power in those days, and the Clydesdale was the breed of choice on both sides of the Border. But for some reason George preferred Suffolk Punches. They are an interesting breed, and bred with solid muscular bodies but very small feet. This helped them walk between the rows of plants on arable farms in their native Suffolk without damaging plants. Unlike the Clydesdale they had ‘clean’ legs with no ‘feather’ (hair) on them so they didn’t get clogged up with mud so were ‘easy care’.

Suffolk Punch in New Zealand owned by Connie Smith
I (Clive) would bet that he probably bought them from the Waltons of Anton Hill who purchased a railway wagonload from Suffolk. I was a small village laddie at the time (around 1947) and was in Bellingham one day, when there was the clatter of hooves of an approaching stampede.

Across the Hareshaw burn bridge and up around Dobbin’s corner came about ten big golden brown horses at full gallop. There was a rider in front leading the way, and Tommy Walton from Anton Hill was behind them with a whip goading and whooping them on. The pounding of their unshod hooves on the road at full tilt was something to behold. I was about to take cover in Baden’s archway!

Years later I worked at Anton Hill for an Easter college break and led muck with one of these wonderful beasts. I got the full story from Tommy about the Waltons buying a railway wagonload, and driving them from the station at full gallop, non-stop to Anton Hill. He said the trick was to keep them galloping in a tight group so odd ones wouldn’t veer off. Tommy broke most of them in and sold them to local farmers. He told me that the lovely quiet mare I was using was one of the toughest to break. Thank goodness for me she’d learned her lessons well.

Tommy & Sailor
I (Don) remember that George’s horses were called ‘Tommy’ and ‘Sailor’. One day after work George led Tommy back to the field by the halter, with the halter shank wrapped around his hand. As he opened the field gate, Tommy banged through and in the process caused the rope to remove one (maybe two) of George’s fingers.

George calmly collected his digits and biked the two miles to Otterburn to see the doctor. But sadly for George, the doctor’s surgery that day was held in Bellingham. So he remounted his bike and went on over Hareshaw to Bellingham, a distance of 8 miles, up and down the many steep hills. I’m not sure what the outcome was in those days before microsurgery. And he probably carried his finger in an old handkerchief in his pocket and not in a box of ice.

One day in the hayfield next to the farm, Tommy took the gee, and set off at pace down the field towards the river Rede in the shafts of the hay bogey, complete with pike and George on board.

When he reached the river Tommy turned sharply and in the process smashed the bogey shafts. When George eventually got Tommy calmed down, he yoked him into the roller and spent the rest of the afternoon driving him up and down the field so that the memory got implanted in the horse’s brain. It must have worked as Tommy never took off again.

The anvil challenge

George seems to have had liking for anvils, which were the pinnacle for anyone who claimed to have physical strength. The smithy was the place to show this, as it was where young men tended to gather in a village, and there was always heavy objects around like anvils and cart wheels, either single ones or a pair on an axle. These young bucks were often described as ‘being strang i’ the back and light i’ the heed’.

Picture shows the anvil in the Bellingham Heritage Centre from the Smithy at Stannersburn. Normally they are a two-man lift, and a struggle at that.

Nancy Prebble (nee Snaith) said that George had a party trick where at agricultural shows he would challenge anyone in the crowd to lift an anvil off the ground. Most of course failed, as it is at least a two man job to even move then never mind lift them. Well of course George would not only lift the anvil, but he’d throw it a few feet away from it’s original position. Nancy witnessed this many times.

Anvils now make great garden ornaments. This mini one 250mm
long is much easier to lift! (Photo Ken Prebble)

Tennyson’s Brook

George was a fantastic craftsman. I (Don) watched him making a many-blade pocket knife (Swiss army knife style). He used the tines from a muck grape to make the springs and blades and it was all done, including hardening and tempering, over a paraffin lamp.

When I knew him, he was working on a set of sticks based on the poem ‘The Brook” by Tennyson. He had about ten finished. They were amazing as not only were the horn heads carved into birds such as herons and kingfishers, he had also removed the bark from the shank, and had carved the words of that particular verse he was working on in a spiral around the shank.

On to this he then carved and coloured (with natural dyes from nuts, berries and heather) every conceivable creature and plant mentioned by Tennyson. They were incredible works of art and nowhere would Tennyson’s words have been better illustrated.

A magnificent collection of George's sticks, from a photo in the essential reading on this subject - Border Stick Dressers Association: The First 50 Years by Wilf Laidler. Available here.

Sadly George didn’t quite complete the project. He had 17 lines left to do when he died in 1962. Some of this amazing collection of sticks is housed in Alnwick Castle, while others are in the care of the family.

Pocket knife and paraffin lamp
I (Clive) was fortunate to be taken to visit him one night by George Richardson from the Riding farm in Bellingham, who knew him and my interest in sticks. It was early evening and George Snaith was in his workshop, lit by a paraffin lamp on the bench, working on a stick in The Brook series.

The few tools he had lying on the bench were a shock to my eyes as I was accumulating rasps of all shapes and sizes, and was the proud owner of a new ‘Surform’ rasp which had just come out.

George’s main tool was his pocket knife. But what blew me away was his knowledge of literature, and the deep thinking he’d obviously put into his Brook series. He’d certainly thought as much about each line as Tennyson had – maybe more! I felt I was in the presence of a Northumbrian farmer who was also a philosopher - and who had left school at 14.

George Snaith, along with a shepherd from up the Coquet, Ned Henderson (see right), are credited with getting stick dressing going as a competitive sport. It has always been competitive in a quiet sort of way, for when shepherd’s met, and especially at cross-Border events like marts, their sticks were a statement of who they were and the farm they were from.

Brian Tilley, in a nice piece in the Hexham Courant (5 February 2009), reports that George and Ned each produced a stick with a brown trout carved on the handle for the show at Thropton, so showing dressed sticks was launched as an art form. George and his fellow stick dressers didn’t work from memory, they’d go down the burn and catch a trout to lay on the bench to makes sure proportions and colours were perfect. George’s work has taken the word ‘perfection’ to a new, higher level.

Norman Tulip
The other great stick dresser at the time was Norman Tulip who shepherded at various places in North Tyne and Coquet, and it was George who was his tutor and mentor – after a while! Brian Tilley tells the story that Norman walked all the way to Elishaw to see George, hoping to learn a few tricks of the trade. He knocked on the door which opened about six inches and a gruff voice asked what he wanted.

When Norman explained, he was told te gan away and cum back with some sticks he had dressed. A few months later, Norman arrived back with some of his work, to be greeted again by the door just ajar, but this time a hand came out and grabbed the samples before it was shut again.

Norman ‘hung aboot’ for a while and eventually George came out to admit that Norman had some talent, and that he’d teach him the tricks of the trade. But there was one important condition – that Norman never sold a stick he’d made. Norman Tulip kept this promise to the day he died, although there were many times he’d be offered big money for them.

Sticks for King & Queen
Many members of the Border Stickdressers Association, and especially Snaith, Tulip and Henderson all made sticks for Royalty, when on their visits North or for Royal wedding presents.
Once the King (George VI) and Queen Elizabeth were about to visit the area and George was approached to make a stick for the Queen. He asked ‘whee was maakin the stick for the King?’ When he was told that it was Norman Tulip, his reply was “Well he can make both buggas then.’

George Snaith was the first President of the Border Stickdressers Association and the Duke of Northumberland was always keen to give support as a patron. It was a wise move to have Prince Charles as a current patron, as his influence was clearly important in the battle the Association had with the EU over the law to incinerate tups’ heads for BSE control. The dispensation obtained from the EU bureaucracy for horned tups for stickdressing was a major coup.
The cantankerous side of George Snaith would have rejoiced at that.

Stick by Don Clegg
Stick handle made from burr elm and shank of Ash.

What use is a stick? elsewhere on Woolshed 1.
The art of stick dressing in a Border tradition on Knol.
George Snaith - the Master - carves his place in history in the Hexham Courant
by Brian Tilley

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