Clare's Journey -- Who were the 'Old Neighbours' on the road?

[Image : Werrington Green 1905]

“... when I got near the Inn at the end of the gravel walk I maet [met] two young women & I asked one of them wether the road branching to the right bye the end of the Inn did not lead to Peterborough & she said 'Yes' it did so as soon as ever I was on it I felt myself in homes way & went on rather more cheerfull fit though I forced to rest oftener than usual before I got to Peterborough a man & woman passed me in a cart & on hailing me as they passed I found they were neighbours from Helpstone where I used to live -- I told them I was knocked up which they could easily see & that I had neither eat or drank any thing since I left Essex when I told my story they clubbed together fit threw me fivepence out of the cart I picked it up &: called at a small public house near the bridge were I had two half pints of ale & two-penn'o'th of bread & cheese when I had done I started quite refreshed only my feet was more crippled then ever & I could scarcely make a walk of it over the stones & being half ashamed to sit down in the street I forced to keep on the move & got through Peterborough better than I expected when I got on the high road I rested on the stone heaps as I passed till I was able to go on afresh & bye & bye I passed Walton & soon reached Werrington I was making for the Beehive as fast as I could when a cart met me with a man & woman & a boy in it when nearing me the woman jumped out & caught fast hold of my hands & wished me to get into the cart but I refused & thought her either drunk or mad but when I was told it was my second wife Patty I got in & was soon at Northborough...”

John Clare
The Journey From Essex

Has anyone ever wondered who might have been the 'man and a woman in a cart... old neighbours from Helpstone' who shared recognition with John Clare on the final stage of his long walk home from High Beach?

1841, the year of Clare's exploit, was a Census year; the count was made on Sunday-Monday night 6-7 June, six weeks before Clare set off. As to origins, that Census asked simply whether or not people had been born in the county where they now lived, and it recorded ages of those over 14 only in five-year groups. So it is not immediately evident that among those then living at Sawtry All Saints, on or hard by Clare's route between Buckden and Norman Cross, was a very close Helpston contemporary.

Robert Turnill, baptised at St Botolph's on 5 January 1794, was thus only six months the poet's junior, and moreover, a younger brother of Clare's close boyhood friend John Turnill (see Newsletter, December 1996). Robert was now a farmer, married with nine children (the youngest, at seven months, my grandfather-to-be); his age, actually 47, was rounded down to 45.

Given notice from their rented land at Helpston in 1811, the Turnills did not go immediately to Sawtry. In 1827 Robert, then of Southorpe, married at Barholm, Lines, and his children were baptised variously at Barholm, Ryhall and Southorpe, and at Sawtry from 1830. (His parents, who went with them, died in 1832 and 1835, too soon for either Census or Clare's journey, and both were buried at Barnack.) In the Census of 1851 the same family, identifiable by Christian names and ages, is still at Sawtry, with Robert's added detail, in the column headed 'where born'; 'Northamptonshire, Helpstone'.

By the time Clare encountered his 'old neighbours' he was on the road from Norman Cross to Peterborough (which still starts and ends, though altered midway, along much the same path) .He says the cart in which they rode 'passed' him, which surely means 'met', not 'overtook', in which event he might have clambered on board. This was towards the end of a long day's walking, on which Clare recalled seeing candles lit in houses. So even at dusk, going (presumably) home, and scarcely with Clare in mind, they knew who he was. He also knew them, and on an unfamiliar road (at Norman Cross he had to be sure of the way by asking; his coach journeys to London had begun at Stamford, not Peterborough).

The fact that later on Patty Clare met her husband at Werrington makes one wonder whether by then she had been warned of his likely arrival; certainly, it seems more than chance. Even so, without some general hue and cry, the people he met earlier were hardly likely to have known.

Of course, Clare's old neighbours displaced by enclosure included a good many more than the Turnills, and there are more places than Sawtry where they might eventually have landed in the post-enclosure Helpston diaspora. Whoever they were, I am glad that they gave him the fivepence, though it would have been still more kindly to get down from the cart and offer a hand. As for the inn where Clare spent it, the Peacock on the left of the London road at Fletton was (and is) a 'small public house' not much short of the bridge over the Nene. An inn is marked at that point on the 1824 Ordnance Survey map.

Oscar Turnill
JCS Newsletter
December 2000

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