Peter Barker was born on the 10th of July 1808, to parents Richard Barker and Alice (Winn) and baptised at Hampsthwaite parish church on the 9th of October that year. Blind from infancy, his life was recorded in 1868 whilst alive in a booklet, "Memoir of the life of Peter Barker, the blind joiner of Hampsthwaite". After his death in 1873, the booklet was reprinted, and appears here in full.
THE BLIND JOINER OF HAMPSTHWAITE.
SOME blind men sink down at once without an effort and become dependent on the charity of others for the mere necessaries of life, whilst others, endued with a more indomitable spirit boldly enter the world of industry, and compete successfully with their more favoured fellow men. In such cases they afford an excellent lesson for the encouragement of mankind, especially to those who are surrounded with privations and difficulties, prompting them to a resolution to surmount them showing that industry and perseverance can overcome the most formidable obstacles A most remarkable instance of this kind of selfdependence was to be seen in Peter Barker a blind joiner lately a resident at Hampsthwaite a small village in the valley of the Nidd, about five miles northwest of Harrogate Though his station in life was a humble one, he was certainly the most remarkable man in the village. He was born July 10th, 1808 At the age of four years he was deprived of sight by an inflammation of the eyes and ever afterwards he was- "dark amid the blaze of noon. Irrecoverably dark; total eclipse Without all hope of day".
Some men will educate and enlighten themselves in spite of all the difficulties which can be thrown around them they appear to have a supply of mental material within which only needs touching by that ethereal fire-" Which comes and goes How no man knows" to flash into a flame and burn perhaps for ever.
Though deprived of sight. the spirit of enterprise was strong within the boy; he joined in games and sports of the village children with a spirit equal to their own and was not infrequently a contriver and ringleader in their petty mischievous pranks. If any one played a practical joke upon the blind boy he was pretty certain before long to have it returned in kind He was always ready to join other boys in their bird-nesting excursions and though not able to find the nests himself, he was willing to ascend the trees in which they were seen by others; and such was his agility that there were very few trees which he was not able to climb. Another favourite amusement of his was groping for fish in the river Nidd and it's tributary streams; some other boy would watch the fish pass under a stone and then give directions to Peter as to its whereabouts, whose dexterous hand seldom failed in securing a prize but should any mischief-loving urchin direct him to a wrong stone for fun and then laugh at him, that lad was almost certain to receive a ducking or a thrashing for such was Peter's strength and spirit that few lads of his own age and size were his match in fair fight.
In his youth he was willing to assist anyone who had any work to do, for, notwithstanding his loss of sight he held the opinion of himself that what any other lad could do he could do He was partial to haymaking, could spread swathes readily he could also make the cock called locally the lap-cock, but at this last occupation he considered himself slow. Once his ambition in the hayfield ended in disaster; Peter was under the impression that he could make one of the large cocks or pikes and in conjunction with an associate named Nutter (yet living, a cabinetmaker by trade) who was deaf and dumb and known through the village by the name of dummy they fell to work of their own accord, blind Pete, as he was always called, above to take the hay and form the pike, and dummy below to fork it to him They got on pretty well for awhile and attained a considerable elevation, when at length, not having properly balanced the concern, it swayed to one side, and one of the workers not being able to see and the other not being able to tell him that any thing was wrong down fell the mass, partially burying its builders among the hay; dummy soon crept out and fled. Peter was found grasping the grass on the ground with both his hands, neither much hurt nor much afraid: and when saluted by the farmer with- "Noo. Pete l'ye catchd 'thee in another o' thy mischieves, what is th' hoddin on so fast to th grass for?" "Why, maister," replied Peter, I've tummeld doon. an' I's hoddin on to th' grass, for I don't want to tummel back ageean an' leame mysel." Such was the end of Peter's first attempt at stack or pike making.
Having an ear for music. Peter became a performer on the violin and as he grew to manhood frequented village feasts, dances, and merry-makings all round the country, as a performer on his instrument. From frequenting these jovial assemblies he began to have a love for strong drink, but his moral nature was too strong to yield to these temptations. He saw the downward tendency of the course he was pursuing, and suddenly formed the determination to abandon the musical profession, as well as the jovial and loose companions with which it brought him into contact, and to beg his bread rather than obtain it in such a manner. This was the turning point of his life. Here he was at the age of manhood. without any means of procuring what he deemed an honest livelihood What shall he do? Led by a dog, must he take his stand in the street and beg. or with staff and wallet trudge a weary round telling his piteous tale from door to door, that the sight of his infirmity may move the beholders to charity? Nay, no pensioner on the bounty of others will he be if he can possibly help it: and something within him tells him that he can and he is determined to obey the promptings of that something - he calls it Providence - who can give it a better name. The idea suddenly entered his mind that he would be a joiner, he fell to work to make a chair, succeeded in the first attempt. and since that time such was his principal occupation.
The resolution to abandon the musical profession was the heroic point in Peter s life. Many would have been satisfied with what they had done; they would have kept fiddling on all their lifetime, picking up a scanty and precarious subsistence from the charity of the public. Peter threw away the acquirement by which he might have earned his bread: resolved to be a 'man among men'; to do what others blessed with eyesight did, and to teach himself an art which many have to pass through a long apprenticeship to acquire. He thus raised himself many degrees above the mere musician, who, by means of touch and hearing moves in a certain groove and cannot get out of it.
What a treat it would be to a philosopher could he enter into all the thoughts and analyze the workings of the mind of a man like this: look upon the first rude and shadowy conceptions he had of things new to him, see them slowly elaborated until at last the complete idea was formed and realised.
No indenture was signed and sealed, no apprentice fee was paid by the blind youth, he received no instructions, no ideas from others. How he could acquire a knowledge of the use of tools which he had never seen used is a mystery, it must have emanated from within - it could not come from without, at least not by any of the usual channels. Peter himself cut short all reasoning on this subject by saying that Providence taught him how to work honestly for his living and we must admit his logic to be truth, for a more likely cause cannot be found. He handled his tools with all the dexterity of a practised workman and rarely did he cut his fingers with axe or chisel; if any accident of that kind occurred it was generally with a blunt tool. His planes, axes, hammers, chisels, saws, were the ordinary tools of a common workman: and in this blind man's workshop they were to be seen for all kinds of work, each in its proper rack or laid in its proper place there everything was in order, clean and neat - no confusion, no piling of one article upon another. The only peculiarity observable in any of his instruments was in the foot rule with which he made his measurements the lines on which were marked by small pins, in different numbers at different lengths on the rule The idea of having his rule thus marked was suggested by a lady who kindly interested herself in his welfare She wrote to the manufacturers of such articles in London. to enquire if such a thing could be had as a rule with raised lines and figures: the answer was that it could not, as they never had an application before for a rule for the use of a blind man Failing to procure an article of this kind, she suggested the marking of the inch and other marks with pins which was carried into effect.
The articles made by this blind workman are firm and substantial, the joints even and close, and the polish smoother than that of many other workmen It is really surprising to see how neatly and firmly the thin mahogany veneer is laid upon the picture frame, and that by hands directed by no ray of light.
We have more than once heard an anecdote related of a cabinet maker in Leeds who having heard reports of the blind joiner's skill, procured a chair of his making, and one day entered his workshop, bearing the chair along with him and calling some of his workmen to him, asked them what they thought of the chair. After examination they thought there was nothing particular about it only it was a good, plain chair, "So it is", said the master, but will you believe it that the man who made it never saw it?, he was blind from a child". Their indifference at once was turned to wonder and amazement.
We have frequently seen him at work, and were it not from the more frequent handling of the articles operated on and the nearness of his fingers to the edge of the chisel or saw there was nothing apparently to distinguish his manner from that of an ordinary workman.
In 1868 we found him at work in the church repairing the seats, and watched him for some time before he was conscious of the presence of any one. He showed us what be had done- lowered the fronts of both the pulpit and reading desk, the one twenty inches, the other a foot brought forward a pew some three feet and refronted it with panals of old carved oak, which he asserted was very difficult to work over again, showed us a piece of carving which he, in conjunction with the church warden had only discovered the day before, which was upwards of two hundred years old, led the way into the belfry, giving a word of advice to be careful in ascending the old rickety stairs, showed the clock, which he had under his care to keep clean and in going order. At this point while seated on a bench he gave us a narrative of his first acquaintance with the clock, which we give in his own words as nearly as we can remember
"You see our clock is- yan o these- aud fashon'd hand mead 'uns, not mead exact an true by machinery as they are noo, but ivvery wheel cut an' filed by hand. Aud Sno' a notified clock rnakker at liv'd up aboon abit here, had had ner a mannishin a long time, at sea mitch a year. He us'd to cum just at th' time when his year was up, give t aud clock a fedder full o' oil, tak his brass, an there was nea mair on him till t, next year. At last she gat as she wadn't gang at all, she wad naither turn pointers nor strike. T'foaks i' t' toon were sadly dissatisfied, they neither knew when to git up, nor gang to bed, as they had dean afore when t' clock was all reet.
" T' Church maister sent for t' clockmakker an he com', an' com' ageean. an' fizzled an faff'd aboot her, but nivver did her a farden's worth o' good. At last he was feared to give her up as a bad job she was fairly worn out an she wad nivver be no better till she was mended with a new un; an that's aboon twenty year sin, an t'aud clock's here yet. Then Johnny Gill, annudder clever fella. teak her under hands an she lick'd him as fairly as she'd deean aud Sno'.
" I was i' t'church by mysel yah day I hardly know what aboot noo, when it com' into my heead at I wad try my hand at her. I nivver had deean nowt o' t' sooart; but if ye nivver try ye nivver can dea owt. Soa t'first thing I did was to give her a reet good feelin' all ower her an' then hevin settled all her parts fairly i' my mind, I fell to work an teak her to pieces bit by bit, gat all 't works owt on her, an cleaned her all ower reet soundly particularly t' pivvits, an then gay 'em all a sup o' nice oil then I put her togidder ageean. Efter a few trials I got her all reet, gat her started-she strake an kept time like a good un. Efter I finish'd I com' doon an' into th' church garth an' wha did I meet there but Mr Shann, our Vicar at that time, an' just as I was meetin' him t' clock stroke ageean".
"What's that Peter?" he says. I says- "It's t'clock, Sir" He says ageean,. "What does this mean. Peter?". I says, 'It meeans t' time o' day when t' clock strikes". He began o laffin an' said, "you're a queer fellow, Peter. I mean who made the clock strike?" "0", I says, "I've deean that mysel, Sir. I've been at her a goodish bit to-day an I think I ye gitten her put all reet at last. "Well done Peter, you re a clever fellow" he says. "But you shan't do all this for nothing. I shall let the churchwardens know what you have done. You must have some reward". "Varra well. Sir," I says, an' sea we parted. An' he was as good as his word. When t' churchmaisters met, he tell'd 'em all aboot it, an' they allow'd me four shillings for me job an' I was to hey ten shillings a year for keepin her gannin ivvery year efter"
Such was Peters narrative of his first attempt at church clock cleaning. No one will we presume censure the churchwardens for wasting the parochial funds in rewarding the blind mechanician for his labour on their public timekeeper. From that time to the end of his life Peter had the church clock under his care and to his credit the said clock has done its duty remarkably well. In the month of July 1865 it did not strike correctly As Peter told the tale himself- "I was I' t' shop when I heeard her it it, two or three times. I steead it as lang as I cud, at last I bang'd doon my teeals. an' says to mysel-" I'll ayther mak thee strike reet or I 'll mak thee 'at thou'll nivver strike ageean. Awa I went, spent an hour over her, gat her reet, an' she's kept reet ever sin". Once on a visit to Peter s cottage (the old one) we found a window had been recently inserted, according to his statement, to make the fireside more lightsome - Peter having been mason, joiner and glazier himself. In short, he appeared to be able to do any kind of work that he had the desire or the will to do He was an expert in the art of netting - fabricating articles in that line from the common cabbage net to the curtains which adorn the windows of the stately drawing-room.
As a vocalist he sung bass in the church on Sundays. He was also one of the bell-ringers and during the winter months the curfew bell is rung at Hampsthwaite at eight o'clock every evening.
When it was Peter s turn to ring he took a lighted lantern with him - not for the purpose of seeing others but that others might see him.
He learned about the year 1853 to read the New Testament, by means of the letters invented for that purpose. He always fattened a pig in the winter season and had a method of measurement of his own for ascertaining how much weight the pig had gained every week, and to such measurement and calculation the pig was weekly subjected until he attained the proper bulk and weight. Peter generally bought his pig himself and for that purpose attended the market at Knaresborough where the bargain was cause of much amusement to the onlookers. When the pig was pointed out which was thought likely the seller had to seize the same and hold it still as possible until Peter had felt it over and ascertained its 'points', and passed his judgment on its feeding qualities.
The late Mr Wilson of Hampsthwaite once took Peter to Redcar for a little recreation and also to see the sea, to his great pleasure - and delight. When asked on his return how he liked the sea he exclaimed "Ah, bairns, I nivver saw sike a seet in all my life; it fair capt me!"
Peter was a member of the Odd Fellows Lodge at Hampsthwaite, and filled all the offices in his proper turn with the exception of Secretary and Treasurer; and always took part in the annual parades of the village on WhitMonday.
Peter retained a love of music to the end of his life and as he was also fond of children; the latter frequently came to his cottage. For amusement he would play them a tune on his fiddle. This fiddle Peter had made himself and also the case in which it was kept when not in use.
For the last thirty years of his life he always joined in the annual Christmas excursion of the church singers around the parish during which they visited nearly every house and were received with the most kindly welcome and entertained with liberal hospitality. No rain, nor snow, nor frost could deter Peter from sharing in this his favourite performance; for singing was always his chief delight and when about to begin, he used to put himself in an attitude as if to undertake some great conflict.
An instance of Peter s remarkable delicacy of touch was shown in his ability to know the hour of the day by a watch. He would open the case, pass his fingers over the dial and having ascertained the position of the hands, tell the time to a minute.
His sense of hearing was most remarkably acute: he could distinguish any of his neighbours by the sound of their footsteps, and other persons whom he saw less frequently by the voice. This latter mode of recognition we have often seen.
Like all enterprising men of the world, Peter after a romantic courtship, married a wife. We do not know the exact date of the wedding, but she died June 3rd 1862 leaving one son, who only survived until Jan 19th, 1863, when he also died at the age of 17 years. This last was a great and heavy affliction to his father as the boy was his constant companion, his pleasure and delight. A distant relative* afterwards superintended his domestic affairs. (*This being Mary Lupton.)
Peter made no scruple in saying that he was very wild and wicked in his youth and that he had done actions that would half-hang a man if done now-a-days. A fuller relation of these shocking bad deeds only resolved into a few practical jokes-the leaguing with a few more wild lads like himself to plunder an orchard for the sake of a few apples or plums for their own eating. Such was the staple of his wickedness. Such are not strictly just or moral actions certainly but after all they cannot be styled more than "tricks of youth," and in these Peter appears to have been the contriver and actor in more than an ordinary number. Full of animal spirits, daring, quick witted and active, he was always ready to be an associate, more frequently a ringleader, in any kind of .in frolic and mischief.
When upwards of sixty years of age he was tall and athletic in person, ready and quick in conversation, plain, straightforward and honest in the account he gave of himself and his performances. After a few weeks illness he died in his cottage near the churchyard gates, on February 18th 1873. The difficulties he overcame in educating his faculties must have been prodigious;: and the cultivation of the talent within him ought to be an example and incentive to every one who knows anything of him. In short, the life of this poor, blind humble workman, presents a great mental and moral lesson to mankind.
A tombstone has been erected in Hampsthwaite Churchyard to his memory, by a few of his friends bearing the following inscription:
RAISED BY HIS FRIENDS TO THE MEMORY OF
OF THIS PARISH.
He died February 18th, 1873,
AGED 64 YEARS.
Though blind from infancy he was skilful as a cabinetmaker, a
glazier and a musician By the sense of touch he "searched" the Scriptures daily
"Jesus took the blind man by the hand
Whereas I was blind now I see"