January 1, 1970

Dutch in Yorkshire

By Angus Townley

Originally published in The Penny Magazine No 222 Vol XVIII January 23 1903.

The first of a series of instructive articles on “Interesting Communities in Britain.”

BETWEEN Doncaster and Goole lies a considerable stretch of country which in unbroken monotony, uniform flatness, and general characteristics, is as Dutch as Groningen or Oversell. The tiled houses and farmsteads ; the canals with their sluggish, square-rigged barges; the dykes and drains and sluices—all combined make a picture which is peculiarly Dutch. And when the stranger comes across a low – browed, short – statured, stolid figure plodding along in sabots, he is prone to imagine that he has been miraculously transported of a sudden to Holland.
Mynheer Jan belongs to a colony which is exactly suited to the physical features of the district—the Isle of Axholme and the area which formerly comprised the royal chase of Hatfield. He is one of the band who took part in the second Dutch invasion o f Yorkshire.
The first descent made by his compatriots the great northern heart of England dates back to the seventeenth century, when the famous Dutch engineer, Vermuyden, brought about two hundred Hollanders into it, and converted more than 70,000 acres of bog land into rich virgin soil. Years rolled on, and history repeated itself in a measure. One morning in 1887 Thorne woke to find in her quiet streets a small army of foreigners habited in blue three-quarter smocks, wide pantaloons, and wooden shoes, and attended by their stodgy “vrows” and a numerous progeny. Again Dutch peat cutters had been imported to work in the Yorkshire Holland, not only because of their cheapness and diligence, but because they possessed the requisite skill, which they had acquired in their own country.
The principal colony of the Hollanders who came to England in these circumstances is situated at Moorends, about three miles from Thorne, and is as distinct a feature of the village as the Chinese quarter is of San Francisco. When the Dutch were first imported, they pitched their tents in Thorne itself ; but
for various reasons it was deemed politic to isolate them. Their introduction into -the district, for in-stance, was strongly resented by the local labourers, and as a result quarrels were frequent, and the knife more than once came into play. Though racial prejudice has now almost died away, it still breaks out occasionally. One night not long since an Englishman was found near Thorne Church with his throat cut, and next morning a board shaped like a butcher’s cleaver was picked up on the spot. The injured villager stated that he had been attacked by one of the Dutch peat workers, and some of those aliens were arrested and charged with the offence. But, although the guilty person was probably among them, it was impossible to bring the deed home, and consequently the prisoners were discharged. All the same, the sufferer merits no pity. From the finding of the bit of flooring and from other circumstances it is clear that he and others lay in wait for some of the Dutchmen for the purpose of giving them a hiding as they returned home, and that in the melee he got the worst of it.
In consequence of the strained relations which formerly existed between the Dutch and the villagers, a row of cottages was built for the immigrants at Moorends, and there the largest contingent of them now reside. This settlement, known as ” Moss Terrace” consists of a number of redbrick houses, and at first glance, when all the inhabitants are indoors, there is nothing Dutch about it except the name on a signboard which is displayed over the door of a shop—the only shop in the colony. Plain, ugly cottages of the strictly utilitarian type—that is all. The patronymic above the entrance to the little store, however, strikes the right note.
This establishment belongs to a Dutchman who has an English “vrow”. During the late war her patriotism was superior to business considerations, and not content with hoping for the success of her country’s cause, she openly rejoiced at the victories of our troops, and, what is more, lectured her neighbours on the enormities of Kruger’s Government. Naturally, this roused the ire of the Dutchmen, who retaliated by severely boycotting the shop. The “vrow” and her spouse, however, rose to the occasion. By a little diplomacy, coupled with selling goods slightly under market price, they very soon brought about a reconciliation.
Very interesting is the social life of the Dutch community at Moorends. They are a simple and thrifty people. Usually the furniture in the “living” room consists of little beyond a table and a few chairs, and the food is plain, if abundant. In general, the wife, if Dutch, still clings to her wooden shoes, and her children also wear sabots, as well as the roomy, picturesque saque blouses which are so common in Holland. A quaint sight the youngsters make as they trudge away to school. Formerly the women did not put off their heavy shoes even when they went into Thorne, but now they go to market in velvet slippers.
When the housewife is English—as at the shop—the domestic economy, clothing, etc., necessarily approximate more closely to our own standard. There has been some intermarrying between the invaders and the natives, mainly, if local report may be trusted, because of the superior culinary acquirements of the Yorkshire lasses. “Feed the brute” was the advice which a fond mother gave to her newly-married daughter. It is a thousand pities, but there is something in it.
A good many weddings in which one or both of the contracting parties have been Dutch have taken place since the second invasion of the district. The first interesting event of this kind created quite a sensation, and all Thorne turned out to look at the happy couple as they walked home from church. But now the novelty of the thing has worn off.
The amusements of the Dutchmen are mostly confined to card-playing, of which they never tire. Some of them extract weird music from an accordion, but the principal recreation of the workers as a class is cards. Once a year, however, they have a long holiday. By the exercise of the greatest frugality, they save about half their wages, and at Christmas take a trip to their native country, where they stay for six weeks.
Besides the Dutch who live at Mooends, there are a good many at Medge Hall, the seat of the peat moss cutting industry. Here then is is a vast stretch of browny-black moor, studded with huge stacks of peat and moss litter, some coffee-coloured, some dark as ebony by long exposure to the sun’s rays. Scattered over the plain, too, are little cottages inhabited by Dutch workers. They form, with the grinding sheds round which they are clustered as if for warmth, little colonies which are often many miles apart, and connected by nothing save the railroad along which the moss litter blocks are transported.
To see the Dutchmen at work, to follow the peat from the time it is cut and thrown out on the moor in sodden clods till it is a marketable commodity, would take too long. Briefly, the Hollander, armed with an implement called the graver, slices out the spongy substance in bricks about sixteen inches in length and throws these chunks on a wooden stretcher, which, when full, is carried to the drying grounds. There the lumps of peat are stacked in such a way that a current of air can pass through them ; so that in a few months, under the combined influence of the wind and the sun, they become as dry as a bone. Then they are removed to the sheds and converted into litter.
The work seems simple enough : but as a fact it calls for a good deal of skill. It is not everybody, for instance, who can stack the peat properly. Owing to the large quantity of water that the bricks contain, they have to be built up in a certain manner, or they would remain as soft as a sponge for a whole year. It is said, indeed, that the reason why the Dutchmen were imported into this out-of-the way spot was that the Yorkshire labourers were unequal to requirements. They knew absolutely nothing of the conditions under which the peat is harvested and dealt with by the company, whereas the Dutch immigrants were perfectly familiar with them, having worked under such conditions in Holland.
Many are the uses to which the dried peat can be put. It can be manufactured into articles so diverse as flannels, surgical wool, charcoal, and a woven material for felt and under carpeting. Ground up, it will take the place of sawdust in fruit packing, and is, indeed, said to be superior to that form of “waste” in that it imparts no taste. Compressed, it makes admirable flower pots, while it can be formed into blocks so solid that these can be turned in a lathe—only the finest tools, however, will cut them—and then polished till they become, in the opinion of some experts, more beautiful than many rare and costly woods. Also, everybody knows that peat can be, and is, used as a fuel, one of its merits as which is that it acts as a germicide. Its odour, it is true, is objectionable to most people, and clings to food and clothing with a tenacity that neither water nor wind can disturb. There is no washing it out, and all the breezes of heaven seem powerless to bear it away into the zenith.
Of late a number of the Dutch workers have migrated from the Thorne district to Chat Moss, near Manchester. A great deal of peat lies between Cottonopolis and Liverpool, as many railway travellers between those cities cannot fail to have observed, and some of it is being cut and prepared for the market by much the same methods as are followed at Medge Hall.
As a consequence, a Dutch colony has sprung up on Chat Moss in connection with the industry. One of its members recently brought this settlement—the existence of which had been unknown to many Mancunians— under the notice of the general public by making an involuntary appearance before a local bench. This was not an unprecedented occurrence. While Briton and Boer were at daggers drawn, the arguments waged in the Thorne district occasionally ended in the police court, and some of Mr. Kruger’s compatriots were fined accordingly. Assaults, too, have led to the arraignment of a few of the Hollanders before the local justices in other cases besides the one I have given.
On this occasion there was a dash of the comic in the proceedings. A Dutch swain, charged with having threatened to kill another Hollander—a woman—took the magistrate into his confidence, and explained, in broken English, that he wanted the prosecutrix to elope, and that he was angry because she refused.
“Have you anything more to say?” quoth the presiding magistrate.
” Ya -(yes),” the man . ingenuously replied, ” but you had better keep me quiet.*’
And when a fine was imposed, he convulsed the court by artlessly remarking, “I don’t want to pay that.’,’
Our Dutch invaders, however, give very little trouble to anybody, and even when they do they are in general, by common consent, not altogether to blame. Quiet, inoffensive-, industrious, they are peaceable enough if treated properly, and will by-and-by merge into the life of the Thorne district without any revolution or vdisturbance. What with the matrimonial alliances between Dutch and British, and what with the practice of sending the youthful Hollanders to the local schools, where they necessarily imbibe English ideas, there is a good deal of social intercourse between the two races, and not many years hence there will be very little to distinguish some, at least, of the invaders from those born and bred on the soil.
[The illustrations accompanying this article are from photographs by C. F. Constable Esq M.A.]