A STORY FROM A CHIMNEY-CORNER.
A good song, and thank’ ee, Sir, for singing it! Time was, you’d never miss hearing it in these parts, whether ’twas feast or harvest-supper or Saturday night at the public. A virtuous good song, too; and the merry fellow that made it won’t need to cast about and excuse himself when the graves open and he turns out with his fiddle under his arm. My own mother taught it to me; the more by token that she came from Saltash, and “Ye sexes, give ear” was a terrible favourite with the Saltash females by reason of Sally Hancock and her turn-to with the press-gang. Hey? You don’t tell me, after singing the song, that you never heard tell of Sally Hancock? Well, if–! Here, take and fill my mug, somebody!
‘Tis an instructive tale, too. . . . This Sally was a Saltash fishwoman, and you must have heard of them, at all events. There was Bess Rablin, too, and Mary Kitty Climo, and Thomasine Oliver, and Long Eliza that married Treleaven the hoveller, and Pengelly’s wife Ann; these made up the crew Sally stroked in the great race. And besides these there was Nan Scantlebury–she took Bess Rablin’s oar the second year, Bess being a bit too fond of lifting her elbow, which affected her health–and Phemy Sullivan, an Irishwoman, and Long Eliza’s half-sister Charlotte Prowse, and Rebecca Tucker, and Susan Trebilcock, that everybody called “Apern,” and a dozen more maybe: powerful women every one, and proud of it. The town called them Sally Hancock’s Gang, she being their leader, though they worked separate, shrimping, cockling, digging for lug and long-lining, bawling fish through Plymouth streets, even a hovelling job at times–nothing came amiss to them, and no weather. For a trip to Plymouth they’d put on sea-boots belike, or grey stockings and clogs: but at home they went bare-legged, and if they wore anything ‘pon their heads ‘twould be a handkerchief, red or yellow, with a man’s hat clapped a-top; coats too, and guernseys like men’s, and petticoats a short few inches longer; for I’m telling of that back-along time when we fought Boney and while seafaring men still wore petticoats–in these parts at any rate. Well, that’s how Sally and her mates looked on week-a-days, and that’s how they behaved: but you must understand that, though rough, they were respectable; the most of them Wesleyan Methodists; and on Sundays they’d put on bonnet and sit in chapel, and drink their tea afterwards and pick their neighbours to pieces just like ordinary Christians. Sal herself was a converted woman, and greatly exercised for years about her husband’s condition, that kept a tailor’s shop halfway down Fore Street and scoffed at the word of Grace; though he attended public worship, partly to please his customers and partly because his wife wouldn’t let him off.
The way the fun started was this. In June month of the year ‘five (that’s the date my mother always gave) the Wesleyans up at the London Foundry sent a man down to preach a revival through Cornwall, starting with Saltash. He had never crossed the Tamar before, but had lived the most of his life near Wolverhampton–a bustious little man, with a round belly and a bald head and high sense of his own importance. He arrived on a Saturday night, and attended service next morning, but not to take part in it: he “wished to look round,” he said. So the morning was spent in impressing everyone with his shiny black suit of West-of-England broadcloth and his beautiful neckcloth and bunch of seals. But in the evening he climbed the pulpit; and there Old Nick himself, that lies in wait for preachers, must have tempted the poor fellow to preach on Womanly Perfection, taking his text from St. Paul.