The Flying Serpent Hunt, a Story of Shepley Mill.

This article is a transcript of one which was published in the Glossop-dale Chronicle and North Derbyshire Reporter of 16 May 1874.
The mill owner Benjamin Rolfe died on 25 March 1830.
John Perry was first listed in a directory in Pigot's of 1842 with a business in Hall Street (Manor Park Road), one of three printers and stationers listed.
Miss Becker was Lydia Ernestine Becker (1827 – 1890), a leader in the early British suffrage movement.

Nothing shows the progressive change in the social and mental characteristics of the people so well as a peep into the past, seeing things as they were presented to the eyes of our forefathers, and marking what was thought about them, not by cultivated minds in advance of common notions and prejudices, but by the man of ordinary intelligence. Such a service to the scattered hamlets constituting the Glossop of half-a-century ago was rendered by a working am named Bennett, in the “Flying Serpent” a rhyming narrative published by the first printer in Glossop, Perry, who was succeeded in business by Dawson. The author has no particular reason to fear criticism, for his verses will certainly bear comparison with any productions of native growth in the present day; but he is rather timid. His genius has been fostered amid the social influences of the cottage where friends and admirers listened applaudingly to his recitations; and in coming before the world in print he is modestly diffident, speaks of the “total want of merit” in his book, and enters an ingenious caveat against criticism:-
“I am not weak enough to suppose that the present worthless production will be criticised by any person of sense or feeling; but should some self-sufficient individual take upon himself the office of criticiser, it would be well to remind him that it is much easier to censure a work however mean, than it would be to equal or excel it. I neither covet praise nor fear censure: and shall pay as little regard to the gibe or remark of a critic, as I do to the buzz of an insect or the chirp of a cricket.”

Much more then than now the critic was a terror to poets, for Lord Jeffreys and the Edinburgh reviewers ruled the roost tyrannically, and greater poets than the Shepley Mill Bard went out of their way to criticise the critics; but none hit upon a more ingenious plan than that of putting their works below the level of sensible criticism. But to the tale:

In a romantic pleasant dell
There stood a busy cotton mill,
By waters ever-flowing:
And there a peaceful hamlet stands,
’Midst flow'ry fields and meadow lands,
And stubborn woods yet growing.

The mill in question is Mr G. Handforth’s “Shepley Mill,” then in the occupation of Mr. Benjamin Rolfe, a retired army officer, who also worked a small mill in Old Glossop, and lived in the house now occupied by Mr. T. P. Sykes. The “peaceful hamlet” and “yet growing wood” have long since departed, and the flowery fields and meadow lands have flown over the bills and far away. Where the proprietor’s house now stands there was then a double row of cottages, one facing towards the dam. On the other side of the brook, the slope now known as Sandhill, bare of any vegetation other than potatoes and cabbages, was then Harehill Wood.
Trees were there down to the panic, and in memory of the labour spent upon it in that unhappy time some people still call it “Pinchbelly Park”.

Now, every cottage-house contain'd
A simple thoughtless woman - and
These women caus’d my story.
A trifling whimsical mistake
Those tattling creatures chanc’d to make,
I’ll plainly lay before you.

I cannot say the birds did sing,
Though I am sure it was in spring,
and pleasant was the weather,
When from their houses, in a crew,
The women, idly grouping, drew
To chat awhile together.

The employment of females in factories would not seem then to have drawn them from the more important work of housekeeping, and then as now gossip seems to have been a valued and often exercised privilege, though our modern dames do not go about it in the same determined and ostentatious manner: -

They met in jovial merry mood,
some brought a stool, while others stood,
Some taking snuff, some smoking:
And ne’er a woman there did fail
To tell a lie, - I mean a TALE, -
Or pass the hour in joking.

Thus met, you cannot think they'd fix
Their thoughts on puzzling politics -
A subject now so common:
They argue politics! ah no;
They deem'd such topics far below
The dignity of woman.

What would Miss Becker say to that? The opinion of our Town Council as of most sensible people could not be expressed more precisely, though our poet (evidently deeply embroiled in the stirring controversies of his time) in the next verse but one falls into a common mistake by speaking in terms of contemptuous indifference of those who have not the same interest as himself in politics.

With gibing chat, the dames, with glee,
boasted how welcome some would be
At such and such a labour;
Enlarging on the toast and tea
To be enjoyed on such a day,
With such and such a neighbour.

And happy are such shallow-pates:
For little damps, and less elates,
And transient is their sorrow!
A tear is all they give to grief:
That tear, when given, brings relief,
And they are well to-morrow.

While many a wild fantastic wretch
Sounds ev’ry thinking power, to fetch
A theme for meditation.
The more he seeks, the more he knows
That human sorrow mostly flows
From mere imagination.

The poet is here describing his own situation, and candidly acknowledges the women have the best of it. But having got into the bog of moral philosophy he cannot get out so easily; his thoughts are far away from Shepley Mill, and will not be recalled. He scratches his head to no purpose, and at last takes us into his confidence.

I'm studying of what to think;
Before me are the pen and ink
And paper, on the table;
And when a thought and I agree,
I here record it, as you see,
As well as I am able.

The next verse reminds us of the force and simplicity of Burns: -

But oh, my homely rustic Muse,
No classic lore expands thy views,
Nor power nor wealth attends thee.
Mean as thou art, and meanly clad
To seek thy fortune, good or bad,
I cheerfully now send thee.

After acknowledging his ignorance of grammar and defying critics at large, he returns to his subject: -

Well - the women, as I said before.
Were talking many matters o’er,
Too tedious to mention:
Some talked of gin, while others told
Who good snuff and tobacco sold -
Which news gained strict attention.

Perhaps one might ask, why Dick left Sal?
Another say, he’s gone to Mal,
And Sally’s heart is broken!
While some their spite would wreak on Jack
For heaping lies on Nelly’s back -
The biggest ever spoken!

Thus business sped, till Kate did rise,
And, gazing with bewilder’d eyes
0'er the mill-dam and river,
“Oh dear! oh dear! oh me!” she cries.
“What do I see ? 't'as wings - it flies
And yet has not a feather!”

She scream’d so loudly, others came
And in a moment saw the same
All in confusion crying
“Lord help us, what a dreadful sight!
Make haste, and let us take our flight
For ’tis a serpent flying!”

Soon each good mother hous’d her child,
And said her prayers, (half mad - half wild).
And seem'd a true repentant:
While others hurried through the mill
In breathless haste, the men to tell
They'd seen a flying serpent!

The men inquir’d which way it went
Prognosticating it was meant
As sign of some disaster.
One weak effeminate old man
Put on his hat and out he ran
To tell the news his master.

The master due attention paid
To all his humble servant said;
And, without hesitation,
Alighting from his old black mare,
He to the women did repair
To hear a full relation.

When questioned, the women said
“The serpent had a frightful head,
Shap’d like a snig’s, but stronger:
A shining body, (darkly brown’d.)
Apparently nine inches round,
Long as your leg or longer.

“We plainly saw four webbed wings
Expanded wide what dreadful things!!!
And a long tail behind it.
We saw it twice, while here we stood,
fly o'er the dam and reach the wood .
And there, sir, you will find it.”

The master faithfully believ’d
The information he receiv'd,
And scratch’d his head in wonder:
“Here, Tom, (he call’d) make haste, man! run,
Fetch the big dog - bring shot and gun -
Make no delay or blunder.”

Tom’s errand speedily was done.
His master loaded well his gun,
And threw it o’er his shoulder.
A sportsman be, so staunch and true
No general brave at Waterloo
Could fiercer look or bolder!

The Tom referred to is Thomas Hall. It did not need the reference to Waterloo to let us see that Mr. Rolfe was essentially a military man. In his endeavours to secure perfect discipline at the mill many a row had been brought about; but few would question an order if his round, dapper form was in sight. This is his peremptory way:-

He spoke: a servant stopp’d the mill;
Yet every man must labour still
Where labour more was wanting.
Both men and boys (if able grown
To wield a stick or fling a atone)
Must go a dragon hunting!

With staff or stick, or stone or pike,
And other arms of forms the like
They mov'd in wild distraction.
The master, marching in the van
Crossed o’er the brook, and bade ’each man
Prepare for instant action.

Now they commenc’d, with caution good,
To search the brook; some cours'd the wood,
And some explor’d beyond it.
They traced the fields and meadows o’er,
Till many a graceless rustic swore
He'd hunt the h-ll-h fiend no more
For mortals could not find it!

But still each thick set bush they beat;
Till branches flew, and so did sweat
And leaves, in all directions!
Shirts wet with sweat, through extra toil,
Were all these warriors had for spoil,
Allowing no exceptions!

Their right to be called warriors was not wholly derived from their following a military leader. Harehill Wood had a thick natural undergrowth of briars and thorns, and in contending with those enemies not a few of them had been wounded. Like the Ashantee expedition, they were “fighting in the bush”: -

All patience gone, and weari’d out
With seeking long and finding nought
The men sat down to rest them,
Quite busily employ’d, with pins
Extracting prickles from their shins
While master thus address’d them: -

He hem’d and haw’d, then said “my boys
Tis nothing else but women's lies -
I find it’s all deception.”
(For be it known that time and thought
His hurri'd faculties had brought
To reason and reflection.)

He muttered to himself awhile
With many a grin and sneering smile
Then loudly spoke with freedom:
denouncing women as stark mad.
Saying that he and ev’ry lad
Were twice as mad to heed them.

‘‘So, rouse, ye madcaps. Rise - for shame!
'Tis time to march the way we came
That is, if we are able;
And tell the women, serpents’ wings
And dragons’ tails, and such like things,
Are only known in fable.”

The men arose, without delay,
And each his weapon threw away,
With pride and spirit wounded.
When safe returned, the women said -
Well! have you killed the monster dead,
Or have you never found it ?”

Half chok'd with rage, the master cries
“Ye nincompoops, pray hold your noise,
For long enough you've prated!
And know, nor mortals utmost skill,
Nor Michael's pow’r, could ever kill
That which was ne’er created!

“Consider twice ere once you speak;
Yea, thrice before again you make
Such monstrous conclusions:
So shall reflection make you wise
And reason cleanse deluded eyes
From optical delusions!

“Farewell, ye numbskulls,'’ master cries,
“We'll hunt no more the scent of lies
Nor after phantoms ramble.
Our legs are scratched - our stockings torn -
By many a sharp and piercing thorn,
From many a prickly bramble.

Who that remembers the arduous pursuit of the Emperor of Morocco by Sir Joseph Banks as immortalised in Pindaric odes by Dr. Wolcet will not sympathise with the vexation of the disappointed naturalist. Like many man, reflection followed instead of preceding action, and we may from hence conclude that though a brave soldier be would not have made a good general.

The news like a contagion spread
Disordering the senseless head
Of every idle gossip:
And every time the tale was told
’Twas magnified a hundred-fold,
Through every part of Glossop!

Mike saw it gorge a cow or two!
And Jenny saw the monster spew,
Like some old hocus-pocus.
And at that moment Glossop swarm'd
With needless fears, - (which all alarm’d,) -
As Egypt did with locusts.

Our author goes on to show what tales were told of the dreadful creature to old Match Moll and a hungry beggar, in no less than thirty-three verses, but these we omit.

The tale to end, I haste to make
Some quaint remarks on the mistake
And its origination:
Reader, have patience for awhile!
Perhaps thou may’st have cause to smile
At the elucidation.

Only three days had pass'd away
Since first the serpent found its way
To the mill-dam and river,
When watchful Kate again espied
And fearfully the monster eyed -
And scream'd as loud as ever!

As angry bees, disturb’d in hives,
All sally forth; the idle wives
Soon round their houses swarmed.
For Kate told Sal, and Sal told Nan;
And so you see the tidings ran,
And ev’ry one alarmed.

And as the women howling stood,
Close by the margin of the wood
Two sages were conversing,
How matters stood in parliament,
What boroughs ablest members sent,
And anecdotes rehearsing.

The “sages" were Joseph Cooper, managing bookkeeper, and John Etchells.

The women's groans, and children's yells,
Did imitate, and nothing else,
A hungry sow and farrow!
The men look’d round, and then descri’d,
Pray what ? - why, what the women spied,
A feeble little sparrow!!!

We all must own, it seems absurd
That such a little common bird
Should be so over-rated;
Or that the tale, as forth it sprung,
Should be, by ev’ry gabbling tongue,
So much exaggerated.

The sun in all his power was seen,
Without a veiling cloudy screen
His piercing rays to hinder
From darting on the limpid stream,
Which fiercely back'd these rays again,
As scorning borrow’d splendour.

So how could women rightly view
The bird, as o’er the dam it flew,
Its figure, or dimensions,
When such redundant rays of light
Bedazzled and perplexed their sight
And puzzled their perceptions?

I watch’d the bird pick up a straw;
And soon the little thief I saw
Across the mill-dam skimming.
And, as it low and slowly flew,
I saw its likeness, fair and true,
Beneath the water swimming.

Two wings the little sparrow bore:
The glassy water showed two more,
Appearing by reflection.
Whilst from its back there pendant hung
A straw, at least twelve inches long:
(A tail, and no deception!)

Reader! thou’st had the story through:
Head, tail, and wings, and body too!
Hear me - I don’t dissemble.
I saw the bird fly o’er the dam,
In dragon-style; and sure I am
That it did one resemble.

And now good women, one and all,
I humbly for forgiveness call
For what I've said about you.
And here I swear, by ink and pen,
That proper, upright, honest men
Could never live without you!

In sickness, who would succour lend ?
Our tatter’d garments who would mend ?
Or wash and patch our linen ?
Who would our victuals warm provide?
Or cheerful make our fire-side ?
But - lovely, smiling women!

With all your little, prattling tales
Of heads and bodies, wings and tails, .
From fancy’s airy castles, -
Did all men love the fair like me,
Each lovely lass a Queen would be,
And men, their humble vassals!

A subtle serpent did deceive.
In days of yore, our mother Eve,
And spoil'd the whole creation!
And now it takes but half a score
Of her good daughters, and no more,
To baffle half a nation!

And yet we know that Adam brave
His hapless, tempted wife forgave,
And left us lessons ample.
So may we ever bear in mind
To love and cherish womankind,
And follow his example.

So all good women, maids or wives,
Long and happy be your lives,
With ev'ry blessing given:
When taken hence, O may you miss
The old, infernal, serpent's hiss,
And sweetly rest in heaven!

The author, we believe, emigrated to America, but there are still relatives of his in the town. Mr. Benjamin Rolfe, like most of the actors in the comedy, has gone to rest, and the curious may see behind Glossop Church a plain flat stone with nothing but the simple name.

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Last updated: 29 October 2022