Updated date:

Walter Winster, The Herdwick Dialect Poet (1889-1945)

David Lewis Pogson writes fiction for the 'ACES Terrier', has two books published and has poems and short stories in a variety of media.

It’s felt that this photo was posed for a book-cover re-issue because, although Winster (seated with sheep) championed the wool trade in the town, he usually avoided any contact with sheep unless they were presented to him cooked on a plate.

It’s felt that this photo was posed for a book-cover re-issue because, although Winster (seated with sheep) championed the wool trade in the town, he usually avoided any contact with sheep unless they were presented to him cooked on a plate.

Early Life

Walter Winster was born in 1889 and brought up on the family sheep farm in the Shepdale Valley in the north of England. As the only child, he was destined to take over the farm from his father. However, after a drinking session in 1915 he woke up in Carlisle Castle Barracks with a hangover to find himself enlisted in the army. In typical military fashion, because of his farming experience, he was wrongly placed as a farrier with the Army Transport Corps. He said nothing about this error because it helped to keep him out of the front line and so, despite knowing nothing about horses, he fooled the authorities just long enough for him to survive the war.

The District Of Herdwick

The lakes and fells of Herdwick district

The lakes and fells of Herdwick district

Post-War Career

On returning to Shepdale he decided that he’d seen enough of animals to last him a lifetime and took employment more suited to his interests as a barman in the Wandering Tup pub in Shepdale. During this time he met his wife-to-be Mary (or ‘Mad Mary’ as she was often referred to when seen with a pick-axe shaft in her hand at throwing-out time), the daughter of his employer. They inherited the pub upon the death of her alcoholic father and had one son, Thomas, who ran away to London with the contents of the till as soon as he was tall enough to pull a pint. Walter and Mary failed to spot his absence for three days as they wrangled with Shepdale Insurance about the fire that had gutted the public bar that very same night. The cause of the fire was never established but Thomas was not seen again in Shepdale.

Walter retained ownership of the family farm, let it out to tenants and often visited it to check on his investment. It was speculated that his lifelong interest in the wool trade stemmed from the wish for his tenants to be successful and thus keep the rent high.

The sale of Walter’s poems and novels together with the income from the pub and the rent from the farm enabled him to lead a very comfortable life, eventually rising to become Mayor of the former Shepdale Municipal Borough Council where he championed the Wool and Pub Trades equally in many lively and violent debates, often when the worse for drink.

His Greatest Literary Work

His best known work, the world famous dialect poem ‘Ode to t‘Erdwick’ almost earned him the appointment as ‘Poet Laureate’ until his prison record for drunken assault on a political opponent was revealed to the selection panel. It was written in 1919, when Walter was 30 years old, as a counterbalance to the First World War poets. It was an immediate sensation and, together with his later poems and novels, secured his international reputation as the North’s greatest dialect writer. His purpose in writing was to remind people of all that was good about Britain despite the recent horrors of that war. He saw that the simple rural life, as epitomised by the horses that he’d cared for, were being replaced by mechanical monsters like tanks capable of causing great carnage. His message was that, notwithstanding the bravery and sacrifice of the fallen, those same changes might happen in peacetime. The likely post-war rush to industrialisation caused by the conversion of the steel and armaments industries into domestic production might well sweep away the best aspects of the rural world, including shepherding on the fells. There has been much academic debate about whether he was ahead of his time or just totally wrong because sheep farming on the fells could never be mechanised and remains unchanged to this day, essentially still relying upon one man with a crook and a dog, both usually on foot. However, other aspects of rural life did eventually change with the advent of large combines, loss of hedgerows, mechanical milking, genetically modified crops etc as he had feared, although those changes did not happen until after the Second World War and, even now, it’s mainly only the Green Party that sees them as necessarily bad. Notwithstanding that debate, his sentiments were aptly summed up in the Ode’s immortal lines (see below).

A dialect is a form of the language that is spoken in a particular part of the country or by a particular group of people. There are many different dialects of English and they have different words and grammar. Most learners of English learn the standard dialects of the language...

A dialect is not the same as an accent. An accent refers to the way we pronounce words and the standard dialect of a language can be spoken with different accents.

— Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus

Winster's Use Of Dialect

Winster could probably switch between standard English and dialect depending upon who he was conversing with - locals and family or tourists in his pub or Councillors transacting business. He chose to write his stories in standard English but with speech often reflecting dialect. However, his poems were always in dialect but he seems to have adopted his own hybrid version of dialect and standard English mixed. It's likely that full dialect would probably be unintelligible to most of his readers ... and he was canny enough to want to make money from his publications.

The Herdwick sheep on the fells that inspired Winster's dialect poetry

The Herdwick sheep on the fells that inspired Winster's dialect poetry

'Ode To T'Erdwick'

Winster's most famous dialect poem, the one that brought him to the notice of the Green Movement, is reproduced below (now out of copyright). Following official verification in 1979, the missing last verse was accepted as genuine and is hereby added for completeness.

Ode to t'Erdwick (1919)


“Oot on’t fells and doon in’t valleys,

Us weary ‘eart ferly rallies

From t’sound o’t bleating

Whene’er us meeting

That most blessed of greetin’

Frae yon li’l grey sheep.”


But twern’t allus like this once

When t’wurld were split apart

When t’nations git ter scrappin’

Like ‘orse n cart apart,

Nither un much use an all

Wi’out a join’d up pair

Might as well be one above

And t’other un downstair.


I’ve skenned it all and more asides

I’on monsters riving lumps

Frae lads who shoulda taken brides

But took a grave instead

An yons a sign o’ things ter cum

T’waint never be the same

Yon monsters’ll devour t’ fells

As them deny all blame,


Ter foul all t’grass and watter

Ter spoil what’s pure and gud

Ter split flocks and ter scatter,

Nae wool when’t spilt thur blud.

So us as got ter stop it

Ter save what’s thur as now

To carry on wit ‘erding

Not ter use yon modern plow.


Thur’s some things don’t need alt’rin’

Best left alone to thrive

Yan man, yan dog, yan crook an’t sheep

Will keep yon fells alive.

Tis t’grandest sight a man can see

Yon ‘erdwicks oot on’t fell.

Then us knows thars scran on’t table

An’ all with England’s well.


‘But hark t’t warning yan an’ all

‘Bout ‘erdwicks oot on’t fell.

Yons’ luck’ll only last s’long

As’t earing t’Shepdale Bell.

The Origins of the Dialect

The fact is that the Anglo-Saxon and Norse elements in our dialect consist mainly of derivative words and certain usages of speech; but there is enough both of scattered words and ways of talk to warrant our statement that the dialect of Lakeland shews indubitable signs of its Norse origin, and in a lesser degree the Anglo-Saxon or Old English is clearly shewn to have had its influence.

— 'The Philology of The Lakeland Dialect' by CANON E. D. ELLWOOD (c/o the Lakeland Dialect Society)

Other Literary Achievements

His other works include the anthologies ‘Fellside Musings’ where he reflects on the state of Britain between the wars and its allegorical sequel ‘In Need of Man’s Best Friend’ written just before the outbreak of World War Two and which compared the Government to a flock of sheep and suggested that the Prime Minister had less ability to organise them than a reject from a Border Collie litter.

His novels reflect his fascination with the unsavoury side of northern life. They include the very comic ‘Fleeced in Carlisle’ where he describes his encounter with the violent companions of a lady of the night on a weekend trip to Carlisle’s beer festival resulting in his unplanned enlistment in the army.

‘A Shearer’s Tale’ describes the fictitious double life of an itinerant Scottish youth who shears sheep at the quiet fell farms during the week but visits the bustling cities to play professional Rugby League at weekends. In this novel the hero, young Marty, wins the Shepdale shearing championship on a Friday afternoon before cycling overnight without lights to Bradford to star in the 1935 Rugby League Championship top-four play-off final victory at the Odsall Stadium on the Saturday. There he scores the winning try and collects his winner’s bonus before disappearing with both trophies for an evening visit to a hostelry in the seedier part of Bradford accompanied by ‘a blonde–haired older lady of common appearance’. The pair were never seen again. This later inspired the popular Pinewood Studios film ‘Up fer t’Cup’, starring a youthful Gordon Jackson, and re-enforces Winster’s theme from ‘Fleeced in Carlisle’ about the corrupting influence of progressive city life on an innocent country boy.

His collection of short stories entitled ‘Infamous Lock-ins at the Tup’ depict the adventures of local characters who frequented his premises after closing time and has been compared favourably as a more salacious parallel to Dickens’ ‘Pickwick Papers’. The case against him for libel arising from one story fell apart when the litigant was found drowned and reeking of alcohol in a sheep dip on the edge of town. The Coroner recorded a verdict of probable accidental suffocation from breathing in wool fibres floating in the contaminated water. Walter and Mary gave each other an alibi for the night in question which was supported by their regulars


Winster's Political Home

Shepdale Town Hall where Winster was Mayor for 3 years

Shepdale Town Hall where Winster was Mayor for 3 years

Political Career

Walter was a man of contradictions. He was a dyed-in-the-wool Tory Councillor known to hold strong views on the sanctity of market forces above all else, particularly as regards the retail sale of alcohol. However his poems about the free-roaming Herdwicks in ‘Fellside Musings’ have been credited with inspiring the modern-day environmental movement resulting in the creation of the Green Party. Also, despite his reputation as a tight-fisted publican, his interest in local history, particularly the wool trade, led him to grant the lease of the former wool warehouse on Sheepfold Lane at a peppercorn rent to the Council to house the Museum. That he had won it in a late-night poker game and that it was semi-derelict, scheduled as unsafe and in need of substantial remedial expenditure at the time may have helped influence his philanthropic decision. However, at the later enquiry which failed to reach a conclusion and thus acquitted him, he claimed that it was purely co-incidental that he had been appointed Mayor immediately following the grant of that lease and furthermore that there was absolutely no connection between that appointment and the subsequent abandonment of all discussions by the Licensing Committee regarding the Methodist-sponsored Liberal Party proposal to severely restrict the drinking hours in Shepdale and thus reduce violence in the town centre in the evenings.


VE Day 1945

... the local Constabulary were hard-pressed to contain them in their enthusiasm to mourn his passing whilst simultaneously celebrating the end of the War.

— Quote from the local newspaper, the Herdwick Gazette

An Untimely End?

Walter met his demise at the age of 56 following the disputed outcome of a bet with a customer that he could see the top of Blackpool Tower from the roof of the Wandering Tup. Witnesses in the large crowd below attested that the word ‘welcher’ was shouted and that both then lost their grip on the chimney stack, rolled down the roof and fell into Sheepfold Lane, with Walter landing underneath his adversary and thus unintentionally saving the other’s life at the cost of his own. At his funeral, on VE day in 1945, silent crowds lined the route along Sheepfold Lane and Allhallows Road with Herdwick fleeces to muffle the sound of the horses as the funeral cortege wound its way to Allhallows Graveyard. It was an ironic twist that wool prices had plummeted overnight as orders for fleece linings for aircrews’ flight suits were cancelled. Thereafter, as the Herdwick Gazette reported, customers were ten deep at the bar and spilling out onto the pavement at the Wandering Tup for the rest of the day until well after midnight and “the local Constabulary were hard-pressed to contain them in their enthusiasm to mourn his passing whilst simultaneously celebrating the end of the War.”

Shepdale MBC’s motto "Pannus mihi passionis", meaning ‘wool (literally 'cloth') is my passion’ was carved on his tombstone. Mary is reputed to have said later that it should have read ‘wool is my brain’ in relation to the manner of his death. His works still continue to sell in small numbers, particularly in Brighton.

After Walter’s death Mary sold the farm and the pub and was rumoured to have gone to London in search of Thomas.

Timeline

YEAR

EVENT

PUBLICATIONS

1889

Born

 

1915-1918

Served in the army during World War One

 

1919

Demobbed and returns to Shepdale. Employed at the Wandering Tup public house

Ode to t'Erdwick

1920

Married Mary Earnshaw

 

1920

Thomas (son) is born

 

1923

 

Fleeced in Carlisle

1930

 

Fellside Musings

1932

Elected as Councillor to Shepdale MBC

 

1933

Convicted of affray, fined and sentenced to 3 months imprisonment.

 

1934

Thomas leaves home

 

1935

Grants lease of Shepdale Museum to the Council

A Shearer's Tale

1935

Nominated for Poet Laureate (unsuccessful)

1936

Elected Mayor of Shepdale

Infamous Lock-ins at the Tup

1938

 

In Need of Man's Best Friend

1939

Quits as Mayor and leaves Shepdale Council

 

1945

Dies

 

1947

'Up fer t'Cup' film released

 

1969-71

The Green Movement founded, adopting Winster as an inspiration

 

'Herdwick Tales'

Walter Winster appears as a character in 'Herdwick Tales'. Google 'Amazon Books' and type 'Herdwick Tales' into the search bar if you want to read more about him. A summary of the book can be read at: https://discover.hubpages.com/literature/HERDWICK-TALES

© 2020 David Lewis Pogson