The following article was written for the Isle of Wight Farmers Journal, 1st November 1970. It gives an insight into the life of my Great Grandfather William ‘Whistler’ Downer, born in 1882. Growing up on the Isle of Wight, starting farm work aged 10, on the front at Ypres and the Somme, back to farm work on the Isle of Wight and his retirement.
On most days of the week the inhabitants of Shorwell see a small man of cherubic countenance pottering in spritely fashion about their village. Children hail him with delight because he loves ‘nippers’ and his pockets are usually full of sweets for them. Mothers therefore often refer to him as the ‘Sweetie Man’; to many others, however, he is William ‘Whistler’ Downer, farm worker, who will be 86 years of age come November.
‘Whistler’ Downer holds the Long Service Medal of The Royal Agricultural Society, and when he retired six years ago had 69 years of agricultural work behind him, of which 47 years had been spent on Limerstone Farm, Brighstone. His father, brothers and uncles were mostly farm workers too. In fact, it appears to me that at one stage of this Island’s history you couldn’t go anywhere in the countryside without falling over a Downer. For example, at one time there were two George Downers at Limerstone Farm, two Henry Downers at Yafford, two Charlie Downers at Westcourt, and two William Downers at Wolverton, plus Johns, Roberts and Richards dotted here and about. This is ‘Whistler’ Downer’s story and we must leave it at that, as I have neither the wit nor patience to unravel the complexities of his family tree.
‘Whistler’s’ father George, was, as previously stated a farm worker. His origins and activities are a bit obscure, but in common with his colleagues of that day, he was a sober and hard-working man. Certainly we know that at the age of 81 George Downer was working at Limerstone Farm and had been for over 50 years previous to that. He lived in Rose Cottage on Limerstone Farm and it was here that ‘Whistler’ was born in 1882. Unfortunately his mother died some six weeks after his birth so ‘Whistler’ was farmed out to his Uncle John who was shepherd to Mr. Way at Westcourt. Five years later George Downer married again and ‘Whistler’ was brought home to Rose Cottage to the care of his father and step-mother. Limerstone Farm, at that time, incidentally, was farmed by the Way’s, who were also at Westcourt and Pyle Manor.
At the age of 10, Michaelmas 1892, to be precise, ‘Whistler’ started work as a ploughboy for Mr. Hillier at Thorncross Farm, Brighstone. His wage was the princely sum of 2/6 per week and his duties were to lead a four-horse team pulling a plough. Now ‘Whistler’ only stands, when at full stretch, about five foot two inches, and he states that when he started work he could hardly reach the horses head’s. His daughter Joan added. Rather irreverently I thought, “Not that he could reach them much better when he was grown up!”
With some justification ‘Whistler’ considered “the pay wasn’t up to much” at Thorncross, so after nine months or so he went as a cow boy to Mr. Fisk at Marsh Green Farm, Brighstone, and there he stayed for a couple of years, helping with the milking and cleaning out. From Marsh Green he went to Mr. Attrill at Waytes Court as a cow boy and delivering milk, staying there a further two years, by which time he was 15 years old.
The year is now 1897, and ‘Whistler’ moved to Wolverton Farm, which was run by Mr. Carver, the grandfather of the present owners. He stayed there 15 years doing general farm work, and in 1907 married Nora Downer, the daughter of George Downer who, though having the same name as ‘Whistler’s’ father and, in fact, working with him at Limerstone Farm, was no relation.
In 1912 ‘Whistler’ came home to Limerstone Farm. His father moved out of Rose Cottage to another farm cottage, Virginia Cottage, and ‘Whistler’ and Nora moved in, taking Nora’s father in with them, for by this time her mother had died. Old Mrs. Hollis was then at Limerstone Farm. She was the mother of Alderman F.F. Hollis and the grandmother of our worthy editor.
Soon after this the First World War broke out and at the beginning of 1916 ‘Whistler’ volunteered, was called up into the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and sent to Abergele in North Wales for three months training, and then straight out to the Front at Ypres. Because of his size he was drafted into a ‘Bantam’ Company of the Welsh Fusiliers. He says his Captain was a big man and “he was as proud of us as ever could be, and a smart lot we were, too!”
‘Whistler’ spent ten months in the trenches before he was wounded in the leg by a shell fragment. He recuperated in England, and then back to his regiment on the Somme. He was in the trenches only for a short spell this time because they wanted ploughmen back in Wales, and ‘Whistler’ promptly volunteered and was given a three month ploughing furlough, of which he only spent one month in Wales before wangling his way back to Limerstone to spend the remaining two months there. With the furlough over he rejoined his Regiment on the Somme in February, 1918. Later in the year, with the Germans in full retreat, ‘Whistler’ was standing in a captured dug-out with some of his mates when explosions were heard outside. “So I said to the other blokes (says ‘Whistler’) “There’s gas shells’ dropping outside” – you could tell the difference between them and ordinary shells because gas shells landed with a sort of ‘stump’. So, foolish like, I went up the steps of the dug-out, nosey as usual, with my gas mask in my hand ready to put on as soon as I got outside. I no sooner stepped onto the parapet when a shell burst right by me and flung mustard gas all over my face. I didn’t feel anything then, but I only just managed to get back to the Aid Station before I went blind, and I didn’t see any more for a long time. But I was lucky – there were a lot who weren’t”.
This was the end of the War for “Whistler”. He was sent to a hospital in Southampton and there he recovered slowly. Fortunately his face shows no scars, only his hands. Eventually, after a lengthy convalescence ‘Whistler’ came home to Limerstone and there he stayed until he retired.
William and Nora Downer had five children, all daughters. Marguerite, the eldest, is married to Godfrey Sanders and they have two children, a boy and a girl. Then came Doris, who is the widow of Seymour Russell. They had four children, two girls and two boys, Dennis and Geoffrey, who now run Westcourt. Next came Peggy, who is the widow of Leonard Butcher, and they had eight children, Joan, with whom ‘Whistler’ now lives, was next, and she is married to Alfred Attrill, and her son is at present working at Limerstone Farm, thus keeping tradition alive. Finally comes Barbara, now married to Bruce Charman, the Secretary of Whitecroft Hospital. In all, ‘Whistler’ has 15 grandchildren, and 28 great-grandchildren.
Altogether ‘Whistler’ has seen four occupiers at Limerstone. First, the Ways, then the Hollises, followed by the Powes, and finally Austin Case. ‘Whistler’s’ wife Nora died in 1959, and shortly after he moved to Virginia Cottage whilst Rose Cottage was being modernised. He stayed on there, however, and when Mr. Powe sold out to Mr. Case it was agreed he could live on in Virginia for the rest of his life, but one day when visiting his daughter Joan three years ago, he fell ill and had to remain. Although he has fully recovered now he continues to live with Joan so that she can keep an eye on him and keep him out of mischief.
‘Whistlers’ tales of the old days are legion, and it was a source of great satisfaction to me to learn something of the early life of our worthy Editor, who, according to reports, was a bit of a nuisance as a ‘nipper’, with his brothers and sisters not far behind him in devilment, leading their poor father, the most patient of men, a terrible dance with their mischief.
‘Whistler’, who gained his nickname in his early youth because of his skill at whistling, was a general farm worker of a rather specialised kind. He was an expert with livestock and was skilled at thatching, hedge-laying, sheep shearing and tractor driving. He could turn his hand to anything, could ‘Whistler’, and what greater proof of his versatility could you have than on an occasion during threshing, one of the female helpers who was wearing slacks, rushed up and cried “Oh, Mr. Downer, a mouse has run up my trousers!” I will not go into details, but ‘Whistler’ removed it speedily, and with such aplomb, that the good lady can still meet him face to face without a blush. He kept all the cottages thatched and also the corn stacks, which, in those days was cut with a ‘reaper’, tied and stacked if it was wheat, and cut with a scythe and stacked loose if it was barley. For a month during the end of May and beginning of June, sheep shearers like ‘Whistler’ used to take a month off from work and form themselves into a gang which went about shearing all over the Island. He can recall getting up in the dark each morning and cycling over to Bembridge from Limerstone in order to start shearing at 6 a.m. They received 6d. per sheep and could manage about 25 or so sheep per day – good money in those days, for, remember, this was the late Victorian age. In fact, whilst at Wolverton, ‘Whistler’ used to deliver straw to Osborne House, and he had to get there, off load, and get away again before Queen Victoria started moving about the place at 10 a.m. The stable yards were all polished bricks, and after straw was delivered every stalk and speck of dust was swept away, and workmen would inspect the brickwork carefully in order to immediately replace any that had been damaged by the passage of the wagon and horses.
‘Whistler’ has always been a total abstainer, with two exceptions. Firstly, during his time in the trenches he drank the ‘rum issue’ because it was the only bit of comfort they had, and on the other occasion he drank his first and last pint of beer to do another worthy out of it. Whilst at Wolverton he used to take the wheat to the Mill at Brighstone by wagon, and by tradition the miller would give the carters a pint. As he didn’t drink, ‘Whistler’s’ pint was always scoffed by the miller himself until ‘Whistler’ got fed up with it and, in order to avoid contributing further to the miller’s alcoholic tendencies, drank the pint himself. He says it made him go a bit funny in the head, but from then on the miller always made sure there was a pint of mineral water waiting for him, and ‘Whistler’ never drank beer again.
Old Mr. Carver was a very keen ploughman, and ‘Whistler’ remembers that a Demonstration was held at Wolverton to try out for the first time the recently introduced two-furrow plough, which was drawn by three horses abreast. He recalls old Mr. Carver rubbing his hands with glee over the sight, and saying “This is the life! Two furrows at once!”
‘Whistler’ saw his first tractor at Wolverton during the early days of World War 1. His older brother, Frank, drove it for Mr. Carver. Later on ‘Whistler’ was tractor driver for Mr. Hollis at Limerstone, handing over to young Fred Hollis when he was old enough. Mr. Hollis also acquired a steam traction engine for threshing, and a gang from Limerstone used to go around the district contracting. ‘Whistler’ remembers the occasion when they were to do some threshing at Northcourt, and work was delayed because young Fred was having trouble with the traction engine. Eventually Mr. Minchin, the manager at Northcourt, impatiently, and somewhat unwisely, remarked to Fred, “Come on, get on with it, or get out.” So, young Fred without further ado unhitched the belts and steamed away.
Times were pretty hard for workers in ‘Whistler’s’ young days, and they had time for little else but work, starting at 6 a.m. in the summer and 7 a.m. in the winter. Spare time was spent in the cottage gardens growing vegetables to supplement their diet. ‘Whistler’ had no time for sport, and neither did he have much social life outside of Sundays, when he went to Chapel, which he has always attended regularly. He was Society Steward for the Shorwell Chapel for many, many years and was also Secretary of the Rechabites for a very long time. He has always endeavoured to lead a Christian life, and I have no doubts what so ever that he has succeeded in this aim, for a more pleasant, popular, happier old man you would never wish to meet.
During his 69 years of farm work ‘Whistler’ only went on the sick list about eight times, mostly for accidents at work, and he can still show the scars. The worst accident occurred when he received a crack on the head from a lever on a drill and this put him out of commission for twelve months.
Men like William ‘Whistler’ Downer have been, and are, the backbone of the agricultural industry. Hardworking, loyal, always cheerful, ready to turn their hands to anything with dedicated skill and perseverance at any time. It was a great pleasure to meet the ‘Whistler’ and I wish him many more years of contented and very well-earned retirement.
Post marked 1 Nov 1970.