Nicholas Rhea: Yorkshire Life

Deep inside the North York Moors lived a family whose male offspring were always called John. In many families the system applied to the eldest son, but in this case there were eight sons all named John.

Because it was necessary to distinguish one from the other, they were given a second name and so there was John Alan, John Bernard, John Charles and so forth. The villagers always referred to the lads by both names and so they enjoyed separate identities with John Harold being the youngest. That left alphabetical space for additions, just in case.

Eventually the lads joined the village cricket team, but due to confusion on the score sheet, they were each allocated a number. John Alan, therefore, became 1 John, John Bernard was 2 John and so on. The scorer seemed to think that would work, even if other folks didn’t understand his system, especially when 2 John was batting at No.6.

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This reminds me of a stranger arriving in a tiny moorland hamlet. He noticed an elderly man clipping a hedge and asked, “Could you tell me where John Robinson lives? I don’t have his address.”

“Sorry,” the old man scratched his head. “There’s neabody called that aroond ‘ere. Hast tha gitten t’reet village?”

“I have. I’m told he is well known here and if I asked around the village, someone would know where he lives.”

“Well, ah reckon thoo’s gitten t’wrang spot,” the old chap shook his head. “Dis thoo knaw owt else aboot him?”

“Only that most folks call him Happy Jack.”

“Happy Jack?” smiled the old man. “Noo that’s a capper. That’s me. Ah’m Happy Jack, folks allus call me that. Come in.”

In our village it was said you could tell a person’s religion by their Christian names – Biblical names like Ezekiel, Zachary, Joshua and Delilah indicated Methodists. Saints’ names like Monica, Teresa, Patrick or Anthony suggested Catholics while names of former sovereigns indicated Church of England.

The idea of calling everyone by the same forename was also applied to dogs. One of our lady neighbours had five black-and-white border collies or curs, all called Lassie. The lady’s impeccable logic was that when she called “Lassie” they would all respond, which they did.

In the moors where I lived as a child, dogs were allowed to freely roam around the villages except at lambing time and so if anyone needed to identify a wandering dog, they would give it the surname of its owner. And so we had Bruce Parkinson, Holly Harland, Bess Hardwick, Milly Baker, Tom Harrison and others. I think the most curious was Sir Pip Shelton. One woman called her dog Mrs Robinson. When I asked why she replied, “Well, Mr Rhea, I work in town and it’s the custom to go for a drink after work The snag is I need to get home early to let my dog out but my colleagues wouldn’t be convinced if I made that excuse. So I tell them I have to see to Mrs Robinson’s needs and prepare her evening meal. They all accept that and think I’m very neighbourly.”