[Disponible en español]

Left: Title page for The Scouring of the White Horse; Right: Dick with his Pickwickian employer, both by Richard Doyle. [None of Doyle's illustrations have titles.]

Click on the thumbnail for larger images.

Tom Hughes's The Scouring of the White Horse is a combined travel book and record of regional history in the guise of a novel, sort of. That description probably suggests what an odd book it is. Travel writing has long relied on techniques of the novel, including elaborate description, dialogue, narrative, and substantial quotation from earlier writers who've visited the same locations, and so there's no obvious reason why Hughes chose the form of a novel to relate his experience involving the Valley of the White Horse in Berkshire. The larger portion of the text relates stories of King Alfred and the traditional celebrations, athletic contests, and other activities that surround the preservation of "a rude colossal figure cut out in the turf, and giving the name to a whole district." Legends, Hughes tells us, connect the area to the ninth-century King Alfred "and with his great victory over the Pagans, and a festival which has been held at very short intervals ever since the ninth century. Rich as our land is in historical monuments, there is none more remarkable than the White Horse" (x). Hughes gives us plenty of warning that we readers will encounter a hodge-podge or, as he calls it, "a stir-about." He explains that when he considered the "materials" from which he had to assemble his book, he realized they were many, various, and not likely to interest those who lived outside his home county:

One short bright gleam of history from the writings of old monks a thousand years ago; traditions and dim legends, which I and most Berkshire men have always faithfully believed from our youth up, and shall go on believing to our dying day, but which we could hardly put before general readers in serious narrative; a dry notice here and there by some old antiquary of the seventeenth or eighteenth century; stories floating in the memories of old men still living, small broad-sheets from country town presses, with lists of the competitors for prizes at rustic games, newspaper articles, remarks by Committee-men and umpires, scraps of antiquarian lore, abuse of the Great Western Railway for not allowing the trains to stop, bits of vernacular dialogue, and odd rhymes. [viii]

He asks himself, "What could be done with them all? How out of the mass could a shapely book be called out, fit to be laid before a fastidious British public, not born in Berkshire?" and decides that the only "honest course . . . was to follow the example of a good housewife in the composition of that excellent food called "stir-about" — throw them altogether into the pot, stir them round and round with a great spoon, and trust that the look of the few great raisins" (viii) — the illustrations by Richard "Dicky" Doyle, the wellknown artist of fantasy and fairies — will make "a savoury and pleasant side dish" (ix).

In his preface he makes clear that one of his goals and those of the other members of the committee involved in the cleaning and restoration of this ancient example of Earth Art is

to interest our countrymen. We are sure that reverence for all great Englishmen, and a loving remembrance of the great deeds done by them in old times, will help to bring to life in us the feeling that we are a family, bound together to work out God's purposes in this little island, and in the uttermost parts of the to make clear to us the noble inheritance which we have in common; and to sink into their proper place the miserable trifles, and odds and ends, over which we are so apt to wrangle. We do hope that our example will lead Englishmen of other counties, to cherish every legend and story which hangs round every nook of their neighbourhood, connecting it with the times and the men who have gone before; to let no old custom, which has a meaning, however rude, die out, if it can be kept alive; and not to keep either legend or custom to themselves, but (like us) to put them in the best shape they can, and publish them for the benefit of their countrymen [xii]

After reading these earnest lines that close the preface we are probably surprised to encounter the very different ones immediately following, which, without warning, plunge us into a fictional world, one that begins with a young man's employer speaking to him about his vacation:

"RICHARD," said our governor, as I entered his room at five o'clock on the afternoon of the 31st of August, 1857, running his pen down the columns of the salary-book, "your quarter-day to-day, I think? Let me see; you were raised to � a-year in February last, — so much for quarter's salary, and so much for extra work. I am glad to see that you have been working so steadily; you'll deserve your holiday, and enjoy it all the more. You'll find that all right, I think;" and he pushed a small paper across the table towards me, on which my account was stated in our cashier's hand, and looked at me over his spectacles. [1]

Richard, our protagonist, turns out to be Richard Easy, a young clerk and graduate of a "Commercial Academy at Brentford" (16) known to his friends as Dick. His kind, benevolent boss appears to be something of a latter-day Pickwick right down to the spectacles. The work has other Dickensian touches, such as the lavish abundance of the food and drink at the fair, which reminds one of the famous Pickwickian Christmas:

Just on our right, as we entered from the street, was the bar, which was made with a double row of eighteen-gallon casks, full of ale, along the top of which boards were laid, so as to make a counter. Behind the bar the landlord and landlady, and a barmaid, were working away, and getting every thing into order. There were more rows of large casks, marked XX and XXX, ranged upon one another against the side of the booth, and small casks of spirits hooped with bright copper, and cigar boxes, and a table covered with great joints of beef and pork, and crockery and knives and forks, and baskets full of loaves of bread, and lettuces and potatoes. It must have cost a deal of money to get it all up the hill, and set the booth up. Beyond the bar was a sort of inner room, partly screened from the rest of the booth by a piece of sailcloth, where a long table was laid out for lunch [87]

But Richard does not set out immediately for Berkshire. Before he deciding to visit, he spends the evening with two fellow clerks, Jem Fisher and Neddy Baily, having a celebratory meal prepared by his landlady of cow-heel and sausage and a bit of pineapple washed down with "two foaming pewter pots of foaming bitter beer and porter" (6). Jem and Neddy make a good many suggestions where he should spend his vacation — perhaps Llangollen in Wales, or Edinburgh, the Lakes, or France. Enthusiastic about helping the narrator plan his time off from work, Neddy runs to the nearby "Working Men's College" (which Hughes helped found) to "borrow a Bradshaw" (a collection of railway timetables). But a "letter from the country" written by Joe Hurst, a friend he met at the Commercial Academy, settles the matter, for Joe has invited him to the celebratory restoration of the county's most famous feature. "You see," Joe tells him, "there's an old White Horse cut in the side of the highest hill hereabouts . . . and many folks sets a good deal of store by it, and seems to think the world'd come to an end if the horse wasn't kept all straight" (15). This scene in the novel, which anticipates Pip's entertaining his friend in Great Expectations, seems a bit forced, though one assumes that Hughes chose to begin this way in part because he wanted to suggest the value of British country traditions to young working-class men in the city.

The next morning his friends escort him to the 7:30 train at Paddington, and on the way to Berkshire, Dick enjoys the sight of Windsor Castle and Reading before arrives at the "Farringdon-road station," where Joe meets him with his trap, a "dark-green high-wheeled carriage" (23) and drives him past the White Horse to his idyllic house at Elm Close Farm where Dick sees pigs lying

with nothing but their snouts out; lots of poultry were scratching and pecking about before the barn-doors, and pigeons were fluttering down amongst them, and then up again to the tops of the barns and stables, which ran all round the yard. The rick-yard, full of long stacks of hay, and round stacks of corn, was beyond. A terrier and spaniel were sleeping in sunny comers, and a grayhound was stalking about and looking at the pigs; and every thing looked sleepy and happy, and as if life went easily along at Elm Close Farm. [28-29]

Dick soon meets Joe's mother, "a good-looking old lady, dressed in black, with a very white lawn cap and collar," and flirts over a milk pail with his sister Lucy, "a stout lass in a blue print . . . who was very pleasant and free spoken" (31). Hughes has his narrator devote a good deal of room to the beauties of the country and the glorious abundance of its food and drink, including "I don't know how many bottles of home-made wine, clary, and raisin, and ginger; all of which [Joe] made me drink, besides beer, for he said that no one in the vale had such receipts for wine as his mother. And what with the dairy-fed pork, and black puddings, and a chicken almost as big as a turkey, and the cheese-cakes and tarts afterwards, and the hearty welcome and good example which Joe gave me, I don't remember when I have made so good a dinner" (29-30). After their meal, Joe and the narrator drive to Uffington, walk along an old Roman road, and then climb Dragon's Hill, where, his friend tells him, "St. George killed the dragon in the old times. Leastways so they says about here, only they calls him King George instead of St. George" (36).

Left: The Vale of the White Horse; Right: The great Battle of Ashdown in 871, both by Richard Doyle.

Click on the thumbnail for larger images.

Next, they head to see the White Horse itself, which men employed by the local squire, "a person in yellow leather gaiters" (38), busily clean. While Joe and the squire are deep in conversation, Dick encounters "a very grave, elderly man" (43), an antiquarian steeped in local lore, who tells him, among many other things, that the proper name of Dragon's Hill is actually Pendragon's Hill, for it refers to one of several King Arthurs, "one of whom was probably slain in battle and buried here" (46). The old man then tells him about the great Battle of Ashdown in 871 in which Alfred led the Christian English to defeat the pagan Danish invaders, who had earlier slain King Edmund, after his brother King Æthelred is killed. "This year, A. D. 871, is a year for Berkshire men to be proud of, for on them fell the brunt of that fiery trial; and their gallant stand probably saved England a hundred years of Paganism" (72). His companion then turns to the White Horse, informing him that "it is a copy of the Saxon standard" (75), after which he explains that all nearby towns "claim, by ancient custom" (78) a role in the scouring and hold a festival to celebrate the periodic restoration of the White Horse. The old man leads him to the fair on the site of an ancient Roman fortification, treats him to lunch, and continues his history lesson, vividly describing the battle and working himself up into a frenzy in the process. When Dick asks the antiquarian why, since he obviously cares so deeply about these matters, he hasn't written a book to inform his contemporaries about them, the old man responds, "Nobody would read my old-world stuff. . . No, a man must understand and be in sympathy with his own generation to coax it into caring about an older one" (98) — thus providing a hint at why Hughes chose to present his information in the form of a novel.

After the old man takes his leave, Dick finds "Joe amongst a group of farmers and one or two gentlemen, some on horseback and some on foot, standing round the Squire" (100), discussing the arrangements for the next day's festival, which traditionally accompanies the scouring of the White Horse. Joe and Dick then return to Elm Close Farm, where Hughes introduces a love interest, for the narrator becomes jealous when he sees Joes's sister Lucy with an older man, who turns out to be a Mr. Warton, a clergyman from London who had once served as the local curate. The four of them debate the virtues of the traditional "wrestling and backsword [or cudgel] play" (113), which Lucy and the city boy, Dick, dislike, because they see them as just fighting and not sport. To the surprise of Lucy and Dick, the parson (who obviously speaks with the voice of Hughes himself) firmly defends these traditional rough country contests, using the form of the Platonic dialogue to force Dick to agree with him.

Chapter five, which follows, returns to antiquarian inquiries as the parson and squire ask the locals about country traditions. This subject provides Hughes with an opportunity to include long passages from both old documents and extensive samples of local dialect. The Squire, for example, asks Thomas Gibbons about his family's involvement with scourings in the past but first has to listen to the old man ramble on about his family:

Squire. "Good morning, Thomas. How about the weather? Did the White Horse smoke his pipe this morning?"

Thos. "Mornin', Sir. I didn't zee as 'a did. I allus notices he doos it when the wind blaws moor to th' east'ard. I d'wont bode no rain to day, Sir."

Squire. "How old are you, Thomas?"

Thos. "Seventy year old this Christmas, Sir. I wur barn at Woolstone, in the hard winter, when I've heard tell as volks had to bwile their kettles wi' the snaw."

Squire. "I want to know something about your family, Thomas."

Thos. " Well, Sir, I bean't no ways ashamed of my fnmily, I can assure 'ee. I've a got two zons, and vour daaters. One on 'em, that's my oldest bwoy, Sir, wur all droo' the Crimee wars, and never got a scratch. In the Granadier Guards, Sir, he be. A uncommon sprack [sprightly] chap, Sir, though I says it, and as bowld as a lion; only while he wur about our village wi' t'other young chaps, he must allus be a fighting. But not a bad-tempered chap, Sir, I assure 'ee."

The parson later questions eighty-four-year-old William Ayres of Uffington, "a very dry old gentleman" (135), who provides details about the traditional contests, beginning with horse racing:

"Well now, there wur Varmer Mifflin's mare run for and won a new cart saddle and thill-tugs — the mare's name wur Duke. As many as a dozen or moor horses run, and they started from Idle's Bush, which wur a vine owld tharnin'-tree in thay days —a very nice bush. They started from Idle's Bush, as I tell 'ee, Sir, and raced up to the Rudge-waay; and Varmer Mifflin's mare had it all one way, and beat all the t'other on 'urn holler. The pastime then wur a good 'un — a wunderful sight o' volk of all sorts, rich and poor. . . . Another geaam wur to bowl a cheese down the Mainger, and the first as could catch 'un had 'un. The cheese was a tough 'un and held together." . . .

Backswording by Richard Doyle. Click on the thumbnail for larger image.

"There wur running for a peg too, and they as could ketch 'un and hang 'un up by the tayl, had 'un. The girls, too, run races for smocks — a deal of pastime, to be sure, Sir. There wur climmin' a grasy pole for a leg of mutton, too; and backsoordin', and wrastlin', and all that, ye knows, Sir. [135-37]

The next morning the narrator makes his way to the festival grounds and finds Joe "helping the umpires to measure out the course for the cart-horse race" (156). The chapter that follows consists largely of descriptions of the various athletic events with a good deal of attention paid to characterization of those taking part and the next similarly describes poetry and singing contests that took place after the games have finished. Once the games end, Dick enjoys spending time with Joe and Lucy, finally declaring his love for her and receiving Joe's approval — and with it the news that his bride-to-be has a substantial inheritance of �500. With things settled, Dick returns to the city as the novel proper ends with his waking up when the train arrives at Paddington Station, "and, in another five minutes, I was in a cab, with my bag and the great basket of country treasures, creeping along in the early November morning towards Grays Inn Lane. And so ended my fortnight's holiday" (286). But not the book, for text proper ends with the Rev. Warton's sermon on feasts and celebrations, which Joe had requested, after which Hughes includes 5 appendices containing historical material.

The Scouring of the White Horse, then, certainly is a hodge-podge or what Hughes calls "a stir-about." In its attempts to make his readers care about the history, legend, and customs of their country from earliest times, he includes some fine descriptions, colorful dialects, many poems and ballads, a love affair that ends well, and the narrative of how a young man of the urban working classes learns encounters the pleasures of rural life and learns how much true, basic Englishness it preserves. Although his main purpose is to make readers like Dick and his friends aware of their heritage enough to make them want to preserve it, Hughes, an early sympathizer with the Chartists and an advocate for the Reform Acts, seems too politically involved not to touch upon other matters, such as the government's mistreatment of maimed Crimean War veterans, or the need for right and left, country and city, to understand one another. Nonetheless, Hughes chiefly wants to provide his British readers with a sense of an imaginatively experienced national past that will help his society cohere.


[Hughes, Thomas.] The Scouring of the White Horse; or, the Long Vacation Ramble of a London Clerk. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1859.

Last modified 13 July 2006