Who wants to be an Auctioneer?

Who wants to be an auctioneer? it’s not a question many careers teachers will ever ask, but my mind was pretty well made up by the time I left school. As a child I spent every school holiday at my grandfather’s smallholding near Ulverston among sheep, cattle and ponies. This fired my enthusiasm for the countryside and its guardians, especially the farmers.

Those school holidays were magical times. It seemed like the sun always shone and every Thursday was spent at Ulverston auction mart selling Grandad’s lambs. I also loved watching the calves and pigs being sold. The gruff tones of the auctioneer George Lawrence used to enthrall me and scare me. When sitting at the auction ringside I would hardly dare move in case he might think I was bidding. Then back at my Grandad’s I would sit on the gate and pretend to auction the sheep.

My paternal grandfather was Robert Jackson. He was a coal man by trade and carried the black gold 6 days a week from the age of 16 until nearly 50 years of age. Then, every Saturday night, he and my grandmother whom we called Nannie, drove around Ulverston collecting coal money. He had to collect money on a Saturday because most working people got paid on a Saturday lunchtime as they finished for the weekend. Go later in the week and there would be no money left for the coalman. His Saturday night treat after collecting his debts, was a late fish and chip supper. Smothered in salt and vinegar, poured from a white plastic bottle that lived on the kitchen table, this was supplemented by several rounds of bread and butter. Then he would sit in his vestibule, banished from the kitchen, to smoke his pipe, a harsh blend of tobacco called Condor.

When he finally gave up smoking in his 80’s, he proudly presented me with his pipe. By then I was living in a third floor flat in the centre of Penrith. I visited the local tobacconist and bought some Condor not knowing that it was an extremely potent tobacco. Back in the flat, I opened the living room window to smoke my pipe and watch the people walking up and down Devonshire Street. Within thirty seconds a green cloud of nausea descended upon me and I was nearly sick on to the pavement some 40 feet below. The pipe was never smoked again and I still have it in a drawer somewhere.

Grandad Jackson loved farming and livestock. He would devour the Farmers Guardian every friday morning like a kid with a comic. As a child he used to help in Burch’s slaughterhouse at Swarthmoor. He always wanted to farm and he always kept horses and ponies. As a boy looked after the magnificent Shire horses that pulled the coal wagon in his early years of coal merchanting. Later my mother had ponies to ride. Later still there were ponies for me and my sisters. Indeed Nannie loved to produce top quality show ponies. She was in her element grooming ponies, washing them, plaiting manes and showing them at agricultural shows and events all over the North West. She was to tell me not long before her death that these were the happiest days of her life.

Grandad Jackson worked tirelessly and conscientiously. Money had to be saved and life was lived in a plain and thrifty manner. There were no indulgences. There was always good food on the table and plenty of it, but he rarely drank anything more than tea or plain water. Morning porridge was taken with salt and not sugar. As I young boy I couldn’t stomach it, for which I was berrated.
A treat for the grandchildren was a slice of ice cream from the huge chest freezer which was full of home produced lamb, or half a pig, or a heap of blackberry pies made in the autumn. One of those pies with fresh cream at Christmas was an even greater treat. As a child I would wait for their car coming up the road to our family home near Cockermouth. It was usually on Christmas Eve and I knew it was full of presents and all manner of fantastic home- made produce, pies, jams, pickles, piccalilli, it was endless.

With his savings Grandad also bought land and achieved his goal in life to become a farmer. His land was in unconnected blocks around the village of Great Urswick. He bought a few breeding sheep and some young stirks to fatten up. By the time I was spending my summer holidays farming with him, he was in full swing. He was helped by many local farmers including his great friends Harry Woods and further down the road, Alan Woods. He also bought Burch’s old slaughterhouse in Swarthmoor and turned it in to a house for himself and Nannie.

My first memory of selling his lambs at Ulverston Auction would be when I was about seven years of age. We started early at 6am one Thursday morning. Despite it being the month of August, there was a real chill to the morning, with whisps of fog hovering above the grass. We went across to the sheep and selected or “drew” the prime lambs for market, loading them in to the trailer. They were Suffolk cross lambs with distinctive brown heads and a blue mark on their backs. Only after this process did we have some breakfast, cold toast and marmalade. Then off to market.

The sale began and I peered across the ring for ages waiting for those brown headed lambs to appear. Suddenly, the next lot came crashing in to the ring and they were Suffolk lambs. In a flash I leaped into the ring for the job given to me by Grandad was to “show” the lambs. In other words move them around the ring in front of the buyers, so that they could feel their backs and assess their condition. Good meat and not too fat was always the choice. So I pushed those lambs around for all I was worth. The hammer fell and they were off out of the ring. “Laal” Johnny Matterson walked them away to the buyers pens. Many years later, The Matterson family were to become great friends of mine. Johnny was a special little man, no longer with us, but his memory lives on strongly.

Proudly then, I climbed back out of the ring only to meet my Grandad, who in a loud voice said, “you did well Adam but these are my lambs coming in now, you’d better get back in” Everyone laughed. Embarrassed, I climbed back in again. I had got the wrong pen of lambs. The farmer whose lambs i had sold shouted across the ring to Grandad “Don’t worry Bob, he did a grand job…. for me” and he chucked me 50p, which was a fortune back then. I didn’t know it but it was my first earnings in an auction mart.

42 years later In 2014, I was invited to sell at Ulverston Auction mart as a guest auctioneer. I was thrilled. As I stood on the rostrum prior to the sale, I took a few deep breaths and remembered for an instant sitting on those old wooden benches, watching sales some forty years and more previously. I mentioned this to all the farmers before I started to sell. I said that it would have been beyond Bob Jackson’s wildest dream that his Grandson would one day be selling at Ulverston Auction. Of course Grandad and his generation are long gone now but it was an emotional moment for me. I had to take a deep breath and quickly get my head together. The sale went well and if I should never get a chance to sell again at Ulverston, I will treasure the time I stood in that rostrum taking bids.

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