How the story began
François André Vincent 1798
"Plough a straight furrow, lad," William's father would counsel. "Fix your eye on the far side and never look back."
The cultivation of crops and the tending of beasts ran in George Cooper's blood. Both his own and his wife's families had been farmers for generations so that William could not fail to possess an easy affinity with the land.
William loved the rolling Wreake Valley with its winding watercourses, lush meadows and plains where sheep might safely graze. On his return from Melton Mowbray market, footsore and weary from goading the stock, he would marvel at the curious transparency of the air around Rotherby whose cottages snuggled under the square-towered church like chicks about a mother hen. His mother had been Hannah Fletcher, a Syston maid born and bred, whom her husband had carried off to Rotherby after their wedding on All Fools' Day, 1746. It had long been a joke that George had put his head in the noose on so inauspicious a day! That very month, news had reached them of the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in the Scottish Highlands. Bonnie Prince Charlie's hopes of the Crown had been dashed. The Hanoverian redcoats had butchered the Stuart forces and gone far beyond the call of duty in laying waste the Gaelic way of life. Having next to no idea what they were fighting for, half of them, they had sorely punished the brazen-faced clansmen, but the Prince had cunningly slipped through their fingers and gone scuttling back to France. It seemed that Protestant and Catholic had been forever at each other's throats and William, who was given to pondering these matters, was at a loss to fathom why those who proclaimed one Lord could not live in reasonable harmony.
By now, the third George in succession was on the throne. He was German, of course, but unlike his predecessors, spoke English as well as any Charterhouse schoolmaster. He distrusted the nobility for their ambiguous values and preferred to consort with simple mortals. Farming fascinated him. He had a model farm at Kew for the instruction of the young Princes in his overflowing nursery. When he went to take the air at Weymouth, he loved to linger over a breakfast of boiled ham and oatcakes in the kitchen of some local farmhouse while he and the overawed tenant mulled over the problems of good husbandry.
The trouble was that the old ways were changing fast. New techniques were being pioneered to make the growing of the nation's food more efficient. Over in Norfolk, Viscount Coke insisted on the importance of crop rotation. Did he imagine that cottagers could afford to let their strips lie fallow for one year in three? To cap it all, landowners were looking for new means of fattening their pockets. They preferred to see their affairs managed by a dozen large tenants than chase scraps of rent from scores of small ones. This meant that country people were having to turn to labouring and were losing a pride in tending their own patch. Everywhere, land was being enclosed by hawthorn hedges which cost good money to maintain and left little common where you could scratch out a living with a pig or a cow. Fodder had to be begged, bought or stolen.
William was used to hearing his parents discuss these things long into the night over a guttering tallow candle. They had had their share of hardships but had well survived. "Make no mistake, Will, the Lord always provides," his mother would declare, "though not without a vast deal of toiling and spinning from me!"
"How can you be sure?" he had probed as a youngster, though he entertained less doubt of her than of the Almighty.
She was pummelling dough at the time, her freckled brown arms powdered with flour. "Do I take bricks out of the oven when I bake a loaf? See this! Left in the warm for a couple of hours, twill be twice the size and more full of hot air than the vicar!” Hers was a mischievous heresy. While she had the deepest respect for the tenets of the Christian religion, a lively nature occasionally drove her to poke fun at the Church as an ecclesiastical institution.
"Is it magic, then?" asked her son, turning his bright face up to her.
"Little nippers ask too many questions and that's a fact."
"But is it?"
"Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn't. You might call yeast magic in a manner o' speaking. Tis like faith, like saying your prayers and believing you'll receive what you need."
Now that he had reached the age of twenty, William's contribution to the rent was substantial. He was a broad-shouldered youth of medium height with a mop of yellow hair tied back with twine, a skilful farmer with a propensity for book-learning. Before he was three, he had mastered the alphabet from a hornbook at his mother's knee and a year later was composing whole sentences upon his slate.
"Give over stuffing the boy's head with these clever notions," George Cooper cautioned. “It'll do naught to put bread on the table."
But Hannah thought she knew better. If God had given her son talents, he would not readily see them squandered.