Chafer Legge, a storyteller from Brandon Creek near Littleport
Chafer Legge was a prolific storyteller, often found in The Ship Inn at Brandon Creek. Walter Barratt learnt many stories from him and told these to Enid Porter when she worked with him to produce his books of Fenland stories “Tales From The Fens” and “More Tales From The Fens”.
The Legge family still farm the land between Southery and Littleport. The wife of one of Chafer’s descendents, Mrs Judith Legge has written a short biography of his life:
Chafer Legge 1838 – 1909 Family Background
A shepherd named Legge was looking after his sheep between Littleport and Ely, when Oliver Cromwell was running the country. The year after the fenland food riots of 1816, William, Chafer’s father, was born to an unmarried mother, Elizabeth, in Ely. William moved in with Noah Bell in Common Lane, Southery, and married his daughter Susanna in 1837. Their family grew quickly, they had 10 children, but only 9 became adults. William was a carpenter and a wheelwright by trade.
William “Chafer” Legge arrived in 1838, he never learnt to read and write, but he did learn about the birds and fish of the fens and how to catch them, eel dabbing and lark snaring. His day job was as an agricultural labourer, which was hard work in all weathers and poorly paid, sometimes the harvest even failed. By the time he was 21, he had married Susan Porter in the grand new church in Southery and moved out of the village to a small wooden shack in the fens. To feed his large family, he went fishing, wildfowling legally and poaching illegally, if caught he could be imprisoned or transported to Australia. Birds, larks, pheasants, partridges, quails and ducks were caught and sent by train from Littleport to London as a delicacy for the London hotels. Chafer was quite a striking character in his moleskin trousers and waistcoat with an otterskin cap. In his younger days he was a bare fist fighter and a good skater.
When the fens froze over, there were skating races with welcome prizes of money, food and clothes. For farm labourers winter time could be very bleak, no work on the land, no money, no food, often going hungry. Chafer ’s children were also skaters, Noah was the most successful and Susan won a ladies race without her knickers on! Chafer was asked by Newnham College, Cambridge, to tutor the lady students in skating during the long freeze of 1895.
After the floods of 1861 the farmers moved out of the fens to houses in the towns and villages, visiting daily by horse and cart or by employing a foreman. The labourers became one hoss farmers in Sedge Fen Southery, working with their neighbours, sharing their machinery and looking out for each other. Chafer’s children had to walk to the new school in Southery from 1876, the drove was dusty and black in the summer and thick slub in the winter. Often the children missed weeks of schooling due to illness, epidemics, the weather or the state of the drove. They had to take their own docky, no school meals, and a drink, the school well was often dry.
Chafer’s local was The Ship, where the Little Ouse River joined the River Great Ouse. For a drink or two he would entertain with stories of Black Shuck, the Magic Stone of Southery, the Wareing, King Charles, Mucky Porter and the split goose feather and many more. Mark Twain even came to The Ship and exchanged tall stories. Some of the stories have elements of historical fact, some describe the places, some describe how hard it was to survive in such grim times and some describe the wily nature of the fen man to outdo their betters. Dons and students came from the Cambridge colleges to study the flora and fauna, often staying at the Ship. On a dark fen night, Chafer could be relied upon to tell a ghostly or scary story from the fens by candlelight.
Chafer had a large family, some died young, some carried on the tradition of two jobs, farming and wildfowling and fishing and a daughter even married a gamekeeper.