Anyone who toiled through the previous post on my ancestral aunt, Sophia Fox, she who never once told the truth about her age, probably wondered if there was a photo of her. Sad to say, until the other day, there was only one surviving photo of a Callow-born Fox, my Great Grandmother, Mary Ann, whose misty image I’ve posted on this blog several times.
But then I found today’s photo. It was among a deceased aunt’s papers, a batch of photos that had in turn been sent to her on the death of her uncle, Tom Shorrocks. Aunt Miriam was responsible for starting me off on the Callow Fox hunt. She had tried to make sense of Tom Shorrocks’ photos for me, but had misidentified the location of his holiday snaps, thinking it was Cheshire when it was in fact Foolow, near Eyam in Derbyshire. I recognised the distinctive stone cross in the middle of the village green in one of the shots. And the one person Tom Shorrocks would surely be visiting on a trip from Manchester was his mother’s older brother, Robert Fox, erstwhile farmer, teller of family tales and boxing enthusiast. Robert would be around 70 in the photo, not long before he died in 1931.
Edith, his wife, who looks none too happy in the photos, was the daughter of a wealthy Farnworth coal merchant. She and Robert started married life as tenant farmers at Shepherd’s Flat, Foolow, a remote spot with sad associations with the 1665 Plague of Eyam.
Like many Derbyshire farmers, I dare say they fell foul of falling farm prices at the end of the nineteenth century, for they appear to have spent much of their life in a cottage in Foolow village. Anyway it seems it was around the time of the family photo that great great uncle Robert struck up an acquaintance with GHB Ward, founder of the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers and ardent campaigner for the restoration of footpaths across vast expanses of moorland whose centuries old common access and usage had been appropriated and restricted by the shooting classes. Ward also published the Clarion Ramblers’ Handbook, and in the 1930-31 edition there is an account of his chats with Robert Fox ‘The Story of Fox House Inn and Callow Farm’.
It’s all rather bitty and mostly anecdotal, but there is some documentary evidence provided by Ward’s own researches, and it’s anyway strangely wonderful to come upon family yarns, hitherto unknown, in a published source. This also includes a fairly recently re-published version included in an anthology of Ward’s best Clarion pieces.*
The Fox men had quite a reputation down the generations, known locally as The Fighting Foxes. There was Robert Fox’s grandfather, Robert, he who married the mysterious ‘London Lady’ in 1812, known as Bobbling Bob and famous for going fifteen rounds with some champion pugilist and winning the day despite a shoulder injury. The fight was at the Bell Inn, Hathersage, a hostelry that hosted these illegal contests. The local gentry were passionate supporters, laying bets of eye-wateringly huge sums on their fighting favourites.
Bobbling Bob’s son William, Sophia Fox’s younger brother, was another ‘bruiser’. The tale goes that he walked over 20 miles to Hayfield to take on a ‘fighting man’ who was ‘kept’ at a certain inn as a customer attraction. This bellicose individual was known to thrash all and any comers who dared to sit in his favourite chair. And yes, you’ve guessed it, Bill Fox went and sat in the very chair, ignoring warnings from landlord, and waited till the fighting man put in an appearance and challenged him. And much to everyone’s surprise Bill won the day, and for several days afterwards stayed on at the inn as the ‘pride of the place’, and doubtless putting away a good quantity of Derbyshire ale, a habit for which he was also famous.
Robert Jackson Fox had more legitimate dealings with the boxing ring, though in the Sheffield Telegraph’s 1899 coverage of an upcoming contest between the city’s best fighter, George Corfield and London champion George Slark, there is some talk of side betting. It transpires great great uncle Robert had charge of George Corfield out at Shepherd’s Flat, ensuring the fighter put on some weight. He was in charge of providing the following, and doubtless Edith was preparing it.
On rising Corfield was given a cup of tea with a new-laid egg beaten in it. After this he walked for an hour before returning to the farm for a breakfast of mutton chops, toast and tea with a drop of whiskey. Next: more walking and light exercise, followed at 1 p.m. by a lunch of mutton or beef, fowl or rabbit, a few vegetables, pudding and a glass of Robert Fox’s home-brewed ale. After this, a rest, then ball-punching until tea-time which comprised another fresh egg, toast, celery and more tea laced with Scotch.
The whole rigmarole is described in a long article by a sports writer who, as the fight day looms, goes out to Foolow to see for himself how the training is faring. When he and four others in his party invite themselves to tea at Shepherd’s Flat, Robert Fox is quoted as saying that he can’t give them chops as the previous week he had to kill a sheep for George and there’s only enough left for him. He also told them that some of the hens were on strike but he could find a few eggs. And so these were served up with buttered toast and tea diluted with ‘most delicious Derbyshire cream’. And the final press opinion on Corfield’s form was that they had never seen him looking better. I’m only sorry I can’t find out if Robert Fox’s mutton, eggs and ale helped to win the match. (Or indeed make some money in those side bets).
* David Sissons The Best of the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers’ Handbooks ‘Ward’s Piece’