Charles ‘Slap’ Blakeman was the son of Joseph and Ellen Blakeman and is not to be confused with the Charles Blakeman of stained glass window fame. He first appears in the 1871 census as a nine year old boy living in Watery Lane, Campden, and his father‘s occupation is given as agricultural labourer, though in Massingham’s book he describes Charles as a bastard by birth. He had no siblings listed as living in the household but by 1881 his mother was a widow, having had had three further children, Joseph, Louise and Rose. There, room was made for a lodger to contribute to the household budget, one Frederick Andrews, who is listed as a dealer.
Slap, though, does not appear to be living with his mother but was himself one of three lodgers in the home of William Manton. It must have been a very overcrowded cottage in Watery Lane, housing eight people.
By 1891 Slap was living in Westington in a cottage near Gladwin’s farm, married to Eliza, a Bidford on Avon widow, and living with her and his stepdaughter, Maud Loxley. He is listed as a horse breaker, the profession for which he became renowned.
A decade later, the 1901 census lists him as head of the house in Westington, a colt breaker, aged thirty nine years, but doesn’t mention a wife or children. It appears that when the census was compiled Eliza was away, because by 1911 we find her back in Westington, having survived twenty-four years of marriage with her unconventional husband. By now they also had living with them his widowed mother and two boarded out children, Edith and Florence Wilson from London.
A crafty man with a quick wit
Fred Coldicott describes Slap in his book as always wearing a bowler hat, breeches, and leggings. ‘He was the craftiest man that my father had ever known and even his eyes had a cast that made him seem to be looking anywhere but in front of him! The local Doctor reckoned that he’d broken every bone in his body and that his skull was twice as thick as that of an ordinary man!’ Although he had a bad speech impediment, he had a quick retort for everything and the stories of his cunning buying and selling horses is legendary. One story of this cunning was when Slap had a broken leg and borrowed a three wheeled invalid carriage from the vicarage. There he sat, resplendent under a horse blanket, to keep himself warm, the blanket hiding the quart bottle that he kept to urinate in. He commandeered a lad with learning difficulties to wheel him round in this contraption and one day after inspecting a horse in Back Ends they reached Wold’s End bank where the lad let loose of the handle and Slap and the carriage careered down the bank on their own! A witness to this, Miss Griffiths, quickly ran up to Slap to enquire whether he was injured and he responded to her kind enquiry by saying that though he thought he was all right, he had broken his bottle of whiskey. Miss Grifiths feeling sorry for him promptly produced some money for him to buy another bottle! It may have been in this convalescent period that the then Lord Gainsborough came across Slap and addressed him saying, ‘Glad to see you about again Blakeman. You should thank God you have recovered.’ Slap weighed his words before replying. ‘Y-y-yes, zur, me Lord, but the devil yunt such a bad covey or else we two uddunt be here.’
On one occasion he was demonstrating the merits of a cob to a prospective buyerand so as the horse and trap picked up speed and flew out of control down Aston Hill, the man cried out in alarm, ‘Stop, stop, I’d pay anything to get off.’ Slap’s reply to this request was ‘Yo–yo-you keep your money sir; yo-yo-you’ll be out for nothing in a minute’
Further reports of the perils of driving with Slap was when he gave a man a lift from Badsey Oak to Campden in his high horse breaker’s vehicle. As the horse flew along the highway at alarming speed he asked the man ‘Have yo-yo-you hever been thr-thr-thrown out? Well, yo-yo-you’re going to be to-night’. They went over every heap of stones from there to Campden and arrived shaken but still on top of the vehicle!
A further adventure on this same stretch of road found Slap driving erratically with a not too reputable horse in the shafts. A vigilant policeman in Bretforton took chase on his bicycle and about a mile out of the village found Slap lying in the road bleeding from a cut in his head and the horse attached to the brake quietly grazing by the roadside. The Officer thinking that a local Publican had been in breach of the licensing law picked Slap up and asked him where he’d stopped last. Slap, despite being injured, and pointing to the blood on the road replied ‘Any man with eyes in his head could see that without asking such a question!’
Yet another tale in ‘Slap folklore’ is of him being offered and accepting a pound for his donkey that was in a field in Westington. Later that day he was accosted by the extremely angry customer who said ‘Here, Slap, that donkey’s dead’ to which Slap replied ‘Ah, I thought he was when I saw him yesterday!’
George Groom, a rent collector, once tried to collect the back rent from Slap who lived in the row of dwellings in Westington aptly named as Hell’s Cottages. He was told clearly and firmly that he’d have to pay to which the indefatigable Slap ever ready with an answer replied ‘Do-do-don’t thee get a worrying, I will see as you have it even if I have to sell the cottage’!
Slap made many an appearances in Campden Magistrates Court for being drunk and disorderly and for riotous behaviour. On one rare occasion that he wasn’t before the bench, Lord Ashton, the Justice of the Peace happened upon Slap leaning against a shop window and promptly rewarded him with half a crown. Was this out of affection for the roguish Slap or was it a reward for good behaviour? Run-ins with the law though were a frequent occurrence in Slap’s life. One night on his way home he paused to rest on the high pavement in Sheep Street and when a police officer on finding him there suggested that he make his way home. ‘Home be damned, I’m not going home, all the houses keeps going by and as soon as mine goes by I’ll step right inside!’
Slap, a widower by now, died in 1930 in Shipston on Stour in his sixty- ninth year. His obituary in the Evesham Journal praised his skill as a horse breaker and shrewd judgement of horseflesh adding that he’d broken horses for most of the lords, gentlemen, and clergy in the district. With the advent of motor cars and infirmities prematurely caused by his rough life he found his occupation gone, though he had added to his income making walking sticks made form ash he cut in Weston Park.
It was said that his familiar figure and amusing character would be greatly missed in Campden and that no one could truly say of him that a life ‘without incident’ had ended.