It was back in 2012 that we came across the story of Shem and his donkey shay, pictured on October October 1st 1900 at Lavington Station – the day the railway line opened. Back then we hoped to come up with a better quality photo and we have got one that’s a bit better – excuse enough to revisit this wonderful story which was actually published in a 1930s newspaper. This time we have transcribed the story and here it is.
Our picture is not one of “the wonderful one-hoss shay” which Holmes immortalised in “The Deacon’s Masterpiece”. It is what might be aptly termed “Shem’s shay”.
Shem Butcher and his donkey cart – ready for a customer on the opening day at Lavington Station – October 1st 1900
To the younger generation it will appear to be only a picture – probably as an amusing one – but to the older residents of Devizes and around about, it is one in which they will recognise an old personality, who used to’ be as familiar in our Market Place as Drew’s pigeons. Those of the older school will recognise in it Mr. Shem Butcher and his donkey-cart, who in days gone by used to be a regular attendant at Devizes Market. Shem and his equipage were the observed of all the observers in those days – an old favourite with the locals and, his cart tied up with string and his donkey’s harness similarly kept together, were the subjects of curiosity on the part of those who saw them for the first time. Shem, now gathered to his fathers, was an old man, but it was a moot point whether he was senior in years to his donkey. What has happened to his faithful companion we do not know; according to the laws of nature it should now be enjoying its last rest, but seeing that the “oldest inhabitants” are said to have rarely seen a dead donkey one would hesitate to say that Neddy has brayed for the last time.
Shem and his shay, as seen in the illustration, are drawn outside Lavington railway station, upon the first day when the Stert – Westbury route of the Great Western Railway to the West was opened. It was there that the photographer Burgess’s camera made a picture of them which has now become historic. Upon the opening of the route the writer was at Patney Station when the first train steamed in from the Lavington direction on a beautiful October morning in 1900. But it is obvious that he went to the-wrong place from the point of view of public interest. That was surely at Lavington, where, according to an endorsement on the back of the photograph, Shem’s shay represented “the first public vehicle that plied for hire at Lavington station upon its opening.” Whether it was patronised by any of the passengers we are not told. For years after the route was opened the photograph was given a place on one of the walls of the station. It remained until, having regard to the changes which the efflux of time brought, the picture began to lose its significance because those who knew Shem Butcher became fewer and fewer. Eventually the photograph became the property of Mr. H.J. Sainsbury, the local builder, which was appropriate, as it was Mr. Sainsbury who, in a light spring cart which he made himself, drawn by a fine little upstanding cob, took the first load of goods either to, or from, the local railway station.
Shem was often the butt of jokes on the part of the younger generation, and a story as to that is perhaps worth telling. The donkey and cart were standing unattended in the drive of Clyffe Hall at Market Lavington while the aged owner was doing business inside the house. A few young rascals of the locality came along and removed the donkey and cart to the other side of the road, where the Awdrys used to have their cricket pitch. There was situate a five-bar gate, which was locked, but one of the perpetrators of the joke had the key. He with the contrivance of the other young scallywags, unlocked the gate, unhitched the donkey from the cart, and Put the shafts through the bars, hitching Neddy in again on one side of the gate with the cart on the other. Then they locked the gate and awaited the arrival of the owner. What Shem said can be imagined. The culprits of the incident were in hiding, and eventually one of them, having heard the owner’s story, “happened to have a key in his pocket and wondered if it would fit and unlock the gate!” Needless to say it did.
Mr. Butcher who latterly resided in a cottage adjacent to the Clock Inn at Lydeway was formerly a farmer at Cheverell Common, having a herd of some 20 cows. He made a speciality of producing mangold seed, with which in those days he supplied a number of farmers in the neighbourhood.
It may be of interest to recall that this first section of the new short route to the West from Stert to Westbury was opened for goods traffic at the end of July 1900 and for passengers on 1 October the same year. From the new station, called Patney and Chirton, to which the single line of the old Berks and Hants extension railway from Hungerford had already been doubled, it is 14½ miles long, and for the first mile runs alongside the old line to Devizes. Save for a brick viaduct, 120 yards long and 40 feet high, near Lavington, there are no engineering features worth mentioning, but the earthwork was heavy and much trouble and delay was caused in the early stages by slips. Until the opening of the Castle Cary and Langport line, which had not then been begun, its only effect was to shorten the distance between London and Weymouth, and of course all stations below Westbury, by 14½ miles. This, however, was of some importance in connection with the competitive Channel Islands traffic, which was constantly increasing. Two new twin-screw boats, Reindeer and Roebuck, similar to Ibex, had been placed on the station and a summer daylight service established in 1897, in addition to the regular night service.