There once lived a lad down Cripplegate way in London, who was sweet on a young girl, and whom he thought was sweet on him from the looks she gave. He just didn’t ask her out, he couldn’t, you see, on account of his ‘trade’. Not that she was stuck up or posh, it’s just that he felt she deserved better, being well brought up like. You see, he earned his living collecting muck off the streets, usually dog muck, to help soften the shoe leather. He was a tanner’s bucket boy, though if anyone asked he would say ‘in the shoemaking trade’. And he was honest, too honest, some said, for his own good and kept himself clean, as clean as he could, anyway, those days.
One day in town, he spotted a gold sovereign in the gutter. He looked around and saw a gentleman about to buy a newspaper. Thinking it might be his, he went up to the gentleman and offered him his coin back. ‘Excuse me, sir, is this yours?’ The old man looked at him in surprise, ‘Thank you, young man, you have restored my faith in human nature. What is it you do?’ The young man began to say he was in the shoemaking trade but the gentleman was looking at him so intently that he burst out, ‘I’m a tanner’s bucket boy, sir, but one day I hope to be a proper shoe maker!’ ‘Really now, well, maybe, I can help. I have a cousin who has his own shoemaking business. I’ll see if he needs a new apprentice. Meet me here same time tomorrow!’ And with that he was off.
The boy was so excited, picturing a great future for himself but as time moved on the next day and with no sign of the gentleman, he thought how stupid he’d been to expect the gentleman to help him. He was just about to leave when the old man came hurrying round the corner. ‘Sorry I’m late but it’s all arranged. You start tomorrow and seeing how you’re an honest lad, I’ll pay your apprentice fees. You can pay me back later.’
And so the lad started and he worked all the hours he could get to learn his trade and over the years became so skilled at it, he could sew 64 stitches to the inch and at such speed too when needed. His apprenticeship was soon over and the gentleman came and said, ‘Let me pay your freeman’s fees, so you can work. It’s an investment.’
And so the lad worked for the old man’s cousin and started to earn some money but not enough to look after the young girl he still thought about…for he hadn’t forgotten her. And he hoped she hadn’t forgotten all about him. He went to see her and he was right, she hadn’t and he asked her if she’d like to go out walking with him and she said…yes!
Where they went to, walking and talking and other doings, depended much on the seasons. In the winter, they’d stroll along the riverside, appreciating the light on the water and the waves in the wind. On summer evenings, they both loved to stroll arm-in-arm along Golden Lane, where the goldsmiths worked outside on the pavement, making the most of the late evening light. He noted the way the worked, the detail. She loved the quality of the objects, the design, and they both enjoyed the sparkle.
On one of their walks one day, he got a bit carried away and asked her to marry him. He could only afford a cheap thin band of gold for her wedding ring but she didn’t mind that, said it was the loveliest wedding ring ever. Still, he noted the big gold rings with diamonds she looked at most and vowed one day he would buy her one.
The young man worked all the hours he could to save up for a house and start a family but it was a struggle. He could pay his way but not put enough behind him working for someone else. Then, one day, the old gentleman came to visit, said his cousin was getting too old to be working full-time and would he like to be a half-partner in the business. Soon, he was able to buy a house with two bedrooms and a garden next to St Giles church in Cripplegate…just in time, as it happens, as first one child, then a second were born in the house. Soon, there were four little ones. Just as well they had space to build on in the garden.
He was becoming prosperous now and generous too, remembering his start in life, and often supported younger people with dreams of their own. And he was able to buy his wife a wonderful gold ring with a brilliant, shiny diamond on top, worthy of his wife. She loved it yet still kept her thin gold ring on. She never took it off.
He still worked very long hours and his work often took him away from home. People were interested in the shoe making business, especially now as you could make them on machines…which is why he wasn’t at home when his wife fell ill.
She took to her bed and had difficulty breathing and couldn’t be roused. They called for the doctor who came but found no pulse, no breath. He said sorry but there was nothing he could do. The husband came home at once, hating himself for not being there, telling himself, if only he’d been there, maybe, he could have done something.
But it had all happened so quickly and there was no time to dig a grave. The children were sent to a neighbour’s while he almost stumbled alongside his wife’s coffin to the church next door. She was placed in the crypt overnight and, after one last look at her pale face, they nailed down the coffin lid…but not before the sexton had noticed the great diamond ring.
‘She’ll not need that now, will she?’, he muttered and, that night, took the keys to the crypt, a candle to light his way and, just in case of need, a knife to come in handy with him down the steps and into the crypt. In the darkness, he prized off the lid of the coffin and took her hand. It was cold. The large ring stuck a bit over the cold knuckle as he tugged before sliding over and coming off easily. He was just about to replace the lid when he saw the glint of a ring on her other hand. ‘Waste not, want not! I’ll have that as well.’ But this time, the ring would not pass over the knuckle. So, he picked up his knife and began to saw away at cold flesh, hitting bone.’
The pain seared through the wife, cut through the numbness and the darkness and released her from her deathly coma. The sexton, terrified, dropped everything and fled as fast as he could up the stairs away from this ghost. The wife found strength to climb out of the coffin and, taking the candle, up the stairs, making her way to her front door, where she was reunited with her joyful husband. After all, it was the thin band of gold that had saved her life and brought her back to her husband.
With thanks to storyteller, Helen East (www.eastorywilsound.co.uk ), for her telling of this story after hearing a story of a wife who had come back to life again after robbers had tried to take her wedding ring, published in The Anthology of English Folk Tales, Society for Storytelling by The History Press