What is the Duck Feast in the village of Charlton in the Vale of Pewsey?
The Duck Feast held at the Charlton Cat commemorates the Wiltshire thresher poet, Stephen Duck, who was born in Charlton in 1705. He received little education but learned to read and write at the village school. He was removed from school at the age of 14, when his appetite for education outstripped the schoolmaster's ability, and set to work on a farm at 4 shillings and sixpence (22½ pence) a week. At the age of 19, in 1724, he married his first wife, who did not understand his thirst for knowledge and his writing. He worked overtime at threshing to get a little more money to buy books. Fortunately for him there was another man, living in Charlton, who wished to educate himself. He had been in service in London and gathered a small collection of books which the two men pored over by candlelight after a hard day's work.
After five years of hard work in the fields, and study at night, Duck had three children and local fame among his fellows which prompted the squire, the schoolmaster and the Rev. and Mrs. Stanley, to encourage him and criticise his work. The latter couple encouraged him to write two of his best poems, 'The Thresher's Labour' and 'The Shunnamite'. His fame began to spread and in 1729 a young gentleman of Oxford sent for him and commanded him to write a verse epistle. He came to the notice of Queen Caroline, wife of George II, who had a genuine wish to improve the lot of some of the many talented writers of the time.
He was introduced to the Court at Windsor and with royal and titled backing published a pamphlet of verses which ran to seven editions. He had to endure the enmity of Gay and Dean Swift but he had achieved fame. Tragedy came in 1730 when his young wife, Sylvia, died, leaving him to bring up his family with little money. In 1733 he married Sarah Big, the Queen's housekeeper at Kew and the Queen made him a Yeoman of the Guard. In 1735 he was made keeper of the Queen's Library at Richmond. He achieved the friendship of Alexander Pope, who did not think much of his verses but enjoyed his company as a friend. He was ordained and became Royal Preacher at New Chapel in 1751 and in 1752 obtained the Rectorship of Byfleet in Surrey.
His rise from poverty and obscurity to fame and fortune was remarkable and not particularly good for his verse, which he tried to polish and refine. His earlier work, though naÃ¯ve, was sincere and most refreshing when compared with the artificial work of many of his contemporaries.
Although Duck learned Latin and wrote well he could not forget his humble origins and the strain of trying to live and write above his station told on him. Eventually, he had such a fit of black depression that on 21st March 1756 he drowned himself behind the Black Lion Inn at Reading.
During his lifetime, in 1734, Lord Palmerston, one of his patrons, provided the rent from a piece of land to provide an annual feast for the threshers of Charlton. By the mid 19th century this provided an annual dinner for all the adult males of the village. By the mid 20th century the feast was attend by thirteen Duck Men, who drank toasts from the Duck Goblet.
Stephen Duck: the Wiltshire Phenomenon 1705-1756 by R.G. Furnival in the Cambridge Journal, Vol. 6, No. 8, 1953.
Poems on Several Occasions by Stephen Duck, 1736. Facsimile edition with an introductory note by John Lucas, Scholar Press, 1973, 0 85417 8937.