Arfer was born in Tynemouth in the northeast in 1804. His father abandoned him and his siblings when they were young and his mother eeked out an existence as a seamstress.
When he was old enough Arfer had a choice of fishing or mining, both dangerous and potentially deadly occupations. He was taken on a pit pony boy at the Chriton pit, Burden colliery which recently re-opened in 1811.
Two years later there was a violent explosion - ventilation was obstructed by a creep and candles were in use, the people had gone down to secure the timber and iron and other materials which were likely to be lost owing to the creep and their candles lit the gas. 8 men were killed Arfers close friends Thomas Miller and William Richardson who were 16 years old and William’s brother George who was 18.
Despite the dangers Arfer had no choice but to continue his work in the pit – the pit ponies' main duties were pulling heavy carts of coal, so they had to be strong and sure-footed to avoid stumbling on the underground paths. During an eight-hour shift they hauled 30 tons of coal to the underground railway.
When he was 18 Arfer took the Queen’s shilling and joined the 16th Lancers, a light cavalry regiment founded in 1759 and with a long history of campaigns including the seven years war and American war of Independence. In 1822 Arfer sailed with the regiment to India, this was a punishment from George IV as the regiment had expressed loyalty to his estranged wife Queen Caroline.
His Indian deployment lasted 17 years (the regiment was out there for 24) and he fought in the Siege of Bharatpur (1825) in the Jat War (1825-26).
During the First Afghan War Arfer fought to take the fortress of Ghanzi in 1839, where he was wounded ***** He survived but was unable to rejoin his regiment and was invalided out. He worked for his passage to return to England, and as a wounded soldier received no pension or government assistance, penniless and homeless he became a vagrant in the East End of London. He tried his hand at several jobs, including as a lamp lighter.
It was here that he met Sookie, in the Ten bells over a tot of gin, her singing won his heart and the two became commonlaw man and wife. They had four children together, none of whom survived infancy.
Arfer’s knowledge of horses continues to serve him well and he has become a whip seller. ‘The sale is considerable for to many the possession of a whip is a matter of importance. If one be lost or stolen, for instance, from a butchers cart in Newgate market, the need of a whip to proceed with the cart and horse to its destination, prompts the purchase in the quickest manner, and this is usually effected of the street-seller who offers his wares to the carters at every established resort’.
Because it was so time consuming and difficult to get the ponies underground they were stabled underground and Arfer tended to their needs including feeding, mucking out and working with the ponies in the shaft. Once a year the ponies came to the surface for a holiday.