Memoirs of a Social Atom (02)

Home Up American Cousins Miscellanea Main Index Site Search
 


 

[Previous Page]


CHAPTER VI

YIELDING PLACE TO THE NEW


MANY curious old customs that have now been discontinued and forgotten were in vogue when I was a boy.  I shall here mention only a few.

    New Year's Day, the greatest day of the year in Scotland, and always a jovial holiday in the North of England, was not observed at all in the South and West.  Nor was much attention paid to Easter.  May Day used to be recognised by the sweeps of the town, who exercised a sort of prescriptive right to dress up a Jack-in-the-Green (a wickerwork cage covered with ivy leaves, with a man inside to carry it), dancing round the figure in grotesque fashion, and collecting pence from the small crowds which witnessed the performance.  Later in the month—the 29th—came Royal Oak Day, when the innkeepers decorated their premises with oak boughs, and the inhabitants, especially the lads, carried oak apples or oak leaves in their buttonholes.  The lad who failed to adorn himself in this manner was an object of derision to the rest, who saluted him with cries of "Shick-shack."  The precise meaning or origin of this contumelious expression I never knew, nor, probably, did any other of the youths who were in the habit of using it.  If nobody now takes much notice of the anniversary, it is probably because people have begun to see that the nation, after all, had no great reason to be grateful for the escape of the Royal reprobate who found shelter in Boscobel Oak.  Whitsuntide met with more general recognition.  The Oddfellows and the members of other friendly societies, arrayed in all the glory of regalia, and accompanied by bands and banners, marched in procession on the Monday to the village of Charlton Kings, listened to a sermon in the parish church, and then, marching home again, dined sumptuously together in the long rooms of the different inns.  Another feature of Whitsuntide was the appearance of the morris dancers.  Antiquaries tell us that the morris dance was originally the Moorish dance, supposed to have been brought to England in the time of Edward the Third when John of Gaunt returned from Spain.  The dancers were all men, though one, who played the fool to the rest, was dressed as a woman.  Duck trousers and white shirts made up the costume, the sleeves of the performers being tied round and round with coloured ribbons, their legs below the knee bearing pads of tinkling bells.  The dance they executed was curiously varied with the clapping of hands and the flirting of white handkerchiefs.  Of course, after every dance, the "usual collection was taken."  When Christmas came, the children went out carol-singing, while some among their elders organized parties of mummers.  The mummers performed a kind of play, in the course of which, after deriding each other in rhyme, George the Fourth and Napoleon Bonaparte engaged in mortal combat.  The carols sung by the children were of the most extraordinary character.  Two lines of one of them ran thus:—


It was the joy of Mary, it was the joy of one
To see her infant Jesus sucking at her breast bone.


As a rule, the carol-singers closed their serenades with an appeal:—


God bless the master of this house,
Likewise the mistress too,
And all the little children
Who about the house do go,
With money in their pockets
And silver in their purse.
Please, ma'am, to give us a ha'penny,
And you'll be none the worse.
                        H-o-o-p!

What the "h-o-o-p " meant was unknown to us; but we always ended the appeal with the shout.

    Among the old customs in which I had a hand was one that finally went out with us in 1845—"beating the bounds."  Parish boundaries not being clearly defined, they were now and then perambulated by churchwardens and others for the purpose of keeping them in popular memory.  The perambulation in 1845 was largely attended, as was likely to be the case when waggons laden with beer, cider, and penny loaves met the crowd at various points on the route.  It was estimated that the followers, when the procession reached the Golden Valley, between Cheltenham and Gloucester, numbered not fewer than 2,000.  Practical jokes were supposed to be permissible on these occasions.  Boys were given "something to remember" at disputable corners of the boundary, while young men and old, regardless of age or infirmities, pushed each other into ditches and rivers and horse-ponds.  Unhappy (and in some cases even fatal) consequences occasionally resulted from these pranks.  Thus in the perambulation of 1845 a retired tradesman who was thrown into the deepest part of the Chelt died from the effects of the immersion.  The young fellow who did the mischief was tried for manslaughter, but acquitted.  The reason alleged for thrashing boys and larking with elder people was said to be that the parties concerned would recollect the boundaries and the time they were beaten if the facts of the matter in after-years should be called in question.  It was alleged to be necessary that the bounds should be traced whatever the obstacles that stood in the way.  Agg's House, a conspicuous mansion overlooking the town, was built in two parishes: wherefore a deputation from the crowd had to go through one window in the front and out of another at the back.  An amusing account of "possessioning," as the custom was called in Berkshire, is given in an old diary of the parish clerk of Newbury.  The possessioners (or processioners, to give them the name they bore in a neighbouring county) refreshed themselves with cakes and ale on the way, gave "three huzzas " at certain points, and sang psalms at others.  "Stopt on the mount in the lane," says the diarist, "and cut X cross, put Osgood on end upon his head, and done unto him as was necessary to be done by way of remembrance."  When the party "came to Mr. Daw's Mill, a shoemaker was pushed in and narrow escaped being drownded."  The diarist ends with a note:—"Old Kit Nation was turned on end upon his head and well spanked in the corner of Northcroft and upon the Wash."  Personal outrages of this description can only be perpetrated now at the risk of the perpetrator.  A man who had been bumped according to custom at Walthamstow showed his assailants some years ago that he had not been bumped according to law, for he obtained heavy damages against them.  Other actions in other parts of the country have put an end to practical joking at perambulations.  And perambulations have themselves ceased almost everywhere.  But the custom was discontinued at Cheltenham, not because a poor fellow lost his life, but because no provision was made for payment of expenses under the new Poor Law.

    Fashions, which change every year, have necessarily undergone a complete revolution in half a century.  Away back in the thirties and forties shaving was almost an obligatory process.  It was rarely that one met an Englishman, no matter what the class to which he belonged, who did not sport the regulation mutton-chop whiskers—clean shaven otherwise.  Anybody who was audacious enough to wear a moustache was taken to be a foreigner or an acrobat.  No change in the fashion in this respect occurred till our troops—all bronzed and bearded— returned from the Crimea.  The manly appearance of the warriors incited civilians to follow their example.  Nevertheless, it needed a popular agitation to overthrow the tyranny of the razor.  The Beard Movement completed what the veterans from the trenches had begun.  Artists, authors, and journalists were among the first to adopt the new mode.  A Royal Academician who did so (Mr. James Ward) published a pamphlet in explanation and defence, offering eighteen sound scriptural reasons why one might let the beard grow, and yet not offend his Creator.  Still, lawyers and business men and ministers of religion long resisted the change.  The first of the latter order whom I remember to have seen with a moustache—it was at a meeting of the Working Men's College in London—was the Rev. Llewellyn Davies, a famous Churchman in his day.  If before the war with Russia a member of the Stock Exchange had had the temerity to present himself in the "house," I rather fancy he would have received attentions more personal than polite.  When Edward Glynn, a Newcastle solicitor, paid a visit to London after he had adopted the new mode, the respectable lawyer upon whom he called first surveyed his moustache and beard with astonishment, and then pityingly remarked: "Well, Mr. Glynn, I hope you find that sort of thing pay down in the North."  But the new order of things has so supplanted the old in the matter of shaving that every man who has tarried at Jericho can now do exactly as he likes.

    Changes of costume are almost infinite.  But a word about hats.  Beavers, in the early years of the century, were almost the only wear.  Some were bell-topped, some other shapes, but all were more or less fluffy.  The material changed, but not the general outline for many years.  Everybody who had arrived at man's estate—rich and poor, gentle and simple alike—deemed a high hat necessary to existence.  It was part of the uniform of the new police, and it was part of the costume of the players in the cricket-field.  If you take the trouble to examine the engravings of old Radical demonstrations—those of meetings on the Town Moor at Newcastle, for example—you will see that every man in the crowd is shown to be wearing a tall hat.  The reign of the stove-pipe, as it came to be called, was, I think, first seriously challenged at the time that Kossuth and his compatriots appeared in England with the more shapely Hungarian chapeau.  Partly out of compliment to Kossuth, partly on account of its better appearance, but chiefly on account of its greater comfort, young Radicals of my time began to favour the Hungarian hat.  I have never returned to the old, hard, distressing mode since.  Ten years after Kossuth's arrival, however, I was hissed, hooted, and followed by an unruly crowd in a remote part of Lancashire, for no other reason than that I happened to be out of the fashion in respect to headgear.  Yet in that very same neighbourhood I saw disciples of Joanna Southcott—"Joanna men" as they were called by the factory operatives—wearing tall, white, fluffy hats that were even more conspicuous than my own.  But mark the change.  The soft, serviceable hat, altered but not improved in shape, is now the common wear of clergymen and ministers of all denominations.

    It fell to the lot of a North-Country member to first break through the unwritten law of Parliament, which required that hon. gentlemen should wear nothing but high hats, unless on special occasions and for special purposes court or military suits were in order.  The member in question, without intending or desiring it, caused a great sensation when he entered the sacred precincts with the style of hat he had worn for twenty years or more.  A popular cartoon of the time represented Mr. Gladstone as declaring, when he saw the apparition, that he really must dissolve Parliament.  The soft hat in this case had been adopted because the member concerned had in his younger days suffered from a peculiar tenderness of the skin of the temples.  Nor had he ever seen any good reason to change.  Indeed, a change to the regulation mode would have been inconvenient, disagreeable, even painful.  Moreover, neither Parliament nor his constituents had any right to call upon him to make a personal sacrifice in the matter of costume any more than in the matter of the cut of his beard.  There was in this case no touch of vanity or conceit, or desire to appear singular.  It was otherwise in the case of a Socialist member, who, when he paid his first visit to the House of Commons, rode down to Westminster in a cloth cap, with a trumpeter blaring by his side.  It was otherwise, too, with another member, who, according to a London correspondent, unbuttoned his coat in the Lobby, showed his working suit, and declared that he had come straight from the engine shop hundreds of miles away from London!  Whatever the cause of the change, the old order has so given place to the new that men are now as free in the House of Commons as they are anywhere else to wear the hats and suits that suit them.


 
CHAPTER VII

THE LAWS OF THE STREET


PERHAPS a not uninteresting chapter might be made of the diversions in which the boys of the humbler classes were wont to find delight sixty or seventy years ago. "Boys will be boys," it is said, when any youthful escapade has to be excused.  And the boys of the period named, grandfathers of the present generation, were probably no better—they were certainly no worse—than the boys of our own time.  Fun and mischief are ineradicable from boyish nature.  None but the sour and distempered would wish to eradicate them.  At the same time, one might have expected—one undoubtedly hoped—that the training of School Boards would have resulted in obtaining from the young a greater respect for age and a greater consideration for infirmity than they seem disposed to render.  A change in that regard, if in no other, is desirable for the comfort of society.  But to the narrative.

    Our street was in Lower Dockum—a locality that is unknown even by name to the genteel residents in the parades and squares and crescents of Lansdowne and Pittville.  It had its laws and regulations, which were as rigidly enforced as the rules of social etiquette among the rich.  Never a new boy came into it but had to find his level.  If he submitted without fighting, he took rank below the least.  If he fought and failed, he would most likely have to fight again till his exact position was discovered.  Even if he fought and won, he would still have to go on fighting till he encountered the cock of the walk himself.  Great was the rejoicing—secret, but none the less sincere—of the other boys if he conquered in this final contest for supremacy, for the cock of the walk was often the little tyrant of the street.  I remember well what happened when a bully of the season, confident in his own strength and endurance, challenged a new boy to fight him with one hand.  The challenge was accepted; the new boy by a sudden rush sent the old one staggering to the ground; and the crowd of lesser boys who had tremblingly assembled to witness the combat saw with gratification that they had now a new master.  It was to some extent true then, as it is still, that the smaller and feebler lads in the street had to submit as best they could to the exactions and oppressions of the bigger and stronger.  But a code of honour was not unknown.  It was cowardly to use any other weapon than the fist, and it was still more cowardly to strike when your antagonist lay on the ground.  Years afterwards, I recollect Mr. Bradlaugh giving this advice to his son: "Never hit a littler boy than yourself, and never let a bigger boy hit you."  The general observance of that advice would help to put an end to the small tyrannies of the street.

    Combats were not infrequent between boys of different schools and localities, as well as boys in the same street.  Opprobrious nicknames were bestowed on each other by the scholars of the few schools in the town, such as "Capper's mice" or "Gardner's rats."  These nicknames were shouted across the street when a Capper's mouse caught sight of a Gardner's rat, or vice versa, and there an end, unless the derided boy took offence, in which case the offender would probably seek safety in flight.  But parties from the rival schools would sometimes meet by accident on neutral ground, when there would generally ensue a scrap of some sort, unless one side or the other exercised the better part of valour.  Worse troubles would arise if a boy belonging to one locality should wander away to a neighbourhood whose youthful inhabitants he or his companions had done or said something to outrage.  The lad in such an event could only avoid a buffeting by the free use of his legs, awaiting an opportunity for revenge when chance should place one of his tormentors in the same predicament.  Boy nature, as may be gathered, is not much different from dog nature.  Dogs and boys are both quiet enough till a stranger strays into what they think their territory.

    No small part of a bad boy's enjoyment is derived from witnessing the irritation of elderly people.  The more they can be vexed the more the bad boy is pleased.  Though we were not bad boys in our street—at least, not all of us—we used occasionally to play tricks which could not in any manner be commended.  Perhaps the worst was knocking at doors and then running away.  An improvement on this annoyance was facilitated by a peculiar arrangement.  Down the middle part of the street ran a dead wall.  A string attached to a knocker and carried over the wall was operated by little imps who couldn't be seen in the darkness.  How they chuckled and hugged themselves when the householder, shading a lighted candle with his hand, came to answer the knock!  The trick couldn't be tried many times before it was discovered.  Then the householder would appear, not with a candle, but with a thick cudgel.  And then the ingenious tormentors would have to fly round all the corners that afforded the best cover and concealment.  It was well for them if they were not caught.  Among the residents in our street whom the boys took a special delight in teasing was an irascible old shoemaker.  But "Old Jackson" had brought the trouble on himself, for he was in the habit of capturing and destroying the implements of the boys' play—their balls or their tops—when any of them came within his reach.  The irate shoemaker would have saved himself many a bad quarter of an hour if he had recognized that the street was the only playground, and that the innocent games of the boys were no real cause of offence to anybody at all.

    But the boys played tricks on each other quite as often as they did on their elders.  One trick of this kind was called "shoeing the wild colt."  It was never tried on anybody a second time, because the first lesson was sufficient for the dullest.  A victim having been found, the next thing was to select a convenient door.  The "wild colt," personated by the unhappy greenhorn, was tied to the handle; a pretence was made of shoeing him—sometimes his shoes were taken off; then, suddenly, there was a great banging at the door, and all the crafty little horse-breakers would scatter and disappear behind the shades of night.  If the poor colt could not release himself before the householder came to the door, there was a trial of strength between the boy outside and the party inside.  Of course the struggle ended in the triumph of the strongest.  What happened afterwards depended on the disposition of the victor.  If he had a spark of humour, a measure of kindness, or the least recollection of his own antics in boyhood, the fun was at an end.  If not—well, the poor little victim had a double penalty to pay.  The only consolation he had was that he would, some night later, assist in "shoeing a wild colt" himself.

    As a rule, the games of the boys of our street were quite free from blame or blemish.  There was nothing in the least wrong with marbles, peg-tops, whip-tops, kites, buttons, prisoner's base, rounders, shinney, foot-it, leap-frog, jump-a-jim-wagtail, and dozens of other modes of amusement.  Marbles were played in various ways—ring-taw, knuckle-hole, etc.  I suppose I must have been a bit of a dabster at ring-taw, since, when I got too old for marbles, I distributed among younger companions many hundreds of stone alleys with not a few agates.  Prisoner's base was a splendid running game which it would take too long to describe, while foot-it and leap-frog were jumping pastimes that are all too seldom played in these days.  Rounders was for poor lads what cricket was for the sons of the gentry.  Base-ball, so much in vogue in America, is just rounders, with the element of danger and injury superadded; while hockey, now greatly in favour even among ladies in England, is just our old game of shinney—only the top end of a broomstick served us for a bat, and a stake from the hedge-side did duty for a club.  The seasons for all games came in regular succession.  How they were regulated or who regulated them none of the boys ever knew.  But it was a law of the street that games could not be played at other than the appointed times without risk of forfeiting the materials of the pastime.  If, for instance, a party of lads were seen playing at ring-taw or knuckle-hole out of season, it was considered perfectly legitimate for another party of lads to appropriate all the marbles they could seize.  Whether the scramble became a scuffle depended, of course, upon which of the parties engaged in play or foray was the stronger.  But the curious thing was that there was a code of honour regulating even the scramble.  Raids occurred on the Borders whenever there was a deficiency in the larder; but raids on marbles or peg-tops were only legal when the season for playing with them had passed.

    All our amusements were not quite as innocent as rounders or leap-frog.  There was one which was considered the more successful the more mischievous the pranks played by the players.  It was called "vamping."  A single lad would challenge another to vamp him—that is, to do as daring feats, such as jumping from a high wall, as his challenger.  But the usual plan—I think it was sometimes called "follow-your-leader"—was for a company of boys to select the most adventurous among them, and then follow his lead in all that he did.  The tricks which this leader performed and which the rest repeated were often reprehensible, sometimes dangerous, nearly always annoying.  It was the element of danger, indeed, that gave spice to the game.  Perhaps, also, the vampers appreciated the fun because it almost invariably set some of the older people by the ears.  The leader, followed by his string of companions, would begin with a few very ordinary performances, gradually rise in audacity, and perhaps end up by doing damage to somebody's property.  Thus patting a lamp-post or running into a shop would be succeeded by knocking at doors and then knocking down tradesmen's goods.  The length to which the lads would go naturally depended upon the immunity they enjoyed and the forbearance of their victims.  A rush with a horse-whip or a walking-stick would probably disperse the vampers before they had done much mischief.  If uninterrupted, however, they would proceed from bad to worse till they became as veritable a terror as the Hooligans of our own time; for, be it understood, the new police force, at the period of which I am writing, was only just beginning to supersede the old watchmen and constables.  It ought to be said, even for the vampers, however, that the pranks they performed were merely a boisterous form of amusement, and that the annoyances which resulted from them were merely incidents of the play.

    I have made no mention of football in these recollections of boyhood, for the reason that football, like golf and lawn tennis, was not numbered among the popular pastimes of the period.  We used to hear of football, but only as a game that was played at the great public schools, such as Eton or Rugby.  Nor did it come into general favour till many years after I had ceased to be a boy.  Lawn tennis is in much the same case, except that it was not known even to schoolboys till the century had considerably passed middle age.  The pervading popularity of golf is of still more recent growth.  Golf was an ancient pastime in Scotland long before anybody in England took to it.  Now, however, it has spread everywhere, notwithstanding the profanity which seems to come naturally to everybody who wields a driver or a niblick.  The game of bowls was, of course, not for boys.  It is what is called an old man's game.  But it must have been played in our town from very early days, since a tavern in the suburbs bore the name of the Bowling Green, though no green was attached to it in my time.  The historic pastime, however, was still pursued in a neighbouring town—the picturesque old town of Tewkesbury.  There, at the rear of a delightful old tavern, was a green overlooking the Severn that commanded beyond as exquisite a prospect of rural peace and beauty as any spot in England.  But the laws of the street and the history of bowling are two such different matters that it is time to draw this chapter to a close.


 
CHAPTER VIII

SCHOOLS AND SCHOOLMASTERS


IT is not very easy for the present generation to realise the state of general education in the first half of the nineteenth century.  To be able to read and write was a distinction then.  Anybody who could do more was almost accounted a phenomenon.  I am speaking, of course, of the poorer classes.  All the other orders of society had chances which were denied to the poor.  For the masses of the people very few schools were provided, and the instruction imparted in them was of the commonest quality.  If a man was lamed or otherwise unfit for manual labour, he was often considered quite good enough for a schoolmaster.  One used to hear it seriously argued, too, that people who were not educated had better memories and made better workmen than people who were.  The idea was so prevalent even as late as the time of John Stuart Mill that that eminent thinker set himself to confute it.  It was, indeed, an era of ignorance, the era in which persons of sixty or seventy passed their earlier years.

    My own education, such as it was, was begun in a dame's school somewhere.  The fact would have passed out of recollection altogether if it had not happened that the old lady shook and touzled me in such a manner that I was led out into the back yard sick and ill.  But the dame's school doesn't count.  The Sunday School does, however, though the vague remembrances I retain of it are not pleasant.  It was connected with a Wesleyan chapel.  The small tradesman who conducted it was severe in his dealings with the children.  This is all I recollect about him, except an incident that may convey a moral for persons in similar authority.  He promised to call at our house to complain about something or other.  He did not call, and I never believed anything that he said after.  The only other circumstance in respect to the Sunday School that remains in my memory is the dreary time we children had of it when we were marched off to attend the morning service in the chapel.  Our seats were in the gallery, but so placed there that we could not see the preacher without standing up.  As we could not understand him either, for of course he was preaching to adults, we were restless and fidgety till the sermon was over.  The time of the sermon, indeed, was a time of purgatory.  The preacher whom I best remember became afterwards, I think, President of the Conference.  It was his practice to read his text, expound it, revert to it over and over again, and keep the Bible open at the verse or chapter till near the end of his discourse.  The boys had learned that the closing of the Bible was an infallible sign that the hour of their deliverance was at hand.  Boy after boy used, therefore, to stand up in his seat, peep over the gallery front, and steal a glance at the sacred volume.  If it was still open, the youthful peepers would sit down, sadder but not wiser boys.  When, however, the long-desired sign was seen, an eager whisper ran along the benches, "Book's shut!"  The jubilation of the little crowd was now so great that nothing but the knowledge of speedy relief could have kept them in order.  Perhaps this little incident also may convey a moral for persons concerned.

    There was a national school in our town—only one; also a British school—only one.  The latter was held under a chapel belonging to the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion; the former was, of course, connected with one of the Established Churches.  The Church of England, or some of the clergy of the Church of England, must be credited with originating and providing, as far as Cheltenham was concerned, almost the only effective facilities that existed for educating the people in the early years of last century.  The national school was founded by the National Society—a society which, supported by the clergy and adherents of the Established Church, rendered unmistakable service to a past generation.  Other religious bodies, however, soon followed suit, notably the Wesleyans.  But at the time of which I am speaking the only two schools for poor children were situated too far away to be available in my case.  So I was sent to one of the few private seminaries that then flourished in the town.  It was known as Gardner's Academy.

    The proprietor of this establishment was Joseph Aldan Gardner—a fiddler and dancing master as well as a teacher of youth.  Mr. Gardner had one distinct qualification for the office he had assumed.  He was a clever penman—the cleverest I have ever known.  Writing was almost the only accomplishment I acquired under his tuition.  But his cleverness with the pen unfitted him for other duties in the school.  Most of his time even in teaching hours was employed in producing elaborate specimens of his skill.  These specimens, executed with Indian ink on big sheets of cardboard, consisted of the usual flourishes, among which facsimiles of the business cards of the tradesmen of the town, with here and there the visiting cards of the gentry, were more or less artistically dispersed.  It was understood that the tradesmen whose names and callings were thus reproduced—the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker—paid the penman for the honour he had done them.  As for the specimens, they were, when completed, handsomely framed, exhibited in shop windows, and finally sold for a fair price.  But the schoolmaster at one time occupied in the estimation of his boys a secondary place in his own academy.  The first place was then held by a tame magpie, which performed the twofold duty of diverting the scholars and making an intolerable mess of benches, desks, and copy-books.  It need hardly be said that the education imparted in a school which was conducted in the free-and-easy fashion I have described was not of the highest or soundest quality.

    Most of the scholars, however, fared much better than I did.  The difference arose in this way.  My dear old grandmother was too poor to pay even the small fee required—sixpence or eightpence a week.  It was therefore agreed that she and her daughters should do an equivalent amount of laundry-work for the schoolmaster and his family.  The arrangement was not satisfactory so far as I was concerned.  Looked upon as belonging to a lower social grade than the boys who paid for their schooling in cash, I received much less attention than the other scholars.  I learnt how to read and write—that was all.  Cyphering should have come next, but did not.  All I recollect in respect to it is a gross piece of injustice from which I suffered.  I was set to do a certain sum without having received the least instruction as to the manner of doing it.  And I was told I was to be "kept in" till I had completed the task—manifestly impossible in my case, since I had no intuitive knowledge of arithmetic.  Wherefore, being left alone in the school-room, and knowing that I was utterly helpless, I did what any other boy would have done in the circumstances—I decamped without leave.  Next day an unmerciful flogging was administered.  The physical pain was soon forgotten, but the sense of wrong and outrage remained, and remains to this day.  It was probably the special and unfair treatment extended to me by Aldan Gardner that induced the fatal habit of "mooching," as playing the truant was called in our part of the country.  That habit once firmly rooted, there was not much chance of further improvement at Gardner's Academy.

    One of the locations of the academy was a rather large room that bore the name of Sadler's Wells.  It had been a place of entertainment, and it had taken its name from that once famous theatre in London where Mrs. Siddons had impersonated the heroines of Otway and Shakspeare, and where at a much later date, in the year of the Great Exhibition, I had the pleasure of seeing Phelps as the immortal misanthrope, Timon of Athens.  It was while the school was held in this old temple of the local drama that an incident occurred which marks the immense difference between that time and this in the matter of sanitary precautions.  The daughter of the schoolmaster fell ill of the small-pox.  The school was not closed, as it would have been in these days.  But, as the little girl wanted a playmate during the period of convalescence, I was selected to join her, because I had already suffered and recovered from the frightful disorder!  Whether other scholars were also immune I cannot now recollect.  It is probable that some were and some were not; for small-pox, as I shall have to explain later on, was as common then as many more ordinary and far less fatal ailments are now.

    These other scholars were for the most part the sons of small tradesmen in the town.  Only one of them, as far as I know, rose to any sort of eminence.  The exception was a little fellow—George Stevens, the son of a barber—who became known in later years as a steeplechase rider.  Poor George met a tragic death while still at the height of his successful career as a jockey, not in the pursuit of his profession, but in the course of a regular ride between the town and his own place among the Cleeve Hills.  He was thrown from his horse near a noted hostelry called the Rising Sun, and was found dead by the roadside.  I have pleasanter recollections of the jockey than of another of the barber's sons.  This youth was the first snob that had come within my ken.  Proud of his delicate white hands, he held them out before a party of his school-fellows, and challenged any boy in the company to say what he could: "These hands have never done an hour's work since they were made."  I do not know what the rest felt; but I held the little creature in ineffable contempt ever after.

    My school days at Gardner's Academy ended at a very early age.  A situation as errand boy at a bookseller's was then found for me.  A circulating library was attached to the business.  My duties were to clean boots and knives and brasses, and then carry books and magazines to the houses of the gentry who were subscribers to the library.  The occupation was not uncongenial (except that I used to get awfully tired and thirsty), for I was able to steal a peep at literature which would not otherwise have come within my reach.  The book that was then in the greatest demand, as I gathered from so often carrying it from one house to another, was Eliot Warburton's "Crescent and the Cross," and next to it, I think, came Tennyson's poems.  Pictorial advertisements of Dickens's "Chimes" were at this time (1844) exhibited at the bookseller's door.  The work at the library became at last too heavy for me.  And so I was sent for an all too brief season to school again.  The Wesleyans had lately built a new chapel—the date on the building is 1839—under which they opened a day school.  It was to this new school that I was sent.  The schoolmaster knew his business; the lessons were made intelligible; the classes were made interesting; the singing and other exercises were really entertainments.  Enormous was the contrast between the old school and the new.  There was no more mooching—no more the least desire to absent myself from form or desk.  It was a delightful time.  I verily believe I derived more advantage from the few months I spent under the Wesleyan master than from all the years I had spent under Aldan Gardner.  Alas! I had soon to relinquish the pleasure I derived from the instruction I was receiving.  The time had arrived when I must choose a trade, and begin the real business of life.  The regret felt at leaving school just when I was beginning to realise the benefit of schooling was speedily submerged by the new delight of mixing with men in a workshop.  I was a boy still, but I thought myself a man.  No other boy was half my importance; no man, even, strutted the streets with anything like the dignity I assumed during the first few weeks of my apprentice days.


 
CHAPTER IX

APPRENTICE DAYS


THE choice of a trade was a serious question—perhaps more for my grandmother than for me, since she had to make herself responsible for a burdensome premium.  There were family discussions on the subject.  I wanted to be an engraver; if not, then a saddler.  The reasons were curious.  Aldan Gardner had at least taught me to write well, and I was fond of copying printed letters; wherefore it was thought I would make a good engraver.  The saddler idea was suggested by the fact that an older boy of my acquaintance, for whom I had conceived considerable admiration, was apprenticed to that trade.  Efforts were made to procure a place at an engraver's; but the only firm at that time in the town had then no opening.  I was outvoted on the saddler question.  But the nearest thing to an engraver was a printer.  We compromised on that.  I became a printer.

    The result of much negotiation with the proprietor of the Cheltenham Journal—John Joseph Hadley—was that I was apprenticed to him for the term of seven years.  The indentures, drawn up by a lawyer, inscribed on parchment, and duly signed and witnessed, were dated June 6th, 1846.  It was rather a one-sided arrangement.  The legal expenses were needlessly heavy.  There was the lawyer's fee, and there was the cost of the stamp—one pound.  Worse than these things was the premium.  I was bound to serve John Joseph Hadley for seven years—the first year for nothing, all the other six years for very small wages; but my old grandmother bound herself to pay John Joseph Hadley no less a sum than fifteen pounds.  Fancy £15 for a poor old washerwoman!  It had to be paid in instalments, of course; but the obligation was discharged to the last penny.  Mr. Hadley had a long way the best of the deal.  I was to be taught the trade and craft of a printer.  As a matter of fact, I was taught little more than what I picked up myself, and that only in one branch of the business.  Seven years were no doubt the regulation term for such apprenticeships as mine; but seven years were at least two years longer than were absolutely required.  All the same, I had a fairly happy time, except during a period to be mentioned presently.  I completed the twenty first year of my age a good while before the expiration of my indentures.  I could then have claimed my freedom, as apprentices in like circumstances usually did; but I deemed it more honourable to observe the strict letter of the bargain, and so served my full term of seven years.

    The company into which a young lad is introduced when he begins his working career may be the making or the marring of his character.  There is something, but not everything, in old Robert Owen's doctrine, that man is the creature of circumstances.  It is certain that many men are of the nature of chameleons, taking their colour from their surroundings.  Nobody can question the immense advantage to a youth if he should be brought under wholesome influences in a workshop.  But there are despicable people who seem to take a delight in corrupting their younger companions.  Happily, on the other hand, there are decent people who endeavour to counteract the evil tendencies of the rest.  I was neither more fortunate nor more unfortunate than the common run of apprentices.  The men in our office were "much of a muchness."  One was as gruff as a Griffin—which, indeed, was his name; another was coarse and ugly and vain; a third was equally vain, and as vile in his habits as in his conversation.  The remaining three were honest, respectable men.  If I suffered no harm, I cannot honestly say that I derived any good, from contact with my fellows in the office.

    Of course I had to pay my "footing," and equally of course the proceeds of the exaction were spent on drink.  Drunkenness was prevalent then as now, but, I think, more prevalent now than then.  Strange are the depths to which even respectable men will descend when the means of indulgence can be had for the asking.  It was always the oldest and most respected man in our office who was detailed to lie in wait for the commercial travellers as they came round for orders.  It seemed to me even as a boy that the process was not only undignified, but contemptible.  It was beggary in its worst form, because hardly distinguishable from extortion.  We were printing a mad sort of book on the Prophecies for an eccentric and benevolent old gentleman in the town.  And we could always tell when the old gentleman was reading his proofs in the counting-house, from seeing through the office windows tribes of mendicants hiding and peeping round corners.  They were waiting to pounce upon their prey.  What better were the old and respectable printers who waited to intercept the representatives of the paper and ink firms who did business with the office?  But the odious system is still in vogue—indeed, has grown so much worse as to become intolerable.  "From the man who buys the ink to the man who minds the printing machine," a leading ink-maker has said, "there is an organized scheme for blackmailing the manufacturer."  Notice was therefore given by this gentleman's firm that from and after February 1st, 1900, it would not give itself nor allow any of its servants to give "chapel money," Christmas box, or wayzgoose subscription to anybody employed by its customers.  The proceeding may or may not crush out the vicious system; but it is quite certain that working men will never command the respect to which their calling entitles them as long as they descend to the tricks that were practised in my apprentice days.

    The gentleman to whom I was bound had many peculiarities—peculiarities of appearance as well as character.  He took snuff and wore frills.  The two are connected because the frills often bore traces of the snuff.  A serious man, too, was John Joseph Hadley.  I don't think I ever saw him laugh, except, as in duty bound, when the Rev. Francis Close told him the story of the old Jew clothes-man.  The sincerity of his religious convictions was shown in a way that caused infinite discomfort to all in the office.  The paper he owned and worked—for he always made up the formes himself—was a Church and King paper.  A picture of the Crown and the Bible adorned its title head-line.  It was published on Monday morning—an arrangement which would in ordinary cases necessitate Sunday labour.  But Mr. Hadley avoided the desecration of the Sabbath by obliging us to work till twelve o'clock on Saturday night and resume operations at twelve o'clock on Sunday night.  This preposterous regulation almost completely destroyed three days of the week, so far as any enjoyment or sensible pursuit was concerned.  Never shall I forget the misery I felt when I had to be roused at midnight, after having, as the result of three or four hours' tossing about in bed, just fallen asleep.  The very remembrance of the time is like a hideous nightmare.  Napoleon talked of the two o'clock in the morning kind of courage.  For my part, as a growing boy, I used to think that twelve o'clock at night was as good a time to be hung as any.

    My first duties as the youngest apprentice were to sweep out the office, ink small bill formes with dabber or roller, and deliver the newspaper to subscribers in the surrounding villages.  Blistered hands came from one of these operations, blistered feet from another.  When I went my rounds on Monday morning, I was given a few extra copies of the paper in case I should come across a purchaser on the road.  This, however, rarely happened; not so much, perhaps, because the paper was dear as because few people could read it.  The Taxes on Knowledge were in full operation at that time.  No newspaper could be published without the Government stamp, while a heavy duty was imposed on the raw material.  And so the public was required to pay fivepence for an article that contained only about an eighth part of the matter to be found in a penny paper of our own day.  The office swept, the papers delivered, and other odd jobs performed, I was set to pick up types—what we called "pie" in the first instance.  Pie is type put together anyhow for the convenience of distributing the letters into their proper boxes in the cases. [9]  But I considered myself a person of no small importance when, standing on a stool, I was put to set up a bit of reprint copy.  It was a humorous paragraph from a Gateshead paper—written, I have no doubt, by a gentleman (Mr. James Clephan) whose colleague I became in Newcastle many years later.  The very words of that paragraph I could recall long after, so highly did I rate my first achievement at "case."

    The machinery and appurtenances of the office were of a very primitive character compared with those of newspaper offices now.  Down in the cellar (in one corner of which, by the way, was the only convenience in the establishment) was an old wooden press, and a cylinder machine that was turned by a handle.  One man, with another to feed the machine and a boy to take off the printed sheets, could turn out the whole issue of the Journal in an hour.  The four pages of the paper were made up by old Mr. Hadley himself, who, when he ran short of matter or desired to curtail expenses, used to fill up a couple of columns of space with a huge standing advertisement of Grimstone's Eye Snuff—a patent commodity that has long since disappeared from the market.  The formes were locked up with wooden quoins and sidesticks, and then carried below to the machine.  One day a page was wrecked at the foot of the cellar stairs, whereupon a lad in the office pointed to the mass of pie and cried to the man who had been carrying the forme, "There it is, sir!"  But I daresay it will require a printer to understand the ludicrous humour of the incident.  Another feature of our working-day life that will be better understood by printers than by the public was the difficulty we experienced in working by candle-light.  The candles were fixed in little leaden sconces, which were in their turn fixed in the "c" box of the case.  When the candles guttered, as they did very often, for they were of the commonest quality, the box was filled with tallow and the air with imprecations.  It will be seen from all this that our office was a very old-fashioned affair.  We had old-fashioned ways, too, one of which was that of keeping a galley of standing headings for use when required.  A revolution broke out in Paris in the second year of my apprenticeship.  But there had been a revolution in Paris eighteen years before.  And there in 1848, among the standing headings on the galley, was a line in big type that had done duty in 1830—"The French Revolution."

    The office in which I served my time is no longer an office; the newspaper we printed has been dead many years; the family to which it belonged is no longer resident in the town.  The old gentleman passed away during the time I was an apprentice, while two of his sons, after continuing the paper till a few years before it expired, obtained appointments elsewhere—the elder on the staff of a Birmingham newspaper, the younger (Thomas Russell Hadley, a gentlemanly fellow to whom I was much attached) as chief reporter to an Australian Parliament.


 
CHAPTER X

HEROES OF THE STAGE


EARLY in my apprentice days I came under the influence of the drama.  It was the travelling, not the regular drama.  I was entitled to threepence a week pocket-money.  All went in a ticket for the back seats.  Every Saturday night in the season, as I left work at twelve o'clock, I used to climb up a spout to read by the light of a street lamp the names of the plays that were to be performed the following week.  It would, of course, have been intolerably tantalising if, with the playbills about the town, I had had to wait till Sunday to learn the fare for Monday.  If I was impatient to see the name of the play, it need not be said that I was still more impatient to see the play itself.  Monday was my only night for the drama.  Having started work at midnight on the Sunday, I was not required on the Monday to continue at work till eight o'clock, the usual hour of happy release on the other days of the week.  So I was always in good time for the rise of the curtain.  Luckily for me, with my small allowance of coppers, there were no early doors then.

    The drama, as I have said, was not the regular drama.  There had been no regular drama since the regular theatre had been burnt down.  The ruins of the burnt building, blocked up with boards, were still to be seen in another part of the town.  I had promised in my indentures that I would not "haunt taverns or playhouses."  But a booth was not a playhouse.  As booths were not mentioned in the indentures, I assumed that I was quite at liberty to haunt them.  Anyhow, I did haunt them as often as they came round.  The best known of these enterprises was Hurd's. [10]  It had its regular circuit, and it came round at regular intervals.  Hurd's Theatre was as famous in Gloucestershire as Prince Miller's in Scotland or Billy Purvis's in Northumberland.  The booth was set up in an inn yard—the Nag's Head or the King's Arms.  An outside show always drew a big crowd.  It was the custom of the performers—comedians, tragedians, acrobats, and ballet dancers—to parade up and down an open platform, dressed in all their stage finery, with the view of inducing the spectators to walk up and see the wonders to be presented within.  The outside show was sometimes supplemented by the offer of prizes for the boys who, stripped to the waist and with hands tied behind their backs, could soonest eat the treacle rolls that were suspended from a rope across the platform.  This was before the days of paraffin lamps.  The platform was illuminated by great pans of blazing grease, which had now and then to be stirred up with an iron rod, and which, when thus stirred up, threw out almost as much black smoke as it did flame, accompanied by a penetrating and suffocating stench that set the poor actors and actresses a-coughing.  The inside arrangements were just as primitive as those outside.  A couple of hoops, fitted with sconces for eight or ten tallow candles, and hung from the roof of the booth, afforded all the light that was thrown upon the stage.  As the performance proceeded, the light grew more and more dim, till the audience, scarcely able to discern one actor from another, raised loud cries of "Snuff the candles."  Then an old super would lower the hoops by means of a piece of twine, doing what was required, sometimes with his fingers and sometimes with a pair of snuffers, and the next act of the drama could be better seen.  Of course, if any of the audience stood or sat under the "chandeliers," they ran a pretty good chance of getting their best clothes soiled and spoiled with droppings from the "long sixes" above them.

    It was while I was so standing that I was induced, or rather compelled, to make my "first appearance on any stage."  Though I was a very small boy at the time, I remember the whole occurrence perfectly.  The great attraction of the evening's entertainment, sandwiched between the farce which began and the tragedy which concluded it, was a series of conjuring tricks by Ramo Samee, described on the bills of the play as "the celebrated Indian juggler."  After he had executed some astonishing feats, such as swallowing a sword, producing endless articles from an empty hat, and so forth, the magician intimated as usual that he wanted a lad from the audience to assist him in the next item of the programme.  Thereupon the tragic actor, who also was standing under the candles, without leave asked or granted, lifted me on to the stage.  I was terrified—terrified of the juggler, but perhaps still more terrified by the sight of the sea of faces surrounding me; for, besides the audience in front, the members of the stock company were gathered at the wings.  Terrified as I was, however, I seemed to understand what Ramo Samee wanted.  And Ramo Samee himself must have known from previous experience exactly how any small boy would act in the circumstances.  Well, seating me on the floor beside him, the juggler told me to open my mouth and keep it open.  Of course, I was too frightened to disobey orders, not even though I half-suspected that he was going to make me swallow a sword too.  But it was an egg, and not a sword, that I was expected to gulp down.  The egg was produced, thrown into the air, and caught as it descended.  The hand which caught it was suddenly clapped over my wide-open mouth.  "Did ye swallow it?" cried the Indian in an Irish accent.  Fearing that unutterable things would befall me if I did not give the answer he required, I stuttered out, "Y-e-e-s."  The feat was received with thunders of applause.  More thunders followed when Ramo, fiddling about his involuntary assistant's ear, feigned to extract from it, not only the egg, but yards and yards of coloured ribbon.  It was my first appearance on the stage—and the last.

    The actors and actresses who formed the company of that canvas booth in an inn yard were veritable heroes and heroines to the lads and lasses who watched and wondered in the back seats.  Tommy Hurd was the leading comedian.  Never did he speak without setting the house in a roar.  What Tommy had said and what Tommy had done in the farce we had seen on Monday lasted me and my companions for delightful conversation the whole of the week afterwards.  But the tragedian and his wife—Mr. and Mrs. Maclean—were held by us in special awe and reverence.  If we met them in the street, as we often did, we followed them at a respectful distance, admiring every strut and movement.  If they looked at us, we were as proud as Punches; if they had spoken to us, it would have been heaven; if they had shaken us by the hand or patted us on the head, we should have gone clean crazy.  These two great actors—for they were the greatest we had seen, or ever expected to see—played the leading parts in a piece which had a strange and alarming effect on the mind of one of their youthful admirers.  The story might as well be told.

    There is an incident in the second chapter of Hall Caine's "Manxman" so perfectly true to boyish life that one cannot help thinking it is really part of the author's own experience.  The incident is an adventure in which two of the chief characters in the novel are concerned—how Philip and Pete, having been fired by reading the story of the Carrasdoo men, set about becoming pirates and wreckers themselves; how they wandered away to a cave on the seashore; how they there kindled a fire with the object of decoying unwary mariners on to the rocks; how, while dozing and blinking by the fire, they heard voices from the sea which they at first mistook for the voices of betrayed and perishing sailors; and how it turned out that the voices were those of relatives in search of the young wreckers themselves, one of whom was coddled and the other welted back to their respective homes.  "Aw, yes," as a Manxman would say, "I have gone through the same sort of performance myself, though."  The story of the Carrasdoo men had much about the same effect on Pete and Philip as the drama of the "Miller and his Men" had on the writer of this narrative.  As the lads in the "Manxman" tried to become pirates and wreckers, so was this other lad inspired with a wish to become the chief of a band of brigands.  The drama was a stock piece of the blood-and-thunder sort.  It was played as an afterpiece to "Romeo and Juliet" at Covent Garden Theatre on a famous occasion in 1829—the occasion when Fanny Kemble made her débût as Juliet, and so took the town by storm that she retrieved the fortunes of her father, then the lessee of the theatre.  And it was played again at the Haymarket later, when, as Sir F. C. Burnand informs us, it was ever so much more funny than a burlesque of it that was produced at the Strand.  It remained popular in the provinces long after it had disappeared from the London boards, and in the canvas booths long after it had ceased to be performed in the regular theatres.  Thus the horrible misdeeds of Grindolf, the miller, were represented by Mr. Hurd's dramatic company in the later forties.  The chief character was personated by our great tragedian, Mr. Maclean, while his wife, of course, was the miller's companion in desperate adventure.  Marvellous was the impression the play produced, notwithstanding the dire climax of the drama, when mill and miller, maid and men, were all blown up together!  "Aw, yes, I would become a robber myself, though."  A little girl who used to frequent the back seats was to be the "maid of the mill."  So earnest and enthusiastic did the young playgoer grow that he bought a pistol in preparation for the enterprise.  Moreover, knowing that robbers would need to accustom themselves to work while their victims were asleep, he wandered into the suburbs at night, away from the lamps and the shop-lights, in order to overcome the fears and terrors that were always in his mind associated with darkness.  But these expeditions were not very successful; for the embryo chieftain of a robber gang was, as I can testify, always mighty glad to get back to the town again.  As for the pistol, which was the only appurtenance of the bandit profession he ever acquired, it was borrowed by another lad, who said he wanted it for an amateur performance, and was never seen afterwards.

    That the imaginative youth who longed to set all the world wondering with his fiendish exploits did not develop into a meek and weak sort of Hooligan was probably due to the fact that he took a serious turn before he was two years older.  But he did not cease to take interest in the drama, as may be gathered from his recollections of Barry Sullivan and Ira Aldridge, who both appeared at an improvised theatre in the town somewhere about 1853.  Barry Sullivan, then a tall, slim young fellow, played Hamlet; Ira Aldridge, being a negro, played Othello without needing to blacken his face.  Sullivan became a great favourite in the provinces; Aldridge travelled and performed in almost all parts of the world.  Bayard Taylor, the American traveller, records that one of the strangest spectacles he ever saw was a black man playing an English tragedy to a Tartar audience at the great fair of Nijni-Novgorod in the interior of Russia.  The black man was Ira Aldridge.


[Next Page]

_________________________


FOOTNOTES.


9.     There is a story of a Leicester journalist who, when an accident had occurred on the eve of publication, went to press with a column of pie, preceded by this intimation—"Our Dutch mail has just arrived.  Having no time to translate the despatch, we give it in the original."

10.   
 A clerical friend suggests that I may have made a mistake here.  Horde, he says, was the name of a showman who regularly visited Taunton and the neighbourhood in the forties.  It is just possible that my friend's showman and mine were one and the same person.

 


 

[Home] [Up] [American Cousins] [Miscellanea] [Main Index] [Site Search]

Correspondence should be sent to Webmaster@Gerald-Massey.org.uk