PENNY DREADFULS AND CHEAP LITERATURE
THE popular literature of the first half of the
century was as scant in quantity as it was for the most part poor in
quality. It is true there was no overpowering demand for literature
of any sort, for the reason, as already indicated, that the masses of the
people were unable to read. Creditable, but perhaps not altogether
successful, efforts were made by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful
Knowledge to supply such want as existed. The Penny Magazine,
which was issued by that society, was full of facts, often very dry
facts—interesting, but not enlivening. Charles Knight, William
Howitt, and William and Robert Chambers tried to do better, and succeeded
in doing better. The publications of the Messrs. Chambers suited the
popular taste then, as some of them suit the popular taste now.
There was and is so judicious a blending of light and heavy literature in
Chamber's Journal that that periodical has helped to educate,
inform, and entertain many generations of the British public.
Whenever it came in my way, as it did sometimes, I revelled in its pages.
The Penny Magazine also was a great delight on the rare occasions
that I saw it. But I remember best the Family Herald,
Reynolds's Miscellany, and Lloyd's "penny dreadfuls."
Excepting "Pilgrim's Progress," "Gulliver's Travels," and the
"Arabian Nights," I saw and read none of the books which entrance young
minds. The religious meaning of the first, the satirical meaning of
the second, and the doubtful meaning of the third were, of course, not
understood. The story was the great thing—the trials of Christian,
the troubles of Gulliver, the adventures of Aladdin. "Robinson
Crusoe" was never accessible till late in life, when the taste for such
productions had departed. So with "Don Quixote," Captain Cook's
voyages, and Mungo Park's travels. There are certain books which
must be read at the period of life suitable for enjoying them, else they
are rarely enjoyed at all—never with the gusto they would have excited at
the proper season. Great, therefore, was the disadvantage that poor
boys of my age and condition suffered. But great was our delight,
too, when chance opportunities came in the way of such of us as could
read. An opportunity of this kind arrived when a firm of printers in
London, sometime about 1844 or 1845, brought out a penny Shakspeare—a play
of Shakspeare's for a penny! Well do I remember this cheap treasure.
It was my first introduction to the great bard. Gracious! how I
devoured play after play as they came out! I was a poor errand boy
at the time. When on my errands I used to steal odd moments to read
my penny Shakspeare. A painful incident—inexpressibly painful to me
at the time—arose out of this habit. One day another lad—a bit of a
rogue I knew—asked to look at the play I was reading. Out of pure
devilment (for he couldn't read himself) he refused to return it. I
followed him through many streets, thinking he was playing a joke, and
imploring him to give me back my precious property. But I never saw
the little book again. To this day the remembrance of grief and
mortification is as vivid as ever. The scene, the book, the
thief—all are clearer now than greater events of yesterday. The
popular reading of the time was not all as elevating and as wholesome as
Bunyan, or Shakspeare, or even Swift. Much of it, indeed, was the
very reverse. At a period when newspapers were five or six times the
price they are now, and when village innkeepers found it a payable custom
to let them out on hire for a penny an hour, stories of the "penny
dreadful " class were issued in weekly parts. The publisher was
Edward Lloyd. Mr. Lloyd was the legitimate successor of the old
Alnwick printer—Catnach of the Seven Dials. He began business as the
printer of sheets that were hawked and sold by the "flying
stationers"—records of prize-fights, of murders, of executions, and of
what purported to be "last dying speeches and confessions." Then, as
time went on, he issued whole libraries of fiction, started many
periodicals, and established two important and successful journals.
When he died in 1890, he was the proprietor of great paper mills at
Sittingbourne, of a great London daily, and of the well-known weekly that
bears his name. The latter venture was as successful as any of his
enterprises. It was so successful that he was enabled to pay Douglas
Jerrold, the most famous wit of his age, a salary of a thousand a year for
little more than the mere use of his name as editor. Lloyd's fiction
was always of the strongest and most sensational character. The
publisher knew how to select stories that would make the blood curdle and
the flesh creep—also how to select the authors who could write them.
Next to the selection of a strong story was the selection of a strong
title. Mr. Lloyd and his writers were equal to this too. The
names of a few of the stories, all of which, as will be seen, have
subsidiary titles relating to mystery or bloodshed, may give an idea of
the intellectual food on which the masses of the people were fed in the
Ada the Betrayed, or the Murder at the Old Smithy.
Adele, or the Pirates of the Isle.
The Curse, or the Outlaws of the Old Tower.
The Old Monastery, or the Deed of Blood.
Gonzalo the Bandit, or the Bereaved Father.
Olivie, or the Mysteries of Pigani Castle.
The Black Monk, or the Secret of the Grey Turret.
Alice Home, or the Revenge of the Blighted One.
The Black Mantle, or the Murder at the Old Ferry.
The Smuggler King, or the Foundling of the Wreck.
Villeroy, or the Horrors of Zindorf Castle.
Many of those terrifying narratives were published in
Lloyd's Penny Weekly Miscellany of Romance and General Interest.
Others were issued in weekly instalments. The latter were
illustrated with rude woodcuts. One of these woodcuts haunted me for
years after I had first seen it. A masked robber, holding a dark
lantern in one hand and an uplifted dagger in the other, was seen creeping
towards a bed on which an old gentleman, with his arms outside the quilt
and a tasseled nightcap on his head, lay sleeping. I could see and
hear the rest of the tragedy—the stealthy tread of the robber, the sudden
plunge of the dagger, the blood-stained bedclothes, the dying groans of
the night-capped victim. Another picture also haunted me. It
was one of the illustrations to "Villeroy." The vaults of a castle;
a trapdoor evidently leading to the dungeons below; the villain of the
story, or rather one of the villains of the story, peering into the depth
by the light of a mediæval lamp.
The very attitude and costume of the villain are before me now. A
stage attitude, wide-topped boots, trunk hose, slashed doublet, belt
studded with daggers, slouch hat and long feathers—every detail is there.
The pictures rivalled each other in horror. I retain a vivid
recollection of the "fearful joy" I used to snatch from them every week
through the window of a small newsvendor's shop in the town. I was
too poor to buy the serials myself; but I borrowed from somebody a bound
copy of "Villeroy, or the Horrors of Zindorf Castle." It is of this
specimen of penny dreadful literature that the most vivid remembrances
The romance was appropriately named, because it was filled
with horrors from the first page to the last. Where Zindorf Castle
was supposed to be situated I cannot now recollect; but I do recollect
that it was supplied with the usual assortment of secret doors, secret
passages, and secret dungeons. The villainous personages that passed
through these doors, the crimes that were committed in these passages, and
the sufferings that were endured in these dungeons, were depicted and
combined in such a manner as to make the young reader, if not the old,
dream dreadful dreams when he went to bed. One never-to-be-forgotten
evening was spent in the company of the occupants of Zindorf Castle.
The elder people were all engaged in an adjoining outhouse, so that I was
left alone in the family room—kitchen and sitting-room in one.
There, by the light of a tallow candle (for we had neither gas nor oil
lamps in those days), the development of the drama was followed with
absorbing interest and terror. As crime succeeded crime, as villain
followed villain, the nervous and excited reader fancied that one or other
of the robbers and murderers who danced through the pages of the romance
would suddenly make his appearance in person. So entirely did this
idea obtain possession of his morbid and juvenile mind that he took the
precaution of placing the carving knife on the table beside him!
When he went to bed that night, he buried his head deep under the sheets,
dreamt of thieves and cutthroats, and woke next morning to dream again all
day of the horrors of Zindorf Castle. Ah! poor lads of sixty years
ago—such of them as could read at all had to be satisfied with literary
matter of a parlous character. And yet—and yet—I don't know that the
lads of the present day, with all their advantages, are really any better
than we were.
It may be that stories of the "Villeroy " stamp, like the
chap-books of the period, encouraged and developed the taste for reading;
and the taste for reading, once acquired, came in due course to need
higher pabulum to satisfy it. Before it could be satisfied, a
complete revolution in companionship became necessary. Frequent
occasions had arisen for feeling dissatisfied with the chums of my
boyhood—once particularly when some of them, having taken a bird's nest,
tore the little fledglings to pieces. Protests provoked only
laughter and scorn. Other incidents occurred to produce
estrangement. Some of the lads had already begun to contract bad
habits. Was there not a danger that bad habits would be contracted
by all the rest? I resolved to sever the connection. One
Sunday afternoon the usual call was made for a ramble in the fields.
Word was sent to the callers that their old companion was not going to
join them. I heard from an upper room, not without a certain amount
of tremor, their exclamations of surprise. They wandered off into
the fields in one direction; I, with a new companion, wandered off into
the fields in another. My new companion was Young's "Night
Thoughts." The old companions were never joined again. A new
life had begun.
CODDLING AND CULTURE
ALL the old reformers fought hard for education—the
education of the people at the expense of the people. The fight was
hopeless till the franchise was extended. "Education for all," I
wrote myself in a little pamphlet entitled "An Argument for Complete
Suffrage," printed at Manchester in 1860, "is an inevitable consequence of
the enfranchisement of all." And I was right. The extension of
the suffrage was very soon followed by the multiplication of schools. But
schools have been multiplied without producing the great and beneficial
results that ardent reformers expected from them—hence disappointment. The
people are educated—educated at great cost—but they are neither better nor
wiser than the people who were left to educate themselves.
There has been coddling [Ed.—treating with excessive
indulgence] as well as culture. But coddling is not
necessary—isn't even desirable—nay, is positively pernicious. It
corrupts the character, prevents the development of self-reliance, makes
no distinction between the fit and the unfit. It will, in the end,
if unchecked, prove disastrous to society. Coddling is costly also.
The coddling of the London School Board, for example, costs the ratepayers
of London a million sterling per annum—an average, it was computed in
1899, of £28 per child, or eleven shillings per week, which is about the
wages of an agricultural labourer in many parts of the country! "And
yet," said a leading journal, "the parents of one child in five won't have
the Board's education even at this price." If the money were well
spent, there would not, perhaps, be much objection to the vast outlay.
But is it? This is a question for experts. The unfairness,
however, would remain. Many a struggling parent who pays for the
education of his own children, though he is perhaps less able to do it
than many of those whose children are taught at the public expense, can
only afford for the purpose £10 a year each. Again, the cost of a
thing is not always a criterion of its value. My own education never
cost much more than sixpence a week. It was not much of an
education, but it sufficed. It supplied me at any rate with the
tools of knowledge. And the tools of knowledge are about all that
the State ought to be expected to provide gratis, except in the case of
promising and deserving scholars. Given these tools, the child can
work out its own career. Gilt-edged tools can do no more—not even
such gilt-edged tools as dancing and deportment. It is well to
educate the people, but the tendency of much of the School Board policy of
the day is to pauperise the people. Yet School Boards ought, above
all things, to beware of undermining the independence of the individual.
That lost, the nation becomes little better than a machine—a mere affair
of cogs and wheels.
We managed these things better in the forties. And we
had no Hooligans either. I was myself, I daresay, the nearest
approach to that undesirable character. We who were poor had few
facilities—no free scholarships, no subsidies from Government, no classes
supported by public funds; but those among us who had learnt to read and
write could employ our advantages to acquire what else we desired.
Every avenue of culture was open to us if we had the perseverance and the
capacity to penetrate it. We had, as I have said, the tools of
knowledge. Having these, it depended entirely upon ourselves what
use should be made of them—whether, in fact, they should be used at all,
or left to rust and decay. Some of us kept our tools bright and keen
with constant friction; others neglected them as they would have neglected
the widest education itself. A lad of finer parts would, of course,
have turned to better account the small benefits received from school.
But I was only a very ordinary lad—gifted with nothing more than a desire
to shine and a sort of feverish activity in the way of realising it.
An old diary of the period, when I was off with the old companions and had
for some time been on with the new, records classes or meetings every
night in the week except when work detained me at the office.
If I did not at that time educate myself, I at least did the
next best thing—I tried to. English grammar was picked up from
Cobbett; the lessons in Cassell's Popular Educator afforded some
insight into Latin; French was studied from the same pages in conjunction
with another youth; and arrangements were made with an enthusiastic
disciple of Isaac Pitman  to plunge into the depths
of phonography, when a change of circumstances cast these and all other
educational projects to the winds. Cobbett's Grammar has long since
been superseded by newer treatises; but it is still an intensely
interesting work, if only because of the characteristic way in which the
author makes political friends and political foes supply examples and
illustrations of good and bad English. John Cassell, a vendor of
coffee and a lecturer on temperance, had tried several small ventures in
periodical literature before he commenced his famous Educator.
One of these was the Family Friend—a pleasant and cheerful
publication in which Parson Frank stirred up the ambitious instincts of
the young people of the day. But the Popular Educator was the
great enterprise. It came out in weekly parts. It was badly
printed, and was full of blunders and blemishes; but it contained lessons
to suit all aspiring tastes, and satisfied the requirements of the young
folks in a manner they had never been satisfied before. Most of the
self-educated people of my age and of later generations owe a deep debt of
gratitude to John Cassell. It was with such aids as have been
indicated, together with readings and scribblings at odd moments of the
day or night, that the desire for knowledge was in some manner gratified.
There was flourishing in Cheltenham in my young days a rather
exclusive society—exclusive, I mean, in being beyond the reach of poor
boys—known as the Philosophical Institution. It has gone the way of
many similar societies—the way, also, of most of the old mechanics'
institutes; but the handsome building in the Promenade, modelled on the
outside after a Greek temple, retains a precious place in my memory, from
the lectures I heard there on literary and scientific topics.
Tickets of admission occasionally came my way. When they did, they
were highly appreciated. The lecturers, as the title of one of
Browning's poems runs, were "people of some importance in their day."
Dr. Wright, a resident physician, and the Rev. T. W. Webb, a Gloucester
clergyman, frequently elucidated branches of the sciences on which they
were distinguished authorities—geology and astronomy. Charles Cowden
Clarke came now and then to lecture on the poets, George Dawson to expose
the weaknesses and foibles of mankind, and Clara Lucas Balfour to tickle
the cultivated tastes of the members on matters of a light and airy
character. George Dawson—George Dawson, M.A., as he was always
described in the programmes—was probably the most popular lecturer of the
middle years of the century, while Mrs. Balfour, mother of the unhappy and
unscrupulous Jabez Balfour, enjoyed the distinction of being about the
first lady to make a reputation on the platform. Of the former—his
"raucous voice," his sarcastic humour, his conversational style, and his
general appearance—I retain the clearest recollection. I do not
think any lecturer of my time in the matter of quiet ease and entertaining
power ever quite came up to Dawson's standard.
But the institutions of a more modest (and I regret to say
more ephemeral) character—more suited to our humble means, I mean—were
either started by us, or were warmly supported by us after they had been
started. One was held under a Baptist Chapel; another in the vestry
of the Unitarian Chapel; a third in a private house that had been
purchased for the purpose by the agent of one of the political parties in
the town. The Baptist Chapel affair was chiefly memorable to me from
the engagement of a strange and eccentric person—a great rogue as it
turned out afterwards—who professed to teach us elocution; but the story
of his eccentricities and his rogueries must be told in a later chapter.
The minister of the Unitarian Chapel had been the Rev. Henry Solly, who
devoted many years of his later life to the task of founding Working Men's
Clubs in all parts of the country, and who, when he was over eighty years
of age, published his memoirs in two interesting volumes. 
It was, however, under Mr. Solly's successor—the Rev. John Dendy, a
son-in-law of the Rev. Dr. Beard of Manchester—that we were granted the
use of the vestry for the meetings of the Cheltenham General Literary
Unfortunately, the union was not a success, though many
advantages accrued to the members from their evening chats and readings
under its auspices. The longest lived of our societies was the
People's Institute. The house in which it was held—21, Regent
Street—became rather notorious afterwards on account of the use that was
alleged to have been made of it in the manufacture of faggot votes [Ed.—the
manipulation of the electoral register]. But the place was very
popular in my time. The management was sufficiently catholic to
allow all sorts of movements to be conducted in its rooms. Even
Chartist meetings were held there. I presided over some of these
meetings myself, although a mere boy at the time. Books and
newspapers could be read in one of the rooms; classes for the study of
various subjects were held in other rooms; debates on topics of current
interest or speculative value took place once a week; and occasionally
essays that had been awarded prizes in competition were read by the
ingenious writers. We were fond of controversy in those days, some
of us because we wanted to propagate what we thought were new ideas.
Many a time and oft, after floundering about in a maze of confusion in the
debating class, have we delivered wonderful speeches on the way home,
overpowering in argument and eloquence, confounding our opponents, and
establishing as on a rock the principles for which we had been contending!
But our thirst for controversy was not satiated by the weekly
debate. We had a little magazine of our own—the British
Controversialist, which ran into several volumes, and to which we
contributed papers on the negative or positive side of the questions which
the editor selected. My own gratification at the acceptance of a
paper on Mahomet was much marred when I came to read the production in
print—shamefully and brutally disfigured by the editor's improvements!
It did not occur to me then that I should in after-years have to
shamefully and brutally maltreat the productions of a younger generation
of aspirants. We wrote essays, too. The prizes that were
offered for the best were only just sufficient to encourage effort.
An amusing entry relating to this matter, dated July 13th, 1850, may be
quoted from an old diary:—"Proposed to raise essay fund, and to subscribe
one shilling towards it." The entry has no interest except as
showing the poverty of our resources and the bent of our inclinations.
A very big scheme was initiated, however, when Boswell's "Life of Johnson"
and two smaller books were offered as prizes for the three best essays on
the "Advantages of Knowledge." The competition in this case was only
remarkable because the award was made by a clergyman of the Church of
England, the Rev. F. J. Foxton, author of the "Popular Christianity"—a
neo-theological work of some repute in its day. 
With the desire for culture there had come a passion for
politics. This passion was stimulated by the French Revolution of
1848. I was a reader of Reynolds's Miscellany. One day,
soon after the proclamation of the Republic in France, there appeared in
it a picture of the members of the Mountain—Ledru Rollin, Louis Blanc,
Pierre Leroux, Victor Schœlcher, and the
other ardent Republicans and Socialists who composed the Extreme Left of
the National Assembly. The picture was followed by the announcement
of a new publication—Reynolds's Political Instructor. It
supplied what some of us wanted, though not all that the most insurgent
among us longed for. But the stirring events in Paris and the newer
literature that began to be issued sent the young men of my age wild with
excitement and enthusiasm. I had previously read the "Rights of Man"
and other political works of Thomas Paine, which had seduced me from bed
at five o'clock for many mornings in succession. And now I was
fairly in the maelstrom.
THE DISEASES OF OTHER DAYS
THE diseases of one age may cease to afflict the
next. Much depends upon conditions independent of human will or
control: much also upon the good sense men and women exercise in applying
the results of experience. Leprosy has disappeared—from the British
Islands at all events. Why should not other maladies—those, for
instance, which are undoubtedly generated by the improper feeding of
infants? The ignorance of other days was often the cause of the
diseases of other days. Our great-grandfathers cared nothing about
ventilation, nor very much about sanitation either, as may be gathered
from the horrible arrangement that lasted all through my apprenticeship in
the printing office of a Cheltenham newspaper. Every person who
could afford it luxuriated in a four-post bedstead. And curtains
were drawn closely around the sleeper so as to exclude every breath of
fresh air. The consequences to our ancestors of thus inhaling for
hours together the atmosphere they had themselves contaminated can readily
be understood in these times. Is it any wonder that they suffered
from complaints which are hardly known even by name now? As we
increase in knowledge and in the wisdom to use it, healthier lives will be
lived by the people. But we have not yet discarded the prejudices
that fettered our predecessors. Moreover, it may be, we are by new
habits and vices planting the seeds of fresh penalties for the races that
are to come.
It sometimes happens that old disorders, coming at infrequent
intervals, are accounted new. This, I imagine, was the case when an
epidemic of influenza reappeared after an interval of many years.
People talked of it as if it had never been heard of before. Their
elders, however, knew better. But the same fallacies were current in
my young days. I remember hearing then of a terrible disorder.
It was called influenza; but it was thought and said to be something that
had not previously afflicted mankind. Yet visitations of exactly the
same mischief seem to have been recorded in the Middle Ages. No such
mistake was made with respect to cholera. That terrible affliction
paid many visits to England during the last century. It is a
singular fact, however, that it always left Cheltenham untouched.
The circumstance that it did so, as I have recorded in a previous chapter,
was inferentially ascribed by the Rev. Francis Close to the appeals for
the intercession of the Almighty that had been offered up in the parish
church. But the reverend gentleman was not so emphatic on the
subject as was his colleague, the Rev. Archibald Boyd, on the subject of
the sudden death of the Czar Nicholas during the Crimean war.
Preaching at Christ Church, Mr. Boyd told his congregation that he
regarded the event as a distinct answer to prayer. "Only a fortnight
ago," he said, "the people had assembled in the house of God, and bowed
themselves before Him in humble supplication. But none of us could
have dreamt in what way our prayers would be answered. None of us
could have imagined that, ere ten days had passed, the Angel of Death
would come and lay his icy hand on the proud Nicholas and lay him in the
dust." A much more rational explanation of the immunity of
Cheltenham was given later by a German medical writer, that the reason it
was not visited by cholera in 1832 was in consequence of the abundance of
trees in its streets and squares and gardens. But indeed the place
has been singularly salubrious at all times; in testimony whereof the
local historian records on August 4th, 1860—"Only five persons were buried
in Cheltenham this week out of a population of 40,000. The united
ages of these five were 399 years, or an average of 8o years each."
But neither trees nor prayers could save the people from
visitations of small-pox. That loathsome disease made regular,
frequent, almost constant appearances in England in the earlier part of
the century. It was reckoned among the inevitable ailments of
childhood or maturity—as certain to come as teething itself. Since
it was impossible to escape the dreadful affliction, the virus was
deliberately implanted in infants. An entry in the Annals of the
Northern Counties for October 21st, 1787, reads thus:—"The Duchess of
Northumberland arrived in Newcastle, from whence she went to Heaton Hall,
one of the seats of Sir Matthew White Ridley, where her children underwent
inoculation for the small-pox." The practice that was favoured by
the faculty in the eighteenth century continued in favour with the
populace down to near the middle of the nineteenth. Old people in my
time came to the conclusion that the best thing to do was to meet the
disease halfway: so they prepared their children with purgatives—brimstone
and treacle chiefly—in order, as they said, to purify the blood, and then
got the patients inoculated. The children who were subjected to this
treatment were not placed in the hands of doctors or even druggists.
A relative of my own, a very worthy woman, who, however, was not
acquainted with even the elements of medicine or surgery, performed many
of these operations for her neighbours. And she continued to perform
them till one of her patients had the narrowest escape from death.
Afraid then of the consequences of continuing the service, she inoculated
no more. I was myself subjected to the process. And I suffered
from so severe an attack of the malady that I bore the traces of it for
many years, as did thousands of other people in my younger days. And
now the visitations of the foul plague are so rare that the present
generation hardly knows what "pock-marked" means.
The immunity enjoyed in our day is attributed to vaccination;
but vaccination is so curious and out-of-course a process that large
numbers of good folks, not understanding the mystery, have an incurable
prejudice against it. Here I may record another fact within my own
experience. A baby of a few months old suffered from a horrible
eruption. For many months the poor mother could not fondle it—could
hardly touch it, in fact, except to wash and poultice it. For weeks
and weeks, indeed, the little sufferer had to be carried about on a
pillow. "Ah!" said the neighbours, when they saw it, "that comes of
vaccination." But the infant had not been vaccinated at all.
If it had been, the mother herself, I daresay, would have accepted the
same conclusion; for whatever follows vaccination is generally put down as
the result of vaccination, whereas, as in the case I have mentioned, there
are certain obscure ailments that attack children under all circumstances
The ravages of small-pox were so conspicuous on the faces of
the people in the thirties and forties that one could not pass through the
streets of our towns without seeing somebody or other who had been
disfigured by the disease. A Newcastle magistrate, Mr. John Cameron
Swan, when a case of so-called "conscientious objection" (which is often
only another name far pure prejudice and ignorance) came before him in
1899, remarked that he remembered the time "when every third or fourth
person one met in the street was marked with small-pox." My own
recollections coincide, if not exactly, at all events generally, with Mr.
Swan's, as must those of all who have reached or passed the age of three
score and ten. The late Lloyd Jones, well-known throughout the
country as a lecturer on social and political subjects, records that the
one thing which struck him, when he revisited his native town of Bandon
after many years' absence, was the disappearance of pock-marked people
from the streets. Testimony to much the same effect is borne by
William Lovett, one of the originators of the Chartist movement. Mr.
Lovett, who was born at Newlyn, Cornwall, in 1800, tells us in his
autobiography that he caught the foul disorder from a little girl who, her
"face and arms still thickly beset with the dark-scabbed pustules," was
brought into the school he was attending. "So terrible were the
ravages of small-pox at that period," he writes of the first decade of the
nineteenth century, "that I can vividly remember the number of seamed and
scarred faces among my school-fellows. Vaccination had not been
introduced into our town, though inoculation was occasionally resorted to;
but it was looked upon as sinful and a doubting of Providence, although
about one in every fourteen persons born died from the effects of the
Statistics of mortality are alleged to bear out the
impressions of observers and the testimony of medical men. According
to a little pamphlet written by Mrs. Ernest Hart in 1896, and published in
the same year by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, small-pox
was so terrible a plague in the last century that it killed three thousand
people every year out of a million of the population. "Out of every
hundred children born, ninety caught the small-pox and one-sixth of them
died, and scarcely anybody grew up without having had it." Mrs. Hart
remarks further that the deaths per million of the population after
vaccination had been introduced fell to 600 per annum; that after
Parliament had granted funds to make vaccination gratuitous, though not
obligatory, the deaths fell to 305; that after vaccination had been made
obligatory, but was not efficiently enforced, the deaths fell to 223; and,
finally, that between 1872 and 1891, when the compulsory clauses of the
Vaccination Acts were more strictly carried out, the deaths fell to 89.
"The population of England and Ireland," says Mrs. Hart, "now numbers
thirty million, and there would at the present time be a probable annual
death-rate of about ninety thousand from small-pox if it were not for
vaccination." Facts and figures to the same purport were quoted by
Dr. Henry W. Newton at a Medical Congress in Newcastle. "Wherever
vaccination was adopted," he said, "small-pox had been excluded, as was
illustrated in the case of Germany and Austria. In Spain there were
no vaccination laws in force. During the year 1889, there died from
small-pox in the province of Almeria 3,080 per million, in Murcia 2,070,
in Cordova 1,400, in Malaga 1,340, in Cadiz 1,330. For the same year
the death-rate in protected Germany was four per million." Professor
Corfield at the same Congress warned "those who were foolish enough not to
accept the advantages offered by vaccination" that they "would gradually
perish by one of the most loathsome diseases that had ever afflicted the
It was an outbreak of an epidemic of small-pox in the city of
Gloucester that elicited the warning of Professor Corfield. That
outbreak, it was alleged, was the result of the neglect of vaccination.
Here we have a case of a prophet not being honoured in his own country;
for Edward Jenner, the discoverer of vaccination, was a member of an old
Gloucestershire family. Born at Berkeley, a few miles from the city
in one direction, Dr. Jenner practised medicine for many years at
Cheltenham, a few miles from the city in another direction. The
local connection is further strengthened by the circumstance that another
Cheltenham physician, Dr. Barron, was the biographer of Jenner. But
the fatal experience of the inhabitants of Gloucester has failed to remove
the popular prejudice and ignorance on the subject, since Parliament
itself, bowing to popular clamour, has decreed that the laws of
vaccination, no matter what the consequences to the public health may be,
shall no longer be enforced where the parents of children allege or fancy
that they have "conscientious objections to the practice." The folly
of placing the welfare of the community at the mercy of individual caprice
would perhaps be realised too late if the awful horrors of a loathsome
complaint should show themselves at the beginning of the new as they did
at the beginning of the old century.
BALLOONISTS, MESMERISTS, CONJURORS
SMALL events as much as great may indicate the
condition of life in the days that are gone. Nor may they be
altogether lacking in interest even if they have no bearing on the
conditions of life at all. The small events that are now going to be
grouped together, without any distinct connection between them, will only
serve such a purpose as the indulgent reader may choose for himself.
The coronation of Queen Victoria lives in my memory, from the
illuminations which marked the rejoicings in our town. The
well-to-do houses, the lights in the windows, the wheelbarrow by which I
was standing, are all as fresh as ever. The long line of houses,
built of one pattern, were in a fashionable quarter; and the windows,
being of the same size, contained of course the same number of panes.
Plate glass was at that time either unknown or but little used. It
had not at any rate found its way into domestic architecture. Every
window, therefore, contained sixteen or twenty squares. And each
square was furnished with a candle. The effect of the burning
candles, so regularly disposed, so uniformly bright, and so many thousands
in number, was almost entrancing. I had never seen anything so
beautiful before, and I am not sure that I have ever seen anything in the
way of illuminations so really effective since.
An indistinct impression of a dark object floating and
flapping in the sky, causing consternation and wonderment, crosses my
mental vision. It was an air balloon, cast adrift by an aeronaut who
had descended in a parachute. There had happened just before a fatal
accident to another aeronaut who had attempted the same feat from Vauxhall
Gardens, London. The unfortunate adventurer was named Cocking.
Cocking's fate, however, did not deter a rival balloonist named Hampton
from desiring to follow his example. Hampton's ascent took place in
1838 from the Montpellier Gardens, Cheltenham. But the local
magistrates, while assenting to the ascent in a captive balloon, forbad
the descent in the manner projected. Hampton, however, defied the
authorities, cut himself loose from the earth, and made, as the local
records say, "one of the most successful parachute descents in England."
The exploit was deemed a world's wonder in an age that had not seen the
far more hazardous and sensational leaps from the clouds of the present
day. Not long before Mr. Hampton performed his daring feat, Mr.
Green, another famous aeronaut, ascended from the Montpellier Gardens in
the "great Nassau balloon." Mr. Green was accompanied by Mr. Rush,
the American Minister in London, and the balloon travelled a distance of
ninety miles in three hours. There was much rivalry between the two
principal spas in the town—the Montpellier and the Pittville, the Old
Wells having fallen out of the running. The proprietor of the
Pittville establishment announced a balloon ascent too. But as pipes
were not laid down to the more distant gardens, it was resolved to inflate
the balloon at the gas-works, remove it to the spa grounds, and there
tether it till the time for its ascension arrived. Crowds of small
boys were early astir to witness the removal. A gang of men held the
balloon captive, while the aeronaut directed operations from the car.
The work of transporting the ponderous sphere on a windy morning through
the narrow streets of the town was exciting and difficult. It
furnished, however, as I recollect, immense enjoyment to the small boys.
Unfortunately, after escaping many perils, the balloon was wrecked near
St. Paul's Church, before it had performed half its journey to Pittville
Gardens. Collision with a chimney stack caused a great rent, and the
trouble and labour that had been spent were lost. Night-capped heads
protruded from every window along the route, as the shouts of the crowd
awoke the sleeping inhabitants. When the collapse occurred, loud
were the cries of the outsiders to close the windows lest the escaping gas
should in some way cause an explosion. There was no further attempt
in my time to make a balloon ascent from Pittville.
Churches were plentiful in Cheltenham, and chapels were
fairly numerous. Other places of faith, and emotion were also in
evidence. There was much talk of Mormonism among the poor in the
thirties and forties. Indeed, one heard now and again of bands of
converts—Latter-Day Saints was the name they assumed—migrating to the
sacred city that had been founded near the Great Salt Lake. But the
movement received a considerable check when the leader of the sect was
transported for robbing a firm of jewellers. Much commotion was
caused about the same time when a young fellow who called himself Shiloh,
and proclaimed himself a prophet, appeared in the town. Shiloh's
career, however, owing to the disturbances his mad antics provoked, was
cut short by the police.  Worse disturbances
happened when, in 1850, the Pope announced the establishment of a Catholic
hierarchy in England. A public meeting was held in the Town Hall to
protest against "Papal Aggression." Measures were taken later to
burn the Pope and Cardinals in effigy. The effigies were exhibited
in a tailor's shop window, and many tons of coal and loads of faggots were
purchased for the great bonfire. So intense was the excitement and
so great the apprehension of riot there from that the magistrates issued a
notice forbidding the proceedings. The mob, however, not to be
defrauded of its entertainment, attempted to set fire to the Catholic
Chapel, tore down the railings in front of it, and broke open the premises
of several Catholic tradesmen. Hundreds of special constables having
been sworn in next day, no renewal of the row occurred.
Spiritualism, which has become a sort of religion in these
days, was practically unknown in the first half of last century. It
began with table-rapping. I was invited to one of the earliest
performances—the exponents were strangers to the town—but, unfortunately,
the tables wouldn't rap a rap. About the same time clairvoyants
could be consulted by fashionable people for a fashionable fee.
Hypnotism and thought-reading were not familiar names till long
afterwards. But mesmerism, which seemed to be akin to both, was
quite a common topic of discussion. It was discussed at our debating
class. There I became intimate with a family which had the gift or
faculty of mesmerism to a remarkable degree. The father was an
ordinary stonemason, while his children were engaged in various
occupations of a humble character. I remember one night going to the
house of my friends to witness some experiments. It should be said
that no member of the family made any public display of the strange powers
most of them possessed, though, of course, in private circles it was well
known that the father, sons, and daughters were addicted to mesmerie
practices. On the occasion to which I allude I was accompanied by a
mutual friend of the Winters family. The eldest daughter, a girl of
my own age, was mesmerised by the father, much in the same manner as
people are now supposed to be hypnotised. When in the mesmeric
state, with her eyes completely closed, she went about the house in a
methodical way, poking the fire, setting the chairs to rights, and doing
such other things as she was accustomed to do in her waking condition.
Afterwards I held the girl's eyes, while the other visitor produced from
his pocket a book she had never seen—a copy of Collins's poems—which was
opened at random, and the verses on the open page of which she read as
distinctly as if she could see them, though I am quite sure, from the
manner in which I held her eyes, that she could not possibly see anything
at all. My companion then held the girl's eyes, while I drew from my
pocket some scraps of paper on which I had written a few exercises in
French and English, the writing never having been seen by anybody but
myself. The English part of these exercises was read without the
least difficulty; but when she came to the other she quietly remarked,
"Oh, that's French; I can't read French." I offer no explanation of
the phenomenon; I merely put it on record.
Mesmerists and spiritualists alike have been denounced as
quacks and charlatans. Two names are most prominently associated in
England with the supposed exposure of spiritualistic tricks—those of
Messrs. Maskelyne and Cooke. Both belonged to Cheltenham. One
was an innkeeper's son apprenticed to a watchmaker; the other was as poor
a lad as any in the town, with no relative but his mother. Cooke and
Maskelyne, brought together as young men, commenced business as conjurors,
Mr. Maskelyne being, as he still is, the inventive genius and leading
member of the firm. Before establishing themselves in London, where
for many unbroken years their entertainments have nightly drawn
appreciative audiences to the Egyptian Hall, they amused and bewildered
the country folks in the small towns and villages around Cheltenham.
And hereby hangs a tale.
A Revising Barrister is holding his court at Cheltenham.
The Tory party is represented by its legal agent—Mr. Frederick Stroud,
author of the elaborate "Judicial Dictionary" which bears his name, now
Recorder of Tewkesbury, a dear friend of my youth and ever since. A
vote is claimed for Mr. Cooke by the Liberals; but objection is taken by
the Tories on the ground that the house for which the vote is claimed is
rented for the claimant's mother, that the claimant himself does not
reside in Cheltenham at all, and that consequently he is disqualified by
reason of non-residence. "What is Cooke?" asks the Revising
Barrister. "A conjuror," replies Stroud. "Where does he live?"
"Well, your Honour, he lives a wandering life—here to-day and gone
to-morrow." "Oh! what the law in old times called a vagabond, then."
"Precisely, your Honour—a vagabond." The vote is disallowed.
Years elapse. Maskelyne and Cooke are drawing crowded
audiences to the Egyptian Hall. The principal attraction is the
exposure of what the conjurors call the tricks and frauds of
spiritualistic mediums—the Davenport Brothers, the Fays, Dr. Slade, and
others. There is a cabinet on the stage. The two performers,
securely tied with ropes, take their places inside the cabinet, and a
member of the audience is invited to take a seat beside them, so as to
make sure that they can obtain no help from any quarter. The moment
the door of the cabinet is closed the "manifestations" begin—that is to
say, the usual noises are heard within, the ringing of bells, the beating
of tambourines, etc. (This is the thing the Davenport Brothers did, as
they said, with the aid of spirits from another world.) Mr. Stroud,
happening to be in London, sends in his card to the entertainers.
They, delighted to see an old acquaintance, assign him one of the best
seats in the house. The cabinet performance is about to be given.
Maskelyne and Cooke are tightly bound, and an invitation is offered to
anybody in the audience to come and see fair play. Mr. Stroud is
inquisitive, and volunteers. As he is seen advancing over the stage,
Maskelyne whispers to Cooke, "Here's Stroud coming. Let's pay him
out for that vagabond business." All forgetful of his delinquency,
and ignorant of the sudden conspiracy against him, Mr. Stroud greets his
friends and takes his seat in the cabinet beside them. The door is
shut; there is total darkness; and then—the band begins to play. Mr.
Stroud sees nothing; but he hears and feels a great deal more than he had
bargained for. "A vagabond, am I?" he hears Cooke exclaiming as he
feels his ribs punched, his back slapped, his head tumbled and touzled by
both performers. "For God's sake, Cooke, drop it, or we shall have
the show down," he cries as he rolls about on his seat. "I've had my
turn now," says Cooke, as he gives his friend a parting tickle. The
shouts and shrieks of laughter are heard by the people in front, who
wonder what in the world is taking place inside the cabinet.
Suddenly the doors are thrown open. Maskelyne and Cooke are seen
released from their bonds, while the lawyer wears an amused, but somewhat
bewildered smile. The performance brought down the house.
If there be any moral to the story, it is this—that it never
pays to play jokes with a conjuror, unless, like the Recorder of
Tewkesbury, you are prepared to join in the laugh at the finish,
TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
MURDERS and crimes of all sorts, even though the
bulk of the people could not read about them themselves, were the subjects
of most absorbing interest to young folks and old "in the days when we
went gipsying, a long time ago." Terrible was the impression
produced by Greenacre's monstrous villainy. Somehow I formed the
notion that a working man who used regularly to pass our door bore a
resemblance to the murderer. And I never saw this poor man without
shuddering, and even sometimes running away to hide myself. The
Greenacre sensation was, however, eclipsed by that which the later crimes
of the Mannings and of James Bloomfield Rush created—crimes which were, in
their turn, eclipsed in tragic interest by the poisonings at Rugeley, the
pathetic misdeed of Madeleine Smith, and the mysterious fratricide of
Homicides were probably fewer, but executions were more
common, at the beginning than at the end of the century. Men and
women were hung for almost trivial offences—hung in batches, too, after
almost every assize. My grandmother used to talk of five or six
poachers being hung together in front of Gloucester gaol. Townsend,
the noted Bow Street runner, giving evidence before a Committee of the
House of Commons in 1816, testified to these grim facts:—"We never had an
execution wherein we did not grace that unfortunate gibbet at the Old
Bailey with less than ten, twelve, sixteen, or twenty wretches—I may say
forty, for in the year 1783, when Serjeant Adair was Recorder, there were
forty hanged at two executions." The gaoler of Newgate, being asked
by the Recorder a few years later how many could be executed at one time
on a new gallows, complacently replied: "Well your worship, we can hang
twelve upon a stretch, but we can't hang more than ten comfortably." The
hangings in those days, and till long after, were always done in the open,
the contention being that the gallows, like the gibbet, was a great "moral
teacher." I happened to be passing Newgate Street a few minutes
after nine o'clock one morning in 1857. Suddenly the street was
filled with the most villainous-looking characters I ever saw in a single
crowd. They were laughing and shouting and jostling each other as
they hurried along—a great stream of gaol-birds. Whence had they
come? Enquiries elicited the information that they had just been
enjoying an execution—fresh from the teaching of the gallows.
Similar spectacles drew similar crowds to the county gaols all over the
We in Cheltenham always knew when Calcraft had been at work
from the cries of the dealers in patter literature. Our local
Catnach was Thomas Willey, a printer of ballads and broadsheets. Mr.
Willey was always ready with a "last dying speech" for every criminal who
was executed at Gloucester. It was generally the same speech,
altered to suit the name and circumstances of the new culprit; and it was
invariably adorned with a ghastly woodcut, showing the figure of a man or
a woman, as the case might be, dangling from a gallows. The passage
leading to Willey's printing office was crowded on the morning of an
execution with an astonishing collection of ragamuffins and
tatterdemalions, greasy, grimy, and verminous. Soon they were
bawling their doleful wares all over the town. Where they came from
was as much a mystery to the inhabitants as whither they disappeared when
the last dying speech had been sold. But penny papers and recognised
reporters drove the flying stationers from the streets. Marwood by
this time had succeeded Calcraft—Marwood, who told a party of pressmen who
had met to compliment him that he should die happy when he had hung a
reporter! Thomas Willey, by the way, was succeeded by his grandson,
Thomas Hailing, and Thomas Hailing in after years made the old office
famous for some of the most artistic printing ever done in England.
There were other sensational trials besides those of
murderers. One of these occurred at Gloucester Assizes in 1853.
But I must go back a few years earlier—to 1847 or 1848. It was the
period of the dawn of youthful enthusiasm for all sorts of things—useful
or useless knowledge among others. I had joined an elocution class,
held under the Baptist Chapel mentioned in a previous chapter. The
class was a complete fiasco, because the teacher was a charlatan.
The man called himself Dr. Smyth, wore a shabby-genteel cloak, and put on
pompous airs. It was evident from the first that he knew little or
nothing about the art he undertook to teach, and so it came to pass that
the committee of the society to which the class was attached gave him his
dismissal. Instead of teaching the youngsters who attended his
prelections anything about the proper method of reading and reciting, he
occupied their attention by telling stories about himself. One of
these was intended, he remarked, to illustrate the doctrine he held, that
children should be addressed as if they were grownup people, because, if
so addressed, they would soon lose their baby ways. The story was
precisely similar to one which is, no doubt falsely, ascribed to Dr.
Johnson. Dr. Smyth, so he told us, was driving towards Bristol, when
a woman with a child asked him for a lift. Consent was given on the
understanding that no baby-talk should be used. In the course of the
journey, however, the mother forgot this condition, and said something
about "Georgy-porgy getting a ridey-pidey." Down, observed the
professor of elocution, the mother and her child had to get, making their
way to Bristol as best they could without his help. A still more
extraordinary doctrine was set forth by the reputed Dr. Smyth—the doctrine
that sleep was not only unnecessary, but unnatural. Cattle never
slept, he declared, for he had spent night after night in the fields
The professor of elocution, dismissed at Cheltenham, turned
up in a new character at Gloucester Assizes a few years later. Sir
Hugh Smyth, of Ashton Court, near Bristol, had died without direct issue,
leaving an estate of the annual value of £20,000. A claim to the
property was set up by a person who alleged that he was the son of the
late baronet, that the secret of his birth had long been kept from him,
and that he had commenced proceedings for the purpose of acquiring his
real position in life. Mr. Bovill, afterwards Chief Justice of
Common Pleas, was counsel for the claimant when the case was entered at
Gloucester. The claimant, in the course of his evidence, and in
proof of his claim, produced some jewelry which he declared had belonged
to old members of the Smyth family. The crisis in the trial came
when Sir Frederick Thesiger, who appeared for the defence, asked the
witness if he knew the name of a certain jeweller in London. It was
the name of a jeweller who had manufactured for the claimant the very
articles in question! The witness was confounded, his counsel threw
up their briefs, and the Court ordered him to be taken into custody.
Tried afterwards for perjury and forgery, the pretended Sir Richard Smyth,
who was not a Smyth at all, but a certain Thomas Provis, son of a
Somersetshire labourer, was sentenced to twenty years' transportation.
I believe he died about twelve months after his conviction. But the
Dr. Smyth who professed to teach elocution, and the Tom Provis who tried
to filch an estate, were one and the same person. Augustus Hare
states in his autobiography that Provis's wife, "a daughter of De Wint the
artist, had already ordered a carriage, in which she was to make a
triumphal entry into Bristol, when the cause suddenly collapsed."
A more extraordinary case than even that of Tom Provis
occupied the attention of the people of Cheltenham for many years.
The peace and comfort of a reputable family were utterly wrecked and
destroyed by the pertinacity of an unscrupulous barrister. A British
admiral, Sir Robert Tristram Ricketts, Bart., died at his residence, The
Elms, in 1842. Soon after his death, Mr. Augustus Newton, who had
married one of his daughters, commenced proceedings which lasted from that
time till 1849, and indeed were not finally concluded till 1861. Mr.
Newton began operations in the magistrates' court. There he charged
Lady Ricketts, the widow of the admiral, Dr. Thomas Wright, the eminent
physician and geologist previously mentioned, who had married another of
the admiral's daughters, and Mr. J. C. Straford, the family solicitor,
with forging the admiral's will. The prosecutor occupied several
days in ventilating insinuations of forgery, fraud, conspiracy, cruelty,
and murder against the unfortunate accused. Not a tittle of evidence
being produced to support the accusations, the magistrates dismissed the
case without calling upon the prisoners (for they had all been
apprehended) for their defence. A few days later, the solicitor was
presented with an address of respect and sympathy, signed by nearly every
professional man in the town. But Mr. Newton was not dismayed.
Application was made for a warrant to apprehend the proprietors of a
newspaper, the Cheltenham Examiner, that had commented on the
previous proceedings; but again the magistrates refused to comply.
Next year indictments were preferred at Gloucester Assizes
against Lady Ricketts and others for perjury and conspiracy, and against
the newspaper proprietors for libel. Both actions failed, the grand
jury in the former case unanimously declaring that "there was not the
shadow of a shade of evidence in support of the charge." Mr. Newton
now transferred his operations to London. Poor Lady Ricketts was
arrested and dragged before the magistrates at Guildhall. The case
was dismissed here also, the bench expressing "deep regret " that so base
and baseless a charge should have been made. We next heard of Mr.
Newton being a prisoner himself—a prisoner in Gloucester Gaol under the
Insolvent Debtors Act. Other actions were instituted in 1844, the
principal being a suit for £10,000 damages before the Court of Common
Pleas at Westminster against the proprietors of the Examiner.
Many of the most prominent lawyers of the day were engaged in
the affair, including Mr. Cockburn, afterwards Lord Chief Justice
Cockburn, and Mr. Fitzroy Kelly, afterwards Chief Baron Kelly. Again
was the pertinacious prosecutor foiled, though he never paid a single
penny of the costs of the defence which he was ordered to defray.
Then ensued actions against the High Sheriff of Gloucester, against the
Sheriff's officers, and against the solicitor to the newspaper
proprietors. Two further actions against the Examiner were
tried in 1847, making six in all. Mr. Straford in the same year was
indicted on the old charge, and with the old result, in the Court of
Queen's Bench. Two years later, the judgment of the Prerogative
Court, accompanied by indignant animadversions on the conduct of the
opposing parties, established the validity of the admiral's will.
Although the prosecutor was subsequently disbarred for unprofessional
practices, the end of his outrageous proceedings was not reached till the
appeal case, "Newton v. Sir Cornwallis Ricketts," was dismissed by the
House of Lords in 1861.
The newspaper which had suffered so much from the attentions
of Mr. Newton remarked at the close of the case in 1849 that "those who
are inexperienced in the harassments of litigation know nothing of the
vast amount of wrong and persecution which may be inflicted under colour
of the law." For a period of seven years the unhappy family of Sir
Robert Ricketts and its legal adviser were "tortured by the most cunning
devices, subjected to the most harassing disquiet of mind and body, and
mulcted in legal expense which of itself swells into a fortune." It
is lamentable that the forms of law should permit the perpetration of so
much cruelty and mischief. But Lady Ricketts, who survived her
trials and miseries for two years, was fortunate in one respect. The
case against her was not taken up by the populace; nor did noblemen and
members of Parliament provide her pursuers with vast sums to assist the
persecution: otherwise Augustus Newton might have become as great a figure
in the annals of chicane as Arthur Orton himself. The butcher of
Wapping was so much the hero of the hour that it was almost dangerous to
doubt the truth of his story. And this reminds me of an incident
which shows how some of the humbler classes looked at the Claimant's
claim. The time was in the crisis of the case, when Orton, being
under cross-examination by Mr. Coleridge, was wriggling and frizzling on a
moral gridiron. I was travelling in a third-class carriage between
Cheltenham and Tewkesbury. Enter a labouring man in fustian.
"How is Sir Roger gettin' on now?" he asked. "Oh, very badly," I
replied, looking up from a newspaper. "Well," continued the
labouring man, "it wud be a pity now, wudn't it, if he wus to lose the
estate after all the trouble he's bin at to get un?"