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Classical turning-points in eight workers' autobiographies

One important category of autobiographies by individuals born into the working class is constituted by those who succeeded in accessing a classical education, which directly precipitated them into a professional career. A very few—mostly Scotsmen—became distinguished scholars of Classics or comparative philology (see Chapter 14). Another Scotsman, Alexander Bain, eventually became one of Scotland’s foremost philosophers, being appointed Regius Chair of Logic at the newly unified University of Aberdeen in 1860 (Figure 5.3). In London in the 1840s and 1850s, he had made friends with the Scottish philosopher and economist, John Stuart Mill, and the political radical and classical historian, George Grote;’9 he also lectured at Bedford College for Women.

His autobiography creates a picture of a man as proud of his contributions to working-class education as to academic philosophy: in 1850 he wrote a series of articles in Chambers’ Papers for the People, commissioned by Chambers’ literary manager, on ancient Greece. ‘Education for the Citizen’, and ‘Every Day Life of the Greeks’ (commented on by his friend Grote prior to publication), and ‘The Religion of the Greeks’ (which drew on Grote’s early volumes).60 Bain was as familiar with ancient philosophy as he was with modern, in 1872 taking it upon himself, following Grote’s death, to finish and prepare for posthumous publication (with Croom Robertson) Grote’s unfinished work on Aristotle, as well as editing Grote’s shorter pieces.61 A few years earlier he had reviewed Grote’s Plato and the Other Companions of SokratesF2

Aloaxlo Bai.

FIGURE 5.3 Alexander Bain (1818—1903), Photogravure by Synnberg Photo-gravure Co., 1898. Reproduced from copy in Halls personal collection.

But the seeds of this impressive career were sown by two separate youthful encounters with Latin, without which Bain would have spent his life in humble occupations. In his autobiography he lovingly recalled the precise moment when he realised that he could succeed at Latin. After a basic education begun by his father, a handloom weaver,63 Bain began his classical education at Gilcomston Church School between 1826 and 1829. He was required to study the Rudiments of the Latin Tongue by Thomas Ruddiman, and

in the conjugations of the verbs, I soon hit on the device of shortening the labour by marking agreements and differences. Before leaving the school, I had the rudiments pretty well by heart, and had begun to translate short sentences for an easy collection.64

His discovery led him to embark on an astonishing self-education despite needing to leave school to work, first as an errand-boy to an auctioneer, and then as a weaver. The second important moment occurred when a kindly minister offered him Latin lessons free of charge so that he could learn enough to get admitted free to the Grammar School in Aberdeen for three months,6’ in which time (he tells us) he consolidated his Latin and learned ancient Greek.66 Although he was disappointed not to win a full bursary for Marischal College—competing against classmates who had been consistently in grammar-school education for years— he obtained one for ,£10.

As a distinguished intellectual looking back, he is careful to describe in elaborate detail the extensive classical curriculum he studied at Marischal,67 but stresses his continuing commitment to the class into which he was born by recalling that, all the while he was at college, he supplemented his bursary by teaching Mathematics at the Mechanics’ Institute.68 He also delivered a course there on philosophy and rhetoric, which included analysis of Demosthenes’ On the Crown.99 Bain was also a respected educationalist, twice wading into debates on the efficacy of classical education, to which he referred as the ‘interminable Classical question’. Does learning Latin and Greek really prepare our youth for modern life? The question was hotly debated in 1879, as it had been a hundred years earlier by Tom Paine and others. Bain argued (successfully, he tells us) that the benefits in mental ‘discipline’ from learning Greek and Latin could be acquired just as well by learning just one of the two ancient languages.70

Bain identified the cause of his success as a combination of intellectual talent, hard work and the generosity of a local minister. He was also lucky, as can be seen from a comparison with the tragic tale told in autobiographical letters by another Aberdonian handloom weaver, William Thom, who wanted to be a poet. The letters—requests for patronage—were sent to a prosperous local man named Gordon of Knockespock, who reproduced excerpts from them in a pamphlet. Thom had been badly injured at the age of seven when a nobleman’s carriage ran over him at the Aberdeen Race Course. He had been placed in a public factory at the age of 10, then served an apprenticeship of 4 years, before working for 17 years as a weaver for Gordon, Barron and Co. During his apprenticeship, he had picked up a little reading and writing. But Thom felt defensive about not having achieved the autodidact’s holy grail of a classical language. He wrote that after his apprenticeship, he had ‘set about studying Latin—went so far, but was fairly defeated through want of time, &c.—having the while to support my mother who was getting frail’.71 In the early 1840s, he succeeded in having a poem published in the Aberdeen Journal, ‘The Blind Boy’s Pranks’, about Cupid leaving Paphos and shooting arrows at a young man in Scotland; the poet named himself ‘A Serf and stated that he ‘must weave fourteen hours of the four-and-twenty’. In another letter, he laments the difficulty of accessing books: ‘I have few of my own, pick up a loan where it can be had; so of course my reading is without choice or system’. Thom did join the London literary scene for a spell, befriended by the progressive playwright Douglas Jerrold. But he died soon afterwards, in abject poverty, in Dundee.72

Thom’s lament about his missing Latin is replicated in several other workingclass autobiographers, where the pivotal encounter with Classics is constituted by an angry recognition that ignorance of Latin and/or Greek had led to an experience of exclusion. Sometimes, in hindsight, a writer realises that the experience propelled him onto a useful path. Timothy Claxton was the founder of the first Mechanics Institute in London (1817). He had been refused membership by the City Philosophical Society of London, where he had applied to attend courses on Natural Philosophy and Chemistry run by Mr John Tatum. These famous courses were attended, for example, by the young Michael Faraday, who was also working-class, but better at pleasing rich patrons. As Claxton recalled in his Memoir of a Mechanic (1839), in a paragraph beginning ‘I have now arrived at what I consider the most important period of my life’, he recounts how he had educated himself by attending lectures and private study of steam engines and Natural Philosophy, despite having been bewildered by the ‘very names of the subjects to be treated, such as pneumatics, Hydrodynamics, Aerostation, etc.’ because ‘they were all Latin to me’.73 Even access to science courses therefore required an understanding of the classical languages which he did not possess; it is not clear whether he was aware that the terms he was describing as ‘all Latin’ to him were actually Greek, or whether he is making the mistake deliberately to emphasise his rhetorical point. He knew why he had been rejected from the Society: it was because he had no friends at court and because ‘I am a mechanic: that is the difficulty’. The rejection proved essential to his decision to spend his life using, as he put it, ‘all my efforts to improve the class to which I belonged’.74 After setting up the proudly named Mechanics Institute in London, Claxton subsequently moved to Massachusetts to work in a cotton factory. He then founded both the Boston Mechanics’ Institute in 1826 and the Boston Mechanics’ Lyceum in 1831.

Another working-class autobiographer, similarly deprived of Classics, was more embittered. The poet Samuel Bamford, born at around the same time as Claxton, believed that this deprivation had arrested his intellectual development and career. (Figure 5.4.) A poet and campaigner for universal suffrage in Middleston, near Manchester, he was acquitted when tried for treason in 1817. But he was convicted for his role in the demonstration that led to the Peterloo massacre in 1819, on a charge of‘assembling with unlawful banners at an unlawful meeting for the purpose of inciting discontent’. He spent a year in Lincoln Prison.

Bamford, whom we have met earlier in the context of workers’ reading material (see above, pp. 49-50), identified the moment at which he was formally excluded from learning classical languages as the opposite of a turning-point—it was the event that determined that he would stay labouring-class forever. He worked as a floor-sweeper, farm labourer, sailor, warehouse man, handloom weaver and journalist. The decision to prevent him from learning Latin was taken by his father. Bamford had come top of the senior English class, and would normally have been expected to advance into the Latin class.

But, alas! when called upon I could only inform the master, with blushes on my cheeks and tears in my eyes, that my father did not wish me to go into the Latin class at present, but desired that I might remain in the class to which I then belonged. My master, I can recollect, looked at me incredulously; studied, questioned me again, and, with an expression of disappointment, motioned that I should return to my place. This was a sore humiliation to me.75

Samuel Bamford (1788—1872) from Bamford (1844), reproduced from copy in Hall’s personal collection

FIGURE 5.4 Samuel Bamford (1788—1872) from Bamford (1844), reproduced from copy in Hall’s personal collection.

Less intellectually able peers did begin Latin, so Bamford felt humiliated and lost the drive to improve himself academically at all:

Henceforward I thought meanly of my position, and never glanced at my former comrades without a feeling which lowered the zest of my future school-life. This as it regarded my welfare was probably the most momentous and ill-advised step which my father could have determined upon. Had the threshold of the classics been once crossed by me, great must have been the difficulties indeed which would have prevented me from making the whole of that ancient lore my own. I was just at the right age, and in the right frame of mind, with faculties as it were newly come to life, and with an instructor who I have since had many reasons for supposing would have done all he could towards helping me forward into the upper schools; and, had I once got fairly introduced to the learning of the ancients I should not have stopped short on this side of the university I think.76

This incident created a wound in Bamford’s psyche which never healed. His father had correctly seen that learning Latin took time to learn, which for boys who could never become ‘doctors, or lawyers, or parsons’, would be time ‘thrown away’.77 The episode uncannily foreshadows the father, a miner, in Tony Harrison’s feature film Prometheus, who angrily says to his schoolboy son, reading a Greek tragedy, ‘God knows why they feed yer all that crap’.78

A more complicated variation on the theme articulated by Bamford occurred in the case of Thomas Wood, an engineer born in Bingley in Yorkshire in 1822, son of a handloom weaver. Wood’s grandfather did the opposite of Bamford’s father. Wood was sent to a local grammar school because he could read quite well at six and his grandfather had a friendship with the local vicar.

I was at this school till about eight learning Latin grammar and writing.

I don’t remember ever being required to learn the multiplication table, or working a sum of arithmetic at school, or hearing or seeing one worked. It was a Latin school.

Wood supposed that his totally illiterate grandfather had intuited at some level the grand opportunities that classical languages might confer: ‘I suppose grandfather thought learning was a great thing without stopping to ask about the quality or applicability of it to the practical purposes of life’. This was unusually insightful of the old men, since other ‘working folk derided the idea of their children learning Latin, or, indeed, anything at all if it cost anything or entailed any inconvenience’.79 Wood did not have the opportunity to capitalise on his exceptional chance of studying Latin. He hastened the end of his schooling, as the eldest of eight children, by helping to wind bobbins for his father. This meant he skipped lessons and got into trouble at school. He left it at eight years old and started full-time work at the mill. But the care he takes to point out his thwarted academic potential throws light on his confidence, later in life, in his ability to write down his life for others to read.

The various painful turning-points narrated by Thom, Claxton, Bamford and Wood might have elicited a snort fromjoseph Arch (1826-1919), the son of a Warwickshire shepherd,80 who worked in the fields from the age of nine, and played a leading role in the formation of the National Union of Agricultural Labourers in 1872. He was twice elected MP for North West Norfolk. In his pugnacious autobiography From Ploughtail to Parliament (1898), Arch steers a course between (1) exposing elite fear of the working class becoming educated, (2) deriding the book learning of the elite and (3) reminding the reader that he had personally read a great deal. He explains that when he was young it was still widely understood that education for the working classes should be restricted to the religious doctrine of the catechism. He suggests the following motto for inscription on the door of his school: ‘Much knowledge of the right sort is a dangerous thing for the poor’. This was because, ‘The less book-learning the labourer’s lad got stuffed into him, the better for him and the safer for those above him, was what those in authority believed and acted up to’.81 Throughout his childhood, he tells us, he was exposed to two bodies of literature:

Shakespeare and the Bible were the books I was brought up on, and I don’t want any better. I have heard and read a good deal since then, but I have never come across anything to beat them.82

In the autobiography of Guy Aldred, also known as The Knickerbocker Rebel, a once notorious atheist campaigner for free speech, and much-published expert on the earlier radicals Tom Paine and Richard Carlile, learning classical languages is treated with derision.83 But in his case, there is a palpable and acknowledged intellectual debt to studying classical authors in translation.84 The son of a lieutenant in the navy and a factory girl, he described himself both as a communist and as an ‘Anarchist Socialist Impossibilist’; he regarded parliamentarianism as a toxic ‘legacy of Roman Imperialism’ that could never solve ‘the key problem of all human misery, the problem of class society’.8’ He was best known for his leading role in the campaign against the ban—enforced throughout the 1920s—of all forms of public speech and meetings on Glasgow Green. He always lived on the breadline. He does not describe his life’s story as one of social rise, but of consistent active service of his fellow man.86 (Figure 5.5.)

The account of his early life features two pivotal moments, both related to classical material. He recalled hating the Saturday classes in ancient Greek offered him by the Reverend George Martin;87 he distrusted the reverence for classicism as much as for any other source of authority. But in his teens he had been a devout Anglican street-preacher. It was only in 1904 that his grandfather,

Guy Aldred (1886—1963), by unknown photographer (June 1906). Image from Aldred (1955—1963), reproduced by courtesy of British Library

FIGURE 5.5 Guy Aldred (1886—1963), by unknown photographer (June 1906). Image from Aldred (1955—1963), reproduced by courtesy of British Library.

a fishing tackle manufacturer, the evening after his grandson’s street pulpit had been stormed repeatedly by police, introduced him to atheism:

That night, on my return home, my grandfather went to his secret cupboard and produced a collection of Atheist pamphlets ... My grandfather delighted in poetry and on the evening when he introduced me to the Atheist writings, he gave me a volume of Shelley and another of Byron. He told me the story of the Titan God, Prometheus. If I wished to serve mankind, he warned me, I must expect scorn and abuse. But, he continued, I must maintain my position with perfect sweetness. I must not permit persecution or neglect to make me bitter. He asked me to consider the lofty heroism, the enduring patience, the unselfish love, and the perfect sweetness in service, the tragic story of Prometheus inspired.88

Aldred attended a series of Wednesday lectures delivered by a man called Septimus Buss on ‘The Religions of the World’. Lecture seven of the series introduced the audience to the pragmatic religion of ancient Rome.89 The series nourished his growing atheism, further supported by his encounter with Stoicism when the Reverend Charles Voysey introduced him to teachings of Zeno of Citium. He consequently became convinced of what he describes as an anti-religious moral and humanist theism: ‘The unconditional service of man defines conduct that must arise out of a life that is in absolute accord with the supreme harmony of the universe [or God]’.90 Zeno’s teachings effectively gave him a means by which he could shift his evangelistic energies from the Christian God to socialism. In his copious political writings, Aldred often turns to the heroes of ancient history, alongside Napoleon and Jesus, as historical exemplars. In an article on one of his pet topics of discussion, free love, entitled ‘History for Prudists’, he discussed the love affairs of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. He concluded that when we survey the history of

all creeds and races, and find record upon record of amours, the talk of “adultery” becomes drivel of the most appalling description. And if “adultery” is so evil how comes it that the most notorious adulterers rank as the greatest men of their time.91

A similarly discouraging early encounter with Classics, which nevertheless nourished a love of literature and learning in maturity, was recorded by Henry Hawker, the son of a Somerset coachman (1870-1918). He eventually became Stationmaster at Stonehouse, Gloucestershire, after 32 years of service to the Great Western Railway Company. But in his memoir he recalls that in 1883 he was hired for 3 shillings a week, at the age of 13, to read Homer out loud in English to his local vicar:

Just before leaving school the Rev. Turner, curate of St. James (who lived in rooms above some offices in Hammett Street and was studying), came to the school and asked to hear some boys read, accordingly I, with two others, was brought before him and tested, we knew not what it was for, but I was asked to go on the following morning at eleven o’clock to his rooms, and found I was required to read “Homer,” which presumably Mr. Turner was comparing with the original Greek, as he would occasionally stop me to make a correction, sometimes the error was mine, and sometimes his, this I did for two hours daily (on Saturdays three hours).92

Hawker admitted in his memoir to finding the process ‘dry work in more senses than one’,93 but in later years he grew fond ofliterature. He proudly lists his favourite music and books, which included such vernacular classics of John Dryden’s translations of Virgil, Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome (based on Roman history drawn largely from Livy and stylistically enhanced by imitations of Homer’s Iliad) and—revealingly—Alexander Pope’s Homer. The early experience had been instrumental, no doubt, in his stated mature preference for ‘the older writers’.94

The most independent-minded discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of a conventional Classics education, as opposed to enjoyment of those classics in translation, occurs in the celebrated autobiography of Cromarty stonemason and pioneering geologist Hugh Miller, My Schools and Schoolmasters.9" He had literate uncles who made sure that while at Dame School he had access to fairy tales, bible stories and Pope’s Odyssey and Iliad, which he adored.96 The uncles, like Miller, were stonemasons, tradesmen whom he regards as of equal intelligence to shoemakers (he cites Bloomfield the poet, on whom see below pp. 436-7) but prouder. The mason

is in general a blunt, manly, taciturn fellow, who, without much of the Radical or Chartist about him, especially if his wages be good and employment abundant, rarely touches his hat to a gentleman. His employment is less purely mechanical than many others ... every stone he lays or hews demands the exercise of a certain amount of judgement for itself.97

The parish schoolmaster, identifying Miller’s intellectual talent, transferred him into the Latin class. Miller found declining nouns a waste of time, and began ‘to long for my English reading, with its nice amusing stories, and its picture-like descriptions’. He was, he assures us, brighter than his class-fellows, and used his intelligence to work out a way of learning the entire English-language cribs off by heart so that he could spend lesson-time reading Dryden’s translations of Virgil and Ovid, which he smuggled into class, instead.9® And that enjoyment of ancient masterpieces in translation informed his mature writing style, as in his rapturous description of the Liassic deposits of the Hill of Eathie, where its extraordinary layers, sandwiches, fossils, branches of pines and strangely patterned ferns are compared to rows of pages in books.

Page after page, for tens of hundreds of feet together, repeat the same wonderful story. The great Alexandrian library, with its tomes of ancient literature, the accumulation of long ages, was but a meagre collection ... compared with this marvellous library."

When faced with a challenging river to ford in the course of his work, he was reminded ofjulius Caesar and Horatius Cocles who ‘could swim across rivers and seas in heavy armour’.10“ He also used the linguistic talent his pivotal encounter with Latin had confirmed to learn Gaelic, which he regarded as far more useful than classical languages.11

He keeps his insights into the long-term intellectual benefits of Classics until late in the volume. He kept up with some friends from school and met others through his work as a mason who had been taught at university.

I sometimes could not avoid comparing them in my mind with working men of... the same original calibre. I did not always find the general superiority on the side of the scholar which the scholar himself usually took for granted.

He concedes that the scholars were better trained to frame arguments than working men, but insists that the workers were better at practical reasoning, better read in English literature, and better equipped to conduct business. But Miller is no radical. He reveals ambivalence about his birth class in laying the blame for the

over-low estimate which the classical scholar so often forms of the intelligence of that class of the people to which our skilled mechanics belong on pushy workers who force themselves on the notice of the classes above them."’2

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