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Books in Wanlockhead and other mining communities

The earliest example we have found is in an isolated lead-mining village in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, at the turn of the 19th century. In this period, and especially in remote rural locations, working-class education required philanthropic landowners. In Wanlockhead and neighbouring Leadhills, the philanthropic model worked well for generations.44 On the 19th August 1803 Dorothy

Wordsworth climbed up through the grey glen of the Lowther Hills. As they ascended she, her brother William and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge encountered three young boys. ‘One’, she noted in her Recollections of a Tour made in Scotland in 1803, ‘carried a fishing-rod, and the hats of all were braided with honeysuckles; they ran after one another as wanton as the wind’. Soon the three

were joined by some half-dozen of their companions, all without shoes and stockings. They told us they lived at Wanlockhead, the village above, pointing to the top of the hill; they went to school and learned Latin, Virgil, and some of them Greek, Homer, but when Coleridge began to inquire further, off they ran, poor things! I suppose afraid of being examined.4

These children of a relatively deprived lead-mining community were benefitting from a traditional classical education. Wanlockhead was owned by Henry Scott, the 3rd Duke of Buccleuch and 5th Duke of Queensberry (born in 1746), who supported the miners’ endeavour to establish and run a lending library in the village. But he cannot take all the credit. The spirit of education is likely to have been nourished previously by the Quakers who ran the mines before the Duke’s tenure. By 1750 there was already a thriving school in the village, with an excellent reputation by the time of the Wordsworths’ visit; for 4 decades afterwards, the Minister of Wanlockhead Free Church, the Reverend Thomas Hastings, educated many working-class boys who went on to transcend their class origins to become lawyers, physicians, teachers, poets and ministers.46 In the Sanquhar parish to which the lead-miners in and around Wanlockhead belonged, as well as workers in a carpet factory and handloom weavers, there were 3,268 inhabitants; 350 could not write, but 2 in every 15 could not read.47

From November 1756, 32 of the adult villagers of Wanlockhead also had access to their Miners’ Library (founded in emulation of that opened at Leadhills in 174148), originally entitled the Society for Purchasing Books in Wanlockhead.49 Members included miners, lead-washers and engineers as well as middle-class individuals.50 It eventually housed more than 3,000 volumes.’1 In the library (which may now be visited as part of the excellent Museum of Leadmining, Wanlockhead) there are shelves upon shelves of religious texts; numerous volumes of self-improvement literature; several journals and magazines collected and bound in leather.’2 The printed catalogues which survive from 1829 to 1925 constitute a record of the reading habits of a well-educated and religious working-class rural community.53

Novels abound, notably by Scott, Dickens, Fielding, Kingsley and Thackeray and Fenelon’s Adventures of Telemachus; there are also books on foreign travel, adventure stories, scholarly treatises on agriculture, science and, of course, mining.54 They subscribed to the best periodical literature of the day, including both the more accessible Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal and Chambers’ Information for the People, the Penny Magazine and Cassell’s Popular Educator and the more serious literary journals, teeming with classical erudition, such as the Edinburgh and

Quarterly Reviews, Blackwood’s Magazine and the Athenaeum.55 In translation, however, were available the works of Plato and Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics;51 there are two versions of Josephus.’7 Reference works with classical content included Dionysius Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopaedia (1831) and the SDUK’s 11-volume Library of Useful Knowledge (1834).’8

Ernest Rhys (1859—1946) would have delighted in Wanlockhead miners’ library. The socialist poet and literary editor is best known now as the indefatigable founding editor ofjoseph Malaby Dent’s hugely influential Everyman’s Library (discussed above pp. 64-9). He began his working life as a coal viewer (engineer) at Langley Park, County Durham. In the few years before he moved to London to live by his pen, he sought to enrich the leisure conditions and intellectual lives of his co-workers. When compared to South Wales, this northern coal village was lagging behind the times.59 To the consternation of his conservative line manager, who considered mineworkers to be interested only in drinking and gambling, he established a library in a derelict worker’s cottage. Plato’s Republic was on the inaugural reading list.60

Jack Lawson (1881-1965) would also have gazed longingly at the shelves of the miners’ library in Wanlockhead. He began life destined to be only a ‘two-legged mule of industry’, as one of ten children of an illiterate mother and John Lawson, a County Durham merchant seaman turned miner. He followed his father down Bolden Colliery mineshaft, County Durham, at the age of 12.61 By the time he died he had been MP for Chester-le-Street, 1st Baron Lawson, Financial Secretary to the War Office in the first Labour government and, to his great pride, the first Lord Lieutenant of County Durham.

His ascent from the pits was facilitated by joining the Methodists, and friendships with other bookish miners,62 some of whom even taught themselves ancient Greek and Latin.63 But his turning-point was the moment when his penchant for gambling as an adolescent miner gave way to his passion for books. To his father’s dismay he built a library of second-hand books, shelved in empty orange crates.64 A favourite was Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.65 Lawson spent his penniless weekends ‘in following the Goths over Europe, right into old Rome, or marching with Attila’s “Huns’”.66 His father worried for his mental health. The passion he conceived for the ancient world endured throughout the life he presents as an unmitigated success; as a father he would tell his children the tale of the wooden horse of Troy.67

When he was not reading them, he also liked to talk books. This he did with fellow collier Jack Woodward:

I can see Jack now ... I can see the wraith-like figure of him as he talked books. The shovel squealed against the hard stone floor, then leaped over the tub its burden of coal, coming back for more almost before it had started ... The pick was biting the coal as though driven by a machine. Thus we worked and talked, swallowing our peck of dust every minute ...

I timidly turned the subject to Ruskin, who was just at that time receiving my homage. His plea for art, education, and a decent life for the toiler aroused mutual enthusiasm in us.68

He progressed to the newly formed Ruskin College, Oxford,69 and was soon enjoying the privilege Ruskin men had recently won to attend Oxford University lectures. Lawson declined post-graduate education, despite every encouragement. He preferred to return to the pit, from where he would begin his successful political career.

Lawson was not alone in his educational quest in Bolden. Besides Jack Woodward, he recalls an unnamed man, whose wife had taught him to read in his 30s and who would wait after work to walk home from the pit with Lawson so that they could discuss his reading. This long-illiterate collier spoke memorably to Lawson about his passionate appreciation of Nietzsche and had taught himself ‘to read the New Testament in Greek, and oratorios are easy to him as the latest song is to the man in the street’.70

In his early 30s, Harold Laski (1893-1950), soon to be appointed professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics and co-founder of the influential Left Book Club, used to give educational talks to groups of workers. He developed a special bond with one group of miners in the pit village of Ashington in Northumberland. In September 1924 he visited the longstanding Ashington Debating and Literary Improvement Society. Since its formation in 1898, classical Greek and Roman authors were included on the reading list and discussed at its regular meetings. After his second visit, in autumn the following year, Laski wrote to his friend, the American jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes:

I gave them four lectures, but I learned more from them than I could ever teach. It was sometimes grim talk, for there are hard times ahead for the mining community in England. But, in general, it was of books and men ... There was one ... who had learned Greek in order to read Homer in the original ... These twelve every Friday for thirty-six years have met to read and discuss a book. They argue grimly with text and counter-text and you have to know your piece to get by them. They were saddened, while I was there, by the death of a miner who was found killed by a fall of coal; in his coat was found a translation of Thucydides with the page turned down at the Periclean speech.71

In the 1930s the colliery community at Ashington also saw the rise of a tradition of painting facilitated by Robert Lyon, then master of painting at Armstrong College, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It all began with the formation of an art appreciation group. The unlikely voyage of a group of colliers to artistic discovery, and a certain amount of fame, has been well documented by William Feaver in his book The Pitmen Painters (first published in 1988), which in turn inspired Lee Hall’s successful play by the same name.72

Image by Harry Wilson (linocut c. 1934), reproduced by courtesy of William Feaver. Courtesy of William Feaver

FIGURE 22.4 Image by Harry Wilson (linocut c. 1934), reproduced by courtesy of William Feaver. Courtesy of William Feaver.

Eschewing the traditional educational approach of their tutor, the group learned by painting scenes of life in the pit village. One of the first pieces of work produced was the linocut by Harry Wilson. This image (Figure 22.4) resembles Daykin’s Promethean miner. They are both enslaved by their oppressive occupation, symbolised by the miner’s literally being chained to the pithead winding gear, and the illuminated clock slowly ticking the moments away until his release. The pitmen painters’ group bore little resemblance to the Debating and Literary Improvement Society. It was a different era. But although they avoided the traditional lessons offered initially by Lyon, they soon began to appreciate classical sculpture and mythological reference in European art since the Renaissance.73 In return, they brought the previously invisible or sentimentalised working-class experience into the canon of modern art.

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