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THE STORY OF A GREAT REFORM TOLD BY HIS DAUGHTER
Edition 2017 by David De Angelis - all rights reserved
“A fond desire to preserve the memory of those we love from oblivion is an almost universal sentiment.”
—(Lord Dufferin on his mother—Songs, Poems, and Verses. By Helen, Lady Dufferin.)
“Reform does not spell ruin, lads—remember Rowland Hill!”
—(Punch on the Postal Reform Jubilee, 1890.)
In Gladstone's “'musings for the good of man,'” writes John Morley in his Life of the dead statesman (ii. 56, 57), the “Liberation of Intercourse, to borrow his own larger name for Free Trade, figured in his mind's eye as one of the promoting conditions of abundant employment.... He recalled the days when our predecessors thought it must be for man's good to have 'most of the avenues by which the mind and also the hand of man conveyed and exchanged their respective products' blocked or narrowed by regulation and taxation. Dissemination of news, travelling, letters, transit of goods, were all made as costly and difficult as the legislation could make them. 'I rank,' he said, 'the introduction of cheap postage for letters, documents, patterns, and printed matter, and the abolition of all taxes on printed matter, in the catalogue of free legislation. These great measures may well take their place beside the abolition of prohibitions and protective duties, the simplifying of revenue laws, and the repeal of the Navigation Act, as forming together the great code of industrial emancipation.'” To the above the biographer adds that in Gladstone's article in the Nineteenth Century on Free Trade, Railways, and Commerce, he divided the credit of our material progress between the two great factors, the Liberation of Intercourse and the Improvement of Locomotion.
In view of the occasional attempts to revive the pernicious franking privilege, and of the frequently recurring warfare between Free Trade and the rival system, whose epitaph we owe to Disraeli, but whose unquiet spirit apparently declines to rest within its tomb, the present seems a fitting time to write the story of the old reform to which Gladstone alluded—“the introduction of cheap postage for letters,” etc., the narrative being prefaced by a notice of the reformer, his family, and some of his friends who are not mentioned in later pages.
My cousin, Dr Birkbeck Hill's “Life of Sir Rowland Hill and History of Penny Postage” is an elaborate work, and therefore valuable as a source of information to be drawn upon by any future historian of that reform and of the period, now so far removed from our own, which the reformer's long life covered. Before Dr Hill's death he gave me permission to take from his pages such material as I cared to incorporate with my own shorter, more anecdotal story. This has been done, but my narrative also contains much that has not appeared elsewhere, because, as the one of my father's children most intimately associated with his home life, unto me were given opportunities of acquiring knowledge which were not accessible to my cousin.
Before my brother, Mr Pearson Hill, died, he read through the greater portion of my work; and although since then much has been remodelled, omitted, and added, the narrative ought to be substantially correct. He supplied sundry details, and more than one anecdote, and is responsible for the story of Lord Canning's curious revelation which has appeared in no previous work. In all that my brother wrote his actual words have been, as far as possible, retained. The tribute to his memory in the first chapter on the Post Office was written after his decease.
The earliest of the postal reformer's forefathers to achieve fame that outlives him was Sir Rowland Hill, mercer, and Lord Mayor of London in 1549, a native of Hodnet, Shropshire, who founded a Grammar School at Drayton, benefited the London Blue Coat School, was a builder of bridges, and is mentioned by John Stowe. From his brother are descended the three Rowland Hills famous in more modern times—the preacher, the warrior, and the author of Penny Postage. Some of the preacher's witticisms are still remembered, though they are often attributed to his brother cleric, Sydney Smith; Napier, in his “Peninsular War,” speaks very highly of the warrior, who, had Wellington fallen at Waterloo, would have taken the Duke's place, and who succeeded him as Commander-in-Chief when, in 1828, Wellington became Prime Minister. A later common ancestor of the three, a landed proprietor, married twice, and the first wife's children were thrown upon the world to fight their way as best as they could, my paternal grandfather's great-grandfather being one of the dispossessed. But even the blackest cloud has its silver lining; and the fall, by teaching the young people self-help, probably brought out the latent good stuff that was in them. At any rate, family tradition preserves memory of not a few men and women—Hills, or of the stocks with which they married—of whom their descendants have reason to be proud.
There was, for example, John Hill, who served among “the twelve good men and true” on a certain trial, was the only one of them who declined to accept a bribe, and, the fact becoming known, was handsomely complimented by the presiding judge. Thenceforth, whenever the Assizes in that part of the country came round again, John used to be asked after as “the honest juror.” At least two of my father's forebears, a Symonds and a Hill, refused to cast their political votes to order, and were punished for their sturdy independence. The one lived to see a hospital erected in Shrewsbury out of the large fortune for some two hundred years ago of £30,000 which should have come to his wife, the testator's sister; the other, a baker and corn merchant, son to “the honest juror,” saw his supply of fuel required to bake his bread cut off by the local squire, a candidate for Parliament, for whom the worthy baker had dared to refuse to vote. Ovens then were heated by wood, which in this case came from the squire's estate. When next James Hill made the usual application, the faggots were not to be had. He was not discouraged. Wood, he reflected, was dear; coal—much seldomer used then than now—was cheap. He mixed the two, and found the plan succeed, lessened the proportion of wood, and finally dispensed with it altogether. His example was followed by other people: the demand for the squire's firewood languished, and the boycotted voter was presently requested to purchase afresh. “An instance,” says Dr Birkbeck Hill, “of a new kind of faggot vote.”
Another son of “the honest juror” was the first person to grow potatoes in Kidderminster. Some two centuries earlier “the useful tuber” was brought to England; but even in times much nearer our own, so slowly did information travel, that till about 1750 the only denizen of that town who seems to have known of its existence was this second John Hill. When the seeds he sowed came up, blossomed, and turned to berries, these last were cooked and brought to table. Happily no one could eat them; and so the finger of scorn was pointed at the luckless innovator. The plants withered unheeded; but later, the ground being wanted for other crops, was dug up, when, to the amazement of all beholders and hearers, a plentiful supply of fine potatoes was revealed.
On the spindle side also Rowland Hill's family could boast ancestors of whom none need feel ashamed. Among these was the high-spirited, well-dowered orphan girl who, like Clarissa Harlowe, fled from home to escape wedlock with the detested suitor her guardians sought to force upon her. But, unlike Richardson's hapless heroine, this fugitive lived into middle age, maintained herself by her own handiwork—spinning—never sought even to recover her lost fortune, married, left descendants, and fatally risked her life while preparing for burial the pestilence-smitten neighbour whose poor remains his own craven relatives had abandoned. Though she perished untimely, recollection of her married name was preserved to reappear in that of a great-grandson, Matthew Davenport Hill. The husband of Mrs Davenport's only daughter, William Lea, was a man little swayed by the superstitions of his time, as he showed when he broke through a mob of ignorant boors engaged in hounding into a pond a terrified old woman they declared to be a witch, strode into the water, lifted her in his arms, and, heedless of hostile demonstration, bore her to his own home to be nursed back into such strength and sanity as were recoverable. A son of William Lea, during the dreadful cholera visitation of 1832, played, as Provost of Haddington, a part as fearlessly unselfish as that of his grandmother in earlier days, but without losing his life, for his days were long in the land. His sister was Rowland Hill's mother.
On both sides the stocks seem to have been of stern Puritan extraction, theologically narrow, inflexibly honest, terribly in earnest, of healthy life, fine physique—nonagenarians not infrequently. John Symonds, son to him whose wife forfeited succession to her brother, Mr Millington's fortune, because both men were sturdily obstinate in the matter of political creed, was, though a layman, great at extempore prayer and sermon-making. When any young man came a-wooing to one of his bonnie daughters, the father would take the suitor to an inner sanctum, there to be tested as to his ability to get through the like devotional exercises. If the young man failed to come up to the requisite standard he was dismissed, and the damsel reserved for some more proficient rival—James Hill being one of the latter sort. How many suitors of the present day would creditably emerge from that ordeal?
Through this sturdy old Puritan we claim kinship with the Somersetshire family, of whom John Addington Symonds was one, and therefore with the Stracheys; while from other sources comes a collateral descent from “Hudibras” Butler, who seems to have endowed with some of his own genuine wit certain later Hills; as also a relationship with that line of distinguished medical men, the Mackenzies, and with the Rev. Morell Mackenzie, who played a hero's part at the long-ago wreck of the Pegasus.
A neighbour of James Hill was a recluse, who, perhaps, not finding the society of a small provincial town so companionable as the books he loved, forbore “to herd with narrow foreheads,” but made of James a congenial friend. When this man died, the task fell to his executors, James Hill and another, to divide his modest estate. Among the few bequests were two books to young Tom, James's son, a boy with a passion for reading, but possessed of few books, one being a much-mutilated copy of “Robinson Crusoe,” which tantalisingly began with the thrilling words, “more than thirty dancing round a fire.” The fellow executor, knowing well the reputation for uncanny ways with which local gossip had endowed the deceased, earnestly advised his colleague to destroy the volumes, and not permit them to sully young Tom's mind. “Oh, let the boy have the books,” said James Hill, and straightway the legacy was placed in the youthful hands. It consisted of a “Manual of Geography” and Euclid's “Elements.” The effect of their perusal was not to send the reader to perdition, but to call forth an innate love for mathematics, and, through them, a lifelong devotion to astronomy, tastes he was destined to pass on in undiminished ardour to his third son, the postal reformer.
Thomas Wright Hill was brought up in the straitest-laced of Puritan sects, and he has left a graphic description of the mode in which, as a small boy of seven, he passed each Sunday. The windows of the house, darkened by their closed outside shutters, made mirrors in which he saw his melancholy little face reflected; his toys were put away; there were three chapel services, occupying in all some five and a half hours, to which he was taken, and the intervals between each were filled by long extempore prayers and sermon-reading at home, all week-day conversation being rigidly ruled out. The sabbatical observance commenced on Saturday night and terminated on Sunday evening with “a cheerful supper,” as though literally “the evening and the morning were the first day”—an arrangement which, coupled with the habit of bestowing not Christian but Hebrew names upon the children, gives colour to the oft-made allegation that our Puritan ancestors drew their inspiration from the Old rather than from the New Testament. The only portion of these Sunday theological exercises which the poor little fellow really understood was the simple Bible teaching that the tenderly-loved mother gave to him and to his younger brother. While as a young man residing in Birmingham, however, he passed under the influence of Priestley, and became one of his most devoted disciples, several of whom, at the time of the disgraceful “Church and King” riots of 1791, volunteered to defend the learned doctor's house. But Priestley declined all defence, and the volunteers retired, leaving only young Tom, who would not desert his beloved master's threatened dwelling. The Priestley family had found refuge elsewhere, but his disciple stayed alone in the twilight of the barred and shuttered house, which speedily fell a prey to its assailants. Our grandfather used often to tell us children of the events of those terrible days when the mob held the town at their mercy, and were seriously opposed only when, having destroyed so much property belonging to Nonconformity, they next turned their tireless energy towards Conformity's possessions. His affianced wife was as courageous as he, for when while driving in a friend's carriage through Birmingham's streets some of the rioters stopped the horses, and bade her utter the cry “Church and King,” she refused, and was suffered to pass on unmolested. Was it her bravery or her comeliness, or both, that won for her immunity from harm?
ROWLAND HILL'S BIRTHPLACE, KIDDERMINSTER. By permission of the Proprietors of the “Illustrated London News.”
The third son of this young couple, Rowland, the future postal reformer, first saw the light in a house at Kidderminster wherein his father was born, which had already sheltered some generations of Hills, and whose garden was the scene of the potato story. The child was weakly, and, being threatened with spinal trouble, passed much of his infancy in a recumbent position. But the fragile form held a dauntless little soul, and the almost abnormally large brain behind the too pallid forehead was a very active one. As he lay prone, playing with the toys his mother suspended to a cord stretched within easy reach above him; and, later, working out mental arithmetical problems, in which exercise he found delight, and to the weaving of alluring daydreams, he presently fell to longing for some career—what it should be he knew not—that should leave his country the better for his having lived in it. The thoughts of boys are often, the poet tells us, “long, long thoughts,” but it is not given to every one to see those daydreams realised. Though what is boy (or girl) worth who has not at times entertained healthily ambitious longings for a great future?
As he grew stronger he presently came to help his father in the school the latter had established at Birmingham, in which his two elder brothers, aged fifteen and fourteen, were already at work. The family was far from affluent, and its young members were well aware that on their own exertions depended their future success. For them there was no royal road to learning or to anything else; and even as children they learned to be self-reliant. From the age of twelve onwards, my father, indeed, was self-supporting. Like Chaucer's poor parson, the young Hill brothers learned while they taught, even sometimes while on their way to give a lesson, as did my father when on a several miles long walk to teach an equally ignorant boy the art of Navigation; and perhaps because life had to be taken so seriously, they valued the hardly-acquired knowledge all the more highly. Their father early accustomed his children to discuss with him and with each other the questions of the time—a time which must always loom large in the history of our land. Though he mingled in the talk, “it was,” my Uncle Matthew said, “a match of mind against mind, in which the rules of fair play were duly observed; and we put forth our little strength without fear. The sword of authority was not thrown into the scale.... We were,” added the writer, “born to a burning hatred of tyranny.” And no wonder, for in the early years of the last century tyranny was a living, active force.
If, to quote Blackstone, “punishment of unreasonable severity” with a view to “preventing crimes and amending the manners of a people” constitute a specific form of tyranny, the fact that in 1795, the year of Rowland Hill's birth, the pillory, the stocks, and the whipping-post were still in use sufficiently attests this “unreasonable severity.” In March 1789, less than seven years before his birth, a yet more terrible punishment was still in force. A woman—the last thus “judicially murdered”—was burnt at the stake; and a writer in Notes and Queries, of 21st September 1851, tells its readers that he was present on the occasion. Her offence was coining, and she was mercifully strangled before being executed. Women were burnt at the stake long after that awful death penalty was abolished in the case of the more favoured sex. The savage cruelty of the criminal code at this time and later is also indicated by the fact that over 150 offences were punishable by death. Even in 1822, a date within the recollection of persons still living, and notwithstanding the efforts made by Sir Samuel Romilly and others to humanise that code, capital punishment was still terribly common. In that year, on two consecutive Monday mornings, my father, arriving by coach in London from Birmingham, passed within sight of Newgate. Outside its walls, on the first occasion, the horrified passengers counted nineteen bodies hanging in a row; on the second, twenty-one.
During my father's childhood and youth this country was almost constantly engaged in war. Within half a mile of my grandfather's house the forging of gun barrels went on all but incessantly, the work beginning before dawn and lasting till long after nightfall. The scarcely-ending din of the hammers was varied only by the occasional rattle from the proof shed; and the shocks and jars had disastrous effect upon my grandmother's brewings of beer. Meanwhile “The Great Shadow,” graphically depicted by Sir A. Conan Doyle, was an actual dread that darkened our land for years. And the shadow of press-gang raids was a yet greater dread alike to the men who encountered them, sometimes to disappear for ever, and to the women who were frequently bereft of their bread-winners. It is, however, pleasant to remember that sometimes the would-be captors became the captured. A merchant vessel lying in quarantine in Southampton Water, her yellow flag duly displayed, but hanging in the calm weather so limply that it was hardly observable, was boarded by a press-gang who thought to do a clever thing by impressing some of the sailors. These, seeing what was the invaders' errand, let them come peaceably on deck, when the quarantine officer took possession of boat and gang, and detained both for six weeks.
For those whose means were small—a numerous class at that time—there was scant patronage of public conveyances, such as they were. Thus the young Hill brothers had to depend on their own walking powers when minded to visit the world that lay beyond their narrow horizon. And to walking tours, often of great length, they were much given in holiday time, tours which took them to distant places of historic interest, of which Rowland brought back memorials in his sketch book. Beautiful, indeed, were the then green lanes of the Midlands, though here and there they were disfigured by the presence of some lonely gibbet, the chains holding its dismal “fruit” clanking mournfully in windy weather. Whenever it was possible, the wayfarer made a round to avoid passing the gruesome object.
One part of the country, lying between Birmingham and Wolverhampton, a lonely heath long since covered with factories and houses, known as the “Lie Waste,” was also not pleasant to traverse, though the lads occasionally had to do so. A small collection of huts of mud-and-wattle construction sheltered some of our native savages—for they were nothing else—whose like has happily long been “improved off the face” of the land. These uncouth beings habitually and literally went “on all fours.” Whether the attitude was assumed in consequence of the low roofs of their dwellings, or the outcasts chose that mode of progression in imitation of the animals which were their ordinary companions, history does not say, but they moved with wonderful celerity both in and out of doors. At sight of any passer-by they were apt to “rear,” and then oaths, obscene language, and missiles of whatever sort was handy would be their mildest greeting, while more formidable attack was likely to be the lot of those who ventured too near their lairs. Among these people the Hill boys often noticed a remarkably handsome girl, as great a savage as the rest.
As the three elder brothers grew well into their teens, much of the school government fell to their lot, always with the parental sanction, and ere long it was changed in character, and became a miniature republic. Trial by jury for serious offences was instituted, the judge being my grandfather or one of his sons, and the jury the culprit's fellow-pupils. Corporal punishment, then perhaps universal in schools, was abolished, and the lads, being treated as reasonable creatures, early learned to be a self-respecting because a self-governing community. The system, which in this restricted space cannot be described in detail, was pre-eminently a success, since it turned out pupils who did it and themselves credit. “All the good I ever learned was learned at Hazelwood,” I once heard say a cheery old clergy-man, probably one of the last surviving “boys.” The teaching was efficiently carried on, and the development of individual talent was wisely encouraged, the pupils out of school hours being allowed to exercise the vocation to which each was inclined, or which, owing to this practice, was discovered in each. Thus in boyhood Follet Osler, the inventor of the anemometer and other scientific instruments, was enabled to bring to light those mechanical abilities which, till he exhibited their promise during his hours of voluntary work, were unsuspected even by his nearest of kin. Again, Thomas Creswick, R.A., found an outlet for his love of art in drawing, though, being a very little fellow when he began, some of these studies—of public buildings in Birmingham—were very funny, the perspective generally having the “Anglo-Saxon” peculiarities, and each edifice being afflicted with a “list” out of the perpendicular as pronounced as that of Pisa's leaning tower—or nearly so.
The fame of the “Hazelwood system” spread afar, and many of our then most distinguished fellow-countrymen visited the school. Among the rest, Bentham gave it his hearty approval; and Captain Basil Hall, the writer of once popular books for boys, spoke of the evident existence of friendly terms between masters and pupils, declared the system to be “a curious epitome of real life,” and added that the boys were not converted into little men, but remained boys, only with heads and hands fully employed on topics they liked.
Visitors also came from foreign lands. Bernadotte's son, Prince Oscar, afterwards first king of Sweden of that name, travelled to Hazelwood, examined the novel system, and, later, established at Stockholm a “Hillska Scola.” From France, among other people, came M. Jullien, once secretary to Robespierre—what thrilling tales of the Great Revolution must he not have been able to tell!—and afterwards a wise philanthropist and eminent writer on education. He sent a son to Hazelwood. President Jefferson, when organising the University of Virginia, asked for a copy of “Public Education,” the work describing the system and the joint production of Rowland, who found the ideas, Matthew, who supplied the composition, and, as regards a few suggestions, of a younger brother, Arthur. Greece, Spain, far-off Mexico even, in course of time sent pupils either to Hazelwood or to Bruce Castle, Tottenham, to which then picturesque and somewhat remote London suburb the school was ultimately transferred. “His Excellency, the Tripolitan Ambassador,” wrote my father in his diary of 1823, “has informed us that he has sent to Tripoli for six young Africans; and the Algerine Ambassador, not to be outdone by his piratical brother, has sent for a dozen from Algiers.” Happily, neither contingent put in an appearance. In both cases the enthusiasm evoked seems to have been short-lived.
BRUCE CASTLE SCHOOL, TOTTENHAM. By permission of Messrs. De La Rue.
An old Hazelwood pupil, Mr E. Edwards, in his written sketch of “Sir Rowland Hill,” said of the school that no similar establishment “in the world, probably at that time, contained such an array of costly models, instruments, apparatus, and books. There was an observatory upon the top of the house fitted with powerful astronomical instruments. The best microscopes obtainable were at hand. Models of steam and other engines were all over the place. Air-pumps and electrical machines were familiar objects. Maps, then comparatively rare, lined the walls. Drawing and mathematical instruments were provided in profusion. Etching was taught, and a copper press was there for printing the pupils' efforts in that way. A lithographic press and stones of various sizes were provided, so that the young artists might print copies of their drawings to send to their admiring relatives. Finally, a complete printing press with ample founts of type was set up to enable the boys themselves to print a monthly magazine connected with the school and its doings.” Other attractions were a well fitted-up carpenter's shop; a band, the musicians being the pupils; the training of the boys in vocal music; a theatre in which the manager, elocution teacher, scene painter, etc., were the young Hill brothers, the costumière their sister Caroline, and the actors the pupils; the control of a sum of money for school purposes; and the use of a metallic coinage received as payment for the voluntary work already mentioned, and by which certain privileges could be purchased.
My grandfather inspired his sons and pupils with a longing to acquire knowledge, at the same time so completely winning their hearts by his good comradeship, that they readily joined him in the long and frequent walks of which he was fond, and in the course of which his walking stick was wont to serve to make rough drawings of problems, etc., in road or pathway. “His mathematical explanations,” wrote another old pupil in the “Essays of a Birmingham Manufacturer” (W. L. Sargent), “were very clear; and he looked at the bearings of every subject irrespective of its conventionalities. His definition of a straight line has been said to be the best in existence.”
THOMAS WRIGHT HILL. By permission of Messrs. Thos. De La Rue.
In my father's “Life,” Dr Birkbeck Hill, when writing of his recollections of our grandfather, said that it seemed “as if the aged man were always seated in perpetual sunshine. How much of the brightness and warmth must have come from his own cheerful temperament?... His Sunday morning breakfasts live in the memory like a landscape of Claude's.” At these entertainments the old man would sit in his easy-chair, at the head of the largest table the house could boast, in a circle of small, adoring grandchildren, the intervening, severe generation being absent; and of all the joyous crowd his perhaps was the youngest heart. There were other feasts, those of reason and the flow of soul, with which he also delighted his young descendants: stories of the long struggle in the revolted “American Colonies,” of the Great French Revolution, and of other interesting historical dramas which he could well remember, and equally well describe.
His old pupils would come long distances to see him; and on one occasion several of them subscribed to present him with a large telescope, bearing on it a graven tribute of their affectionate regard. This greatly prized gift was in use till within a short time of his last illness.
Young Rowland had a strong bent towards art, as he showed when, at the age of thirteen, he won the prize, a handsome box of water-colour paints, offered by the proprietor of the London School Magazine for “the best original landscape drawing by the youth of all England, under the age of sixteen.” He painted the scenery for the school theatre, and made many water-colour sketches in different parts of our island, his style much resembling that of David Cox. He was an admirer of Turner long before Ruskin “discovered” that great painter; and, as his diary shows, marvelled at the wondrous rendering of atmospheric effects exhibited in his idol's pictures. Nearly all my father's scenery and sketches perished in a fire which partially burnt down Hazelwood School; and few are now in existence. After the age of seventeen he gave up painting, being far too busy to devote time to art, but he remained a picture-lover to the end of his days. Once during the long war with France he had an adventure which might have proved serious. He was sketching Dover Castle, when a soldier came out of the fortress and told him to cease work. Not liking the man's manner, the youthful artist went on painting unconcernedly. Presently a file of soldiers, headed by a corporal, appeared, and he was peremptorily ordered to withdraw. Then the reason for the interference was revealed: he was taken for a spy. My father at once laid aside his brush; he had no wish to be shot.
In 1835 Rowland Hill resigned to a younger brother, Arthur, the head-mastership of Bruce Castle School, and accepted the post of secretary to the Colonisation Commissioners for South Australia, whose chairman was Colonel Torrens. Another commissioner was John Shaw Lefevre, later a famous speaker of the House of Commons, who, as Lord Eversley, lived to a patriarchal age. But the prime mover in the scheme for colonising this portion of the “Island Continent” was that public-spirited man, Edward Gibbon Wakefield. William IV. took much interest in the project, and stipulated that the chief city should bear the name of his consort—Adelaide.
The Commissioners were capable men, and were ably assisted by the South Australian Company, which much about the same time was started mainly through the exertions of Mr G. F. Angas. Among the many excellent rules laid down by the Commissioners was one which insisted on the making of a regular and efficient survey both of the emigrant ships and of the food they carried. As sailing vessels were then the only transports, the voyage lasted several months, and the comfort of the passengers was of no small importance. “When,” said my father in his diary, “defects and blemishes were brought to light by the accuracy of the survey, and the stipulated consequences enforced, an outcry arose as if the connection between promise and performance were an unheard-of and most unwarrantable innovation. After a time, however, as our practice became recognised, evasive attempts grew rare, the first expense being found to be the least.” He often visited the port of departure, and witnessed the shipping off of the emigrants—always an interesting occasion, and one which gave opportunities of personal supervision of matters. Being once at Plymouth, my mother and he boarded a vessel about to sail for the new colony. Among the passengers was a bright young Devonian, apparently an agriculturist; and my father, observing him, said to my mother: “I feel sure that man will do well.” The remark was overheard, but the Devonian made no sign. He went to Australia poor, and returned wealthy, bought an estate close to his birth-place which was in the market, and there settled. But before sailing hither, he bought at one of the Adelaide banks the finest one of several gold nuggets there displayed, and, armed with this, presented himself at my father's house, placed his gift in my mother's hand, and told how the casual remark made forty years before had helped to spur him on to success.
The story of Rowland Hill and a mysteriously vanished rotatory printing press may be told here.
In 1790 Mr William Nicholson devised a scheme for applying to ordinary type printing the already established process of printing calico by revolving cylinders. The impressions were to be taken from his press upon successive sheets of paper, as no means of producing continuous rolls had as yet been invented; but the machine worked far from satisfactorily, and practically came to nothing. A quarter of a century later Mr Edward Cowper applied Nicholson's idea to stereotype plates bent to a cylindrical surface. But till the advent of “Hill's machine” (described at the Patent Office as “A.D. 1835, No. 6762”) all plans for fixing movable types on a cylinder had failed. It is therefore incontestable that the first practical scheme of printing on a continuous roll of paper by revolving cylinders was invented and set to work by Rowland Hill in the year named. The machine was intended mainly for the rapid printing of newspapers, but the refusal of the Treasury to allow an arrangement by which the Government stamp could be affixed by an ingenious mechanical device as the scroll passed through the press—a refusal withdrawn later—deferred for many years the introduction of any rotatory printing machine.
The apparatus was kept at my Uncle Matthew's chambers in Chancery Lane, and was often shown to members of the trade and others. Although driven by hand only, it threw off impressions at the rate of 7,000 or 8,000 an hour, a much higher speed than that hitherto attained by any other machine. But from 1836 onwards my father's attention was almost wholly taken up with his postal reform, and it was only after his retirement from the Post Office in 1864 that his mind reverted to the subject of the printing press. Several years before the latter date his brother had left London; but of the rotatory printing machine, bulky and ponderous as it was, a few small odds and ends—afterwards exhibited at the Caxton Exhibition in 1877—alone remained.
In 1866 the once well-known “Walter Press” was first used in the Times office. Of this machine my father has said that “except as regards the apparatus for cutting and distributing the printed sheets, and excepting further that the 'Walter Press' (entered at the Patent Office as “A.D. 1866, No. 3222”) is only adapted for printing from stereotype plates, while mine would not only print from stereotype plates, but, what is more difficult, from movable types also, the two machines are almost identical. ” He added that “the enormous difficulty of bringing a complex machine into practical use—a difficulty familiar to every inventor—has been most successfully overcome by Messrs Calverley and Macdonald, the patentees.”
By whom and through what agency the machine patented in 1835 was apparently transported from Chancery Lane to Printing House Square is a mystery which at this distant date is hardly likely to be made clear.
It has always been a tradition in our family that the courtship between Rowland Hill and Caroline Pearson began when their united ages amounted to eleven years only, the boy being by twelve months the elder. The families on both sides lived at the time at Wolverhampton, and the first kiss is said to have been exchanged inside a large culvert which crossed beneath the Tettenhall Road in the neighbourhood of the Hills' house, and served to conduct a tiny rivulet, apt in wet weather to become a swollen stream, into its chosen channel on the other side the way. The boy delighted to creep within this shelter—often dry in summer—and listen to the rumbling overhead of the passing vehicles. Noisy, ponderous wains some of these were, with wheels of great width and strength, and other timbers in like proportion; but to the small listener the noisier the more enjoyable. These wains have long vanished from the roads they helped to wear out, the railway goods trains having superseded them, although of late years the heavy traction engines, often drawing large trucks after them, seem likely to occupy the place filled by their forgotten predecessors. Little Rowland naturally wished to share the enchanting treat with “Car,” as he generally called his new friend, and hand in hand the “wee things” set off one day to the Tettenhall Road. Many years later the elderly husband made a sentimental journey to the spot, and was amazed at the culvert's apparent shrinkage in size. Surely, a most prosaic spot for the beginning of a courtship!
The father of this little girl was Joseph Pearson, a man held in such high esteem by his fellow-citizens that after the passing of the great Reform Bill in 1832 he was asked to become one of Wolverhampton's first two members. He was, however, too old for the wear and tear of Parliamentary life, though when the General Election came on he threw himself with all his accustomed zeal into the struggle, and was, as a consequence, presently laid up with a temporary ailment, which caused one of his political foes to declare that “If Mr Pearson's gout would only last three weeks longer we might get our man in.” These words coming to Mr Pearson's ears, he rose from his sick-bed, gout or no gout, and plunged afresh into the fray, with so much energy that “we” did not “get our man in,” but the other side did.
“He was,” once said a many years old friend, “conspicuous for his breadth of mind, kindness of heart, and public spirit.” He hated the cruel sports common in his time, and sought unceasingly to put them down. One day, while passing the local bull-ring, he saw a crowd of rough miners and others preparing to bait a bull. He at once strode into their midst, liberated the animal, pulled up or broke off the stake, and carried it away on his shoulder. Was it his pluck, or his widespread popularity that won the forbearance of the semi-savage by-standers? At any rate, not a hostile finger was laid upon him. Meanwhile, he remembered that if brutalising pastimes are put down, it is but right that better things should be set in their place. Thus the local Mechanics' Institute, British Schools, Dispensary, and other beneficent undertakings, including rational sports for every class, owed their origin chiefly to him; and, aided by his friend John Mander, and by the Rev. John Carter, a poor, hard-working Catholic priest, he founded the Wolverhampton Free Library.
Joseph Pearson was one of the most hospitable and genial of men, and, for his time, a person of some culture. He detested cliques and coteries, those paralysing products of small provincial towns, and would have naught to do with them. Men of great variety of views met round his dinner-table, and whenever it seemed necessary he would preface the repast with the request that theology and politics should be avoided. With his Catholic neighbours—Staffordshire was a stronghold of the “Old Religion” —the sturdy Nonconformist was on the happiest of terms, and to listen to the conversation of the often well-travelled, well-educated priests was to him a never-failing pleasure. For Catholic Emancipation he strove heartily and long. With all sects he was friendly, but chiefly his heart went out to those who in any way had suffered for their faith. One effect of this then not too common breadth of view was seen when, after his death, men of all denominations followed him to his grave, and the handsomest of the several journalistic tributes to his memory appeared in the columns of his inveterate political and theological opponent, the local Tory paper. A ward in the Hospital and a street were called after the whilom “king of Wolverhampton.”
JOSEPH PEARSON. From a Photograph by Messrs. Whiteley & Co. The bust was the last work of Sir Francis Chantry.
He had three daughters, of whom my mother was the eldest. His wife died young, and before her sixteenth year Caroline became mistress of his house, and thus acquired the ease of manner and knowledge of social duties which made of her the charming hostess who, in later years, presided over her husband's London house. She will make a brief reappearance in other pages of this work.
Joseph Pearson's youngest daughter, Clara, was a beautiful girl, a frequent “toast” at social gatherings in the three counties of Stafford, Warwick, and Worcester—for toasts in honour of reigning belles were still drunk at festivities in provincial Assembly Rooms and elsewhere, what time the nineteenth century was in its teens. When very young she became engaged to her cousin, Lieutenant (afterwards Captain) Alexander Pearson, R.N., who at the time of Napoleon's sojourn at St Helena was stationed there, being attached to the man-of-war commanded by Admiral Plampin. One gift which Lieutenant Pearson gave my aunt she kept to the end of her life—a lock of Napoleon's hair. Lieutenant Pearson often saw the ex-Emperor, and, many years after, described him to us children—how, for instance, he would stand, silent and with folded arms, gazing long and fixedly seaward as though waiting for the rescue which never came. The lieutenant was one of the several young naval officers who worshipped at the shrine of the somewhat hoydenish Miss “Betsy” Balcombe, who comes into most stories of St. Helena of that time. Wholly unabashed by consideration of the illustrious captive's former greatness, she made of him a playmate—perhaps a willing one, for life must have been terribly dreary to one whose occupation, like that of Othello, was gone. Occasionally she shocked her hearers by addressing the ex-Emperor as “Boney,” though it is possible that the appellation so frequently heard in the mouths of his British enemies had no osseous association in his own ears, but was accepted as an endearing diminutive. One day, in the presence of several witnesses, our cousin being among them, she possessed herself of a sword, flourished it playfully before her, hemmed Napoleon into a corner, and, holding the blade above his head, laughingly exclaimed: “Maintenant j'ai vaincu le vanqueur du monde!” But there was no answering laugh; the superstitious Corsican turned pale, made some short, unintelligible reply, left the room, and was depressed and taciturn for the rest of the day. It was surmised that he took the somewhat tactless jest for an omen that a chief who had been beaten by a woman would never again lead an army of men.
During Rowland Hill's prime, and until the final breakdown of his health, our house was a favourite haunt of the more intimate of his many clever friends. Scientific, medical, legal, artistic, literary, and other prominent men met, exchanged views, indulged in deep talk, bandied repartee, and told good stories at breakfast and dinner parties; the economists mustering in force, and plainly testifying by their bearing and conversation that, whatever ignorant people may say of the science they never study, its professors are often the very reverse of dismal. If Dr Southwood Smith and Mr (later Sir Edwin) Chadwick's talk at times ran gruesomely on details of “intramural interment,” the former, at least, had much quaint humour, and was deservedly popular; while Dr Neil Arnott, whose chief hobbies were fabled to be those sadly prosaic things, stoves, water-beds, and ventilation, but who was actually a distinguished physician, natural philosopher, author, and traveller, was even, when long past sixty, one of the gayest and youngest of our guests: a mimic, but never an ill-natured one, a spinner of amusing yarns, and frankly idolised by the juvenile members of the family whose minds he mercifully never attempted to improve.
Charles Wentworth Dilke, founder of the Athenæum newspaper, a famous journalist and influential man of letters, at whose house one met every writer, to say nothing of other men and women, worth knowing, was another charming old man, to listen to whose talk was a liberal education. Did we walk with him on Hampstead Heath, where once he had a country house, he became an animated guide-book guiltless of a dull page, telling us of older times than our own, and of dead and gone worthies who had been guests at “Wentworth House.” On this much worn, initial-carven, wooden seat used often to sit Keats listening to the nightingales, and, maybe, thinking of Fanny Brawne. At another spot the weakly-framed poet had soundly thrashed a British rough who was beating his wife. Across yonder footpath used to come from Highgate “the archangel a little damaged,” as Charles Lamb called Coleridge. At that road corner, in a previous century, were wont to gather the visitors returning from the Well Walk “pump-room,” chalybeate spring, and promenade, till they were in sufficient force to be safe from highwaymen or footpads who frequented the then lonely road to London. In a yet earlier century certain gallant Spanish gentlemen attached to Philip and Mary's court, rescued some English ladies from molestation by English ruffians; and memorials of this episode live in the still traceable circle of trees whose predecessors were planted by the grateful ladies, and in the name of the once quaint old hostelry hard by, and of the road known as the Spaniards.
Another wanderer about Hampstead's hills and dales was the great Thackeray, who was often accompanied by some of the family of Mr Crowe, a former editor of the Daily News, and father to Eyre Crowe, R.A., and Sir Joseph Archer Crowe. These wanderings seem to have suggested a few of the names bestowed by Thackeray on the characters in his novels, such as “Jack Belsize” and “Lord Highgate,” while the title of “Marquess of Steyne” is reminiscent of another Thackerayan haunt—“Dr” Brighton. Hampstead still better knew Dickens, who is mentioned later in these pages. The two writers are often called rivals; yet novels and men were wholly unlike. Each was a peerless genius in his own line, and each adorned any company in which he moved. Yet, while Dickens was the life and soul of every circle, Thackeray—perhaps the only male novelist who could draw a woman absolutely true to life—always struck us as rather silent and self-absorbed, like one who is studying the people around him with a view to their reproduction in as yet unwritten pages. His six feet of height and proportionate breadth, his wealth of grey hair, and the spectacles he was said never to be seen without, made of him a notable figure everywhere. Yet, however outwardly awe-inspiring, he was the kindliest of satirists, the truest of friends, and has been fitly described as “the man who had the heart of a woman.” At the Athenæum Club he was often seen writing by the hour together in some quiet corner, evidently unconscious of his surroundings, at times enjoying a voiceless laugh, or again, perhaps when telling of Colonel Newcome's death, with “a moisture upon his cheek which was not dew.”
Another literary friend—we had many—was William Henry Wills, also mentioned later: a kind friend to struggling authors, who did not a little to start Miss Mulock on her career as authoress, and who made her known to us. He once told us a curious story about an old uncle with whom as a lad he used to stay in the days before the invasion of the west country by railways with their tendency to modernisation of out-of-the-way places. This ancient man lived in a large ancestral mansion, and literally “dined in hall” with his entire household. There was a sanded floor—formerly, no doubt, rush-strewn—and the family and their “retainers” sat down together at a very long table to the midday repast, the servants taking their place literally “below the salt,” which was represented by a large bowl filled with that necessary concomitant. In how many other country houses did this mediæval custom last into the first third of the nineteenth century? Mrs Wills—only sister to the Chambers brothers, William and Robert, who, together with our other publisher friend, Charles Knight, did so much to cheapen the cost and in every way to raise the tone of literature—was, in addition to possessing great charm of manner, an admirable amateur actress, and an unrivalled singer of Scottish songs.
Hampstead, midway in the nineteenth century, was still a picturesque little town, possessed of several stately old houses—one known as Sir Harry Vane's—whose gardens were in some cases entered through tall, wide, iron gates of elaborate design which now would be accounted priceless. It was still the resort of artists, many of whom visited the pleasant house of Edwin Wilkins Field, conspicuous among the public-spirited men who rescued from the builder-fiend the Heath, and made of it a London “lung” and a joy for ever; himself a lawyer, the inspirer of the Limited Liability Act, and an accomplished amateur water-colour painter. His first wife was a niece of Rogers, the banker-poet, famous for his breakfast parties and table talk. At Mr Field's house we came first to know Clarkson Stanfield, R.A., the famous sea-scape painter, and his family, who were musical as well as artistic, and gave delightful parties. It was said that Stanfield was familiar with the build and rig of a ship down to its minutest detail, because he and his lifelong friend and fellow Royal Academician, David Roberts, ran away from school together to sea at a time when life on the ocean wave seemed to most boys the ideal existence. To the last, Stanfield looked like an old sea-dog, and was bluff, hearty and genial. Hampstead still remembers him with pride; and “Stanfield House,” wherein the first really good local Free Library was sheltered, is so called because for nearly twenty years it was his dwelling.
At the Fields' house, among other celebrities, artistic, literary and legal, we also met Turner; and it was to “Squire's Mount,” and at a crowded evening party there that a characteristic anecdote of this eccentric, gifted painter belongs. The taciturn, gloomy-looking guest had taken an early farewell of host and hostess, and disappeared, only to return some minutes later, wonderfully and fearfully apparelled, and silently commence a search about the drawing-room. Suddenly he seemed to recollect, approached a sofa on which sat three handsomely-attired ladies, whose indignant countenances were a sight for gods and men when the abruptly-mannered artist called on them to rise. He then half dived beneath the seat, drew forth a dreadfully shabby umbrella of the “Gamp” species, and, taking no more notice of the irate three than if they had been so many chairs, withdrew—this time for good. Turner had a hearty contempt for the Claude worship, and was resolved to expose its hollowness. He bequeathed to the nation two of his finest oil paintings on condition that they were placed in the Trafalgar Square Gallery beside two of Claude's which already hung there, and to this day act as foils. A custodian of the Gallery once told me that he was present when Turner visited the room in which were the two Claudes, took a foot-rule from his pocket and measured their frames, doubtless in order that his own should be of like dimensions.