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Autobiography of a Working Man
Chapter II


The dear years of 1816 and 1817 were now upon us* and they were hard times for the poor, ill times for everybody. The potatoes were bad and few. Our dinner consisted of these potatoes, and one or two salt herrings, divided among five or six of us—all who were at home. My father worked two miles off at the Skateraw lime kilns; went away every morning before light and came home after dark, having taken a piece of bread made of oatmeal and a bottle of milk with him, the usual bread of barley and beans being too hard for his decaying teeth. This was for his day’s subsistence. Yet upon pueh fare as that he had the reputation, as 1 have since learned from those who worked with him, of being one pf the best borers in the limestone quarry ; and he was certainly by far the best skilled in books of divinity and general reading, which was of some importance even as regarded the working of the quarry. The “Marrow of Modern Divinity,” a favourite book with him, might not be in all respects a substitute for a marrow bone, but he was strong in conversation or controversy, and kept his spirits up for hard work on that strength. Another reader in the quarry was Robert Wallace, whose wife taught him to read after marriage, and who at the time when my father was in the quarry had read eighteen different authors on astronomy, besides many others on other subjects. Robert Wallace had never seen the stars through 9, telescope, but he knew all that books could tell him of the celestial system. He would travel twenty miles on a Sunday, and back again, to borrow a book on astronomy. He was rather deaf and seldom went to church. He would get a wheaten flour loaf (having no partiality for the hard bean and barley scones), and would scoop out part of the inside of the loaf, fill the vacancy with treacle or with sugar, go out on the Sunday mornings and find a retired spot inside some corn-field, and lie there all day reading about astronomy and eating his favourite feast of bread and treacle. The last time I was in that vicinity I saw this lost genius, aged and frail, raking the mud off the turnpike road, for a very small sum of wages, near Dunbar. I believe he still lives, and is very poor.

To return to the dear years of 1816 and 1817. I remember that on one occasion our potatoes had dwindled to very nearly none. Those left lay in a corner in the pantry behind the door, and my mother never went into the pantry without drawing a heavy sigh, and saying that she “wondered what in the world would come of us when they would be all done.” Our door opened into the straw close where a number of large, hungry, homed cattle were eating straw. They should have been eating turnips, but the turnip crop had been a failure that year as well as the potato crop. One of these animals had, unseen, made his way into the pantry, and was fast engaged in making a finish of our little stock of potatoes. I and my sisters Mary and Janet—all children, and the only creatures near, except our mother, heard a noise in the pantry and ran to see what it was, and there was our poor mother battling with this horned ox to get him out, and to save the potatoes, he almost too large to turn, even if he had been willing to turn ; but he was not willing. His hide and hair were so thick that he cared nothing for all the blows which our mother could give him. He kicked out with his hind feet, and kept eating. In desperation to save the potatoes, my mother got up to his head between his large horns and the wall, and backed him out with blows of the tongs, while he butted and tossed his head* It was a dreadful sight to us; when the brute was dislodged, our poor mother sat down and cried over the loss of the potatoes. We all cried too, and bitter tears they were which we shed, one and all of us.

The next epoch in my life was going to schooL This did not occur until I was in my eighth year, partly because I was taught to read at home, partly because the school was two miles away, and there were no other children to accompany me, and take care of me; for a notion prevailed, not altogether unfounded, that I could not take care of myself. I had all the appearance of a soft, helpless lad, that could not meet a stone without stumbling, or a pool without going into it to the knees. But the chief reason for not being sent sooner to school, I believe, was the want of elothes, such as the affectionate feelings of my father and mother wished me to go in— simply something else than rags; and these were not to be had until 1818, when markets fell, and food being cheaper, it became possible to get clothes.

My sister Mary was also to go to school for one quarter. We went off one Monday morning, and our mother with us. I see her now before me with her red “stamped” gown on, and her shawl, and her velvet bonnet. I see the gown as if it had never been absent from my eyes. The place of the school was Bimynows, a hamlet of about twenty houses, forming a kind of square fifty yards wide, the square filled with pigstyes, dunghills, stagnant pools, and stacks of firewood. The houses in the square were all miserable thatched sheds, save one, the house of George Dickison, a weaver.

Outside the square were two or three better houses an# weavers’ shops. The thatched hovels were chiefly inhabited by the hinds and other labourers of the great farmer of the neighbourhood, who at that time occupied three farms, each of them large. One of the oldest and most infirm of the thatched houses was the school-room. The school-master was a lame man, and was a teacher only because he was lame. It was not a parish school; but he had a local fame as a good teacher, and though* as will be seen, I have no reason to remember him with much respect, I must say that, excepting the inordinate and cruel use of the taws for punishment, his system of teaching was better than that of any of the parish schools pear us at that time.

My mother saw the schoolmaster in the house of George Dickison, the weaver, and some of the pupils, pleased to see “new scholars” come, took us into the school, and so my education, having got a twopenny Spelling book, began. The first six weeks were consumed in learning to forget to name the letters as my father and mother had named them; that once accomplished, I got on pretty well; for though the spelling-books were made up of lessons with no meaning in them, nr a meaning of sheer nonsense, I had a desire to know what that nonsense was. In short, I read as well as I could, and tried to read -better, and ran before the lesson I was at, to see what the next one said. In this way I was getting on, and had not got much punishment, not so much as several other children reading with me, when one day I came in rather late in the morning. I was instantly called up and questioned as to why I was too late. The schoolmaster was a very polite man in his own way, but he had never taught us the polite designation of vulgar things. After some hesitation, I, in my innocence, gave him an answer which offended him; upon which he took his great leathern belt, thirty inches long, two and a half inches broad, which was split half way up into six thongs, the end1 of each having been burned in the fire to make it hard; the other end of the belt having a slit in it, into which he put his hand and wound it round his Wrist. With this instrument, called the taws, he thrashed me on the hands, head, face, neck, shoulders, back, legs, everywhere, until I was blistered. He wanted me ta cry, but I would not, and never did for pain or punishment then nor since, though my flesh is nervous and extremely sensitive. I have cried when excessive kindness has been used to me, not when cruelty was used.

I sat sullen and in torture all the day, my poor sister Mary glancing at me from her book, she not crying, but her heart beating as if it would burst for me. When we got out of the school to go home, and were away from all the other scholars on our own lonely road to Thriepland Hill, she soothed me with kind words, and we cried then, both of us. We could not tell at home what had happened; our mother would have deeply grieved, and our father* we supposed, would think it all right what the schoolmaster had done, for he believed in his infallibility as a teacher.

My sister went no more to the school than that quarter, having to go to the fields to help to work for the family bread. When the summer of 1819 came, I left School also, to herd the farmer’s cows. In the winter of 1819 I again went to school, and got into severe trouble with the teacher on one occasion. It happened thus r some sons of farmers, and sons of other people who read newspapers, told one another of a terrible set of men in some part of the kingdom, called radicals, who were threatening to take the lives and destroy the property of all good people; that only for the soldiers, who stopped them, the radicals would have come to Bimynows before that time, and would hare burned it, and killed every* body. And then one boy would say be was not afraid of the radicals, for be bad an uncle wbo was a soldier, and another bad a brother a soldier, and a farmer’s son would say that his father was in the yeomanry and bad a sword, and saddle with bolster pipes, and pistols in the bolster pipes, and neither be nor bis father were afraid: he would get his father to kill all the radicals who offered to touch him, for they were only ragged weavers, half starved and not able to fight; and the other boys whose brothers and uncles were soldiers, would say that they would go to such brother or such uncle, and get him to kill the radicals that offered to touch them; though, for aught the foolish boys knew, their military relations might be in the East or the West Indies, while those people called radicals, were, so far as Scotland was concerned, located about Glasgow, seventy miles from us.

Perhaps, before I go further, I should tell you who and what the radicals were. They were people who complained that the country was not governed as it should be, that the laws were not made by those who should have made the laws. They were grieved to be excluded from voting for members of parliament, and they felt at the same time that food was dear, wages low, and taxation very high. They said that those circumstances must be altered, and in changing them they must go to the root of the evil, and effect a radical change; the word radical meaning “original” or “primitive,” and they meaning by using it that they must reform the laws of the country by beginning at the beginning, by pulling down the constitution to the foundation and building up a new one. Many persons used the term “radical reform,” who did not mean to destroy the constitution, or existing form of government, but only to lop off such portions of it as they deemed corrupt. The

great body of the radicals was composed of honest working people; but there were attached to them a few persons of wealth and high social station, while all below the working classes, that is to say, the idle, and dissolute, and the rambling makers of speeches, who went from town to town exciting the industrious people to rise against the law and effect a radical reformation, or revolution, by force of guns, pistols, and pikes, were as a matter of course called, and were proud to be called radicals. Those last succeeded in getting many of the more honest men and youths to join them with pikes, pistols, guns, old swords, old scythes, cudgels, and other weapons of offence, in the neighbourhood of Glasgow; from which place they marched into the country to do, what, they hardly knew, and were abandoned by those leaders and instigators who had given information to the authorities where and when the radicals were to be met with, and who then slunk away to live on the rewards paid to them, leaving the radicals with their guns, pistols, pikes, swords, scythes, and cudgels, to be dispersed, slain, or taken prisoners, some of them to be afterwards tried, condemned, and hanged, and beheaded after they were hanged, for high treason.

In other parts of the kingdom, particularly in London and Manchester, there were radicals rising against the law, and the law was rising against them. It is probable that there was undue violence on both sides, and that more forbearance on the side of the law might have been safely practised. Yet when we look to the position which men, charged with maintaining the peace of the country were placed in, we need not be surprised that they adopted every measure which they at the time deemed the best to deter the rebellious and avert revolution. It is easy for us to say, when the danger no longer exists, that this other step, and that other milder course, would have been better, but it was not so easy for tbe rulers in those times to know what to do. If, however, there is one thing clearer than another now which they should have done and did not do, it is that they should have opened the doors of the constitution, and admitted some of those who were assembled in multitudes at its doors demanding to be let in. This was done in 1832; the doors were opened by the Reform Act, and a goodly number were let in. I have no doubt that the doors will be opened again and again, allowing all to come in gradually and safely.

But to return to the time of the radicals of 1819,' and the rumours that came to Bimynows school, that “they were coming.’* The term “ragged radicals’* was a common one in newspapers of that time, and the boys who heard their fathers read the newspapers or talk of the news, brought this name of reproach to the school. It was suggested one day by some of them, that an excellent play might be got up in the Eel Yards, a meadow with some large trees in it, if the scholars divided themselves into soldiers and radicals. As the soldiers were the most respectable in the eyes of the better dressed sons of farmers and tradesmen, and as they took the lead in every thing, they made themselves soldiers; and, in addition to that, took upon themselves to pick out those who were to be radicals. This was done according to the quality of the clothes worn, and I, consequently, found myself declared to be a radical. The first day’s play passed with no greater disasters to me than the brim tom from an infirm hat which I wore, my trousers split up, all the buttons tom from my waistcoat, and my neck stretched considerably on the way to strangulation. For being a radical who seemed inclined to look upon the treatment I received as too serious for play, I was condemned to be hanged. It happened that .the clothes I wore were not of the usual corduroy worn by the sons of farm labourers and always worn by me, save in that year. Mine had been remade the year before from some cast-off clothes given a year or two before that to the brother next to me in age by his master. There was a brown coat which had been reduced in size, but it was still too large for me; trousers which had once been of a very light blue or grey ; and the infirm hat already named, which came to our family I do not remember precisely how; but it had so broad a brim at first, that my mother cut part of it away to let me see from below it, and still it was so broad that some of the boys nicknamed me after some people whom I had never seen nor heard of, but who ^rere said to wear broad-brimmed hats. These clothes having been old when I got them, and having been worn by me all the summer in the woods herding the cows, and all the autumn, they were not in sound condition. But my poor mother always kept them patched up; and I never once went out then, or any time, with an open rent or a worn hole in my clothes. As she spun wool for stockings, and lint for shirts, herself, and my father knitted stockings at night, and my sisters made shirts, I was equal in those articles to any one in the school; and I was only so badly clothed otherwise because the second year was running on between my father and a master for whom he then worked without a settlement of accounts; the said master allowing my father to get oats for meal, and barley and beans for bread, but being sadly embarrassed as a landowner, with his land mortgaged,—not able at that time to pay up the arrears of wages.

When I went home on that first evening of my ragged radicalship, my poor mother stood aghast, lifted her hands, and said, in a tone of despair, “What shall I do with those rags?” They were stripped off, I got an early supper and was sent to bed, while she began to mend them,—putting in a piece there and a piece here, sewing up a rent, darning the worn holes, and ending some hours after midnight, not far from the usual hour of rising from bed, by sewing the luckless brim upon my infirm hat. Her motherly affection for me, and natural pride in the good appearance of her family, had led her to suggest to my father that I should not be sent again to school until we had got the “siller” we were waiting for to get new clothes. But my father, though not less affectionate, and not less anxious about the appearance of his family, was stem upon that point. “If the laddie lives to be a man,” said he, “he will need his education, and more than we can give him. If I had got schooling myself, as I am trying to give to all my sons, it would have helped me through the world more easily than I have got through. The laddie must go to the school.”

So I went to the school, my mother begging, of me, with tears in her eyes, not to get my clothes tom again, else it would kill her to see me in such rags, and to have to sit up every night to mend them. But “soldiers and radicals” was again the play, and again I was the radical upon whom the greatest number of soldiers concentrated their warfare. They had seen me thrashed by the schoolmaster until I was blistered, without crying or shedding a tear, which made them think I could stand any amount of punishment or torment, without feeling it; in short, I was believed to be a great stubborn lad, who had no feeling in him. Had they seen me after leaving my mother that morning, and carrying her injunction with me, in a heart that was bursting with her words, they would have seen whether I had tears in me or not, and whether they would not come out.

As soon as I made my appearance, the cry of the "ragged radical” was raised the soldiers charged on me, and knocked my infirm hat over my eyes with my head through the crown of it. Some laid hold of me by the feet to carry me off to he hanged and beheaded, as the real law upon the real radicals had taught them to imitate in play, I made a violent effort to free myself, and the rents of yesterday, which my mother had so carefully sewed, broke open afresh. The hat I raised from where it had sunk over my face, and saw part of the brim in the hands of a lad who was a kind of king of the school, or cock of the walk, with some of my poor mother’s threads hanging from it. He was older than I, and was a fighter. I had never fought, nor had heard of two human creatures going together to fight, until I came to that school. Yet neither had I heard of the divine principle of forbearance and forgiveness, as regards blows upon the body, and the laceration of feelings worse than blows upon the body,—my father, who gave me many good precepts, never having contemplated the possibility of my being a fighting boy. (My child, you will be brought up where there are policemen and law, lawyers and magistrates to take your part if you are injured ; never raise your own hand against any one)' But I was a strong boy for my age, and I had received very bad treatment. My honour and the remembrance of my affectionate mother’s toils made me feel like a giant. I amazed the king of the school by giving him a blow in the face that laid him flat on his back, and amazed the onlookers by giving several of them as much with the same results. Not that I escaped without blows myself. I got many, but they were returned with principle and interest. Some one ran to the schoolmaster and told that I was thrashing “Master” Somebody, for he being a gentleman’s son was called “Master,” while I had to submit to a nickname, derived from the state of my clothes. The school was summoned in at once, it being near the school hour in the morning. Some of those whose noses were bleeding ran to school with them in that state to let their disasters be seen. Another one and myself tried to get water to wash our faces, for mine was in as bad a condition as the worst of theirs; but the frost was so hard, that we could not break the ice to get water, and at last were compelled to obey the repeated summons to school in the dreadful guise we were then in; my clothes being tom half off me in .addition to the hideousness of the blood streaming from my face.

The schoolmaster stood with the taws ready to flagellate the moment I entered the school. He inquired who began the fight, and every one named me. He at once ordered me to hold up my right hand, which I did, and received a violent cut on the edge of it, given with his whole strength. He ordered my left hand up, and up it went and received a cut of the same kind; then my right, which got what it got before; next my left, which also got what it got before; and so on he went until I had got six cuts (skults we called them) on each hand. He had a way of raising himself upon his toes when he swung the heavy taws round his head, and came down upon his feet with a spring, giving the cuts slantingly on the hand. He saw me resolved to take all he could give without a tear, whereupon he began to cut at the back of my hands. I drew them behind me to save them, which seeing, he cut at the open places of my tom clothes, where my skin was visible; and always as I wriggled to one side to save those bare places, I exposed other bare places on the other side, which he aimed at with terrible certainty.

After a time he pushed me before him, still thrashing me on the bare places, and on the head, until he got me to the farther end of the school, where the coals lay in a comer. He thrashed me until I got on the top of the coals. Here he ordered me to sit down and remain until he gave me liberty to leave that place, which he did not do until evening. The day was piercing cold. The house was an old place, with no furniture nor partition in it. I sat at the end farthest from the fire-place, and near to the door, which was an old door that did not fit its place, and which allowed the wind to blow freely through. It blew through and about me as if it had been another schoolmaster, and was as partial to the farmers’ sons, and as cruel to the ragged boys of farm labourers, as he was.


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