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Autobiographical Reminiscences of David Johnston
Chapter XVIII


The laird o' Cockpen, he's proud and he's great,
His mind was ta'en up wi' affairs o' the State,
He wanted a wife his braw hoose to keep,
But favor wi' wooin' was fashions to seek.

THE prize of one hundred guineas for the best written essay on the effects of the corn law on the interest of the farmer rewarded the pen of Mr. Hope, of Fenton Barns, an eminent farmer of East Lothian. The eyes of the practical farmers throughout the nation were opened by this fine essay, which was chosen from among a great number of able competitors. They were made to see the fallacy so generally entertained that the restrictive measures then in force were conducive to their interest. At this time the meetings of the league were frequently disturbed by the chartists, who, for a season, at least, seemed to endeavor to un-English themselves by an obstructive policy. To illustrate the mode of their petty annoyance a case may be given. The Peckham branch of the league published a desire to convene a meeting in support of the movement then under the auspices of Richard Cobden. This call was responded to in such a manner as to warrant them in securing a very large hall for the purpose. They engaged that of the Horns Tavern, Kennington Common. The object of the meeting was duly advertised in all the London dailies. The chair was occupied by the venerable Mr. Warburton, father of the House of Commons, supported by a phalanx of excellent talent. The meeting had not been well organized when the two main entrances to the hall were simultaneously burst open, and the aisles filled with fierce, unbidden guests, who made for the platform, hustled the old gentleman out of the chair and many of the committee (of which I happened to be one) from off the elevated platform, and coolly proceeded to elect a chairman and secretary of their own. They forced upon the meeting a programme of resolutions on the five points of the charter, whereupon some few, disgusted with the interruption, rose in the body of the meeting to retire, when in a voice far beyond his years Mr. Warburton -requested every man to keep his seat, saying, "We have now a double duty to perform, not only to pass these resolutions, placed in the hands of those in whom you have long held your confidence, in support of a cause for which, with our own money, we hired this room, but to remain to master this cowardly tumult, and put the blush of shame on the countenance of their shameless leaders;" all of which at a late hour was thoroughly accomplished. The chartists made sad havoc of their cause by counseling overt acts, in the employment of physical force, and in impertinent interference with other movements. Several of their leaders were incarcerated for intemperate language used at public meetings.

The Scottish chartists were under the more temperate guidance of Sir David Brewster, and when that gentleman, at the head of the Scottish chartists, met a delegation from England in quest of his co-operation he settled the matter in a short speech, in which he thanked their English friends for their courtesy, and directed "all those of this great meeting of chartists who are of opinion that physical force should be employed in the attainment of our object to remain stationary, and those who believe that moral suasion only should be used as the most efficacious means of accomplishing all we desire from the legislature will take their position on yonder eminence, whither I shall in a few minutes repair myself." The latter section being largely in the majority rendered the mission of the delegates nugatory. The monster petition to parliament for the charter became the theme of the hour. This petition, when matured, was to be presented by the leader, Fergus O'Connor, in person, backed by thousands in procession, for which purpose a monster meeting was convened on Kennington Common, and while the government in its alarm was employing military means to intercept the threatened demonstrations in the city the more lawless portion of the meeting, to amuse themselves, made a raid on the trading people of Camberwell, and cleaned out the stores in Rosemary Branch lane of a class who could ill afford to lose anything, while the more wealthy and better protected class were arming themselves to face the raiders. But this raid, like the great body of which it formed a disreputable part, proved a miserable fizzle. The petition had to be presented in like manner with those of less dimensions, stripped of all semblance of intimidation. Since the death of O'Connor we hear but little of the charter, nor does it appear necessary, its leading points all falling within the range of ordinary legislation.

In returning to my desolate home it gives me pleasure to record the ameliorating influence of Mrs. Anderson, a distant relation, herself chastened by misfortune. She was the daughter of Anthony Wilkinson, my mother's cousin, who was an eccentric worshiper of the antique. When he had acquired enough to retire from his fine business (the sign of Prince of Wales' Feathers) in Leith street, Edinburgh, he made known to his best customer, the Earl of Dalhousie, his desire to live the remainder of his days in retirement.

"Well, Anthony," said his lordship, "since you decline to make any more guns for us the next best thing you can do is to give us the benefit of your company. And in order to secure that I will deed over to your use forever land enough whereon to build your dwelling and appurtenances. Come out to Cockpen and see for yersel'." It is needless to say this offer was gratefully accepted, and on the banks of a little stream in the valley which runs between the village of Bonnyrigg and the parish kirk o' Cockpen may be seen the comfortable villa of Pistol Hall, Anthony Wilkinson, Esq., of that ilk. He had been a widower for many years, with two children, Cecilia and James. Mr. Anderson had learned his trade and worked at the old shop in Leith street until he became too good a workman to remain outside of London. Thither he started with all he possessed but his heart, which he was induced to leave in the good keeping of Cecilia. While working journey work in London he acquired an enviable reputation as an expert in fowling pieces, two of which he made for the celebrated Joe Manton to execute an order from the Persian ambassador. The finish of those guns was said to be inimitable, and now he musters his forces and takes a shop in Cockspur street, Charing Cross, and as quick as a Leith smack can carry him to the object of his affections, blindly to snatch her from a happy home, to be shortly buried (say two years) in an obscure garret in the purlieus of Westminster, for in such a place I found them. James thought that to sell a gun was easier than to make one, that the counter was more in unison with his future aspirations than the work-bench. Insensible to the responsibilities involved in a heavy rent and expensive fittings necessary in so prominent a thoroughfare, the leap was taken, and it took but a short time to make manifest the blunder; but it required two long, anxious years to get clear of it, and when he did he not only found himself penniless but saddled with debts he could not pay. My acquaintance with James Anderson was slight, and I had heard of his eccentricities, and to approach a philosopher in adversity is like venturing a word with Diogenes in his tub, but I took courage, and with the aid of an old-fashioned knocker (my own knuckles) found access to an apartment which, if carpet-less, was clean, and if innocent of ornament had the advantage of elevation. I expected to find a pair of woe-begones brooding over their losses, instead of which they received me cheerfully. Cecy wi' her needle and her shears was makin' the auld clais look amaist as weel as new, and James was employed painting in oil a bunch of grapes, for profit or for pleasure I did not dare to ask, but I am inclined to think from subsequent droppings, for they were both not only proud but taciturn, that James had taken to the easel for a crust. His theory of the gun business in London was that there were but two firms in the metropolis who knew how to make a gun. His recent attempt to create a third made enemies of the two, and to work for botches, with which London abounds, was out of the question.

I invited them to return the visit. Cecilia came, James never, and the chain of circumstances which brought Cecy under my roof are, I think, well worth recording, as showing the idiosyncrasies of that singular couple. An Edinburgh lady, living in one of the fashionable squares at the west end, who was well acquainted with Mrs. Anderson, and, indeed, with all the Wilkinson family, after considerable trouble in finding their abode, much to the annoyance of James, called. She had a proposition to make which she hoped would be taken in the spirit in which it was meant. "I am," she said, "desirous of leaving town for six weeks, and I have thought that you, being out of business, might, during my stay at Herne Bay, take up your residence at my house, and thereby confer a favor on me. Your hands you need not soil, as I leave three servants to do the work of the house, who shall be instructed to defer to Mrs. Anderson as to myself." Alas! how apt we are to fall into mischief in the exercise of the best attributes of our nature! The intention in this case to a third party was clearly benevolent. The result is the separation of two loving hearts, never again in this world to meet. In her true womanly heart Cecilia thanked her old friend for her kind consideration, and would be on hand to see her off on the morrow, and turning to James, who was busy attending to his pets, consisting of a cage of educated white mice, listening to the ladies' conversation as if he heard it not, she said: "Jamie, you'll go with me, won't you?" The lady departed, and on the question being repeated he sullenly answered: "As you make your bed so must you lie," and these were the last words she ever heard him utter. During the six weeks' painful suspense he never made his appearance, neither did he answer her letters', and when the lady returned, finding everything satisfactory at home, and lamenting the misery of which she was the unwitting cause, she offered Mrs. Anderson an asylum for life. Her painful position was made known to me during the last month of my dying wife, who expressed a wish that our child, then two years old, should be cared for by Mrs. Anderson, with whom the dear soul sympathized. At Sophie's death she became the ruling genius of my desolate home, and for sixteen months I was beholden to her for kindly care and companionship; nor was the cold philosopher forgotten. During the whole of that period she diligently kept track of his whereabouts, and helped him stealthily, by paying his rent and other means. Her father, partially acquainted with matters in London, sent her remittances, which were always in some way shared by her unseen husband.

To relieve my mind I resolved to visit my brother, who, tired of idleness, had petitioned the Board of Ordnance for employment. His real friend, the Iron Duke, being still the master-general thereof, he had no difficulty in obtaining it, and was detailed as master gunner to take charge of that formidable stronghold, Yarmouth Castle, on the west coast of the Isle of Wight, one of Joseph Hume's statistical harp-strings, which to the member for Montrose was such delectable pleasure annually to play upon that it was dished up as a sweet morsel to a fault-finding public. Mr. Hume's description of this place is so graphic and so oft repeated that it is only necessary to consult any one of his speeches during a period of twenty years to supersede the greater expense of ocular demonstration. There lay the dismounted guns, two in number. 'There stood the gunner, six feet one in his stockings, and his man Friday, and, on a rising ground behind what had been the moat, the most comfortable quarter of the garrison. Two in number, all told, invitingly stood, none the less inviting by fumes emanating from the spitted hinder part of a south-downer playing among the salivary glands of one whose appetite has been whetted by the sea breeze up to an activity which threatened destruction to a less savory dish than that which was now in preparation for us. Their hospitality to me had undergone a marvelous change for the better. The sailor boy who in Well Close Square was hurried off to lie among ropes in the forecastle of the Trusty, was now assigned the king bed in the mansion; but everything good in the house failed to be good enough to induce me to prolong my stay, which was lengthened several days beyond my original intention. The family consisted of my brother, his wife, and Mary, an adopted child, the daughter of an old comrade who was slain in battle in the island of Ceylon. This man on the eve of the fight had a presentiment of his fall, and prevailed on Alexander in that event to adopt his only child Mary, a promise religiously carried out, even to the grave, and a finer specimen of true gratitude than that which was found in the life of Mary-would be difficult to find. She had had several offers of marriage, but never could make her mind up to quit the family circle of her benefactor. The world is not all so ungrateful as some would have us believe, and now, as home again I turn my steps, my wounds are felt to open up afresh, but just in proportion to the coldness of my own hearth did I find the popular sentiment inflamed. In fact, old Camberwell not only appeared to be but was aroused to fever heat. The hackneyed simile of the toad under the harrow, rough as it is, falls short of the condition into which the officers of the parish had recklessly plunged themselves. Derogatory sentences were posted on the walls and thrown broad-cast over the three divisions of the parish, such as, "Down with pretended reformers," "Away with Scottish economists," "Let the election of Easter be revised," and many other disparaging remarks, all of which were so richly perfumed with the roses of the hills that the olfactory nerves of the solid rate-payer could not fail to detect the quarter from which they emanated. The prime mover of these distasteful radical measures complained of was Mr. Daniel Triquet, overseer for Camberwell proper. This gentleman was a clerk in the will office of the Bank of England, aided by David Johnston, the baker in Peckham, and Joseph Haines, Esq., Dulwich. For the first time in many years the representatives of the respective districts of Camberwell were perfectly unanimous in desiring to undertake a long-needed reform in the parochial rent-roll, whereon should be based an assessment for all the wants of the parish in an equable ratio.

To reach the intrinsic value of property which is in the market, continually improving, is easily attained, but to get at the true value of that which is never known to change hands, and which had been assessed at a remote period, when money was more valuable, we found to be attended with difficulty, requiring the whole of our second year in office to accomplish, and after a residence of many years in this delightful community it is gratifying to reflect that I failed to meet a parishioner who was prepared to assert that the battle was fought in vain. A few words in the next chapter on this topic appears necessary to enable the reader to comprehend the nature of this controversy.


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