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Autobiographical Reminiscences of David Johnston
Chapter XXII


Is there for honest poverty wha hangs his head an' a' that? The coward slave we pass him by, an' daur be puir for a' that.—Burns.

THE poor law of England (of 43d Elizabeth) was intended as a compensation for the loss which the helpless poor had sustained by the destruction of the religious houses throughout the land, the work of her father, Henry VIII. Officers under this new law were elected in open vestry on Easter Tuesday, for one year, with the option of serving or paying a fine, which for an overseer was 100. If elected a second time it was left to the elected party's option to serve or not. This enactment had stood the test of two centuries, but became the basis of fearful abuse. Indeed, whatever good pertained to the enactment of good Queen Bess was pretty nearly extinct by the time it descended to our days of the Sailor King. The management of the poor in those days, like the government of Ireland in the present, appeared to defy all legislatorial tinkering. All labor-saving machinery was speedily consumed by the torch of the midnight incendiary. The farmer had his land tilled by the roundsman system, than which a system more destructive to the self-sustaining independence of the individual could not be conceived short of the nether regions. Consequently, the poor-rate was fearfully augmented, so that the richer the land the higher the rate. Thus, while seven shillings in the pound sufficed for the comparatively poor land of the center of Surrey, it rose to twenty-two shillings in the pound in the rich wealds of Kent. For a practical knowledge of the then existing state of things in England I refer the reader to the preamble of Lord Brougham's Poor Law Amendment Act.

Individually the parish officers of Camberwell were in support of Brougham's efforts, and such measures as were carried in that spirit during their first year's service were by the rate-payers duly appreciated, and the means of leading a large majority to make requisition for our services for another year, which was complied with on understanding that to reassess the parish would be their earliest endeavor, and when such were fairly before the parish the people craved the active co-operation of all who were desirous of such a measure. The vote was such as to give rise to the coarse Tory opposition above spoken of. Baldwin, the proprietor of the Standard {the. man who said in his journal that it would be to the advantage of England were all her manufactories destroyed), under the auspices of the vicar, led the opposition against the overseers and called for a revision of the vote of Easter. There being no opposition on the part of the officers a meeting was convened by them, as it were, for the purpose of trying themselves, the chair occupied by the vicar of St. Giles, Camberwell, and the hall crammed. They having called a meeting it devolved on the officers to make known its purpose. Daniel Triquet said: "The object of this meeting is to revise or rescind certain resolutions passed at a former meeting of yourselves. The action referred to on Easter Tuesday placed in power your present officers, and if I may be allowed to speak for my brother officers, in common with myself, I would say that while we enjoy the honor of the trust which has been placed in our hands we are by no means insensible of the nature of its responsibilities. We leave the investigation of our conduct in your hands untrammeled." A spirited meeting terminated in a vote of thanks to and an expression of confidence in the present officers of St. Giles, Camberwell. Not a soul left the parish in consequence of our over-assessments, as they were termed, but to allay all bitter hostility we established a committee of appeal of eighteen gentlemen, before whom cases in dispute should be brought, all expenses in the way of appraising to fall on the party found in error. This scheme worked admirably, threw oil upon the troubled waters, and brought the labors of the three triumphant parochial officers to a successful termination, having by dint of much labor and some tongue-fighting augmented the rental assessable to the extent of .48,000 and reduced the poor-rate from five shillings in the pound to three shillings and nine pence in the pound per annum.

The novelty of voting for members of parliament now presented itself to the middle class, and our reform club was far from being idle in canvassing our district of the metropolitan borough of Lambeth on behalf of the two successful candidates, Charles E. D'Eyncourt and Benjamin Hawes, Junior, Esquires. One of the first acts of the reform parliament was to pass the poor law amendment act. Henceforth all parochial matters were placed under the management of a board of guardians, eighteen in number, elected by the plurality of voting system. That is, according to the extent of the voter's assessment to the support of the poor shall his power to dispense it be regulated. Now this measure, according to its preamble, among other things fully intended to eschew all semblance to the older system, even to the exclusion of those persons who participated in the affairs of the past fossil. I therefore regard the fact of placing my name among the successful candidates for the honor of sitting on that board as one of the most unmistakable compliments and marks of esteem that my fellow-parishioners could confer. At this board I felt less at home than I did at the old work-house board, of which the overseer was necessarily a prominent member and the board itself composed of materials much more in unison with my own position in society—several my intimate neighbors. Here I am in contact with men moving in a more elevated atmosphere, higher in wealth, in education, influence, in habit of prestige, and that which I will not rank among the higher attributes, and which happily was confined to a few—contemptible hauteur. What did I possess, or did I possess anything, to fit me for such society? I'll look in and see. On self-examination I found a mass of contrarieties, the predominant ingredient being a stubborn, unconquerable Scotch pride, which enabled me to look and laugh at airs assumed, and which can be turned to practical advantage if kept under control. I also found my knowledge of the poor of the parish a powerful incentive to respect and deference on the part of my seventeen compeers, who were doubtless practiced in eleemosynary relief, but found that to administer relief to the poor by act of parliament involved duties with which they were entirely unacquainted, and for necessary information had to be beholden to the ex-overseer or to the paid officers of the parish, who might not be present when wanted. It required but a few evenings to find ease and homely comfort in the meetings.

An anecdote told by Sir John Pirie, one of the most efficient members of the board, is worthy of a place here as an illustration of Scottish character. After a hard afternoon's work the board relapsed into a chatty, social mood, the conversation—on the constituent elements necessary to form a business man—shaping itself into a friendly argument. Integrity, punctuality, perseverance and other attributes shared the common praise, and their opposites the common censure. But the question assumed a more definite shape as to which of the three first-named qualities was the most important ingredient in the compound. After several speeches Sir John arose and said, "I am gratified with the remarks made on this important subject, and feel inclined to depart from my usual practice of silence on occasions of this kind and to say a few words in behalf of the opinions advanced in favor of perseverance. Some twenty years ago I was informed that a ragged but cleanly boy had called at the outer office of my establishment in the city, day after day, at precisely the same hour, for more than a week. 'What does he want?' 'He wants to see you.' 'Have you asked if he has any business with the house?' 'I have, sir, and he answers in the affirmative, but it can only be done with you personally.' 'Is he likely to call again?' ' I should think him dead should he fail to make his call at ten to-morrow morning.' 'Then if he does call, and I am here, bring him in.' Sure enough, the sonorous sound of Bow Bell had not ceased to vibrate the hour of ten when the timid knock of the little fellow was the open sesame to the business establishment of the greatest ship owner in the world, the man who had but a few months ago descended from the loftiest seat of the greatest city in the world. His little body clothed in a shabby corduroy suit, out at elbows, and his curly pow surmounted by a blue bonnet, with shoes barely keeping his toes from the stony street, and a small bundle squeezed so tightly under his arm as to indicate fear that his property was jeopardized by the interview, there stood the boy, bonnet in hand, before me," said Sir John, "inspiring confidence at the first glance. Still I deemed it a duty thus to interrogate him closely:

"'I am informed you called repeatedly at the office to see me; now I stand before you, let me ask you what is your business with me?'

"'I want employment, sir.'

"'Employment? Is that all?'

"'It is everything to me, sir.'

"'That may be true, but mine is not an employment office. Did any one tell you to apply to me for employment?'

"'Yes, my mither telt me, sir. She said that if ever I be spared to reach London to be sure and ask your guidance. She telt me you had been a puir laddie once yersel', and that ye left the toon o' Dunse wi' very little siller in yer pouch, and ye had only half a croon when ye reached London; that ye was a guid man, that ye read yer Bible, that ye prospered in business, that the folks o' London loved ye and made ye Lord Mayor, that the folks o' Dunse were proud o' ye, and that------'

"Here I had to stop him by asking him where his mother was that was so lavish in her praises of an individual she could not possibly know.

"'Know? she kens ye weel, my faither was second gardener o' Dunse Castle; he died whan I was young; my mither has since then worked hard tae keep me at the schule. Her knowledge of you and your family was during her young and happy days. She aften made me greet in speakin' o' them, and no that seldom grat hersel'.'

"'How did you get so far from home?'

"'I started on fit, but had mony a lift.'

"'How much money did you possess on starting on a journey of four hundred miles on foot?'

"'Nine shillings, the wages of the half year's herding in the Lammermuirs.'

"I confess," said Sir John, "to a little suspicion from his ready answers, and trying him in another way. 'Please to name the prominent men of Dunse when' you left.' And it was grateful to my ear, being a native of the place, to listen to a long, clear roll of clergymen, school-masters, doctors, lawyers, merchants and tradesmen, which he rattled off, many of whom were familiar names and dearly beloved friends. Seeing that I was losing ground I ceased to interrogate, and stooped to business. 'What can you do should I make room in this office for you?'

"''Deed, I can do but little, but I can soon learn mair. In the meantime, I can supe the house and rin an errand.'

"'I have never asked your name.'

"'Georgy Denham.'

"'Well, George, consider yourself one of us, and at ten to-morrow you can draw in advance what you require to get rid of your corduroys.' And when I inform you, gentlemen, that the boy of twenty years ago and the gentleman now in charge of my books is one and the same person you will not marvel at my giving perseverance the preference in your discussion."

About this time the parish sustained a serious loss. The new system of heating buildings by hot air ramifying in pipes had been two years in operation in the grand old parish church, when the smell of smouldering fire on the evening of a very cold Sunday was felt. The wardens went through the form of a superficial examination, locked the doors, and pocketing the keys left the ancient Gothic edifice to its fate. By eight o'clock on the following morning a mass of black ruins marked the spot whereon stood one of the finest specimens of its kind for seven hundred years, dating back to the days of Edward the Confessor. The rebuilding of the church gave rise to a bitter controversy. The taste of the reverend incumbent could not be satisfied short of a .40,000 structure. Others, perhaps equally orthodox, would have been contented with an edifice at a much less cost; a third party, again, held that the burden of building a new church should not be saddled on the parish, but on those who worshiped in it. A well finished perspective drawing of an architectural design, which met the views of the incumbent and his party, settled the matter, and now St. Giles, Camberwell, is ornamented with a very costly accommodation for the few at the expense of the many.

In the course of these events I happened to be eyewitness to three great fires—the Tower of London, the Royal Exchange and the Houses of Parliament—involving the loss of historical buildings impossible to replace. The Thames tunnel was also concocted, begun and finished during these busy years of adventure. An accident happened in the process of construction which threatened destruction to the whole scheme. The excavation had successfully reached about half-way across, when suddenly, without any warning, the angry Thames broke in upon seven poor souls, who were instantly washed back to the entrance, to find the doors hung the wrong way, and their retreat irremediably cut off. This untoward event cast a gloom on the scientific world, of which the community partook, all but the great inventor himself, who immediately applied his brain to the remedy. He stopped the leak by means of sandbags and clay, and by powerful pumps emptied the cavity in an incredibly short space of time, went on to its satisfactory completion, thereby setting the egg on end to all tunnel builders in the future.

Not long after this achievement Mr. Brunei met with a personal accident which very nearly cost him his valuable life. In his hours of relaxation from business he was wont to play with the children, making himself one of them, and on one occasion he was distending their wondering eyes by sleight-of-hand tricks with coin, and by some unaccountable means a half sovereign got into his throat, and there it stuck for several days, bidding defiance to the surgical skill of the metropolis. A bulletin every half hour announced the painful condition of the patient, till a conversation was overheard in the kitchen by a member of the family which was anything but complimentary to the faculty, one of the servants declaring that she knew what would cure her master. This being made known to the physician in charge of the case he sought an interview with the eloquent maid, who, being brought face to face with him and the family, thought she was about to be rebuked for her freedom of speech, but was greatly relieved by a kind interrogatory on the part of the doctor, if she would please explain the theory of the curative she spoke of in the kitchen last evening touching the case in hand, stating that in the event of its being reasonable he might be induced to avail himself of it, and if successful she alone should reap the honor. Thus encouraged, the girl stated that while in the service of a family in Scarborough one of her fellow-servants, playing with a silver thimble and pretending to swallow it, got it so fixed in her throat that it baffled all the skill of the doctors to remove it. Everybody thought she must die, when a young doctor from Newcastle, hearing of the case, suggested that as a dernier ressort the patient should be suspended by her heels. This experiment was put in force, and while in that position it was fearful to witness her struggles for breath ; she grew black in the face, but, thank God ! the thimble tumbled on the floor. The physician listened to the girl's simple story, and lost no time in gravely submitting the proposition that such an experiment might be tried with Mr. Brunei. The family, having lost all hope of saving his life, readily acquiesced, and accordingly the great engineer was subjected to the painful ordeal, and a nation had to thank God that the insignificant metallic representation of a paltry sum of ten shillings trundled on the carpet. It is needless here to observe that the loquacious servant was not forgotten by the liberal family to whose happiness she unwittingly contributed. Another extraordinary surgical case transpired about this time. The laws of China are based on the philosophy of Confucius, who seemed to have had an overweening regard for human blood, so much so, that even in the process of necessary healing there should not be a drop spilled.

I make mention of the case of Hoo Loo to show the folly of such an enactment as is built on this dread of blood-letting in China. This poor fellow had a tumor on the lower part of his abdomen, the removal of which, taken in time, it was asserted by the faculty, was susceptible of being performed in safety. But in the event of a failure in the use of the scalpel, so that the patient dies in consequence of its application, the life of the surgeon using it is called for to satisfy the law. Hoo Loo, whose rapidly increasing appendage now touched the ground, seeing his end approaching, agreed to accompany the physician of a London ship for the purpose of having it removed.

This case was put under the care of Sir Aston Key, at Guy's Hospital, Southwark, who reluctantly assumed the responsibility, saying there was a very faint hope of saving the life of the patient. The case was unprecedented, and provoked an immense popular sympathy in his preparation for the knife. An hourly bulletin was posted on the hospital gates announcing his condition, and when the morning dawned whereon the great test of human skill versus human tenacity of life was to be made the intervals between the bulletins was shortened to five minutes. The history of the sequel of this interesting case cannot, I think, be given better than by recording the bulletins as I then read them as announced on that day:

Hoo Loo is cheerful, ate breakfast with fair appetite, 8:30; Hoo Loo preparing for the operation, 9 o'clock ; Hoo Loo in hospital theater, bearing up well, 9:30; Hoo Loo's tumor removed, vitality hopeful, 10 o'clock; Hoo Loo not so well, a slight fever set in, 10:30; Hoo Loo rallying, 11 o'clock; Hoo Loo worse, with return of fever, 11:30; Hoo Loo hopelessly sinking, 12 o'clock; Hoo Loo worse, hemorrhage set in, 12:30; Hoo Loo sinking, no hope in the case, 1 o'clock; Hoo Loo dying, 1:30; Hoo Loo died at 2 minutes to 2 o'clock. All signed in person by Sir Aston Key, who, next to Sir Astley Cooper, was at this time considered the leading surgeon in England.

Thus was added one more human life to the long list lying at the door of Confucius. But doubtless it was not so intended by that great philosopher.

I had had, from time to time, friendly visits from William Sue, who had married a second cousin of mine, who had many years ago settled in Rouen, in Normandy, and whose skill in the construction of wind-mills attracted the attention of Louis Philippe, then Duc D'Orleans. William's fortune rose with his patron, and when Charles X fell from his high estate, and La Fayette, like a second Warwick, set up Louis Philippe in his place, it might have been said that his fortune was made.

The firm of Messrs. Sue, Adkins & Barker became famous throughout Europe for the excellence of their marine and other engines.' An incident may here be recorded to show how the firm stood with the king. The Duc de Chartres, the eldest-born of the king, was dispatched to investigate and report upon the manufactures of Rouen, and on such occasions it is the duty of the mayor of the city to furnish the delegated authority with a list of all the fabriques (as they are called) within his jurisdiction. On the return of the report the king discovered the omission of the concern in which he was the most interested, and gave orders that no time be lost in redeeming the insult by a special visit to Messrs. Sue, Adkins & Barker, also to inquire whence the garbled list. The prince and suite were handsomely entertained by the firm, and Monsieur Le Maire snubbed for his petty jealousy of the successful English mechanics whose prosperity was not in accordance with his will. William had several patents on the tapis, covering England as well as France; which brought him frequently across the channel, and every visit was accompanied by a cordial invitation to return the visit, to which at length I consented. After a pleasant day's sail from London we arrived in Boulogne in the evening of July 4, 1841, and started for Rouen on the 5th; slept at Beauvais and breakfasted at Neufchatel, from the latter commanding one of the finest views in the world from the eminence over which the road passes. There lies the antique city of Rouen at your feet in all its rich grandeur; its splendid cathedrals and churches; the ancient tower of the cloche l'argent (to form this bell the patriotic ladies of the time poured in their trinkets and their household gods, hence the name); the old market place where stands the memento of England's superstitious cruelty in the statue of the heroic Maid of Orleans, pointing out the spot whereon she was burned alive; Mont St. Catherine, whereon the first telegraph was erected; the noble boulevards that ornament the suburbs, albeit their beauty is by my-chosen foliage (Lombardy poplar) much impaired; the beautiful Seine, meandering as. far as the eye can reach through a magnificent country teeming in historical reminiscences. This was for centuries the battlefield of two enlightened nations. In the pleasant suburban village of Chartreuse I found my friend at the head of a firm employing four hundred men. "Welcome to France, David," he said ; "and now we have you, make yourself at home as long as you like to stay. There is the gig at your service when you want to drive to the city, or a saddle-horse for the forest when you desire to see our French scenery. The Juliet fetes are at hand; I shall have to be in Paris on that occasion, and now look to you for a companion: go by land, return by water." Thus my sojourn in La Grande Nation was all cut and dried by Monsieur William Sue, who was so Frenchified as to find it irksome to speak his mother-tongue, and so busy that I saw but little of him. Still he did introduce me to La Societe d'Emulation and his club, but my lack of language took the edge off the pleasure I should otherwise have had. I was more delighted in scanning the richly carved monuments in the interior of the cathedrals, also the sculpture and paintings at the Musee. A few days prior to the fetes we started for the great city, took up our quarters in Hotel l'Empereur, and hastened to an English rendezvous for the purpose of meeting the hero of St. Jean d'Acre, Sir Sidney Smith, but were five minutes too late. He it was who challenged Napoleon Bonaparte to mortal combat, which fact proved the basis of a romantic and life-long attachment between the two heroes. We did Paris as much as possible in the limited time at our command, and embarked by steamer down the Seine to Rouen, through the most delightfully variegated scenery the whole length of the passage.

Among things to be admired in France is the" effect of the abrogation of the law of primogeniture. The census of 1834 showed that in a population of 33,000,-000 there were no less than 11,000,000 having a direct interest in the land.

The manner of transacting business of importance is also worthy of notice here, which a case in point may serve to show:

"I want you to accompany me to the breakfast table of Mons.------, the best boat-builder in Paris, and observe how we do business on this side of the Channel. You will take notice that all bargains and contracts are struck at the breakfast table by and through the medium of the lady of the house; when signed and countersigned by a notary public they are binding." This invitation I readily accepted from William, and spent a very agreeable morning. The sumptuous meal over, the lady, in the presence of her husband, dotted down that for the consideration of so many thousand francs she bound herself to deliver to the firm of Messrs. Sue, Adkins & Barker, at Rouen, on a given day, a vessel of so many tons burthen, built so as to receive an engine of a given power and weight, and to draw just so much water as to fit her for the navigation of the upper Seine. His business completed, and the Juliet fetes in commemoration of the barricades of 1830, with all their folly annually perpetrated, now it became necessary to change the scene from the Seine to the Thames—from happy France to happier England. With that intent -I bade adieu to Rouen and its hospitalities, and embarked on the steamer Normandie for Havre de Grace, on the deck of which was sunk a coffin-shaped sheet of brass to mark the spot whereon lay the remains of the great Napoleon on their way from St. Helena to the Hotel des Invalides, his last resting-place.

The scenery of the lower is bolder and more historically interesting than that of the upper Seine. Here the picturesque haunts of Robert Le Diable, and there the birthplace of William the Conquerer, at old Caen.; also the ancient towns of Harfleur and Honfleur, also the beautiful chateau and estate of Tankerville, once the property of the celebrated financier, John Law, terminating with the grand old town and harbor of Havre de Grace. Then farewell, France, politically tempest-tossed nation. Already the seat of your new king is a seat of thorns. A few years later we find him an exile in Holyrood House, Edinburgh. Refugees of all nations seek and find shelter and safety on this little island of ours. Long may she maintain her enviable position among the nations of the earth.


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