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Life of a Scotch Naturalist, Thomas Edward
Chapter III. Apprenticeship

The boy was learning idle habits. He refused to go back to the Lancaster school. Indeed, from the cruel treatment he had received there, his parents did not ask him to return. He had now been expelled from three schools. If he went to a fourth, it is probable that he might also have been expelled from that. It would not do for him to go scouring the hills in search of adders, or to bring them home, to„ the “terrification” of his neighbors. He himself wished to go to work. His parents at last gave their consent, though he was then only about six years old. But poor people can always find something for their children to do out-of-doors. The little that they earn is always found very useful at home.

Edward’s brother, who was about two years older than himself, was working at Craig and Johnston’s tobacco works. On inquiry, it was found that the firm was willing to take young Edward at the wage of fourteen - pence a week. The tobacco-spinners worked in an old house situated at the end of the flour-mill in St. Nicholas Street. Each spinner had three boys under him—the wheeler, the pointer, and the stripper. Edward went through all these grades. As a stripper he could earn about eighteen-pence a week.

The master was a bird - fancier, so that Edward got on very well with him. The boy brought him lots of nests and young birds in summer, and old birds which he trapped during winter. The master allowed him to keep rabbits in the back yard; so that, what between working and playing, attending to his rabbits and catering for their food, his time passed much more happily than it had done at school.

After being in the tobacco works for about two years, Edward heard that hoys were getting great wages at a factory at Grandholm, situated on the river Don, about two miles from Aberdeen. The high wages were a great attraction. Tom .and his brother took the advantage of a fast-day to go to the mill and ask for employment. The manager told the boys that he wanted no additional hands at that time, but that he would put their names down, and let them know when he required their services.

They returned, and told their parents what they had done. Both father and mother were against the change, partly because of Tom’s youth, and partly because of the distance Grandholm was from Aberdeen. Tom, however, insisted that he could both work and walk; and at last his parents gave their consent.

There was another reason besides the high wages which induced Tom to wish to be employed at Grandholm. He kept this to himself. He had often seen the place before, though only at a distance. But who that has seen the banks and braes of the Don, from the Auld Brig to the Haughs of Grandholm, can ever forget it? Looking down from the heights above the Brig of Balgownie, you see the high broad arch thrown across the deep and dark winding Don. Beneath you, the fishermen are observed hauling to the shore their salmon-nets. AVestward of the Auld Brig the river meanders among the bold, bluff hanks, clothed to the summit with thick embowered wood. Two or three miles above are the Haughs, from which a fine view of the Don is obtained, with the high wood-covered hank beyond it; and, over all, the summits of the spires of St. Machar, the cathedral church of old Aberdeen.

It was to roam through these woods and amidst this beautiful scenery that young Edward so much desired to he employed at the Grandholm factory. Nor was he disappointed in his expectations. Scarcely three days had elapsed ere a letter arrived at the Edwards’ house, informing both the boys that they would be employed at the mill at the usual wages. The hours were to be from six o’clock in the morning till eight o’clock in the evening..

The boys had accordingly to be up by about four in the morning, after which they had to get their breakfast, and to walk two miles to their work. They were seldom home at night before nine. It was delightful in summer, but dreary in winter, when they went and came in the cold dark nights and mornings. The wages of the boys were at first from three to four shillings a week each, and before they left the mill their wages were from five to six shillings a week.

The boys were first put into the heckling shop. They were next transferred to a small mill at the end of the larger one. Young Edward worked there. His business was to attend at the back of a breaker—to take away the cases when they were full, and put empty ones in their places. He was next set to attend two carding-machines; and from these to the roving or spinning side, three of which he frequently kept before he left. This was the highest work done in that room.

“People may say of factories what they please,” says Edward, “but I liked this factory. It was a happy time for me while I remained there. It was situated in the centre of a beautiful valley, almost embowered among tall and luxuriant hedges of hawthorn, with water - courses and shadowy trees between, and large woods and plantations beyond. It teemed with nature and natural objects. The woods were easy of access during our meal-hours. What lots of nests! What insects, wild flowers, and plants, the like of which I had never seen before! Prominent among the birds was the sedge warbler, which lay concealed in the reedy copses, or by the margin of the mill-lades. Oh! how I wondered at the little thing t how it contrived to imitate almost all the other birds I had ever heard! and none to greater perfection than the chirrup of my old and special favorite, the sparrow.”

One day he saw a kingfisher—a great event in his life! What a beautiful bird! What a sparkling gem of nature! Resplendent in plumage and gorgeous in color—from the bright turquois blue to the deepest green, and the darker shades of copper and gold. Edward was on a nesting excursion, with some little fellows like himself, along the braes of the Don, and at some distance above the Auld Brig, when he first saw this lustrous bird. “I was greatly taken,” he says, “with its extraordinary beauty, and much excited by seeing it dive into the stream. I thought it would drown itself, and that its feathers would eventually become so clogged with water that it would not be able to fly. Had this happened—which, of course, it did not—my intention was to have plunged in to the rescue, when, as a matter of course, I would have claimed the prize as my reward. Thus buoyed up, I wandered up and down the river after the bird until the shades of even came down and forced me to give up the pursuit; and I then discovered, having continued the chase so long, that I was companion-less, and had to return home alone.

“ It so happened that for a month or two during summer-time, owing to the scarcity of water, one part of the factory worked during the night-time and the other during the day-time, week and week about. This was a glorious time for me. I rejoiced particularly in the night work, We got out at six in the morning, and, instead of going directly home, I used to go up to the woods of Scotston and Scotston Moor, scour the country round them, and then return home by the Auld Brig. Another day I would go up to Buxburn, range the woods and places about them, and then home by Hilton or Woodside. Or, again, after having crossed Grandholm Bridge, instead of going up by Laurie Hillock, I went away down Don side, by Tillydrone, the Aulten (old Aberdeen), through the fields to the Aulten Links, whipped the whins there, then over the Broad Hill, and home by Constitution Street. I would reach it, perhaps, about dinner-time, instead of at seven in the morning, although I had to be back at the mill again by eight o’clock at night.

“Once, on a Saturday, after having visited Buxburn, I went round by tlifc back of the Dancing Cairns to the Stocket and the woods of Hazelhead, then down the Rubis-law road, and home in the evening. Ah! these were happy days. There were no taws to fear, and no tyrannical dominie to lay them on. True, the farm people did halloo at me at times, but I generally showed them a clean pair of heels. The gamekeepers, also, sometimes gave me chase, but I managed to outstrip them; and although no nests were to be got, there was always something to be found or seen. In winter-time, also, when the canal was frozen, a mile of it lay in our way home, and it was capital fun to slide along, going to and coming from our work. This was life, genuine life, for the young. But, alas! a sad change was about to come; and it came very soon.”

The boys remained at Grandholm factory for about two years. Their father thought that they ought both to be apprenticed to some settled trade. The eldest boy left first, and was apprenticed to a baker; then Tom, the youngest, left, very much to his regret, and was bound apprentice to a shoe-maker. He was eleven years old at that time. His apprenticeship was to last for six years. His wages began at eighteen-pence a week, with sixpence to be added weekly in each succeeding year. He was to be provided by his master with shoes and aprons. The hours were to be from six in the morning to nine at night, two hours being allowed for meals.

The name of Edward’s master was Charles Begg. His shop was situated at the highest part of Gahowgate. He usually employed from two to three workmen. His trade consisted chiefly in manufacturing work of the lightest description, such as ladies’ and children’s boots and shoes. He himself worked principally at pump-making, and that was the branch of the trade which young Edward was taught.

Begg was a low-class Cockney. He was born in London, where he learned the trade of shoe-making. lie had gradually wandered northward, until he reached Inverness, where he lived for some time. Then he went eastward to Elgin, then to Banff, until at last he arrived at Aberdeen, where he married and settled. Begg was a good workman; though, apart from shoe - making, he knew next to nothing. It is well, however, to be a good workman, if one does his work thoroughly and faithfully. The only things that Begg could do, besides shoe-making, were drinking and fighting, he was a great friend of pugilism; though his principal difficulty, when he got drunk, was to find any body to fight with in that pacific neighborhood.

It was a great misfortune for the boy to have been placed under the charge of so dissolute a vagabond. He had, however, to do his best. He learned to make upper-leathers, and was proceeding to make shoe-bottoms. He would, doubtless, have learned his trade very well, but for the drunkenness of his master, who was evidently going headlong to ruin. He was very often absent from the shop, and when customers called, Edward was sent out by his mistress to search the public-houses frequented by Begg; but, when found, he was usually intoxicated. The customers would not return, and the business consequently fell off. When drunk, Begg raved and swore; and after beating the boy in the shop, he would go up-stairs and beat his wife.

Shoe-makers are usually very fond of pets, and especially of pet birds. Many of the craft have singing-birds about them, and some are known to be highly skilled and excellent bird-fanciers. But Begg had no notion of pets of any kind. He had no love whatever for the works of nature, and detested those who had. Edward had been born with the love of birds and living creatures, and Begg hated him accordingly. Begg used to rifle his pockets on entering the shop, to see that Edward had nothing of the kind about him. If he found any thing, he threw it into the street— his little boxes with butterflies, eggs, and such-like. Many a blow did he give Edward on such occasions. He used to say that he would “stamp the fool out of him;” but he tried in vain.

One afternoon, when Edward had finished his work, and was waiting for the return of his master in order to go to dinner, he was sitting with a sparrow on his knee. It was a young sparrow which he had trained and taught to do a number of little tricks. It was his pet, and he loved it dearly. While he was putting the sparrow through its movements, the master entered. He was three parts drunk. On looking at the bird on Edward’s knee, he advanced, and struck Edward such a blow that it laid him flat on the floor. The bird had fluttered to the ground, and was trampled on.

When Edward was about to rise, he saw that Begg was going to kick him. Raising up his arm to ward off the blow, Begg’s foot came in contact with it, and, losing his balance, he reeled, staggered against the wall, and fell backward. He gathered himself together and got up. If angry before, he was furious now. Edward, seeing that he was again about to resume his brutality, called out that he would shout .for help, and that he wouldn’t be struck again without a cause. “Without a cause, you idle blackguard! sitting playing with some of your devils instead of doing my work!” “I had no work; it was done three hours ago, and I was waiting to go to my dinner.” “It’s not near dinner-time yet.” “It’s four o’clock!” “I didn’t know it was so late: well, you may go.”

Tom seized the opportunity of picking up his poor and innocent bird from the floor. He found it was still breathing. He put it tenderly in his bosom, and hastened homeward. His mother was not surprised at his lateness, which was very usual, in consequence of the irregularity of his master’s hours. “But what’s the matter wi ye?” she said; “your face is bleedin’, and ye hae been greetin’.” “Look,” said he, taking the harmless and now lifeless bird from his breast and holding it up, “that would gar ony body greet;” and his tears fell on the mangled body of his little pet. “I wouldn’t have cared so much for myself,” he said, if he had only spared my bird.” Then he told his mother all that had happened, and he added that if Begg struck him again without a cause he would certainly run away. She strongly remonstrated against this; because, being bound apprentice for six years, he must serve out his time, come what would.

On returning to the shoe-maker’s shop in the afternoon, Edward was met at the door by his master, who first shook him, and then searched him; but, finding there was nothing about him, he was allowed to go to his seat. And thus three years passed. The boy learned something of his trade. The man went on from bad to worse. In his drunken fits he often abused and thrashed his apprentice. At last the climax came. One day Edward brought three young moles to the shop. The moles were safely ensconced in his bonnet. When Begg found the moles, he killed them at once, knocked down Edward with a last, seized him by the neck and breast, dragged him to the door, and with a horrible imprecation threw him into the street. Edward was a good deal hurt; but he went home, determined from that day he would never again serve under such a brute.

Begg called at his mother’s next day, and ordered the boy to return to his work. Edward refused. Begg then invoked the terrors of the law. “He would compel Edward to fulfill his apprenticeship. He would prosecute his father, and his two sureties, and make them pay the penalty for breaking the boy’s indenture.” This threat gave Edward’s mother a terrible fright, especially when her boy insisted that he would not go back. The family were left in fear and commotion for some time. But at last, as nothing further was heard of the threatened prosecution, they dismissed it from their minds.

What was Edward to do next? He was thoroughly sick of his trade, and wished to engage in some other occupation that would leave him freer to move about. He would be a sailor! He had a great longing to see foreign countries, and he thought that the best way of accomplishing this object was to become a sailor. On mentioning the matter to his parents, he was met with a determined and decided refusal. They tried to dissuade him by various methods. “Man,” said his father to him, “do you know that sailors have only a thin plank between them and death ? Na, na! If you’re no gaun back to Begg, you must find some other master, and serve out your time. Bide ye at the shoemaker trade; and if ye can make siller at it, ye can then gang and see as mony countries as ye like.”

Such was his father’s advice, but it did not suit young Edward’s views. He wanted to be a sailor. He went down to the harbor, and visited every ship there, in order to offer himself as a cabin-boy. He asked the captains to employ him, but in vain. At last he found one captain willing to take him, provided he had the consent of his father. But this he could not obtain, and therefore he gave up the idea for a time.

Then he thought of running away from home. He could not get away by sea; he would now try what he could do by land. He had often heard his parents talking about the Kettle, and of his uncle who had gone in search of him to the gypsy camp. Edward thought he would like to see this uncle. He might perhaps be able to help him to get some other and better employment than that of shoe-making. His thoughts were very undefined about the matter. But he certainly would not go back to work again with Charlie Begg, the drunken shoe-maker.

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