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The Life and Work of James Abernethy, C.E., F.R.S.E
School Days - Cotherstone, Haddington

TOWARDS the close of the year 1827 the boy was sent to a boarding school, kept by a master named Smith, at Cotherstone, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, six miles distant from Barnard Castle. From his own description of life at this establishment, written in 1834, several years before “Nicholas Nickleby” appeared, it would seem a logical inference upon a comparison of the two descriptions to say that this school was the veritable Dotheboys Hall of Mr. and Mrs. Squeers, so graphically described by Charles Dickens. As, however, that great author has expressly stated in his preface of the work that “Mr. Squeers is representative of a class, not an individual,” it would be futile to endeavour to establish the identity of Cotherstone or any other particular school with “Dotheboys Hall.” Such attempts have repeatedly been made, and have failed, and it seems advisable to avoid adding one more to the list of failures.

But as the description of the life at this School, which now for the first time appears in print, coinc’des in so many details with the system at “Dotheboys Hall at the delightful village of Dotheboys,” ii may be interesting to append as footnotes all closely corresponding passages in “ Nicholas Nickleby,” and so afford a comparison of the two versions, and it is hoped that their consistency will render a mutual service bv pointing to the truthfulness of the pictures drawn of a Yorkshire School of the period.

The manuscript runs thus,—

“My father had long been speaking of putting me and my brother to a boarding school, and being taken with Mr. Smith’s advertisement in a news paper in which he described himself as ‘a benevolent teacher of youth,’ called upon him at the Belle Sauvage Inn, Ludgate Hill, whither he used to repair periodically, for the purpose of securing new pupils, and was then staying on one of these ventures.* Not finding him at home he left his card, and on the following day this worthy gentleman entered our house, demonstrated or at least attempted to demonstrate with great warmth the excellency of his system, called his scholars ‘his dear children,’* and, in fact, so won the respect of my unsuspecting parents that my father thought him a happy man. and my mother regarded him as a saint. I was to learn ‘ good breeding,’ and he engaged to teach me the classics, mathematics, etc., with board and lodging also, all for the moderate sum of 20 per annum. How well he fulfilled his promise will be hereafter shown, suffice it to say that parents cannot be too careful of sending their children to such places as this turned out to be. If they wish their sons to be adepts at all kinds of roguery and mischief, and are anxious to see them exalted in this peculiar manner above their fellow men, why then, by all means, send them to one of the cheap Yorkshire boarding schools.

“However, to this fellow’s care my brother George and mvself were entrusted, and we made our voyage with him in a brig bound to Stockton-on-Tees, which occupied several days, our fellow passenger, being a cockney girl who was going to Stockton for her health, the captain’s wife and children, a monkey, who was a venerable patriarch, and a pig. Mrs. Smith, tender-hearted creature! had driven all the way from the academy (or prison) a distance of thirty-six miles, to meet her beloved husband, and was waiting for us at the inn on arrival, but being, as I said before, a tender-hearted creature, and being moreover afraid that the joy of meeting her husband might prove too much for her weak nerves, she had fortified her courage with a good boius of brandy, so that when we met her she was in high spirits, and received us with a cackling noise and much glee. Smith, in his turn, refreshed himself and prepared to depart. It was already dark, and I remember the wind howled fearfully, but he was determined to go in spite of everything, and even the remonstrances of his wife could not move him, and away we rattled. It was very dark, but the horse was perfectly acquainted with the road—I say the horse, because my master was so drunk that he could scarcely keep his seat. As far as my brother and myself were concerned we were snugly stowed away in a corner of the nondescript vehicle t in which we rode, although both of us felt lost in fear and grief. We jogged along as well as the rough road would permit, my mistress, who was sitting beside me, having had frequent recourses to the bottle, at last fell asleep, and so continued until we arrived at the first turnpike gate. The custodian was asleep in bed, and did not stir until my master had called him several times, cursed him as many, and flung handfuls of betins, which he had in his overcoat pocket, at his window. When he did arouse the sleeper, he too, took a similar view of the interruption, sending to the d-l all coaches, horses, gigs, and vehicles whatsoever.”

After a tedious drive they reached Cotherstone, on the borders of the North Riding of Yorkshire, a few miles from Barnard Castle, and the narrative continues :— “There were about fifty boys. The building had formerly been a nunnery, and was built ;n the form of a square, with a courtyard in the centre, into which all the windows looked, the exterior presenting dead walls. There were two gates at opposite sides of the square, which were locked every night at eight o’clock, thus debarring all exk* On one side of the square was a playground, out of which we were not allowed to go more than once or twice a month, and into which we were turned on the morning after our arrival. Never shall I forget the heart-sinking I felt at the sight of the crowd of unhealthy young ragamulfins, with their hardened faces, who surrounded us and treated us to jeers and laughter. Other realities of our situation were soon apparent: our clothes were taken from us, only to be returned or occasional Sunday's when we attended church at the neighbouring village of Romaldkirk, and others of a workhouse quality substituted, while our shoes were replaced by wooden clogs. Our bed-rooms, three in number, were little better than granaries. In each room were fourteen or fifteen wooden beds with straw mattresses, and each with a couple of blankets. Our dining-room was a large gloomy apartment with an earthen floor, the only articles of furniture being long wooden benches, at which we stood and ate our miserable rations—yes, stood, for we had not even chairs. The schoolroom* was a lofty chamber which I suppose had been the chapel. It had only one small stove and our suffering from cold in the winter was horrible. There were several large holes in the roof which let in water in rainy weather. We had two ruffians, who were styled teachers, beside our master, who seldom, or never entered the schoolroom but to assist at punishing the boys, which seemed to give him a hellish delight, like that with which the ministers of the Holy Inquisition witnessed the tortures of their victims. We rose at five, and at eight were assembled in the dining chamber to breakfast This consisted of black bread, milk, and water, and when finished, we repaired to the play-ground, and school commenced at nine. At one, we again assembled to dine. This meal was varied every day; milk and bread, then soup, a small tureen* of it among twelve boys, with about an ounce 01 meat to each, often in a putrid state.+ None of the teachors dined with us, they merely superintended the distribution of our often disgusting rations, like huntsmen feeding a kennel of hounds, which is no bad resemblance to our dinner parties. At five we supped off black bread and milk, played till seven, and were then sent off to bed.”

Another regulation of this establishment was that no holidays were allowed, and fond parents as a consolation used to send from time to time hampers containing among other goods, biscuits and sweetmeats, which upon delivery were forthwith appropriated by the stronger young ruffians in the school.

Following the description of school life ho proceeds to describe the effect of the ill-treatment.

“I shall now show the horrible effects, physically and morally, which hard treatment and bad living produced on us miserable scholars, many of us sons of respectable parents, whose hearts would have bled with anguish had they but known the situation of their children, in the cruel selfishness which takes possession of the human heart to the exclusion of all feelings of humanity—even so it was with us, young as most of us were. The elder and stronger boys tyrannized in a brutal manner over the younger and weaker.

"As their own portions of food were too small to satisfy the cravings of hunger they compelled their younger fellows to hide a part of their scanty fare for their benefit. It was of no use that the little fellow pleaded hunger, and with tears in his eyes, begged of him to allow him to eat: his hard-hearted companion turned a deaf ear to his entreaties and with blows and menaces compelled him to obey.

Finally, he sums up this “master’s” method of education as being based on the following lines, the. term “principles” being obviously inapplicable.

“1. To establish a boarding school in some remote corner and out of the reach of human eye.

“2. To advertize in tne newspapers and to procure certain persons as referees.

“3. To see that his scholars ere he took them should be provided with a good stock of clothing,  etc.

“4. When he had got them firmly secured, to take away from them their fine clothes, etc., and substitute in their place corderoy, and feed them on the coarsest and cheapest food, add plenty of extras to the quarterly accounts, etc., so as to secure to himself plenty of profit.

“Such was the vagabond that called himself a Teacher of Youth, and to whose  fatherly care (as he expressed it) we were entrusted.”

After an incarceration of two years in the youthful prison, an uncle, the Rev. John Abernethy, of Bolton, near Haddington, being in the neighbourhood of the School, bethought himself of paying a visit to his unfortunate nephews, and realizing the ill-treatment to which they had been so long subjected, immediately took them away with him to their indescribable delight.

Forty-seven years after this happy release, in 1876, my father revisited and made some sketches of the scene of his youthful misery which are now reproduced, and to an old villager who had watched him while thus occup.od with much interest, explained how he had once been a schoolboy within its dilapidated walls. “A good many,” the latter remarked, “have been there at different times, but you are the first as I know of as has come back to look at the place.” He noticed scrawled on the plaster walls of the dormitory names which he took to be those of subsequent prisoners, but none of them of boys he could recall to remembrance.

In the year of the visit to Cotherstone he was one of the Vice-Presidents of the Institution, and his appreciation of a timely deliverance from its precincts may be best conveyed by giving his own words contained In a letter to his wife, in which, after describing his visit, he wrote, “ I uncovered my head and returned grateful thanks to the Almighty for guiding me after all to a high position in my profession, and for giving me a happy cheerful home.”

The next attempt in the selection of a school was more fortunate, and at the instigation of the uncle who had so opportunely come to the rescue, and accompanied by him, he left London in a brig named Trusty, bound for Leith, with a somewhat medley assortment of passengers, as on his previous sea passage to Stockton ; the list comprised some quakers returning to Edinburgh, a clown, harlequin, columbine, and several half-pay officers, who were largely induced to patronise these boats by the prospect of securing several days’ rations and billet, possibly if the wind was unfavourable—to the extent of a week or ten days—for the very moderate sum of 2. This particular voyage was a stormy one, and involved anchoring in Bridlington Bay for some two days, much to the mental disturbance of the poor pantomimists, who were engaged to appear on a certain night at Edinburgh. The minister too became anxious at the thought of an empty pulpit at Haddington on the rapidly approaching Sabbath, and, accordingly, obtained the captain’s consent upon reaching Dunbar to land; the players also gladly seizing this opportunity of terminating their sea passage and making their way to Edinburgh by road. For two years the nephew attended the Haddington Grammar School, frequently visiting his uncle at the manse, at the end of which time, as he had evinced no disposition to become a minister, he was allowed to follow up his own inclination to enter upon apprenticeship as a civil engineer, and placed himself as a pupil to his father, who was then acting as resident engineer on the London Dock Works, a situation to which he had been appointed through the recommendation of Mr. Telford, the first President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and in the capacity of resident, was answerable in turn to Mr. Henry Palmer, the engineer in chief.



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