Slaithwaite Notes: Past and Present (1905) - Chapter XLIII

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Chapter XLIII. Old Bookmen

It is said we are a nation of footballers, cricketers, and sportsmen, leavened with narrow religion and bitter politics. This I do not believe, as I know we are something better, though at times it is painful to find what wrong things can be done under a sacred cloak, and what tyranny can be practised under the name of liberty. It is true that our young men are more given to games than they were formerly. England would not suffer if these pleasures were taken in more moderation, and the higher aims of life better attended to. No; no one nowadays would dream of robbing young men and women of their well-earned pleasure and repose. But has not a time come when we should take stock to see where we are with other nations? Because for me England must be first in all things, great, glorious, and free.

Slaithwaite, poor and poverty stricken in the old days, had more than one public library, and a large number of readers. Where are the latter to-day? Old one’s are mostly dead, and the libraries have become neglected, unless it be a poor unreadable book in the Sunday schools, which no one thinks it worthwhile to take out. This is not as it should be. I would rather have a well-read people than a rich people, because the latter would lead to pure selfishness of a degrading character, while the former would elevate the mind and lift mankind to a higher state of real happiness, so that this world would be more worth living in.

We did not always achieve this, I am bound to own, in the good old times of long ago. No; but we tried hard and made some impressions which are not altogether lost, and can be seen in that better and bigger Slaithwaite, which has grown to distinction with other thriving towns on the banks of the dear little River Colne, making one happy and prosperous community, not readily surpassed or often equalled, and let us hope will so run on as to reach the beautiful town of Huddersfield, to stop every indication of decay, and give every impulse to its reviving industries.

This preliminary leads one to speak a little of some very few of the old bookmen — maybe dreamers, though supporters of the Mechanics’ Institute, reading rooms, progressive ideas, and social developments. I will not take the wealthy ones this time, because they were very few, though to their honour, be it said, there were some who w r ere not one whit behind their poorer neighbours in their strong desire to promote the public weal.

Take at random three of my choice to-day: James Bamforth, Inghead, known best as James o’ Dickey’s. He was one of the founders of the Local Board, became one of its first members, and was so learned in the by-laws that he was called the solicitor general to the ruling authority, and was able to keep them right in all matters of difficulty, and this without fee or reward of any kind. It could not be said of him as Brougham (in a facetious mood) said of a lawyer, viz., that “he was a learned gentleman who rescues your estate from your enemies — and keeps it himself.” No; old James was happy in serving the public, and none more content than he when at the Shoulder of Mutton Inn, with his lone clay pipe, a tankard of ale, and a good company, discussed the great questions of the day at the forum of the public-house, then the cockpit, where disputes were settled, high or low, sacred or profane.

Joe Dyson, Windy Bank, and Charles o’ th’ Barrett were two of a very different class, retiring and modest in their several ways, both great bookworms. Talking of that Windy Bank, how deserted is the place! Not a soul to tell the tale of its former glory, when old Mrs. Marsden was queen, with Dyson as next-door neighbour; but, oh, so different in character! Those tall trees sigh in vain on stormy nights to the tumble-down barns, once the happy home of man and beast. Here was Dyson’s castle, library, workshop, and study. He was a man of frugal habits and a saving turn which always enabled him to be independent, and at the finish to leave a little behind for his relatives and friends. Dyson’s mind was an ideal one: full of poetry, rich in imagination, and very great on Shakespeare, Burns, and Byron. These he (Dyson) would discuss for ever.

One dark night I remember when I was in great distress, having just lost the dear young wife of my youth, and mother of my three dear little girls, youngest under two years of age. It was a sad time, and Joe was my greatest comforter. Sitting in the house with the darlings in bed, the housekeeper gone home, in comes a popular parson of the day, who had been accompanied from Huddersfield to Slaithwaite, it being Sunday and too late in the day for trains. To put it plainly, the reverend gentleman dare not go home alone, and abjectly begged for company on the lonely road. In vain I pleaded that the little ones could not be left, but it was no use, we had to go, Dyson, myself and the minister. On the road the first-named was all in his glory, reciting his best poetry for the comfort of the last mentioned, who was all gratitude and thankfulness as long as we kept on through Cellars Clough nearly to his door. But the sting of the whole thing was that some time after it came to my knowledge that this ungrateful beggar had only been having us on, and for the benefit of his private friends was imitating Joe in his recital of poetry, especially that part in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” canto 3, stanza 21, beginning with

“There was a sound of revelry by night,”

and going on to

“Music arose with its voluptuous swell;
Soft eyes look’d love to eyes which spake again.”

I know that Joe did not pronounce the long word correctly, but called it “volumpious,” but it never entered my mind that it would be used against my friends as a reward for the pilgrimage of mercy we had bestowed on the reverend gentleman, and I may be pardoned to-day surely for saying that ever since I have given the ungracious scoffer a wide berth, though I have watched with pleasure his greater success in a much wider sphere of influence.

Charles o’ th’ Barrett was a different man, cold and calculating, and when “Essays and Reviews” came out at Oxford he was one of the first to purchase them. He was a very great reader, and the one who first brought to my mind Lyell’s “Antiquity of Man.” He was almost a Freethinker, and encouraged all young men to go to his house just under Pole Moor Chapel. All the young fellows who were coming out used to be found in his den discussing all the great questions of the day to the delight of the old gentleman, who with many a sage advice would correct the erring ones and help the weak. Charles had come of a family who had money, and he never had to work, but could live quietly in his little way in comparative comfort and ease. He could be very satirical at times and almost ill-humoured, for he was very peculiar. He had a large heart, and had generous sentiments. Good natured to a fault, and he would never let the mice running about the house be destroyed, but would kindly feed them, and they were one of the sights of the place. Joe Dyson and he were great friends until near the end of their days (neither ever married), when in an unfortunate moment they fell out about nothing, blackguarded each other soundly, called names willingly, and were indeed very foolish, to the great regret of their numerous friends. They both lived long, and I believe died happy. May they in this state have met in the world they have gone to, there to renew the fond friendship of their early days, and never to grow older in that far-off happy land.

Slaithwaite Notes: Past and Present (1905) by John Sugden

Slaithwaite Notes: Past and Present (1905) - Chapter XLIII


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