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A FRAGMENT OF AUTOBIOGRAPHY.
I HAVE always considered an author must possess a considerable share of vanity who attaches an autobiography to his work; and whenever a book of any description has come under my notice with an elaborate review of its author, written by himself, I have felt an unwillingness to give entire credence to the account rendered. Thus gradually a prejudice has grown with the growth of my mind; and nothing would have induced me to append, by my own hand, this brief outline of my life, but that those who shall read the Poems may know some of the disadvantages under which they were written, and may not be too severe in their judgment.
I was born in London in the year 1830, and am now in my twenty-fifth year. I received my school education partly at free and partly at weekly schools. My father (an engineer by profession) and mother were in comparatively comfortable circumstances during the earlier part of my life, so that my youth was not fraught with the amount of misery and perpetual drudgery endured by the sons and daughters of the poorer classes. I was no laggard during the time I attended school, but seemed to acquire the rudiments of education as quickly as the majority of my schoolfellows. I was ever desirous of emulating my competitors in the school, and I well remember my struggles to acquire proficiency in reading and spelling in order to get at the head of the class. Such an education as was afforded in the schools it was my lot to attend, during eight years of my life, I certainly acquired, but I have lived to learn that the education rendered in the schools of the working classes during my boyhood was vastly deficient; for, when I left school, I found the fragments of really useful knowledge
left me from those eight years of instruction miserably small. I could write a legible hand, and could read ordinarily well. I knew the meanings of a quantity of words, and was able to do a few of the hundreds of sums in arithmetic, which at school had been done with rapidity. In fact, I have not to complain that I was not taught enough, but that I was taught too much; the mind was crammed, day after day, with lessons no sooner repeated than almost immediately forgotten. I never acquired any knowledge of grammar or of elocution at school ; they were not considered, or, at least, were not taught, as indispensable elements of education. Whenever grammar came in my way, which was rarely indeed, I seemed to have an inherent disliking for it; I could not then see the utility of it; and my numerous schoolmasters never explained, or particularly cared, whether I knew its rules or not.
When I left school, which was in my fourteenth year, sent to work at a paper mill in Hertfordshire, where my parents were then residing, and received the sum of three shillings a week. I continued in this mill for about twelve months, the best part of which time I was working in what was termed the drying loft. This loft was heated by steam to a temperature excessively hot. Day after day I felt the effects injuriously acting on my system, and had long determined to quit. I tried all accessible means to obtain another situation, so as to avoid the necessity of throwing myself out of employment, but was unsuccessful. I remember, along with another boy, making ap. plication to Sir Granville Ryder, then M.P. for Herts, to obtain an engagement at sea, for which I had a strong passion, but was again unsuccessful, and was sadly disappointed in consequence, for my imagination was continually presenting to my mind glowing pictures of a sea-faring life, which my later experience has proved to be both wild and visionary. A circumstance, however, quickly decided a journey to London on foot, a distance of about twenty-two miles. One morning all of the boys, including myself, working in the drying loft were discharged; some of the cards had been soiled, through the sweat of our hands, which was unavoidable; and women were to do the same work in the sall, a place at once healthy and cool, whilst for reasons I am unable to discover we were compelled to work in a place almost as hot as an oven.
I had been in London for the space of a fortnight, wandering about penniless, but not houseless, for I was staying with an aunt in the neighbourhood of Islington, unable to obtain any employment. I knew not what course to pursue, for I had clandestinely deserted my home, and therefore was most miserable, as I could not stay much longer with my aunt, who would not have afforded me shelter at all had I not concealed from her the reason of my presence in London. One morning, when I was inadvertently puzzling my brains with the course to pursue, I was surprised by a visit from my father, who had discovered my abode, and who took me home again, after slightly reprimanding me for desertion of duty. Some little time after I was again employed at the mill in a different capacity, which was no better paid, but which was free from the attendant evils of my former occupation.
At the age of sixteen I was apprenticed to my father, in another mill belonging to the same employers. During that period my leisure time was almost wholly absorbed in model making. I made several model steam engines, one of which I succeeded in getting amongst the models exhibited at the Polytechnic Institution in London, and was much pleased at receiving a free admission ticket during its stay. Previous to this time my mother died, and certain family arrangements necessitated me to leave home, and exist on my own resources. My income at this time was only six shillings a week, independent of what I could earn by making overtime.
When I left Hertfordshire I found myself again in London, where I was more successful (having a trade in my hands) than before in obtaining employment. But it did not long continue. Trade during that time was unusually dull, and many causes, such as my inexperience, my want of friends, and my youthful appearance, served to prevent me obtaining employment for some considerable time. During an interval of sixteen months I only obtained between four and five months' work, after travelling to Manchester, Halifax, Bradford, Leeds, Hull, and back to London. The small engines I had made during my apprenticeship were sold at intervals at less than half their value, and had the effect of preventing much suffering; but I endured enough of want during that long time, with few friends to whom I could willingly apply for that assistance adversity renders needful. I had relations who were comparatively well to do in the world, and who could easily have supplied me with enough money to prevent absolute want, but I troubled them little. I found no sympathy, but, on the contrary, harsh and uncivil remarks heaped upon me. I, therefore, wounded in spirit, willing but unable to obtain work, endured in silence. Strangers on some occasions were generous and true friends; at other times bitter and severe foes. Sometimes I would scarcely taste food for the whole day, and often travel six or eight miles to a particular shop in hopes of employment, and find the gate insolently slammed in my face. Since that time I have often wondered how I could have endured, not only the social evils attendant on my helpless position, but the dull and fearful workings of the mind, produced by the aspects before it, and yet remain honest. Yes; thank God! I can reflect on that, the dullest portion of my history, with satisfaction. I never despaired. Hope ever lent her radiant wings to bear my imagination to brighter and more congenial prospects. The lessons of practical morality I had acquired at home and at school were strongly developed, and, however circumstances might depress, would stimulate my mind with boldness and perseverance.
In the year 1850 my attention was directed to the study of society, and its various political, religious, and social arrangements. I attended lectures, and read much on the subject, and soon became an ardent advocate, amongst my private acquaintance, of the principles of co-operation. Having obtained employment, I became a member of a Mechanics’ Institution, in the City Road, and took part in the weekly free discussions held by its members.
In the latter part of the year 1851 I attempted the composition of poetry, for which I had ever a warm admiration. From my earliest recollection I would repeat sweet and exquisite snatches of poetry which I had gleaned from miscellaneous magazines and journals that happened to fall in my way. During the same year I was married to Miss Louisa Short, of Aldbury, a small village in Hertfordshire. We had been warmly attached to each other for the space of four years previous to our marriage, which took place thus early in consequence of the severe loss sustained by Louisa in the death of both her