Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Autobiographical Reminiscences of David Johnston
Chapter XIX

"That thin partitions do divide
The bounds where good and ill reside;
That naught is perfect here below,
But bliss still bordering upon woe."------

THE parish of St. Giles, Camberwell, in the metropolitan borough of Lambeth (which borough returns two members to parliament), is situated in the county of Surrey, and is one of the richest suburbs of London. The parish contained in 1832 a population of about 50,000, which was healthily increasing. The parish is divided into three parts, viz., Camberwell proper, the liberty of Peckham and the hamlet of Dulwich. In the last-named village is the famous college of Allyn the play-actor, who built and endowed it for the support and education of decayed persons of his name. In this college is the Bodleian gallery, in which there are some splendid paintings of the old masters. In Peckham stands Marlborough House, the ancient seat of the hero of Blenheim, with all his deeds emblazoned on the walls, in good preservation. The residence of Nell Gwynn, of Charles II notoriety, was made to give way for the Surrey canal. Of the beauty of the topography of Camberwell it would be difficult to say too much in its praise. It is said "Sweet Auburn" was written in Goldsmith House, Peckham. Be that as it may, I know there is a pane of glass in one of the windows of that house with his name, said to have been written by himself. The topography of the parish is delightfully undulating, and rich in foliage. The hills, known by the names of Grove, Champion, Dulwich, Norwood, Forest, and Sydenham, abound in splendid scenery.. Several views from these eminences are obtained of the metropolis. The valley of the Thames, the wealds of Kent and the immediate surroundings are well worthy of a visit. But in speaking of my cozy, happy home I must not forget the passing events of the then extraordinary period. The political arena of 1829 assumed a state of fermentation which drifted rapidly into an agitation which in some instances threatened damage to the peace of the community. The iron horse had made his bow, making manifest at once his power to bless and to destroy. At the great and world-wide important event of opening the railway between Manchester and Liverpool, the nation was shocked and dreadfully saddened by the destruction of one of our greatest and most consistent reformers of the period. Mr. Huskisson, who, with the Duke of Wellington, was deputed to represent the government at the opening, was killed on the track by an engine near Liverpool. He was president of the board of trade at the time and a great advocate of free trade, and was mainly instrumental in lowering the duties on the silken fabrics of France so as to bring them within the reach of the common people of England, to the annoyance of the Spitalfield silk weavers who carried their petition in procession to the House of Commons against his innovating measures. Their mistaken notions were unmoved by his eloquence, but their subsequent experience proved the soundness of his principles when their periodical poverty had given place to an increased activity to their shuttles. The reforming spirit was more susceptible of feeling at this time than to action, each heading looming up and claiming priority of the popular process which the acute angles of all measures are destined to undergo prior to becoming law. Reform in parliament became the leading topic of the day. Men were now inspired by reasonable expectations of a speedy accomplishment of that for which they had struggled for a period of twenty-eight years, and for which they had figured at an early day in the most contemptible minorities. We had now in 1830 at the nominal head of affairs a reforming king (William the Fourth, the popular sailor king), under whose auspices there were those in high places who in the spirit of their dreams began to feel a change. Many who, under George, were stanch advocates for leaving all things just as they were, began under William to relax.

Others, again, assumed the position of leaders in a cause against which they had fought for years. In 1830 and 1831 the spirit of the people rose to a dangerous pitch. In all the large towns immense assemblages of the middle and working classes convened, carrying flags bearing inscriptions, some of which were couched in terms more in the attitude of threats than that of petitions. Every city, town and hamlet had its reform society, from whom emanated spirited petitions, not always guarded in phraseology. Under the pressure from without a bill, under the auspices of that grand old political reformer, Lord John Russell, was introduced into the commons. After every schedule of the bill had been severely scrutinized, both in and out of parliament, it was accepted by the people, and the bill, the whole bill, and nothing but the bill, became the national demand from Land's End to John o' Groat's. But the king, intimidated at the aspect of affairs, made efforts to retract, dismissed his reforming minister, tried to form a cabinet of the leaders of the opposition, which proved impracticable, and thereby made shipwreck of his golden popularity. So much so that on his way to and from his palace at Windsor he found himself under the necessity of taking a by-road to escape the filthy missiles being thrown at his carriage, showing the instability of the popular applause. 1830 was an eventful year. George IV departed this life after ten years of misrule. It gave a throne to Louis Phillippe, obscurity to Charles X, and an addition to our little family at Peckham. In the revolution effecting the changes in France the whole world was dazzled at the noble defense of order made by La Fayette against a host of fire-brands. I was so taken with the bravery of that hero that I was desirous of naming our infant son after him, but on our way to Camberwell church to get a name, my wife, being a true English woman, scouted the idea of naming a child of ours after a Frenchman. I felt cheap and vanquished, and gave the choice up to her, and I am sure she found a much less worthy name in my own than in that of the hero of my choice, but I had disfranchised myself in the premises and yielded to the inevitable.

At this particular juncture all Europe seemed convulsed. Thrones toppled, dynasties arose and reigning families were ruthlessly shelved. Even these little republics, called parishes in England, where self-government really exists, were not exempt from the prevailing turmoil, and our quiet rural parish of Camberwell had to come in for its share. The clerical or bookkeeping part of the parish was nominally transacted by Mr. Gilbert, a prominent lawyer in the city, whose income enabled him to keep up a high-toned establishment in Camberwell. For his services as vestry-clerk he received four hundred pounds per annum, while Mr. Pool, the assistant vestry-clerk, on whose shoulders fell the real burden of the work, enjoyed a salary of seventy pounds a year whereon to support himself, wife and seven children. The childless Gilbert, moving in the highest circles of society, beginning to think that an additional two hundred to his four hundred would be acceptable, mooted the idea to his bosom friend, the vicar, and leading men of the influential class of parishioners in which he moved. The hill-tops teemed with the desire, but how shall we be able to counteract that abominable spirit of reform which seems to transform our trading and working classes from willing coadjutors to vile obstructionists? The vote in our favor can only be obtained by early attendance and filling the hall with our friends. But the move was anticipated by the despised reformers, and the audience proved too much imbued with the spirit of reform for their scheme. Under the auspices of John George Storey, vicar, the churchwardens and overseers of the poor of St. Giles, Camberwell, the meeting was convened. I was induced by neighbors to attend that meeting, at which John George Storey-took the chair. The object of the special meeting was somewhat hastily explained, and a motion to augment the salary of the vestry clerk two hundred pounds per annum was as hastily moved and seconded. Looking around in vain to those who had urged me to accompany them in the spirit of opposition to the measure, and somewhat nettled at the supine appearance of my neighbors, at the moment the vicar was about to submit the motion to the vote I made myself heard in the crowded hall, apologizing for so young a parishioner trespassing upon the notice of so great an assembly. I said that if my opinion of the sum of four hundred pounds a year was too inflated I had to attribute it to the fact of being a native of a part of the world where money is rendered valuable by its scarcity. "I therefore move as an amendment that Mr. Gilbert receive a vote of thanks for the able manner in which he has served the parish in the capacity of vestry clerk, and that he be invited to retain that position at his present salary of four hundred pounds per annum." This amendment was seconded by a stentorian voice at the opposite side of the hall, who, seeing the unwillingness on the part of the vicar to put the amendment, and at the time urging me to withdraw it, elbowed his way through the crowded audience, introduced himself as Mr. Brett, whom I afterward found to be an eminent attorney of the old Kent Road, saying," I seconded your amendment, and I fear you are about to lose it. According to appearances we shall be able to carry the vote. All now depends on your pressing it to an issue." Being entirely ignorant of parliamentary rules I took courage from his support, and to the chagrin of the chair pressed the amendment, which was carried by a very large majority. The effect of this vote throughout the parish was unprecedented, and infuriated for a time the proud priest and his party. The cool, temperate daring of a class they were wont to despise challenged their respect and paved the way to a wonderful change in parochial management. On the following Easter Tuesday, the day on which all the parish officers are elected for the year ensuing, in due order of business the election of overseer of the poor for the Liberty of Peckham came before the vestry, and Mr. Brett arose and said "that inasmuch as the parish of Camberwell stands indebted to a comparative stranger in that part of the parish for the judicious part he took in a recent controversy, I therefore move that David Johnston be overseer of the poor of St. Giles, Camberwell, during the ensuing year, ending in Easter, 1831," which, to the astonishment of all present, was seconded by Mr. Gilbert and unanimously carried. Thus was I honored by my fellow-parishioners in the receipt of the highest gift within the compass of their power, and all from a mere accident, not from any credit of my own. Oh, for the buoyant happiness of those too few days! To be lifted from a miserable life of servile drudgery into a snug, sweet, home at the age of twenty-six years, in robust health; to be in communion with the woman you dearly love, and with whom you have been acquainted for eight years; to be blessed with a promising son; to have your credit well established; to possess the confidence of your fellow-creatures, and all your prospects brightening, must be felt to be appreciated. But such felicity seldom falls to the lot of man. Indeed, I have been led to look upon happy coincidences as the harbinger of evil, an idea which might have found its origin in the dreadful ordeal which I was destined to undergo so close upon the heels of the attainment of all that I could wish. My wife's confinement had not been attended by anything like severity; still, her continued weakness gave rise to uneasiness, and shortly to alarm. At the close of the nurse's term Sophia's mother became her constant attendant, and under the auspices of the physician, Dr. Bissett, and her own loving heart, soothed the pillow of the darling patient until her last breath, which fatal event transpired on the seventeenth day of September, 1832. The grave in which her remains are deposited is in old Camberwell churchyard, pointed out by a headstone on which is inscribed the following language, quoted from Sterne, and garbled to suit the sex:

She wasówords are wanting to say what!
Think what a wife, mother, friend, should be,
And she was that!

Return to Contents Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus