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 XXI

"Mark my fall and that that ruin'd me."

IT seems that the most difficult lesson for a prosperous man to learn is to know when to eschew speculation; to be content pursuing the even tenor of well doing and ever able to fortify the ear against siren assaults which savor of ambition, how difficult the task! The ease which attended the raising of the necessary-funds to make me a freeholder of Surrey, which ("up higher yet, my bannet!") entitled me to a vote for the county and to mingle with the lords of the soil at Croyden on election day, doubtless led to a species of inflated pleasures, but at the same time proved the opening wedge to a train of action which involved me in the short space of a few years in utter ruin, and led to the dreadful ordeal of emigration with a family of nine souls, at the age of forty-five years, to a distant land. My purchase was part of the estate of Esquire Batten, of Yeovil, Somerset, banker, who for some years, on his annual visit to London to collect his rents, enjoyed some comfort in my cozy little parlor, and never failed to advise me to purchase the property, consisting of my own premises, extending a long way back, a grocer's shop next door, and eight small cottages behind in an alley. He remarked on one occasion that he was "getting too far advanced in life for this periodical journey, and I have experienced nothing but confusion in trusting to agents for the collection of rents, and therefore I have come to the determination of bringing the whole of my London property to the hammer. It will be to your advantage to take the property for £1,200, and I shall make the payments easy." I thanked him for his proposition, but doubted my capacity to furnish the means, and before he received a penny of the purchase money the title deeds of the freehold were placed in my hands, thus entitling me to a vote for the borough of Lambeth. Such a business transaction I never heard of before nor since, and I have been led to believe, from the indifferent manner in which he received the first installment of .£400, that he was careless as to whether I paid him or not, and when he received the last installment he said that when Batten's terrace was sold to be at the sale and bid for the end house next to my alley as a means of securing the future advantage of the property I had just bought. I subsequently found his advice profitable, but the general sale being left in the hands of a broker the purchase-money had to be forthcoming—£700 within seven weeks of the date of the sale. Thus I was drawn into a dilemma which was likely to prove fatal to all my good fortune, and from which I could only be extricated by paying the cash at the given time. I wrote to the old gentleman, saying that 1 had taken his advice in buying the house in Batten's terrace, and should be in Yeovil on the following week for some further advice in the premises. In two days I received notice from an unknown hand that Mr. Batten was too ill to see any one, particularly on business. I then wrote to Jane Turpin, a daughter of my half-brother, Alexander, by a former wife, explaining my untoward position. She sent, to my agreeable astonishment, £400, which left me an easy task to make up the remainder among my friends. My mind considerably relieved, setting my house in order for a new presiding genius became the order of the day.

At this time I am beholden to my friend Mr. Webb, of High Holborn, for an introduction to Miss Mary Ann Wheeler, whose father was a Mr. Thomas Wheeler, portrait painter, of Regent street, St. James. I addressed that gentleman by mail, asking permission to visit his daughter. His answer was couched in cautious terms, requiring references. I sent him to Mr. Michie, whose testimony was deemed satisfactory, and which opened the doors to a happy home, in which I spent many a delightful evening in conversation and music. David, my first and only son by my former wife, was now four years old, and I placed him under the care of relations, Mr. and Mrs. Graham, of the grammar school, Haddington. His grandmother, Mrs. Jones, accompanied me to Scotland with him. While there we made a little tour up the Firth to Stirling by the first steamer that sailed in these waters; thence by coach to lock sixteen, on the Forth and Clyde canal; thence by canal to Glasgow. Stopping in that great mart a few days, we sailed down the Clyde to Greenock, Dunoon and Rothesay; back again to Glasgow, and thence by coach to Edinburgh; then again to London by a Leith smack. We found Mrs. Anderson well, but somewhat dumpy. Dame Rumor had me married, or about to be, and it was a downright shame to keep it from her.

On the 4th day of May, 1834, at St. James' church, Piccadilly, Miss Mary Ann Wheeler became Mrs. David Johnston. Now I have a volume to write about that lady, but am tongue-tied on the subject, for here she is by my side on the Pacific coast, in 1883, mingling her hopes with mine to have the pleasure of our golden wedding, and she hates the semblance of flattery. So, loving peace, mum's the word. On our wedding-day we, accompanied by a few friends, dined at the Star and Garter, Richmond Hill, one of England's loveliest spots, and which, looking toward Windsor, is furnished, at this season for rich beauty, with one of the finest landscapes in the world, and, turning homeward, under our own vine and fig-tree in the pleasant village of Peckham spent the honeymoon and fourteen years of our lives. It was natural to suppose that Mrs. Anderson would be incommoded by the new arrangement, but to the inevitable she handsomely yielded and stayed a few days with Mrs. Jones, who also visited my wife and became attached to her. Thus we were all made comparatively happy, but the parting scene was not all unfelt; my own vision might have been so impaired by surplus moisture as to disentitle it to respect, but I fancied I could detect a wee bit globule struggling to escape from the philosophical eye of Mrs. Anderson, who carried with her my heartfelt thanks for the past and unfeigned good wishes for her future welfare. Oh! how sad to think of so noble a mind being left to brood over her troubles alone, hopelessly deserted by one who had sworn to cherish and protect her while life lasts. Mrs. Jones, my benefactress, deprived by death of nearly all that makes life desirable, craving in her loneliness for society, arranged with Mrs. Anderson to share her dwelling in Islington until she should carry out her intentions of going home to her father's house at Cockpen, which, after a considerable time, she did, and on my last visit to Scotland I had the pleasure of a chat with her on past events. What became of James Anderson I never knew and scarcely cared.

An event happened in the village which caused some sensation about this time. John Thomas------, plumber and house painter, High street, had four children by a former wife and four by his present wife. The father of the first wife died, leaving £1,000 in the 3 per cent consols for the benefit of her children when they respectively came of age. The eldest son, John, was a wild, drunken youth, who in one of his paroxysms of rage threatened to stab his father. He then went to sea, and at the close of his then distant voyage would be twenty-one years of age and of course come in for his £250. Now his father, dreading his presence on his return, and believing that the possession of this money would only tend to increase the evil habits of the boy in an unsound state of mind, bethought himself of intercepting his obtaining it, and after much cogitation in an evil hour forged his co-trustee's name, a Mr. ------, made application for the consols through the medium of a broker, and was a prisoner in the compter, all in the same day. Not being acquainted with Mr.------, and decidedly opposed to him in politics, I was not a little surprised to receive a letter on the following morning from his legal adviser, Mr. Gregson, requesting an interview at the prison. My better feelings prompting, I yielded to his desire and repaired to the scene of anguish. A description of this meeting lies beyond my power: to depict the condition of the deeply contrite prisoner, the painful distress of his young wife, with a baby at her breast, and that of his daughter Emma, who would accompany her stepmother to the jail. Even Mr. Gregson evinced feeling of distress, and addressing himself to me, said: "We have sent for you, Mr. Johnston, to ask you to do an act of kindness to this miserable family, the head of which has brought ruin upon it by an act which would a short time ago have cost him his life. Happily, the law of late has been humanized, but the punishment awaiting the crime of forgery is necessarily still severe, namely, transportation to a penal settlement, the maximum being for life and the minimum for seven years. Now, with a view to shorten the term as much as possible, I have advised Mr.------to throw himself on the mercy of the court by pleading guilty of the crime with which he will in all probability be charged, and I am glad he has consented to do so. According to law his real estate on his conviction will be confiscated to the crown, and his wife and family thereby reduced to pauperism. To obviate this additional calamity we have taken the liberty of asking your aid. I have prepared a deed of trust and guardianship to be subscribed by Mr.------, giving the power to act into the hands of any person he thinks proper to appoint, and all parties concerned join me in requesting you to be kind enough to assume the responsibility for the sake of the suffering family. The duties will be simply to collect the rents of eight houses in Hill street, Peckham, quarterly, and out of the proceeds pay weekly to Mrs.------such allowance as the creditors of Mr.------ shall deem meet for the maintenance of the family, the balance to accumulate enough to warrant a dividend, which you shall call whensoever the cash in hand is sufficient to justify the expense." To the proposition I found it impossible to say nay. Nor was the document completed any too soon, for the trial came off earlier than was anticipated, the poor man received his sentence of seven years' transportation beyond the seas, and I found myself in charge of his wife and seven children during all the long years of his absence. My wife invited Emma to live with us, which she did for many years. The compassion and sympathy of the neighbors ran high in favor of the poor fellow, now he was condemned, many believing that he never intended to appropriate the money to himself, and that he spoke the truth when he said that the only motive which prompted the perpetration of the crime was an earnest desire to check the downward progress of his first-born son. Imbued with similar notions, and believing the severity of the punishment indicated a lack of discrimination in the case, being strengthened by the popular sentiment, I conceived the idea of keeping him by a well-timed effort at home. I first went to the seat of the learned leisure of the vicar and asked him to head a petition to the prime minister in behalf of John Thomas------, with a view of retaining him in England during his term of punishment. "I cannot sign such a petition," the vicar said. "Will you be kind enough to enlighten me with your reasons?" "As vicar of the parish of St. Giles, Camber-well, as justice of the peace, as a conservator of the law, I cannot sanction any movement that is contrary to the course of law." "I hope you will pardon me, but you appear to mistake the object of my mission, which is by no means to defeat justice, but to temper justice with mercy." Most of the justices of the peace refused to sign until the vicar headed the petition. Failing with the high priest I went to the poorly paid curate, who supported a family on a miserable pittance, Rev. H. W. C. Hyde, who readily headed the list; the notables of Camberwell quickly followed, and the petition was in two days swollen to an enormous magnitude. I then went to the neighboring parish of Lewisham, where------had been in business in his early years. The rector of the parish spoke well of the poor convict, and commenced a list that everybody signed that I could reach in the short space of time I had to spare.

On the following morning, on my way to the Home Office with the enormous list of sympathizers, who should take a seat next to me in the omnibus but my prince of antagonists, the vicar, who greeted me kindly, and was pleased to express his admiration of my indefatigability and pleasure at the success with which it was met, and even hoped that my efforts would not be thrown away, but have the desired effect. In fact, he was so genial as to lead me to suppose that he only required asking to induce him to sign the document. It was his place, I thought, to lead off. Following this supposition a train of thought set in. What if he should the second time refuse? We had wonderfully well succeeded without his aid : let him slide, and he slid. A cab soon brought me to Downing street, Westminster, where the government buildings are situated, wherein the executive affairs of England and her worldwide colonies are transacted. I had, in the canvass of the first two general elections of reformed parliaments, taken an active part, more particularly in behalf of our popular member, Benjamin Hawes, Jr., who in the interim had been elevated to the under-secretaryship of the colonies. Leaving my bulky parcel with the liveried porter, I was ushered into the waiting hall of the Colonies office, which was filled nearly to crowding by representatives from all parts of the world, many in their native costumes, waiting their turn for audience. To my agreeable surprise, on sending in my card I was immediately favored with an interview. Hastily informing Mr. Hawes of that which had been done in the case, I besought him to lose no time in assisting me through.

DIALOGUE: "What do you want of me?" "An introduction to the premier." "You know not what you ask." "I have ventured to ask, and I beseech you not to delay,—to-morrow if possible." "Who is this Mr.------? I don't know him." "It is not likely you should know him, for he was one of our bitterest political enemies when you were running for Lambeth on both occasions, but we lose no prestige in helping a Tory out of a scrape." "Where is your petition?" "In the outer office." Having the documents before him he expressed surprise at the number of names, many of whom were those of his friends and political admirers. He then said that to present a petition to the. minister in person would not be in accordance with the established rule. "You will therefore please to leave it with me, and I will present it in due form, and also do all I can to promote its prayer. But with regard to the other feature of your request, namely, an interview with the premier, I am afraid I can hold out no hope. Business at the present juncture is so pressing that I am loth to trespass on his time, even for a moment." I rose to depart, offering an apology for having occupied so much of his valuable time, when, placing his hand in mine, looking me straight in the eye, and doubtless detecting the illy-concealed workings of disappointment therein depicted, said: "Good-day, my dear friend ; be not discouraged, we know nothing of to-morrow." On the following day I received a note to call at his office next morning, which summons I gladly obeyed, and speedily found myself, under the auspices of Mr. Hawes, in the presence of the ruler of the British empire. The kindly greeting and simple mannerism of the premier inspired me with courage. I felt at ease when he said, "I have examined your petition in behalf of J. T: ------, handed to me by Mr. Hawes, asking a commutation of his sentence of seven years. You have expressed, a wish to see me on the subject; pray give me your views and I will listen." What I said I know not. But a favorable impression was evinced by the receipt of the following note:

Dear Sir,—I have to inform you that the sentence of John Thomas ------has been commuted from seven years' transportation to a penal settlement to two years in Portsmouth dockyard.

(Signed,) Benjamin Hawes, Jr.

The joy of Mrs.------, of Emma (who was now one of us), and the family was unbounded. The congratulations of the parishioners were numerous and sincere. During the period of his servitude he conducted himself with marked propriety, and became very useful to the government, which secured him many privileges, and even wages for extra work. Poor Emma received her periodical letters from her father, whom she dearly loved. They were generally satisfactory, though perused by the authorities. His black locks had become a sable silvered, but his health was excellent; nothing to complain of in the treatment, the restrictions falling short of the deserts of his folly. At length, restored to his manhood, he reached his home under the shades of night, and in the same hour, in the presence of Emma, in my parlor, poured out his soul in gratitude for what had been done in the behalf of himself and family. A debtor and creditor account of my stewardship I handed him, with the balance in hand; "and now," he said, with unspeakable thanks, "for what you have done for us, I hope you will pardon me asking a continuance of your legislation for a short time. I have had an offer for the property in Hill street, which would leave a balance of £400 clear in my hands, but I cannot overcome the horror of meeting those with whom I have done business. I must therefore not only leave Peckham, but the line of business I am in, and should like to avail my self of your advice." I said, "It is strange, but there is advertised in the Times of to-day a snug little shop in my line of business in the village of Acton, Middlesex. Let us ride out there to-morrow, examine the books, look around, and judge of its value." We went, we saw, we bought. Two years afterward I found the family all well and prosperous. On my way home I called on a friend, and while seated in his garden Cocking passed over our heads in his parachute, which was fearfully-oscillating, from the car attached to Green's Nassau balloon. He was only going up about a mile or so, as was announced, to astonish the natives by showing how easy it is to counteract the disastrous consequences of a rapid obedience to the law of gravitation by means of a judicious manipulation of the air we breathe. The last of poor Cocking was related by the aeronaut on his return in the evening to Vauxhall gardens, whence they ascended early on the same afternoon. "When they had reached the altitude required," said Mr. Green, "Mr. Cocking hallooed out: 'Green, cut the rope.' I replied 'that I was afraid to do so; that from my standpoint the extreme oscillation made it appear unsafe.' 'If you don't, I will.' 'That would make it unsafe.' ' Cut the rope,' were the last words of poor Cocking. I reluctantly did so, and relieved of his superincumbent weight the Nassau ascended too rapidly to be pleasant. In half a minute I was out of sight of the bold adventurer. A flash of lightning could scarcely be more evanescent than was my gaze upon his hopeless fate. He was found in a field near Lewisham, in Kent, with every bone in his body broken."

About this period one of the petty lions of London was to repair to some isolated spot outside the din of the city favorable to hearing the public time-pieces proclaim the midnight hour. Indulging in the whim under the lamplight on Vauxhall bridge, watch in hand, I might have been found timing the process. The light breeze from the east proved propitious in wafting on the broad and silent bosom of the Thames the varied sounds emitted from the wide metropolitan expanse, a medley of sounds not easy to describe. The period required on that occasion to strike the hour of twelve covered eight long minutes. The authorities of the Polytechnic Institution subsequently failed to perceive the force of Mr. Bain's* proposition to have the clocks of London, by means of electricity, strike every hour simultaneously. We are now, in the year 1833, developing the fruits of the great discovery of Benjamin Franklin, who, about 1760, by means of his ingenious kiting, chained the lightning to his scientific will.

The Princess Victoria, on the twenty-fourth day of May, 1837, became of age (eighteen years old). Considerable anxiety was aroused by certain unpleasant, ill-defined rumors, said to have emanated from her uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, King of Hanover, touching the succession to the throne, which, on feeling the pulse of the nation, the friends of the Duke suffered to subside.

Alex. Bain laid claim to the distinction of being the discoverer or inventor of the electric telegraph, but Mr, Morse proved too strong for the humble Scotch journeyman watchmaker in American courts of law, and the man who constructed the electric telegraph between London and Blackwall had to take a back seat.

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