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The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland, Vol. 1. Linton, E. Lynn (Elizabeth Lynn), 1822–1898.
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I WAS born before the age of railroads, steamboats, electric telegraphs, or the penny post; and when society in the remote country districts of England was very little changed from what it had been a hundred years before. In those days living was simple, locomotion both difficult and restricted, and absence from home a rare event, save for page: 2 the grandees who were bound to be in London for their place in Parliament or for their attendance at Court. Women of the upper middle class kept their houses and looked after their children with more vigilance of personal superintendence than now; and if there was less taste there was less finery, nor was extravagance made into an æsthetic virtue as it is in these present times. The religious revival had not begun for the nation at large; for all that Wesley and Whitfield had done good work among the rough men of the West, and had transformed a large proportion of the Cornish miners and fishermen from brutalized savages and wreckers, among whom the King's writ did not run, into God-fearing and law-abiding citizens. Education was at its lowest possible ebb—though local grammar-schools in the North were plentiful, kept up by old-time grants and bequests from former founders and benefactresses; page: 3 though Robert Raikes had established Sunday-schools here and there, where minds had begun to awaken to the need of saving souls; though Joseph Lancaster had got a fair trial for his system of teaching; and though even infant-schools, which we generally believe to be emphatically of modern establishment, languished feebly in certain populous places. Still, none of these waves of progress, as yet slow and sluggish, though gathering, as they went, the volume and power we know of, had stirred the stagnant shallows of remote country places at the time of which I write; and society, as found on the moors, in the dales, and in the villages among the mountains, was satisfied with the most elementary knowledge for the so-called educated classes and absolute ignorance for all the rest.

The Reform Bill, Catholic emancipation and the emanacipation of slaves, the political rights of the Jews, free trade and a free page: 4 press, were all as yet the golden apples of liberty and justice held in the closed hand of Time. The press-gang was a recognised institution; felony was punishable by death—and stealing sheep, as well as any article the value of thirteen-pence halfpenny from the dwelling-house, was felony. Though Howard's remonstrances had had some effect, and Coldbath Fields prison had been built in accordance with his views, our gaols were in general a disgrace to civilization, and our laws were still justly stigmatized as ‘written in blood.’ Monday morning hangings were part of the week's ordinary work; and my father just remembered to have seen thirteen men hanging in a row at Tyburn, with never a murderer among them. Besides slaves in Jamaica, we had climbing-boys, who were substantially slaves, for our chimneys at home; and apprentices were still greatly needing the protection they did not get till comparatively the other day. page: 5 Gipsies and vagrants were laid by the heels at the will of the authorities; and to be homeless was of itself a qualification for the stocks. Belief in the divine right of Kings; in the saintly martyrdom of Charles I.; in the criminality of Cromwell and the hypocrisy of Puritanism; in the good cause of Charles Edward; in the diabolical origin of the French Revolution, of which the echoes still reverberated through the awakening world; in the infinite iniquity of Bonaparte; in the capacity of any one Englishman to lick three ‘mounseers’ single-handed; as well as belief in the damnable instincts of the ‘many-headed monster,’ as the people proper were generally called—formed part of every true gentleman's creed. He who thought differently was either a traitor to his order or no true gentleman at all. Party spirit in the country ran as high as it ever ran in Florence or Verona, when Guelfs and Ghibellines slew peace and humanity between them; page: 6 and no man with a soul to be saved would have consorted in friendship with a wearer of the hostile colour. As well ask Juliet for Romeo, as ask of a Tory father his daughter in marriage for the son of a Whig, when the one sported blue and the other purple and orange, while brickbats were flying and bribery stalked about the contested town with never a mask to hide its face nor a cloak to conceal its hands.

Our family house was for many years in one of the most primitive of those untouched country districts of which I first spoke; and the recollections of the elders of my own generation carry us back to a wonderful state of things.

My father was a clergyman and the holder of two livings. The second, of which I shall speak farther on, was one of the most beautiful places in England, where the ordering of life was simple and homely, but not more than this. The other was a page: 7 large, rambling, sparsely-populated parish, where the people were half-savages, and where the very elements of all that makes our modern civifization were wanting. Not a school of any kind was in the place, though there was one at the quaint old market-town some few miles away; but in return, for a village of about three hundred inhabitants, there were seventeen public-houses and jerry-shops; and the man who did not get drunk would have been the black swan which the white ones would soon have pecked to death. No one, however, tried the experiment of sobriety. There was no sense of public decency, no idea of civic order and as little private morality. The parish-constable would have thought twice before taking up a crony for any offence short of murder; and then he would have left the door of the lock-up ajar. Not a man would have held himself justified in marrying before the woman had page: 8 proved her capacity for becoming a mother; and when the lovers were united according to the law of the land—just in time to legitimize the child—the customs and ceremonies of the day were almost as brutal as, and certainly more drunken than, those of the North American Indians or Tierra del Fuegians. Indeed, they were evident survivals of those primitive times when the bride was taken from her tribe by force and compelled to submit to violence, before dawning civilization made the whole matrimonial transaction a matter of sale and barter. But for the most part the young people slipped by night across the border to Gretna Green, preferring, as they said, the blacksmith's forge to the joiner's shop, and liking the mock romance of a pseudo-elopement which saved the parson's fees and the wedding-dinner, and thus ‘gave folk less cause for clack.’

If the people were thus uncivilized, their page: 9 appointed pastors and masters in the off-districts were very little better. About eight miles from Braeghyll, my father's parish, was a God-forsaken moorland incumbency, the ‘priest’ of which was in no wise beyond his flock either in refinement or morality. As Braeghyll was the mother-parish, our village was naturally the local metropolis where the inhabitants of the surrounding hamlets found their pleasures and excitements. These were for the most part ‘murry-neets’—dances in barns and public-houses, where the men got drunk, the women fuddled, and the marriage ceremony was discounted all round—and the Saturday-night fights, which came as regularly as the Sunday-morning shave. To these fights the priest of Moss Moor, of whom I have spoken, came more punctually than he went to his own little chapel the next day. He was a fine, stalwart fellow, who kept up his muscle by week-day working in the fields, page: 10 like any hired herd or ploughman; and, ‘stripped to buff,’ as the phrase was, he took his turn like a man, did his fighting gallantly, then got drunk with the best; and so was trundled home to his stone cabin in the wilds, to sleep off his intoxication in time for his ragged duty to-morrow morning. My father's curate himself brought his unwedded wife to the parish and married her about three weeks before the child was born. No one thought the worse of them for their impatience; and, ‘Nae, what!’ they said with the broad charity of moral kinship, ‘young folk will be young; and men and women are kittle cattle to shoe ahint!’

Accustomed to such ministers as these—men who were intellectually in advance of their flock only in so far as they could read and write, but whose example was a direct encouragement to both lawlessness and vice—the people of these wild districts would page: 11 not brook interference nor admonition from such gentlemen as might be appointed to the mother-parishes. My father tried to bring about a better state of things when he first undertook the care of these shaggy souls at Braeghyll; but the men swore at him, and threatened to do him a mischief if he did not hold his noise, when he rebuked them for their intemperance or tried to stop their brutal excesses; and the women jeered him, for a Molly who put his nose where he had no concern, when he would have taught them a little modesty as maidens and decency as wives. Thus the heart was taken out of him; and, being naturally indolent, he soon dropped the reins which at first he had attempted to hold, and the parish went on as it would without let or hindrance from him. They were more respectful to my mother, who was sweet and gentle and very beautiful; and who was, moreover, assimilated to the every- page: 12 day experience of her sex by the rapid ‘bairn-bearing’ which never left her without a child in the cradle and another at her breast. But she had too much to do at home to carry her energies abroad; and district-visiting, mothers'-meetings, Bible-classes, and all the other modern circumstances of parochial organization, were then things unknown. Besides, there were no educated women to have ‘worked the parish,’ even if there had been the thought or the endeavour. There was only one gentleman's family besides our own; and as the squire's lady bore child for child with the parson's, she was naturally as much tied at home.

Things were no more satisfactory in the church than they were in the parish. Not more than twenty people came to the service, for the fullest attendance. The average was about fourteen. On afternoons, when folks were late, the old clerk would page: 13 ring the bell for a short three minutes, then shut the church door in a hurry—even if he saw some one coming in at the lych gate—glad to be quit of his irksome duty for that day.

‘Nay, what, i' fegs, we bain't agoing to maunder through t' service for yon,’ he said one day contemptuously to my father, when remonstrated with for shutting the church door right in the face of Nanny Porter.

According to old Josh, souls counted by the gross; and the parson's own household did not count at all; and it was a wicked waste of force to spend the means of grace on a unit. So Nanny Porter had to go home again and leave her prayers unsaid; and old Josh took the responsibility on his own soul, and swore a big oath that hers would be none the worse for the lapse.

This morally unsatisfactory living was pecuniarily valuable. The rector was Lord page: 14 of the Manor as well as rector; and heriots and fines on the death or displacement of tenants, together with tithes in kind, rent-charges and compensations, raised the income to a good round sum when all was told. There was always bad blood at tithing time, when the parson's tenth ‘steuk’ was sure to be the largest of the row; the parson's tithe-pig the fattest of the litter; while the geese, ducks, fowls, etc., driven into the rectory back-yard for the service of the church and in payment of these despised and neglected functions, were beyond compare the finest of their respective broods.

When I grew old enough to understand how things were, I confess I felt both ashamed and revolted when my father, as he sometimes did, went about the fields himself, and chose his own tenth ‘steuks’ in the face of the world of reapers and before the eyes of the farmer. They thought page: 15 nothing of it; and as my father did his doubtful work naturally, cheerily and genially, he lost no honour, but on the contrary gained in personal favour as a ‘good 'un of his kind,’ though his kind was bad enough. It was only my own callow sense of personal dignity and democratic justice that suffered.

Our place used to overflow with produce at tithing-times. At Easter, eggs came in by the hundred, and at ‘shearing-time’ wool was by the cartload. Everything else was in like quantity. The tithers' supper made a supreme holiday for us young ones. They always had hodgepodge, plum-pudding, and a glass of punch to follow; and sometimes a cracked fiddle was put into requisition, when our maids used to dance with the men, threesome reels or foursome, and jigs where the women held their aprons (‘brats’ we called them) by the two corners, and flourished them, thumbs up- upward page: 16 ward, with clumsy coquetry as they jigged. There was a grand quarrel between my father and his parishioners when the Tithe Commutation Act came in force; and the seven years' average, which had to be struck as the basis for the consolidated income, differed considerably in the estimate of the one who was to be the recipient and the others who were to be the paymasters. Things quieted down at last; and when Mr. Blamire's labours came to an end, the new system was felt all round to be better than the old, as giving less occasion for subterfuge here, suspicion there, and heartburnings on both sides alike.