The Bucks Advertiser: May 1851

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The Bucks Advertiser and Aylesbury News


May 17, 1851.


T.  Gerald Massey, a native of Tring, in Hertfordshire has published a book of Poems—"Voices of Freedom and Lyrics of Love."  The following extracts from "Eliza Cook's Journal," giving some account of the author, cannot but be interesting to our readers:—

"Gerald Massey was born in May, 1828, and is, therefore, barely twenty-three years of age.   He first saw the light in a little stone hut near Tring, in Herts, one of those miserable abodes in which so many of our happy peasantry—their country's pride!—are condemned to live end die.   Ninepence a week was the rent of this hovel, the roof of which was so low that a man could not stand upright in it.  Massey's father was, and still is, a canal boatman, earning the wage of ten shillings a week.   Like most other peasants in this 'highly favoured Christian country,' he has had no opportunities of education, and never could write his own name.   But Gerald Massey was blessed in his mother, from whom he derived a finely organised brain and a susceptible temperament.   Though quite illiterate like her husband, she had a firm free spirit—it's broken now!—a tender yet courageous heart, and a pride of honest poverty which she never ceased to cherish.   But she needed all her strength and courage to bear up under the privations of her lot.   Sometimes the husband fell out of work; and there was no bread in the cupboard except what was purchased by the labour of the older children, some of whom were early sent to work in the neighbouring silk-mill.   One week, when bread was much dearer than now, and the father out of work, all the income of the household was 5s. 9d.; but with this the thrifty mother managed to provide for the family—and there were not fewer than six children to feed—without incurring a penny of debt.   Disease, too, often fell upon the family cooped up in that unwholesome hovel; indeed, the wonder is, not that our peasantry should be diseased, and grow old and haggard before their time, but that they should exist in all such lazar-houses and cesspools.   None of the children of this poor family were educated, in the common acceptance of the term.   Several of them were sent for a short time to a penny school, where the teacher and the taught were about on a par; but so soon as they were of an age to work, the children were sent to a silk-mill.   The poor cannot afford to keep their children at school, if they are of an age to work and earn money.   They must help to eke out the parents' slender gains, even though it be only a few pence weekly.   So, at eight years of age, Gerald Massey went into the silk manufactory, rising at five o'clock in the morning, and toiling there till half past six in the evening; up in the grey dawn, or in the winter before the daylight, and trudging to the factory through the wind or in the snow; seeing the sun only through the factory windows; breathing an atmosphere laden with rank oily vapour, his ears deafened by the roar of incessant wheels.—

Still, all day the iron wheels go onward,
Grinding life down from its mark;
And the children's souls which God is calling sunward
Spin on blindly in the dark.

What a life for a child!   What a substitute for tender prattle, for childish glee, for youthful playtime!   Then home shivering under the cold, starless sky on Saturday nights, with 9d., 1s., or 1s. 3d., for the whole week's work, for such were the respective amounts of the wages earned by the child labour of Gerald Massey.   But the mill was burned down, and the children held jubilee over it.   The boy stood for twelve hours in the wind, and sleet, and mud, rejoicing in the conflagration which thus liberated him.   Who can wonder at this?  Then he went to straw plaiting—as toilsome, and perhaps more unwholesome than factory work.  Without exercise, in a marshy district, the plaiters were constantly having racking attacks of ague.   The boy had the disease for three years, ending with tertian ague.   Sometimes four of the family and the mother lay ill of the disease at one time, all crying with thirst, with no one to give them drink: and each too weak to help the other.   How little do we know of the sufferings endured by the poor and struggling classes of our population, especially in our rural districts!  No press echoes their wants or records their sufferings; and they live almost as unknown to us as if they were the inhabitants of some undiscovered country.'  'Having had to earn my own dear bread,' he says, 'by the eternal cheapening of flesh and blood thus early, I never knew what childhood meant.   I had no childhood.   Ever since I can remember I have had the aching fear of want throbbing in heart and brow.  The currents of my life were early poisoned and few, methinks, would pass unscathed through the scene and circumstances in which I have lived; none, if they were as curious and precocious as I was.   The child comes into the world like a new coin with the stamp of God upon it, and in like manner as the Jews sweat down sovereigns by hustling them in a bag to get gold-dust out of them, so is the poor man's child hustled and sweated down in this bag of society to get wealth out of it; and even as the impress of the Queen is effaced by the Jewish process, so is the image of God worn from heart and brow, and day-by-day the child recedes devilward.  I look back now with wonder, not that so few escape, but that any escape at all, to win a nobler growth for their humanity.  So blighting are the influences which surround thousands in early life, to which I can bear such bitter testimony.' Gerald Massey had no 'advantages;' not even the range of a library.  But he could read; and the Bible and the Pilgrim's Progress were rich pasture lands wherein the child wandered as in Paradise.  To them were added a few Wesleyan tracts, and the romance of romances, 'Robinson Crusoe.'  These he fed on till fifteen, when he came to London:—'Till then,' he says, 'I had often wondered why I lived at all—whether

It was not better not to be
I was so full of misery.

Now I began to think that the crown of all desire, and the sum up of all existence, was to read and get knowledge.  Read!  read!  read!  I used to read at all possible times, and in all possible places; up in bed till 2 or three in the morning—nothing daunted by once setting the bed on fire.  Greatly indebted was I also to the book stalls, where I have read a great deal, often folding a leaf in a book, and returning the next day to continue the subject; but sometimes the book was gone, and the great was my grief!  When out of a situation I have often gone without a meal to purchase a book.  Until I fell in love, and begun to rhyme as a matter of consequence, I never had the least predilection for poetry.  In fact I always eschewed it; if I ever met with any I instantly skipped it over, and passed on as one does with the description of scenery, &c., in a novel.  I always loved the birds and flowers, the woods, and the stars; I felt delight in being alone in a summer wood, with song like a spirit in the trees, and the golden sun bursts glinting through the verdurous roof, and was conscious of a mysterious creeping of the blood and tingling of the nerves, when standing alone in the starry midnight, as in God's own presence chamber.  But until I began to rhyme I cared nothing for written poetry; the first verses I ever made were upon 'Hope,' when I was utterly hopeless; and after I had begun I never ceased for about four years, at the end of which time I rushed into print.'  'As an errand boy,' he says, 'I had of course many hardships to undergo, and to bear with much tyranny; and that led me into reasoning upon men and things, the causes of misery, the anomalies of our societary state, politics, &c.; and the circle of my being rapidly outsurged!  New power came to me with all that I saw, thought, and read.   I studied political works, such as Paine, Volney, Howitt, Louis Blanc &c., which gave me another element to mould into my verse, though I am satisfied that a poet must sacrifice much if he write party political poetry.  His politics must be above the pinnacle of party zeal; the politics of eternal truth, right, and justice.  He must not waste a life on what to-morrow may prove to have been merely the question of a day.  The French revolution of 1848 had the greatest effect on me of any circumstance connected with my own life.   It was scarred and blood burnt into the very core of my being.'  Whoever has read this account will read the  'Voices of Freedom' with interest, and will understand its defects, which are peculiarly the defects to be anticipated from such an education."


Ed.  see David Shaw's thoroughly researched biography of Massey.