I Canons, media and genres

Pictures of romance and beauty I had never dreamed of suddenly opened up before my eyes. I was transported from the East End to an enchanted land.

[Will Crooks MP, quoted in 1917, on reading Homer]’

The upper classes, from their first day at school, to their last day at college, read of nothing but the glories of Salamis and Marathon, of freedom and of the old republics. And what comes of it? No more than their tutors know will come of it, when they thrust into the boys’ hands books which give the lie in every page to their own political superstitions.2

[Charles Kingsley, 1850]

A student of classical influence and of the interest felt in Greek and Latin authors in successive periods cannot but feel surprised, and sometimes even startled, at the different points of view to which he must adjust himself in order to follow the thought of past generations about the classics.2

[Henry Lathrop, 1933]


  • 1 Labour MP Will Crooks on reading a translation of the Iliad, quoted in Haw (1917) 22.
  • 2 Kingsley (1898 [1850)] vol. I, 143.
  • 3 Lathrop (1933) 9.


In Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Edmund Burke laments that all is lost if the aristocracy and the church lose their authority: ‘Along with its natural protectors and guardians, learning will be cast into the mire and trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish multitude’.1 To fan the flames of moral panic about the consequences of mass education, Burke here invokes the King James Bible’s translation of a famous passage of Matthew’s Gospel (7:6): ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you’.2

Classicists and theologians dispute the meaning of Matthew’s pearls, margarites, which in the New Testament Greek may imply crumbs from the rite of the Eucharist? But, in Burke’s polemic, the pearls are not crumbs of communion bread. Burke’s pearls are learning, and the swine are the uneducated masses. Since the education of the French ruling class revolved around classical languages, Burke’s pearls of learning meant—and were understood to mean— learning in those tongues.

His sentence resonated with his contemporaries? Its impact can be seen in the new frontispiece engraving entitled ‘Homer casting pearls before swine’, supplied to a 1797 edition of a bawdy burlesque of the Iliad books 1-12. (Figure 1.1) It was entitled A New Translation of Homer’s Iliad, adapted to the Capacity of Honest English Roast Beef and Pudding Eaters and ascribed to Thomas Bridges, who treated Virgil’s Aeneid to a comparable subversion in his Dido, a comic opera produced at the Haymarket Theatre in 1771.5 The first four books of this burlesque Iliad had originally been published in 1762 under the pseudonym of Junior Cotton.6 It creates humour through stylistic bathos and social demotion of its personnel,

Homer casting pearls before swine, frontispiece from Bridges (1797), reproduced from copy in Hall’s personal collection

FIGURE 1.1 Homer casting pearls before swine, frontispiece from Bridges (1797), reproduced from copy in Hall’s personal collection.

presented as plebeian Britons who speak uncouth rhyming iambic tetrameters.

Book X, for example, begins thus:

The Greeks, though sorely drubb’d all day,

Asleep before their scullers lay—

All but poor Agamemnon, who

Could only nod a spell or so.

His fears did such a rumbling keep

Within his guts, he could not sleep.

As when a barrel of small-beer,

No matter whether foul or clear,

Begins to leak, drop follows drop

As fast as wanton schoolboys hop.7

The author revels in the burlesque’s swinification of the Homeric pearls, requiring a knowledge of Alexander Pope’s Iliad (1715-1720) rather than of Homer’s.

Pope’s translations had brought Homer to a larger audience, including workers and women, than ever had the opportunity to learn Greek. Take Esther

Easton, a Jedburgh gardener’s wife, visited by the poet Robert Burns in 1787. He recorded that she was

a very remarkable woman for reciting poetry of all kinds ... she can repeat by heart almost everything she has ever read, particularly Pope’s ‘Homer’ from end to end ... and, in short, is a woman of very extraordinary abilities.8

Pope’s Homer captured the childhood imagination of another Scot, Hugh Miller, to whom the discussion will return in Chapter 5. A stonemason and a distinguished autodidact, Miller grew up to become a world-famous geologist (Figure 1.2). Even as a boy he saw the Iliad as incomparable literature. He wrote in My Schools and Schoolmasters (1854) that he had learned early ‘that no other writer could cast a javelin with half the force of Homer. The missiles went whizzing athwart his pages; and I could see the momentary gleam of the steel, ere it buried itself deep in brass and bull-hide’.9 The working-class Esther and Hugh,

J.S*rMu._ftxns an orijnuü Talbo^e.

Gould 1- Liucolu, Boston

FIGURE 1.2 Hugh Miller (1802—1856), from Miller (1885), reproduced from copy in Hall’s personal collection.

whom Burke would no doubt have regarded as swine, could easily have understood what Bridges was doing with his Iliad.

Burke’s swine made defiant appearances in the 1790s during the trials of British republicans.”' Joseph Gerrald, a revolutionary democrat and member of the London Corresponding Society, used the swine trope in a speech he delivered in a court in Edinburgh when charged with sedition. Perhaps his democratic ardour had been fostered when, two decades before, he had acted the role of Sophocles’ tyrant of Thebes in a Greek-language production of Oedipus Tyrannus at Stanmore School, run by the ‘Whig Dr Johnson’, Dr Samuel Parr." Gerrald attacks Burke in his Edinburgh oration partly by presenting the 14th-century Henry Knighton as Burke’s predecessor. Knighton was outraged by the popularity of translations, usually known as the Wycliffe Bible, of the Latin Vulgate Bible into Middle English.12 Gerrald therefore reminds his audience of their contemporary, Burke, by pairing him with the medieval Knighton, as twin enemies of the Reformation/Reform. He refers to Knighton’s lament concerning the translation of the Scriptures: ‘Pity it is, that this evangelical pearl should be trodden down under the foot of swine’.13 Knighton, Gerrald implies, was complaining about popular literacy as well as popular access to the word of God. Gerrald accurately presents both Knighton and Burke as enemies of social inclusion.

Gerrald was not the only democrat of the 1790s who used classical material to advance the cause. A collection of works in the public journals during that decade shows how much satirical response Burke’s ‘swinish multitude’ had elicited, from radicals including the controversial Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge, Richard Person.14 The sympathy with the lower classes apparent in the pig-theme central to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Oedipus Tyrannus; or, Swellfoot the Tyrant, published and almost immediately suppressed in 1820, along with the pirating of Queen Mab in 1821, first attracted a large working-class readership to his poetry.1’ The theme of the swinish multitude and their vexed relationship with ancient languages will recur repeatedly in this volume.

Conventional histories of Classics always discuss Thomas Gaisford, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford and Regius Professor of Greek (1811-1855), who one Christmas Day supposedly told his congregation to apply themselves to the study of Greek literature, ‘which not only elevates above the vulgar herd, but leads not infrequently to positions of considerable emolument’.16 Gaisford’s is the most concise statement available that financial capital can be accumulated through Greek. The distinction between lucre and social capital is further explored in the memoir of Charles Frederick Briggs, an American citizen, published in 1855. His father was a merchant, but

had enlarged views for his son, and determined to give him what he had always felt the need of himself—a thorough education; that he might have a capital to start with, which no adverse circumstances could deprive him of. Bonds and stocks might prove worthless, banks might fail, and merchandise depreciate in value; but no changes in the market could affect Latin and Greek; and with a good stock of these commodities, the father had no fears for his son.17

In Burke, Bridges, Gerrald, Knighton, Gaisford and Briggs, the pearls of Greek and Latin bear values that go beyond intellectual life to embrace religion, aesthetics, class and money. Translation into the mother tongue is in turn implicated in a threat to the established political order and the consequent need for the subordination of the social swine. In class-ridden British society, knowledge of classical Greek itself bore also some mysterious moral value, shown in William Thackeray’s novel Pendennis (1849-1850). As a child, the titular hero, Arthur Pendennis, or ‘Pen’, mistranslates a word in Greek. The crisis comes when his terrifying teacher, the Doctor, ‘put him on to construe a Greek play. He did not know a word of it, though little Timmins, his form-fellow, was prompting him with all his might, Pen had made a sad blunder or two’. At this point the Doctor delivers a tirade:

“Pendennis, sir,” he said, “your idleness is incorrigible and your stupidity beyond example. You are a disgrace to your school, and to your family, and I have no doubt will prove so in after-life to your country ... what a prodigious quantity of future crime and wickedness are you, unhappy boy, laying the seed! Miserable trifler! A boy who construes & and, instead of 6s but, at sixteen years of age is guilty not merely of folly, and ignorance, and dullness inconceivable, but of crime, of deadly crime, of filial ingratitude, which I tremble to contemplate. A boy, sir, who does not learn his Greek play cheats the parent who spends money for his education. A boy who cheats his parent is not very far from robbing or forging upon his neighbour. A man who forges on his neighbour pays the penalty of his crime at the gallows”.18

Mismanagement of a Greek particle can lead, in satire, to capital punishment. Knowledge of the classical languages has historically meant a great deal more than it says on the tin.

Previous historical studies of the applications of Greek and Roman culture in British education and society have focussed primarily on men like Gaisford and the often-repeated tale of his forebears, the mostly Continentally trained Humanists active from the late 15th century, such as Thomas Linacre, William Grocyn and Thomas More. There has been enthusiasm for biographical (often hagiographical) studies of dead professors, a mere ‘history of personalities’.19 These have focussed on the custody of this particular intellectual property within academic institutions and discourse.20 We are more interested in the instrumentality of Greek and Roman culture in political and social life than in Professors and Fellows within ancient colleges. We have another pantheon of heroes to propose in the real-life counterparts of Thomas Hardy’s Jude Fawley, in Jude the

Obscure (1895), the stonemason who struggled against all odds to pursue his passion for ancient Greek.

We also have a different canon of books found on the shelves of workers’ libraries, such as A History of the Ancient Working People and The Ancient Lowly to the Adoption of Christianity by Constantine (1887), usually abbreviated to The Ancient Lowly, by Cyrenus Osborne Ward, the work that introduced many thousands of people in the Labour Movement across the English-speaking world to ancient history, but from a working-class perspective. As Gareth Stedman Jones has put it, ‘one of the uses of history has always been (in Western society at least) the creation of traditional mythologies attributing a historical sanctity to the present self-images of groups, classes and societies’;21 most historians of antiquity read before the late 19th century adopted the perspective and implicitly supported the interests of the ruling classes, but they did not all: Ward rewrote ancient Greece and Rome from the viewpoint of their workers. Himself raised dirt-poor to work on his parents’ Illinois farm, he left home in 1848 when he was 17, earning his keep in manual trades and as a violinist. After becoming involved with organised labour in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, his political writings brought him to the attention of international socialists.22 His volume I concentrates on ancient slavery, although it also assembles evidence for ancient trade unions. Volume II is perhaps the most trenchant expression in existence of the view that early Christianity was the religion of slaves and the Roman poor, but all too soon co-opted by the ruling classes to become the official religion of European imperialism.

Our book is therefore a response to several ways in which ancient Greek and Roman culture was historically entangled, in Britain until World War II, with the thorny issue of social class. It is a history of Classics, understood to mean the whole subject-area constituted by the texts, artefacts and archaeological remains produced by people who spoke Greek and Latin between the late Bronze Age and the Christian closure of pagan temples in the late 4th century ce. As we shall see in Chapter 2, the plural noun ‘Classics’, with or without a definite article, was first used with this meaning at the dawn of the 18th century. But A People’s History of Classics is an account written from a perspective informed by awareness of the system by which Britons during this period were divided along lines determined by class. This noun (which, as we shall also see, comes from the same Latin root as ‘Classics’) began to be used in the socio-economic sense in precisely the same historical period.

Classical Reception, itself a relatively new field, has attended to several aspects of the British experience in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, especially to belles lettres, fine art and Oxbridge curriculums.2’ There have now been several studies of ethnicity, slavery, imperialism and colonialism in relation to Classical Reception in Britain and her territories abroad.24 Although a very few notable women classicists had earlier received biographical attention, the topic of gender and Reception in relation to Classical Philology in a wider historical perspective has only belatedly transpired, for example, in Women Classical Scholars from the Renaissance to Jacqueline de Romilly (2016, edited by Rosie Wyles and Edith Hall).25 But Classical Reception, like most other academic disciplines, has hitherto neglected social class as a category of analysis. As the literary historian Stefan Collini has said, in the ‘quartet of race, class and gender and sexual orientation, there is no doubt that class has been the least fashionable, despite the fact that all the evidence suggests that class remains the single most important determinant of life chances’.26

The neglect is not solely a matter of fashion, either. Sayer has shown in his penetrating philosophical enquiry, The Moral Significance of Class, that scholars and students, like everyone else, display embarrassment, awkwardness, defensiveness, evasiveness, nervous judgement of others or self-deprecation and other signs of unease when the topic of class is raised, even at the most abstract academic level.27 Class position is arbitrary and produces social injustices, yet is associated with an extensive set of moral discourses expressing evaluations on behaviour, taste, industriousness, ethical standards and perceived deservingness. ‘Class is morally problematic because of its arbitrary relationship to worth, virtues, and status, and this is why it is a highly sensitive subject ... We are shamed by class because it is shameful’.28

Another reason, besides unease with its moral implications, for the neglect of class-conscious research amongst scholars of Classical Reception is that many critics, especially in the USA, have historically denied that class is a legitimate category of analysis, attempting to argue that both class-conscious art and class-oriented criticism are reductive and partisan.29 Our response to this is that any study of human society and culture which avoids class must be limited and partial. It is surely the absence of any available study of working-class instrumentalisation of ancient Greece and Rome in Britain that allows a prominent cultural historian to introduce a summation of 19th-century classical presences with the unnuanced claim that ‘the classics were responsible for more humbug than almost anything else in the Victorian age’.3" Chris Stray’s Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England, 1830-1960 (1998), albeit focussed on school and university curricula, is a notable exception; it looks at Classics from the ‘top-down’, elite perspective and has influenced us profoundly.31 So have literary studies of African American and Caribbean writers by Emily Greenwood, Justine McConnell and Patrice Rankine, as well as Michele Ronnick’s work on African American classicists during the struggle against slavery and the post-bellum period.32 A few important studies have addressed the role played by Classics in social exclusion, notably Françoise Waquet ’s Le latin, ou L’empire d’un signe (1998), although her major focus is on the Renaissance and Early Modern periods and she does not engage with working-class perspectives.

Some exceptions include Hall’s exploratory articles from 2008 onwards,33 a pilot conference on the theme which she convened at the British Academy in 2010, and the previous publications and website produced by the AH Refunded project Classics and Class in Britain on which she collaborated with Stead between 2013 and 2016.34 Books have subsequently appeared on late 18th- and

19th-century educated British males’ responses to two Latin poets, Stead’s monograph A Cockney Catullus (2015), and Stephen Harrison’s Victorian Horace: Classics and Class (2017). There is, however, no precedent for a substantial study with the single, over-riding aim of providing a systematically class-conscious avenue, with the emphasis on lived individual experience, into the history of Classics in Britain.35

Classics has long functioned to exclude working-class people from educational privileges. The time-consuming study of the Greek and Latin languages was adopted as the core of the education of the newly redefined British ‘gentleman’ in the early 18th century, and as the symbolic marker that he was fit for a profession, a marriage into the gentry, a career in prestigious educational institutions or government, or advancement in the civil/imperial service. Of the 61 boys born in 1798-1799 who studied Greek and Latin at Aberdeen Grammar School, of whom a small minority were scholarship boys from working-class homes, 2 grew up to inherit substantial estates, 2 became local civic dignitaries, 4 ‘planters’ or farmers, 2 army officers, 2 naval officers, 7 schoolmasters (some in addition to other occupations such as ‘bookseller and planter in America’), 10 surgeons, doctors or druggists, 1 an ‘Employee of the British King’ who died in Java, and 1 an insurance banker who became a diplomat, working as consul in Prussia and the Netherlands. One became an antiquary and newspaper owner, one a clergyman, one worked in an unknown position for North British Railway, another as purser of an East Indiaman. More than a third seem to have worked most of their adult lives or settled abroad, in China, Calcutta, Bengal, Madras, ‘India’, the West Indies, Australia, the USA (one even becoming a Congressman), Canada, Java and Sierra Leone. If these are added to those in naval or army service, the number who travelled professionally comes to more than two-thirds.36 We shall return to the fascinating case of Aberdonian classical education in Chapter 11.

Classics was uniquely instrumental in the intellectual and cultural reproduction of class hierarchies in Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian society, which was itself partly a product of the rigid segregation of social classes in the educational system, as Matthew Arnold saw.37 Yet did this mean that lower-class culture was ever a ‘Classics-Free Zone’? Richard Altick and Jonathan Rose showed, in landmark studies,38 that it is as easy to underestimate as to overestimate the levels of knowledge and education amongst the poorer sectors of society. Subsequent books on working-class intellectual culture have unfortunately not addressed the importance of Classics in the definition and self-definition of the proletariat in the 18th and 19th centuries,39 probably because few scholars of literature in English today have much training or interest in the ancient world. Yet our work overlaps with theirs, as well as that of Altick and Rose, in the autobiographical materials we have examined and in the methods of reading we have applied.

Our volume excavates the cultural past at the precise intersection of classical culture on the one hand and socio-economic status and identity on the other. The study is intended as the chief conduit for the results of researches into diverse sources of information, both published and unpublished, in archives, museums and libraries across the United Kingdom and Ireland. In our first book, a collection of essays entitled Greek and Roman Classics in the British Struggle for Social Reform (2015), we and our guest contributors focussed on classical ideas and education in the personal development and activities of British social reformers in the 19th and first six decades of the 20th century, most of whom were originally from the lower echelons of the middle class. Such reformers often tumbled down the class system to end their lives deported, on the gallows, in prisons or paupers’ graves, and they make appearances in this more substantial volume, especially in Chapter 23. But here we listened hardest, rather, to the voices of working-class people. These have been routinely excluded from previous histories of classical scholarship and pedagogy. Having identified many relevant archives and fields of evidence, as well as problems that need to be investigated in further detail, we acknowledge that our book is not remotely comprehensive. It is highly selective and reflects our own aesthetic and cultural interests. Some chapters survey a broad area of evidence, while others focus on one or two illuminating case-studies where there is a rich seam of evidence to be mined. But we publish it in the hope that it will prove seminal in this area of scholarly investigation and stimulate further research; a whole monograph or doctorate of path-breaking originality could be written on almost any of the topics explored in any chapter.

Our methodology is grounded in the principles of Cultural History. More than three decades ago, Robert Darnton predicted that both Intellectual History and the History of Ideas would inevitably yield to Cultural History, because its core strength is an essential concern for the experience of the historically silenced or ‘inarticulate’.40 In a path-breaking article published a year later in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History (1981), European Renaissance scholar William Bouwsma argued that Intellectual History must expand its horizons to incorporate not only canonical texts and their elite interpretation but a far wider social history of how humans make meaning for themselves in their own environment and in accordance with their specific experience.41 And in his 2006 manifesto on appointment to the editorship of the Journal of the History of Ideas, Anthony Grafton advocated the new Cultural History which grasps, ‘successfully, for previously unrecorded and unplumbed worlds of experience’.42 We have been influenced by several scholars who have traced the relationship between certain kinds of what Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘cultural capital’ and the maintenance of class boundaries in Britain, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, the USA and elsewhere;43 taking our cue from the historian A.L. Morton’s stated goal of ‘explaining things in a simple way’,44 we have endeavoured, however, to avoid theoretical metalanguage that might alienate readers other than professional academics.45 The approach is that of empirical cultural historicism, combined with a class-conscious perspective which starts from Pierre Bourdieu’s premise that ‘culture and education aren’t simply hobbies or minor influences. They are hugely important in the affirmation of differences between groups and social classes and in the reproduction of those differences’.46

We cover multifarious individuals, groups, regions and activities. The diversity of the evidence is part of our contention that monolithic models of experience are unhelpful in intellectual history. The records of working-class experience which we feature here (memoirs, autobiographies, Trade Union collections, poetry, factory archives, playscripts, artefacts and documents in regional museums) have revealed a complex picture, but our principal propositions are twofold.

First, while there is no doubt that ‘classical education’ frequently functioned to emphasise class boundaries and social exclusion, British people with no or minimal formal education throughout the period between the accession of William and Mary in 1689 and the outbreak of World War II in 1939 found numerous avenues by which to access the culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Our book studies a selection of the more prominent avenues. These include inexpensive published series such as Everyman, recreational activities involving popular theatre and sport, workers’ libraries and political activism, Nonconformist schools, the ‘autodidact’ tendency and employment in industries where classical content was prevalent (printing, theatre or pottery, for example).

Second, what less privileged people did with their often hard-won ‘classical’ intellectual property varied. Many used it as a springboard to social advancement, and in embracing the elite connotations of Classics, abandoned their identification with the working class and loyalty to the cause of its progression. Others furthered their careers and joined the establishment, with careers in prestigious schools, Higher Education, parliamentary politics or commerce, but retained a sense of obligation to their natal class expressed in philanthropic and charitable activities. Some were intensely vulnerable to propaganda using classical material devised to serve ruling-class interests (the use of the ancient British leader Caractacus in encouraging unemployed Welshmen to enlist in World War I, explored in Chapter 12, is an outstanding example). Others discovered an ‘alternative canon’ which helped them to cope with poverty, oppression and boredom (Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius), inspired them with revolutionary ideals and republican heroes (the Aeschylean Prometheus, Plutarch’s Spartacus in his Life of Crassus) or provided them with models for their own radical poetry (for example, the two Chartist ‘rhymers’ we discuss in Chapter 13). Yet others waged a more subterranean class war in creating a tradition of cheeky, sometimes caustically parodic subversion of ‘classical’ literature and languages, in burlesque theatre, poses plastiques, fairground spectacles and insouciant sports journalism.

Since our research and analysis have been necessarily so multidisciplinary, indeed transdisciplinary,47 we have striven to emphasise the precise research questions which have guided all our enquiries. Was there working-class access to ‘Classics’? What happened to working-class people who gained access to classical culture and even languages? What motivated them? How did they use it, as groups or individuals?

‘Classics’ today often denotes any iconic, archetypal or ideal examples of a thing—vintage cars can be ‘classics’, as can pop songs, novels or recipes. But we understand the term to refer to the cultural output specifically of ancient Greece and Rome. This is what the term most often meant in the period we are primarily researching, and what it means in educational contexts today. We have chosen the term partly on account of its cultural scope. We don’t just mean the written texts of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but their entire cultures; in this we follow the injunction of Gilbert Murray, that it is ancient Greece, not ancient Greek, that should be the primary object of the Hellenist’s enquiries.48 But the term also reminds us of the historic connection between socio-economic hierarchies (‘class’) and the disparity between the cultural and imaginative lives of people in different classes. It helps us ask how ‘Classics’ has been used to maintain class distinctions, but also whether Classics’ elite connotations have been or must remain inevitable.

‘Class’ is an even more contested term. Everyone knows that it exists, but it is far less easy to identify and define than social stratifications based on gender, age or race.4’ Our determination to reveal the imprecision of the category ‘popular culture’,50 which blurs and erases the true economic inequities from which such culture emerges, has led us to careful use of the term class’ in the sociological sense of Anthony Giddens.51 But we apply it specifically as a category which aids the investigation of the cultural uses of the ancient Greeks and Romans. That is, we read the history of the uses and abuses of ‘classical’ culture from a perspective that is conscious of the social class of the agents involved. But ‘class’ in the sociological sense means two different things, although they are often commensurate: ‘objective class’ is an economic category, while ‘subjective class’ defines the way individuals and groups are perceived by themselves and others. Everyone has an ‘objective’ class identity in that everyone has a position in the economic workings of society. Everyone acquires their subsistence from somewhere. Everyone plays a role in the way that goods and services are consumed and distributed. Objective ‘class analysis’ simply asks what the source of subsistence and the role are. All the people in our historical period of study derived their basic subsistence from one or more sources, just as everyone does today.

But matters are more complex than this. Since the industrial revolution, there have been so much social confusion and mobility that precise sub-categories of class (for example, ‘upper proletariat’, ‘under-class’, ‘service sector’ or ‘lower middle/white collar’) can become difficult to apply consistently. Paul Fussell’s 1983 ‘classic’ of class analysis, Class, A Guide Through the American Status System, proposes a nine-tier stratification of contemporary American society, ranging from the super-rich (who have amassed such large fortunes that their descendants need never work) through to no fewer than five discrete categories of low-class persons: in descending order, these are skilled blue-collar workers, workers in factories and the service industry, manual labourers, the destitute unemployed and homeless, and the ‘out-of-sight’ members of the population incarcerated in prisons and institutions. In The Stamp of Class, however, Ohio-born poet Gary Lenhart argues that class identities are much more fluid in the USA than in Europe,’2 and in the USA, even more than in the UK, the history of slavery means that categorisation by race is usually more visibly related to oppression than working occupation is. Yet, despite the fluidity and complexity of the subcategories, there are still only nine basic ways to acquire money to survive: earn it, extract it legally from the labour of others, steal it, live off interest on capital or rent on property, inherit it, win or be given it with no strings attached, derive it from the state, derive it from charity or be supported by another individual (spouse, parent, lover, sponsor, patron, guardian).

During the period covered by this book, most British people fell into the first or last categories, in that they earned their livelihood from physical labour, or they were financially dependent on someone who did. This means that they were objectively ‘working-class’. But it is as a subjective definition, rather than the socio-economic role, that most people understand the term ‘class’. Class position is often ‘subjectively’ diagnosed or perceived from a whole cluster of identifying markers, ranging from style of speech and accent, hairstyle and clothing, to recreational tastes and educational attainments.53 The ‘subjective’ markers of class, especially in the modern world and where there is social mobility, are not always co-extensive with ‘objective’ class position.

Our over-arching question is simple, but the evidence we use to answer it is diverse. The extent of the diversity was not planned, but we became conscious of the need for it soon after we began following our working-class subjects, readers, writers, members of circulating libraries, authors of memoirs, poems and polemics down intricate paths. There were many moments where we discovered, in an obscure provincial archive, an individual or group encounter with the ancient world which took our breath away. One was finding the lesson preparation of Isabelle Dawson, a primary school teacher in the tiny town of Buckie on the Moray Firth, who just before World War I was teaching her small charges the Greek alphabet alongside the three Rs and domestic science.’4 Our original literary emphasis, it became clear, needed to develop into one which could accommodate other sorts of documentary material. This was especially the case with working-class women, for whom far fewer institutional resources (the libraries of Mechanics’ Institutes, for example) were generally available, and who were, even more than their middle- and upper-class female counterparts, regarded as utterly incapable of learning ancient languages.

The life stories of the working-class children, women and men we study often show that they were encountering classical material not only in their reading and writing lives, but in their domestic, civic and workplace environments, their media of entertainment and places of recreation, and, regardless of their political affiliations, in the maintenance of their class identity and political activities. As Asa Briggs put it in his preface to the second edition of A Social History of England in 1994, the cultural and social historian must switch ‘from kitchen to drawing room or bedroom, or into the garden, from field to factory, from village to town and city, from warehouse and office to the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall’, while seeking ‘to read every cultural signpost’.” Our response to the breadth of our evidential brief was to break down our narrative into four sections, which are intended, like four differently placed cameras, to cumulatively create a panoramic view of the diverse opportunities working-class people had to access the Greeks and Romans. But they start from four different trajectories.

Part I, which this chapter opens, Canons, media 2nd genres, applies a wide-angle lens to outline the contours of the ‘Big Picture’ which our book paints. It defines our chronological and regional scope and key terms. It introduces our readers to the research resources we have used. It defines the different ‘canon’ of ancient literature, myth and history which emerged amongst the working-class literary community in comparison with that of their social ‘superiors’, the genres (poetry, life-writing, visual art, popular theatre) in which they put that knowledge to use, and the sources of knowledge other than literary texts—especially environmental and recreational materials—on which the book draws.

Part II, Communities, then looks at the presence of Classics in the identity construction and psychological experience of substantial groups of workingclass Britons, emphasising the religious and regional differences between them: Nonconformists (many of whom were based in the south-west of England and in East Anglia), members of workers’ educational institutions and movements, especially ‘Settlements’, the Workers Educational Association, the Council of Labour Colleges and the Plebs League; these are followed by separate chapters on the lower-class inhabitants of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

In part III, Underdogs, underclasses, underworlds, individual working-class subjects are put at the centre of the radar. Classical material does feature in poor people’s expressions of class dissatisfaction and frustration, disaffection, anger, deprivation, psychological trauma (even diagnoses of insanity) and dispossession. The opening chapter discusses the role of Classics in democratic and Chartist activism. The next traces the prodigious professional rise of a handful of outstanding autodidacts who, from illiterate beginnings, acquired university chairs. Their classical education was instrumental in their meteoric rise up the academic ladder. But the next four chapters house some of the most original and vivid testimony in our book. They leave the ‘respectable’ working class far behind to enter a carefully chosen series of mendicant, homeless, revolutionary, dissident, sleazy and sometimes criminal underworlds, including prisons, madhouses, taverns, fairground entertainments, strength performances, bars and brothels where Classics—especially Greek—bore bizarre associations of the transcendent and occult.

Part IV, Working identities, discusses the role played by classical material in defining the labouring classes’ multifarious experience of remunerative work. It discusses the proud and colourful use of figures from classical mythology and history in Trade Union banner art and in emblems of positive self-definition amongst craftspeople, some of which originated in medieval guilds and some of which had long been established as traditional nomenclature (e.g. amongst seamen and fire services). It examines the heightened literacy and political consciousness, leading to an interest in Classics amongst shoemakers, pottery workers and miners. It exposes the ironies of the intense relationship between mining and the ancient world, traceable to Georg Bauer’s influential treatise De Re metallica (1546). Trained and professional Classics teachers and academics active in the socialist and communist movements from the end of the 19th century form the focus of Chapter 23, and the work of communist theatre practitioners in the 1930s brings the book to its conclusion. But the penultimate Chapter 24 centres on the army. The topic is the only World War I poem, David Jones’ In Parenthesis, which used Classics at length, in detail, and with an admixture of colloquial diction in order to express the psychological trauma of the ordinary (non-Officer-class) English and Welsh British soldier.

Above all, our book strives to show that the inspirational works of the ancient Greeks and Romans have been contested across class lines. They have contributed to the self-definition of many lowly British people who challenged class hierarchies. Burke was concerned that the ‘pearls’ of intellectual culture would be besmirched if the swinish masses were allowed access to them, but Hobbes was more worried that these masses would be provoked by ancient examples into open rebellion. In Leviathan (1651), just before the dawn of the period covered by our book, Hobbes frets that classical literature inspires people to revolution:

And by reading of these Greek, and Latine Authors, men from their childhood have gotten a habit (under a false shew of Liberty,) of favouring tumults, and of licentious controlling the actions of their Soveraigns; and again of controlling those controllers, with the effusion of so much blood; as I think I may truly say, there was never any thing so deerly bought, as these Western parts have bought the learning of the Greek and Latine tongue.56

We might put it the other way around, with Thomas Jefferson, who found the idea of the pursuit of happiness in Aristotle. In Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), he defined the one real goal of education as equipping people to defend their freedom; he argued that history, including ancient history, was the subject which made citizens so equipped.’7 To stay free requires also comparison of constitutions, fearlessness about change and critical, lateral and relativist thinking across time and different cultures. The ancient Mediterranean world offers an ideal context for the development of these forms of intellectual understanding and skills. Matthew Arnold, who had observed hundreds of schools in France and Germany, as well as in Britain as one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors, criticised the excessive linguistic emphasis of contemporary Classics teaching in a talk he gave at Eton while advocating the importance of studying the entirety of Graeco-Roman civilisation. He said that a linguistic emphasis destroys the precious facility

to conceive also that Graeco-Roman world, which is so mighty a factor in our own world, our own life ... as a whole of which we can trace the sequence, and the sense, and the connection with ourselves.’8

Our title pays tribute to A.L. Morton, whose evergreen A People’s History of England (1938) was the first book to trace the fundamental outlines of English history, from pre-Roman times, from the perspective of its ordinary inhabitants.’9 Published for the Left Book Club by Lawrence and Wishart, it became the standard introduction to national history for members of workers’ organisations, Trade Unions and socialist political parties. Morton in turn borrowed his title directly from the book which Charles Kingsley’s imprisoned Chartist titular hero in Alton Locke, who was inspired by the real-life Classicist and Chartist Thomas Cooper (Figure 1.3), tries to write in gaol.60 Morton wanted to record the past from the viewpoint of working people rather than monarchs and government ministers, but he also wanted to inspire his contemporaries to make a different future. He wrote in a new foreword to A People’s History of England in 1964 that this had made it difficult for him ‘to know where to stop’.61 Although in other publications, both previous and forthcoming, we address much more recent developments,62 in this volume our cut-off point has been World War II. Yet we, like Morton, have an interest in making a difference in the future. We are both children of university-educated fathers in middle-class professions and do not identify as working-class. But we are politically and emotionally committed to the provision of excellent educational opportunities to everybody in the world, as well as the entire British nation.

Thomas Cooper (1805—1892), from Cooper (1872), reproduced from copy in Hall’s personal collection

FIGURE 1.3 Thomas Cooper (1805—1892), from Cooper (1872), reproduced from copy in Hall’s personal collection.

Currently, few of the 93% of British children and teenagers in state-sector secondary education today are offered any access even to Classical Civilisation and Ancient History, taught in translation, in their schools and 6th-form colleges; the ancient languages are now rarely available except in the private sector. From this perspective, A People’s History of Classics is timely and topical: it brings new historical depth and nuance to public debates around the future of classical education in Britain. Our gallery of colourful individuals whose lives were enhanced by engagement with the Greeks and Romans, whatever the obstacles they needed to overcome in order to achieve that engagement, changes the parameters of this debate. Edith Hall’s Gaisford Lecture at Oxford University in 2015, published at the time in the Guardian Review as ‘Classics for the People’, made precisely this argument.63

Our findings show that the experiences of classical antiquity by the historical British working class have been messy, complicated, fragmented and variegated. They have also been inspirational and depressing by turns. But we hope that they can help us think about the place of the ancient Greeks and Romans within the modern curriculum. Our book refutes wholesale the argument that classical education must be intrinsically elitist or reactionary; it has been the curriculum of empire, but it can be the curriculum of liberation.64 We choose to emphasise the historical instrumentality of the ‘legacy’ of Greece and Rome in progressive and enlightened causes, both personal and political. Understanding the ancient world can enrich not only the imagination and socio-cultural literacy, but also citizenship skills and the power of argumentation and verbal expression. Our casestudies prove this irrefutably. As Neville Morley has put it, ‘classical antiquity and its legacy still have power in our world, for good or ill’.6’ Our book, therefore, is not just about the past, but a rallying cry to modern Britain to support the case for the universal availability in schools of classical civilisation and ancient history.


  • 1 Burke (1889) vol. HI, 334-5.
  • 2 Herzog (1998) 506. There may also be reverberations of the episode reported in Matthew 8.28—33 in which Jesus cast out devils by sending them into the bodies of some swine, which then hurled themselves into the water and drowned.
  • 3 In modern Greek there is an idiom, ‘he didn’t put a breadcrumb (margaritari) in his mouth’, meaning ‘he didn’t eat a thing’, and in the Byzantine ecclesiastical tradition, the noun margarites occasionally means a crumb of communion bread. St.John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople from 397 ce, explains how to approach the distribution of Christ’s body: ‘do not have your hands stretched out, but make of your left hand a seat for the right, and hollowing your palm as about to receive a king, receive with great awe the Body of Christ so that no breadcrumb fall from your hand’ (Patrologia Graeca 63.898, Ecloga 47). See Kahane and Kahane (1957).
  • 4 See the witty and insightful discussion in Herzog (1998), especially 508-11.
  • 5 Bridges (1771).
  • 6 Anon (1762). This may in fact have been the work of Francis Grose, whom we shall meet again in Chapter 16. See G.F.R.B. (1885).
  • 7 Bridges (1797) vol. II, 111.

Currie (1838) 127. On Pope’s enthusiastic 18th-century female readership, see Thomas (1994).

Miller (1854) 28—9; see further below, pp. 114, 240.

See below, p. 296.

See Hall and Macintosh (2005) 224-7 and below, pp. 174, 275.

See Rawson (1889-1895) vol. II, 152; Bobrick (2001) 14-70.

Gerrald (1794) 202; see further Herzog (1998) 506.

Anon. (1802). See also below, pp. 294-9.

See Wallace (1987) 81. The suppressed first edition of Swellfoot was written in 1819 and published anonymously in 1820 (Shelley (1820a); see Behrendt (1989) 206, and, on Queen Mab, Fraistat (1994). A small circle of revolutionary artisan poets and publishers had already been trying to popularise Shelley amongst a lower-class readership from around 1815: see McCalman (1988) 81, 160, 211-21 and Scrivener (1993). Shelley’s 1817 A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote, written under the pseudonym ‘the Hermit of Marlow’, had also played its part: see Cameron (1945).

Quoted in Tuckwell (1907) 24. Gaisford’s remark may have been apocryphal (see Stray [2018] 76-80), but that does not detract from the ideological potency of such a sentiment circulating in the 19th-century context.

Briggs (2002 [1855]) 481.

Thackeray (1849-1850) vol I, 16-17.

Porter (2008) 471.

Clarke (1945); the indispensable Stray (1998a); Goldhill (2002); Tilley (1938); the canonical histories of classical scholarship by Sandys (1906-1908); von Wilmowitz-Moellendorff (1921), translated into English, with an introduction by Lloyd-Jones, as von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1982); Pfeiffer (1968).

Stedman Jones (1972) 112; see also Cartledge (1995) 76.

The Ancient Lowly, first published by Charles H. Kerr, America’s oldest radical bookseller, was repeatedly re-published; the 1907 reprint helped to educate a whole generation of American and British socialists between the two Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. The archive holding Ward’s papers in the New York Public Library contains his membership card in the International Workingman’s Association, dated 1870 and signed by Karl Marx. Thanks to Sara Monoson for help on Ward.

See, e.g. the canonical studies and collections of Turner (1991), Jenkyns (1980) and (1991), Stray (1999) and Edwards (1999); more recently see, e.g. Eastlake (2019). The essays edited by Clarke (1989) on Hellenism and the British imagination are typical: they mostly address elite poetry, architecture, painting, public schools and cast-collecting.

Some include: Johnson (2019); White (2019); Goff (2014); Hall, Alston and McConnell (2011); Lambert (2011); Orrells, Bhambra and Roynon (2011); Hall and Vasunia (2010); Hardwick and Gillespie (2010); Goff and Simpson (2007).

On Jane Ellen Harrison see Peacock (1988) and Beard (2002); see also McManus (2017) and Prins (2017).

Milner (1999) 9.

Sayer (2005) 200-1. See also Driscoll (2009).

Sayer (2005) 211-12

See Konstan (1994) 47; Rose (1992); Hall (2018f).

Gilmour (1993) 42.

Stray (1998a); see also Stray (1998b). Some of Stray’s arguments were anticipated in Wilkinson (1964), who was in turn influenced by Max Weber’s analysis (1952) of the way that Chinese imperial administrators had traditionally been examined in arcane Chinese classical literary texts. See also Lawton (1975) 60-1; Larson (1999); Vasunia (2005).

Greenwood (2010); McConnell (2013); Rankine (2006); Ronnick (2004), (2005), (2006) and (2016).

Hall (2007b), (2008b), (2008c), (2008d), (2014), (2018a) and (2018b).

For the project website, designed by Stead, which contains much additional information and research results, see www.classicsandclass.info.

Although we have collaborated on every single topic and paragraph in the book, the first full drafts of Chapters 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 19, 21 and 24 were written by Hall, and of3, 4, 8, 9, 11, 15, 18, 20, 22 and 25 by Stead. Chapter 23 was a joint composition from the start.

Aberdeen Grammar School (1807-1855).

Rappie (2017) 120-2.

Altick (1957); Rose (2001); see also Webb (1955).

E.g. Krishnamurthy (2009a).

Darnton (1980).

Bouwsma (1981).

Grafton (2006).

See especially Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984), originally published in French in 1979 and Language and Symbolic Power (English translation, 1992). See Abrams (1992); Aron (2006); Baumgarten (1997); Driscoll (2009); Furuland and Svedjedal (2006); Ragon (1974); Roberts (2002); Ronnick (2004); Treue (1978); Vicinus (1974); Krevens (2001); Lenhart (2006); and more recently Savage et al. (2015); Friedman and Laurison (2019).

Morton quoted in Cornforth (1978) 7.

See Hall (2019).

Quoted in Eakin (2001).

Dunbar (2010).

Murray (1889) 13.

Reid (1981) 5-6.

See the model proposed by Shiach (1989), which obscures the real class divisions underlying the exponential growth in cultural output and accessible ‘popular’ publications during this era, and draws on the Russian Formalist notion of‘the dominant’, on which see Newton (1997) 6-10.

Giddens (1973), especially Chapters 3-5; see also Saunders (1990) 22-3.

Lenhart (2006) 4-5.

On the complexity of subjective signifiers of class produced by different media and genres, for differing consumers, see Marwick (1990), especially 10-16.

Anon. (1913). Chapter 11 below clarifies some reasons why Greek would have been on the agenda in this part of Scotland.

Briggs (1994) 10. The first edition was first published in 1983.

Hobbes (1651) 111.

Jefferson (1784 [1772]) 271-4.

Arnold (1882)186; see Rappie (2017) 144-6.

Morton (1964 [1938]).

Kingsley (1898 [1850]) vol. II, 195. See Crust (2016) 13, and, on Cooper, further pp. 287-9 below.

Morton (1964 [1938]) 12.

Hall, Hohnes-Henderson and Corke-Webster (forthcoming); Stead (forthcoming).

Hall (2015e). The Gaisford lecture can be viewed at https://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/gais ford-2015-lecture-pearls-swine-past-future-greek. See also Hall (2014a).

For some radical English uses of classical ideas in the Early Modern period, see Nelson (2004); Cartledge (2016) 283-7.

Morley (2018) 130.

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