Until the Butler Education Act 1944, although it was most unusual for individuals born into low-income families to acquire sufficient education in the ancient languages for them to rise within the academic profession, it was not entirely unknown. It required extraordinary autodidactic efforts, like those of Joseph Wright, who eventually became Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford University. It also usually required financial support, which only happened if a working-class boy’s academic talent was spotted by an ambitious parent with the confidence to pursue middle-class contacts, a benevolent parish priest or a teacher at a Charity or Dame School, Dissenting teacher, or paternalistic wealthy local patrons on the lookout for prodigies amongst the impoverished families eking out a living on or near their estates. Their education was sometimes procured via scholarships at one of the old Charity or Bluecoat Schools; rich sponsors, especially Nonconformists, sometimes subsidised study at university.
A few working-class men became competent classicists before brilliant careers in, for example, academic philosophy. Henry Jones (1852-1922) was a village shoemaker’s son from Denbighshire who rose through scholarships at Bangor Training College for Teachers and Glasgow University to hold chairs in philosophy at the universities of Bangor, St. Andrews and Glasgow and received a knighthood. Ever proud of his lowly roots and his Welshness, Jones was early inspired by the authors of ancient Greece and Rome. This is apparent above all in his Essays on Literature and Education (1924), a brilliant set of essays on popular authors in the English language and on the purpose of education. Scott’s storytelling is compared to Homer’s, Shakespeare’s morality to Sophocles’, the Brownings’ debt to their education in Greek and Latin and to Euripides’ erudition and Aeschylus is stressed.1 When it came to revelling in the richness of ancient literature, Jones was a classicist to the core. He opened his 1905 address to the subscribers of the Stirling and Glasgow Public Libraries, ‘The Library as a Maker of Character’, with an inspirational quotation from Benjamin Jowett’s translation of the opening sequence of Plato’s Phaedrus, when Socrates goes for a country walk with Phaedrus after meeting the young man with a book under his arm (230d): ‘I am a lover of knowledge’, said the ancient sage,
and the men who dwell in the city are my teachers, and not the trees of the country; though, indeed, I do believe that you have found a spell with which to draw me out of the city, like a hungry cow before whom a bough or bunch of fruit is waved. For only hold up before me a book, and you may lead me all round Attica, and over the wide world.2
Welsh men destined to become Methodist preachers were also often trained rigorously in Greek, as we have seen above in the case of Lewis Edwards and his son Thomas (pp. 179-82). But a tiny handful of working-class men made their academic mark specifically on Classics or Comparative Philology. The obstacles which lay in the path ofbookish youths from a humble background were considerable, and there were large variations in their attitudes in later life to other members of the social class from which they had emerged, escaped or had even betrayed, depending on their personal perspective. This chapter looks in detail at five such figures—three of whom were associated with the University of Edinburgh—in the 18th and 19th centuries, but there is undoubtedly far more work to be done in this area, especially on academics of the 20th century. By that time, careers in Classics were occasionally achieved even by women who were originally working-class, such as Kathleen Freeman at the University College Cardiff.3