The last chapter looked at the achievements of several working-class boys who overcame innumerable obstacles to become formidable classicists and occupy key positions in British intellectual life, if not always in its learned institutions. This chapter focuses on the experience of several equally extraordinary workingclass boys who embarked on autodidactic quests, but whose journey per ardua ad astra (‘through adversity to the stars’) never quite got off the ground. Many others who failed to move upward socially via classical learning have disappeared from view. But those who were not ignored by the historical record, whether villains or countercultural heroes, deserve a place in any People’s History of Classics. Investigating them takes us from Devon to North Wales, Scotland and the border country, before returning to Devon to meet the itinerant priest, the Reverend George Martin, and follow his Greek lessons and godly works in the metropolitan slums of Southwark.
Downwardly mobile Devonians
Social mobility was never a one-way street. Not even a grammar-school education guaranteed a middle-class occupation and comfortable living, as seen in the case of two alumni of Tiverton Grammar School. Established in 1604 by Peter Blundell (c.1520-1601), a wealthy clothier and philanthropist, the independent ‘Blundell’s School’ is still in operation.1 Its most notorious former pupil is Bampfylde-Moore Carew (1693—1759), the son of the rector of Bickleigh, Devon, a few miles from Tiverton. Destined for university and then the clergy, Carew built up ‘a considerable knowledge of the Latin and Greek tongues’ at the local grammar school.2 But he soon became more interested in hunting than in his studies. The school ‘had a fine cry of hounds’,3 and Carew became a proficient huntsman, which led him into trouble. After damaging considerable property in a deer hunt, several of the Tiverton boys absconded from school, for fear of punishment, and joined a company of gypsies. ‘Being thus initiated into the ancient society of gypsies, who take their name from Egypt, a place well known to abound in learning, and the inhabitants of which country travel about from place to place to communicate knowledge to mankind’,4 Carew gained a reputation for his wisdom, but also discovered a wonderful talent for disguise and deception.
His ‘adventures’ in tricking people out of their money were recorded in Robert Goadby’s An Apology for the Life of Mr Bampfylde-Moore Carew Commonly called the King of the Beggars (1768). Carew’s capacity for parting the unsuspecting from their money (sometimes multiple times from the same person in a single day) elevated him through the gypsy ranks; after the death of Clause Patch, he reigned as king of the gypsy tribe for more than 40 years. His classical education saved him on several occasions because he was assumed to be a gentleman.’ His example, however extreme, complicates the commonplace narrative of linear progress through education.
The second Old Blundellian whose classical attainment brought scant reward was Charles Manby Smith. A journeyman printer, Smith was the son of a cabinet maker. Around 1815 he attended the Tiverton Grammar School, Devon, where he ‘enjoyed the advantage of hic-haec-hoc-ing it for a couple of years’.6 But after two years, his father went bankrupt; the family moved to Bristol, where Charles was bound apprentice to a printer. He quickly forgot his Greek, but made efforts to keep up his Latin, which
grew by slow degrees into an accomplishment not common to my class ... and I make the avowal for the benefit of all those to whom the cui-bono is a rule of action—that it never put a pound into my pocket.7
His Latin did, however, once win him a champagne luncheon. During his midday break from the printer’s shop, he sat on a park bench to read ‘a small duodecimo Sallust’. He had read ten pages, ‘and was admiring the impudence of that redoubtable scoundrel Cataline [sir]’, when he was tapped on the shoulder. A kindly old foreign man asked him if he could understand the Roman historian, to which he answered, ‘I ought to—I’ve read him through half-a-dozen times’.8 The man set him a riddle, 'Sum principium mundi; sum finis omnium rerum; sum tria juncta in uno; at tamen non sum Deus?’ (‘I am the beginning of the world; I am the end of everything; I am three joined into one; but I am not God’ [What am I?]). The answer is the letter ‘m’, with which mundi begins and rerum ends. Smith answered, ‘Impransus sum’ (‘I am unbreakfasted’).9
Smith revels in displaying the extent of his Latin learning. His declaration ‘impransus sum’ alludes, as the old man probably knew, to Plautus’ Amphitryon (line 254), in which the slave Sosia reports on the lengthy military campaign of his master Amphitryon from which they were returning. He remembers one detail, because illo die impransus fui (‘that day I had not eaten anything’). The word impransus occurs elsewhere in the works of Plautus and in Horace.10 Using it might not have recalled that particular speech in the Roman play, had not Smith soon (on the same page) referred to the old man as ‘my hospitable Amphitryon’, which in turn characterises the unfed artisan as Sosia, Amphitryon’s slave.
In his autobiography, entitled The Wbrking-man’s Way in the World (1854), Smith employs the familiar trope of apologising for the paucity of his scholarship:
I make no claims to literary talent, and must crave the reader’s indulgence for my want of literary tact... I am a working-man, in the plainest acceptation of the term, and one whose companionship, for more than thirty years, has been with working-men. My knowledge of the world is of the working-man’s world, and my knowledge of books (the world of mind and of the past) has been derived from such books as a working-man could afford to buy or avail to borrow. So pardon, gentles all, and a plenary indulgence ... for all the sins I may fall into, and all the lapsus pennae which must occur now and then to one but little accustomed to trail the quill.
This is an imitation of the faux-humble style of early working-class autobiographical writing (see above, Chapter 5). His self-demeaning performance is no more a ‘slip of the pen’ (lapsus pennae) than his incorporation of a Latin phrase or the assured affectation of referring to his pen as a quill. Written in the wake of the revolutionary turmoil of the late 1840s, Smith’s opening is carefully weighted to obviate ‘the popular question of the day’, which he leaves ‘to wiser heads’ than his.11 Or so he says. On the first page, he quotes the slogan which Thomas Attwood had cited when presenting the Chartists’ petition to parliament in 1839 and which was popularised by Thomas Carlyle in Past and Present four years later.12 On the other hand, Smith inveighs against communism and ‘French’ notions of socialism in a ten-page appendix.13
A socialist Smith may not have been, but a proud working-class classicist he assuredly was; he enjoyed illustrating plebeian occupations with mythical exem-pla. He depicts the local beer vendor with reference to Zeus’ own wine-pourer, the beautiful son of Tros:
As evening draws on, Pluto, the pewter Ganymede from the public-house in the lane below, makes his welcome appearance, bearing in each hand a bunch of pewter pint pots each containing half-a-pint of beer. He ... vociferates, as he walks rapidly round, “Beer, gentlemen—gentlemen, beer!”14
In another book, Curiosities of London Life (1853), he describes the grim labour of ‘tide-waitresses’, women who sift the London mud for items to sell, snidely contrasting their dirty figures with that of the goddess of love:
The “Venus rising from the sea”, of the ancient Greek mythology, presents a very different picture to the imagination from that afforded by her modern antithesis, the tide-waitress of London descending into the bed of the Thames to forage for the means of subsistence among the mud and filth of the river.15
For at the age of 22, Smith, newly freed from his apprenticeship, had moved to London. It was as a journeyman compositor in a London printing house that he encountered a truly ragged-trousered classicist. A Greek volume, with Latin notes and scholia, arrived at the press where Smith worked. His fellow compositor, an old man with failing eyes and no Greek or Latin, gave up the job, which left the setting of the text to Smith. He made excellent money on it (12s a day), but could not work fast enough, so they advertised for a Greek compositor.
When I heard that a Grecian was coming, I expected, as a matter of course, to see a first-class man, one of the gentlemen of the trade, and was not a little astonished to behold a wretched grey specimen of humanity, nearly forty years of age, fluttering in rags, and literally scaled with filth, with scarcely a shirt and but an apology for shoes, inducted into the next frame to mine as my coadjutor. He was a positive scarecrow, but his appearance was no index of his ability. He rained a perfect storm of Greek type into his empty case as he began distribution, and picked it up again when he commenced composing with proportionate rapidity.16
The ragged Grecian turned out to be a slower worker than Smith initially thought. He was a downwardly mobile alcoholic with a weakness for gin, which he sipped throughout the working day; he claimed payment for more work than he had done (a trick called ‘writing horse’).17 There is no other source for the ‘Cockney Grecian’.18 Although Smith claims his own classical language skills never made him money, his own example and that of the ragged Grecian suggests that there was room (however limited) in the printing business for workers with knowledge of the ancient scripts.