After the visits of Hyndman and Morrris we had many lectures from Socialists and Individualists. Individualists such as J. E. Levy, Auberon Herbert, Wordsworth Donisthorpe and Fredrick Miller of the Liberty and Property Defence League, Alfred Milnes (Secretary to University College, London) and Thomas Slater (who was then living at the Secular Hall). Socialists such as Morris, G. B. Shaw and Eleanor Marx Aveling, the daughter of Karl Marx. My lists of lecturers in the late eighties are very incomplete and I may be missing out some well known people. Among our members and in our audiences the discussion of Individualism and Socialism went on furiously and, though I was on the other side, I must admit that Socialism was rapidly gaining converts.
In the autumn of 1888 we arranged to have the series of lectures by seven members of the Fabian Society which were afterwards, in December 1889, published under the title “Fabian Essays in Socialism”. These lectures were delivered in Willis’s Rooms, London, at one of the Universities and on Sunday evenings in the autumn of 1888 and the first months of 1889 in our Hall. We felt it an honour that we were able to have such an important series given to our audiences. The seven speakers were Sidney Webb, G. Bernard Shaw, Sydney Olivier, William Clarke, Graham Wallas, Mrs. Annie Besant, and Hubert Bland. (It is interesting that, after 43 years, five of them are still living, preaching Socialism seems to be a healthy occupation!) The Hall was well filled on every occasion and the discussion after each lecture was earnest and animated. Most of the speakers stayed with us (19 Upper Tichborne Street) and we had delightful talks with them.
I well remember two of the evenings which tried me severely but from which I learnt useful lessons. The first was the lecture of Bernard Shaw. I think I took the chair, but am not quite certain, anyhow, I had been elected President in January, 1889. I was then a very earnest Individualist, a devoted follower of Auberon Herbert, though I was never able to agree with some of his most extreme views. Shaw spoke with his usual great ability for just over an hour. In the following discussion I, with ill-informed enthusiasm, tried to answer the whole lecture in 10 minutes! I had not even the sense to take one or two of his weaker points and elaborate an answer to them, but wandered all round his lecture. In his reply Shaw literally “wiped the floor” with me! Not only did he demolish all my feeble arguments, but I knew that he had done so and knew that the audience recognised the fact. I felt that I had done the cause of Individualism, which to me was truth itself, harm by my intervention and I worried over that fact. Shaw did it all with good humour but I “smiled a kind of sickly smile” while the audience was enjoying his reply. Had I known as much of Shaw’s debating powers then as I have learnt since I should have known that the best thing for Sydney Gimson to have done was to hold his tongue! Shaw was staying with me and we discussed Socialism that night until about 1a.m. and I lay awake most of that night and the next thinking out the unanswerable arguments I might have used but didn’t!
The second was at Mrs. Besant’s lecture. Herbert Burrows came down from London with her and was on the platform. Also the Rev. Stewart Headlam was on the platform. He had come down to Leicester to see a friend of his, Madame Patti, who was dancing in pantomime at the Opera House. Headlam was very keen on theatrical dancing, had published a book on “The Theory of Theatrical Dancing” and once offered to take the Bishop of London to the Alhambra to see a Ballet!
Mrs. Besant gave one of her wonderfully eloquent lectures. In the discussion I again had the temerity to intervene with some criticism and I thought that the result to me was not so disastrous as in the case of Shaw. Mrs. Besant was staying with us until the early train to London, something like 2 a.m. I had ordered a cab to be at the Hall when the meeting was over. When we got outside snow was falling fast and the road was covered to a depth of about six inches. The horse could only walk (no motor cars in those days) and we, Mrs. Besant, Burrows and I inside, slowly progressed and took about 20 minutes to do the mile to my house. As soon as we started Burrows vehemently attacked me for my reply to Mrs. Besant. I had a strenuous twenty minutes, Burrows heatedly pouring out arguments, Mrs. Besant saying nothing but enjoying it all as she snuggled in her corner. I thought I got in a few useful rejoinders and thoroughly enjoyed the encounter. No sleep lost over it!
In those days Mrs. Besant was an old friend of ours and we knew Headlam very well. It was the first time we had met Herbert Burrows. It was generally understood that Bernard Shaw had influenced Mrs. Besant to become Socialist and Herbert Burrows had introduced her to Theosophy and Mdme. Blavatsky. Headlam came in for supper and during supper and the time afterwards while waiting for the 2a.m. train we had a great time. The talk wandered over many subjects and was always interesting, sometimes brilliant. I know the time passed too quickly. Mrs Besant earnest and charming, Burrows intense and very quick to see and follow up an argument, Headlam a little slow and cynical but full of fun and common sense. An evening not to be forgotten.
Of the other Fabians, Sidney Webb was unable to come but Hubert Bland read his address. William Clarke and Hubert Bland stayed with us, both being most acceptable visitors. I found that his colleagues considered Clarke to be almost the ablest man of the all. Bland was at that time Secretary to the London Hydraulic Power Co. with which my firm did a good deal of business. He dressed in the usual conventional get up of the London business man, frock coat, top hat, etc. He told me that he was considered much too eccentric in being a Socialist and he could not afford further eccentricities such as Bernard Shaw’s mustard coloured loose fitting tweed suits and “Trilby” hat!
Of the lecturers on the Individualist side Auberon Herbert was far the most charming and persuasive and was a most delightful man to know and work with. His friendship was a great privilege. I shall have much more to say of him later. I have often thought and said that, of all the men I have had the happiness to meet through my Secular Hall work, two of the most delightful and from whose friendship I have learnt the most and felt most influence throughout my life (apart from the definite Freethought side, though even here they had their effect) were William Morris, the Socialist and Auberon Herbert the Individualist.
H. H. Levy was a very able economist, a logical and convincing writer and speaker, comparable with Sidney Webb, Alfred Milnes was an accomplished and uncompromising lecturer, very acceptable to our audiences.
Wordsworth Donisthorpe, a barrister and a near relation to the Leicester Donisthorpe family, was brilliant and witty, his lectures were a delight but there was always a vein of cynicism and extravagance in them which hindered their persuasiveness. In his love of paradox and his wit he was the nearest approach to Bernard Shaw that we could produce. In illustration of Donisthorpe’s quickness in repartee I can tell two stories. After one of his Individualist lectures in our Hall, Tom Richards, in the discussion, made one of his somewhat flamboyant speeches claiming that there was no hope for the world in Individualism but that Socialism would put everything right. Donisthorpe jumped up and said, “While that gentleman was speaking I could not help thinking what a fine traveller he would make for Cockle’s Pills!” and then sat down. Another time Donisthorpe was speaking in London at a meeting of the Fabian Society. He gave a characteristically cynical and sarcastic lecture. Mrs Besant, who was in the audience, was indignant and was moved to say, in the discussion, something to this effect, “If ever the workers arise in their might and go out to the West End, Mr Donisthorpe will get a bad quarter of an hour”. Donisthorpe at once replied, “For once I agree with Mrs. Besant, I think it would last just about – a quarter of an hour!” I was told this story at the time. It sounds good. I hope it is true.
Frederick Millar, though forceful, his lectures were too rough and blunt, to him every Socialist was either a fool or knave! In the discussion after his first lecture a leaflet criticising the personalities comprising “The Liberty & Property Defence League” was handed up to him. He refused to touch it and, with a contemptuous gesture, blew it off the table on to the floor. This the audience resented and it did not help his arguments.
Donisthorpe several times stayed with us and was a very likeable man in the house. Basil was then a baby, just beginning a few words. When he had finished a biscuit or a cup of milk he would proudly say “OR GOM” (all gone). When writing to me Donisthorpe would always ask “How’s little Orgom?” I once or twice visited Wordsworth Donisthorpe in London. He was then living in Pembridge Villas. To one of his lectures here there came two of his girl cousins, I am sure they had never been to such a wicked place as our Hall before. On the Monday Donisthorpe called to see them. On his return he said to me, “Oh, I have been blown up!” I asked him which part of his lecture displeased them most. “Well,” he said, “you know the wickedest part was where I spoke disrespectfully of the dear Queen!”
While all this lecturing and discussion on Socialism and Individualism was going on it is not to be supposed that the purely Freethought side of our propaganda was neglected. All the recognised Freethought speakers were visiting us regularly and the work went on merrily, indeed the lectures on other topics brought strangers into our Hall who got into the habit of coming and thus heard the case for Freethought. To us Freethought was the great cause, without its prevailing we were sure that no Social problem would get any reasonable solution.
Mrs. Eleanor Marx Aveling lectured for us twice, first on December 20th 1886, and secondly 12 years later, in November, 1897. I have no definite remembrance of her lectures, except that to her Freethought was at least as important as Socialism, but I well remember her as a very lovable woman. She stayed with us and, the second time in particular, we felt that we were getting very friendly and both my wife and I looked forward to a growth of the friendship, but, alas! soon afterwards came Mrs Aveling’s tragic death. Thinking of the importance of Freethought to Socialism I call to mind that one of the first things that William Morris said to Ernest and me was, “I expect that the reason so many of you Secularists don’t like Socialism is because a lot of parsons come to us; well, I don’t know why they come, we don’t want them!” No doubt he was thinking of the so-called “Christian Socialists”, a label which attracted some of the politically “advanced” persons of that time.
Socialists in England seem to less and less appreciate the importance of Freethought to their movement. They adopt the conventional religious attitude, no doubt quite sincerely in most cases, and do not recognise how loose thinking in that direction re-acts on their judgment in all Social problems. I suppose it gets them more votes for the time being, and they are in a hurry.
While he was in Leicester Ernest was active in helping down at the Hall. In all the Social gatherings he was a tower of strength for he had a real gift for entertaining any company with a bit of acting or singing and keeping the folk alive and jolly with all sorts of games. With it all he was essentially shy but woke up as any company responded to his magnetic personality. Together we used to prepare the platform for entertainments, concerts, acting, etc. He rigged up a curtain to go right across the Hall and I believe it served for over 30 years. He went to London in 1886 and, though he came down occasionally, I missed his help sadly. Later, when he lived in Gloucestershire, he was lost to our Leicester movement altogether but he never weakened in his Freethought opinions.
One of my happiest recollections of the time when he was in Leicester is of a walk we had one Sunday with Tom Barclay (still one of our most popular members) and Mr. Robson. We were almost all the time discussing the interminable question of Socialism and Individualism, Barclay & Robson, v Ernest and me. I don’t think we saw much of the country, we were too keen on our arguments, though it was a lovely day. We took a picnic lunch with us, which we ate on a grassy slope in Bradgate Park. There were occasional digressions to pick a flower or a leaf and admire it, for Robson was an enthusiastic botanist. I think we dozed part of the afternoon and then had a “Forest” tea in a Newtown Linford Cottage, walking back to Leicester and continuing our discussion in the cool of the evening. It was a hot day, a warm but always friendly discussion, and a treasured remembrance.
Robson was a valued member of our Society who died all too soon. Tom Barclay has always been one of the interesting and helpful “Characters” of our Society. Self educated he is essentially intellectual, with literary tastes and more than a little literary gift of his own. He sent reports of the Fabian lectures to Morris’s weekly, “The Commonwealth”. He published a little book of selections from the writings of Ruskin. Ruskin permitted this publication and praised the choice, though I believe it is the only instance where Ruskin allowed anything of the kind to be printed during his lifetime. He has always followed the career of Bernard Shaw with the keenness of a disciple, accepted almost all his teachings, kept a wonderful scrap-book of cuttings and notes relating to him, and been proud to possess notes from him beginning “Dear Tom”. I fancy Barclay counts Shaw as the greatest man of his generation, if not of all time! Many a good argle-bargle have I had with Tom and his cheery friendship has cheered me on my way. His intellectual gifts have always been greater than his practical common-sense and he has had a hard life, always born bravely and unselfishly.
In 1885 began a notable managership of our Club and Hall premises. Mr. Thomas Slater, a Town Councillor of Bury, answered our advertisement for a Manager and was appointed, his son William to be assistant Manager and they were also to look after the Freethought Book Shop which had been in the care of William Henry Holyoak but which the Society now proposed to take over. Thomas Slater had long been a close friend of Charles Bradlaugh and George Jacob Holyoake and was, himself a most acceptable lecturer on the Secularist platform. He had had a business of his own in Bury but it had failed him. He was far too honest and straight to be able to bear going bankrupt, so he closed down while he was still able to pay his creditors 20 shillings in the pound, though leaving himself with nothing. He had a wonderful collection of books. Mr. Gould, in his excellent little “History of the Leicester Secular Society” published in 1900, says that he “Collected a library of 3000 volumes”. It was many more than that. He told me that he had 6000 in Bury and that because of the difficulty in removing them he sold 2500 before he left, for something over £30! To the 3500 volumes which he brought to Leicester he frequently added – and I don’t believe there was a volume of fiction in the lot! Certainly I was often in the room (later the Guild Room) which had its walls entirely covered with books, and I never saw one.
His wife, a delightful old Lancashire Dame, shrewd and warm hearted, of course grumbled at the money he “wasted” on Books. Mr. Slater told me that all the payment that he got for his lecturing went in books. Feeling guilty sometimes after a visit to a bookshop he would try to smuggle the evidences of his guilt into the house without Mrs. Slater finding out. One day he came into his kitchen with a parcel of books, thinking that Mrs. Slater was in bed, then he heard footsteps and, seeking a hiding place for the parcel, he popped it into the oven, there being no fire in the grate. There was no opportunity to remove them that night as he had to go upstairs with Mrs. Slater, and he forgot them next day until the fire had been lighted for some time and his books were nicely cooked!
Mr Thomas Slater was not a success as Manager, but William was first rate, so at the end of a year it was agreed that William should be our Manager, the Book Shop should go back to Mr. Holyoake, and Thomas Slater should resign from our employment. We were very glad that Mr. Slater soon found employment, I am not sure where at first but eventually at Thompson’s Spinning Factory in Frog Island, and he and his wife and Mr. & Mrs. William Slater continued to live in the dwelling rooms attached to the Hall. It was a privilege to have such a family with us. Thomas Slater with his enthusiasm for our cause and his power of trenchant lecturing with, to us, the attractive Lancashire accent, and homely phrased but picturesque illustration. His wife, a charming old lady who cared well for him and mothered us all. William Slater was a most capable and popular manager. He and his able young wife were dear friends to all our members. When William died in 1893 the managership was offered to his widow and she carried on with much success until her retirement. Early in their life with us Mr. and Mrs. William met with tragedy, their only two young children dying on consecutive days. Fortunately another son, Tom, was born to them not long afterwards and was a great comfort to them. Mrs. William Slater came to our home just after the death of her children, and helped my wife through a time of difficulty when Basil was a few weeks old and the monthly nurse had to leave unexpectedly. She was a staunch friend to us and the friendship never lessened to the day of her death.
Thomas Slater died in June 1894. He was cremated at Chorlton-cum-Hardy, and buried in Bury. To the November No. of the Bradford “Truthseeker” I sent a short appreciation of his life and work.
Among the young clergymen who used to lecture to us in the eighties were J. E. Symes, a lecturer on Political Economy at Nottingham University College, and C. L. Marson, who had been curate to Brooke Lambert of Greenwich. Both were good fellows with an unconventional pose. I remember the first time Symes came, as I walked down to the Hall with him, on a Sunday evening, he surprised me by filling and lighting a short pipe and smoking it all the way down the London Road, past all the church-goers! This was much more surprising in those days than it would be now, though even now few clergymen, with their white chokers, would do such a thing. Of C. L. Marson I remember Brooke Lambert saying to me that he held the “Atheism was the true doctrine of the Church of England!” Exactly what he meant I don’t know for we were chatting on the platform of a London Station, where we had accidentally met, and one of our trains coming in separated us before the paradox could be explained.
We have always celebrated the anniversary of the opening of the Hall on the first Sunday of each March and it was for long our custom to invite as many of those who had been to the original opening to come to us as could. Our most regular visitors were George Jacob Holyoake, Daniel Baker (who was such a generous and consistent supporter of Secularism in Birmingham), Robert Porter, of Beeston, Notts, and R. A. Cooper of Norwich, a militant, even truculent, Secularist, who had a fanatical belief that Railway travel should be as free as travel on the high road and advocated that the State should take over the railways and abolish all travel charges. His daughter married a London Magistrate, Mr. Cluer, also, I believe, a Freethinker. Mr. Porter died in 1889. I don’t know what his business was but he did a great deal of running about the country on a tricycle (a much commoner vehicle then than now) and he told me that he had done a thousand miles during the year before his death, though he was well over 70 then. At these anniversaries we always had many old friends gathered together and got a very good collection, which we always badly needed.
In the early and mid eighties Mrs. Annie Besant lectured several times for us as a Secularist, she also once or twice gave Socialist lectures, and in 1890 or 91 she spoke to us after she had joined the Theosophists. I am sure it is safe to say that hers were the most eloquent lectures we ever heard from our platform. One could hear a lecture from her and disagree with every word of it and yet sit entranced by the music of her voice and words and the beauty of her phrasing and her imagery. We were always sure of a great audience when she came. She always stayed with my wife and me and was a bright and charming companion in the home, full of lively conversation. Until – can I say it? – she came to us after she had become a Theosophist. There was just as much friendliness then but something had come between us which neither could forget. We felt as though a High Priestess was in our home, and we were not used to High Priestesses! Liveliness and smiles had disappeared and we had with us a serene, charming but far-away lady whose only relaxation was the study of Sanskrit!
Some of the most interesting and popular lectures of the eighties and nineties were given by Russian Exiles. I think “Stepniak” was the first to lecture for us. I have lost the first letter I had from him but it would be written some time in 1885. In that letter he suggested lecturing to us in French as his English was then not very fluent, and he signed the letter “S. Mikailoff”. I am not quite sure of the spelling but I have it fairly near. We dare not try a lecture in French to our audience so it was postponed for a year or two. When he did come his English was difficult but his lectures were full of interest and held his audiences. He was a powerfully built man of strong personality, in some ways the most remarkable of the Russians who came to us, and I believe he had been active in the Nihilist movement in Russia before he was compelled to leave. One could imagine him as a leader in dangerous revolt. In a letter from Stepniak dated 5th April, 1886, I find this interesting paragraph: “I accept with much pleasure your kind proposition about staying at your house next time I am in your town – if it is not an inconvenience to you. I met with so much kindness from the members of your Society in London, Mr. Bradlaugh and Mrs. Besant, that it would be a great pleasure for me to know a representative of the same body in Leicester.”
Next came Felix Volkhovsky who had suffered 7 years solitary imprisonment in the fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul and 11 years exile in Siberia, whence he had escaped to America only a very short time before he came to us. He was a gentle creature, a scholar and thinker whose worst offence was writing in opposition to the government of the day. His English was very good and a crowded audience listened “with bated breath” to his quiet account of the cruelties he had suffered and his exciting escape from Siberia. His nerves were shattered with all he had gone through and he suffered with an almost unceasing severe headache. He asked Mrs Gimson to prepare for him a large jug full of black coffee. This he took on to the platform with him and finished by the end of his lecture. He came a good many times and was always much liked. He was a very lovable man and became a dear friend of ours.
He once brought his little daughter, Vera, to Leicester with him. She was walking up the New Walk with a friend and when they came opposite to the Museum the friend said “You see those cannon, we took them from the Russians in the Crimean War”. She exclaimed indignantly “you didn’t, you didn’t, you didn’t!” When Volkhovsky escaped from Siberia the Russian Government, spitefully, tried to prevent his daughter, who was then living in Russia, from joining him. I understand that she was smuggled over by the father of Mark Hambourg, the celebrated pianist. He was coming over to England with his family and had a passport for all of them. Mark, who was then a boy, fell ill and was unable to travel, so Vera was dressed as a boy and brought over in his name. When she arrived she presented her father with a doll! He was much surprised, but understood when she showed him that inside the hollow head there were some letters which had thus been smuggled out of Russia for him. I gave consent for my name and address to be used in getting letters from Russia for Volkhovsky, two or three came and were sent on to him.
Then came Prince Kropotkin, in 1890 or 1891, I forget which and can find no reference to tell me. He was to stay with us and we were a bit concerned to know how we should get on with a Prince! And Kropotkin was a real Prince, not one of the kind that are about two a penny on the Continent. His family had once reigned in Russia and he himself had been brought up as a playmate of the Emperor Nicholas. However we found him very easy to get on with and charming in the home. The first night we had a few friends in to meet him at Supper. Our son Basil was then about three years old and Kropotkin had a baby – a daughter I think it was – so most of the conversation during supper was between my wife and Kropotkin as to the best way to feed and bring up young children! One painful incident at that supper I can never forget. A blundering friend said to him “Should you like to go back to Russia?” There was silence for a moment, then Kropotkin quietly answered “Yes”. “Oh”, said the friend, “you never will, they’ll never let you!” I can see the strained look on Kropotkin’s face now, but he said nothing. I would have given a good deal that the incident had not happened, but I am glad to know that he did go back to Russia, after the reign of the Czars was ended, and saw his native land under more hopeful conditions though then not very happy.
Remembering all one heard from these Russian friends of the cruelties and the complete negation of liberty under the Czars one could not wonder at the completeness, and even the savagery, of the revolution. Violence bred violence. One hopes that eventually freedom and happiness for that great nation may evolve from the revolution.
I cannot remember the subject of Peter Kropotkin’s first lecture but the second, Nov. 26th, 1893, was on “Mutual Aid among Animals”. I have a vivid recollection of the charm and the evidences of close observation shown in that one and the valuable lessons we gathered from it.
A very welcome and much anticipated visit to the Hall in the early days was that of Miss Rosamund Dale Owen. She was the Grand-daughter of Robert Owen, the man whom we looked on as almost the father of our Society, which had grown from a group of his followers, and whose bust was one of the 5 on the front of the Hall. I cannot remember, and cannot find a record of, the exact date, but it must have been in 1884 or early 1885 for she stayed at my mother’s house while I was still living there. We had a crowded hall, many being turned away. She was a spiritualist, as was her father Robert Dale Owen, and had a curiously simple and practical belief. She even told us, when chatting at home, of the spirit of an old servant who still did jobs about the house for her and tidied up the drawers in her bedroom! Not very long afterwards Miss Owen married Laurence Oliphant, the writer and traveller.
We had another crowded audience in December 1888 to hear Mrs. Millicent Garret Fawcett, (Widow of Professor Henry Fawcett,) lecture on “Why are Women’s Wages lower than Men’s?” It was a very good lecture and charmingly given. Just then the Home Rule for Ireland question was being warmly discussed and Mrs Fawcett had taken a prominent part in opposition, as a Liberal Unionist. In the discussion after her lecture my friend John Barrs tried to get her reasons for opposing Home Rule and I, as chairman, had to intervene and tell him that he was flagrantly out of order. There was a little excitement but it soon died down. Mrs. Fawcett stayed with us that Sunday night, and several times afterwards, always a most welcome visitor with a fund of interesting conversation and a twinkle of humour. Her late husband’s nephew had married a niece of my wife’s so there was a little family connection.
In 1969 I remember with pleasure a lecture, and a visit to our home, of Dr. C. R. Drysdale, one of the first active advocates of Birth Control and a sturdy anti-vaccinator. Of lecturers definitely working in the Freethought movement who visited us often were Mr A. B. Moss, a forthright lecture and an able elocutionist, who is still (1932) giving yeoman service to the cause, Mr. W. Heaford, Mrs. Mary Snowden, Mrs. Thornton Smith, and a number of others whom I have either mentioned already or shall have occasion to speak of later.
John Burns, then a member of the London County Council but not yet in Parliament, lectured for us in 1889, and then began a friendship which has brought me many happy meetings and lively talks. When I was Chairman of the Leicester Museum Committee, in 1912, John Burns, then President of the Board of Trade, in Asquith’s Cabinet, came down to open an extension of the Museum when my wife and I entertained 1000 guests, which I think was the greatest number that had been entertained indoors in Leicester up to that date. John Burns lectured for the Secular Society at least once after his visit in 1889. Chatting at our house one evening, with a few friends, Burns was asked the rather stupid question, “In a Socialist State what would you do with a man who would not work?” His characteristic reply was, “Fill him with lead!”
On January 10th 1897, W. M. Thompson, Editor of “Reynold’s” newspaper gave us a lecture on “The Everyday Man’s Religion”. The principal thing that I remember about his visit is that he stayed with Jean and me and we had a very interesting talk in my library, when he persuaded me to let him propose me as a member of the National Liberal Club, in London. I believe his nomination of me was seconded by Stewart Headlam and I duly became a member, continuing my membership until the end of 1925, when I found that I was visiting London so seldom that it cost me about two guineas every time I entered the club, so I gave it up. My membership led to some interesting quiet friendships and incidents both useful and amusing but seldom having any relationship to these Recollections. While I was actively occupied in affairs it was a most useful centre where I could appoint to meet friends or business acquaintances.
1898 introduced several new friends to our Hall. On January 16th, we were very fortunate in getting a lecture from Miss Mary Kingsley. She was a daughter of Dr. George Kingsley, of Cambridge, and niece of Charles Kingsley, the Novelist. She had made two journeys into the little known parts of West Africa, accompanied only by Native bearers, and had shown such a sympathetic understanding of Native character and beliefs that she met with friendship wherever she went. I had heard her before, I think the previous winter, lecture to the Lit. & Phil. and at once recognised that it would be a great treat to our audience if she could be persuaded to speak to them. She accepted our invitation most willingly and attracted an audience which packed our Hall to the doors. Her lecture was a great success and charmed the audience. It was full of most interesting information about the West African natives, was brightened by most delicious bits of humour which really helped the understanding of her subject, and was illustrated by first rate lantern slides from her own photographs. One remark of hers which I remember much amused her audience was this, “Some people tell me that in this photograph the people have not got enough clothes on, but it’s really all right, I happened to reach that village on washing day and you can see the clothes hung out to dry on bushes at the back!” She at once put her audience into a good humour and got into touch with them by beginning with the remark that many people were astonished that she had made these journeys into the wilds of Africa, because she was the sort of woman who always reminded them of their maiden Aunts! And she did look like the traditional Victorian middle aged prim maiden lady. She lectured in a high, unnatural voice, almost a falsetto, which carried well but was quite different from her pleasant conversational voice. The audience found her quite irresistible and I have seldom heard such a volume of applause as followed the end of her lecture.
Referring to my correspondence I find that Miss Kingsley was ill on Jan. 16th and unable to come. I believe she changed with Harry Snell and came on February 27th. I am not quite sure, but I do not think Miss Kingsley stayed with Jean and me. But I remember having supper with her at my brother, Mentor’s, house when she lectured either for the Lit..& Phil. or us. We had a particularly jolly talk after supper and then she put me on to the writings of Joseph Conrad, who, at that date, had written only “Almeyer’s Folly” and “The Outcast of the Islands”. For which I owe her many thanks. Both from her lectures and her conversation I gathered that Miss Kingsley was a convinced Freethinker.
On February 20th 1898 we had our first visit from Mrs. Bradlaugh Bonner, who has since been such a devoted and helpful friend to our Society. Then, too, began a friendship between our families which grew and strengthened as the years passed. We first gave her a warm welcome as the daughter of our Great Leader, Charles Bradlaugh, but at once her own strong and engaging personality gave her a special niche in our hearts and she became one of our most frequent visitors and helpful friends. Her quiet yet forceful lectures were beautifully worded and both appealed to our intellects and touched our emotions. The form was as good as the arguments. We have sadly missed her lectures since her voice weakened some years ago, but are happy that she can still cheer us by her presence now and then. Jean and Mrs. Bonner at once “took to” one another and the personal friendship between our families became very close and so continued. We have often visited one another’s homes and have shared many interests, but that story hardly comes within the scope of these Recollections.
Dr. Stanton Coit, who had just come to England from U.S.A. first came to us on Dec.23rd 1894. He spoke to us several times and his eloquent lectures were well appreciated. He would have liked us to join his Union of Ethical Societies, but the forms and ceremonies which he loved, aping the ritual of religions which we have rejected, did not appeal to us. We preferred a more uncompromising Freethought. But we liked Dr. Coit.
Then on November 10th 1895, came that Grand Old Man, Dr. Moncure Conway, from South Place Chapel. He came several times afterwards and each visit was a joy and an honour to us. Any words of mine could add nothing to the understanding of so well known a man. One always felt that his bigness was well appreciated by our audiences. Chatting with him in my home it was exciting to hear the experiences of a man who well remembered the days of slavery in Southern U.S.A. and who had gone “Hunting” with a flint lock gun! All Rationalists know his keen interest in Thomas Paine. I was proud to be able to send one or two exhibits to a Paine Exhibition which he arranged at South Place Chapel. I have a 1792 edition of Paine’s “Rights of Man” which he gave to me. In a letter to me dated Sept.28th 1895, Dr. Conway wrote, “Somewhat over thirty years ago I lectured in Leicester on the struggle with slavery then going on in America, and related the story of my gathering up my father’s slaves (Virginia) and colonizing them in Ohio”.
On March 22nd, 1896 we had a lecture from “Ernest Newman” who was then known as the Author of “Gluck and the Opera”, a convinced Freethinker and friend of J. M. Robertson. He was then in a Bank in Liverpool. He has since become well known as the leading Musical Critic in England.
In March 1899 William Archer paid us what was, I think, his first visit. He came several times afterwards. Though a sound Freethinker his lectures to us were mostly on the Theatre, which was natural from so famous a Critic and writer on the Theatre. Archer stayed with me and I much enjoyed his visits. I also used to meet him occasionally at the National Liberal Club, but I never felt that I got at all close to him. Perhaps he or I was too shy.
Among the local men who lectured to us from time to time in those early days were Mr. William Stanion, an old friend of the founders of our Society, but not a Secularist, Mr. Henry Major, Chief Inspector to the Leicester School Board and, like Mr. Stanion, a broad-minded Christian, Tom Barclay and my brother Mentor.
In 1898 we got the idea that it would help the progress of the Society if we engaged someone to be a kind of “Pastor” to us. I think we decided to call him “Secretary and Organizer”. We first negotiated with Harry Snell who agreed to come to us on alternate Sundays throughout the autumn, take the lead in our Sunday School (which was then fairly flourishing), occasionally lecture to us and generally supervise our activities. At the end of six months (or was it three?) we should both be able to decide whether we wished the connection to become permanent and Snell come to live in Leicester. We were well pleased with the trial and offered him the post, but he, after very careful consideration, felt that he could not leave London and sever himself from all the advantages and opportunities to be found there. His decision was undoubtedly a loss to us but I think events have shown that it was a gain to him. The field of work which opened out for him in London gave opportunity for greater usefulness and real personal distinction than anything that our provincial town could offer. Right up to present times Harry Snell (I can’t get used to the “Lord” Snell, but hope to do so in time) has constantly lectured to us and there has been a very close friendship with my family, he often being a very welcome visitor to our home. His lectures are thoughtful, picturesque and eloquent. He has a happy knack of finding the right words to convey his thoughts to an audience. Our Society owes him much for his friendship and help.
Following this disappointment we advertised our want and got many applications for the post. From among them we finally selected Mr. Joseph McCabe, who had recently seceded from the Roman Catholic Church, where he was known as the Very Rev. Father Antony, and joined the Secularist movement. He took up his duties in June 1898. Mr. McCabe superintended our Sunday School, held classes on various subjects, gave series of lectures, and accepted the main responsibility for directing the many activities of our Society. However, he presently discovered that the work of a “Pastor” did not suit his temperament, writing and lecturing made a stronger appeal to him. So, after about nine months of very able work for us he left Leicester for London. With him he took from Leicester a young wife, Miss Beatrice Lee. Bearing in mind the work that Mr. McCabe has since done, the number of his important literary works and his fine lecturing, we must agree that his decision to find a wider field for his energies than we could give him was a wise one.
When Mr. McCabe left we decided to approach Mr. Gould, already well known to all Secularists. I met him at the National Liberal Club and, after a long discussion of his ideals and my own, decided to submit his name to our committee. The Committee unanimously approved and Mr. Gould came to us in April, 1899. Then began a very active and earnest period of organisation and reorganisation which lasted for about ten years. Later in my story I hope to speak more of Mr. Gould’s work. In this part of my Recollections I am mainly concerned with the time previous to 1900.
Whitsuntide 1897 found the National Secular Society holding its Annual Conference in our Hall. Mr. G. W. Foote was President and there was a large gathering, comfortably filling our Hall. I attended the meetings as a looker on, not then being a member of the N.S.S. The only thing I remember about the Conference is that there was then a strong movement against Mr. Foote’s presidency, originating I think from Glasgow, but a somewhat acrimonious discussion was brought to a close by a very able and convincing speech from Mr. Foote which securely settled him in his office to the obvious satisfaction of the overwhelming majority of the delegates.
One of the days, Easter Monday I think it was, we arranged a trip to Longcliffe Woods when the delegates and our own members made up a big and jolly party, chartered a number of four-in-hand and three-in-hand horse breaks and drove out to see something of the beautiful Charnwood Forest scenery. We had an excellent and joyous meal together, a few speeches, and then home. Of course, we had our photographs taken, and I am looking at one copy now. Among the people I recognise are G. W. Foote, Charles Watts, J. M. Wheeler, Arthur B. Moss, W. Heaford, Greevz Fisher (I think), Miss Vance, J. W. Gott (that kind hearted, gentle but stubborn stormy Petrel, who suffered a martyrdom of imprisonment several times for some wrong-headed but well intended “Blasphemy”, and who, so Chapman Cohen told me, when in Rome on a Freethought Conference, wanted to give away Atheist pamphlets in St. Peters but was, with difficulty, restrained by his friends!), Robert Forder (then Hon. Secretary to the N.S.S.), Chapman Cohen, looking but a stripling but already making for himself a leading position in our movement. I remember I was not too attracted to him in those early days. I thought he marred his advocacy by a too constant use of jokes of the chestnut variety! Probably I was a bit pernickety. Anyhow, I am proud of his friendship today. I recognise his great ability and feel that there is no one who is so effective in Freethought advocacy today for the average man or woman. He has a wonderful power of clear thinking combined with the gift of putting his arguments in simple and convincing language. His lectures and writings are among the greatest assets possessed by the Freethought movement today. Of our visiting friends I can recognise a number more faces but cannot place names to them.
Of our own members I recognise Mr. George Woodford, Mr. & Mrs. Marston, Mr Samuel Leeson (Senr.), Mr. & Mrs. Pinder, Mr. & Mrs. Tom Richards, Mr. & Mrs. Perkins, Mr. Cartwright, Mr. & Mrs. Bailey, Mr. & Mrs. Allen, Mr. Payne etc., etc., I am visible in the background.Before leaving this section of my recollections, which, roughly, deals with last century, I must say a little about my dear old friend William Henry Holyoak.
He was a few months older than my father, was one of the small group of Owenites who founded the Leicester Secular Society in 1852, and was a sturdy faithful worker in the movement right up to his death in his 90th year in 1907. By trade he was a Tailor and made all my boyish suits until sometime in the eighties, when he retired and his Son, Harry, carried on the business, Mr. W. H. Holyoak then giving his whole attention to the Book Shop at the Secular Hall. Many Leicester people have vivid kindly recollections of the grey bearded old man who had a friendly twinkle in his eyes and was always ready for a discussion on books or philosophy, or a chat about old Leicester of which he had a great store of memories and could tell innumerable stories. He had a great love of the country and he and Mr. James Plant and my father, with other young men, used to tramp over Bradgate Park and Charnwood Forest when that lovely district was only known and loved by a very select few of Leicester’s thousands.
Mr Holyoak kept commonplace books and used to write in them little poems and amusing accounts of these walks. Some of these commonplace books were curious. I fancy Mr Holyoak bought up odd lots at sales, perhaps old Solicitors’ cast-outs, and he used the blank pages of volumes which had been used at the other end. I had one M.S book which Mr Holyoak had used for jottings connected with the Secular Society or Club and which at the other end contained the minutes of the Commissioners who sat nearly 100 years ago to divide up Charnwood Forest! They were somewhat perfunctory minutes, recording little but the attendances, and they were signed, I feel sure, by Thomas Paget. Unfortunately, I cannot now find this interesting book. Perhaps it is somewhere among the accumulations down at the Secular Hall. Another of his commonplace books contained, at the other end, an inventory of the contents of Nosely Hall on the death of one of the Sir Arthur Hazlerigg at the end of the 18th century or the beginning of the 19th. I had the pleasure of giving this to the present Baronet, Sir Arthur Hazlerigg, Lord Lieutenant of Leicestershire, who was very glad to have it. In a letter thanking me for this book, November 13th 1925, Sir Arthur wrote: “Thank you very much indeed for this book, which interests me vastly; as it deals with accounts of my great-grandfather’s grandfather, the 9th Baronet, who must have been a tremendous character.”
I can picture Mr Holyoak now, standing at the door of his shop with a trestle in front of the Hall gates covered with all sorts of literature. Second-hand books and newspapers were sold in his shop as well as new. I have a number of very interesting old newspapers bought from him. Often one or two would stop to have a few words with him and listen to his quiet, but searching, bits of philosophy.
I remember one Saturday morning passing the shop (or bookstore, as we usually called it) and noticing a man, who was very solemnly drunk, arguing with Mr Holyoak. Mr Holyoak had quietly rebuked him for having too much drink (it was about 1 o-clock and, no doubt, he had made quick use of part of the wages he had just drawn), the man’s quaint reply was: “I don’t (hic) see why the Br.r.ish (hic) working man shouldn’t (hic) have a stagger once a week!”
He did a lot of repetition work on a cyclostyle, and, from this humble and tiring “Press” issued several “Editions” of Fitzgerald’s “Omar Khayyam”, for which he had a great admiration, both for the poetry and much of the philosophy. He got into trouble with Macmillan’s, the owners of the copyright, and was threatened with action but, owing to a kindly intervention of Mr G. J. Holyoake, the publishers were persuaded that the old gentleman’s copies had done them no harm but rather acted as an advertisement, and no action was taken.
I have several of his editions, which I prize. His writing was round and comely, as easy to read as printing, quite unlike the angular writing popular in those days.
At one of our anniversary suppers I was sitting at the head of a table with G. J. H. on my right and W.H.H. on my left. Jim Hardy, one of our best cricketers, asked the riddle “Why is Sydney Gimson like an ancient Druid?” the answer being “Because he is sitting between two Holy Oaks!” I always thought Hardy was the author of this riddle but my old friend George Woodford tells me that he thought of it and persuaded Hardy to ask it. William Henry Holyoak honoured the Secular movement both by the untiring, faithful work he did for it and by his simple, fine character. A fortnight before his death he said: “I maintain, as strongly as ever, the Freethought principles that I have advocated through a long life, being confident that the memory of an honest and upright life is a man’s greatest consolation on his death-bed.”
On his Memorial Card was printed this verse from “Omar Khayyam”:-
“Myself when young, did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard greata rgument
About it and about, but evermore
Came out by the same door wherein I went.”
One incident which much pleased and encouraged us I must not forget. When, in 1891, we were raising a fund for the support of the Society there came a letter from Professor T. H. Huxley enclosing two guineas “In evidence of his full sympathy with the objects of the Society”. With Prof. Huxley’s permission we had this letter lithographed and circulated. In a letter to George Jacob Holyoake, which G. J. H. sent to me, he wrote:-
“I am very glad that the Leicester Secularists received any aid and comfort from my letter – If I had known it was to have the honour of being lithographed I would have tried to amend my scrawl – bad at all times, rather worse than usual I think in that particular specimen.”
Another bit from the same letter is interesting to quote here:-
“You see I have been in the thick of the wars lately. It is hard upon a poor man who has retired to ‘Make his sowl’ as the Irish say – in a sea-side hermitage – and I am getting rather sick of controversy. It is just five years that the quadrangular duel with Gladstone, Wace, and the Duke of Argyle has been going on and I am not without hope that the process of education of the public mind, which I have had in view throughout, has been effectual – Even the sagacious Duke has discovered that ‘Christianity is being attacked all along the Line’ – What eyes he must have!”
On March 5th 1894, Jean and I had the great pleasure of entertaining at the Hall all the members of the Society, with a few friends. Our friend, Florence Wykes, sang two songs and Ernest Wykes gave two of Albert Chevalier’s delightful songs. My friend, Will Barradell, and I did Offenbach’s Operetta “The Blind Beggars”, and of course there was dancing.
On June 22nd 1897, Jean and I went to the office of the N.S.S. at 376 to 377, Strand, London (corner of Exeter Street) to see the Diamond Jubilee procession of Queen Victoria. We had stayed the night before with friends near Hammersmith Broadway, and walked from there to the office in the early morning of the 22nd. The procession was a gorgeous sight. The little old Queen riding in her open carriage, surrounded by Emperors and Kings and Princes, looked worn and pathetic. Of course, there was a tremendous display of the powers of the Army and Navy and of the Dominions and Colonies, all very decorative. Mark Twain, who was looking on, said that now he understood what was meant by the Bible verse “For the meek shall inherit the Earth!”
Though there were enormous numbers of people watching the long procession, and at some points of vantage huge crowds, it surprised me that even while the procession was passing it was easy to walk right along the Strand. There was a line two or three deep all along the edge of the footpath, but behind this line one could stroll up and down. In the office with us were Mr & Mrs Foote, Miss Vance and some others.
I will leave this more or less conngected narrative for a while, to give a few more detailed recollections of people already mentioned.
GEORGE JACOB HOLYOAKE
As I have already said, George Jacob Holyoake was a friend of my father’s from the days of his early manhood and a frequent visitor to our home. I cannot remember a time when his personality was not familiar to me. In the later years, when I was old enough to know and appreciate him and take an understanding interest in his conversation, he was a dignified and picturesque figure. He had the clear pink and white complexion of a child, flowing, wavy, silver white hair, white moustache and small pointed beard, with shaven cheeks. In winter time, and most of his visits happened then, he came in a voluminous fur lined overcoat which seemed to be almost too heavy for his small and seemingly fragile body to carry. In addition to other visits he was always, with the exception of infrequent times of illness, with us for our Anniversary meeting on the first Sunday in March. He once wrote to me: “As long as I live I shall count myself part of the Anniversary Meeting.”
He was good company in the home, with a fund of reminiscences wittily told and a keen, live, interest in affairs of the day. Besides his great interests of Secularism and Co-operation, Politics occupied much of his time (he was made an honorary Life Member of the National Liberal Club). I well remember what a faithful friend he was to Sir Charles Dilke at the time of the notorious trials and how vehemently he expressed to me his disbelief in the truth of the charges made against Sir Charles.
He always stayed with one of my brothers (Mentor or Arthur) or John Barrs or us. Breakfasting at Mentor’s once, he was busily engaged in dissecting a kipper when he quietly said: “Mentor, I don’t think the Almighty meant these little fish to be eaten, if he had he wouldn’t have put so many bones in!” Staying once with John Barrs, Mr & Mrs Barrs had to go out in the evening and left him writing (he always had a lot of writing to do) in their sitting-room. Barrs then had a fad not to use gas, electric light was not invented, so Mr Holyoake was left with a paraffin lamp close beside him. Coming home an hour or two later Barrs found the room full of smoke and the old gentleman, sitting in a dim light, said “This lamp of yours gives a very poor light, Jack.” He had kept on turning up the wick to get a better light, and, for his eyesight was poor then, had not noticed that the lamp was smoking horribly! Those who know what the smoke from a paraffin lamp can do will understand that Mr Holyoak’s face and clothes were covered with oily smuts and the room was in such a mess that all its contents had to be carefully cleaned and the room had to be re-papered!
Our members were much attached to him, they were proud of his interest in our Society and the constant, faithful, help he always gave us. Many a wise and witty speech he had made to us at our anniversary suppers, more intimate and personal than was possible at public meetings, and I well know how many treasured those opportunities for friendly association with him.
It was Mr Holyoake who interested Mr Thomas Allsop in our Society and induced him, in 1890, to offer us £100, on condition that we found £400 to provide a fund which would help to finance the Society when the £100 per year left to us by my father ceased in 1893. We were able to collect the £400, so secured Mr Allsop’s generous gift.
On my father’s death Mr Holyoake wrote to me (September 7th 1883) “We had been friends for 41 years. He had unusual qualities and there were few men for whom I had so much regard. Leicester will soon seem a different place to me.”
On my marriage in 1886 he wrote to me (May 28th 1886) “There is no one who has more sincere congratulations to offer you on your marriage than myself. From your youth upwards, I have seen signs of good promise in you always – (kindly lines of undeserved praise) – It gave me pleasure that you included me among those who would welcome the silver memorials of what Tennyson happily calls the ‘White Funeral’ of single life.”
In another letter, (January 11th 1901) he says, “I see no reason why those who wish to be known as Atheists should not call themselves so. I have written no word against that. But the atheist who does not deny God is only half an atheist, or indeed less than that, without the veracity of the Agnostic and open to the vulgar objection of cowardice brought against Agnostics. Being more than an Atheist I sail in another ship.” I do not follow his argument but am glad to re-read the letter for it reminds me of many talks when I advocated the use of the definite word “Atheist” in preference to the indefinite one “Agnostic”.
I have a curious verse, in Mr Holyoake’s hand writing and signed G. J. H. so I suppose he wrote it, I don’t know to what it refers:-
De Lord he know him by his yell
Safe in de arms ob Jesus.
And when de sceptic children cry
A Christian brick fly at dar eye.
Den Berbery make one holy shout
When Bradlaugh put dat Berbery out
Into de arms ob Jesus.
It is headed:- “Berbery and Bradlaugh. (Berbery the Wrestler and Bradlaugh the Lecturer), A Congleton Melody.”
At his funeral, Golder’s Green Crematorium, in January 1906, farewell appreciations were spoken by Messrs. Greening, Gray and Vivian, for Co-operators, Mr A. E. Fletcher for Liberalism, Mr Joseph McCabe for the Rationalist Press Association, and myself for the Leicester Secular Society.
GEORGE W. FOOTE
I cannot remember just when I first met Mr Foote, but it would probably be in 1875 or 1876. I have a number of his letters written to my father in 1876 concerning “The Secularist” which publication G. J. Holyoake and G. W. Foote started in that year, but they soon disagreed (our leaders had strong tendencies for falling out with one another in those days) and Foote carried on for some time alone. My father seems to have considerably financed that paper, with the help of some Leicester friends.
A letter from Mr Foote to my father, dated 16th January, 1876, has an interesting post-script, “Since last I wrote I have engaged myself to a young lady who is an excellent scholar in German and French, and is professionally artistic and musical. Knowing the best people in literature and art she will be able to render me great service. Of course we love. She has no money.” In a second letter, dated January 18th, he writes: “You hope I shall be happy in my love. I am sure of it. The fates may rob us of all else, but they cannot take from us our love; and while we have that we are richer than the world’s wealthiest. I have long learned to dispense with outward satisfactions and rely more upon inward. Not that I despise the former, or would wantonly reject them; only I feel that the latter are far more sure. And in this respect my fiancé and I think alike. She has learnt many a hard lesson, as every girl must when flung rudely upon the stream of life to sink or swim. Fortunately her nature grew instead of being dwarfed by adversity. Come what may she and I are one for this life at least. She satisfies not only my emotional nature, but my intellect also; otherwise we should not be as we are. She has thought out, with very little assistance from books, an intellectual position for herself, and it is almost entirely identical with mine.”
Soon after their marriage Mr Foote brought her to see us and I remember her as a charming and striking personality both in looks and character. I believe they were very happy together but she did not live long.
Foote was a frequent visitor from those early days until his death in 1915. When he visited my father’s house I remember that he was not very popular with my sisters, Sarah and Carry. They had joined the Church of England and hero-worshipped Canon D. J. Vaughan of St. Martin’s Church. They could excuse father’s Secularism, because of their love for him, but they were antagonised by Foote’s contempt for Christianity. But one thing made his visits almost welcome to them. He was a beautiful reader and would sometimes read Browning or Shakespeare to them by the hour while they were working.
After I was married he always stayed with Jean and me, well nearly always. We were good friends and he was a most interesting companion but I have had many and long discussions with him as to the wisdom of what seemed to me, especially in his younger days, his very violent and contemptuous attacks on Christianity and Christians. His great ability and power and the virile literary form of his lectures and writings made the bitterness more acceptable, but it went a bit beyond what seemed to me necessary and sometimes might wound unfairly. I may have been quite wrong, he was far more in the thick of the fight than ever I was, and I am glad to know that these differences as to tactics never lessened our friendship.
When the Rev. Hugh Price Hughes issued his account of “The Atheist Shoemaker”, the story of a death-bed conversion, Mr Foote at once declared that it was a fabrication and eventually issued a reply entitled “A Lie in Five Chapters” in which he brought all his powers of invective to bear against Mr Hughes. G.J. Holyoake intervened in the discussion, I believe at the request of Mr Hughes, and, on the whole, after a sort of enquiry, sided with Mr Hughes. In my view Mr Foote was right in essentials (I got into trouble with G. J. M. when I told him this while he was staying with us) but I told him that I squirmed at some of his language, especially the word “Lie”. I had a reply from him which is interesting as giving his point of view so I give here an extract from it: “How can I resent your criticism? It is frank and manly, and as such it commands my sincere respect. I can only reply that I feel I have greatly restrained myself under terrible provocation. It is your honest opinion that some of my language is too violent. Others tell me I have been too indulgent…..There are Christians for whom I have friendship and admiration, which I have sometimes expressed in the Freethinker. I hope I am not a bigot or a mere Sectarian. It is worse than bigotry to deny that there are good and honorable Christians, but I doubt if the advocacy of Christianity were ever so gangrened as now with hypocrisy. I cannot help my style. It is a part of me. And it has been nurtured on the masterpieces of our virile old literature. Situated as I am, I regard my pen as a sword, not as a fencing foil; and as such I use it.”
To those who have read old controversies this statement as to how Foote’s style was nurtured is illuminating, and explains much.
I don’t wish to give the impression that I think Freethought advocacy should be conducted with kid gloves. There are many occasions for forcible indignation, and Mr Foote could make full and fair use of them, but I believe generally explanation is more effective than invective.
In a letter of July 22nd, 1897, Mr Foote writes: “I am terribly cut up by the news of Ingersoll’s death. I saw him – for which I am thankful – and loved him; and it will always be pleasant to me to remember that he rather liked me.” Foote’s last lecture to us was given on September 21st, 1913, on “Shakespeare’s Humanism in the ‘Merchant of Venice’”. He was engaged to come to us again on November 8th 1915, but he was then too ill to come, his health had been failing for some time. Concerning the subject of this lecture he wrote me a characteristic note on October 28th suggesting “Religion, War & Humanity” and saying
“One mustn’t get very far from the war, I fear, if one wants to get an audience. After a diet of raw steak and neat brandy the most enticing other food is insipid.”
He died October 17th, 1915.
It was a great joy to us to have several visits from this wonderful man. Distinguished in so many directions yet absolutely free from “Side” there could be no jollier visitor in our home. Full of life and energy there was never a dull moment while he was with us. I remember so many characteristic and telling things that he said. One Sunday morning (by the way, on starting out Morris put on knitted woollen gloves, knitted with the four fingers in one compartment and two thumbs to each glove, so that, he explained, it did not matter which you put on which hand, there was no left or right hand glove!) Ernest and I took him for a walk all round about Stoneygate. When we got back Ernest asked him what he thought of the houses. Morris promptly replied, “Oh, architect-tooralooral”. A lovely one-word comment. This would be in the mid eighties.
In the committee room down at the Hall after his first lecture he fumed about the discussion “They all think I’m not practical because I write a bit of poetry. I run a good business all right. Because I can’t help stringing a few rhymes together it doesn’t mean I’m not practical!”
One night in Glebe Street we had a number of friends in to supper who were especially interested in his artistic work. Morris was in delightful form. After supper he sat near the fire in our drawing room. The rest of us, about a dozen, sat round in something like a circle. There was much jolly talk. Presently Morris spoke of detestation of the “Restorations” which were destroying good and interesting work in so many churches, and instanced St. Alban’s Cathedral as a horrible example. After a while one of the ladies present Miss Edith Gittins, who almost worshipped Morris, quietly interjected, “Well, Mr. Morris, I have been into the only chapel in that Cathedral which has not been touched and I think it very badly needs restoring.” The effect was electrical. Morris jumped out of his chair, rushed across to her, gesticulated with his fist near her face, and called out “Tommy rot, madam, tommy rot, tommy rot!” Miss Gittins gazed at him quite at a loss and a bit alarmed, there was a moment’s awkward pause then unrestrained laughter in which Morris and Miss Gittins joined. He stayed and talked a bit about the particular chapel to Miss Gittins and then returned to his chair.
There was a vacancy then in the Poet Laureateship and someone asked for his opinion. His only remark was, “I hope it won’t be my namesake” (Lewis Morris).
Once when Morris came to us he brought a book of Kingston’s, “Three Admirals” and he told me he could always enjoy reading Kingston’s books but he did not think that one as good as most.
Some years ago, October 31st, 1913, his daughter, Miss May Morris, sent me a copy of a letter from her father which interested me. In it he said: “Thank you for sending Gimson’s letter; though I will say this of him –
There is a young person named Gimson
I could wish that he never had limbs on
For then, do you see
His writing to me
Would have been a tough matter to Gimson.”
I expect I was writing for a lecture which he did not want to be bothered with. It’s not a high effusion of Morris’s muse, but I am proud to have been the cause of even a Limerick from him! His letter was dated December 3rd, 1885.
Since his death there has been a project to build a Village Hall in Kelmscott as a Memorial to him. The designs were made by my brother, Ernest, just before he, too, died.
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW
The first record that I can find of a lecture in our Hall from G. B. Shaw is on December 6th 1885. The subject is not given but it would certainly be on some phase of Socialism. The last is March 10th 1895, on “Religion in the 20th Century”. Between those dates he came to us many times, including the visit to deliver his “Essay” in the “Fabian Essays in Socialism” series.
He always stayed either with my friend James Billson or with me, more often with me I think. The first time he stayed at 20 Glebe Street, the house I am still living in, he slept in a room which is almost an attic. The house was smaller then. This room had an awkward low beam in it. When he came down in the morning, Jean asked him if he had slept well. “Yes”, said Shaw, “I slept all right, but I bumped my head about half a dozen times against your confounded beam while I was dressing.”
Anyone who knows him will understand what delightful company he is, full of stories, wise and otherwise, pearls of paradox and sense and sarcasm falling from his lips, with a delicious touch of Irish brogue colouring all his tales. Many people fail to recognise what a tremendous earnestness there is behind his biting wit and what, at first, seems to be a perverse and topsy turvey attitude towards so many of our most cherished conventions. I confess I think he just takes an impish delight in playing the devil with our convictions sometimes, but back of it all remains an uncompromising devotion to ideals (though I know he hates the word). I think Quiller-Couch once gave as a reason for not being able to enjoy some of Masefield’s long poems, that he had had a surfeit of tracts in his youth! I always have something of the same feeling while seeing Shaw’s plays, though greatly enjoying them.
Even in those far off days I think most of us recognised that there was genius in Shaw, but we certainly did not anticipate that he would reach the great world-wide celebrity that is his today. Shaw always attended to the “Publicity” of his work and personality himself, quite frankly and openly, and did it with great efficiency.
One Sunday morning Shaw and my brother Ernest and I went for a walk round by Evington and Stoughton, (G. B. S. in his well-remembered mustard-coloured suit). Shaw told us of a recent evening when he and H. W. Massingham were with Belfort Bax, at the latter’s home. The talk turned on Spiritualism and, more or less as a joke, the three of them sat round a table and turned out the light in orthodox style for a “Séance”. Shaw said that he soon felt that Belfort Bax could be humbugged, so he managed to convey the idea to Massingham and the two proceeded to make the table do all sorts of mad things, with the object of pulling Bax’s leg. It was a long and delightful tale, but I cannot attempt to repeat it, it needs Shaw’s inimitable language and brogue and twinkle. Suffice to say, according to Shaw, they so worked up Bax’s nerves that he refused to be left alone in the house that night and they had to stay with him. A pruned version of this story soon afterwards appeared in “The Star” and, I believe, in “The Morning Leader”.
One never to be forgotten Sunday evening, my brother-in-law, Tom Lovibond, was staying with us, and I had invited in Alfred Paget (The Leicester Architect, Shakespearian Reciter and Amateur Actor) and William Simpson (the Solicitor and Amateur Actor). After supper Shaw began a discussion with Paget and Simpson on Amateur Acting and urged them to take on the plays of Ibsen. Presently he started telling us the stories, and his interpretations, of Ibsen’s “Brand” and “Peer Gynt”. We listened entranced while he went on, without interruption, for about an hour. Thus listening and discussing we went on until about 1 o-clock when Paget and Simpson departed and Shaw went off to bed. Before we followed his example, Tom Lovibond, whose views were conservative and who had had some prejudice against Shaw’s propaganda work, said to me, “The beggar may be a Socialist but it’s very certain he’s a genius.”
An interesting event of that time was a visit of the comic opera “Dorothy” to the Opera House, with Miss Carr Shaw, Bernard Shaw’s sister, as principal lady. That was the only time I saw her.
During this same walk we talked a good bit about William Morris, who had recently been to Leicester and with whom Shaw was very friendly. He told us of Morris’s great friendship with Philip Webb, the Architect, and said that they were constantly quarrelling, as friends can quarrel, without any real ill feeling at the back of it, about the direction the wind blew. Morris would say that Webb lived in a street, the wind would blow any way in a street, so it was impossible for him to know the real general direction of the wind. Then Webb would say Morris lived by the side of the river and the wind took the direction of the river, so Morris could not judge it either. One day Morris and Webb took a light outrigger and rowed down (or up) the Thames. They had reached a stage of exasperation over the interminable discussion when they came to a lock. In silence they landed, took the light boat on to their shoulders, Webb marching in front, and solemnly carried it towards the other side of the lock. When about half way, the boat broke through the middle! This was the final exasperation to Morris and, in Shaw’s phrase, “The air was sulphurous with his language!”
Shaw’s well known Vegetarianism led to two amusing incidents. At one supper, I think it was the same evening when Paget and Simpson were with us, someone was asking Shaw if he did not find his vegetarianism lead to difficulties, his hosts might not know of it or might not know what food to give him. Shaw said he seldom met any trouble that way, but he mentioned that wherever he went, if his hosts had heard that he was a vegetarian, there was one dish that almost always came on “A concoction of tomatoes in a pie dish covered up with browned bread crumbs”. At that very moment our one and only maid marched in bearing the identical dish! There was a moment of disconcerted silence, then a gust of laughter!
On another occasion we had a few friends in to tea who were going down to hear his lecture. The train from London was due in Leicester about 5.20 giving comfortable time to have tea at 20 Glebe Street and get down to the Hall for the lecture, at 6.30. Jean had recently had a small operation to one foot and could not easily move about. She had been settled on a couch with the table drawn close to her. For some reason that I forget our maid had to be out for a short time, so, at 5.30 she had laid the table and made tea and coffee, then left. We expected Shaw every moment but his train was late and he did not get in until 5.45. Then we had to hurry. Jean asked, “A cup of tea, Mr Shaw?” “Thanks, I don’t take tea”. “Well, a cup of coffee, then?” “Thanks, I don’t take coffee”. “Oh! what will you have?” “If not too much trouble, a cup of cocoa!” I rushed out in the vain hope that I might get a cup of cocoa in the short time available and was searching for the cocoa when – Oh, let us be joyful! – our maid reappeared and expertly got the cocoa made and served in good time. So our reputation for hospitality was saved!
He once described to me a dinner which was given in London to welcome home Henry Norman (now Sir Henry Norman, Bart., who was born in Leicester and lived on the London Road with his parents. I knew him very well as a young man, both before and after his going to Harvard, did some “Stinks” with him) who was on the Staff of the Pall Mall Gazette and had just returned from a voyage round the world for his paper, bringing with him, it was said, the gift of a Ruby Mine from the King of Siam! I believe it was in the main a gathering of Journalists. Shaw said that the table was laden with “Beef and mutton and game and all sorts of gastronomic bestialities!” A lovely description! H. W. Massingham sat next to Shaw, the good wine loosened his tongue and he turned to him and said, “Shaw, I’m not an atheist and I never said I was,” emphasising the statement by repetition!
The only time I ever knew Shaw to show signs of temper was one evening some time before the war. He had given a lecture at the Temperance Hall for the local branch of the Fabian Society, Mr. Herbert Pochin in the chair. He was staying at an hotel but a few of us were invited to meet him at supper at Mr & Mrs James Billson’s home in Regent Road. During that supper it was suggested to him that he had had to give up his strict vegetarianism when he had a bad illness through damage to a foot. Shaw sharply denied this. It was then said that Mrs Sidney Webb had assured Mrs Billson that it was so. Shaw replied, with some asperity “Beatrice had no right to say any such thing, its quite untrue.”
In a letter to me dated the 26th September, 1890, Shaw wrote: - “Page Hopps has just written a hideous Whig glorification of “Thrift” to the Echo, attacking us (The Fabians) most Pharisaically. I thirst for his blood. Would he debate the point with me at the Secular Hall? That would be better than another lecture of the old pattern. The Birmingham people have manfully formed a Birm. Fabian Society. Seventy-five citizens joined straight off at a meeting which I addressed. Why not do the same at Leicester? You are not really against our programme or our methods; and you would make a capital organiser for the occasion.” Thus, after I thought I had convinced him that I was an incorrigible Individualist!
I happened to go to London soon after Shaw’s play “Arms and the Man” had been produced (I believe it was the first of his plays to be produced) and I had just seen it at the Leicester Opera House. Outside St Pancras I met Shaw and spoke to him about the play. He asked me to come to his house, 29 Fitzroy Square. There I was introduced to his mother, but only exchanged a few sentences with her, and was then taken to Shaw’s study. I was saying that I had tremendously enjoyed the play but felt that there was more extravaganza about it than realism. I was induced to give instances and, of course, in every case Shaw was able to produce evidence that the incident under discussion had actually taken place! So, once more, I learnt the futility of pitting my feeble arguments against Shaw’s. But we had a delightful talk for over an hour. I fancy I was “Convinced against my will, but of the same opinion still.” But I always remember that visit as one of the “Peaks” of my life.
In a letter to me of 10th September, 1898, he wrote: “It is still a toss-up whether I shall be able to lecture next season or not. I have had a roaring honeymoon – a disabled foot, two operations, a fall downstairs, a broken arm – all that the heart of man can desire. At present I am contemplating a half inch hole in my instep, and wondering whether I shall be able to put that foot to the ground next month or next century. Until that decides itself, it is no use making any lecturing engagements. Some day, no doubt, I will give Leicester another dose of my eloquence, and bring down my wife to see you. She is a much more ferocious and militant Secularist than I am.” Later on I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs Shaw several times.
I have two or three letters from Shaw about the big Engineering dispute of 1897, but that dispute is now almost forgotten and the discussion of it would be of little interest to the present generation, though, on re-reading, the letters have much interested me.
I’m afraid many of my stories, of Shaw and others, will seem very trivial, but they are not recalled with any idea of publication, and the members of the Secular Society or my own family who may read them will pick out something of interest here and there.
The Hon. AUBERON HERBERT
I cannot find in my records the exact date when Mr Herbert first lectured for us, but it was some time in the autumn of 1886, the year that Jean and I were married. I well remember how he arrived at 19 Upper Tichborne Street. An old four wheel cab appeared, full inside with luggage, the seat by the side of the driver also piled up with luggage and – sitting on the top of the luggage – Mr Auberon Herbert! Little of the luggage was contained in suit cases or hand bags, almost all was in strong canvas sacks. There was an extraordinary medley of clothing, overcoats, rugs, fur lined bags for the legs, big bundles of leaflets and various literature. I remember the twinkle in cabby’s eyes as he helped us unload and carry the sacks into the house. On that first visit to us Mr Herbert stayed several days. He did a lot of writing, mostly in his bedroom where he was sure to be undisturbed. Although it was winter time he firmly refused a fire but sat at a table close to a wide open window, clothed in a warm overcoat and his legs in fur lined bags, with mittens or gloves on his hands. Mr Herbert was a brother of the Earl of Carnarvon who was Viceroy of Ireland in one of Mr Gladstone’s Governments. He was one of the most charming men I have ever met, friendly and easy to get on with from the first moment. He was a delightful conversationalist and drew the best from people he was talking with, for, whatever he was talking about and however deep might be his knowledge of the subject, he spoke as though you knew the subject as well as he did and gave generous and serious attention to your feeblest efforts at argument.
In politics no man ever influenced me so much as Mr Herbert. He was an earnest and ardent advocate of Individualism, almost fanatical, and went up and down the country working for and preaching his gospel. For many years I joined in his work, though to a comparatively small extent, and, although I could not follow him in some of his extreme views, I like to believe that he was glad of my bit of help. We exchanged hundreds of letters and met fairly frequently. His type of Individualism was better represented in the thought that “I have no right to interfere with or regulate the life of my neighbour” than in the more usual “My neighbour has no right to interfere with or regulate my life.” I will quote here two passages from one of his leaflets describing the Pary of Individual Liberty:-
It warns the working people of this and of every other country, as those who are most affected by wise or unwise legislation, that the legislative benefits which are sometimes held out to them are but bribes which will lead them aside from their true path. The prizes of the future, like the prizes of the past, must be won by themselves through their own exertions and their own voluntary combinations. When once men are free, when their personal rights are once assured there is nothing of real value which can be presented to them by others. The whole work rests upon themselves, and some real progress is made towards the accomplishment of it when freedom in everything is deliberately chosen, and protection and interference and restraint are for once and all abandoned.
Whatever is right and reasonable may in the long run depend upon itself for common acceptance; it requires no authority to enforce it. The need of our age is an open competition, where not only all creeds and thoughts, and systems, but also all material interests may frankly and fairly be opposed to each other, without protection on the one side, without restraint on the other. What is best will be selected for survival, as that most fitted for the conditions and wants of the human race.
Oh, those valiant days of youth! When life lies all before one and one is filled with optimism and hope and a generous wish to “leave the world better than one finds it.” I don’t feel that I have lost all the optimism of youth yet, but time brings many disappointments. Then, for me, “Liberty” was the magical word of promise, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, and Auberon Herbert were my heroes. But, as the years passed difficulties loomed larger, reading and chats with my socialist friends undermined some of my most cherished beliefs. I began to feel that under full Liberty minorities might get power to cruelly oppress their neighbours (or, equally bad, majorities might oppress minorities). So the acceptance of some Socialist conclusions diluted my Individualism and for long I have felt that the most difficult thing in politics, in the organisation of Society, is to find the true proportions of Liberty and Restraint and where to draw the line between them. But this is no place to attempt a definition of my political hopes and fears, so let us return to our muttons.
On May 19th 1891, Mr Herbert had an Individualist breakfast at St. James’s Hall Restaurant, in London. He asked me to be Chairman but I begged off, many important people were to be present, I was young and did not feel equal to the job. I do not remember who did preside. Two clever and very interesting young men were there, Herbert Vivian and the Hon. Stuart Erskine, who were then editing, rather in the style of two lively young undergraduates, a cheery little Individualist Monthly called “The Whirlwind” for which Whistler & Sickert did occasional drawings. I remember little of the breakfast except a fine speech from Auberon Herbert and a bright, but cheeky one from Herbert Vivian. Auberon Herbert was then editing a more serious Individualist weekly called “The Free Life” which only survived for a year or two.
Another time I went to town to an evening meeting, I feel sure it was the Liberty & Property Defence League, and afterward had a memorable drive with Auberon Herbert in a Hansom to his rooms, where they were I don’t remember, but I do remember a scratch supper which he got for us and a delightful conversation. Another time I went to town to an evening meeting, I feel sure it was the Liberty & Property Defence League, and afterwards had a memorable drive with Auberon Herbert in a Hansom to his rooms, where they were I don’t remember, but I do remember a scratch supper which he got for us and a delightful conversation.
Mr Herbert’s earnestness was infectious and I hope I gained something of value from his attractive and never failing courtesy, and the gentle, but unbending, fineness of his character. I have pleasant memories of a visit paid to him at a little house in Bedford. His son, afterwards Lord Lucas, was then at School there. At lunch his daughter, then, I think, a school girl, acted as hostess. After lunch Mr Herbert and I went for a fairly long walk. When we started he put on two voluminous overcoats. He explained to me that, for some reason that I forget, he liked to keep himself at an even temperature. As we walked he presently took off one overcoat and slung it over his arm, and a little later on he took off the second overcoat and slung that also over his arm. I begged to be allowed to carry one of them but he firmly refused, saying that each man should carry his own burdens! Still later he took off his undercoat and continued for most of the walk in his shirt sleeves. As the afternoon drew near to an end and we were nearly back to his house, the air grew a bit chilly and first his under coat and then one of the overcoats went back. I don’t remember what was the object of the visit but have no doubt that it was in some way concerned with Individualist propaganda. I know it all, and especially the walk, gave me great pleasure.
Some years before I knew him Mr Herbert had been M.P. for Nottingham, but his original and independent mind made it impossible for him to give “loyal” service to any political party of the day, though he was nearest to the Liberals, and he did not keep his seat for long.
Mr Herbert’s 50th birthday was spent with us.
On Saturday afternoon, July 22nd, 1893, I arranged, by invitation, for a meeting at the Co-operative Hall to be addressed by Mr Herbert on Individualism. About 100 were there. Mr Herbert was always original in his methods of conducting such meetings. He gave a charming, informal, address from the platform for about three quarters of a hour. Then tea was handed round to the company and Mr Herbert came down from the platform and went from one group to another to have friendly chats and discussion of his address.
The afternoon was a great success and excited considerable interest in the town. The Daily Post gave a verbatim report of his address and had a long and appreciative leading article upon it, though not accepting most of his opinions. According to the Post a little girl of 8 years old had been talking about him on Saturday and asked whether he was a Liberal or a Conservative. On being told that he was neither she promptly said, “Then he must be an outcast!” On the principles laid down by Gilbert’s Sentry I suppose!
Now that I have reached my old friend Robertson I may as well begin by giving the speech which I made in support of the toast of his health at the Dinner at the Trocadero, London, on November 14th, 1926, to celebrate his 70th birthday:-
“My memories of Robertson go back to the late eighties, when he used to come to Leicester to lecture to our Secular Society and stay for the week-ends with me. In those days not the least of his attractions – specially in the eyes of the ladies of our Society – were his very good looks and a lovely velvet coat that he wore when on the platform. Even in those early times we were proud of his learning, though sometimes it was a bit beyond the depth of us simple business men. The fineness of spirit, as well as the brilliance of his lectures, was an inspiration to us.
Alongside my memories of his lectures I can still see Roberson giving a realistic representation of a growling Bear, in a cave under my dining table, being violently attacked from the outside by my two yelling and delighted small sons.
Those were the days, Mr Chairman, (Graham Wallas) when Bernard Shaw frequently came to our Hall to instruct and chastise us, and you charmed us with one of the “Fabian Essays in Socialism” before they were published. Great days! when we were young and full of enthusiasm. Robertson had the reputation then of being a Bonny Fighter, in which respect I am not aware that the years have brought any serious deterioration, though there may be a wee bit of mellowing with age.
Another vivid recollection is of a fine address which he delivered at the graveside of a friend (William Slater), a Manager of our Secular Hall and Club. It was a beautiful address and showed a tenderness which is not always recognised, even by his friends, but which is as much a part of the real John Robertson as is his intellectual brilliance.
I recall happy visits in his bachelor days to Broadhurst Gardens, with books everywhere, along the stairs, on the landings, and all over the floors and walls of the rooms. There I have eaten delicious dinners cooked entirely by himself. Another of his many accomplishments.
A few years later, when Robertson was happily married, memory tells of visits to Chelsea, or to Lansdown Gardens, or to Baker Street, always with books all over the place. Robertson then worked 12 hours a day and seven days a week, no 42 hour weeks for him, and I used to consider it something of an achievement when I could get him out to dinner and a band to one or other of the Earl’s Court shows. In doing this I may say I was always aided and abetted by Mrs Robertson! My aim was to get into him that bit of imperfection without which no man is perfect.
It has been one of the great happinesses of my life to have the friendship of John Robertson. He is a real friend and has always helped me, not to be intellectually brilliant – that is quite beyond me – but at least to be intellectually honest. That I can be and have tried to be. I believe that Robertson has had that influence on many Freethinkers.
In drinking this Toast to-night we are trying to show how we honour a fine scholar, a great friend, and an inspiring leader of Freethought.”
As showing the difference between the habits of the Eighteen nineties and now I may recall a visit to Earls Court Exhibition with Mr & Mrs Robertson somewhere about 1895. After dinner we were sitting having coffee in the open air near to the Grenadier Guard’s Band (with, I think, Dan Godfrey conducting) when Mrs Robertson took out a cigarette and started to smoke it. There were many people round the band and all eyes were turned upon her! I must confess that I, with all my belief in freedom and unconventionality, felt a bit embarrassed! The silly feeling soon passed off and replaced by a mild amusement at the small sensation caused by a Lady’s smoking in public. Today the surprise would be if there were not more women smoking than men! Mrs Robertson was (and still is) a charming American girl who had lived for some time in Paris, where Robertson met her and where they lived for a short time after their marriage, Robertson doing, I think, journalistic work.
In the summer of 1908 I spent a very jolly little holiday with him in Paris, ten days I think it was. We stayed in a flat in the Rue du Fauburg St Honore, close to the Place des Ternes (not far from the Arc de Triomphe) which Mrs Robertson’s mother (Mrs Mosher) had lent to us. We took all our meals out, bringing a bottle of wine and a few biscuits for a final snack before going to bed. A Femme de Ménage came in each day to tidy up for us. It intrigued me, when getting back late at night, to pull a bell and have a sleepy concierge release the catch of the big door by pulling a cord from his tiny bedroom at the side, then he gave us a sleepy greeting as we passed in and we replied, no doubt for him to make sure that we were entitled to enter.
In the daytime it was a hard job to get Robertson away from the secondhand bookstalls on the Quais (he took quite a big packing case filled with books home with him) so I did a considerable amount of exploring by myself, and enjoyed it. We saw a good deal of Dr and Mrs Lynch, who then had a Flat overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens, Lynch being the Paris representative of an American Newspaper. We had some meals with them and went about a bit together. One afternoon Lynch took Mrs lynch and me to see Isadora Duncan with her Dancing School at a house in Neuilly, when she gave a private exhibition of their dancing on the lawn to a number of journalists. They had taken the house for about a fortnight for practice preparatory to a season in London. Robertson did not come with us. He preferred the old Bookstalls!
When Robertson left at the end of the ten days I stayed on for about a week longer and my son Humphrey joined me. We still had the Flat and quite enjoyed our experiences.
Dining with the Lynches we met a young girl named Elsie Elwin who was studying singing. She invited Humphrey and me to tea at her pension and had her teacher, Marie Roze, to meet us. I was delighted to meet Madame Marie Roze, for I had often seen her and heard her both on the concert platform and in opera, Carmen and many others, and had very greatly admired her, she was a charming singer and was now a bright and charming, white haired, old lady. It seemed a pleasure to her to talk over her old triumphs and I could very warmly tell her of the joy and delight it had been to me many times to hear her. She well knew Harry Nicholson, who had arranged her concerts in Leicester, and Elliott Galer, the manager of our Opera House, so we had something in common. It was a meeting that gave me a great deal of pleasure. When it was time to leave Humphrey and I had the pleasure of taking Madam Roze in our fiacre to her Flat. A curious sequel to this meeting was that my nephew, Christopher Gimson, who is in the Indian Civil Service, many years later came to know Elsie Elwin well in India, she had married one of his colleagues.
While in Paris Mrs Lynch told me a very interesting tale of how she worked to get her husband released from prison. It will no doubt be remembered that he fought against us in the Boer War as Colonel of the Irish Brigade and was condemned to death, which sentence was commuted to Imprisonment for life. He was eventually released after, I think, about two years. Her story was a good one and I may tell it later.
Robertson’s friendship, which has never faltered from the eighties until now, has meant a great deal to me. Not only have I had good times with him but I have had near to me an example of what intellectual responsibility and honesty mean, which I hope has had a little effect upon me.
I have nearly, but not quite, all the books he has written, most of them his gifts to me with friendly inscriptions. I was a proud man when he dedicated his “Short History of Freethought” to me. His books make a goodly show on my shelves and I am amazed when I think of the learning and sheer hard work that have gone to their making. Had they been of the “Best Seller” type I should think Robertson would have been a millionaire.
There’s something radically wrong with our economics – or with our brains – when the payment for work of such immense importance to the world is notoriously minute compared with that given to the producers of “Thrillers” and suchlike.
Robertson’s quick, analytical brain, and his insight into the other man’s point of view, make him very effective in discussion. Often, after a lecture, an understanding question or criticism from a member of the audience will draw from him a further exposition which admirably clears up some rather abstruse point. On the other hand, he does not “Suffer fools gladly” and anything in the nature of ill mannered impertinence rouses him to a cold fury. I have sometimes felt that the flaying castigations he gives such offenders has the opposite effect to that intended.
Robertson tells me that his investigations into the writings of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, and the books he has written upon them are a Recreation to him. Very like hard “Work” to most people!-------------------------
THE BISHOP OF TRURO (Dr CHARLES W. STUBBS)
Dr Stubbs first came to us in 1884. I don’t think he was “Dr” then but am not quite sure. He was Vicar of Granborough, Bucks. Ernest and I met him at the Station (he was coming to stay with my mother). After discovering one another the first thing he said was, “I want yout to excuse me and let me guess your occupations, I can generally tell by the face.” Looking carefully at us he said “I think you are either Architects or Engineers”. Pretty nearly a bull’s eye, for Ernest was an Architect and I was an Engineer!
He was a charming man, very easy to get friendly with, and good company. On his first visit, chatting with Ernest and my sister Sarah and me in the smoke room that I have spoken of before, he told us of an understandable but queer incident that had occurred to him while he was engaged. One night, a short time before his wedding, he was taking the service in church close to the home where the lady who was to be his wife lived. There was a blank wall opposite to the pulpit and, as he began his sermon, upon this wall slowly appeared a clear and distinct portrait of this lady! He tried to look away, but his gaze kept returning, and every time the portrait was still there, quite definite. He grew most uneasy, and, although usually free from ordinary superstitions, began to fear that some serious trouble was indicated. As soon as he could get away he rushed to her home and found that – absolutely nothing at all was the matter!
Dr Stubbs came to us more than once while he was at Granborough. After our marriage he stayed with us and Jean and I came to know him as one of our good friends. Then he went to Stokenham, near to Kingsbridge, in Devon, whence it was too far for him to come often. He did not stay there long but was soon sent to Wavertree, Liverpool, and visited us from there. In 1896, I think it was, he was made Dean of Ely. I remember a visit from him while he was Dean, in Februray 1897, he preached at St Peter’s Church on a Sunday afternoon and lectured in our Hall in the evening. I went to St Peter’s with him and I believe that was the last time I attended an ordinary Church service (Weddings and Funerals not counted).Driving down to the Hall with him in the evening I mentioned that I was very ignorant as to how Church Dignatories should be addressed and asked how I should speak of him when introducing him to the audience. He laughed and said, “There are severl quite correct ways. You as a friend, would properly call me ‘Stubbs’, and an acquaintance would address me as Dr Stubbs or Mr Dean (Mrs Stubbs prefers Mr Dean!). To the audience you can introduce me as Dr Stubbs or as the Dean of Ely”. What I actually did was to speak of him to the audience as our old friend Dr Stubbs who had now become Dean of Ely. He was very popular with our members for he had an unaffected and friendly way of speaking, a taking manner, and his lectures were full of interest. Even when speaking in opposition to our opinions we felt that he was essentially fair-minded. The last time I saw him was very soon after he had become Bishop of Truro. Jean and I were spending a short holiday in Whitby, lodging in East Terrace, when we saw him one morning on the front. Running out to speak to him we found that he, with Mrs Stubbs, was staying in the same Terrace a few doors below us. One night he dined with us, Mrs Stubbs was in poor health and unable to come with him. After dinner we had an hour’s or two’s interesting chat. He told us of his visit to the King (Edward V11) when appointed Bishop, how the King was dressed in a very tight uniform, having come from some military function. He also told us of his surprise in finding that King Edward spoke with a strong German accent. Another of his stories was of his one day taking a walk into the country near to Truro. He was strolling down an unfrequented side lane when he saw a flock of sheep being shepherded along a main road not far away. Suddenly the sheep bolted up the side lane. He shepherd, seeing a man up the lane shouted to him to head back the sheep. Stubbs obediently turned the sheep back and quietly drove them along until they reached the shepherd, who, looking rather aghast at the Episcopal leggings, said, “Beg pardon, my Lord, if I’d seen you were the Bishop I wouldn’t ‘ave yelled to yer.” Stubbs replied, “Its quite in order, isn’t it, for a Bishop to look after the sheep?” The shepherd was quick in the up-take and responded, “And proud I am to be one of your flock, my Lord.” I remember a lovely sunny afternoon when Jean and I went up to Whitby’s old Abbey with Bishop Stubbs and were shown round, with a small crowd of visitors, by the Rector of Whitby who later, as we sat on the grassy mounds by the side of the grey walls, gave us a sketch of the story of the Abbey. Stubbs then spoke a few words of appreciation and thanks. That was the last we saw of our good friend. -------------------------
To be continued. The above comprises pages 25 to 62 of typescript (with a further 40 pages of appendices).
Page updated 21 March 2015 JRC