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II.: GRANDPARENTS AND THEIR CHILDREN. - Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, vol. 1 
An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer. Illustrated in Two Volumes. Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Company 1904).
Part of: An Autobiography
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GRANDPARENTS AND THEIR CHILDREN.
Pursuing the same course as before, I will here describe first those members of the grandparental group about whom there is least to be said. For this reason I commence with my mother’s parents.
Of John Holmes, my maternal grandfather, the earliest record I have is an indenture of apprenticeship to John Evatt, a plumber and glazier in Derby, dated 1765, and which identifies him as the son of Frances Holmes, widow, of the same place: the probability being that his deceased father had left wife and child with but narrow means. Save the possible relationship before named, to the Holmeses of Brailsford, this is all I know of his antecedents.
I infer that he succeeded to Mr. Evatt’s business. At any rate he carried on with success the specified trade for many years, and became a prosperous man. This is shown by the fact that when my mother was 20 (in 1814) he had a suburban house in addition to his place of business. Soon after, however, he illustrated the truth that men who are prudent in small matters are apt to commit extreme imprudences in large matters: their caution having prevented them from gaining those experiences which lead to knowledge of dangers. He was induced to enter into partnership with a man named Aucott, as a pin-manufacturer; and he supplied most, if not the whole, of the capital. The enterprise was a failure and he lost nearly all of his property: partly through non-success of the business and partly by becoming security for his partner. The result was that the latter part of his life was spent in narrow circumstances; and after my grandmother’s death his last years were passed in our house.
In common with all members of both families in that generation, he was a Wesleyan, and an active member of the connexion in Derby. From my mother’s diary, kept during her teens, it appears that the Wesleyan preachers were frequently entertained at his house, and he was himself “a local preacher.” We may not suppose that the ability to preach such sermons as served for rural congregations round about Derby, was an indication of any ability calling for mention; and I remember my father speaking of him as “a slow-coach.” Nevertheless, he appears to have had a little more than the ordinary amount of faculty. Among my mother’s letters are some verses addressed by him to her when she was away on a visit, urging her to return. Taking the familiar shape of a parody, and substituting “My Harriet” for “My Mother,” they diverge a good deal in idea from their prototype; and, being fairly good in rhyme and rhythm, as well as in choice of words, exhibit some small power of literary expression.
I saw much of him during my early boyhood, when he had partially lost his faculties and wandered a good deal—wandered in a double sense, for his failure of memory took the form of supposing that he had matters of business to look after, and led to rambles through the town with a vain desire to fulfil them. Joined with the remembrance of this goes the remembrance of his peculiar walk—a walk which seemed about to break into a run, as though he were hurried. Eagerness in the fulfilment of duty survived even after mental decay had gone far.
Of my maternal grandmother, née Jane Brettell, there is not much to be said. A portrait of her which is shown in this volume probably flatters her unduly, for I remember my mother said that it was not a good likeness. As however she must have been something like 50 before my mother’s recollections of her became distinct, her appearance had doubtless diverged a good deal from that which she presented in her early days. That she had, however, some attractions, mental or bodily or both, is shown by verses addressed to her, and signed Sarah Crole, expressed in the high-flown style of eulogy common in those days. They were written in Richmond, Virginia, to which place, some time after 1780, she went to take charge of the house of a “Carter Braxton, Esq.,” to whose care is addressed a letter from her brother Jeremiah, dated at the beginning of 1787. From an expression in the letter accompanying the verses I have named, it seems that Sarah Crole was a governess, and that the verses were addressed to my grandmother on her departure for England in July, 1788. The marriage to my grandfather must have been rather late. Her birth being in 1751 and her return from America being in 1788, she must have been something like 40. My mother, born in 1794, was the only child.
Such evidence as there is implies that this maternal grandmother was a commonplace person. Indeed, my father described her as vulgar-minded. His estimate was doubtless influenced by her persistent opposition to his marriage with my mother: an opposition founded, as it seems, on worldly considerations. That she took a purely mercantile view of marriage, I find further evidence in a letter to her from a nephew—John Bromley, a London auctioneer—expostulating with her upon this opposition, and implying that she ignored altogether the sentimental element in the relation. Perhaps this was not, however, then so decided an evidence of character as it would be now; for in those days there still survived the ideas and usages which subordinated the wills of children to the wills of parents, in the choice of husbands or wives, and made motives of policy the exclusive, or almost exclusive, determinants.
In justice to her I should add that her disapproval of the marriage was in part prompted by the belief that her daughter would be too much subordinated; and in this she proved to be right.
A tolerably distinct image of my grandfather Spencer remains with me. It is the image of a melancholy-looking old man, sitting by the fireside, rarely saying anything, and rarely showing any sign of pleasure. The only smiles I ever saw on his face occurred when he patted me on the head during my childhood. When, some 40 years ago, inquiries prompted a reference to Dr. Biber’s Life of Pestalozzi, I was struck by the resemblance between Pestalozzi’s face and my grandfather’s, or rather between the expressions of the two faces; for my grandfather had evidently been a handsomer man than Pestalozzi. But both faces had the same worn and sad look. Not improbably religious fears had something to do with this chronic melancholy; or perhaps these merely gave a definite form to the depression caused by constitutional exhaustion. His mature life had been passed during war time, when taxes were heavy and the necessaries of life dear; and the rearing of a large family on the proceeds of a school, augmented to but a small extent by the returns from his little property at Kirk-Ireton, had been a heavy burden upon him.
Leaving the Derby Grammar School out of the comparison, his school was about the best in the place. In my early days I remember hearing sundry leading men of the town speak of having been his pupils. But in addition to teaching his own school, he played the part of a master at the Grammar School. He was not a classical master, but he undertook the commercial division of the education given there. As one of the masters he had some of the Grammar-School boys as boarders, and from his account book I see that one of them was a son of Mr. Nightingale of Leahurst: not, however, an ancestor of Miss Nightingale, for the present Nightingales assumed the name on the property coming to them. This must have been before increase of his own family filled all available space in his house.
There was no decided mark of intellectual superiority in him. He must have been a teacher entirely of the old kind—a mechanical teacher. Nor does he seem to have had any intellectual ambition or appreciation of intellectual culture. So far from encouraging my father in studies lying beyond or above the routine work of teaching, he spoke disapprovingly of them: wondering how my father could waste time over them. If he possessed mental faculty above the average, it must have been latent, or must have been rendered dormant by the labours of his hard life.
But if nothing in the way of intellectual superiority can be ascribed to him, there may be ascribed a marked moral superiority. He was extremely tender-hearted—so much so that if, when a newspaper was being read aloud, there came an account of something cruel or very unjust, he would exclaim—“Stop, stop, I can’t bear it.” His sympathetic nature was well shown, too, by his conduct towards a Derbyshire notable of those days—an eccentric man named John Hallam, of whom some account is given in Robinson’s Derbyshire. As I gathered from the remarks dropped concerning John Hallam by my father and uncles, he was one of the few men who have attempted to carry out Christian ethics with literalness. That his unusual character produced a great impression in the locality, is shown by the fact that there exists a mezzotint portrait of him, and is further shown by a passage contained in a letter by my Aunt Mary to my father. Speaking of a conversation with some pedlar who had been named to her by John Hallam, she said that the man expressed his feeling by saying that when John Hallam died he should put on his worst clothes: meaning, as it appears, that lacking other means of going into mourning, he should mourn in that way (a curious reversion to a primitive form). My grandfather so far sympathized with this John Hallam and his eccentricities, that he invited him to take up his abode at No. 4, Green Lane (my grandfather’s house) whenever his wanderings brought him to Derby.
I was nearly 11 at the time of my grandfather’s death at the age of 69, and I have a vague impression of having heard that he was found dead on his knees.
My paternal grandmother, Catherine Spencer, née Taylor, was of good type both physically and morally. Born in 1758 and marrying in 1786, when nearly 28, she had eight children, led a very active life, and lived till 1843: dying at the age of 84 in possession of all her faculties. Her constitutional strength was shown by the fact that some writing of hers which I possess was written at the age of 80 without spectacles.
Like her husband she was a follower of John Wesley. She knew him personally, and was among the few who attached themselves to him in the days when he was pelted by the populace. At the time of her death she was the oldest member of the Wesleyan connexion in Derby.
Of her original appearance there exists no evidence. Of her face in old age the portrait gives a fair idea. It is reproduced from a pencil sketch I made of her in 1841, when she was in her 83rd year. This sketch shows her as wearing the plain Methodist cap, which she adhered to all through life: this being a part of that wholly unornamented dress which, in the early days of Methodism, was, I think, de rigucur—a point of community with Quakerism.
Nothing was specially manifest in her, intellectually considered, unless, indeed, what would be called sound common sense. But of her superior emotional nature the proofs were marked. Unwearying, compassionate, good-tempered, conscientious, and affectionate, she had all the domestic virtues in large measures. How far this was due to her strong religious feeling, and how far to original character, I am not prepared to say. No doubt the two factors co-operated; but, in the absence of high moral endowments, no religious feeling would have sufficed to produce the traits she displayed. There are two ways in which a superior creed may act. Either the subordination-element in it may impress, and there may be great observance of prescribed usages, an habitual expression of reverence, manifestations of fear and obedience; or there may be more especially operative the ethical element associated with the creed. In the case of both these grandparents, while the subordination-element, which Christianity involves was duly recognized, the ethical element, revived as it was in Wesleyanism, was more especially appreciated. Their innate tendencies were mainly the causes of their high moral manifestations, while, no doubt, these innate tendencies were strengthened by the religious sanction. From an account of my grandmother written by my uncle Thomas, and of which I possess a copy in my father’s hand, I quote the most significant passages:—
“I do not recollect ever seeing her give way to undue anger or violence of temper. I never knew her guilty of the slightest deviation from integrity. I never knew her speak of any person with bitterness or ill will. She was full of compassion for the afflicted and the destitute, and her feelings towards the ignorant and depraved were those of pity and not of contempt . . . . Her activity was so uniform, that I do not recollect even the appearance of indolence. Her fault, if any, was in doing too much. She never spared her own exertions when she could in way minister to the comfort of my father or of any of the family. In this respect she was the most unselfish person I have ever seen. She was particularly attentive to the performance of her religious duties . . . . Next to the scriptures, her favourite books were Fletcher’s letters, Baxter’s Saint’s Rest and Wesley’s Thomas à Kempis. The latter she always carried about her person.” . . . .
There is an obituary notice of her in the Wesleyan Methodist Magazine for January, 1844.
Family-traits are of course likely to be displayed in other lines of descent, as well as in the particular line under inquiry; and the identification of such traits may be facilitated by comparing the various lines and observing what they have in common. Hence it becomes desirable to give some account not of grandparents and parents only, but of the other children of grandparents. Here, therefore, I shall devote some space to sketches of my father’s brothers and sister.
Nothing, of course, is to be said of the two who died in infancy. Of the six remaining, the first in order of age was the only surviving daughter, Mary Ann Spencer, born in August, 1788. I have but few data for a description of her; and what description I can give is not particularly favourable. She was living during my early boyhood, and I remember her as a bedridden invalid, woe-worn and fretful—a mere wreck, apparently, of one who had originally been well-grown and fine-looking. The opinion of my father was that a disappointed attachment had originated the invalid life which ended in this miserable way; and it may be that the unamiable mood habitually displayed originated from the disappointment. But, judging from her letters written in youthful days, it seems to me that she had a strong sense of her own claims and not a duly proportioned sense of the claims of others. I do not know that she differed much in this respect from the average of people; but she differed from most other members of the family. In these the egoistic elements were kept well in check by the altruistic.
After her in age came my father, born in February, 1790. Of him, of course, I say nothing here; but reserve all that is to be said for the chapter which follows.
Henry Spencer, the next eldest of the family, was a year and a half younger than my father. In several respects he was a favourable sample of the type. With no lack of that self-assertion which shows itself in independence, he joined an unusual amount of sympathy, displayed in various ways.
A letter of his written from Macclesfield when he was about 21, describes an artisan-riot and the suppression of it by the soldiery, which was going on while he wrote: an artisan-riot reminding us of the Trades-Union riots with which we are now familiar, and, like them, utterly regardless not of the masters’ interests only but of the interests of poor and unconcerned persons. The letter describes how he had been himself, to some extent, implicated. It says that some of the riotous artisans, gathering round women who were selling potatoes in the market-place, and demanding to have them at half the price asked, eventually threw over some of the women’s sacks; and the letter adds that he helped one of the women to pick up her scattered potatoes. Correspondence of later date exhibits him as having actively espoused the cause of some ill-used man in the establishment in which he was engaged, and as having suffered in consequence. On one occasion he took the proverbially unwise course of defending a woman against her husband, and, as usual, met with no thanks from her. There was clearly a strong dash of chivalry in him.
Gratitude, too, was a marked trait, if we may judge from a letter written when 22 to my father. He had been apprenticed to a draper, and at the time in question was, I suppose, playing the part of journeyman, evidently dissatisfied with his position, and not seeing his way towards future success in life. My father, who had accumulated a good deal by his teaching, had offered to furnish him with capital to commence business, and this letter, declining the offer, is quite pathetic in its display of feeling. But at the same time that he expresses his thanks in language which, though extreme, is manifestly genuine, he says:—“In the first place I could not like at all to take so much money from you which I perhaps should never have it in my power to return.” Evidently his gratitude was not of the kind sarcastically defined as a keen sense of favours to come.
When some years later he did, however, commence business, he proved very successful: quickly accumulating a considerable capital. But by him, as by many others, was exemplified the truth that unusual success in routine business may become a snare, by prompting enterprizes not of a routine character, for which a different capacity is required. He entered into the lace-manufacture at the time of its great prosperity, and he also speculated in house-building. By both of these he lost—by the first heavily; and, led at the same time as he was, by domestic unhappiness, to spend much time away from home and neglect his business, he ruined himself and died early.
But various facts besides those named show that from boyhod up he had displayed a fine nature. What intellectual powers he possessed beyond such as his career implied, I cannot say, further than that I remember when a boy, listening to his denunciation of poor-laws as being bad in principle: showing that he was given to independent thinking about social affairs. Indeed he was a hot politician, going to the extent in those pre-reform days of wearing a white hat, which was a symbol of radicalism and exposed the wearer to insult. In his nonconformity, too, he was very decided; even going so far as to blame his brother Thomas for entering the Church, though the Wesleyanism in which they had all been brought up, did not imply dissent from Church-doctrine but only from Church-discipline. But I suspect that his leanings were anti-ceremonial.
One other fact may be added. He had a marked sense of humour; differing in that respect from his brothers, in whom the sense of humour was but ordinary. This trait was inherited by his eldest son, W. A. Spencer, who has written some good squibs á propos of local affairs.
Of John Spencer, the son who came next in succession, I have nothing good to say. Along with an individuality of character which he had in common with the rest, he had none of those higher traits without which the display of individuality becomes repellent. In letters, I have nowhere met with favourable references to him, nor do I remember to have heard during my boyhood any word uttered in his praise. He was entirely egoistic, and in pursuit of personal advantage sacrificed the interests of other members of the family without scruple: pushing his claims in some cases—especially in the case of his brother Henry’s widow—to the extent of cruelty.
He was a solicitor, and one or more of his brothers attributed the inequity of his conduct to converse with the law. This was, I think, an error. There is proof that in boyhood unamiable manifestations of character were frequent. In letters of his elder sister, there occur references to him as “boasting John” and “blustering John”—descriptive names indicative of deficient sympathy. Throughout life he was eminently self-asserting. An early illustration is furnished by the fact that he headed a group of his companions in playing at soldiers during the war-times which filled the beginning of the century. Boys then formed themselves into regiments which took the names of French and English, and he was captain of one of the regiments. In later years he gave evidence of this trait by his secession from the orthodox Wesleyans for trivial reasons. He disagreed upon a minor point of doctrine. A letter to his brother Thomas shows what the point was:—
“We have had considerable discussion here among our Body concerning Faith—whether it is the Gift of God, and whether it is our duty to pray for it. My opinion at present is, that it is not the direct Gift of God, and that we should not pray for it. Will you give me your opinion and reasons with scripture substantiations. We have six Local preachers in a neighbouring circuit suspended from preaching on account of entertaining such opinions as I hold.”
This disagreement resulted in the formal separation of himself and some adherents. For the propagation of his belief he built, or rather I suppose obtained the funds for building, a large chapel, still standing in Babington Lane, Derby. In this he preached: his doctrine obtaining, I heard, the nickname of “the Derby faith.” How long the business lasted I cannot say—some few years, I fancy.
Whether it was that his energies were in this way too much diverted from his profession, or whether it was that by this secession he alienated clients, who probably most of them belonged to the Methodist connexion, or whether both causes operated, which seems probable, I cannot say; but after a time his non-success as a lawyer caused him to emigrate with his family to America: first of all to Illinois, and then years later to California, where he died after outliving all his brothers.
Thomas, born in 1796, the member of the brotherhood to whom I now come in order, was the one who became best known to the public—at one time widely known. His youth, or at any rate part of it, was passed as a teacher in Quorn School near Derby. It was then a school of some local repute. Energetic and not without ambition, he presently succeeded in obtaining sufficient funds for a university career: loans from my father constituting part—I believe the larger part—of the resources furnished him. St. John’s, Cambridge, was his college, and he achieved honours. His successes were the results not of any unusual endowments but rather of a good memory and hard work—work which undermined his health temporarily, and I think permanently. His appearance as a young man may be judged from the photoprint, given in this volume as reduced from a life-sized crayon portrait made of him by my father.
In his Reminiscences, chiefly of Towns, Villages, and Schools, an account of my uncle is given by the Rev. T. Mozley, author also of Reminiscences of Oriel College and the Oxford Movement. Mr. Mozley was well known in the last generation as one of the reactionists in the English Church; well known, too, as editor of their quarterly organ The British Critic; and perhaps still better known as one of the leader-writers in The Times in the days when it was called “the Thunderer”: the chief leader-writer I may say on the authority of Sir George Dasent, who had been one of the staff, and who told me that they looked up to Mozley as their head. He read mathematics with my uncle during the long vacation of 1827, and, as preliminary to my own characterization, I cannot do better than quote some passages from Mr. Mozley’s description of him:—
“Of one memory I must deliver myself, it looms so large, and so obstinately recurrent. In so doing I feel like the lady who married an importunate suitor just to get rid of him. However, I have no wish to forget Thomas Spencer, whom, after nearly sixty years, I remember with increasing respect, and even gratitude, not to say affection. . . Mr. Spencer was Fellow of S. John’s, a ninth wrangler, one of Mr. Simeon’s party, and the friend of a man I have always heard highly spoken of, Archdeacon Law, son of the Bishop. . . Mr. Spencer held a curacy for some time at Penzance, then much more out of the way than now, and more primitive. Then he had sole charge of a church at Clifton for a year or two, and was popular, as a preacher.”
Either Mr. Mozley’s information or his memory is in this matter at fault. My uncle had previously been curate at Anmer in Norfolk, where he was at the same time tutor to the squire’s son, and after that he held, for awhile, the college-living of Stapleford near Cambridge.
“His college friend then gave him [after his residence at Clifton] the small living of Charterhouse Hinton, between Bath and Frome, and with two very steep hills to ascend from the former.”
Here I may interpose the remark that the “living” was scarcely to be called one in the pecuniary sense. It had recently been endowed, partly from Queen Anne’s Fund, with an income of about £80 a year: not having had since the Reformation an independent existence, ecclesiastically considered. Strangely enough, the last incumbent, a Roman Catholic priest, was named Thomas Spencer. Concerning my uncle Mr. Mozley goes on to say:—
“He was a decidedly fine-looking man, with a commanding figure, a good voice, and a ready utterance. So the church was pretty well filled. He always worked himself up into something like a passion, and came home exhausted.” If this was so, he must have changed greatly in the course of the subsequent six years; for, from 1833 to 1836, when I constantly heard his preaching, I cannot recall any sign of excitement. Indeed I should have described him as uniformly calm.
“Mr. Spencer was not at home in his village. He had none of the small coinage of courtesy. Mrs. Day, the lady at the mansion, was a woman of the world, and prepared to make the best of everybody, and he got on well with her. But even with her he had a ruffle.
“The truth was poor Mr. Spencer was born before his time. He was a reformer in Church and State, and he really anticipated some great movements. He did not quite break out till after our brief acquaintance, but his heart was full and ready to overflow. He kept up a long and busy warfare against the vicious administration of the Old Poor Law. He was an agitator for Temperance before even the Temperance Societies. He was early for the commutation of tithes, and for the more equal distribution of Church funds. He published some exceedingly crude ideas for a radical change in Church services, in utter defiance of all liturgical sentiment and principle.”
Other passages from Mr. Mozley’s description I do not quote, partly because they are spoiled by exaggeration. Probably his long-continued habit as a leading-article writer encouraged the tendency to overstate, common to all of us; for a leading article which kept within the strict limits of truth, would lack the point and vigour for which readers look. But these extracts from Mr. Mozley’s chapter, represent the facts fairly well. They form a good preface to what I have myself to say.
The above-mentioned Mr. Spencer was the leader of the evangelical movement in Cambridge—a movement inside the Church, which seems to have been parallel to the Wesleyan movement outside of it. At any rate the two were akin in their asceticism. Public amusements were tabooed by both. My uncle was never, I believe, within the walls of a theatre; and I never heard of his attending a concert. As to dancing, something more than abstention on his own part was implied by the answer he gave when, during my youth, being with him at an evening party in Bath, the hostess inquired why I did not join some young people who were waltzing. His explanation was—“No Spencer ever dances.” But the evangelicalism of that day, with its asceticism joined philanthropy; and my uncle quickly exhibited this by his activities at Hinton. There were no appliances for teaching, and he forthwith had a school built and a master appointed. For the more educated adults and those who were taught to read he provided a village-library. After a time he induced one of the chief landowners to let out a tract in allotments. For the increase of comfort, as well as the encouragement of providence, he, with the co-operation of my aunt, established a clothing-club. There were few, if any, good cottages, so he presently built some—four, I think. And soon after his marriage he went to the extent of having, at the parsonage, a meat-dinner on Sundays for labourers: now one group and now another. In course of years, however, he became conscious of the mischiefs done by aid inadequately restrained; so that when the New Poor Law was passed he forthwith applied its provisions to Hinton, and, notwithstanding great opposition, reduced the rates from £700 a year to £200 a year; at the same time increasing the comfort and prosperity of the parish. When the Bath Union, including Hinton, was formed, he became the first Chairman of the Board of Guardians. Besides sharing actively in various public movements in Bath and the neighbourhood, he wrote numerous pamphlets on Religion and Politics, Ecclesiasticism, The Prayer Book, Church-Reform, National Education, Corn-Laws, Poor-Laws, People’s Rights, Legislative Meddling, etc.: twenty-three in all, many of them having wide circulations, even to the extent of twenty-eight thousand.
At this stage of his career, and during my visit to Hinton in 1842, I modelled a life-sized bust of him—my first and only attempt of the kind. But I had no technical knowledge whatever, and my plan for strengthening the neck to support the head, failed: the neck cracked across. The detached head, as shown in the photoprint in this volume, supported on a cushion under some silk, of course looks rather odd.
As his name became better known, my uncle’s sphere of activity extended, and he was frequently away during the week in distant places, speaking on one or other of sundry topics—temperance more frequently than any other. Always, however, he returned home, even when one or two hundred miles away, in time for the two Sunday services which he gave.
Differing profoundly from those Church of England priests who think their duty consists in performing ceremonies, conducting praises, offering prayers, and uttering such injunctions as do not offend the influential members of their flocks, his conception of the clerical office was more like that of the old Hebrew prophets, who denounced the wrong-doings of both people and rulers. He held that it came within his functions to expose political injustices and insist on equitable laws. Hence it happened that he took an active part in the agitation for the repeal of the Corn Laws—attending meetings, giving lectures, writing tracts. How conspicuously active he was is shown by the fact that he said grace at the first Anti-Corn-Law banquet, and that, continuing his relations with the league to the end, he said grace also at the last Anti-Corn-Law banquet. Among the State-appointed teachers of rectitude there was, I believe, one other avowed Free-trader, though not an active one; but with this qualified exception my uncle was, strange to say, the only clergyman out of fifteen thousand who contended that the people of England, mostly poor, should not be compelled to buy corn at artificially-enhanced prices to enrich English landlords. This was not his only endeavour to further political equity. He entered with energy into the movement for extending the franchise. He was a member of the first conference held at Birmingham to initiate the Complete Suffrage movement, and was a delegate to the subsequent conference, also held there, to frame, if possible, a basis of agreement with the Chartists—a futile experiment.
Here let me interrupt the narrative for a moment to indicate the personal results of his conscientiousness. Between 1840 and 1845, one who will hereafter figure as E. A. B., kept up with me a correspondence. An elder brother of his was then an undergraduate at Oxford, preparing for the Church. From one of E. A. B.’s letters to me here is a passage:—
“My brother asked a fellow collegian of his (who comes from Bath) if he knew a clergyman of the name of Spencer there; his friend said: ‘Do you mean Spencer of Hinton Charterhouse, for if you do, he is as mad as a March hare.’ What do you think of that! I see he has been figuring lately at some radical meeting for the repeal of the Corn Laws, where he proposed the first resolution.—Pretty well that for a clergyman!”
Certainly, quite mad from the clerical point of view. What could be more mad than offending his bishop by writing a pamphlet on Church reform and so shutting out all chances of preferment? Or what could be more mad than endeavouring to get carried out, in political reforms, the Christian principles he weekly emphasized from the pulpit? This was not the only criticism, however. A subsequent letter from E. A. B. contains the passage:—
“It is not as if he differed [from other clergymen] in one or two points, though a conscientious man could hardly do that and retain his appointment, but differing as he does so completely upon almost all points, he still continues to hold an appointment under that church, an appointment which I believe to be a sinecure, or something like it.”
These then are lessons for men who disregard the interests of sacerdotalism as well as their own interests. They may have to suffer not from a falling short of the truth but from an absolute inversion of the truth.*
After more than twenty years’ residence at Hinton my uncle resigned his incumbency and took up his abode for a time in Bath. Among several prompting motives, one was the desire to establish a Church-Reform Association. He was in correspondence on the matter with a liberal-minded clergyman who agreed to co-operate; and, among his papers, I find a printed programme setting forth the objects in view. But before the final step was taken, his co-reformer either did not agree to some of the proposed measures or else his courage failed him. At any rate he declined to proceed, and the project dropped through. Some two years later my uncle moved to London. There, besides editing the National Temperance Chronicle, a large part of which he wrote himself, he preached and lectured without ceasing—overtaxing his system so greatly that in 1853 there came, after minor illnesses, an illness which ended in his death at the age of 56.
Some of his warm admirers were anxious that obituary notices of him should be published, and a meeting was held at his house to arrange. I was requested to undertake one of the biographical sketches, but resisted; explaining that I did not approve of biographies which contained only laudatory things and omitted all drawbacks; and that, probably, some of my comments would be disliked. Those present agreed that unqualified praise is to be reprobated, and wished me to say whatever was requisite to make a true representation. Still I resisted, feeling sure that this theoretical agreement would come to nothing, and that any indication of a defect would be considered offensive. My resistance was finally overruled, however. I wrote the requested sketch, in which, as I considered, I emphasized fully his many admirable traits, and touched as lightly as truth demanded on points not so much admired. Here it is:—
“In his general character Mr. Spencer may be regarded as having presented in a high degree the predominant peculiarities of the Englishman. He possessed an unusual proportion of that unflagging energy which is so distinctive of the race. His modes of thought and action leaned strongly to the ‘practical’—a quality by which we are nationally marked. Throughout life he exhibited a great amount of that English characteristic—independence. He was largely endowed with the perseverance which makes us as a race ‘not know when we are beaten.’ The active philanthropy by which we are distinguished amongst nations, distinguished him amongst us. That uprightness in which, on the whole, we are superior to our continental and transatlantic neighbours was in him invariably manifested. Even in its deficiencies he represented the Anglo-Saxon nature. That occasional brusquerie of manner, and that want of tact in social intercourse for which we are complained of as a people, were visible in him. He lacked those finer perceptions which are needful for the due appreciation of beauty in nature and art; and in this respect also was like his race. Above all, however, he exhibited the English type of character in the habitual recognition of duty. The determination to do that which ought to be done, simply because it ought to be done, is a motive of action which has been shown to be almost peculiar to Englishmen—a motive which most other nations cannot understand. This motive was with Mr. Spencer a ruling one. In this respect, also, as in so many others, he was an intensified Englishman.
“Commenting upon these and other traits, a relative who knew him well, writes:—
‘Were I asked what was his predominant characteristic, I should say—a strong sense of justice. This, I think, was the mainspring of most of his public actions, and was clearly operative in all the larger transactions of his private life. It was the basis of the morality underlying all his preaching. It was exemplified in each of his political tracts. He was prompted by it to the parochial reforms which he made at Hinton; and by it supported through the opposition which his parishioners at first raised against him. It stimulated him to join in the Anti-corn Law agitation. Enlisting his sympathies on the side of Representative Reform, it led him to take a prominent part in the Complete Suffrage movement. And it was obviously a chief motive in his proposals for Church Reform. All his opinions and acts tended eventually to conform themselves to this ruling sentiment. It formed the centre of his system of thought, round which all his beliefs ultimately gravitated. Though the prejudices of education and the bias of circumstances might, at first, lead him to unjust conclusions; yet he was pretty sure, in process of time, to arrive at the right ones. This was repeatedly illustrated. Doctrines to which, in the earlier part of his life he was averse, slowly commended themselves to him as substantially equitable; and having done so, were as warmly advocated as they were once opposed.’
“As his relations can testify, he was generous. His generosity however, had the peculiarity—family peculiarity it might in some degree be called—that it was more seen in large things than in small ones. The daily acts of domestic life did not exhibit that power of self-sacrifice which was called out on important occasions. I ascribe this less to a moral deficiency than to an intellectual one. It had the same origin as that want of savoir faire which he manifested—namely, an insufficient power of perceiving the feelings which the minutiæ of our conduct will produce in others. There go two things to the production of sympathetic behaviour. The one, an ability to enter into another’s feelings, which is moral; the other, a perception that those feelings exist, which is intellectual. In this faculty of divining the minor phases of emotion in others my late relative was somewhat deficient, and hence it happened that whilst in the more important acts of life, where the feelings of others were clearly manifested, his sympathies were abundantly operative, they were less so in the details of daily conduct. It requires to be observed, however, that in this respect, as in most others, his character improved as he advanced in life. He grew yearly less exacting and more considerate. And in his last illness this change was manifested in a remarkable manner. Instead of being irritable under annoyances he became extremely patient and uncomplaining. He concealed much that he suffered that he might not pain others. He avoided giving trouble as much as possible; and expressed his thanks for every little assistance.”
“The uniform success which attended him throughout the whole of his life until within the last few years, and the consciousness that this success was due to his own intelligence, energy, and uprightness, had generated in him the belief that good conduct would, in all cases, insure prosperity, and this led him to pass somewhat severe judgments on the unsuccessful. His intimate knowledge of pauperism, which he saw to be in nearly all cases traceable to idleness and vice, confirmed him in this view. When, however, some five years before his death, he lost more than one half of his property, not through any fault of his own, but from the trickery of the Great Western Railway Company, he had personal experience of the fact that misfortune will arise where there has been no misconduct to entail it. He was taught practically that whilst the fate of each individual is partly in his own hands, it is partly dependent upon causes beyond his control. The result of this hard lesson was morally beneficial to him in a high degree. He became much more tolerant of faults and failures—less ready to blame the shortcomings of those about him. He made large allowances for the unfavourable circumstances of those who fell into degraded habits of life. And if, from time to time, he expressed unduly harsh opinions of the idle, the drunken, or the vicious, he was sure, subsequently, to take at least some of the mitigations into account. It was during these last few years of his life, and in consequence of the trials they brought him, that he acquired his power as a preacher. In earlier years his sermons consisted mainly of stern enunciations of rectitude. They were lessons on the duties of life—lectures on practical morality. And being too uniformly pervaded by the doctrine that all could be contented and happy who did as they ought, they were not so true, and not so effective, as they might have been. The disasters of his later life, however, remedied this defect. They put him in harmony with his hearers, most of whom had, doubtless, suffered one form or other of misfortune. He had before lacked a large portion of experience which others had had. He had now gained that experience, and could speak to them upon a common ground—a thing which was previously impossible to him. For as it is true, physically, that we cannot duly sympathize with pain or illness until we have ourselves suffered them, so it is true, morally, that until we have borne unhappiness we cannot have a strong fellow-feeling with it.”
“The charity in judging of conduct which Mr. Spencer thus gained in his later years, he early gained in judging of opinions. Throughout life he was the reverse of a bigot. Considering that his position was one tending to produce narrowness, he was liberal in the construction he put upon other men’s views to a degree rarely paralleled. When there was no good reason to think otherwise, he mostly credited those who differed from him, with sincerity. The doctrine of religious freedom he carried out consistently to the full; and this not passively, but actively. Many years ago I remember hearing him in the pulpit condemn all religious persecution, even in the case of atheism. This liberality he continued to exhibit to the last in an increasing degree, as I can personally testify. Wide as was the difference between us in religious beliefs, the repeated controversies we have had were carried on in an amicable spirit; and I was both surprised and gratified to find that, notwithstanding the strength of his convictions, my dissent, extreme as it was, led to no diminution of his kind feeling towards me.”
“Amongst his virtues may be justly classed that of forgiveness. Strong as his resentment was liable to be at the time of offence, it was not lasting. I can call to recollection numerous cases in which, after a short lapse of time, all ground of irritation seemed forgotten, and as friendly a feeling was manifested as though nothing had happened. In this, as in other matters, his habit of revising his estimates of things induced much catholicity.”
“If I may hint a foible—and perhaps in giving an outline of his character I am in candour bound to do so—I should say that he had an over-predominant love of approbation. This is a fault from which few of us are free, and those who take part in public life are especially prone to exhibit it. In Mr. Spencer it was naturally strong; and his whole course through life—his success at college, his position as pastor, his habitual authorship, and his connection with various popular movements—tended to encourage it. I can truly say, however, what could be said of few similarly circumstanced—that intimately as I have known him, I remember no instance in which this feeling caused him to swerve from the course he thought right.”
“There was one trait in his character which should be noticed, for the purpose of illustrating the evil that may arise from the excess of a valuable quality. I refer to his power of application. He early manifested this in a marked degree. His university-honours were mainly due to it. In later life he prosecuted, with untiring zeal, every project he took up. Such was his tendency to concentrate himself wholly upon the subject in hand, that during the period in which it occupied him, he manifested little or no interest in anything else. Whilst engaged in abolishing pauperism in his parish, his conversation was almost wholly on poor-law topics. At other times the Corn-Law question and the extension of the Suffrage filled his thoughts nearly to the exclusion of other things. Latterly he became absorbed in the Temperance cause. The result of this quality was, that whilst it greatly conduced to his value as an active philanthropist, it was detrimental to him as an individual. In proportion as his interest in a few topics became intense, it became weaker in all others. He gradually lost all gratification in things that had once been sources of pleasure to him. Originally endowed with a taste for music he became careless of that and all other arts. He year by year went less into society. He ceased to take much interest in the sciences; and it needed but to go with him to any species of exhibition to perceive that the marvels of human industry and ingenuity had few charms for him. This tendency to extreme concentration, and this limiting of the sympathies to which it led, were indirectly amongst the causes of his premature death. Lecturing and writing on his favourite subjects acquired so engrossing an interest for him, and other kinds of occupation became so unattractive, that relaxation was almost impossible. His leisure brought no rest, for his mind was ever in pursuit of a new argument or a new illustration. He had no alternative but work or ennui. Hence arose a constant liability to transgress the laws of health. Hence arose the over-application which entailed his illness during the spring of last year. And hence, too, came the irresistible temptation which led him, in spite of this warning, and in spite of constant protests from those around him, to again err in the same way as soon as he was convalescent.”
“Leaving out of sight some of the mental results produced by this tendency to extreme concentration, which he himself latterly recognized as injurious, I should say of his character, viewed as a whole, that it was one exhibiting continuous growth. Unlike those whose convictions are unalterably fixed at five-and-twenty, and who never develop into anything morally higher than they then display, he underwent a slow but unceasing evolution. Giving his first vote, when a Fellow of St. John’s, for a tory member of Parliament, he progressed in the course of years to political principles of extreme liberality. Entering manhood as he did under the strong ecclesiastical bias of a university life, he gradually emancipated himself—became a zealous church reformer, and ended in condemning the union of Church and State. Though known during the earlier part of his parochial life as a pauper’s friend, he ultimately saw that it was a false humanity to encourage idleness at the expense of industry, and through much opposition succeeding in working out a reform for which his parishioners eventually thanked him. Originally feeling but little sympathy with the Peace movement, he by-and-bye took an active part in it; and though at one time he disagreed with them, he ultimately joined the opponents of death-punishment. His views on education, and on sundry other matters, underwent an analogous change. A corresponding moral advance was also traceable; and this more especially during his latter years. That so much should be said of one subject to the cramping, narrowing influences of a clergyman’s life—influences which commonly destroy what liberality may originally have existed—is not a little remarkable, and says much for the superiority of his nature. How few of those similarly placed display any like progress of thought and character!”
That this characterization met with the full approval of his surviving brothers, my father and my uncle William, is sufficient evidence of its truthfulness; but entire truthfulness is not in such cases permissible. At a subsequent meeting of his admirers the sketch was read to them. The result was as I expected. No positive disapproval of it was expressed, but it was received in silence. Along with other sketches it was, however, sent to the printer, with the understanding that it was to appear in The National Temperance Chronicle. But a few days afterwards, while it was still in the printers’ hands, my aunt came to me in a state of some agitation, and asked whether I would withdraw this sketch. “Certainly,” I replied; “you know that I did not wish to write it—resisted, indeed, and I am perfectly ready that it should not appear.” She went away with the implied assent to withdraw. What resulted, however, was this:—all its eulogistic parts were published, while those which contained anything in the shape of qualification were suppressed. And thus I was defeated.
But the small drawbacks having been allowed for, my uncle was very greatly to be admired as an absolutely sincere man, whose almost exclusive aim in life was the public welfare. In evidence of the feeling with which he was regarded by those who had many years’ experience of him, I may add that when he was taken from London to Hinton to be buried, I was witness to the fact that, quite unexpectedly, the inhabitants of the Parish, en masse, met the funeral carriages on their approach, and formed a long procession.
Of the youngest son, William, there is not very much to be said. Though he had sundry traits in common with the rest, he had, on the whole, a less pronounced character. Of natural ability scarcely exceeding the average, he was distinguished less by extent of intellectual acquisitions than by general soundness of sense, joined with a dash of originality. He carried on the school after my grandfather had ceased to teach; and, when he had recovered from a breakdown in health, which lasted some years, resumed it for a period: a fact to be named because I was, during this second period, one of his pupils.
Naturally pleasant-tempered, he was, I suspect, in early life a little repressed or perhaps snubbed, by his brothers, as being the youngest; and having, like the rest, an independent, self-asserting nature, this generated a tendency to take offence at slights, and, with him, offence once taken was lasting. This trait led from time to time to coolness with some members of the family, as well as with some friends; and it tended to reduce him to a solitary life which proved eventually injurious. There were sundry fine traits thus obscured—a good deal of generosity, an active interest in the welfare of relatives, on whose behalf he many times took great trouble, and a similar readiness to give his attention to the affairs of friends. Indeed he became with sundry of them a trusted adviser.
I think he was generally considered somewhat odd. Partly this estimate of him was consequent on the ill-judged remarks he made in the effort to say good things. As described above, Henry, an elder brother, had a great deal of humour. When I was a boy he had always something jocose to say to me, when we met. William had the same desire to be facetious without the power of being so; and his endeavours sometimes ended in giving offence—offence altogether unintended, however, for there was no tendency to sarcasm in him.
Taking, like his brothers, an active part in politics, he was not so extreme a liberal: preserving, rather, his connexions with the Whig party than verging into radicalism. And though in religious opinions a nonconformist, his nonconformity did not lead him to diverge from current opinion so much as it did the rest.
Certain marked traits were thus common to all the brothers. Individuality was very decided; and, as a consequence, they were all regarded as more or less eccentric. The implication is that there was in them a smaller respect for authority than usually exists, or, what is the same thing, a greater tendency than usual to assert personal judgment in defiance of authority.
Along with this characteristic, and partly perhaps as a result of it, there went a general absence of reticence. These brothers were in the habit of saying very much what they thought, whether on impersonal questions or on personal ones. Necessarily there continually arose differences of opinion among them, which, expressed without much restraint, caused disputes. In a letter from my uncle Henry to my father, I find a passage indicating this:—
“As we admit that every one of us more or less is liable to these misfortunes, it would not be amiss if we were to consider the most effectual method of removing the cause of many of them. Then in the first place we should encourage in us as much as possible a love for peace and an aversion to contention and such controversies as lead to serious dissensions: without this sense of it (which seems to be the foundation of amendment) little success may be expected. 2ndly. It is a good plan after a quarrel to weigh coolly both sides the question and the cause which provokes to words; by the first we learn not to judge too rashly, by the last we should perceive those positive denials, those harsh contradictions which stir up anger; this would give us a claim to be master of language which is softer, yet conclusive, a manner equally commanding but milder. Hastiness in replying is frequently the cause, consideration and patience is indispensably necessary, a flat contradiction seldom answers any good end, it frequently begets dislike, borders on stupidity, shows a want of breeding, it is a breach of politeness, much self-control is essential. But stop my pen, who am I addressing? Is it not my brother, every wit more prudent, more capable, more loving, most affectionate, best—it is, then, blush and write no more.”
The tendency to disagree, here implied, persisted throughout life. Whenever they were together, some discussion or other, mostly religious, or political, or ethical, or occasionally scientific, was sure to be raised, and as, although at one in their chief views they diverged in details, there arose arguments which not unfrequently ended in warm words. Doubtless a part cause of this was a strong regard for truth. While very many people do not care much whether the opinions they hear expressed are correct or not, members of the Spencer-family usually cared a great deal. Nothing concerning right and wrong, truth and error, was indifferent to them. Of course there were apt to result hot controversies.
Nevertheless the brothers had much regard for one another; and, in early days, as in later life, there were many expressions of mutal regard. “What a privilege it is to have such a brother,” says Thomas in one of his letters written in youth concerning Henry; and in another place I see Henry speaking of “the noble Thomas.” Moreover, they appear to have had in common an affectionate respect for my father, who had insensibly come into the position of head of the house, in consequence of the early abdication of my grandfather, rendered passive by his melancholy mood. Says Henry in one of his letters:—
“May you ever be rewarded according to your merit. May you ever remain the standard as you are to our family, may you ever be as much beloved by them as at present. Lastly may you be fortunate enough to have a woman for your wife that is as worthy as yourself.”
The above-described tendency to discuss, and to diverge from one another, was naturally accompanied by a tendency to diverge from the beliefs in which they were brought up. They severally deviated into further nonconformities. Brought up as Wesleyans, they dissented more or less from that form of dissent; and, in the case of my uncle Thomas, where there was at first a change towards conformity, the constitutional tendency was subsequently shown in a very pronounced opposition to ecclesiasticism. So was it politically. Though all of them Whigs, whose creed at that day was relatively uniform, they did not adopt party-shibboleths, but had special opinions of their own. And they habitually criticized current views respecting manners and customs.
Among negative traits which accompanied these positive traits, I may name one—a comparatively small interest in gossip. As a boy I rarely if ever heard among them any talk about royal personages, or court doings, or anything concerning bishops and deans, or any agents of the ruling powers. Their conversation ever tended towards the impersonal. As a further negative trait I may mention that there was no considerable leaning towards literature. Their discussions never referred to poetry, or fiction, or the drama. Nor was the reading of history carried to any extent by them. And though in early life they were all musical, the æsthetic in general had no great attractions. It was rather the scientific interpretations and moral aspects of things which occupied their thoughts.
To sum up, the traits common to them of most import to be here noted were—independence, self-asserting judgment, the tendency to nonconformity, and the unrestrained display of their sentiments and opinions; more especially in respect of political, social, religious, and ethical matters.
[*]As to my uncle’s retention of his office as clergyman, I may remark that, in the first place, he thought it unwise to leave the Church, for the reason that by doing so he would lose all power of effecting any reform in the Church; and he instanced the Rev. Baptist Noel, a man of much influence, who, having seceded, lost all his influence. But respecting the insinuation of unconscientiousness, made by E. A. B., the conclusive reply is that my uncle expressed no dissent from the doctrines which, in taking orders, he had subscribed to. I do not know of any such, and certainly E. A. B. did not. My uncle’s efforts were not at all to change doctrines, but to reform administration, and I am not aware that by taking orders he was bound to abide by the organization established for diffusion of those doctrines.