Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER I.: CHILDHOOD. 1820—1827. Æt. 1—7. - An Autobiography, vol. 1
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CHAPTER I.: CHILDHOOD. 1820—1827. Æt. 1—7. - 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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Early in 1819, when my father, William George Spencer, then about 29, married Harriet Holmes my mother, then about 25, he occupied No. 12 Exeter Row, Derby. At that time the house was new; forming one member of a street partially built on one side only; and its small garden was separated by a meadow from the river Derwent, on the other side of which lay the mass of the town. Now, however, swallowed up by increasing suburbs and enveloped in the smoke of factories and foundries, the house has become decayed and dingy.
Here I was born on the 27th of April, 1820. Save a reference to my protests against things in general, such as are usually made by infants on first acquaintance with them, the earliest mention of me in the family correspondence occurs on June 1, in a passage concerning my baptism. To his brother Thomas, who had recently taken orders, my father writes:—
“You say you hope the child has been baptized at Church. He has not yet been baptized at all. With regard to his being baptized at Church, I object to the system of Godfathers and Godmothers, and to the sentiments inculcated in the form, such as saying that the child is now regenerate, &c. In such objections have originated the delay. If by baptism is meant any more than a devoting of the child to God, I object to the baptism of infants, as absurd. And unless a clergyman could feel himself satisfied in refraining from the form except that part ‘I baptize thee,’ &c. I should not feel at liberty to employ one on the occasion. . . . However there is one alternative which remains with you to approve; that is for you to perform the ceremony when you visit us in September. The name we call him at present is Frederic, but we are undecided between that and Herbert.”
There are subsequent letters discussing choice of name; and on the back of one of them I find, in my father’s hand, various combinations which he tried. He was a man guided always by independent judgment rather than by custom; and one of the things he inveighed against was the repetition of family names: holding, as he did quite rightly, that a name being used for the purpose of identification, it is foolish, for the sake of a sentimental fancy, to introduce confusion by repeating the Christian names of parents or other relatives. The final choice of the name Herbert was due to an occurrence of the preceding year. While still at college my uncle had sent, in a letter to my father, a copy of some verses by a recently-deceased young poet named Herbert Knowles.* My uncle’s admiration of them was, I believe, shared by my father; and, as I learnt in after years, this led to the choice of the name Herbert for me. But my father’s preference was, I suspect, in large measure due to the consideration that being uncommon (for though now not rare it was then very rare) it would be thoroughly distinctive.
Of incidents in childhood my remembrances have assumed that secondary form which I suspect they mostly do in advanced life—I simply remember that I once remembered. There was a little sister, Louisa, a year my junior, who died at two years old; and playing with her in the garden left faint pictures which long survived.* There also survived for many years, recollections of getting lost in the town, into which I had wandered to find the house of some friends to whom I was attached: the result being that the crier was sent round to find me. My most vivid childish recollection, however, worth mentioning because of its psychological interest, is that of certain results caused in me by being left alone for the first time. Everyone was out save the nurse, who had been left in charge of me; and she presently seized the occasion to go out too, locking up the house and leaving me by myself. On one evening every week, which happened to be the evening in question, it was the custom to ring a peal on the bells of the chief church in Derby, All Saints’; and while I was suffering the agonies of this first experience of solitude, its bells were merrily going. The effect was to establish in me so strong an association, that all through the earlier part of my life, and even in adult years, I never heard these bells without a feeling of sadness coming over me.
No. 12 Exeter Row (now No. 27 Exeter Street) remained our abode until I was four years old. Before turning to the subsequent part of my childhood, passed elsewhere, some parenthetic explanations are needed.
Besides carrying on a school, which my father did for several years before his marriage and for some years after, he gave private lessons. When he was still a boy he taught the children of Sir R. Wilmot of Chaddesden near Derby; and he began later, and continued for many years, to teach more especially in two families in the town. The one was that of the leading physician, Dr. Fox, in which he commenced giving lessons at the age of 17, when but little older than his pupils. Each of these, naturally clever, had in adult life an element of distinction about him; and one of them, Charles, who became an engineer, eventually acquired fame as the designer of the Great Exhibition building of 1851, and was knighted. The other family was that of the Mozleys, two members of which were in after years well known—one of them James, canon of Worcester and author of Eight Lectures on Miracles and several other works; the other of them Thomas, named in the last chapter, author of various works; to whom should be added Miss Anne Mozley, also an author of some mark. And another pupil was Thomas Rymer Jones, long the Professor of Zoology at King’s College, London.
Engaged as my father thus was in private teaching when not in his school, and having in addition the duties of honorary secretary to the Derby Philosophical Society, he eventually overworked himself. In his later life, I have heard him express his astonishment on recollecting what he did when a young man. There was no pressing need for this undue application. Already he had accumulated a good deal; as was shown by the fact that he purchased thirteen small houses belonging to his father-in-law, and had still a considerable amount of spare capital remaining. But he was evidently overanxious to fulfil his duties to those dependent on him; and the result was a break-down in health which, besides incapacitating him for the discharge of these duties (wholly for a time and partially afterwards) made his days during a long period, comparatively painful, and produced a mental state unfavourable to domestic life. His disorder, beginning with head-aches in 1821 and getting gradually worse, with intervals of improvement during his vacations, became at length very grave: a distressing complication of physical derangements, being joined with an extreme nervous irritability. Answering an invitation from his brother Thomas in December 1823, he says:—
“I fear if I should be able to reach your parsonage, that I shall tire you with my petulance and irritability. I have at times scarcely any command over my feelings—they carry me away before I am aware.”
I doubt not that had he retained good health, my early education would have been much better than it was; for not only did his state of body and mind prevent him from paying as much attention to my intellectual culture as he doubtless wished, but irritability and depression checked that geniality of behaviour which fosters the affections and brings out in children the higher traits of nature. There are many whose lives would have been happier, had their parents been more careful about themselves and less anxious to provide for others.
So profoundly was my father’s health finally undermined that he was compelled to give up teaching. He took a house at New Radford near Nottingham, on what was then known as the Forest Side—a suburb adjacent to a tract of wild land. Here I spent the remaining part of my childhood.
I have still vivid recollections of the delight of rambling among the gorse bushes, which at that early age towered above my head. There was a certain charm of adventure in exploring the narrow turf-covered tracks running hither and thither into all their nooks, and now and then coming out in unexpected places, or being stopped by a deep sandy chasm made by carts going to the sand-pits. Then there were the blue-bells to be picked from among the prickly branches, which were here and there flecked with fragments of wool left by passing sheep. In adult life it requires an effort to recall even faintly that more imposing aspect which the world has to children, caused by the relative largeness of objects and the greater proximity of the eyes to things on the ground.
My father allowed me to pass the greater part of this period without the ordinary lesson-learning. I believe he thought that I was not constitutionally strong. My mother had been delicate as a child; and possibly joining that fact with direct indications, he concluded that I ought not to be subject to school-discipline at an early age: his own break-down in health from overwork, doubtless tending to increase his caution. I probably had then, as ever afterwards, a repugnance to rote-learning; which accounts, I believe, for much which he ascribes to other causes. Among his papers are some memoranda, made, however, late in life, written not very legibly or coherently, concerning these early days. Here are some extracts:—
“One day when a very little child, I noticed as he was sitting quietly by the fire side, a sudden titter. On saying Herbert what are you laughing at, he said ‘I was thinking how it would have been if there had been nothing besides myself.’ ”
I do not know that there was anything special in this; for intelligent children soon begin to puzzle themselves and their seniors by ontological questions. The following extract I give only because it indicates my father’s general ideas of early education.
“In teaching him his letters, which I began to do when about 4 years old by beginning with the capitals and cutting them out in paper for him, although he learned a certain number of them with ease, perceiving he did not ask to learn any more, nor even to renew his knowledge of those he had learned, I ceased to invite him.”
Of course it resulted that I was very much behind most children. An unpleasant proof still survives in my memory. A daughter of a friend of my father, considerably my junior, who had learned to read, was held up to me reproachingly as an example.
My father’s compulsory abandonment of teaching and migration to Nottingham, were simultaneous with his entrance into the lace-manufacture. The production of lace by machinery was at that time a novelty. Great profits were being made, and a mania resulted. I perceive by letters that, along with two of his brothers, he had, before leaving Derby, bought lace-machines; and as Nottingham was the seat of the new industry, this enterprise was probably influential in determining his removal to Forest Side, which was, however, recommended for its salubrity. Like many others who were tempted to invest capital in the business, my father did not duly recognize the general economic principle, that the rush of many persons into a highly-profitable occupation, invariably brings about a reaction—a depression equivalent to the previous exaltation, and a consequent loss to the sanguine. The reaction set in soon after he joined in the manufacture. The production of lace became excessive; the profits fell very greatly; and he eventually lost a considerable sum.
Having during three years’ residence at Forest Side partially recovered his health, and being obliged by this depressed condition of the lace-manufacture to change his course, my father recommenced teaching at Derby: going for a time backwards and forwards. His health did not permit him to resume his school; and he had then, and always thereafter, to content himself with giving private lessons. By and bye, his engagements growing more numerous, he gave up the house at Forest Side and returned to Derby. This occurred when I was a little over seven years old.
[*]I never saw them anywhere in print, until I met with them in an anthology made by Emerson some few years before his death.
[*]There followed five other children, none of whom lived more than a week or ten days. It was one of my misfortunes to have no brothers, and a still greater misfortune to have no sisters.