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BIOGRAPHIES OF WORKING MEN

BY

GRANT ALLEN, B.A.




CONTENTS.


I. THOMAS TELFORD, STONEMASON

II. GEORGE STEPHENSON, ENGINE-MAN

III. JOHN GIBSON, SCULPTOR

IV. WILLIAM HERSCHEL, BANDSMAN

V. JEAN FRANCOIS MILLET, PAINTER

VI. JAMES GARFIELD, CANAL BOY

VII. THOMAS EDWARD, SHOEMAKER




PREFACE.


My acknowledgments are due to Dr. Smiles's "Lives of the Engineers,"
"Life of the Stephensons," and "Life of a Scotch Naturalist;" to Lady
Eastlake's "Life of Gibson;" to Mr. Holden's "Life of Sir William
Herschel;" to M. Seusier's "J. F. Millet, Sa Vie et Ses OEuvres;" and
to Mr. Thayer's "Life of President Garfield;" from which most of the
facts here narrated have been derived.

G. A.




I.

THOMAS TELFORD, STONEMASON.


High up among the heather-clad hills which form the broad dividing
barrier between England and Scotland, the little river Esk brawls and
bickers over its stony bed through a wild land of barren braesides and
brown peat mosses, forming altogether some of the gloomiest and most
forbidding scenery in the whole expanse of northern Britain. Almost the
entire bulk of the counties of Dumfries, Kirkcudbright, and Ayr is
composed of just such solemn desolate upland wolds, with only a few
stray farms or solitary cottages sprinkled at wide distances over their
bare bleak surface, and with scarcely any sign of life in any part save
the little villages which cluster here and there at long intervals
around some stern and simple Scottish church. Yet the hardy people who
inhabit this wild and chilly moorland country may well be considered to
rank among the best raw material of society in the whole of Britain;
for from the peasant homes of these southern Scotch Highlands have come
forth, among a host of scarcely less distinguished natives, three men,
at least, who deserve to take their place in the very front line of
British thinkers or workers - Thomas Telford, Robert Burns, and Thomas
Carlyle. By origin, all three alike belonged in the very strictest
sense to the working classes; and the story of each is full of lessons
or of warnings for every one of us: but that of Telford is perhaps the
most encouraging and the most remarkable of all, as showing how much
may be accomplished by energy and perseverance, even under the most
absolutely adverse and difficult circumstances.

Near the upper end of Eskdale, in the tiny village of Westerkirk, a
young shepherd's wife gave birth to a son on the 9th of August, 1757.
Her husband, John Telford, was employed in tending sheep on a
neighbouring farm, and he and his Janet occupied a small cottage close
by, with mud walls and rudely thatched roof, such as in southern
England even the humblest agricultural labourer would scarcely consent
willingly to inhabit. Before the child was three months old, his father
died; and Janet Telford was left alone in the world with her unweaned
baby. But in remote country districts, neighbours are often more
neighbourly than in great towns; and a poor widow can manage to eke out
a livelihood for herself with an occasional lift from the helping hands
of friendly fellow-villagers. Janet Telford had nothing to live upon
save her own ten fingers; but they were handy enough, after the sturdy
Scotch fashion, and they earned some sort of livelihood in a humble way
for herself and her fatherless boy. The farmers about found her work on
their farms at haymaking or milking, and their wives took the child
home with them while its mother was busy labouring in the harvest
fields. Amid such small beginnings did the greatest of English
engineers before the railway era receive his first hard lessons in the
art of life.

After her husband's death, the poor widow removed from her old cottage
to a still more tiny hut, which she shared with a neighbour - a very
small hut, with a single door for both families; and here young Tam
Telford spent most of his boyhood in the quiet honourable poverty of
the uncomplaining rural poor. As soon as he was big enough to herd
sheep, he was turned out upon the hillside in summer like any other
ragged country laddie, and in winter he tended cows, receiving for
wages only his food and money enough to cover the cost of his scanty
clothing. He went to school, too; how, nobody now knows: but he _did_
go, to the parish school of Westerkirk, and there he learnt with a
will, in the winter months, though he had to spend the summer on the
more profitable task of working in the fields. To a steady earnest boy
like young Tam Telford, however, it makes all the difference in the
world that he should have been to school, no matter how simply. Those
twenty-six letters of the alphabet, once fairly learnt, are the key,
after all, to all the book-learning in the whole world. Without them,
the shepherd-boy might remain an ignorant, unprogressive shepherd all
his life long, even his undeniable native energy using itself up on
nothing better than a wattled hurdle or a thatched roof; with them, the
path is open before him which led Tam Telford at last to the Menai
Bridge and Westminster Abbey.

When Tam had gradually eaten his way through enough thin oatmeal
porridge (with very little milk, we fear) to make him into a hearty lad
of fifteen, it began to be high time for him to choose himself a final
profession in life, such as he was able. And here already the born
tastes of the boy began to show themselves: for he had no liking for
the homely shepherd's trade; he felt a natural desire for a chisel and
a hammer - the engineer was there already in the grain - and he was
accordingly apprenticed to a stonemason in the little town of
Lochmaben, beyond the purple hills to eastward. But his master was a
hard man; he had small mercy for the raw lad; and after trying to
manage with him for a few months, Tam gave it up, took the law into his
own hands, and ran away. Probably the provocation was severe, for in
after-life Telford always showed himself duly respectful to constituted
authority; and we know that petty self-made master-workmen are often
apt to be excessively severe to their own hired helpers, and especially
to helpless lads or young apprentices. At any rate, Tam wouldn't go
back; and in the end, a well-to-do cousin, who had risen to the proud
position of steward at the great hall of the parish, succeeded in
getting another mason at Langholm, the little capital of Eskdale, to
take over the runaway for the remainder of the term of his indentures.

At Langholm, a Scotch country town of the quietest and sleepiest
description, Tam Telford passed the next eight years of his uneventful
early life, first as an apprentice, and afterwards as a journeyman
mason of the humblest type. He had a good mother, and he was a good
son. On Saturday nights he generally managed to walk over to the
cottage at Westerkirk, and accompany the poor widow to the Sunday
services at the parish kirk. As long as she lived, indeed, he never
forgot her; and one of the first tasks he set himself when he was out
of his indentures was to cut a neat headstone with a simple but
beautiful inscription for the grave of that shepherd father whom he had
practically never seen. At Langholm, an old maiden lady, Miss Pasley,
interested herself kindly in Janet Telford's rising boy. She lent him
what of all things the eager lad most needed - books; and the young
mason applied himself to them in all his spare moments with the
vigorous ardour and perseverance of healthy youth. The books he read
were not merely those which bore directly or indirectly upon his own
craft: if they had been, Tam Telford might have remained nothing more
than a journeyman mason all the days of his life. It is a great
mistake, even from the point of view of mere worldly success, for a
young man to read or learn only what "pays" in his particular calling;
the more he reads and learns, the more will he find that seemingly
useless things "pay" in the end, and that what apparently pays least,
often really pays most in the long run. This is not the only or the
best reason why every man should aim at the highest possible
cultivation of his own talents, be they what they may; but it is in
itself a very good reason, and it is a sufficient answer for those who
would deter us from study of any high kind on the ground that it "does
no good." Telford found in after-life that his early acquaintance with
sound English literature did do him a great deal of good: it opened and
expanded his mind; it trained his intelligence; it stored his brain
with images and ideas which were ever after to him a source of
unmitigated delight and unalloyed pleasure. He read whenever he had
nothing else to do. He read Milton with especial delight; and he also
read the verses that his fellow-countryman, Rob Burns, the Ayrshire
ploughman, was then just beginning to speak straight to the heart of
every aspiring Scotch peasant lad. With these things Tam Telford filled
the upper stories of his brain quite as much as with the trade details
of his own particular useful handicraft; and the result soon showed
that therein Tam Telford had not acted uncannily or unwisely.

Nor did he read only; he wrote too - verses, not very good, nor yet very
bad, but well expressed, in fairly well chosen language, and with due
regard to the nice laws of metre and of grammar, which is in itself a
great point. Writing verse is an occupation at which only very few even
among men of literary education ever really succeed; and nine-tenths of
published verse is mere mediocre twaddle, quite unworthy of being put
into the dignity of print. Yet Telford did well for all that in trying
his hand, with but poor result, at this most difficult and dangerous of
all the arts. His rhymes were worth nothing as rhymes; but they were
worth a great deal as discipline and training: they helped to form the
man, and that in itself is always something. Most men who have in them
the power to do any great thing pass in early life through a
verse-making stage. The verses never come to much; but they leave their
stamp behind them; and the man is all the better in the end for having
thus taught himself the restraint, the command of language, the careful
choice of expressions, the exercise of deliberate pains in composition,
which even bad verse-making necessarily implies. It is a common mistake
of near-sighted minds to look only at the immediate results of things,
without considering their remoter effects. When Tam Telford, stonemason
of Langholm, began at twenty-two years of age to pen poetical epistles
to Robert Burns, most of his fellow-workmen doubtless thought he was
giving himself up to very foolish and nonsensical practices; but he was
really helping to educate Thomas Telford, engineer of the Holyhead Road
and the Caledonian Canal, for all his future usefulness and greatness.

As soon as Tam was out of his indentures, he began work as a journeyman
mason at Langholm on his own account, at the not very magnificent wages
of eighteenpence a day. That isn't much; but at any rate it is an
independence. Besides building many houses in his own town, Tam made
here his first small beginning in the matter of roads and highways, by
helping to build a bridge over the Esk at Langholm. He was very proud
of his part in this bridge, and to the end of his life he often
referred to it as his first serious engineering work. Many of the
stones still bear his private mark, hewn with the tool into their solid
surface, with honest workmanship which helps to explain his later
success. But the young mason was beginning to discover that Eskdale was
hardly a wide enough field for his budding ambition. He could carve the
most careful headstones; he could cut the most ornamental copings for
doors or windows; he could even build a bridge across the roaring
flooded Esk; but he wanted to see a little of the great world, and
learn how men and masons went about their work in the busy centres of
the world's activity. So, like a patriotic Scotchman that he was, he
betook himself straight to Edinburgh, tramping it on foot, of course,
for railways did not yet exist, and coaches were not for the use of
such as young Thomas Telford.

He arrived in the grey old capital of Scotland in the very nick of
time. The Old Town, a tangle of narrow alleys and close courtyards,
surrounded by tall houses with endless tiers of floors, was just being
deserted by the rich and fashionable world for the New Town, which lies
beyond a broad valley on the opposite hillside, and contains numerous
streets of solid and handsome stone houses, such as are hardly to be
found in any other town in Britain, except perhaps Bath and Aberdeen.
Edinburgh is always, indeed, an interesting place for an enthusiastic
lover of building, be he architect or stonemason; for instead of being
built of brick like London and so many other English centres, it is
built partly of a fine hard local sandstone and partly of basaltic
greenstone; and besides its old churches and palaces, many of the
public buildings are particularly striking and beautiful architectural
works. But just at the moment when young Telford walked wearily into
Edinburgh at the end of his long tramp, there was plenty for a stout
strong mason to do in the long straight stone fronts of the rising New
Town. For two years, he worked away patiently at his trade in "the grey
metropolis of the North;" and he took advantage of the special
opportunities the place afforded him to learn drawing, and to make
minute sketches in detail of Holyrood Palace, Heriot's Hospital, Roslyn
Chapel, and all the other principal old buildings in which the
neighbourhood of the capital is particularly rich. So anxious, indeed,
was the young mason to perfect himself by the study of the very best
models in his own craft, that when at the end of two years he walked
back to revisit his good mother in Eskdale, he took the opportunity of
making drawings of Melrose Abbey, the most exquisite and graceful
building that the artistic stone-cutters of the Middle Ages have handed
down to our time in all Scotland.

This visit to Eskdale was really Telford's last farewell to his old
home, before setting out on a journey which was to form the
turning-point in his own history, and in the history of British
engineering as well. In Scotch phrase, he was going south. And after
taking leave of his mother (not quite for the last time) he went south
in good earnest, doing this journey on horseback; for his cousin the
steward had lent him a horse to make his way southward like a
gentleman. Telford turned where all enterprising young Scotchmen of his
time always turned: towards the unknown world of London - that world
teeming with so many possibilities of brilliant success or of miserable
squalid failure. It was the year 1782, and the young man was just
twenty-five. No sooner had he reached the great city than he began
looking about him for suitable work. He had a letter of introduction to
the architect of Somerset House, whose ornamental fronts were just then
being erected, facing the Strand and the river; and Telford was able to
get a place at once on the job as a hewer of the finer architectural
details, for which both his taste and experience well fitted him. He
spent some two years in London at this humble post as a stone-cutter;
but already he began to aspire to something better. He earned
first-class mason's wages now, and saved whatever he did not need for
daily expenses. In this respect, the improvidence of his English
fellow-workmen struck the cautious young Scotchman very greatly. They
lived, he said, from week to week entirely; any time beyond a week
seemed unfortunately to lie altogether outside the range of their
limited comprehension.

At the end of two years in London, Telford's skill and study began to
bear good fruit. His next engagement was one which raised him for the
first time in his life above the rank of a mere journeyman mason. The
honest workman had attracted the attention of competent judges. He
obtained employment as foreman of works of some important buildings in
Portsmouth Dockyard. A proud man indeed was Thomas Telford at this
change of fortune, and very proudly he wrote to his old friends in
Eskdale, with almost boyish delight, about the trust reposed in him by
the commissioners and officers, and the pains he was taking with the
task entrusted to him. For he was above all things a good workman, and
like all good workmen he felt a pride and an interest in all the jobs
he took in hand. His sense of responsibility and his sensitiveness,
indeed, were almost too great at times for his own personal comfort.
Things _will_ go wrong now and then, even with the greatest care;
well-planned undertakings will not always pay, and the best engineering
does not necessarily succeed in earning a dividend; but whenever such
mishaps occurred to his employers, Telford felt the disappointment much
too keenly, as though he himself had been to blame for their
miscalculations or over-sanguine hopes. Still, it is a good thing to
put one's heart in one's work, and so much Thomas Telford certainly did.

About this time, too, the rising young mason began to feel that he must
get a little more accurate scientific knowledge. The period for general
study had now passed by, and the period for special trade reading had
set in. This was well. A lad cannot do better than lay a good
foundation of general knowledge and general literature during the
period when he is engaged in forming his mind: a young man once fairly
launched in life may safely confine himself for a time to the studies
that bear directly upon his own special chosen subject. The thing that
Telford began closely to investigate was - lime. Now, lime makes mortar;
and without lime, accordingly, you can have no mason. But to know
anything really about lime, Telford found he must read some chemistry;
and to know anything really about chemistry he must work at it hard and
unremittingly. A strict attention to one's own business, understood in
this very broad and liberal manner, is certainly no bad thing for any
struggling handicraftsman, whatever his trade or profession may happen
to be.

In 1786, when Telford was nearly thirty, a piece of unexpected good
luck fell to his lot. And yet it was not so much good luck as due
recognition of his sterling qualities by a wealthy and appreciative
person. Long before, while he was still in Eskdale, one Mr. Pulteney, a
man of social importance, who had a large house in the bleak northern
valley, had asked his advice about the repairs of his own mansion. We
may be sure that Telford did his work on that occasion carefully and
well; for now, when Mr. Pulteney wished to restore the ruins of
Shrewsbury Castle as a dwelling-house, he sought out the young mason
who had attended to his Scotch property, and asked him to superintend
the proposed alterations in his Shropshire castle. Nor was that all: by
Mr. Pulteney's influence, Telford was shortly afterwards appointed to
be county surveyor of public works, having under his care all the
roads, bridges, gaols, and public buildings in the whole of Shropshire.
Thus the Eskdale shepherd-boy rose at last from the rank of a working
mason, and attained the well-earned dignity of an engineer and a
professional man.

Telford had now a fair opportunity of showing the real stuff of which
he was made. Those, of course, were the days when railroads had not yet
been dreamt of; when even roads were few and bad; when communications
generally were still in a very disorderly and unorganized condition. It
is Telford's special glory that he reformed and altered this whole
state of things; he reduced the roads of half Britain to system and
order; he made the finest highways and bridges then ever constructed;
and by his magnificent engineering works, especially his aqueducts, he
paved the way unconsciously but surely for the future railways. If it
had not been for such great undertakings as Telford's Holyhead Road,
which familiarized men's minds with costly engineering operations, it
is probable that projectors would long have stood aghast at the
alarming expense of a nearly level iron road running through tall hills
and over broad rivers the whole way from London to Manchester.

At first, Telford's work as county surveyor lay mostly in very small
things indeed - mere repairs of sidepaths or bridges, which gave him
little opportunity to develop his full talents as a born engineer. But
in time, being found faithful in small things, his employers, the
county magistrates, began to consult him more and more on matters of
comparative importance. First, it was a bridge to be built across the
Severn; then a church to be planned at Shrewsbury, and next, a second
church in Coalbrookdale. If he was thus to be made suddenly into an
architect, Telford thought, almost without being consulted in the
matter, he must certainly set out to study architecture. So, with
characteristic vigour, he went to work to visit London, Worcester,
Gloucester, Bath, and Oxford, at each place taking care to learn
whatever was to be learned in the practice of his new art. Fortunately,
however, for Telford and for England, it was not architecture in the
strict sense that he was finally to practise as a real profession.
Another accident, as thoughtless people might call it, led him to adopt
engineering in the end as the path in life he elected to follow. In
1793, he was appointed engineer to the projected Ellesmere Canal.

In the days before railways, such a canal as this was an engineering
work of the very first importance. It was to connect the Mersey, the
Dee, and the Severn, and it passed over ground which rendered necessary
some immense aqueducts on a scale never before attempted by British
engineers. Even in our own time, every traveller by the Great Western
line between Chester and Shrewsbury must have observed on his right two
magnificent ranges as high arches, which are as noticeable now as ever
for their boldness, their magnitude, and their exquisite construction.
The first of these mighty archways is the Pont Cysylltau aqueduct which
carries the Ellesmere Canal across the wide valley of the Dee, known as
the Vale of Llangollen; the second is the Chirk aqueduct, which takes
it over the lesser glen of a minor tributary, the Ceriog. Both these
beautiful works were designed and carried out entirely by Telford. They
differ from many other great modern engineering achievements in the
fact that, instead of spoiling the lovely mountain scenery into whose
midst they have been thrown, they actually harmonize with it and
heighten its natural beauty. Both works, however, are splendid feats,
regarded merely as efforts of practical skill; and the larger one is
particularly memorable for the peculiarity that the trough for the
water and the elegant parapet at the side are both entirely composed of
iron. Nowadays, of course, there would be nothing remarkable in the use
of such a material for such a purpose; but Telford was the first
engineer to see the value of iron in this respect, and the Pont
Cysylltau aqueduct was one of the earliest works in which he applied
the new material to these unwonted uses. Such a step is all the more
remarkable, because Telford's own education had lain entirely in what
may fairly be called the "stone age" of English engineering; while his
natural predilections as a stonemason might certainly have made him
rather overlook the value of the novel material. But Telford was a man
who could rise superior to such little accidents of habit or training;
and as a matter of fact there is no other engineer to whom the rise of
the present "iron age" in engineering work is more directly and
immediately to be attributed than to himself.

Meanwhile, the Eskdale pioneer did not forget his mother. For years he
had constantly written to her, in _print hand_, so that the letters
might be more easily read by her aged eyes; he had sent her money in
full proportion to his means; and he had taken every possible care to
let her declining years be as comfortable as his altered circumstances
could readily make them. And now, in the midst of this great and
responsible work, he found time to "run down" to Eskdale (very
different "running down" from that which we ourselves can do by the
London and North Western Railway), to see his aged mother once more
before she died. What a meeting that must have been, between the poor


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