Picture of Robert Gammage

Robert Gammage

places mentioned

Eight months in Sherborne

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In Devizes, I met with a friend in the trade, whom I had known in Northampton. 'Ah, Demmy, is it you?' Alluding to the 'Democratic Bold,' a song that he had often heard me sing before I left home. He received me cordially, and treated me well, but strongly advised me not to mention chartism in any company in which I might be as it might lead to violence. This was true, for in the very room where we sat that evening was the man who led the onslaught on Henry Vincent and his friends when they visited that little town and attempted to address a meeting in the open air on which occasion they were assailed, not alone with abusive words, but with stones, bricks, and every other missile on which hands could be laid. I heard this man declare that before he led on the drunken mob he had taken twenty-six glasses of rum that morning. That quantity would have rendered many a man incapable, but it made him only too fit for mischief.

I went on to Bath, and from thence to the little town of Sherborne, 37 miles. I arrived in the dusk of evening, having made an early start, and of course went to the inevitable clubhouse. I was informed by the secretary that there was an opening for me if I chose to stay. I was only too glad, and went in the morning to Mr. Richard Hill in search of work. 'I hear, sir, that you are in want of a trimmer.' 'Yes, I am; is thee a trimmer?' 'Yes, sir.' 'Thee is very young. Hast thou thy indentures?' 'No, sir, I never had any.' 'Where does thee come from?' 'Northampton, sir.' 'How is it that thou has not thy indentures?' 'My master never would have any of us bound, but I have my Society card. "Ah! that is a bad thing.' 'I don't think so, sir; it helped to support me on the road.' 'No doubt; but I always think that if men took good care of their money, they would never need to depend on any society.' There was doubtless some truth in this, but it was not all the truth. 'What wages dost thee want?' 'Thirty shillings a week." Oh! no, we never give that here. My head trimmer only gets 25s., and thee is very young. I'll tell thee what I'll do, I'll give thee 22s.' 'It is a very small sum, sir; but as wages are lower here than where I come from, I'll take it.' Thus I got settled down in the queerest of all the towns I ever lived in. It must not be supposed that I was dead even amid the deadness. I had not 'prudence' enough for that. I propagated my principles in the shop, and in every company into which I chanced to fall; and, to the honour of my employer, although he must have known my principles, he never interfered with me by a single word all the time I was with him, which seemed to be in such a district to be little short of miraculous.

There was much to damp me. The Frost affair had thrown a gloom over us, and it required some amount of moral courage to speak for the Charter in the midst of a population almost utterly ignorant on matters of political justice. But I soon found a few even there who had some amount of sympathy with me. My dear friend Cansdell, a native of Colchester, was the formost [sic] of these, and we were fast friends all the time I remained, and by correspondence long after that.

I lived in what was called Cold Harbour, and had a good comfortable lodging at a moderate expense. My landlady was one of the kindest of women. She was advanced in years, and perhaps on that account took all the more interest in the young.

I soon learnt that my friend, Jerry Haggerty was working at Yeovil, six miles distant, and I, of course, paid him a visit. Jerry was delighted, and, as we sat at dinner, he exclaimed, "Many's the day we have been without a dinner, but glory be to God, we have got a dinner today.' We got into political discussion. His rank O'Connellism and my fervent Chartism did not accord and we had a very hot debate, at the end of which neither of us was convinced.

On Whit-Monday Jerry paid me a return visit, and after breakfast we adjourned to an inn, when several other friends were assembled. We soon got into politics and I into hot water. I was assailed on every hand for my Chartism, the choicest epithets being levelled at me. Finding passion getting predominant, I at last quitted the company, only to drop into another contentious party. I went into my club-house, where I found three persons assembled. Two were farmers, but the third was the veritable George Atkins Brine, whose many adventures as 'King of the Beggars' have been related in the Weekly Chronicle. George was full of talk, and I was anything but silent. He ended by challenging me to a public discussion. I accepted the challenge, on condition that he obtained the use of the Town Hall or, failing that, any other suitable room. I never heard any more of him, and was never able to raise my voice in public during the remainder of my stay in Sherborne. But it must not be supposed that Chartism was entirely in the background. I kept it before whatever company I chanced to be in. The majority thought me a strange sort of being. As I walked through the streets people sometimes looked at me as though they doubted whether I was originally one of this world. Not that they suspected me to have descended from above, but rather that I had ascended from the shades below.

Every Sunday morning I received by post the Northern Star , which I used to read in the afternoon in a pleasant little bower at the top of the garden, shaded from the rays of the sun by a beautiful sycamore tree. This seemed to me the height of enjoyment. In the after part of the day I generally took a walk with my friend Cansdell into the country, often through the lovely park belonging to the Earl of Digby. Many of my friends were eager to get a look at the Northern Star , and I gratified them as I best could. Those that read it did not think that Chartism was so bad as it had often been represented.

Before I conclude this paper, I must not omit to mention a little episode of my Sherborne career. It occurred on the day of the races. Like most others, I went to see the sport, and amid the excitement partook freely of beer. On going back to the town I went to my usual house of call. I got home in good time. On going to work on the following day, I had numerous jokes passed upon me, and insinuations made that I had enlisted into the army. But I passed it all off as a little fun in which many were apt to indulge. However, before I went to work on the following morning, who should come marching up to my lodging but a recruiting sergeant and one of his subordinates. Nearly purple with apparent rage, he addressed me without ceremony. 'Why have you not been to see me?' 'Why should I call to see you? I want nothing from you.' 'Don't you know that you enlisted the day before yesterday?' 'Enlisted? I know nothing about it. "You'll have to know something about it.' 'Very well, when shall I see you? I shall be at work until the evening.' 'Oh, I've no wish to keep you from your work.' Time and place were arranged. I went into the house and burst into a boisterous laugh. A soldier indeed—I who had so often, even then, denounced standing armies. It really was too good a joke. My good landlady was more serious and said, 'I am sure, Robert, you never intended to enlist; but if you did enlist, you can get off by paying the 'smart,' and if you haven't got the money, I will lend it you.' I cordially thanked her, but said that I should be very much deceived if I had to pay it. In my dinner hour I took a walk into the town, when a woman and her daughter accosted me, and said they were standing at the door when I was passing on the afternoon of the race day. The sergeant came slyly up to my side and began talking and they saw him slip something into my hand, of which I appeared to take no notice. The older one said, 'Sergeant, you have no right to enlist that young man; he has had too much drink.' I asked them if they were willing to come forward and declare this. They said they were, and I now felt myself secure against being victimised, and I felt resolved that the wily sergeant should not profit by his own knavery or my indiscretion. I went down at the stated time to The Castle Inn, where we had been appointed to meet, and it was evidently thought that the fish was securely hooked, but 'the best laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft aglee.' [sic:agley] 'Well,' said the sergeant, in his blandest tones, 'are you going to stand or pay the smart?' 'Neither one nor the other.' He was far advanced in liquor, and he once more became purple, this time with genuine rage. I remained cool; but one of my friends who was aware of the nature of the transaction, got into a contention with my enemy, until a scuffle ensued. The sergeant's cap came off, and out dropped nine sovereigns on to the floor, which no one attempted to touch, and the poor sergeant scrambled about to gather them up, and nearly fell as low as the coins, very much to my amusement. I soon wished the company good-night, and went home, handing over the money to my landlady which she had so kindly lent me, telling her I was sure I should never require it. I met my would be entrapper shortly after this at the house where I often spent a social hour with my friends. He called me out, and said if I would stand glasses round for the company he would say no more about the smart-money. 'Not a single glass,' I replied; 'and take care that you are not deprived of your stripes.'

It was Sherborne Fair, the greatest holiday of the year. Every one was on the alert, and towards the close of the afternoon it was proposed in the shop to celebrate the occasion with a little brandy, which, being as I understood, not taxed by the Excise, was at a private house in the town to be obtained at a cheap rate. We were more than sufficiently merry. After tea I went with two of my female friends to the fair. There were, as at all such places, some shows, and into one we went to see the waxwork figures. I was soon in hot water. There was a tall, lanky-looking representation of a celebrated man, and the showman announced it to be an image of John Frost. That was enough. I immediately shouted out, 'No, no; that is nothing like John Frost.' All eyes were turned upon me, and my two friends, each of whom had hold of an arm, deeply blushed. One of them soon left, and I went home with the other, who gave me a good sound lecture.

I was in Sherborne nearly eight months. My time was not always spent wisely, but on the whole very happily; and Mr. Hill told me at parting that if I ever came there again when there was more work he would give me employment. I did go once more in two or three years. But before that time I had become more and more engaged in the Chartist movement and coach trimming went, as far as I was concerned, to the winds. I have since heard on good authority that even Sherborne has gone ahead since then. The great actor MacReady settled there during the latter years of his life, got a Mechanics' Institution founded, and did his best to raise the mental condition of its inhabitants. All honour to that gentleman for creating an oasis in such a desert.

Robert Gammage, 'Recollections of a Chartist', in the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle , Saturday, May 31 1884

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