Picture of William Adams

William Adams

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FOLLOWING hard upon the close of Mr. Linton's exposition of republican principles came Mr. Linton's announcement of the English Republic .  The new publication took the form of a monthly magazine.  The editor was its chief contributor.  Almost all the original matter that appeared in it was written by him.  With the exception of the proclamations and other documents of the Democratic Committee, a series of articles on Russia by Alexander Herzen, a series of extracts from Theodore Parker's sermons, and a paper on Mary Wollstonecraft by an anonymous writer, it may be said that the whole of the contents of the four yearly volumes of the English Republic , prose and poetry alike, was the result of one man's effort.

For the first year (1851) the Republic appeared in monthly parts at sixpence.  Now and then, but not often, there was given a portrait or other engraving by the editor.  But the first year's venture was not a success, so a change was made in the second.  Retaining the same shape and size of page, the Republic was issued during 1852 and 1853 in the form of a weekly tract.  A further change was made in 1854.  The Republic reverted to the monthly issue, with more portraits and engravings.  And thus it continued during that year and for two or three months in 1855, when it finally ceased.  The three volumes of the publication are now literary curiosities.  But they bear traces on every page of a political earnestness and elevation that contrasts strangely with the frivolous products of a later period.  We were dreamers, enthusiasts, fanatics, what you will—we Republicans of the middle of the century; and yet, when one comes to consider the matter, it will be admitted that we set before ourselves a nobler ideal than that which was expressed in the clamour of the Roman populace for bread and the circus—nobler even than the demand of the present day for less work and more football.

The later issues of the English Republic (1854-55) were printed at Brantwood—a mansion and small estate on Coniston Water which the help of financial and political friends had enabled the editor to acquire.  The mansion was not large, ten or twelve rooms perhaps, and the estate was not productive, being mostly fell; but the situation, facing the lake and Coniston Old Man, and commanding views of other great mountains, was delightful.  There was at one time, I believe, a bench in the gardens which was given the name of Wordsworth's Seat, because the poet of Rydal had said that one of the loveliest prospects in the Lake District could be obtained from the spot.  Here a printing establishment was set up for the purpose of producing the English Republic .  Types and presses had of course to be imported: so had persons to use and work them.  I was one of the imported persons.  Two other young men—Thomas Hailing and James Glover—were also imported from Cheltenham.  We were all members of the Republican Association, and all ardent disciples of Mazzini.  Our duties were evenly distributed.  I was the compositor of the small establishment, Hailing the pressman, Glover (being a gardener) a sort of man-of-all-work.  Between us, labouring earnestly and harmoniously together, we produced the English Republic , the Northern Tribune (the Newcastle magazine of that name), and such other printed matter as was needed.

Press and cases were at first fixed in one of the bedrooms of the mansion.  This, however, was only a temporary arrangement, pending the erection of a special building—rough, but suitable and commodious—at the rear.  Apart from its rude character (funds were not available for architectural adornment), there was only one thing peculiar to the Brantwood Printing House: it bore on its front, scratched in the plaster-work, two inscriptions that must have puzzled the passing country folks—"God and the People" and "Laborare est Orare."  Years afterwards, when I walked over to Brantwood, during a short holiday in the Lake District, I noticed that the building had been pulled down.  This was not surprising, for the only excuse for its existence was its usefulness, and Mr. Ruskin, who then owned the property, had all his printing done in the South of England.

The sort of work we were doing in the printing office, as I knew from my intercourse with the villagers in Coniston, caused us to be eyed with suspicion.  But it is perhaps a mistake to speak of intercourse with the villagers.  As a matter of fact, we succeeded in establishing very little intercourse with them at all.  Sometimes they were hardly civil to us; at other times they were decidedly rude.  Once, during the severe winter of 1854-55, the winter of the Crimean War, when the upper part of the lake was frozen over, and I ventured on to the ice with the rest, there was a deliberate and apparently combined attempt to trip me up.  We were on intimate terms with nobody; on friendly terms with the schoolmaster and schoolmistress only; on speaking terms with scarcely a dozen people besides.  The suspicions of the small tradesmen of Coniston took the unpleasant form of hesitating to measure us for clothes or boots before we could show the money to pay for the goods.1 But, as neither tailor nor shoemaker was a penny the worse for our transactions with them, it must be presumed that the veiled dislike of the neighbours arose from resentment at the seclusion we deemed it proper to maintain in our printing operations.

Our life at Brantwood was of the most unconventional order.  We had no watches, knew no time, ate when we were hungry, and went home when we were tired.  It was a long way home, too.  Two of us lived at Yewdale Bridge, three or four miles from Brantwood, while the third lived at Torver, two or three miles further still.  Now and then we had to work late into the night, and sometimes all night, to get our publications into the market.  On these occasions the journey home seemed dreadfully long and wearisome.  As part of our road lay through woods and plantations, the intense darkness of the winter nights made locomotion difficult.  The hooting of the owls and the soughing of the wind through the trees did not improve the walk, especially when, as sometimes happened, one or other of us had to perform the journey alone.  Once I got a pretty fright myself.  It was late at night and pitch dark, the trees overhead hiding even the faint light from the stars.  Suddenly there was heard a tremendous clatter some distance behind.  Nothing but a herd of wild horses, I thought, could make such a row.  I got into a ditch out of the way of the phantom hoofs.  The terror was short-lived, for the alarming noise was caused by a collection of dried leaves careering along the hard and frosty road driven before a high wind!

The two of us who lived at Yewdale Bridge, being bachelors, became tenants of a pretty cottage there.  It was unfurnished.  Nor had we much furniture of our own besides books and boxes.  The window-sill was my desk and a wooden chest my only seat.  There was absolutely nothing else in the room except a heap of books and manuscripts scattered over the floor.  Our domestic arrangements were on a par with these sumptuous surroundings.  A row of bricks did duty for a fender, a stick for a poker, and a sheet of brown paper for a tablecloth.  But we were young and hardy then, and our wants were few.  The duties of the household were divided between us.  While one made the humble beds, the other made the coffee and the porridge.  I have no doubt we performed our respective offices with satisfaction.  At any rate we found no fault with each other, nor threatened each other with a month's notice.  Having no artificial tastes in those days, whatever we may have since acquired, we needed neither beer nor spirits, nor even tobacco; and, being full of life and vigour and enthusiasm, we were healthy and contented to boot.

For a short period at the commencement of our enterprise we had the assistance in the printing-room of a staymaker—George Robert Vine, a disciple like ourselves.  Vine was vain—vainer even than the rest of us.  But vanity was not an undesirable quality in his case; it gave him confidence.  And confidence was essential for the mission he was going to undertake.  That mission was nothing less than the conversion of England to Republican ideas.  Vine thought himself sufficiently equipped for the venture with a hand-cart and a load of democratic publications, mostly copies of the English Republic .  The cart was decorated with a flag and a motto.  The flag was blue, white, and green, supposed to be the Republican colours; the motto was "God and the People."  We never saw the missionary again.  Where he got stranded, or how, I never knew, or at all events have forgotten.  I know he passed through Preston, because he wrote from that town about a great strike of cotton-spinners that was then in progress.  Thereafter, so far as my recollection goes, silence.  Vine started on his mission in 1854.  Nearly thirty years later the following curious communication was received from him:—

To LINTON, NEW HAVEN.                           
May 20th, 1883.

I will just give you a few words about myself.  I am still working at my trade (stay business), and if not enjoying riches, I am enjoying calm.  I have been in my leisure hours building up a fame in the scientific world, being recognised by men of science as one of the chief authorities on the class of studies to which I have given particular attention (palaeontology); and by my writings I am pretty well known in scientific circles in America.


Vine's failure simply preceded our own.  It could not be said that the scheme of establishing a printing-office in a remote corner of the country, seven or eight miles from the nearest railway station, was a very prudent scheme.  As all our materials had to be carted over the mountains from Windermere to Brantwood, and all these same materials, after we had converted them into magazines and pamphlets, had to be carted over the mountains from Brantwood to Windermere back again, the whole concern was burdened with unnecessary cost.  So, in a little more than a year, there came an end to our hopes and our enterprise together.

Brantwood for a time was rented by Gerald Massey, and at last sold to Mr. Ruskin.  But Mr. Ruskin had his doubts about the purchase at one stage of the negotiations.  The extension of the railway to Coniston, with a distant view of the obnoxious train service from Brantwood, caused him to hesitate.  Ultimately, however, he overcame his scruples, made the home of our experiment his home, and gave to the old mansion on Coniston Water a unique place in the political and literary history of England.

1 Grief and humiliation resulted from one order given to a Coniston tradesman.  It was an order for a pair of boots—Bluchers they were called, after the German general who fought at Waterloo.  Heavy, clumsy, shapeless, they were as much like boats as boots.  Unfortunately, they were taken to London.  There it was intended to use them as office shoes.  But they were early discovered.  Forthwith they were carried from frame to frame till every compositor in the establishment had had an opportunity of wondering at the monstrous specimens of "clod-hopper fashion."  The horrid things could not be disowned, but they were very promptly discarded.  If the shoes were a curiosity, so was the shoemaker.  It was his custom to physic his apprentice whenever he felt ill himself!

William Adams, Memoirs of a Social Atom (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1903) Copyright Ian Pettigrew. A transcription of the full text of the book is available on-line at http://www.gerald-massey.org.uk/adams/b_autobiog.htm

Placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall.

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