Walton-le-Dale’s fictional Jacobin

See also:
Jacobins in Preston?
The Walton-le-Dale ‘autobiography’


The social historian John Burnett produced a three-volume annotated bibliography of working-class autobiographies and memoirs dating from 1790 to 1945. [1] This was his ‘notable contribution to social history: the creation of autobiography as source material for the study of working-class lives’. [2] The Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies is now held at Brunel University where Burnett was professor of social history.

Given the authority of the source it was quite exciting to come across the following entry summarising 10 articles published as ‘A Light in the Gloom; or, the Politics of the Past. An Old Man’s Tale’, in The People’s Paper, Vol. 1, 8 May – 14 August 1852. It promised much of local interest:

Born 1770 in Walton-le-Dale, near Preston. The only child of hand-loom weavers. Parents died when author still a child and he was taken into the household of a wealthy baronet (to age 13). Attended National School (to age 13). Married, with 3 children. Lived in Walton-le-Dale; Preston (1783-90); London (1792); France (1792).
Apprentice to a bow-maker (1783-90); journeyman; clerk in a mercantile establishment (1792); farmer.
Member of Walton Archery Club; became keenly interested in anything connected with French and English politics; moved to London and became active in the Radical movement; member of the Society for Constitutional Reform, the Society of the Friends of the People, the London Corresponding Society; visited revolutionary France with Tom Paine (1792).
Disappointed in love, the author ‘lived only for politics’ and on his own admission the narrative becomes a history of the Radical movement of his time rather than a history of his own life, with extensive comment on the progress of the French Revolution. The text was edited to protect the anonymity of the author. [3]

The People’s Paper, published and edited by the Chartist Ernest Jones, was launched in May 1852 and the Walton-le-Dale autobiography appeared in the first and subsequent issues. Karl Marx was a regular contributor to the paper. There is a microfilmed copy of the paper at The Working Class Movement Library in Salford: https://www.wcml.org.uk/

A preface to the autobiography is placed at the head of the first article:

To the Editor of “The People’s Paper,” —
Sir,—Having on a prior occasion written a tale in which was inwove the chief occurrences in the Chartist agitation since the year 1838, and many of our younger brethren having derived from that tale much of the knowledge which they possess of our past history as a party, I was contemplating writing a short sketch of the state of political parties since 1780 when the outline of the Charter was first drawn up by the Society for constitutional information. Whilst pondering on this subject the manuscript I now send you was placed in my hands by the son of the lately deceased patriot whose history it records, I thought that its publication would equally effect the object I had in view, that of placing before the present generation of ultra reformers a slight sketch of their elder brethren of the past, during the revolutionary epoch in France and Britain. I have taken the liberty of altering such circumstances as would tend to identify the narrator, such being the request of his survivors; but the tale is strictly founded on facts, and the historical portion may be implicitly relied upon.
Thomas Martin Wheeler

The problem is that it isn’t an autobiography; it’s fiction – albeit rooted in fact. And the author was the self-same Thomas Wheeler who signed the preface. That it was a fictional account was not disguised: each chapter was badged a romance and described as ‘Reality seen through a prism’, and Wheeler’s contributions were placed in the section of the paper that contained similar submissions labelled poetry and drama. There is also a wealth of internal evidence to establish that it was a fictional account. And, should there be any doubt of Wheeler’s intention, his biographer makes it plain that Wheeler was writing a story, not publishing a working-class autobiography.

Thomas Wheeler (1811-1862) was a radical who served as secretary of the London Chartists and was for a short while general secretary of the National Charter Association. He was London correspondent of the Northern Echo and wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, Sunshine and Shadow. He worked closely with Feargus O’Connor.

When Ernest Jones launched The People’s Paper Wheeler became its secretary. And when the paper ran into financial difficulties shortly before its closure, Wheeler guaranteed a loan for Jones to try to keep it going, and when Jones was unable to pay it back Wheeler was similarly embarrassed and so spent a brief spell in a debtor’s prison. [4]

The ‘autobiography’ contains a great deal of information about Walton-le-Dale at the end of the 18th century, much of it accurate. The reason for this is that Wheeler was educated at Walton-le-Dale and came to know the area well, as his biographer recounts:

He was born on St. Martin’s Day, the 23rd of November, 1811, at the ‘King’s Arms,’ Lock’s Fields, Walworth … When he attained his seventh year, he was sent for instruction to a celebrated academy at Walton-le-Dale, near Preston, in Lancashire. The master was a Mr. Robert Pebbles, a native of Peebles, Scotland, and a distinguished mathematician. The magnificent scenery of the Ribble developed in him that poetic feeling which through [life?] was the charm of his conversation. How he employed his leisure time whilst at Walton-le-Dale, will best be seen in an extract which I take from a story [emphasis added] of his, entitled ‘Glimmerings in the dark, an Old Man’s Tale, or The Politics of the Past.’—’I distinctly remember,’ he says, ‘the old school-mistress from whom I imbibed the first elements of scholastic lore, but I took more delight in sporting on the common, fishing for snigs or flooks in the Darwen, or assisting the fishermen to haul their nets for the famous salmon caught in the Ribble, than in attending to the lessons of the old lady. For days, ay, and for weeks, in the summer season, to the great sorrow of my parents, have I played the truant, seduced by bird-nesting, otter-hunting, or the still greater pleasure of emptying the holes in the rocky beach of the Ribble, and thereby ensnaring the finny tribe which had taken refuge therein, and which the retiring tide had left isolated like little lakes amid the surrounding rocks and sends. From morning till evening, there might I be found emptying hole after hole, each the work of some hours. But then, how delightful when the prize was secured, and that too, alive, seemed in my conception worth a dozen taken by the treacherous wile of hook and line.’ The same perseverance with which in youth he dipped his pools for fish, characterized his future life. The happy kind of life led by the youthful scholar at Walton-le-Dale soon came to an end. The master leaving the place, our young fisherman returned home to his parents … [5]

I have not been able to trace the ‘distinguished mathematician’ Robert Pebbles, nor the academy in Walton-le-Dale of which he was master.

Wheeler’s offering in The People’s Paper roughly falls into five sections: a description of life in late 18th-century Walton-le-Dale and Preston; a tale of lost love that Barbara Cartland could have penned; a description of his subject’s radicalisation in London; an account of his accompanying Thomas Paine to France; and, finally, a very detailed description of the clashes between Jacobin factions in Paris. After Lancashire is left behind, there is very little autobiography and a great deal of polemic.

The subject of the ‘autobiography’ is represented to have been born in Walton-le-Dale in 1770, the only child of handloom weavers, living a carefree life until a disastrous flood in 1779:

At spring and neap tides a large portion of the village is usually flooded, and for some days boats or punts have to be used as a means of conveyance, while the lower floors of many of the houses have entirely to be abandoned. The spring of 1779 had been unusually wet, the Darwen had completely overleaped its banks, and the archery grounds and all the surrounding meadows were one vast expanse of water. For several days prior to the spring-tide it had rained incessantly, and the waters of the Ribble were alarmingly high. Each hour the flood increased in volume; the whole village was alarmed; all communications, save by boat, was entirely cut off; the lower floor of our house was filled, and the waters even threatened to invade the upper story. [Chapter 1]

This could be a reasonably accurate description of flooding in the village, since similar scenes have been witnessed regularly over the years.

But worse was to come. The house was undermined by the flood waters and collapsed killing both father and mother. Here a real person enters the account, Sir Henry Hoghton, the lord of the manor, who lived at Walton Hall, as the story relates, ‘Sir Henry Houghton, a wealthy baronet, who resided at the Manor-house, had taken upon himself the charge of maintaining me until such time as I was capable of earning my own livelihood’. This maintenance, according to the story, included an education at the National School in Walton-le-Dale, by which the writer probably meant the Walton-le-Dale Free Grammar School in School Lane, Bamber Bridge, which Sir Henry’s family established in the latter half of the 17th century. [6]

The next stage of life is described as follows,

… I attained my thirteenth year, when I was apprenticed to a bow-maker, in Preston, for a period of seven years. As a child, I had ever been fond of the sports of archery; this love increased as I grew in years, and I was delighted when they gratified my inclination by apprenticing me to Thomas Vardy, the most noted bow and cross-bow maker, in the northern district. [Chapter 2]

I have not been able to identify Thomas Vardy, nor find any reference to bow making in Preston at that time, although such a trade would have found ready custom in the town. A bowmaker was living and working in Walton-le-Dale a little later, according to a book published in 1831, ‘It may here be remarked, that Mr. Ainsworth, a Bowyer, living at Walton le Dale near Preston very lately sold two Self Bows made by himself , of Spanish Yew, one for £8—the other for £10.’ [7]

Wheeler’s subject clearly became an extremely proficient archer, as the following extract shows:

… long ere my apprenticeship expired, the fame of my skill extended far beyond my own circle, and not a match could be made within a circuit of many miles, but the poor apprentice, Edmund Sutcliffe, was included therein. Sir Henry Houghton was truly generous in supplying me with clothes and money during the whole of this period, and I often earned small sums by making lancewood bows and arrows for the youth of the town, or of Walton-le-dale, which was still my favourite place of resort; I was thus enabled to maintain a genteel appearance. [Chapter 2]

The interesting thing here is that Wheeler appears to reveal the identity of the anonymous autobiographer as Edmund Sutcliffe.

His prowess with the bow brought local fame:

I was in the last year of my apprenticeship, when an annual match between the Walton and Preston Archery Clubs came off, in the meadows by the Darwen side; I was a member of the Walton club, and my shooting that day was admirable; to me was awarded the two prizes, a silver bow and a golden arrow. I was in glorious spirits. Sir Henry complimented me highly on my skill; the vicar of Walton, who had been my most successful competitor, invited me, and others of the club, to his house to take refreshments, and participate in the rural sports, for it was the first of May. A maypole crowned with garlands stood in the centre of the lawn fronting the house, and all the elite of the village were gathered around. [Chapter 2]

The vicar is named as the Rev Ratcliffe, the father of two children, Edgar and Alice. Edgar is said to be a university undergraduate and Alice is described as being 17 and having just returned home after five years away at boarding school. An Edmund Stringfellow Radcliffe was the stipendiary curate of the church from 1803 to 1826 (the church did not have a vicar at that time), having been assistant curate from 1798. He would have been the minister at the church when Wheeler was a scholar in the village, but not at the time that the story is set; the minister then was John Shorrock. [8] The Walton-le-Dale parish records show the Rev Radcliffe had several children, but none named Edgar or Alice. [9]

Wheeler’s story then enters the realm of the romantic novelist as he describes his subject’s doomed love for Alice, impossible because of the social gulf separating them, and her betrothal to the eldest son of Sir Henry Hoghton [Chapter 2 and Chapter 3]. Disappointed in love, he takes himself off to London by way of Manchester, becomes involved in the radical politics of the time and studies French to learn more about the revolution.

In the capital he joins the London Corresponding Society and makes the acquaintance of Thomas Paine [Chapter 4]. Revolutionary activities in France and Britain are described in Chapter 5, and Chapter 6 sees him accompanying Thomas Paine to France in September 1792, along with John Frost, and later Joel Barlow (their presence is factually correct, his isn’t). Wheeler explains his subject’s presence by Paine’s need for an assistant proficient in French.

The final chapters (chapter 7, chapter 8 and chapter 9) supply no autobiographical information, consisting of pen portraits of the key figures in French revolutionary circles at that time and a detailed account of the struggle for power between Jacobin factions in Paris.

[1] John Burnett, David Vincent, and David Mayall, eds., Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated Critical Bibliography, 1790-1900; Volume 1 (New York: New York University Press, 1984); John Burnett, David Vincent, and David Mayall, eds., Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography; Volume 2 1900-45 (New York University Press, 1987); John Burnett, David Vincent, and David Mayall, eds., The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated Critical Bibliography: Volume 3: Supplement 1790-1945 (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1989).
[2] Derek Oddy, ‘Obituary: John Burnett’, The Guardian, 29 November 2006, sec. News, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2006/nov/29/guardianobituaries.mainsection.
[3] Burnett, Vincent, and Mayall, Autobiography of the Working Class, 1984, 197–98.
[4] ‘Thomas Martin Wheeler’, in Wikipedia, 13 September 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Thomas_Martin_Wheeler&oldid=859347475.
[5] William Stevens, A Memoir of T. M. Wheeler, … with Extracts from His Letters, Speeches, and Writings (London: John Bedford Leno, 1862), 5–6, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=OqpcAAAAcAAJ.
[6] David Hunt, A History of Walton-le-Dale and Bamber Bridge (Lancaster: Carnegie, 1997), 96.
[7] Thomas Hastings, The British Archer; or, Tracts on Archery (London: R. Ackermann, 1831), 10, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=k660Gkhxtg4C&dq.
[8] ‘Townships: Walton-Le-Dale | British History Online’, n.d., https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/lancs/vol6/pp289-300.
[9] ‘Lancashire OnLine Parish Clerk Project’, n.d., http://www.lan-opc.org.uk/.

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