Articles, records and resources relating to the history of the Lancashire town of Preston
A Light in the Gloom: chapter 4
“Reality seen through a prism”
A LIGHT IN THE GLOOM; OR, THE POLITICS OF THE PAST.
AN OLD MAN’S TALE
Then had no great aim recompensed my sorrow,
I must have sought dark respite from its stress;
In dreamless rest, in sleep that sees no morrow;
For, to tread life’s dismaying wilderness,
Without one smile to cheer, one voice to bless,
Amid the snares and scoffs of human kind,
Is hard—but I betrayed it not, nor less
With love that scorned return sought to unbind
the interwoven clouds which make its wisdom blind
Oh! that long, long night of darkness, passion, chasing passion, all that was great and virtuous in my soul horribly mingled with all that was degrading and impure. My brain was confused and bewildered; I would fain act, but could make no resolve. Morning at length came, and with it a shadow of brightness—the True and the Pure vanquished the False and the Sensual. I would fly the presence of Alice—I would darken the sweet page of her life no more; for me she should not become a thing of scorn and contempt to all else she loved. I feared lest this resolution which I felt to be correct should vanish, so I hastened at once to quit the neighbourhood. My boxes were soon packed, and the same night saw me domiciled at an inn in Manchester. From there I wrote to Sir Henry Houghton, thanking him for his past kindness, and assuring him that imperative necessity alone prompted me to seek a far distant home; a somewhat similar letter was also dispatched to my late employer. But Alice! how could I write to thee—I know not. I was no adept in letter-writing, like the young beaux of the present day; our love had been so smooth, yet, alas! so deep, that pen had never been employed to paint our feelings. What I wrote I know not now—I never knew; but I felt at the time as though I was inspired; my thoughts seemed to coin themselves into a language at once deep and harmonious. I predicted a happy future in store for us, in which my happiness would consist in the joy of knowing that by sacrificing my own I had ensured her welfare. When this letter was dispatched, I felt a sweet but sad sorrow. I was alone—an orphan in the world. The only tie that bound me to humanity I had severed in order to promote the ultimate peace of her I loved. From that night I date my entrance into the world—a world full of strife and discord—a world where the quiet stream of my past existence, which had flowed mid flowers and fields, was lost in the boiling and surging waters of that mighty sea which was hastening onward to the great ocean of eternity. On leaving Preston, I was possessed of about thirty pounds, the savings of past years, besides some ornaments of considerable value; I was therefore above the fear of immediate want; but what course to adopt for a livelihood I knew not. Manchester was then, comparatively speaking, a small town. It contained only one bowmaker: he had not sufficient employment for his own family; I, therefore, continued to travel southward, but without any prospect of obtaining work at my trade. I had left my boxes at Manchester, and travelled chiefly on foot, lodging at the various inns on the road; here the prevailing topic of conversation was the French revolution, just then springing forth in all its primeval beauty, ere evil passions or royal treachery had yet to blacken and defile it. Occupied whilst living at Preston with archery and love, I knew nothing of politics; I had not heard even a murmur of that prodigy of an awakening people which caused all Europe to gaze, spellbound, at the glorious drama then progressing in the French Assembly. Its doctrines fell like music on my ear, giving hope and promise for the future; and with this hope the name of Alice was inseparably associated; for if the feudal castes and distinctions of society were abolished, would not the only barrier between me and my beloved vanish?—thus all my feelings combined to make me an ardent admirer of the French revolution. I devoured with eagerness everything connected with French or English politics; and on my arrival in London, I speedily connected myself with the “Society of the Friends of the People,” of whom the Duke of Richmond, Sir Charles—since Earl—Grey, the honorable Thomas Erskine, Sir William Jones, Sheridan, and Mr. McIntosh were the chief leaders, or rather patrons. By the recommendation of a friend, whose acquaintance I formed at this society, I soon got employment as a clerk in a mercantile establishment, and now I commenced diligently to study the French language. In this I was assisted by one of the numerous emigrants who, forced by oppression or driven by their own treachery to fly from France, now came to our shores; my every moment was now devoted either to acquiring political information or studying French. It was the spring of 1792 when I arrived in London. The summer had now drawn near—excitement was at its greatest height. In France, which was then the centre of the democratic world, the Girondist and Mountain parties in the French Assembly had, on the suggestion of the good Lamourette, Bishop Lyons, laid aside their mistrust of each other, and all France was joyous at the reconciliation. Everywhere the most enthusiastic preparations were making to meet the enemies who threatened the French frontier, for though war was not actually declared, all parties saw that it could not be much longer avoided. In Scotland, all eyes were turned to the proceedings of Thomas Muir, Skirving, Lord Daer, the Rev. R. Palmer, and other members of the Society of the Friends of the People, who met in Edinburgh under the title of the British Convention of Delegates. Ireland sent the celebrated Hamilton Rowan to the convention: several delegates were sent from London and the large towns of England. The basis of their demand for reform in parliament consisted of every identical principle and many details now embodied in the document called the People’s Charter. They are all contained in that framed engraving, beautifully executed by Stothard, which hangs in my room, and which was taken from the original document issued in 1780 by the Society for Constitutional Information, of which the Duke of Richmond was president; nor was the land inactive during this period of the uprising of earth’s children. Towards the close of the year, a convention was held at held in Dublin, representing the whole of the Catholic body of Ireland, the republican Presbyterians of the north, and a few of the Protestant liberal gentry, at the head of whom was Lord Edward Fitzgerald, son of the Duke of Leinster, with whom I afterwards became acquainted during his sojourn in France. But I am in advance of my story, and with the natural garrulity of age, was hastening forwards to the incidents most impressed upon my memory; I will therefore retrace my steps. I had not been long in London before I found that the Society of the Friends of the People were not the men to guide the helm in those stormy times; everything approaching to excitement or violence alarmed them, and they acted more as a drag-chain than an impetus to the movement, and through a long life I have ever found this to be the result when a middle and upper class agitation has been in existence in connection with a democratic one. The Society of United Irishmen would have liberated Ireland had it not been for the rival clubs established by Lord Claremont and Gratton; and even Lord Edward Fitzgerald, denouncing as he did the treacherous conduct of these men, did not throw himself heartily into the arms of the United Irishmen until some years afterward, when the English and Scotch associations were destroyed, and success without strong foreign aid had become hopeless. In Scotland, poor Muir, Skirving, Palmer and Margarot would never have been foiled in their plans, and transported, had it not been for the base desertion of their pretended friends, the middle and upper class reformers. My children, bear these things in mind: man’s nature is ever the same; you must make it his interest to do justice before you can expect justice to be done; and a truly democratic reform was not at that time, neither would it now be conducive to the interest of the wealthy and privileged classes of mankind, therefore depend not upon such for assistance or support. Experience soon convinced me of this fact and I quitted my quondam whig friends, and joined the society for spreading constitutional information, and ultimately attached myself to the veritable democracy enrolled under the title of the London Corresponding Society. I have a distinct remembrance of the day I joined the Society for Constitutional Information as though it occurred yesterday. It was on June 15th, 1792. There was a large meeting at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand. Margarot, who was afterwards transported, occupied the chair. Thomas Paine, who had recently arrived from France, which he had visited on his return from America, was also present. Mr. Frend, who had been expelled the University of Cambridge for writing a pamphlet called Peace and Union, Horne Tooke, Thelwal, Joel Barlow, John Frost, John Lovett, G. Dyer, M.A., author of many excellent poetical pieces and political works, were among the celebrities present, but none attracted my attention so much as Thomas Paine, who successful in overthrowing British tyranny in America, had returned to fight the battle in his native land. His second part of the Rights of Man had just been issued, and an action was commenced against Jordan, the printer, for libel. A government proclamation had also been issued against “Wicked and Seditious Publications,” aimed at the Rights of Man. To this Paine had replied in a letter addressed by him to Mr. Dundas, then Secretary of State, which letter created a great sensation. The meeting voted that 12,000 copies of this letter should be purchased and distributed by the society. This step was necessary, not only as a means of spreading the information contained therein, but also to counteract the conduct of my quondam whig friends, The Society of the Friends of the People, and other similar societies which had repudiated the doctrines contained in the Rights of Man, and declared that they had no connection with its author. From this day, the breach between the true democrats and the aristocratic and middle class pretenders became wider and wider, until at length they became bitter opponents. I afterwards met Paine at the Thatched House Tavern, on the occasion of getting up the annual meeting at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the 4th of August, to commemorate the abolition of feudal privileges in France by the Assembly in 1789; and an intimacy sprang up between us, which events destined to prove more close, but at the same time more transitory than I then anticipated.