Bust of John Passmore Edwards

The Autobiography of John Passmore Edwards

A Struggle, a Failure and a Triumph


I now come to a turning-point in life. I thought that, if I could write for periodicals owned by others, I might start and own one myself; and to that end I directed and shaped my actions. It was no easy matter, more than half a century ago, when the taxes on knowledge were in full swing, and before modern Education Acts came into operation, to commence and establish a magazine, with experience and without capital, or with capital and without experience; and, of course, doubly more difficult to achieve success without both money and experience. This I attempted to do without success. I tested my ability by commencing in January, 1850, The Public Good. The magazine was published for a short time by Charles Gilpin. But to avoid publishing commission, and to economise in other ways, I became my own publisher. For that purpose I rented a room of Isaac Pitman Brothers, phonographers, Paternoster Row, for which I paid four shillings a week. In this room I acted as editor, publisher, and advertisement canvasser. Here I worked during the day, and slept on a mattress spread on the little counter at night time. My sleep, however, was frequently broken by cabs, trade vans, and other vehicles rattling over the granite pavement of the narrow Row. This so enfeebled my health that I had to remove to other rooms near by, where I increased my publishing responsibilities and anxieties by starting and editing other periodicals, in the hope that they would mutually advertise and assist each other. If nature had not provided me with a good constitution, I could not have survived the stress and storm of those days. What I did and how I struggled against the stream for three or four years until I got temporarily submerged, and how I again got on my feet and conquered, and more than conquered, lost ground, may be seen by the following report, reproduced from the City Press of November 4th in 1866:-
A gathering of more than usual interest took place on Monday, October 29th, 1866, at the Albion Tavern, Aldersgate Street, when Mr. Passmore Edwards was invited by a number of his friends to a banquet given in his honour. Mr. John Hodge, of the firm of Spalding & Hodge, occupied the chair.
After the complimentary toasts were given, the Chairman rose to propose the toast of the evening. He said: Gentlemen, an Albion Tavern dinner is an ordinary, every-day affair; it is also a pleasant and enjoyable one when the company is as I see around this table. Our present meeting, agreeable as it is, takes place under circumstances extraordinary and unique. We are honoured by the presence of Mr. Passmore Edwards as our guest on this occasion, a gentleman who, as you know, has for many years been connected with literature and the Press. About fifteen years ago Mr. Passmore Edwards -acting, I believe, somewhat under the advice of his friend Mr. Charles Gilpin, now M.P. for Northampton started several publications, periodical and otherwise, of great interest and merit, and which had a considerable circulation. Many gentlemen present know full well the fascination and difficulties incidental to publishing, and how uncertain is the result in very many cases. After a few years Mr. Passmore Edwards found himself out of his depth; and a severe illness coming on, at a time when health and energy were indispensable to his extrication, he was at length compelled to relinquish the struggle. Acting under the advice of friends, he gave up all that he had to those to whom he was indebted, receiving from them a release from their claims, together with their sympathy for what I believe was generally considered the result of unavoidable misfortune. After this Mr. Passmore Edwards continued to work on for more than ten years, and at length, by the blessing of Almighty God on his talents, industry, energy, and perseverance, he found himself in a position to do that which had all along been the object of his intense desire and ambition-namely, to pay to his late credjtors those sums from which, although legally released, be considered himself under a moral obligation to pay, if ever it should be in his power; and, accordingly, not long since, Mr. Passmore Edwards revived and paid his bygone debts. Gentlemen, we are here this evening to thank him for his generous and liberal conduct, to tell him how highly we appreciate the motives by which he has been actuated, and to do homage to so noble an instance of uprightness and conscientiousness. We are here, also, to present to Mr. Passmore Edwards a testimonial, of comparatively small pecuniary value, it is true, but still a testimonial and token of our admiration and approbation of his highly honourable conduct. Mr. Passmore Edwards, in the name of the subscribers and of the present company, I have the honour and pleasure to present to you this watch and chain-the inscription being, Presented to J. Passmore Edwards, Esq., October 29th, 1866, by friends who have special and unusual occasion to testify their appreciation of his integrity and uprightness." Gentlemen, I beg to propose "The Health of Mr. J. Passmore Edwards," wishing him long life, happiness, and continued prosperity.
Mr. Edwards, who, on rising, was received with loud and long-continued applause, said: This ovation, if I may so call it, brings out in strong contrast the period when I came to London about twenty years ago. I was then a very young man with only a few shillings in my pocket, and I could not boast of having a single friend. But, though I was poor in pocket, I was rich in hope. I may say that my head and heart were as buoyant with enthusiastic dreams as my purse was light; but, though woefully lacking the needful, I determined to establish a periodical, thinking that I should be enabled thereby to build up a fortune, if not win fame. Alas how the dreams of youth melt away before the touch of rugged experience By dint of frugality, I managed to scrape together fifty pounds; and, after elaborate preparations, I wrote my prospectus and launched my first literary enterprise, which was a monthly magazine called The Public Good. But how could I commence operations with such slender means? I did as too many have done before me-I worked on credit. Mr. Charles Gilpin, having confidence in me, gave me a note of introduction to you, sir, and you gave me credit for paper. Though The Public Good 7 sold several thousands monthly, and though I received congratulations and thanks from different parts of the country, the magazine did not pay. Finding the magazine did not pay, I brought out another, hoping that the second would prop up the first; but by so doing I only diluted my ability and increased my difficulties. While I met my bills my credit was good to almost any extent, and I went on for three or four years, bringing out periodical after periodical. One of my magazines was called The Poetic Companion. You may imagine my inexperience and hopefulness by devoting a magazine entirely to poetry. Another of my works was called The Biographical Magazine, devoted exclusively to biography, a far more practical enterprise; another was devoted to peace, called The Peace Advocate; and another was devoted entirely to the young. But the more works I published the deeper I got into debt, until I found myself tossing about in a nice little sea of difficulties to the tune of several thousands of pounds. I was my own editor, my own publisher, my own clerk, and my own advertisement agent. In fact, I undertook too much. At last my health and strength failed me. I struggled against the tide as long as I could, until wave after wave went over my head and submerged me. Whether I should have recovered my feet had not ill-health disabled me I cannot say. But I was obliged to absent myself from the office for some time; and, being the mainspring of action, I was no sooner removed than everything was brought to a standstill. You, sir, kindly came to my bedside, and advised me what to do. As no time was to be lost-periodical works must he out to the day-it was decided to sell the copyrights and stock, which was done, as I thought then, and as I think now, at a great sacrifice. When I was strong enough to return to the office, after an absence of about ten weeks, I found that my poor estate was almost wound up, and that it yielded 5s. in the pound. This composition was accepted by my creditors, and they all, with one exception, gave me a receipt in full of all demands. They took a generous view of my position, and thought that I had suffered a reverse of fortune from no moral fault of my own, and that I was rather entitled to sympathy than condemnation.

Now I come to what I may consider the darkest period of my life. I had lost my credit, my health was impaired; I had fought and failed; but from the hour of my defeat, or I may now say of my repulse, I cherished an unfaltering resolve to redeem my credit and pay everyone in full. I put this one intention in the very front of my life, and disciplined all my actions in obedience to its fulfillment. Just like the fugitive slave who keeps the north star steadily in view when escaping from bondage, I felt that while my promises were unredeemed I was in slavery. I longed to be free. This was the pole-star of my life, from which I never diverted my gaze, and towards which I directed all my hopes and shaped all my actions. I need not enter into a history of my hopes, of my struggles and my fears. Suffice it to say that in the course of time, by working on and wasting not, I recovered lost ground and appropriated the very first-fruits of my improved position to pay my just debts. I felt that I had left a work I had undertaken to do in an unfinished state; that I had incurred liabilities which I had not met; that I had succumbed to circumstances when circumstances should have succumbed to me. I therefore determined to wrestle with these circumstances, and put them, if possible, under my feet. Another motive related to my creditors. I felt that every man should he as good as his word. I promised to pay, and I felt bound to fulfil that promise, if it were at the expense of inconvenience or sacrifice; and I maintain that no lapse of. time, no statute of limitations, no receipts in full, no legal release, not even insolvent debtors' courts or Queen's Bench prisons, can pay just debts. We live in an essentially commercial age. Commerce is the source, the primal source, of our national prosperity, and the virtues of our people depend to a great extent on the manner in which that commerce is conducted. English men, in fact, breathe an atmosphere of commerce, and this atmosphere presses upon us on every side, and penetrates into the detail of our daily life. Every man, then, should be interested in keeping that atmosphere pure, for by so doing he is assisting to give a healthy tone to society, and to maintain our national credit. When Mr. W. H. Collingridge spoke to me about a testimonial, he said it would be something that I might transmit to posterity. I almost smiled at the suggestion, for the thought of posterity never crossed my imagination. Sufficient for me is the duty of to-day It is only the rare and gifted few who can perform deeds the memory of which shall live beyond the present; but it is in the power of every man, be he ever so humble, to influence by his example, for good or for evil, the circle in which he lives and moves. This is what I have endeavoured to do; and I feel more than rewarded by the satisfaction of my own conscience and the enthusiastic feelings evoked around this banquet board tonight. I thank you, gentlemen, from the bottom of my heart for this testimonial and generous greeting. I shall preserve the testimonial as a memento of your kindness, and I shall treasure the memory of this greeting with my brightest and most enduring recollections.


How, it has been asked, did you get so securely on your feet again? By working hard and waiting, by contributing to news-papers and magazines, and so accumulating experience; and, after a time, becoming manager and then proprietor of the Mechanics' Magazine, a weekly threepenny periodical which had existed for about half a century, but, at the time I took it in hand, was in low water. I subsequently became the proprietor of the Building News, which was commenced a few years before by Messrs. Kelly, of the London Directory. As neither of these periodicals was paying when I took command, I was enabled to become their proprietor on easy terms, and by careful husbandry of time and resources I was fortunate enough to make both successful. Then I felt for the first time in a fair field, with my hands at the plough and my head in the sunlight and the breeze. I afterwards became proprietor of several other periodicals. How different things might have been had I such a chance fourteen or fifteen years before.

Then, in all probability, the central and most vigorous portion of my life would have been much more productive, and I should not have had to struggle so unsuccessfully and to fall by the way-but luckily to rise again. The more strenuous the fight against adverse circumstances, the greater the conquest when they are subdued and removed.


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March 30, 2007
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