Bust of John Passmore Edwards

The Autobiography of John Passmore Edwards

Some Trial Trips


I have forgotten many things, but not my first appearance in public. It was a notable day-the day when Queen Victoria was crowned. Blackwater and one or two of the adjoining villages rejoiced in possessing between them a musical band, of which I was the youngest member, and in which I played the fife. Unusual preparations were made in Redruth, the largest town in the district, to celebrate the Coronation, and our little band offered its services to join in the festivities. The offer was accepted. I, in order to attract undue attention, and to astonish the boys, played too loudly, and the leader of the band, who played the trombone, said more than once during the day: "Jack Edwards,' 3 you play out of tune." I have since had occasion to remember the admonition then given me, and have found that my capacity for getting out of tune survived from the day of the Coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838 to that of the Coronation of Edward VII. in 1902, and after. When I have made mistakes which might have been avoided, or undertaken to do something for which I was unfitted, or more than I was able to accomplish, or thought more of the passing moment than the superior claims of the future, or more of fleeting than enduring interests, an inner voice has whispered: "You are out of tune." It is easy to get out of tune and to stay there, and the best way to get into tune and stay there is to do the best for the most, and then our respective life notes will harmonise with the music of the spheres.

When about fifteen years old I gave evidence that my ambition outstripped my ability. I tried my hand at poetry, and sent some verses which I thought good to the West Briton for insertion in its "Poet's Corner," and was chagrined a few days after to see under "Answers to Correspondents" that my "Song of the Rose" was "not worth the space it would occupy, if any space at all." This assisted to damp, if not to extinguish, my poetic aspirations

A year or two after I tried lecturing, with a little more success. I frequently attended the meetings of a Literary Society at Carharrack, about three miles from Blackwater, and actually offered to give a lecture to men most of whom were old enough to be my father. Strange to say, my offer was accepted, and still stranger when I mention the subject, "The Poetry of Creation." I knew precious little about poetry, and less about creation. At the appointed time 1 read my lecture, and could only have given myself satisfaction, as I neither provoked laughter nor won applause, neither got a vote of censure nor a vote of thanks.
My next attempt was a complete failure. I offered-and the offer was accepted to speak at the annual meeting of the Young Men's Association at St. Agnes. I made, as I thought, ample preparation. The speech was not to be read, like the lecture, but reeled off from memory, where I supposed it was firmly fixed. When called on, I began confidently enough, but had not gone far when I tripped over a sentence or two, got confused, and, after two or three unsuccessful attempts to pick up the threads of my speech, I had to sit down, amid scornful laughter. Not liking to be beaten, and remembering, as I thought, the other parts of the speech, I made another attempt, which soon ended in another failure, when I again had to sit down, and was saluted with another and louder peal of laughter. To increase my discomfiture, the chairman, who was a bit of a wag, related an anecdote. He said some years before a clergyman in a neighbouring parish had one day, when preaching, to leave the pulpit to part two fighting dogs, one of them being his own, outside the church. During his absence the wind blew a portion of his written sermon out of the window near by. When he returned he looked at his MS., and, not finding the part he expected, said: "Where was I last?" "Parting the dogs, sir," said a boy in the congregation. "But I thought l had come to 'thirdly,'" said the clergyman. "'Thirdly' is gone out of the window," replied the boy. "And so it is with Mr. Edwards," said the chairman. "His ' secondly' and 'thirdly' have vanished into space." More loud laughter, in which all joined but the would-be orator, who that evening returned home a sadder and wiser youth.

I was more successful in another enterprise. My education, though so very limited, was superior to that of many others in the district, some of whom had no education at all. When I was about seventeen years of age, with the cordial assistance of my much-respected friend and schoolfellow John Symons, and the encouragement of a few villagers, we commenced a free evening and Sunday morning school to teach uneducated men and boys. This was done on two week-day evenings and on Sunday mornings in a little "Brianite" chapel near by. Writing-tables were made and erected round the chapel by voluntary labour. During schooltime these tables were raised and sustained on supports. For religious services the supports, being movable, were taken away, and the tables, suspended on hinges, descended close to the wall. In this way the little chapel answered the double purpose of a school and a chapel. At first we encountered opposition from some people, who thought that writing and ciphering were too secular to be taught on Sundays. The opposition, however, soon subsided in the presence of many improved and grateful pupils. The school did useful work for years. Though it has since been my privilege to commence in other parts much larger educational enterprises, I cherish no rosier recollections than those which cluster around that little village Sunday morning and week-day evening school; and few letters in after life have given me more satisfaction than three or four I have received from men who there, as men or boys, learnt to read and write.


About this time-1842-I was not only an apprentice lecturer, but an amateur propagandist. A ripple of the agitation for the repeal of the Corn Laws reached Blackwater, and, hearing that the Anti-Corn Law League gratuitously supplied tracts and pamphlets, I wrote to Manchester and solicited a few for distribution. Three or four days after I received a letter from Mr. George Wilson, the Chairman of the League, thanking me for my proposed co-operation. Had I been a clergyman or a known local squire, I could not have expected or received a more cordial reply. A few days after I received a bulky parcel of Anti-Corn Law literature, forty times more than I expected, and all at once I secured more than village fame. Having freely received, I freely distributed. One day I happened to meet the son of the Mayor of Penzance, to whom I gave some tracts. Shortly after, being in Penzance on my self-appointed mission, I called on the young man at his father's house. After a little ceremonial delay I was ushered into the presence, not of the young man, but of his father-Mr. Samuel Bidwell-the Mayor himself; who, assuming a judge-like attitude, and looking at me severely, said: "Do you know, young man, that I am a magistrate, and have the power to send you to prison for sedition?" A little frightened, and fearing I had done something wrong, I asked in somewhat subdued terms: "What for?" "What for, sir? Because you have given my son, and distributed in the neighbourhood, seditious tracts on the Corn Laws, and if you do so again to him or to anyone else in this town I will have you arrested and sent to prison. Be off now, and don't let me see your face or hear of you again, or it will be the worse for you." I was glad enough to leave the house, and mention the circumstance, not merely to revive a comical recollection, but to show the narrow, tyrannical spirit which animated some food-taxers sixty or more years ago. I was, however, neither crushed nor dismayed by the Mayor's mingled frown and threat, but went on my way distributing Free Trade literature as before, and am ready and willing now, two generations after, to repeat the offence.

April 18, 2005
Acknowledgement of contributions and  copyright
© Dean Evans 2003