I was born March
24th, 1823, in Blackwater, a small village, situated between Redruth
and Truro, in Cornwall, which contained at the time about two hundred
inhabitants. My father was a Cornishman and by trade a carpenter,
and my mother, whose maiden name was Passmore, was a native of Newton
Abbot, Devonshire. I had three brothers, William, Richard, and James.
The cottage in which I and my brothers were born consisted of four
small rooms. As there was not much carpentering to do in the neighbourhood,
and my father not being fully employed, he built, mainly by borrowed
money, a larger house near by, for which he obtained a public-house
Though the new
house had eight small rooms, it had more rooms than windows; consequently
two bedrooms at the back of the house had no direct window light,
but only borrowed light from a small window between the two rooms,
over the stairs. I mention this circumstance to recall the fact
that during the early part of the last century almost everything
consumed by the people was taxed, including the wood, glass, and
other materials used in the production of windows, and the Windows
as well. One of the results of this state of things was that I,
with one of my brothers, slept thousands of times in a small bedroom
into which the light of heaven never directly entered. As with us,
so with hundreds of thousands of others. The window tax alone assisted
to enfeeble the British race. As with the window tax, so with hundreds
of other taxes, including the tax on bread, which still more enfeebled
the race, and which a partisan statesmanship would triumphantly
re-impose, and thereby endanger the power and prosperity of the
country. I well remember some of the blighting effects of the Corn
Laws, when large numbers of the industrious poor of Cornwall ate
barley bread, and many had not enough of that. The repeal of the
Corn Laws and the introduction of a Free Trade era soon broadened
and brightened national prospects.
My father not only brewed his own beer, which he sold "on the
premises," but he supplied beer to some of the beershops in
the adjacent villages. A copper mine, however, having been started
near by, or rather an old mine having been revived, drained away
the water from our pump; and the little brewing business gradually
dried up, the little public-house business having dried up several
years before. My father then cultivated a large garden, which surrounded
the house, and which was most productive, particularly of strawberries.
These, when gathered, were sent for sale to neighbouring towns on
market days. I, for years after I left school, assisted in brewing,
in gardening, and in carrying strawberries to market.1
My only school education was obtained at the village school, which
was conducted by Mr. James Blackney, who became school-master after
he had injured his health by working underground as a miner. He
commenced his school and carried it on for a year or two in a room
about nine feet square, and afterwards in a little schoolroom built
for the purpose. He taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, and
a smattering of grammar and geography; and once a week he treated
his scholars with a good dose of catechism, when he read both questions
and answers. One of the questions I thought at the time, and all
the time I was at school, was "Who are water devils?"
and, when hearing it, II imagined fiery devils plunging about in
water. The question in reality was "Who and what are devils?"
I give this as a specimen of the quality of the teaching we received.
Mr. Blackney was, nevertheless, a painstaking and conscientious
man, and he has always had a green spot in my memory. His general
teaching fee was twopence a week, and threepence a week for older
and more advanced scholars. I remember one evening, after school
hours, his calling on my father and saying that the time had come
to increase his school fee for me from twopence to threepence weekly.
My father at first demurred to the increased claim, but when told
I was making good progress consented, and I for a year or two longer
remained a day scholar, and afterwardsI for twelve or fifteen months
as an evening scholar at twopence a week.
When I was about ten years of age a cholera wave passed over the
country, and additional sanitary arrangements were demanded; and
my father was appointed one of two inspectors to see that they were
complied with in our village. At that time most of the cottages,
with their immediate surroundings, were in a most insanitary condition.
The wonder was, and is, that during the early part of the last century
contagious diseases were not more numerous and destructive than
they were. In consequence of improved regulations both cholera and
small-pox, which paid periodic visits to the district, became less
and less. The two evils, fed and fostered by the same causes, were
resisted and driven back by the same means. But, while improved
sanitation in Cornwall and throughout the country has had the credit
for reducing or banishing cholera, a similar diminution of small-pox
has been attributed to vaccination!
About this time my brother William, who was four years my senior,
suffered so much from indigestion that the doctor of the district
had to be consulted, and he, like most other members of the profession
at the time, advised that my brother should be bled. This was done,
and I was appointed to hold the basin to receive the blood. When
the basin was about half full a giddiness came over me, and I fainted
and fell to the ground. How long I was unconscious I cannot say,
but when I revived I found myself in a chair in the open air with
water trickling over me. Being a strong lad, I soon got over my
mishap. Not so my brother. He did not faint or suffer less from
indigestion, but be got, and remained, weaker for some time; and
for many years after, at the same time of the year, he felt languid
and depressed; and there is reason to believe that bleeding impaired
rather than improved his health, and perhaps shortened his life.
When bled, he wanted not less, but more or better blood, which might
have been obtained by change of diet or exercise or air at the seaside.
Bleeding then, and for centuries before, and many years after, was
generally considered and acted on by medical men as a panacea for
most ills; and many generations of many nations have had to suffer,
and still suffer, in consequence. No one can tell, or will ever
be able to tell, the extent of the injury inflicted on mankind by
prevalent phlebotomy from the time of Pascal to that of Lord Byron,
and from the time of Byron to that of Count Cavour, the last recorded
illustrious victim of the practice. Proof of the high estimate put
upon it may be seen in the fact that the chief organ of the medical
profession in this country has been for generations, and is to this
day, called the Lancet.