Bust of John Passmore Edwards

The Autobiography of John Passmore Edwards

Early Days


Passmore Edwards home at Blackwater

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 licence.

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.

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