3. Indomitable pluck and perseverance & the ‘winged art’

This is the third posting on the timeline of William’s life. It describes further influences on his education and development during his early teenage years in Stokesley and before he moved to Middlesbrough in around 1855.


Having gained some idea of William’s family and where he spent his early years, what do we know of his early life and accomplishments?  Although there is very little record of William in this period, a brief biographical note, in ‘North Country Poets – Poems and Biographies’ an anthology published in 1888 which provides some clues:

‘His parents being poor, his early education was necessarily limited, so that his intellectual attainments are entirely due to his own indomitable pluck and perseverance. He was a protégé of William Braithwaite, the well-known printer, and friend of many celebrated authors, Inwards, Walker Ord, Tweddell, Heavisides, Prince, Cleaver, Rogerson, etc. He developed early a penchant for elocution, so much so that he had recited to considerable audiences before he was ten years of age. By the time he had attained 13, he was at business, had taught himself ” the winged art,” and was acting as correspondent at Stokesley for the York Herald, remaining on the staff for ten years.’

This anthology contains three contributions written by William; two dialect poems, ‘Ah’s Yorkshire’ and ‘An Awd Man’s Confession’ and the poem ‘Stokesley’ in which he evokes childhood memories of his birthplace. William was forty-eight when this anthology was published and he would have undoubtedly contributed to his own ‘biography’. It is interesting that in spite of being illegitimate, he is described as having parents, albeit that they were poor. So how did William gain an education, develop a penchant for elocution, learn the ‘winged art’ and be at business by the age of thirteen?

Opportunities for education for children in William’s situation were very limited. At the East end of town in High Green[1] [see map in the first post ‘St Peter’s Bells and my native town’] were two educational establishments. – the free grammar school founded with a bequest of local attorney, John Preston Esq. and built by the trustees in 1832 which provided ‘gratuitous instruction in the classics, and in writing and arithmetic, to about twenty-seven boys’[2].  The building still exists and after its closure in the early twentieth century has variously housed a library, cookery/woodwork centre and finally with its education mission at an end, a Balti house.  The second establishment was a National School for which there is evidence that one was in existence prior to 1787, but from 1811 it would have received some government funding administered by the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor.  However, although there were these opportunities for formal education there is no evidence that William was able to take advantage of them. In common with many of the children of similar age the 1851 Census describes him as a ‘home scholar’.

It is most likely that he learnt the rudiments of reading and writing in Sunday School at the Parish Church possibly under the tutelage of the Rector, Charles Cator. As such he would have been a beneficiary of the Sunday school movement which had been promoted by Robert Raikes at the end of 18th Century. Robert Raikes was the eldest son of Robert Raikes senior, who had founded the Gloucester Journal in 1722, and he succeeded to the business on his father’s death. One version of how Raikes became interested in setting up Sunday schools would have appealed to William when he became a newspaperman. This ‘story tells that Raikes made up his newspapers on Sundays, and was annoyed by interruption from noisy children outside when reading his proofs’ and sought to have them occupied in a Sunday school [3]. A Government Survey of 1851 stated that ‘the Stokesley District as defined in the National Census taken that year, has an above average day school attendance, but the smallest proportion of children at Sunday Schools’[4]  William being one of the ‘smallest proportion’ may have had the advantage of more individual attention.

He may not have attended school but it did not preclude him from joining with other children in activities such as Royal Oak Day on the 29th May; as a verse in his poem, St Peter’s Bells recalls:

There’s music in their merry peals,
That charms this heart of mine,
And softly o’er my spirit steals,
As in olden time;
When we gathered oak leaves in the wood
And sang to their merry chime.

In the asterisk footnote to the poem, William wrote – ‘On Royal Oak Day the bells of St Peter’s were regularly chimed. To their music the children of the town used to sing the following quatrain:

Royal Oak Day,
the twenty-ninth of May;
If you don’t give us a holiday
We’ll all runaway.

 And runaway they did. But it was seldom they had to play truant, for holiday was given to them’.  Royal Oak Day was a formal public holiday celebrated to commemorate the restoration of the monarchy. In 1660 Parliament offered to restore the monarchy if Charles would agree to concessions for religious toleration and a general amnesty. Charles agreed to the proposals and returned to London to be crowned Charles II.  It was formally abolished in 1859.

It is more than likely that it was William’s sister, Elizabeth, who took him to join the celebrations of Royal Oak Day. Elizabeth’s younger sister Mary had died some four years before William’s birth aged only three and the arrival of a young brother must have brought new happiness into her life. She must have been a very important part of his life from an early age looking after him whilst his mother was out at work. When William was ten, his sister had left home and was employed as a living-in house servant for Mr William Braithwaite and his wife Mary. It is likely that it was through his sister that he first met the Stokesley printer to whom he would become apprenticed and by whom he would be aided to achieve his potential.

William Braithwaite and his wife Mary had no children of their own but Mr Braithwaite had a reputation as a person who ‘always remained in the background, a retiring figure, always eager to help local writers and further the cause of education’. As well as being a friend of many celebrated authors, a number of his apprentices went on to have successful careers in the newspaper business, among them, Joseph Richardson to whom William was apprenticed when he moved to Middlesbrough and of whom we shall hear more later.  At the time of the 1841 census, there were two apprentices lodging with the Braithwaites, both were fifteen years old.  Henry Bramble who went on to have distinguished career on Leeds newspapers, retiring as leader writer for the Leeds Mercury in 1892[5], and less happily, Thomas Wayne Donaldson who died three years later; ‘At Stokesley, at the residence of Mr W Braithwaite, of consumption, on Tuesday, the 26th ult. aged 18, Master Thomas Wayne Donaldson, much respected’.[6]

From his premises, at what is now 30 High Street, William Braithwaite ran a thriving insurance business and a subscription library in addition to publishing a wide range of quality books that included Ord’s The History and Antiquities of Cleveland.  For a person such as William, with ‘indomitable perseverance’, access to such reading material would be a major asset.  However, of equal importance was the influence of William Braithwaite’s politics clearly expressed in the introductory address to the first edition of a monthly newspaper, ‘The Cleveland Repertory and Stokesley Advertiser’ which he published for three full years from 1843-1845.

‘An opinion has long been entertained, and frequently expressed to us, that a cheap Periodical Paper, being a general Repertory of News, Literary and Scientific, Political, Agricultural, and Commercial, published after monthly intervals, and conducted on sound constitutional principles, was a desideratum in Cleveland.  We are Conservatives. we would preserve the constitution of England and every part of it inviolate. We would protect it against the subtle and insidious attacks of disguised foes, shield it against open assaults of avowed and decided enemies. this who would upset, injure, deface or weaken it either by severance deduction or by the importation of principles foreign to its nature, whatever name this might adapt – or whatever shape assume – whether they profess friendship or confess enmity – we shall treat equally as traitors’.

With one notable exception, the papers with which William was to become involved, both as a proprietor and editor, were to be Conservative in tone and outlook.

The Parish Reading Room and Library in the Town Hall would have provided educational opportunities for William as would the meetings of the Stokesley Mechanics.  It was the Rector, Charles Cator, who was actively involved in the founding of the Stokesley Mechanics Institute, providing some of the lectures and serving as its President.  Since the early 1800’s Mechanic’s Institutes were opening all over the country; more commonly in large industrial centres. The man credited with being the founder of the Mechanics’ Institute movement was George Birkbeck[7]. Appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy (a study of nature and the physical world- a forerunner to modern science) at Anderson University in Glasgow in 1799, he began working with the local “mechanics” who were building equipment he required to conduct experiments. In the 1820’s the term mechanic referred to the skilled craftsmen or tradesmen who worked and maintained the machinery on which the Industrial Revolution depended. Birkbeck found the mechanics to be surprisingly inquisitive and was so impressed by their thirst for knowledge that he lobbied the University Trustees for the establishment of a “mechanics’ class.” The end result was a series of lectures for working men with the fetching title: “Mechanical affectations of solid and fluid bodies’[8]. From Glasgow the movement grew and in 1823, with the help of Lord Brougham[9], he founded the London Mechanics’ Institution, which eventually was to become Birkbeck College in 1907 and be incorporated into the University of London in 1920.

Nearer home, in Stokesley, on Saturday 9th November 1850, the Yorkshire Gazette reported that on the previous Thursday ‘a public meeting was held in the Large Room of the New Mill, belonging to the Darlington District Banking Company, which celebrated the opening of an institution, the want of which has long been felt in this town, namely, a Mechanics’ Institute’. [10] This was indeed a very public event and it is possible that William even at the tender age of 10, with his ‘penchant for elocution’, had contributed to the entertainment. Although with a serious purpose, the occasion seems to have had something of a gala spirit,

 ‘The room was tastefully decorated with evergreens and pictures, and brilliantly illuminated with gas. The shops were closed at three o’clock in the afternoon, and the town, in consequence of the propitious state of the weather, assumed the appearance of a general holiday. Tea was provided by Mrs. Barker, of the Three Inn, whose providence for the occasion reflected the highest credit on her as a caterer for the public taste. At four o’clock about 250 of the inhabitants of Stokesley, of all sects and parties, sat down to the repast in a spirit of good fellowship, and to the eye of an observer, after looking upon the numerous assemblage of intelligent looking countenances present, it is to regretted that the important object for which they had met that evening to celebrate, should not have been accomplished before’.

How strongly the Rector, Charles Cator, felt about educational opportunity can be judged by his opening words;

 ‘It gives me more real satisfaction than I can express, to be with you here on the occasion of the complete organization of the “Stokesley Mechanics’ Institute,” founded, I trust it is, on principles of permanency, usefulness, and mutual improvement… It is indeed hardly possible to estimate the beneficial influence on the community of such an effort of the young men of this isolated locality, to emancipate themselves from the thraldom of its disadvantages, which, without some such means of rational intercourse, or access to books and periodical publications, are enough to sink its multitude into sensuality’.

A report on a Stokesley Mechanics’ Institute meeting in November 1853 gives some indication of the educational opportunities made available, ‘Weekly classes have been formed for instruction in reading, writing, grammar, elocution, arithmetic, mathematics, geography, and music; and a programme of lectures has been issued, comprising a large amount of talent and most interesting subjects’[11].  Soon after the building of the Town Hall, the Mechanics Institute started to hold its meetings in its Reading Room and a lecture that must have been of particular interest to William was given by Jas Barthram, jun. on Thursday evening, 10th January 1856

‘The lecturer’s subject was ‘The Origin and Progress of Newspapers’ the rise and development of which class of literature was illustrated from the earliest periods; the legislative enactments and restrictions which have impaired its usefulness, its tone, and general character, and the important position which it now occupies were freely commented on. The lecture was concluded by a brief sketch of the metropolitan daily press, and some remarks on the beneficial influence which the newspaper press generally has exerted in promoting the spread of education, improvement, and general information. There was a very respectable audience assembled, and the lecture seemed to give much satisfaction’[12]

It is not clear exactly when William became ‘a protégé of William Braithwaite, but ‘being at business’ signified being apprenticed at the age of thirteen.  The Braithwaite printing works were behind the shop at what is today 30 High Street and had been acquired from John Slater Pratt around 1840.  When William became an apprentice, William Braithwaite was an established and well-respected publisher and printer.  Amongst his former apprentices had been George Markham Tweddell [1824-1899][13], whose wife Elizabeth [1823-1903], wrote much admired poems ‘that caught the speech of local people and expressed their daily concerns in dialect poetry’.

One of William’s first independent publishing venture[14] included poems written by Mrs G. M. Tweddell before she adopted the nom-de-plume of Florence Cleveland[15]. Whilst William was ‘being at business’ he also ‘taught himself “the winged art,” and was acting as correspondent at Stokesley for the York Herald, remaining on the staff for ten years.’

Daphne Franks records that John Slater Pratt at seventeen was ‘taking down the Manor Court Proceedings in shorthand for his father William Pratt to publish in pamphlet form’. Although there is no record of which form of the ‘winged art’ that William had learnt by the time he was thirteen, it is most likely that it was the system devised by Isaac Pitman [1813-1897]. There were in all some twenty editions of Pitman’s system. The second edition, entitled Phonography, or, Writing by Sound, being also a New and Natural System of Short-Hand, appeared on 10 January 1840 – the year William was born. It rapidly became the most popular form of shorthand. Pitman, who had also been one of the earliest protagonists of a ‘penny post’, took advantage of the introduction of the ‘Uniform Penny Post’ to advertise his system of phonography. He had a special ‘Penny Plate’ engraved that contained ‘a remarkable conspectus* of his system miniaturised onto a 6.5” x 8” plate.  The rules of the system are outlined in 35 points. Tables illustrate the symbols and outlines, the Lord’s Prayer and various psalms are rendered in full. Examples are given in French and German, with the note that any language can be written in phonography with trifling differences in the sound of some letters’.  The thirty-fifth rule which read- ‘Reader Practice and Persevere’ – would have appealed to any person, like William, wishing to improve themselves[16]. The uniform penny post could be prepaid with the first postage stamp, known as the Penny Black – an iconic ‘must have’ stamp of my generation! As an additional incentive Pitman announced ‘Any person may receive lessons from the author by post gratuitously’. Like John Slater Pratt before him William would have used the ‘winged art’ to record court proceedings which were held in the newly built Town Hall to record proceedings and other stories that as a local correspondent he would have sent to the York Herald.

In the next post we will return to family matter – two weddings and a funeral before dealing with William’s move to Middlesbrough in around 1855.

[1] now College Square

[2] Lewis, Samuel. Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of England. London, England:  S. Lewis and Co., (1845). Vol. I-IV

[3] Anita McConnell, ‘Raikes, Robert (1736–1811)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/23016, accessed 17 Sept 2015]

[4] Stokesley – Further Aspects of Victorian Everyday Life. Education, I.E Ridley, p34 Stokesley Local History Study Group (2009)

[5] Leeds Mercury – Monday 03 December 1900 [Obituary – Henry Brambles]

[6] Cleveland Repertory & Stokesley Advertiser, Vol. II, No. 13.  January 1, 1844 [Death- Thomas Wayne Donaldson]

[7] Matthew Lee, ‘Birkbeck, George (1776–1841)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/2454, accessed 8 Oct 2015]

[8] http://mechanicsinstitutes.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/findings.html

[9] Michael Lobban, ‘Brougham, Henry Peter, first Baron Brougham and Vaux (1778–1868)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/3581, accessed 8 Oct 2015]

[10] Yorkshire Gazette Saturday 9th November 1850

[11] Yorkshire Gazette – Saturday 26 November 1853


[12] Yorkshire Gazette, Saturday 19th January 1856  http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000266/18560119/044/0009

[13] George Markham Tweddle, http://georgemarkhamtweddell.blogspot.co.uk/p/biography.html

[14] Broad Yorkshire being poems and sketches from the writings of Castillo, Mrs G M Tweddell, Reed, Brown, Lewis and others Edited by W H Burnett. Hamilton Adams & Co, London and W H Burnett, Royal Exchange, Middlesbrough (1885)

[15] Florence Cleveland, http://georgemarkhamtweddell.blogspot.co.uk/p/florence-cleveland.html

[16] http://www.carolynfraser.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Fraser_Uppercase_8.pdf


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