Culture / History

Imperial nonfiction: Boys’ Heroes

‘Come along, lads! I want to tell you some of the best stories in the world, about some of the very finest fellows who ever lived.’heroes 3

T.W. Jamieson, A Boy’s Book of Heroes: Chats with Lads about Life’s Possibilities (J.W. Butcher, London, n.d.)
Frank Mundell, Stories of the Victoria Cross and the Humane Society (Sunday School Union, London, n.d.)
C.D. Michael, Success! Chats about Boys Who Have Won It (S.W. Partridge, London, n.d.)

These three books were presented to my paternal grandfather over a period of years in recognition of his ‘good conduct, diligence and regular attendance’ at the Salvation Army Sunday School in Willenhall, Staffordshire. He received the first in 1914, when he was twelve years old and had just left school, and they were intended to be inspiring and improving, to set a standard for the kind of man he might become.

I regret to say they haven’t done much to improve me, because, although I love the look and feel of them, and I have browsed occasionally, I’ve not really read them in the twenty-five years I’ve owned them. But recently there’s been a lot of talk – not all of it informed – about our national history, about Empire, how it was and is taught, and it occurred to me that there might be something here that could prove useful in understanding the times.

Because these pages offer a snapshot of the values recommended to a working-class boy growing up in a religious family in the Black Country just over a century ago, when the Empire was still intact. These are the examples – the role-models as we’d now say – that it was hoped he would follow.

‘The blackest night of England’s history was the eighteenth century,’ observes T.W. Jamieson. ‘The moral condition of this country was appalling. Then Wesley sounded his trumpet; and there was a great awakening.’ And that’s very much the territory we’re in here. These are, after all, texts approved by the Salvation Army, a church that grew out of John Wesley’s Methodists.

So the books are very definitely from the evangelical tradition; their message is one of service to God and good works to all mankind, with a strong vein of resolution and endeavour. The Lord helps those who help themselves, but there are no short cuts: ‘good luck will carry you across any ditch, if you jump well enough.’

Jamieson’s Boy’s Book of Heroes is an A-Z of inspirational figures from Alexander the Great through to Zwingli. Some entries are just a couple of paragraphs long and aren’t much use to anyone (Bonnie Prince Charlie, we learn, isn’t as great as the Greater Prince who gave His life for us), but others are potted biographies of four to six pages. The emphasis throughout is on their childhood, when glimpses can be seen of the great man to come.

Religious figures loom large, of course, and they’re primarily Protestant. There are Catholics who get the longer treatment – St Francis, Jesuit missionary Father Damien – but the core is of Martin Luther and William Tyndale, John Knox and William Penn, leading, via the Wesley brothers, almost inevitably to the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury and the giants of the nineteenth century. ‘Charles Kingsley ought to be every boy’s hero,’ we’re told. ‘He was the prophet of muscular Christianity; and he always practised what he preached.’

Kingsley is not the only writer included in this roll-call of heroes; he’s joined by John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and John Milton. Also, slightly surprisingly, Robert Louis Stevenson, who’s approved of because he ‘wrote for the invigorating and safeguarding of youth’. (It’s recommended that a boy should start by reading Kidnapped and Catriona, though personally I’d suggest trying Treasure Island first.)

I get the impression, however, that Stevenson really makes the cut not so much for the quality of his work as for his absolute devotion to work, despite his appalling health problems. He had the right values – he ‘hated morbidness, cynicism, moral cowardice, unmanly weakness, sullenness, lack of buoyancy’ – but more than that, he ‘was a model of industry,’ who didn’t allow adversity to blow him off course. ‘His life is a rebuke to triflers.’heroes 2

The fact that novelists are present at all is an indication of changing times. Sixty years earlier, a guide such as this would have frowned on fiction, seen it as frivolity. Now it’s acceptable – provided, of course, that it’s moral fiction:

In the hands of its masters, the aim of the novel is to make us wiser and larger-hearted; to show us experiences which may not come our way; to make us live in the lives of people different from ourselves; to assist us to build up our character by showing us the profit and the possibility of noble actions; and the cost and curse of living ignobly.

More generally, Jamieson’s pantheon is a little odd in places. Even its Old Testament choices are far from obvious: Moses, Jonathan and Gideon. When it comes to politicians, we get Lincoln and Garfield from America, Garibaldi and Mazzini from Italy, and Bismarck from Germany. But there’s no Gladstone, for example, and while John Bright gets a nod, William Wilberforce does not.

Elsewhere, it’s nice that eighteenth-century prison reformer John Howard is included, but Bernard Palissy? One doesn’t wish to minimise his achievement as the first European to make white porcelain, and his eventual triumph after many years of failed experiments is in tune with the general theme of perseverance, but it feels as though Palissy’s really here because he was persecuted by Catholics.

The big military names are pretty much as one would expect: Nelson, Wellington, Drake, Blake, Wolfe and Gordon. (Actually, I don’t know how big some of those names are these days. I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone mention Robert Blake or James Wolfe.) There’s also the greatest of England’s enemies, Napoleon; he may have been flawed – ‘a hero with a worm at his heart’ – but he did have some admirable qualities: ‘strict sobriety, energy and marvellous “stickability” to his duty.’

Jamieson explains in his introduction that obviously heroism evolves as human society progresses:

There is a heroism of savages and a heroism of civilised races; and as people grow stronger and better and purer, their heroism passes through many changes until it becomes very much like the heroism of Jesus Christ. His was the most heroic life that was ever lived.
There is a heroism which we may describe as physical, a mere animal courage; and it was very useful in the rough and lawless times in which our remote ancestors lived in this island home of ours.

Note that second paragraph, clarifying that the ‘heroism of savages’ refers to Britain in earlier times. This is about culture, not race. In fact, unless I’m missing something, there’s no interest in race here whatsoever.

There is, though, a firmly pro-British tone, running alongside the Christian message. The essay on the Indian Mutiny, for example, is unashamedly partisan. ‘Throughout this terrible crisis in India, the English behaved with the greatest heroism,’ concludes Jamieson. And of course he’s right. You’d have to be very blinkered indeed to deny the courage of, say, the Gallant Nine – the soldiers led by George Willoughby, who defended the Delhi Magazine against overwhelming numbers, so that arms might not fall into rebel hands, and who then blew it up, knowing that they would likely die in the explosion.

But if you’re looking for a denunciation of Britain’s colonisation of India – or even a vague questioning of it – you won’t find it in these pages; Jamieson takes the existence of the Raj as a simple fact. He also takes sides: he’s big on the atrocities committed by the rebels, but doesn’t mention those committed by the British in the retaliation. (These were controversial even at the time. ‘I protest against meeting atrocities with atrocities,’ declared Disraeli.) But even here, Jamieson’s indignation is directed at men serving in British regiments turning mutinous; the violence that ensues is not seen as being racially or religiously determined, and there are no racial or religious conclusions drawn. The theme is the breakdown of discipline and order in the ranks.heroes 4

‘The Gallant Nine’ also feature in Frank Mundell’s Stories of the Victoria Cross. Four of the nine actually survived the explosion, and three were awarded the VC, though not Willoughby, who was caught and killed while trying to escape Delhi. There were no posthumous medals in those days.

Mundell’s canvas is necessarily more limited than Jamieson’s. The VC was only created in 1856, just as the Crimean War was coming to a close, and this book was written in the spring of 1901. So he doesn’t have too many examples to choose from, and they come from a limited field of endeavour. Even so, the selection of material is interesting.

There were, for example, fifteen recipients of the VC in the New Zealand Wars in the 1860s, but the only one to feature here is Dr William Manley of the Royal Artillery, who tended to the wounded under heavy fire during the Battle of Gate Pā in the Tauranga campaign. Not a combatant, then, but a surgeon. (An amazing man, by the way. He won not only the VC but also, while later serving in the Franco-Prussian War, the Iron Cross, the only person ever to hold both honours.)

It’s also striking that this is Gate Pā, one of the British Army’s less heroic actions. Despite numerical advantage, and some big artillery, the attempt to take the Maori-held fort was repelled; the attack turned first into a retreat, and then into a panicked rout. It’s not that the British lost the day; it was the manner of the defeat. As Mundell puts it: ‘An uncontrollable fear had robbed them of their presence of mind and their very manhood.’ The Maoris, on the other hand, ‘are a brave, strong race of people, and very warlike’. Manley gets the top billing, but the rebels are also presented as being worthy of our admiration.

At the time of writing, the Boer War was still in progress. Already, Mundell notes, nearly forty VCs had been awarded in the conflict and questions were being asked in Parliament about whether this was not too profligate. Was the currency being devalued? Were all these awards justified? After all, ‘it has been contended that for a man to rescue a wounded comrade left on the field, even though he does so under a deadly rain of bullets, is nothing more than is to be expected of the average Briton’.

If that seems a little churlish towards the recipients, it also sets an impressively high standard for concepts of loyalty and friendship. Nothing to do with patriotism, you’ll note, let alone jingoism; it’s not Wilfred Owen’s ‘old lie’ of ‘Dulce et decorum est’, not the honour of the nation or even the regiment that’s emphasised – it’s commitment to one’s comrades.

(For those old enough to remember Rolf Harris’s ‘Two Little Boys’, there are unmistakable echoes in some of this, and indeed the song dates from the year after this book was written. It’s a terrible, sentimental ditty, of course, absolutely risible nonsense. Except that it’s based on a true story. And that it’s not actually a bad message: heroism is about serving others.)

On a bibliographical note, Stories of the Victoria Cross was previously published as a book in its own right, but in this edition, it’s been bound together with the same author’s Stories of the Royal Humane Society in a single volume. (The page-numbering restarts halfway through.) The pairing further detracts from any hint of militaristic fetishism.

C.D. Michael’s Success! covers less ground than Jamieson’s Heroes, but offers slightly longer potted biographies (a dozen or so pages each) of seventeen successful men. Some are well-known figures – Benjamin Franklin, James Watt, George Handel – others not so much.

There’s John Kitto (1804–54), for example, of whose literary endeavours ‘it is not necessary to speak here. Throughout Christendom the name and work of John Kitto are known and valued.’ I don’t think that’s still the case, but Kitto was an impressive and important figure, writing popular (though scholarly) works on the Bible. As in Jamieson’s book, the main reason he’s here is the personal story of this Doctor of Divinity: the adversity overcome by a self-taught workhouse boy, who never grew above 4 feet 8 inches, and was deaf from the age of twelve.heroes 6

Elsewhere, I should probably have known the landscape painter Henry Dawson (1811–78) and the ceramic artist George Tinworth (1843–1913), but I’m ashamed to say I didn’t. (Particularly so in the case of the latter, who turns out to be rather good.) Both are included because, like Kitto, they came from poverty, and made the most of their ability through energy and application. The Parable of the Talents is very much the sacred text of these books.

Similarly the great industrialists here are the self-made men: Sir George Elliot (1814–93) and Sir Josiah Mason (1795–1881), the sons respectively of a Gateshead coal-miner and a carpet-weaver from Kidderminster. Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help is another sacred text.

I wasn’t so sure about the inclusion of Martin Hope Sutton (1815–1901). In case he’s slipped your mind, he was the man responsible for making Suttons Seeds so successful (it still has a royal warrant from the Queen). He was born into the trade, though; his father set up the business, which gave him a better start in life than most of the others. But he did a lot of work with the Sunday School and Temperance movements, and the success of his firm is testament ‘to the principles of a thoroughly sound commercial morality’. As the author notes:

To give good value for money has been the tested motto of many a noted firm, and it will, we trust, always remain a characteristic of all departments of British trade.

And you can’t really argue with that.

But, Jamieson asks rhetorically, why would we want to read about all these people from the past anyway? And I think his answer is rather interesting: ‘Because they bought the blessings, the privileges, the advantages which we today enjoy; and our appreciation of those things will deepen if we see the price they paid.’

There’s a different mindset here from our own times, when academics and even columnists talk about the need to ‘confront’ history. This isn’t confrontation, let alone condemnation, but gratitude, a recognition that the world we take for granted was created by others. This isn’t about trying to find faults and failings in great men; this wants us to consider their virtues, and to draw strength and inspiration from them. It’s interested – to use an old cliche so often cited, so seldom observed – in learning from history. And in doing so not as an abstract intellectual exercise, but as moral instruction.

And I can’t find much fault with that. Nor with the values being promoted. A hundred years on, I’d want to change some of the choices of subject. I’d also, as a historian, want to widen the focus; because however heroic some of the British troops in the Indian Mutiny, the story does demand mention of, say, General Neill as well. But the essence of these publications – the wish to celebrate selflessness and steadfastness, decency and determination – these things are surely of merit.

Well, maybe I’m just getting more sentimental as I get older. It wouldn’t be surprising: sentimentality is the Englishman’s alternative to spirituality. But I would just note that the generation who grew up on this stuff didn’t turn out too shabby; they made a pretty fair contribution to the history of Europe, rebuilt Britain after the Second World War, and oversaw the dismantling of the Empire.

heroes 1

My granddad, to whom these belonged, wasn’t a hero, nor was he a success, a boy who made it. Rather, he worked his entire life as a boilerman in the gas works (including through the war, since his was a reserved occupation). He was, though, a good man, a decent man. He was a committed Christian, and the Salvation Army was the core of his life. He was also a lifelong union member, in what is now the GMB, though he had no faith in party politics. Insofar as he was political, it was mostly a distrust of earthly authority. (One of my favourite tales of his was about an escaped convict who turned up at the gas works one night, and who the workers sheltered from the police.)

Maybe he was right not to trust politicians with their promises to build a new Jerusalem, because it never materialised in Willenhall. Well into the 1980s, he and my gran were still renting the same house they’d lived in since they were wed; it still didn’t have an indoor toilet, and the tin bath still had to be dragged from the yard into the kitchen once a week.

If my life is considerably easier than his was, it’s because he and his generation changed the country for the better. And I’d like to believe that I’m grateful to them. Because they bought the blessings, the privileges, the advantages which I enjoy today; and my appreciation of those things will deepen if I see the price they paid.

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One thought on “Imperial nonfiction: Boys’ Heroes

  1. What a fabulous post. Particularly the last coup!e of paragraphs. My Paternal Grandfather was slightly younger than yours, but lived few miles from yours in Walsall. He was a paper hanger who never rose above his allotted station in life but fought in the war and was able to buy a small semi in Chuckery, send his son to Grammar school and allow our family to progress into the middle class for the first time. He was a thoroughly decent man and I am very proud to come from his stock.


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