Anglican clergyman, publisher and convert to Roman Catholicism, Charles Kegan Paul (1828-1902) was born on March 8, 1828, at White Lackington, near Ilminster, Somerset the son of Charles Paul, curate of the parish and his wife Frances Kegan Horne. In 1899 he published his autobiography and it is from this that these memories of his early life in Writhlington are derived.
Soon after I was two years old, my father, retaining his living of Knowle, took the curacies of Writhlington and Foxcote, about eight miles from Bath. We lived at Writhlington for ten years, and all my childish recollections are connected with it. In spite of several collieries, seen from the drawing-room windows, it was a pretty and attractive home; the country people were simple and friendly; we children were left a good deal to ourselves, and we roamed where we would and when we would. I still seem to see a hedge of Roses de Meaux (do such roses exist now ?) which formed a fence to our field, and to smell the syringa in the shrubbery, to taste the peppermint bull’s-eyes, which our neighbour the farmer, whose suitable name was Mattick, used always to produce from his breeches-pocket, and am sure there were never such fruit-trees as the quince, the medlar, and the Siberian crab which grew upon the lawn.
But to persons of riper years there were drawbacks; church restoration was as yet undreamed of, and the fabric of the church was disgraceful. As very few of the congregation could read, the services were almost entirely confined to a duet between the parson and the clerk. The Communion table was a plain four-legged piece of carpentry, without a cover, such as might have stood in our kitchen; the whole service, when there was no Communion, was read in the desk; the Holy Communion was administered about four times a year, but always on Good Friday as well as on Easter Sunday; the surplice was a full white gown, unrelieved by any stole or scarf. My father’s reading of the prayers was grave and dignified, his doctrine old-fashioned and orthodox, his sermons moral essays far over the heads of his congregation, his parochial ministrations above the average of those days. I never remember seeing a baptism performed in the church during my childhood, or a woman churched during the service. Each of these offices took place in private, generally on Sundays after the rest of the congregation had left church, or on any week-day when the clergyman happened to be at home and could come to the church. It is curious, however, that certain pre-Reformation customs were always kept up. Both men and women bowed or genuflected to the altar, on entering church, though, had they been asked, they would probably have thought that the custom was directed to the squire’s pew. Women always carried a prayer-book, whether they could read or not, wrapped up in a clean pocket-handkerchief; and this I believe to have been a reminiscence of the Housel cloth that was carried by individuals when not spread over the altar rails at the time of Mass. The only attempt to give any instruction was at the Sunday-school, and this was held in the chancel.
Nearly all the colliers belonged to the village club, and the funeral of a member was always largely attended by his fellow-clubmen. We had a very old green parrot, allowed to wander at will about the house and garden. The creature on one occasion climbed to the top of a high fir-tree in the garden which overlooked the churchyard, and seeing a very large assemblage at a funeral below, screamed out in most distinct tones: ” O Lord, what fun! what fun! O my eyes, what fun!” This, indeed, was an accident, but there was a general want of decorum about the Church services in those days.
But to return to the fabric. In the chancel were monuments to the Goldfinch family, in whose possession the old Manor-House had once been, and in the vaults below were their coffins mouldering to decay. On the walls was an ominous green slime. The floor of our old pew had several holes, and a frowsy smell ascended to my sisters’ and my noses, as we were nearer to the floor than our elders. If the day chanced to be very fine, a ray of light struck from the window through the said holes to the bulging coffins and showed us their nauseous state. Probably some faint attempt had been made at embalming, for the odour was not unbearable in those pre-sanitary days. Now, however, I place to the account of those dead Goldfinches a bad typhus fever from which we children suffered, leaving its traces in a rash on our heads. I only mention this unpleasant circumstance for the sake of the old-world remedy which was applied—bell oil, after some village recipe—the stale, dirty, and rancid oil used for the clappers of the Church bells, to make them swing easily, with which we were for some time anointed night and morning.
Our residence at Writhlington was once broken early in our stay there, and perhaps that, next to the egg-shells, is my earliest recollection. My father went to St. Vincent when West Indian affairs began to go wrong, to settle matters connected with the estate.
Both of Charles Kegan Pauls parents families were from St. Vincent in the West Indies and his father was independently wealthy due to the income from the family estates there. This was the time of emancipation and the abolition of slavery was to have an effect on the future imcome of the family. Whilst his father was absent the family moved to the City of Bath where his mother had been raised.
When my father returned we went back to Writhlington from Bath, where we had spent the time of his absence, and shortly after this one of my mother’s brothers, with his wife and family, arrived from St. Vincent to stay with us. Never was such consternation and amaze as Black Ann, the nurse, created in the Somerset mining village. I seem to see her now as she sallied forth to church on the morning after her arrival; low dress, bare arms, a turban of flaming colours, her flashing eyes and gleaming teeth set off by a skin blacker than any collier’s. Her absolute disregard of her mistress’s wishes was astonishing, and disorganizing to our household. Peal followed peal of the bell which sounded in the kitchen, while she ” turned her eyes tail up,” and remarked languidly, ” Let um ring again, and den I come.”
There was no fire-damp in the Somerset coalmines, and the colliers used to go about with tallow candles stuck in a little socket in front of their caps. They were a pleasant, kindly set of men, and on the best terms with us children. The way of going up and down the mine was a sort of barrel at the end of a rope, called a hutch, and the upper edge of this was very sharp, generally bound with iron. While we were at Writhlington a man fell down the shaft, and met an ascending hutch, which all but filled the shaft. His neck struck on the edge, and he was decapitated, his body falling to the bottom of the shaft, while the head reached the surface in the hutch.
We were wont to move for the winter into the neighbouring city of Bath, where we attended the Octagon Chapel, later Margaret’s Chapel, and, on rare occasions, the Abbey. I believe my elders found something in the services which aided their piety, but I remember nothing which increased my own. I loathed church-going, though I was not an irreligious child.
Our country neighbours were few, and the roads atrocious, so as to prevent much communication. But I have recollections of rare dinner-parties at home, in fine weather, and when there was a moon; and of an occasional visit with my father and mother to country houses. The one thing that stands out prominently is that it was by no means uncommon for a country gentleman to be the worse for liquor after dinner, not drunk, but in the condition Miss Austen describes ” stuffy uncle Phillips, breathing port wine.”
Our nearest doctor was in the village of Chilcompton, six miles off, and the ordinary doctoring of the village was done by my mother from her own medicine chest, a real chest, full of large bottles. From this also the doctor made up his prescriptions, when he came, for us and for the poor. The amount of calomel, jalap, and other violent medicines then used was frightful, while the lancet was called into play for almost every ailment. People were regularly let blood every spring and fall, and women especially during every month of their pregnancy. When the cholera first appeared in England many people fell ill with fright, and there was one awful evening, when the wind blew a hurricane, with torrents of rain, that our cook made sure she had cholera, rejected all domestic remedies, and made the groom go off on horseback for the doctor. He arrived drenched to the skin, inspected the woman, and then weighed out a dose of jalap, such as even in those days my mother had not dreamed of. ” But it will kill the woman,” she objected. ” No,” said Mr. Leech—his real name — “it will not kill her, for she is strong, but as there is nothing whatever the matter with her, it will cure her of fancying she has cholera again.”
As far as I remember there was one dame’s school in the village, of course under no sort of control or inspection, and a Sunday-school held in the chancel of the church, in which as soon as I could read myself, I took a class. The smell of Sunday corduroys, onions eaten for breakfast, peppermints to be sucked in church during the sermon, and ” boys’ love” stuck between the leaves of prayer-books, is never to be forgotten. Sunday observance for the elders of the parish was mainly confined to washing, and it was difficult to recognize our collier friends in their unaccustomed white skins. A very small percentage came to church. There were, however, a few who ” got religion,” as the phrase was, and unable to find vent for their fervour in the then chill services of the Church, became Primitive Methodists, or Ranters, as they were termed. In fine weather they met on the open down, where the believers from two or three small villages could come together. Once as my father was riding from Writhlington to Foxcote on Sunday to take an afternoon service, they very civilly but firmly barred his progress, then, holding his horse’s bridle, knelt down and prayed for his conversion ; placing him in a somewhat embarrassing position. Totally devoid of education, they used in their prayers words of sonorous power, but no meaning. While waiting outside a cottage door, after knocking, my father once heard these words spoken inside: ” O Lord, look down upon our forefathers and warm their cold hearts.” This was a prayer for the dead with a vengeance !
It was not at Writhlington, but at another village with which I was well acquainted, that the ” Ranters,” when they fell to prayer, took the precaution of expelling the devil from their midst. They prayed vehemently, and in their petitions shouted so as to scare him; then feeling sure no devil could have resisted them, closed all windows and doors fast, plugging the keyhole with paper, and as it was summer and no fire on the hearth, blocked the chimney with a potato sack, and then prayed again in security. But suddenly an excited woman exclaimed : ” He baint gone ; I seed ‘en, I seed ‘en.” “Wheer ? wheer?” cried the assistants. ” I seed ‘en look out of the nozzle of the bellows.” The devil had taken refuge in them. Then the bellows were carried to the door, the paper was removed from the keyhole; and the evil spirit being whiffed through, all went well to the end of the exercise.
When I was eight years old it was settled that I should go to school. My mother’s health was failing, and for more than a year her eyes gave her great trouble, so that she lived chiefly in a darkened room, and could take but little charge of her children. She had had the main care of my education up to this time, my father only teaching me Latin and the Greek alphabet. The school chosen for me was Ilminster, an old foundation in the town close to my birthplace. Though in after years I knew it so well that every tree and stone in the neighbourhood seemed to have been familiar to me from earliest infancy, this was of course my first conscious introduction to the place. My father and mother drove to Lackington, spent a night at the parsonage, and left me the next day to be taken to school by Mrs. Johnson, the parson’s wife, sister of James Brooke. I cried myself to sleep in the evening, and my window facing the east, whereas our nursery at Writhlington looked north, the morning on which I went to school is the one on which I remember first seeing the sun rise. It was a glorious October morning, warm and bright as April, but the sunrise was no true omen. That day was the sunset of my childish ignorance, innocence, and happiness : I was going to a school which was, to me at least, a hell, and where life was one long misery.
In 1839 my father became Vicar of Wellow, five miles from Bath and about four from Writhlington, and pending the enlargement and partial rebuilding of the Vicarage, we went to live for a year at Westfield Villa in Weston, near Bath, whence my father rode backwards and forwards to Wellow. In 1840 we removed to Wellow, and the first entrance into our new home was saddened by disaster and sorrow. The disaster was the final and complete failure of the West Indian property, which had been languishing ever since the slave emancipation. However, there had always been some income from the estate till the time of which I speak, when the supplies failed wholly, and money also was wanted to keep the estate going at all. My father determined to take pupils, and was fortunate in finding as many as he wanted for some years. It was not a pleasant experiment, my mother never liked it, and her health was very unfit to cope with the situation, even if she had not soon been saddened by the loss of children. My father, though he taught fairly well, as I believe, had not the smallest sympathy for or understanding of boy nature, and pupils had the effect, as is generally the case, of breaking up our home life.
The sorrow was caused by the deaths of two little brothers, one an infant, the other, who died very suddenly, a promising boy of six. With this child all the light and joy died out of my mother’s life for a long time to come. I had left Ilminster the previous Christmas, having been for some time laid up with a bad knee, injured in jumping over forms in the school-room.