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- Biographies of Working Men - 1/22 -

by the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions.













My acknowledgments are due to Dr. Smiles's "Lives of the Engineers," "Life of the Stephensons," and "Life of a Scotch Naturalist;" to Lady Eastlake's "Life of Gibson;" to Mr. Holden's "Life of Sir William Herschel;" to M. Seusier's "J. F. Millet, Sa Vie et Ses OEuvres;" and to Mr. Thayer's "Life of President Garfield;" from which most of the facts here narrated have been derived.

G. A.



High up among the heather-clad hills which form the broad dividing barrier between England and Scotland, the little river Esk brawls and bickers over its stony bed through a wild land of barren braesides and brown peat mosses, forming altogether some of the gloomiest and most forbidding scenery in the whole expanse of northern Britain. Almost the entire bulk of the counties of Dumfries, Kirkcudbright, and Ayr is composed of just such solemn desolate upland wolds, with only a few stray farms or solitary cottages sprinkled at wide distances over their bare bleak surface, and with scarcely any sign of life in any part save the little villages which cluster here and there at long intervals around some stern and simple Scottish church. Yet the hardy people who inhabit this wild and chilly moorland country may well be considered to rank among the best raw material of society in the whole of Britain; for from the peasant homes of these southern Scotch Highlands have come forth, among a host of scarcely less distinguished natives, three men, at least, who deserve to take their place in the very front line of British thinkers or workers--Thomas Telford, Robert Burns, and Thomas Carlyle. By origin, all three alike belonged in the very strictest sense to the working classes; and the story of each is full of lessons or of warnings for every one of us: but that of Telford is perhaps the most encouraging and the most remarkable of all, as showing how much may be accomplished by energy and perseverance, even under the most absolutely adverse and difficult circumstances.

Near the upper end of Eskdale, in the tiny village of Westerkirk, a young shepherd's wife gave birth to a son on the 9th of August, 1757. Her husband, John Telford, was employed in tending sheep on a neighbouring farm, and he and his Janet occupied a small cottage close by, with mud walls and rudely thatched roof, such as in southern England even the humblest agricultural labourer would scarcely consent willingly to inhabit. Before the child was three months old, his father died; and Janet Telford was left alone in the world with her unweaned baby. But in remote country districts, neighbours are often more neighbourly than in great towns; and a poor widow can manage to eke out a livelihood for herself with an occasional lift from the helping hands of friendly fellow-villagers. Janet Telford had nothing to live upon save her own ten fingers; but they were handy enough, after the sturdy Scotch fashion, and they earned some sort of livelihood in a humble way for herself and her fatherless boy. The farmers about found her work on their farms at haymaking or milking, and their wives took the child home with them while its mother was busy labouring in the harvest fields. Amid such small beginnings did the greatest of English engineers before the railway era receive his first hard lessons in the art of life.

After her husband's death, the poor widow removed from her old cottage to a still more tiny hut, which she shared with a neighbour--a very small hut, with a single door for both families; and here young Tam Telford spent most of his boyhood in the quiet honourable poverty of the uncomplaining rural poor. As soon as he was big enough to herd sheep, he was turned out upon the hillside in summer like any other ragged country laddie, and in winter he tended cows, receiving for wages only his food and money enough to cover the cost of his scanty clothing. He went to school, too; how, nobody now knows: but he _did_ go, to the parish school of Westerkirk, and there he learnt with a will, in the winter months, though he had to spend the summer on the more profitable task of working in the fields. To a steady earnest boy like young Tam Telford, however, it makes all the difference in the world that he should have been to school, no matter how simply. Those twenty-six letters of the alphabet, once fairly learnt, are the key, after all, to all the book- learning in the whole world. Without them, the shepherd-boy might remain an ignorant, unprogressive shepherd all his life long, even his undeniable native energy using itself up on nothing better than a wattled hurdle or a thatched roof; with them, the path is open before him which led Tam Telford at last to the Menai Bridge and Westminster Abbey.

When Tam had gradually eaten his way through enough thin oatmeal porridge (with very little milk, we fear) to make him into a hearty lad of fifteen, it began to be high time for him to choose himself a final profession in life, such as he was able. And here already the born tastes of the boy began to show themselves: for he had no liking for the homely shepherd's trade; he felt a natural desire for a chisel and a hammer--the engineer was there already in the grain--and he was accordingly apprenticed to a stonemason in the little town of Lochmaben, beyond the purple hills to eastward. But his master was a hard man; he had small mercy for the raw lad; and after trying to manage with him for a few months, Tam gave it up, took the law into his own hands, and ran away. Probably the provocation was severe, for in after-life Telford always showed himself duly respectful to constituted authority; and we know that petty self-made master-workmen are often apt to be excessively severe to their own hired helpers, and especially to helpless lads or young apprentices. At any rate, Tam wouldn't go back; and in the end, a well-to-do cousin, who had risen to the proud position of steward at the great hall of the parish, succeeded in getting another mason at Langholm, the little capital of Eskdale, to take over the runaway for the remainder of the term of his indentures.

At Langholm, a Scotch country town of the quietest and sleepiest description, Tam Telford passed the next eight years of his uneventful early life, first as an apprentice, and afterwards as a journeyman mason of the humblest type. He had a good mother, and he was a good son. On Saturday nights he generally managed to walk over to the cottage at Westerkirk, and accompany the poor widow to the Sunday services at the parish kirk. As long as she lived, indeed, he never forgot her; and one of the first tasks he set himself when he was out of his indentures was to cut a neat headstone with a simple but beautiful inscription for the grave of that shepherd father whom he had practically never seen. At Langholm, an old maiden lady, Miss Pasley, interested herself kindly in Janet Telford's rising boy. She lent him what of all things the eager lad most needed--books; and the young mason applied himself to them in all his spare moments with the vigorous ardour and perseverance of healthy youth. The books he read were not merely those which bore directly or indirectly upon his own craft: if they had been, Tam Telford might have remained nothing more than a journeyman mason all the days of his life. It is a great mistake, even from the point of view of mere worldly success, for a young man to read or learn only what "pays" in his particular calling; the more he reads and learns, the more will he find that seemingly useless things "pay" in the end, and that what apparently pays least, often really pays most in the long run. This is not the only or the best reason why every man should aim at the highest possible cultivation of his own talents, be they what they may; but it is in itself a very good reason, and it is a sufficient answer for those who would deter us from study of any high kind on the ground that it "does no good." Telford found in after-life that his early acquaintance with sound English literature did do him a great deal of good: it opened and expanded his mind; it trained his intelligence; it stored his brain with images and ideas which were ever after to him a source of unmitigated delight and unalloyed pleasure. He read whenever he had nothing else to do. He read Milton with especial delight; and he also read the verses that his fellow-countryman, Rob Burns, the Ayrshire ploughman, was then just beginning to speak straight to the heart of every aspiring Scotch peasant lad. With these things Tam Telford filled the upper stories of his brain quite as much as with the trade details of his own particular useful handicraft; and the result soon showed that therein Tam Telford had not acted uncannily or unwisely.

Nor did he read only; he wrote too--verses, not very good, nor yet very bad, but well expressed, in fairly well chosen language, and with due regard to the nice laws of metre and of grammar, which is in itself a great point. Writing verse is an occupation at which only very few even among men of literary education ever really succeed; and nine-tenths of published verse is mere mediocre twaddle, quite unworthy of being put into the dignity of print. Yet Telford did well for all that in trying his hand, with but poor result, at this most difficult and dangerous of all the arts. His rhymes were worth nothing as rhymes; but they were worth a great deal as discipline and training: they helped to form the man, and that in itself is always something. Most men who have in them the power to do any great thing pass in early life through a verse- making stage. The verses never come to much; but they leave their stamp behind them; and the man is all the better in the end for having thus taught himself the restraint, the command of language, the careful choice of expressions, the exercise of deliberate pains in composition, which even bad verse-making necessarily implies. It is a common mistake of near-sighted minds to look only at the immediate results of things,

Biographies of Working Men - 1/22

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