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- Memoirs of Sir Wemyss Reid 1842-1885 - 1/56 -


[Illustration: Wemyss Reid]





The sense of personal loss occasioned by my brother's death is still so keen and vivid that if I am to write at all about him--and my duty in that respect is clear--it must be out of the fulness of my heart. My earliest recollections of him begin when I was a child and he was a bright, self-reliant lad in the home at Newcastle, the characteristics of which are with artless realism described in the opening pages of this book. It is the simple truth to say that we grew up in an atmosphere of love and duty. Our father was a man of studious habit, passing rich in the possession of a library of dry works on theology which his children never read, and among which they searched in vain for the fairy books and stories, or even the poetry, dear to the youthful heart. He was a faithful, rather than a gifted preacher, and I have always thought that his power--it was real and far-reaching--lay in his modest, unselfish life, and in that unfailing sympathy which kept him on a perpetual round of visits to the sick and sorrowful, year in, year out. He had a quiet sense of humour, and was never so happy as when he could steal a day off from the insistent claims of pastoral work for a ramble in the country with his boys.

Always a public-spirited man, and keenly interested in political affairs, he talked to us freely about the events of the time, and made us feel that the little affairs of our own home and immediate environment could never be seen in their true perspective until they were set against the larger life of the town, and, in a sense, of the nation. When any great event occurred he used to tell us all about it; when any great man died, if we did not know the significance of his life and the loss it meant to the country, it was not his fault. He was a quiet, rather reserved man, terribly in earnest, we thought, and with a touch of sternness about him which vanished in later life. He mellowed with the passing years, and long before old age crept quietly upon him the prevailing note of his character was charity. He had been in early life associated to some extent with the Press, and later had written one or two books, so that ink was in my brother's blood.

Our mother was almost his opposite in character. She was quick, almost imperious in temper, vivacious and witty of speech, full of sense and sensibility, in revolt--I see it now--against the narrow conditions of her lot, and yet bravely determined to do her best, not merely for her husband and children, but for the rather austere little community in which she was always a central figure. There was a charm about her to which all sorts and sizes of people surrendered at discretion, and she loved books more modern and more mundane than the dingy volumes on my father's shelves. She had received, what was more rare then than now, a liberal education, and, besides modern languages, had at least a moderate acquaintance with the classics. She held herself gallantly in the dim, half-educated society of her husband's chapel, but reserved her friendships--sometimes with a touch of wilfulness--for those who represented whatever there was of sweetness and light in the wider society of the town. In one respect she was absolutely in harmony with my father, and that was in her sympathy with the poor and in quiet, unparaded determination to hold out a helping hand to all that sought it. She had imagination, and she sent it on errands of good-will. I think my brother inherited from her his alertness of mind and not a little of his quickness of apprehension.

I can remember him coming back from Bruce's school all aglow with his prizes, and I can recall, as if it were but yesterday, his audacious speeches, and the new books with which, as soon as he earned a shilling, he began to leaven the dull old library, much to the delectation of the other children. I can recall a rough cartoon in one of the local journals which was greeted with huge merriment in the family circle, because it represented Tom as "Ye Press of Newcastle"--a mere boy in a short jacket perched on a stool, scribbling for dear life at the foot of a platform on which some local orator was denouncing the tyranny of the existing Government. He must then have been about seventeen, certainly not more, and he was even at that time somewhat of a youthful prodigy. Then he developed a passion for the collection of autographs, and used to write the most alluring letters to celebrities, and astound my modest father by the replies--they were invariably written as to a man of mature life and public importance--which he had elicited from eminent people in politics and the world of letters. He, a mere youth, invited a well-known Arctic explorer to Newcastle to lecture on his perils in the frozen North, and my father bought him his first hat to go to the railway station to meet the gallant sailor, who brought his pathetic relics of Franklin to our house, where he stayed as guest. The great man's chagrin when he found that a lad scarcely out of short jackets had invited him to Newcastle vanished in the genial firelight, and in the subsequent reception of the good townsfolk. Then my brother conceived the ambitious scheme of the West End Literary Institute, and by dint of energetic and persistent begging carried the project out, and with a high hand.

Suddenly, when he was still a young reporter, a great calamity befell the locality. The Hartley Colliery catastrophe plunged all Tyneside in gloom. He was the youngest reporter on the local Press, but his account of the long-drawn agony of that terrible time, when two hundred brave fellows lost their lives, was the most graphic. It brought him local renown. It was published as a shilling pamphlet, after it had done duty in the _Newcastle Journal_, and to his credit he gave, though as poor as a church mouse, the whole of the proceeds--a sum of £40, I think--to the Relief Fund. It was a characteristic act which was not belied by the subsequent generosity of his life. All too soon--for he brought as a young reporter a breezy, new atmosphere into the family circle--he went to Preston, on the principle of promotion by merit. Then Leeds claimed him, and next he settled in London, in the short-lived happiness of his early married life, returning to Yorkshire--this time as chief of the paper he had served so well. During his career as editor of the _Leeds Mercury_ I saw comparatively little of him. We were both busy, though in different ways; but we kept up, then and always, a brisk correspondence, and his letters, all of them brimful of public interest and family affection, are before me now. The world is a different place to me now, but "memory is a fountain of perpetual youth" and nothing can rob me of its sweetness.

There is scarcely an incident recorded in these pages which he did not tell me at the time in familiar talk. There is much, also, that he has not set down here, all of it honourable to himself, which I could recount about those early days in Newcastle, and to a certain extent also in Leeds, where I was again and again his guest; but, as he has chosen to be silent, it is not for me to speak. Oddly enough, I never in my life heard him deliver a political speech, nor do I think he excelled in that direction. But he was admirable as a lecturer on literary subjects, and I have seen him again and again hold a large audience spellbound when his subject was Charlotte or Emily Brontė, Mrs. Carlyle, the Inner Working of an English Newspaper, the Character of General Gordon, or some other theme which appealed to him. He spoke rapidly and clearly, and between the years 1882 and 1886 gave his services without stint in this direction to the people of Leeds, Bradford, and other of the Yorkshire towns. The manuscripts of these lectures are before me as I write; they are all in his own hand, and they must have taken from an hour to an hour and a half in delivery. Yet one of the most important of them--it runs to between sixty and seventy closely written manuscript pages, and bears no marks of haste--was, as a note in his own hand at the outset shows, begun one day and finished the next--a proof, if any were needed, of his rapidity in work. He made many enthusiastic friends amongst the shrewd working people of the North by these deliverances.

The last twenty years of my brother's life are outside the present narrative. Two of them were spent in Leeds in ever-widening newspaper work, and the remaining eighteen in London, under circumstances he has himself described in another volume, which, for political reasons, is for the present withheld. It will appear eventually, and personally I feel no doubt whatever that it will take its place, quite apart from its self-revelation, as one of the most important and authentic records, in the political sense, of the later decades of Queen Victoria's reign. My brother's knowledge of the secret history of the Liberal party in the memorable days when Mr. Gladstone was fighting his historic battle for Home Rule, and during the subsequent Premiership of Lord Rosebery, was exceptional. He was the trusted friend of both statesmen, and probably no other journalist was so absolutely in the confidence of the leaders of the Liberal party--a circumstance which was due quite as much to his character as to his capacity. It is not my intention to anticipate the story, as he himself tells it, either of the "Hawarden Kite" or the Home Rule split, much less to disclose his opinions--they are emphatic and deliberate--of the men who made mischief at that crisis. I leave also untouched the plain, unvarnished account he gives, on unimpeachable authority, of a subsequent and not less discreditable phase in the annals of the Liberal party. There are reasons, obvious to everyone who gives the matter a moment's thought, that render it inadvisable in the interests of the political cause with which my brother all his life was identified, and for which he suffered more than is commonly known, to yield to the very natural temptation to throw reticence to the winds.

To one point only will I permit myself to make brief but significant allusion, for I cannot allow this book to go forth to the world with the knowledge that the publication of the companion volume is--through force of circumstances--for the present postponed, without at least a passing reference to what in the authoritative biography of Mr. Gladstone is called the "barren controversy" which arose in 1892, as to whether the present Duke of Devonshire, in 1880, tried to form a Government. That controversy was assuredly "barren" to my brother in everything but the testimony of a good conscience. He was assailed by almost the whole Press of the country for the part which he played in it, and not least mercilessly by journalists of his own party. As he said to me himself at the time, "If I had been Mr. Parnell, fresh from the revelations of the Divorce Court, I could not have been treated with greater contumely." If there was one thing on the possession of which he prided himself in life more than another, it was loyalty, and seldom was political loyalty subjected to a more cruel strain. He held his peace with all the materials for his own vindication in his hand, rather than embarrass Mr.

Memoirs of Sir Wemyss Reid 1842-1885 - 1/56

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