Speeches: Literary and Social, by Charles Dickens

SPEECH: MANCHESTER, DECEMBER 3, 1858.

[The following speech was delivered at the annual meeting of the Institutional Association of Lancashire and Cheshire, held in the Free-trade Hall on the evening of the above day, at which Mr. Dickens presided.]

It has of late years become noticeable in England that the autumn season produces an immense amount of public speaking. I notice that no sooner do the leaves begin to fall from the trees, than pearls of great price begin to fall from the lips of the wise men of the east, and north, and west, and south; and anybody may have them by the bushel, for the picking up. Now, whether the comet has this year had a quickening influence on this crop, as it is by some supposed to have had upon the corn-harvest and the vintage, I do not know; but I do know that I have never observed the columns of the newspapers to groan so heavily under a pressure of orations, each vying with the other in the two qualities of having little or nothing to do with the matter in hand, and of being always addressed to any audience in the wide world rather than the audience to which it was delivered.

The autumn having gone, and the winter come, I am so sanguine as to hope that we in our proceedings may break through this enchanted circle and deviate from this precedent; the rather as we have something real to do, and are come together, I am sure, in all plain fellowship and straightforwardness, to do it. We have no little straws of our own to throw up to show us which way any wind blows, and we have no oblique biddings of our own to make for anything outside this hall.

At the top of the public announcement of this meeting are the words, “Institutional Association of Lancashire and Cheshire.” Will you allow me, in reference to the meaning of those words, to present myself before you as the embodied spirit of ignorance recently enlightened, and to put myself through a short, voluntary examination as to the results of my studies. To begin with: the title did not suggest to me anything in the least like the truth. I have been for some years pretty familiar with the terms, “Mechanics’ Institutions,” and “Literary Societies,” but they have, unfortunately, become too often associated in my mind with a body of great pretensions, lame as to some important member or other, which generally inhabits a new house much too large for it, which is seldom paid for, and which takes the name of the mechanics most grievously in vain, for I have usually seen a mechanic and a dodo in that place together.

I, therefore, began my education, in respect of the meaning of this title, very coldly indeed, saying to myself, “Here’s the old story.” But the perusal of a very few lines of my book soon gave me to understand that it was not by any means the old story; in short, that this association is expressly designed to correct the old story, and to prevent its defects from becoming perpetuated. I learnt that this Institutional Association is the union, in one central head, of one hundred and fourteen local Mechanics’ Institutions and Mutual Improvement Societies, at an expense of no more than five shillings to each society; suggesting to all how they can best communicate with and profit by the fountain-head and one another; keeping their best aims steadily before them; advising them how those aims can be best attained; giving a direct end and object to what might otherwise easily become waste forces; and sending among them not only oral teachers, but, better still, boxes of excellent books, called “Free Itinerating Libraries.” I learned that these books are constantly making the circuit of hundreds upon hundreds of miles, and are constantly being read with inexpressible relish by thousands upon thousands of toiling people, but that they are never damaged or defaced by one rude hand. These and other like facts lead me to consider the immense importance of the fact, that no little cluster of working men’s cottages can arise in any Lancashire or Cheshire valley, at the foot of any running stream which enterprise hunts out for water-power, but it has its educational friend and companion ready for it, willing for it, acquainted with its thoughts and ways and turns of speech even before it has come into existence.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, this is the main consideration that has brought me here. No central association at a distance could possibly do for those working men what this local association does. No central association at a distance could possibly understand them as this local association does. No central association at a distance could possibly put them in that familiar and easy communication one with another, as that I, man or boy, eager for knowledge, in that valley seven miles off, should know of you, man or boy, eager for knowledge, in that valley twelve miles off, and should occasionally trudge to meet you, that you may impart your learning in one branch of acquisition to me, whilst I impart mine in another to you. Yet this is distinctly a feature, and a most important feature, of this society.

On the other hand, it is not to be supposed that these honest men, however zealous, could, as a rule, succeed in establishing and maintaining their own institutions of themselves. It is obvious that combination must materially diminish their cost, which is in time a vital consideration; and it is equally obvious that experience, essential to the success of all combination, is especially so when its object is to diffuse the results of experience and of reflection.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, the student of the present profitable history of this society does not stop here in his learning; when he has got so far, he finds with interest and pleasure that the parent society at certain stated periods invites the more eager and enterprising members of the local society to submit themselves to voluntary examination in various branches of useful knowledge, of which examination it takes the charge and arranges the details, and invites the successful candidates to come to Manchester to receive the prizes and certificates of merit which it impartially awards. The most successful of the competitors in the list of these examinations are now among us, and these little marks of recognition and encouragement I shall have the honour presently of giving them, as they come before you, one by one, for that purpose.

I have looked over a few of those examination papers, which have comprised history, geography, grammar, arithmetic, book-keeping, decimal coinage, mensuration, mathematics, social economy, the French language — in fact, they comprise all the keys that open all the locks of knowledge. I felt most devoutly gratified, as to many of them, that they had not been submitted to me to answer, for I am perfectly sure that if they had been, I should have had mighty little to bestow upon myself to-night. And yet it is always to be observed and seriously remembered that these examinations are undergone by people whose lives have been passed in a continual fight for bread, and whose whole existence, has been a constant wrestle with

“Those twin gaolers of the daring heart — Low birth and iron fortune.” 13

13 Claude Melnotte in The Lady of Lyons, Act iii. sc. 2.

I could not but consider, with extraordinary admiration, that these questions have been replied to, not by men like myself, the business of whose life is with writing and with books, but by men, the business of whose life is with tools and with machinery.

Let me endeavour to recall, as well as my memory will serve me, from among the most interesting cases of prize-holders and certificate-gainers who will appear before you, some two or three of the most conspicuous examples. There are two poor brothers from near Chorley, who work from morning to night in a coal-pit, and who, in all weathers, have walked eight miles a-night, three nights a-week, to attend the classes in which they have gained distinction. There are two poor boys from Bollington, who begin life as piecers at one shilling or eighteen-pence a-week, and the father of one of whom was cut to pieces by the machinery at which he worked, but not before he had himself founded the institution in which this son has since come to be taught. These two poor boys will appear before you to-night, to take the second-class prize in chemistry. There is a plasterer from Bury, sixteen years of age, who took a third-class certificate last year at the hands of Lord Brougham; he is this year again successful in a competition three times as severe. There is a wagon-maker from the same place, who knew little or absolutely nothing until he was a grown man, and who has learned all he knows, which is a great deal, in the local institution. There is a chain-maker, in very humble circumstances, and working hard all day, who walks six miles a-night, three nights a-week, to attend the classes in which he has won so famous a place. There is a moulder in an iron foundry, who, whilst he was working twelve hours a day before the furnace, got up at four o’clock in the morning to learn drawing. “The thought of my lads,” he writes in his modest account of himself, “in their peaceful slumbers above me, gave me fresh courage, and I used to think that if I should never receive any personal benefit, I might instruct them when they came to be of an age to understand the mighty machines and engines which have made our country, England, pre- eminent in the world’s history.” There is a piecer at mule-frames, who could not read at eighteen, who is now a man of little more than thirty, who is the sole support of an aged mother, who is arithmetical teacher in the institution in which he himself was taught, who writes of himself that he made the resolution never to take up a subject without keeping to it, and who has kept to it with such an astonishing will, that he is now well versed in Euclid and Algebra, and is the best French scholar in Stockport. The drawing-classes in that same Stockport are taught by a working blacksmith; and the pupils of that working blacksmith will receive the highest honours of to-night. Well may it be said of that good blacksmith, as it was written of another of his trade, by the American poet:

“Toiling, rejoicing, sorrowing, Onward through life he goes; Each morning sees some task begun, Each evening sees its clause. Something attempted, something done, Has earn’d a night’s repose.”

To pass from the successful candidates to the delegates from local societies now before me, and to content myself with one instance from amongst them. There is among their number a most remarkable man, whose history I have read with feelings that I could not adequately express under any circumstances, and least of all when I know he hears me, who worked when he was a mere baby at hand-loom weaving until he dropped from fatigue: who began to teach himself as soon as he could earn five shillings a-week: who is now a botanist, acquainted with every production of the Lancashire valley: who is a naturalist, and has made and preserved a collection of the eggs of British birds, and stuffed the birds: who is now a conchologist, with a very curious, and in some respects an original collection of fresh-water shells, and has also preserved and collected the mosses of fresh water and of the sea: who is worthily the president of his own local Literary Institution, and who was at his work this time last night as foreman in a mill.

So stimulating has been the influence of these bright examples, and many more, that I notice among the applications from Blackburn for preliminary test examination papers, one from an applicant who gravely fills up the printed form by describing himself as ten years of age, and who, with equal gravity, describes his occupation as “nursing a little child.” Nor are these things confined to the men. The women employed in factories, milliners’ work, and domestic service, have begun to show, as it is fitting they should, a most decided determination not to be outdone by the men; and the women of Preston in particular, have so honourably distinguished themselves, and shown in their examination papers such an admirable knowledge of the science of household management and household economy, that if I were a working bachelor of Lancashire or Cheshire, and if I had not cast my eye or set my heart upon any lass in particular, I should positively get up at four o’clock in the morning with the determination of the iron-moulder himself, and should go to Preston in search of a wife.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, these instances, and many more, daily occurring, always accumulating, are surely better testimony to the working of this Association, than any number of speakers could possibly present to you. Surely the presence among us of these indefatigable people is the Association’s best and most effective triumph in the present and the past, and is its noblest stimulus to effort in the future. As its temporary mouth-piece, I would beg to say to that portion of the company who attend to receive the prizes, that the institution can never hold itself apart from them; — can never set itself above them; that their distinction and success must be its distinction and success; and that there can be but one heart beating between them and it. In particular, I would most especially entreat them to observe that nothing will ever be further from this Association’s mind than the impertinence of patronage. The prizes that it gives, and the certificates that it gives, are mere admiring assurances of sympathy with so many striving brothers and sisters, and are only valuable for the spirit in which they are given, and in which they are received. The prizes are money prizes, simply because the Institution does not presume to doubt that persons who have so well governed themselves, know best how to make a little money serviceable — because it would be a shame to treat them like grown-up babies by laying it out for them, and because it knows it is given, and knows it is taken, in perfect clearness of purpose, perfect trustfulness, and, above all, perfect independence.

Ladies and Gentlemen, reverting once more to the whole collective audience before me, I will, in another two minutes, release the hold which your favour has given me on your attention. Of the advantages of knowledge I have said, and I shall say, nothing. Of the certainty with which the man who grasps it under difficulties rises in his own respect and in usefulness to the community, I have said, and I shall say, nothing. In the city of Manchester, in the county of Lancaster, both of them remarkable for self-taught men, that were superfluous indeed. For the same reason I rigidly abstain from putting together any of the shattered fragments of that poor clay image of a parrot, which was once always saying, without knowing why, or what it meant, that knowledge was a dangerous thing. I should as soon think of piecing together the mutilated remains of any wretched Hindoo who has been blown from an English gun. Both, creatures of the past, have been — as my friend Mr. Carlyle vigorously has it —“blasted into space;” and there, as to this world, is an end of them.

So I desire, in conclusion, only to sound two strings. In the first place, let me congratulate you upon the progress which real mutual improvement societies are making at this time in your neighbourhood, through the noble agency of individual employers and their families, whom you can never too much delight to honour. Elsewhere, through the agency of the great railway companies, some of which are bestirring themselves in this matter with a gallantry and generosity deserving of all praise. Secondly and lastly, let me say one word out of my own personal heart, which is always very near to it in this connexion. Do not let us, in the midst of the visible objects of nature, whose workings we can tell of in figures, surrounded by machines that can be made to the thousandth part of an inch, acquiring every day knowledge which can be proved upon a slate or demonstrated by a microscope — do not let us, in the laudable pursuit of the facts that surround us, neglect the fancy and the imagination which equally surround us as a part of the great scheme. Let the child have its fables; let the man or woman into which it changes, always remember those fables tenderly. Let numerous graces and ornaments that cannot be weighed and measured, and that seem at first sight idle enough, continue to have their places about us, be we never so wise. The hardest head may co- exist with the softest heart. The union and just balance of those two is always a blessing to the possessor, and always a blessing to mankind. The Divine Teacher was as gentle and considerate as He was powerful and wise. You all know how He could still the raging of the sea, and could hush a little child. As the utmost results of the wisdom of men can only be at last to help to raise this earth to that condition to which His doctrine, untainted by the blindnesses and passions of men, would have exalted it long ago; so let us always remember that He set us the example of blending the understanding and the imagination, and that, following it ourselves, we tread in His steps, and help our race on to its better and best days. Knowledge, as all followers of it must know, has a very limited power indeed, when it informs the head alone; but when it informs the head and the heart too, it has a power over life and death, the body and the soul, and dominates the universe.

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