Journals 3.1 – A Year Abroad by Willard C. George (Part 1)

chester rows

Old Shoemaker’s Row in Chester, painted by William Callow in 1854, just three years after George’s visit. Source: chesterwalls.info

Willard George’s journal represents a crossroads in his life. A reverend in Norway, Maine since 1836, his health was in decline and he became convinced that a change of occupation was the only way to save his life. So, in 1851, he embarked on a tour of Europe to undertake research for his new profession: medicine. In common with many journal writers, he commences his work on a note of charming modesty:

The book goes out into the world on an humble errand, without any pretensions to great merit; and if within the circle of tried and faithful friends it relieves the dulness of an occasional hour, and finds a welcome in many, many homes endeared by the recollections of friendship, the author’s highest hopes will be realized.

Landing in Liverpool’ George’s first impressions were of familiarity. England seemed ‘much like home’, with a familiar language and similar ‘appearance of the streets, style of building, and methods of doing business’. A closer look revealed an aspect of England that was less welcome:

I have already seen numerous grog-shops kept by women; the streets swarm with mountebanks and beggars, and females, meanly clad, with sunburnt limbs and dejected look, performing all sorts of drudgery in the streets and shops.

In his typically wry manner, George remarked that there were ‘two branches of business in Liverpool that have reached the highest degree of perfection; – crying in the streets and begging.’ He described the ‘ludicrous discords’ of the peddlers and the ‘miserable existence’ of the beggars who earned their living by busking or performing tricks such as knife-swallowing: ‘cheating their living out of the idle and curious.’ Most horrifying to George were the ‘degraded’ women:

They perform the meanest drudgery; they drive carts, peddle in the streets and markets, tend grog-shops, row boats, and scrape up manure in the streets for neighboring gardeners. They even do it with their bare hands, and sometimes, for want of a basket, they stow the coveted treasures in their aprons.

The day after his arrival, George discovered the ultimate fate of these poor people, when he visited St. James’ Cemetery, on the site of a former quarry:

I observed large, square pits cut into the rock, which my guide informed me were designed as a burial place for the poor; coffins are placed in these pits from time to time and slightly covered, until the whole cavity is filled with the bodies of the unfortunate dead, and then it is properly secured.

Arriving in Chester, George remarked upon a ‘singular fact’ about the town, ‘that has never been explained’:

Its streets, as in other towns, are not on the surface of the ground, but they are actually ravines, several feet deep, cut through the solid earth and rock. Antiquarians have been puzzled to find a reason for this. The most reasonable conclusion is that it was connected with some plan of defense not well understood.

George is presumably referring here to the famous Chester ‘Rows’, with shops accessible by the first floor, whilst horses and carts were free to pass through the streets below. The ‘defense’ theory is wide of the mark; the probable origin of the Rows is rebuilding of the upper storeys after a fire, at which time it was convenient to create a footway on the top of mediaeval vaulted chambers. The following quote is from The Medieval Architecture of Chester, by John Henry Parker (London, JH and J Parker, 1858):

It was the usual custom in towns of the middle ages to protect the lower story, or celler, which was half under ground, by a vault of stone or brick. This was the storeroom, in which the merchandize or other valuable property was preserved. The upper parts of the houses were entirely made of wood, and the whole of these being destroyed by fire, it was more easy to make the footway on the top of the vaults, leaving the roadway clear for horses and carts.

Next on George’s itinerary was Dublin, which made a strong impression on the writer. He was impressed by its beauty and the ‘spacious and airy streets’, and remarked that he ‘never felt so happy in any city’ as he did in Dublin. However, he could not resist deliberately seeking out the darker side of the city, instructing his driver one day to take him ‘leisurely through some of the meanest streets, and among the poorest and most degraded of the people.’ Perhaps betraying an almost ghoulish fascination, he took note of every detail:

‘Ogre-eyed and ghastly-looking men and women were walking to and fro, or standing, sitting or lying by the wayside, half-naked and barefoot; children without number, wallowing in the mud, playing, fighting, begging and crying, all mingled together in a horrid concert of unearthly souls; there were girls bordering on womanhood, and large boys whose years ought to have learned them self-respect, unnaturally exposed, without shame, with their faces begrimmed [sic] with filth, and their hair dangling in matted locks over their foreheads, wandering about with idiotic look.’

George was ready with his own explanation of the cause of such poverty: they were oppressed by ‘tyrannical rulers and landlords’ and were ‘the willing victims of a false religion.’ It would seem that in George’s universalistic philosophy Catholicism was every bit as debasing as oppression.

Near Drogheda, in County Meath, George visited Newgrange, a neolithic monument that pre-dates Stonehenge. George was nervous about entering via the very small opening, but was satisfied that if his guide ‘with his lusty corporation, lived to see the interior, that the hole would be large enough to admit us without any difficulty.’ Inside, the going soon became uncomfortable:

The passage was so low that we could not stand upright, or even sit; there was no other way but to crawl on all fours. This was no enviable task, for the passage was fifty feet long, as dark as Erebus, and the bottom covered with sharp flint pebbles… We made headway slowly, but things went on well until we were more than half way through, when our guide began to be very much annoyed by the flint pebbles. His talk with which he started, settled away into an indistinct sort of grumble, and occasionally, when his hands or shins had a very serious collision with the sharp flint stones, he would let off a very bad word.

Arriving in the main chapel, George was impressed by its ‘Cyclopean architecture, and, seen by the dim light of our candles, it looked like an antediluvian gem, mysterious and solemn as if it had come from another world.’ He admitted ignorance as to the purpose of the monument, which is now considered to have been built as a temple rather than a tomb.

As he had in Liverpool, George remarked on the poverty he encountered in Ireland. In Dundalk, he settled down in a grove to enjoy his packed lunch.

I had scarcely begun, when I observed at least a dozen children running, at full speed, across the street towards me. In a moment, as many little hands were stretched out within a few inches of my face, with “Plaze, sir! plaze sir!” from all together. I did not observe the mud-cabins opposite till it was too late; to retreat was impossible, so I dealt out my dinner, piece by piece, until every morsel was gone. Two little bright-eyed girls, the size of two of my own dear children, and among the last that arrived, stood by my side, and spoke to me with earnest and tender looks, much more effectually than a thousand words. I gave them each a penny, and then the whole troop scampered away, shrugging their shoulders and scratching their backs, just as if something was biting them.

George had arrived only a couple of years after the greatest famine in Irish history, with a million dead over the course of five years. On the pretence of asking for some water, he decided to satisfy his curiosity by visiting one of the ‘hovels in which the children had disappeared.’

The room was about twelve feet square, with no floor. In one end there was a kind of fireplace, with two peat brands in one corner, and near by, an iron pot and pan, a dirty water-pail, and several tin dishes. At the other end, there was a heap of rags, a few bed-clothes, and several stools, on one of which the woman was sitting. On the back side, there were a few shelves loaded with dishes and old clothes. There was nothing else there except a brown cat, four dirty, ragged children, and the unconscious infant on the rags. The room was lighted by a window in front, consisting of four small panes of glass. That was the dwelling-place of a family!

On inquiry, I learned that the rent was fifteen pence per week, or about thirty cents, and that her husband’s wages were seven shillings and sixpence a week, which is equal to one dollar and seventy cents! This was unusual wages – much larger than the average; and with this, that husband and father paid his rent, and supported his family!

More pleasant for George was his visit to Armagh, which he considered to be a beautiful town, and the unfinished Cathedral, which he predicted would eventually be one of the finest churches in the country, despite his anti-Catholic stance. At the time of his visit the work had been suspended ‘in consequence of the death of Bishop Croly, its founder, and the want of funds.’ The lack of funds to which he refers was due to money being diverted instead to famine relief. Work finally resumed in 1854, with building work completed in 1873.


The second part of this essay will follow in a few days.  In the meantime, if you would like to receive an email each time a new entry is posted on this blog, please click the “Follow Windows into History” button on the right of the screen.

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One Response to Journals 3.1 – A Year Abroad by Willard C. George (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Blog News (13th July 2015) | Windows into History (Reblogs and News)

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