Professor’s debt to his grandmother

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Dr Robert Blakey was the first Morpethian to become a university professor. Today we look at how he learned to read and write.

Richard Altick, in The English Common Reader, 1957, paints a depressing picture of the usual education of the poor in the early 19th century: “The teaching of reading must have bred a deep distaste for the printed word.

“The child was seldom urged to reflect on the total meaning of a sentence or a paragraph, let alone allowed to take any pleasure in what he read. Instead, there was the constant nagging necessity of parsing, explaining derivations, searching a desperate memory for the fixed definition of this word and that.”

Young Robert’s education was nothing like that, and Altick himself mentions the “persistence or resurgence of the old Puritan tradition” through Calvinism in Scotland and the nonconformist churches in England.

It was thanks to this tradition that Robert fell into reading with natural ease.

“When about six years of age,” he says, “I was placed entirely under the care of my maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Laws. The Westminster Confession of Faith was quite at her fingers’ end; and no doctrinal point contained in the treatise could be mentioned for which she could not readily quote the scripture proofs.

She awakened within me that love of knowledge which has been to me, not only a cold sentiment, but a positive passion from my earliest recollections.

Dr Robert Blakey

“Besides this well-known work, she had several other popular books: such as, Ambrose’s ‘Looking unto Jesus’; Boston’s ‘Fourfold State’; and several others of an evangelical stamp. She was a perpetual reader, and would have sat for hours pondering over any dry, but to her, interesting subject of speculative religion.”

Boston’s Fourfold State was well known in humble, but pious households. Grace Darling was found reading it by one of her visitors after the famous rescue, and Thomas Wilson mentions it in his poem, The Pitman’s Pay:

Mark those in that secluded place,

Set snug around the stool of oak,

All labouring at some knotty case,

Envelop’d in tobacco smoke.

These are the pious, faithful few,

Who pierce the dark decrees of fate:

They’ve read the “Pilgrim’s Progress” through,

As well as “Boston’s Fourfold State.

Robert goes on: “I date the commencement my education from the time I went to reside with my grandmother. I never remember of learning to read either from my school instruction or from my own relations. I believe my Uncle Robertson took this charge in hand when I was very young.

“I have a faint recollection of learning to write at some school, but of the elements of learning to read I am quite oblivious.

“My grandmother soon got me trained to read to her many of the books in which she delighted, but of which I understood not a sentence. Every night I had to read, or rather stammer, through two or three chapters of the Bible; this rule was almost invariably observed both in summer and winter.

“As I went on scanning the verses she was in the habit of stopping me, and giving me her commentary on the passages recited. This, I dare say, was of little use at the moment; but in time the system began to bear fruit, and I learned to lay up a small store of biblical lore, which...was both interesting and useful.”

Looking back, Robert says: “She taught me the elements of religion, and the benefits of a home. She awakened within me that love of knowledge which has been to me, not only a cold sentiment, but a positive passion from my earliest recollections.

“Although the range of her own information was narrow and sectarian, it was imparted in such kind and loving accents, and amidst the most hallowed and endearing associations, that it made a lasting impression on my mind.”

Someone else who contributed to Robert’s education was his uncle John Robertson, who “made me a sort of companion”.

“I used to listen to my uncle’s experiences and adventures with the greatest interest; and he was likewise occasionally in the habit of talking to me on matters of doctrinal divinity.”

Mrs Laws’ method of teaching him to read and think was much favoured by Presbyterians.

When the famous radical Thomas Spence (1750-1814) had to defend himself against a charge of seditious libel, he told the court: “My father used to make my brothers and me read the Bible to him while working at his business, and at the end of every chapter, encouraged us to give our opinions on what we had just read.

“By these means I acquired an early habit of reflecting on every occurrence which passed before me, as well as on what I read.”

When he was seven, Robert went to work for his Uncle Robertson: “It was part of my grandmother’s agreement with my uncle that, when he could do without my aid in the gardening line, I was to be put to school.

“This stipulation was always observed, but still I never recollect of having been at any school for more than two or three months during a year; and, with one or two exceptions, the teachers were of a very humble and unpretentious order.

“In winter I attended night schools; and this in some measure made up for omissions during daytime.”

We looked in an earlier article at two of Mrs Laws’ friends and sparring partners, who were both freethinkers.

“But,” says Robert, “her most intimate and bosom friend was a Mrs Black, a school-mistress, a very superior woman in point of scholarship to my grandmother, and of a totally different religious creed.

“Mrs Black was as rigid in her Episcopalian persuasion as my grandmother was in her Presbyterian. They had long contentions almost every week, sitting up till midnight, quoting Scripture in favour of their respective systems of election and free grace. But everything was conducted with singular harmony of temper and Christian charity; and though both combatants were brimful of zeal, they parted always the kindest of friends.

“They had, however, something in common; they both believed in the supernatural — in witches, fairies, ghosts, and in persons having sold themselves to the devil. Stories on these topics tinctured their conversations almost every meeting.

“No two persons were more opposite in bodily appearance than Mrs Black and my grandmother. Mrs Black was a very tall and stout woman; my grandmother was small in stature, and thin and wiry.

“Mrs Black was almost the only woman I ever knew who had any doctrinal knowledge of Episcopacy. She had read several of the old divines, and with much care (which) made her in some respects a powerful rival to my grandmother’s knowledge of the Westminster Confession of Faith.”

I wish we knew more about the redoubtable Mrs Black. She clearly ranked far above Robert’s “very humble and unpretentious” teachers, but we only know of her through his memoirs.