[From H Stowell Brown, Notes of my Life, 1888]
I CANNOT say that we worked very hard. It was an idle shop. In the fitting-shop we took our turn to watch for the foreman as he came up the sheds, and the word nix saw every man and boy at his place. The lathes and planing-machines had been moving, hut doing nothing else; now the tools were thrown into gear, and all was work and bustle. But we had some shameful idling. I am sure that every set of taps and dies made by Figg the tool-maker must have cost more than its weight in silver. And Mr. Figg was a local methodist preacher, who always wore a white shirt and black trousers, and was quite a swell. Another man who made cross-heads rarely did an hours work in a day. Most of his time was spent in arguing in favour of socialism, and turning the Bible into ridicule. There were a considerable number of knobsticks in the shops; men who had gone in on strikes in London and elsewhere. "What are you talking to that fellow for, dont you know that hes a knobstick ?" So said a society man to me, when he saw me conversing with a shopmate whose knobstickism I was not aware of. There was much angry disputing, much sullenness, much hatred, hard words, and occasionally hard blows over this knobsticlc business. Yet the knobsticks were as a rule good workmen. Airey was one, and so was Cole (called from his cadaverous look, Captain Death), the only man to whom was entrusted the difficult job of -turning the crank-axles. Among our men was one from Birmingham, a brother of a well-known atheist. He was a particularly poor creature in mind and body, and held his brothers opinions. We had a number of infidels among us. One of these died avowing his atheism to the last in the most horribly profane manner. A few of us went before the funeral to ask the parson old Quarlby, whether he could omit the expression "in sure and certain hope" as he read the funeral service. We told him that the whole band of infidels would be there to sneer and to triumph, as poor Alec was honoured with Christian burial. Old Quarlby had just come in from the hunt, and was taking his boots off. His reply was," Lord love ye, but what the devil would the bishop say to me if I did as you wish?" So the atheist was buried in sure and certain hope of a glorious resurrection, and three of our Churchmen from that hour were Non conformists. The talk in the shops was for the most part profane and beastly in the extreme; the least profane and beastly among us, with the exception of the few Christians, were some of the infidels, one of whom, a Scotch-man named William Angus, was one of the finest men whom I ever knew. The Shorter Catechism had made him an unbeliever. The leading infidels at Wolverton and the chief drunkards were Scotchmen. I remember very little conversation upon industrial subjects, and although it was a time of great political agitation in regard to Chartism and Free Trade, there did not seem to be a spark of political intelligence or spirit among us. We never saw a newspaper, excepting the Weekly Despatch, a few copies of which came on Sunday morning, but that was read chiefly for the prize-fights and other sporting intelligence which it contained. I should think that one-third of the men were unable to read a single word, and I often wrote their letters for them, and read for them letters they received.
Four of us, Edward Hayes, William Harvey, William Mickle, and myself, drew together. They were journey men, but young, the oldest not more than twenty-five years. We agreed to lodge together with a peasant named Cox at Old Wolverton. Hayes was a little man, a clever, skilful workman ; he came from Manchester, and was great in phrenology, and in Combes Constitution of Man. harvey was a Derbyshire man, one of the best workmen in the place, and gifted with a dry and pleasant humour. Mickle was a Scotchman, brought up in London; a boisterous but kindly fellow, whom Hayes pronounced to be a man in whom combativeness and self-esteem were abnormally developed. The four of us slept in two beds placed in one small room. We had our meals in the lower room of the cottage, which was the kitchen, and there was a small room, about eight feet square, which we converted into a study, and in which we tried in the evenings to improve our minds, which, sooth to say, sorely needed improvement. On Sundays, Hayes generally went out into the fields to meditate; Harvey went to the Methodist Chapel at Stratford; Mickle wandered from one place of worship to another; and I went to church somewhere in the neighbourhood, generally to Stratford, because there was an organ there, which, however, was very execrably played. Our studies were various. Hayes went in for philosophy; Harvey for theology; Mickle for mechanics ; I for mathematics. I dont think we read a novel all the time we were together, and our whole stock of books was not worth £5.
The three years passed with very few incidents to break the monotony of our lives. We rose at half past five and walked to the works a mile off, cooked our breakfasts at one of the forges in the smiths shop went home to dinner at one, returned at two, and the bell rang again at half-past five; on Saturdays at four; in all 58½ hours per week, with every evening free. I think far too easy work.
One event of these years I cannot forget. It was my first visit to London at Christmas 1841. I well remember the lurid glare in the sky as in the winter evening we approached the great metropolis. I had only three days in London, but I used them in seeing all that I could see. Among other places I got into the ball of St. Pauls, where I found three sailors who insisted on my drinking some of their rum, the effect of which threatened to make my going down much more rapid than my going up. No place known to me has altered more than London in my time. The alterations have not all been improvements, i. e the railway-bridges over the Thames.
Among my excursions, for which there was no time but Sunday, was one to Olney. In the neighbourhood there is or was a fine old tree called Cowpers Oak, hollow, with a seat in it. I met an old man who well remembered the poet sitting there. I once went with Mickle to Northampton, walking thither on Saturday evening, and walking back on Sunday evening. In the afternoon we heard a Mormon preacher haranguing in the Market Place. Mickle, the combative, attacked him, and had a long wrangle with him, in which I joined. It was my first attempt at public speaking. Strange to say, thirty years afterwards, I heard the same Mormon deliver the same sermon (or one very much like it, and on the same text) in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.