Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Representative men: Self-made men - Richard Grainger

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Self-made Men.
richard grainger.


We are constantly hearing that ours is the age, as Americans always say that theirs is the country, for self-made men. But it may be questioned whether there ever was an age or country in which a man of force of character and ability could not open out a career for himself, pretty much according to his will. Under rank despotisms there are two ways at least open to adventurers of the humblest origin. They can rise by executing public improvements, and by the favouritism of the despot—that favour being usually won by political aptitude. The history of all despotisms tells of wonderful men of plebeian rank who built cities, or made roads or canals, after obtaining the patronage of the Court; or who gained the ear of the monarch, and directed his counsels. In Eastern empires a large proportion of the most successful statesmen and generals have been slaves by birth. In Turkey and Egypt we see such things now; and one reason of the willingness of Circassian, Georgian, and Cashmerian parents and children to keep up the supply of slaves in Egypt and Turkey is, that a great career may be before the slave of the Sultan or Pasha, or any of their chief officers. Under Western despotisms there is always some circumstance of the time which favours the rise of lowborn ability. In a military period, the able soldier or engineer is recognised, without any question of his birth. Under the French empire, when, as Napoleon said, every private soldier carries a Marshal’s baton in his knapsack, there has always been plenty of military ability, because ambition has been hopeful in that direction. In every empire where the aristocracy is the weak element, there would always be a profusion of lowborn genius at work in all departments of life, but for the depressing and stifling effects of despotic government. It is the stereotyped boast of society in modern despotisms that that régime is the golden age of the lower orders, because the light of the monarch’s countenance shines impartial, while universal suffrage gives equal citizenship to all, as a fair starting-point in life’s career. Practically, however, the chance is impaired by the hardships and depressions inflicted by arbitrary government. The lower orders do not flourish under absolutism which cants about democratic privilege; and thus it is usually to the military career that the scantily-fed and over-taxed peasants and artisans look, when ambitious of personal and social success. In Russia, where the aristocracy are a yet weaker element, the case is different only because the labouring class has hitherto consisted of serfs, and we therefore see the Eastern methods of favouritism existing along with the other. Serfs, foreigners, even scapegraces from other countries achieve greatness in Russia by mechanical genius, and especially by engineering ability. The movement of Russian society crushes the spirit and breaks the heart, where it does not corrupt the conscience of the order of citizens who should naturally do the highest work of society: but there is a career open to adventurous ability, provided it be low enough in origin to provoke no jealousy till it can take good care of itself.

The great Religious Period, again, when Catholicism was the religion of Christendom, was favourable to able adventurers. Its thoroughly democratic organisation was the means by which the lower classes were raised into freedom, and a career was offered to all ability. The priesthood was the highest office and dignity; and the priesthood was accessible to all alike; and, when this opportunity had once been opened to the humblest classes, they had gained a social advantage which could never be taken from them. The organic period of Christendom, then, was an age of privilege for adventurous ability. However true it may be that the present is an age, and America a country, for lowborn genius to rejoice in, it may be a question whether there is any kind of age or country, on the bright side of civilisation, in which men of natural force could not make their own way very much to their own wish.

There can hardly be a stronger contrast than between the social conditions of Germany and America. (I refer to the Northern States here, because there is no free working-class in the Southern States.) In Germany and in America peasants and labourers have their ambitions, and succeed in gratifying them; but in a widely different way. The only notion that the German boy-genius has is of becoming learned: the farthings and pence are saved to get access to books and lectures, or perhaps art-study; and the self-made heroes of Germany are mostly authors, (workers in some speciality of learning,) or artists. In America, the learning is regarded only as a means of rising. The boy in the loghouse or the workshop saves, like the German, to put himself to school, and then to the nearest or cheapest college; and he may even turn schoolmaster for a time; but it is only in order to become a lawyer, or, in other words, to get into the road to office and political life. Once there, he can shape his course according to his ability, and make himself a great engineer, or banker, or member of Congress, or dignitary in his own State, or mill-owner, or ironmaster, or ambassador to Europe, or half-a-dozen other things. Where there is so near an approach to democratic equality (for the real thing is not attained, nor can be while slavery exists on the soil) the pressure upon every individual is light, prior to his becoming distinguished, and the requisites to success are of a slighter character. Motherwit obtains its deserts more certainly than elsewhere; and less effort and cultivation are necessary to success. We find, accordingly, that as many as not of distinguished Americans have taken their fathers’ horses to drink, as Daniel Webster did, or blown the forge fire, or done the drudgery of the printing-office, like Garrison, or split rails, like President Lincoln, or made shoes, or fished cod, or driven the plough, or served before the mast. The commonest drawback to their greatness and their usefulness, when they have succeeded, is their want of real cultivation. A slight smattering of book-knowledge is enough to enable them to “teach school,” or set up a lawyer’s office; and such knowledge, having answered its end, entirely satisfies the possessor. While in Germany a successful genius sits happy in his study, shut in with his poverty, and aware that his name is spoken with consideration where his special branch of learning is understood, the American genius is receiving homage as a millionaire, or returning thanks to a torchlit multitude from a balcony, or receiving honours from Europe on account of some beneficent invention, while unable to appreciate any mode of life but that which he inhabits, and as awkward in the use of intellectual tools as adults first trying to learn a foreign language, or President Lincoln in penning his last Message.

In our country, amidst all the advantages of our age, there is certainly more to be got over, in rising in life, than in America. The superiority of knowledge among the instructed (though there are more uninstructed than in America), the fixedness of men of all classes in the station and employment to which they were born, and the acquiescence of society in the ordinary march of social affairs, all unite to render the pressure very strong on any humble person who would rise into a position of distinction. Yet the age is favourable, for it is an age of scientific development, and of a fast-spreading application of science to the arts of life; and this last work can be better done by handicraftmen than others, if they are provided with the science. Accordingly, we have seen so many men of humble birth and training rise to fame and fortune within two generations that we almost expect to hear of every inventor or improver of our roads, our ships, our cannon, or our agriculture and manufactures, that he was the son of a labourer of one sort or another. The field of their inventions is commonly mechanics, and their science is usually mathematics, followed by physics or chemistry and geology. In the last century the Arkwrights and Wedgwoods and Brindleys and Telfords were types of our self-made men, as the Stephensons, Paxtons, and Whitworths are of the present century. There used to be a larger proportion of artists and poets in the order than there are likely to be again; for, as knowledge and taste have advanced, the need of cultivation is more generally perceived, if not by the aspirant, by the public. Verses wonderful for a milkwoman no longer excite an interest; and the poetry of ploughboys is prized, if at all, for its keen and clear reflection of nature, and not because it proceeds from a ploughboy. Elliott of Sheffield proved that good poetry wins fame for a blacksmith as for a nobleman or gentleman; but the self-made men among the poets are, and will be, fewer and of a higher order than formerly. We do not look for a Burns twice over; but of Bloomfields and Clares we shall hear less than our fathers did; and mere rhymesters, like some who made a great noise in the last century, are obliged to withdraw their pretensions, as we see in the instance of Close of Kirkby-Lonsdale, who would once have been a great man for life after the Prime Minister had spoken of him as being “in the same category with Burns.”

The same change has taken place about Art. More knowledge is now necessary to cause a man to be considered a painter than our fathers dreamed of before the Art-treasures of the Continent were open to our study. In America, a man rises to fame and fortune presently if he can give on canvas a lively representation of the woods or prairies which surround him, or the daily life which passes before his eyes; and not only does he think and say that Europe can teach him nothing, but his patrons are too apt to be of the same opinion. So were many people in England when Dr. Wolcot (Peter Pindar) brought Opie up from a Cornish cottage, and exhibited him in London as a heaven-born genius. Opie had the sense to perceive, in course of time, the importance of study; but the want of it kept him below his capacity as a painter, and spoiled him in a way which could scarcely happen again.

He was the son of a journeyman carpenter in Cornwall; and his genius manifested itself in what his industrious father considered idle tricks of scrawling likenesses of people and things with chalk on every surface he could reach. A sketch of this sort on a barn-door struck the eye of Dr. Wolcot, a physician in the neighbourhood. He found on inquiry that the boy had taken likenesses—wasting his time in that way, as his father said. The Doctor engaged him as his foot-boy, in order to encourage and improve his talent, and then let him travel as a portrait-painter, finally introducing him in London as an artist. He was then only twenty; and it could be no wonder if his head was turned when the street was crowded with carriages of great people, who came to stare and flatter. He was rough and rude in appearance and manner, and so unlikely to improve under the circumstances, that it was well that his popularity declined, leaving him rich enough to command opportunities of study. He married first for wealth, but suffered great misery till freed by a divorce. His second wife was a woman of some literary capacity and cultivation; and during the nine remaining years of his life she was devoted to him, and his mind expanded and became enriched by study. As his wife’s piquant face appears in all the heroines of his later pictures, her mind may be traced in a disappearance of incongruities such as were very common before. One of his most ambitious pictures is Jephtha’s Daughter; and in it occurs a mistake too flagrant to have been perpetrated by any eminent painter of our time. The victim is represented at the moment of sacrifice, with eyes bound, and the knife uplifted over her: and the sacrificer is actually the High Priest of the Jews, with breastplate and robes complete! It did not occur to the Cornish artisan that the Jews did not offer human sacrifices, and that it was a mistake of his own to suppose that Jephtha was a Jew who could bring his child for slaughter at the altar of Jehovah. Such are the drawbacks of self-made men in the career of the Fine Arts. Opie did his best latterly to supply himself with knowledge enough to fill the professorship of painting at the Royal Academy; and he attained his object just before his death. The four lectures he had delivered were published by his widow. When new to fame, he trusted his genius for everything. Being asked how he mixed his colours, he answered “With my brains:” and he might fairly remain satisfied with his own ways in regard to colour, which was his strong point. But, when he took to painting history, he must have become aware of his disadvantages from his want of education. Half a century later, it would have been easier for him to obtain both general and special knowledge: and he would certainly have been better informed or less famous.

This disadvantage belonging to a low origin applies less to music than to the other arts; and the means of a scientific musical training are becoming more and more accessible and abundant; so that we, or the next generation, may hope to see, as one of the results of the extended cultivation of music in England, the rise of some lark, springing from the low furrow, and mounting on high to win the world’s ear with music, fresh as the morning. Musical genius is a matter of organisation in which there is no respect of persons; it is like mathematical genius,—mainly inherent, while susceptible of incalculable enlargement of application by the knowledge of what has already been done, and by a general cultivation of the intellect. Still, from the course now taken by the progress of society in England, it seems as if we might for some time longer look for self-made men chiefly among the improvers of the arts of life.

I do not know that a fairer example could be found during such a period than Richard Grainger, who died on the 4th of July last, leaving a name which will be immortal in his native place. If his fame has not reached all his countrymen, it must be for reasons which time will remove. Not only have his services merited national respect, but they are of a kind which it is good for us to study. Some of my readers may possibly remember what the town of Newcastle-upon-Tyne was like in the early part of the century. I took in the impression of it in early childhood, in 1809; and the impression remains distinct as the pictures in children’s memories are apt to be. It was then a remarkably shabby and ugly town. Its moor, with shining ponds scattered on the grassy surface, and a black road running straight across it to the north, where the outline of the Cheviots might be seen on a clear day, was one striking feature. The Tyne, winding through the vale on the one hand and to the sea on the other, afforded other walks. A steep hill, covered with buildings, rose from the river, and sank into a ravine behind, which, with a second hill, was partly filled with houses. The public buildings were black and hideous to a child’s eye; and the streets were narrow and dirty; the brick dwellings being shabby, one and all, and grimed with smoke. The number of names of convents, priories, friaries, chapels and the like, was very striking, while the Castle (the New Castle) built by the son of the Conqueror, frowned black above the river. The number of religious houses was due to the holy well which was found at the head of the ravine before the place was a town at all. The well was a place of pilgrimage, and monasteries naturally grew up round it. Kings of England rested in them, and queens of Scotland took refuge there on occasion. The place assumed a new aspect after the discovery of the coal, which lay under the grass of the Tyne valley. A great commerce by the port of Shields grew up; the glass manufacture was established; and at the opening of our century, the population, somewhat under 40,000, was busy and tolerably prosperous, but ill-lodged, dirty, and unattractive in appearance and manner accordingly.

When we children were taken for our daily walk in the summer of 1809, we had to pass through certain streets before we could get to the moor and other open spaces of country; and we must have sometimes met Richard Grainger going to or from school,—a round-faced, rosy, good-humoured, quiet charity-boy of eleven, in a green badge coat. His father, a porter on the quay, had married a woman from Gibraltar; and they lived in two small rooms in High Friar Chare (lane or narrow street.) The father died when his children were infants; and their only chance of education was from the charity schools of the town. Richard went to that of St. Andrew’s, where he studied Tinwell’s arithmetic, the Bible, the spelling-book, and Tom Thumb. The mother, a stout woman, steady at her needle, is still remembered by customers who employed her to graft stockings, get up silk stockings and muslins, and make gloves. If she did such things in her latter days, it was for her own pleasure; for Richard enabled her to live as she liked.

The first incident which he could recal as turning his mind towards the work of his life was an improvement which was made in the town in 1810. The shambles had till then been in the open street, but the decency of a covered market in the Dean (the dene or ravine in the middle of the town) impressed the future architect very deeply. He was presently apprenticed to a house-carpenter, named Brown, to whom he eventually gave a good deal of employment. The quiet, contented, thoughtful Methodist apprentice was much prized by his master, and noticed by other people. For his part, his mind was full of a great idea which he was always pondering, at work and at play. The nunnery beside the holy well had become a great mischief. It occupied twelve acres of ground,—not now as a convent, but in the form of a mansion, with gardens and plantations, in which nothing could grow for the smoke. A high wall surrounded this large area; and the streets were actually made circuitous on account of it. Charles I. had slept in that mansion: but it could not stand in everybody’s way for ever for that reason: and Richard’s dream was of what might be made of the town if that space could be utilised, and the winding streets swept away and re-made. While still a boy he made his plan, and saw in prospect (for he fully intended to accomplish his scheme) the terraces, squares, new streets and public buildings which he meant to build, and to face with dressed stone, in the place of dingy brick. At spare times he slipped down to places where he could examine the quality of the stone he meant to quarry for his works. He traced the extent of this stone, and determined to prove to his townsmen how much better it was to build houses with than brick. He was probably unaware of the praise of Augustus,—that he had found Rome brick and left it marble; but it was precisely his own ambition to turn his native town of dingy brick into stone. His first bit of work in pulling down old brick walls was visited afterwards with much curiosity. As soon as he was out of his time, he and his elder brother, George, who was a bricklayer, pulled down and rebuilt a small house next their mother’s. He owed his next opportunity to an opulent member of the Methodist body to which he belonged. Though wondered at for employing “a raw lad like Grainger,” this Mr. Batson entrusted to him the building of some houses in Higham Place. Richard was worthy of the trust. He was up at three or four in the morning, and worked till nine at night,—giving his whole mind to the business; and it was thoroughly well done.

He had the stimulus of wishing to marry; and he did marry young, and extremely well. His wife Rachel was a class-mate at chapel, and so far well-connected that she had eventually a fortune of 5000l. But that was the least of the good things she brought to Richard. She made his home a place of rest and comfort, and moreover kept his accounts and managed his correspondence. She was a woman of taste as well as business-capacity; and her counsel was as beneficial to him in his work abroad as her affection in his rest at home.

His first speculation on his own resources was building two houses in Percy Street,—of brick as yet. Then he built a whole street, except eight houses; and it was extolled as something splendid from its width and regularity. Grainger smiled at the popular admiration; for he thought the houses ordinary enough, with their plain brick outsides. He had nothing to do with the plan, or it would have been very different. This he presently proved by creating a handsome square of stone-houses, opening out of the new brick street. Eldon Square was begun in 1826,—and all but four of the houses, and the handsome club-house in the centre of one side, were his work. He had experience here of some of the vexations which haunt builders at every turn. As soon as the houses were finished, it was discovered that some of the American timber employed in the roofs was infested by bugs. I suppose they were got rid of; for the speculation succeeded so well as to bring larger enterprises after it. His friend and attorney advised him to retire on the 20,000l. he had realised: but Grainger produced plans and estimates for a noble crescent and terrace, to be built on a high healthy grazing-land beside the moor. There were to be seventy first-class, and sixty second-class houses; yet the calculations made by Richard and Rachel were so clear and complete, and cautious, that Mr. Fenwick, the attorney, was satisfied.

The Leazes Terrace and Crescent were soon built and occupied, and Grainger was a rich man.

It will not be interesting to readers unacquainted with Newcastle to follow the course of Grainger’s enterprises. It is enough to say that before he began to fulfil his own particular dreams about the Nunnery grounds, he had added to the town house property and public buildings to the value of nearly 200,000l. His name was now in everybody’s mouth, for good or for evil. It was difficult to find anything to say against him personally; but the owners of ricketty old houses and inconvenient old shops and warehouses complained of the diminishing value of their property. In the most crowded parts of the town, there were prophecies that dwellings would become a drug. Those who could find nothing else to allege, spoke of Richard’s badge-coat and his mother’s stocking-grafting, and tossed their heads at the idea of his having made so many thousand pounds, while they who used to bid him be a good boy had been working hard to make only as many hundreds. As a set-off against such remarks there were the facts of an increased importation of Baltic timber, and such a demand for better houses and shops as kept all the builders in the place busier than they had ever been before. There was a new briskness in all trades, and, in due course, a marked increase in the population of Newcastle.

The long-hoped-for day came at last. The twelve acres were in the hands of a proprietor willing to sell. Grainger was presently reported to have paid 50,000l. for the estate, and 45,000l. more for old property which lay between the estate and the busy parts of the town. It was some time before public curiosity could learn what was to be done; for Grainger’s plans were prepared at home; and his secrets were well kept. By the advice of his attorney, he now transferred his business to the office of the town-clerk,—because, not only of the magnitude of his concerns, but of the necessity of obtaining the good will of the Corporation. A meat-market and the theatre stood in the way of the meditated improvements. When the plans were exhibited, and public opinion was found to be in their favour, the Corporation surrendered the market, on Grainger’s promise to erect a new one, superior in all respects. The new market was opened with much jubilation, as the finest in the kingdom. The Green market, which soon followed, may be remembered by any of my readers who attended the British Association Meeting of 1838, when it was lighted up for the Promenade—its elegant fountains being wreathed with gaslights.

We hear from Paris of a discontented house-owner who had just appealed against the amount of compensation awarded to him, for a dwelling to be swept away in the course of improvements; and of his finding no traces of his house when he went to make one more survey of it, after having seen it in the morning. The incident reminded me of Grainger’s movements in the case of the other obstruction to his plans,—the theatre. The proprietors parted with it to Grainger, in exchange for a new one and 500l. Somebody, however, was dissatisfied, and was about to apply for an injunction to stop proceedings; but, within three hours from the signing of the contract, the chimneys were down; and before a letter could get to London no trace of the building remained.

This was Grainger’s way, as a crowd of people found who came into Grey Street one morning to see how he was getting on about a house which projected so as to spoil his scheme, and which the owners stood out about, as is natural in such cases. The house was gone! The purchase had been effected the evening before; the tenants were instantly removed to a dwelling where they found good fires, and everything comfortable; and the fires they left behind were still burning when the chimneys came down.

Grainger now found that he had to deal with anxieties and troubles of a kind which he had not anticipated. His excavations kept him awake at night, and filled him with anxiety all day,—the ups and downs of the land being so various and often so perverse. Over and above the levelling and embanking, for the mere digging and removing of surplus soil, he paid 21,500l. Yet he had made his mortar wherever he came upon sand, and bricks when he came to clay. A brick-field in the midst of his works was a common spectacle. In his economy he did not forget his old friends, and many a one of them has seen one of Grainger’s carts stop at the door with a load of firewood, when he was clearing his areas.

In five years he had built nine new streets, of varying lengths from eighty to above five hundred yards; wide and airy, and consisting entirely of houses and public buildings of polished stone in varied designs of most striking beauty. It is an astonishment to foreigners, arriving at Newcastle, to see such an architectural exhibition in a provincial town, formerly heard of only for its coal and glass. We used to be proud of Bath for its streets and crescents; and now Nottingham is putting on a new aspect, through the good offices of the Duke of Newcastle and his agent, with an enlarged area to work upon: but no improvements in our provincial places can ever reduce the marvellousness of Richard Grainger’s transformation of his dingy native town. The so-called “new town” of Newcastle will be his monument while Newcastle has a history. Between the time I have spoken of and his death—twenty years—he has done many great works; but I have not seen them, and cannot tell what they are. It is needless to remark that he must have had the command of much capital besides his own. Both patriotic and speculative citizens were doubtless glad to furnish the means for his enterprises. It was common to hear rumours of coming disaster, on the part of persons who had always prophesied the ultimate ruin of the ambitious charity-boy: but there was a general trust in his prudence and sagacity. His accuracy in accounting for Methodist pence when he was a collector in his boyhood helped him well when scores of thousands were passing through his hands. His quiet cheerfulness and collectedness gave an impression of being a safe man in all his transactions. His healthful composure was just the same in middle life as in his youth, when Mrs. Fenwick asked her husband who he was, and called him “the bonniest lad she ever saw.” But there were times when he knew what it was to lose both his security and his composure. In one dreary season, when commercial affairs came to a dead lock, when all creditors pressed, and no money was to be had, Grainger failed. It was not for long, and he soon prospered again. But at another time, when he had at once too heavy a weight of liability upon him, and had worked too hard, and allowed himself too little sleep, his brain gave way. An interval of rest and proper treatment restored him entirely: but these misfortunes must, in all fairness, come into the account of his career.

It would take up too much space to tell of his plans for supplying water and gas, and connecting railways, or to describe the many public buildings he has given to Newcastle. In five years from his purchase of the Nunnery grounds, he had added another million to the value of the house property in the town. He bought for himself the great Elswick estate, which lies along the Tyne, paying for it 200,000l. He employed 2000 workmen at once, and held his ground when they attempted to strike. I remember the curiosity of the townsmen one day when the report flew round that Grainger’s men had struck: but next morning he had had six hundred apprentices sworn in. His work was then chiefly excavation, which could be done by them under his direction; and very serene he looked, working among them. The men came back in crowds: he picked, and chose, and rejected; and many lamented having taken advantage of the most liberal and considerate employer they had ever had. He was the friend of his workmen throughout his career. Perhaps it is a more striking fact that he was on the most amiable terms with the other architects and builders of the town.

The perplexing thing is—how he became qualified to conceive and work out his really beautiful designs. He himself said that a visit to Edinburgh, early in his life, impressed him very deeply. He afterwards saw London and Dublin: and that was about all. What he might have been with the training of an architect, or with any sort of liberal education, there is no saying. The want of it was on occasion painfully felt. The sanitary arrangements of his “new town” might, I am told, have been much better than they are: and I have myself had opportunity to observe how strange some things were to him which ought to have been familiar. When I became acquainted with him, in 1839, I had just been at Venice; and it seemed natural that he would be interested in what was to be seen there. But there was no making him comprehend or believe that there were canals instead of streets. He thought I misunderstood him, as he wanted to hear, not about the navigation, but “the approaches.” “The approaches, ma’am,” he kept saying: “there must be approaches.” I showed him Prout and Harding’s engraved representation of Venice. He said he had never heard of such a thing in his life as these water-streets: and I made him take the volume home, hoping that he would get some profit for Newcastle out of it. No doubt he must have learned a great deal from engravings: but, allowing every possible means of supplying the defects of his education, it remains perfectly wonderful that his street architecture should be what it is; and it is at once animating and mournful to think what he might have been if his education had been better than that of a charity boy. Brave Ben Jonson laid his bricks with a book open beside him. Grainger plied his tools while his head was full of his poetic dream. If he had had a fair share of Ben’s learning, it would have sent him out to see the world; and who can say what he might not have done when he had seen Italy and Greece?

Though he might thus have been something more and greater, Grainger was truly an eminent street architect: and I know not where we could find, at home or abroad, a sounder or more genial example of a self-made man.

Harriet Martineau.