Scholar and Sculler:
The Life and Legacy of Frederick Furnivall
AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 8 AUGUST 2021
One of the more remarkable products of the Religious Tract Society was a periodical with the title The Cottager and Artisan, which was published every month from 1861 to 1919. Originally it was The Cottager in Town and Country — it changed its title in 1865 — and it carried the subtitle The People’s Own Paper. Costing one penny an issue, it was aimed at working-class readers, and its tone was unashamedly evangelical, with spiritual education its reason for being. The very first issue, which came out on New Year’s Day, set the tone with articles, stories and poems that aligned religious matters with the sturdy values and simple decency of the industrious poor.
A hallmark of the periodical was its illustrations, and a particularly fine example of its pictorial style is a wood engraving of ballast heavers standing in front of a bust of Albert, the late Prince Consort, which appeared in the issue for 1 October 1863. The image was drawn by Henry Anelay, whose work was also used in The Illustrated London News and elsewhere. Four men clad in the rough garb of the manual labourer, one with his foot on his shovel, another with his shovel over his left shoulder, are discussing a matter of evident interest. Their status as working men is defined by their heavy boots, their creased trousers tied beneath the knee and their rolled-up sleeves. They stand tall, seemingly unbroken by toil. There is something heroic about them.
The article that accompanied this magnificent image was made up in large part of the transcript of two letters. In the first of these, which was dated 6 June 1863 and addressed to Queen Victoria, the so-called ‘ballast-heavers of the Port of London’ commended the Prince Consort’s help in ending the exploitative practices that had once made their lives intolerable, and requested a souvenir of their benefactor.
The second, dated the 12th and sent from Windsor Castle by ‘C. B. Phipps’ to ‘F. J. Furnvall, Esq.’, confirmed that the request had been presented to the Queen, who had ordered two framed prints of Albert to be presented in recognition of their devotion to the memory of her beloved husband. Phipps, a retired army officer, was an established member of Victoria’s inner circle. Furnivall — scholar, socialist and passionate amateur oarsman — was anything but.
The raff and refuse
Ballast heaving was a by-product of the coal industry. The coal-ships sailing down the coast from the Tyne to the Thames were only stable and safe when fully laden. And so once their cargoes had been unloaded — or ‘whipped’ with the help of ropes and pulleys — they were ballasted for the purpose of the return journey.
The ballast was in some cases chalk, which was taken on at Purfleet, but more often than not it was gravel or sand, which was raised from the bed of the river by dredging-engines and brought in lighters and barges alongside the ships lying in the docks or standing between London Bridge and Woolwich. The ballast heavers would heave the ballast into the holds of the ships waiting to sail back up to the Tyne.
In Oliver Twist, which was published in the late 1830s, the ballast heavers and the coal whippers were among the ‘very raff and refuse of the river’ in the dark reaches of East London, south of the Thames, where Bill Sikes met his unpleasant end. Nor had their lot improved when the journalist Henry Mayhew, writing in the early 1850s, found them living in cheap lodgings off Rosemary Lane alongside other labourers whose work was connected with the river.
How it was done
Mayhew once watched a gang of heavers working at night in the Pool of London. They had set up large lanterns and had tied pieces of coarse material round their shoes and halfway up their legs, so that gravel did not get wedged painfully under their feet. The gravel was heaped on to a large platform or ‘stage’ secured below a porthole in the flank of the ship, and from the stage it was shovelled into the hold. The men had to work quickly and quietly, and
nothing was heard but an occasional gurgle of the water, and the plunging of the shovel into the gravel on the stage by one heaver, followed instantaneously by the rattling of the stones in the hold shot from the shovel of the other. In the hold the ballast is arranged by the ship’s company. The throwing of the ballast through the porthole was done with a nice precision. A tarpaulin was fixed to prevent any of the ballast that might not be flung through the porthole being wasted by falling into the river, and all that struck merely the bounds of the porthole fell back into the lighter; but this was the merest trifle.
Mayhew also reported the exploitation of these wretched men by cynical ballast contractors. The contractors were the middlemen who were paid by ship-owners to deliver ballast to their vessels, and who in their turn paid the heavers to do the work. They were a motley assortment of riverside publicans and shopkeepers — butchers and grocers — who made it a condition of employment that heavers buy the goods on sale in their premises.
And it was this exploitative practice that the ballast heavers highlighted in their letter to Queen Victoria. Not only was it iniquitous but it was harmful, too, for the publicans
made us drink before they’d give us a job, made us drink while at it, and kept us waiting for our wages and drinking after we’d done our work; so that we could only take half our wages home to our families, and that half too often reached them though a drunkard’s hands.
All this came to an end, though, through the intervention of Prince Albert in his capacity as Master of the Trinity House Corporation.
Trinity House was the official body regulating the digging of ballast from the bed of the river, and the establishing of a Heaver’s Office, which was placed under its control, effectively loosened the grip of the riverside mafiosi. The heavers were granted use of premises in Limehouse, free of rent, where they might wait for work without lining the pockets of avaricious publicans and shopkeepers, and they were given help in starting a benefit society.
Sitting with Dizzy
Albert achieved this impressive improvement in the lives of the ballast heavers in consultation with Lord Cardwell, who was at the time the President of the Board of Trade, and the relevant legislation took the form of a clause in the Merchant Shipping Law Amendment Act passed in 1853. But it is quite possible that the real instigator of this enlightened legislation was the Furnivall who would communicate with Windsor Castle in 1863.
Furnivall’s interest in this particular cause dated back at least as far as 1848, when he led a deputation of ballast heavers to meet Disraeli. Later he would describe the meeting to his biographer, John James Munro, remembering the noble labourers ‘sitting shyly on the delicate white and gold chairs in Dizzy’s drawing-room.’ A strange scene, perhaps, but Furnivall got what he had come for.
Sculling before all else
Frederick James Furnivall was born in 1825 in Egham in Surrey. His father, George Frederick Furnivall, was a medical man and ran a lunatic asylum, Great Foster House, an enterprise that earned him a great deal of money. His mother, Sophia Hughes Furnivall, was the daughter of James Barwell, who had built a manor house at Coworth in Berkshire.
He went to university first in London and then in Cambridge, where he purportedly studied mathematics but in fact spent much of his time sculling. In his mid-twenties he qualified as a barrister, and, although he was not greatly enamoured of the profession, he practised law in London for more than twenty years.
Far more significant than his grudging work as a lawyer was his passionate literary scholarship. He was heavily involved in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, and, although his erratic behaviour alienated many of his fellow scholars, his contribution was Herculean. Elsewhere he founded a number of literary and philological societies, but he made many enemies, and his uneasy relationship with the finer points of conventional scholarship infuriated many other labourers in the field.
Always, though, he expended huge amounts of energy on these enterprises, and, even if the jury is out on the quality of his work, his presence on the Victorian intellectual stage simply cannot be ignored. Certainly the universities did not ignore him, and he collected honorary degrees from Berlin and Oxford as well as an honorary fellowship from Trinity Hall, his Cambridge alma mater.
Home by starlight
Perhaps it should not surprise us that a character as colourful as Furnivall failed to abide by the social norms of the times in which he lived. He embraced Christian socialist ideals and helped found the Working Men’s College in Red Lion Square in 1854. He wanted the college to be a sort of utopian arrangement in which the shared love of learning would make such narrow concerns as class background irrelevant.
But here too, as in his scholarly activities, he managed to offend. His colleague Frederick Denison Maurice objected to his fervent belief in coeducation and his insistence on sharing recreational activities with his pupils, which Munro describes delightfully as
the long Sunday rambles, the merry tea-parties some miles from London, and the tramp homeward in the starlight to the time of songs.
Maurice, whose Christian principles clashed with Furnivall’s emerging agnosticism, expressed his concerns in a pamphlet addressed to members of the college. The excursions may have been healthy, but they were held on a Sunday, and the proper business of a Sunday was divine service.
Tinting the upper clouds
Meanwhile Furnivall’s passion for rowing never abated. He championed the superiority of sculls over oars, attacking in print what he called the ‘good old stupid ways’ with his characteristic lack of tact. ‘Blessed is he that expects little,’ he wrote in a brief pamphlet on the subject, ‘for he shall not be disappointed.’ He attacked the Amateur Rowing Association for excluding artisans and labourers from regattas, and in 1896 he challenged the establishment by founding a Hammersmith Sculling Club that admitted girls and women.
The Club was his pride and joy. He would take to the water at Lower Mall with his happy band of female scullers, who thought nothing of rowing to Richmond and even further to Canbury Island. He published accounts of these outings in a West London newspaper, and in one of these articles, in a moment of poetic rapture, he wrote that
when the boats were sculling down the sunset was very fine. As the sun sank below the horizon a broad gash of blood-red appeared in the sky, and then gradually tinted the upper clouds till it faded in their gloom.
Furnivall died in 1910. In his final hours he expressed to Munro his wish that he should be remembered only for his sculling club. One of its members, Blanche Huckle, wrote a fine testimonial, one of many that Munro published the following year.
Huckle got to know Furnivall at the A. B. C. tearoom in Oxford Street, where she was a waitress and he was a regular customer. She remembered his kindness and his youthful enthusiasm. She remembered the presents he gave the waitresses — the trinkets, the fruits and flowers, the books of poems. She remembered the summer picnics on the river, which were always happy occasions.
Until, that is, Furnivall became ill. ‘He did not seem to take the same bright interest in his surroundings as he used to,’ she said of the last visit he paid to the tearoom. She and her friends would never see him again.
We seem to have come a long way from the man who sat with Disraeli, discussing the plight of the ballast heavers. Or have we? The same generosity of spirit — not to mention the same interest in the life of the river — presides over both causes. Let another of his club members, Gwendoline Jarvis, have the final word.
She recalled the Saturdays — two a year — when Furnivall organised the club to take boatloads of local children from Hammersmith to Kew Gardens. The children were the poorest of the poor. After the outing they would be treated to a slap-up tea and would go home clutching gifts and sweets. ‘They returned home looking very happy,’ Jarvis noted, ‘which was quite reward enough for their benefactor.’
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