Twenty years ago I was given a book by a widowed lady from my dad’s church – from her husband’s library. I’ve only just got round to reading it – but somehow she was right to choose it for me and it was right to keep it all that time to read it.
It’s rare to read the story of an ordinary person’s life from the nineteenth century – told in their own words. Like seeing a documentary when all you’d ever seen of a place before was via films and dramas. His energetic, inquisitive, largely non-judgmental nature compensates for his mannered, auto-didactic writing style.
The person in question being James Dawson Burn. The book being the ‘Autography of a Beggar Boy – in which will be found related the numerous trials, hard struggles, and vicissitudes of a strangely chequered life; with glimpses of social and political history over a period of fifty years’.
Popular in its time – but since then its drifted into obscurity. His story criss-crosses the UK and Ireland, a succession of jobs and professions with the tranformation of Britain into the urban industrial age as the backdrop.
He starts the tale on the road with his drunken ex-soldier step father who begs, steals and drinks his way round the Scottish lowlands, becoming acquanted with its every jail. From there the trajactory of his life is generally upward but never settles, is never truely securely based. Hatter, Oddfellow and reform activist, pub landlord, directory salesman, seaman, begger, tradesman, labourer.
What’s striking is the insecurity and precariousness of even the respectable life of the time. When industrialisation could fatally destabalise a craft and a trade which had taken years of apprenticeship to learn and find a place within. Or when new forms of capitalist speculation and endeavour failed or collapsed. Take to the road – with or without your family. Go on the tramp. In the early years of the book the travelling tradesmen with goods to sell, or the begger with a good story to sell were the only way that news from the wider world reached the farmsteads and small towns. Cities like Glasgow were ’embellished with piazzas and pillars, half gothic and half Norman…the miles of splendid quays which have been efected of late, were then sleeping quietly in their quarries.’
The railways change all that as the book progresses and the cities take on a form we can recognise today.
‘…the railway acted the part of the great magician in its wonderful transformations. The high level bridge which spans the Tyne, in the novel character of a pair of bridges, is one of the greatest undertakings of the age. The old brig which unites Newcastle and Gateshead, looks like an ancient pigmy beneath its modern rival.’
Thank you Mr and Mrs Marvill.