3772. Robert Southey to John May, 28 December 1821-21 April 1822

3772. Robert Southey to John May, 28 December 1821–21 April 1822⁠* 

Dec. 28. 1821

I remember poor Flower [1]  with compassion & not without respect, as a man who in more auspicious circumstances might have past his life happily for himself & perhaps honourably as well as usefully for his country. His attainments & talents, were I have no doubt, very considerable in their kind, & I am sure that his temper & disposition were naturally very good. I never saw so little punishment in any school. There was but one flogging during my stay there, it was for running away, which was considered as the heaviest of all offences; the exhibition was made as serious as possible; the instrument was not a rod but a scourge of packthread; but tho punishments in private schools were at that time I believe always much more severe than at public ones, I do not remember that this was remarkable for severity. We stood in awe & respect of him, rather than fear. If there was nothing conciliating or indulgent about him, there was no rigour; but his manner was what you might suppose in one who was habitually thoughtful, & who when he not engaged in abstruse studies had reason enough for unhappiness in his domestic circumstances. For his school was declining, he was about fifty years of age, & having lost his first wife, had lately married one of his maids, [2]  who took to drinking; the house therefore was in disorder, the servants were xxxx <allowed> to take their own course, & the boys were sadly neglected. In every thing which relates to personal cleanliness, they were left to take care of themselves. I had a profusion of curly hair; just before the holydays it was thought prudent to examine into the state of its population; which was found to be prodigiously great; my head therefore was plaistered with black-soap, [3]  & in that condition I was sent home & with such sores <there> in consequence of long neglect, that my Mother wept at seeing them.

Our morning ablutions, to the entire saving of all materials, were performed in a little stream which ran thro the barton, & in its ordinary state was hardly more than ankle deep. We had porridge for breakfast in winter, bread & milk in summer. My taste was better than my appetite, the green leeks in this porridge gave me a dislike to that plant which I have never retain to this day, <St David [4]  forgive me!> & if it were greasy swimming with fat, as it usually was, I could better fast till the hour of dinner, than do violence to my stomach, by swallowing this greasy potion. The bread & milk reminds me of an anecdote connected with the fashion of those days. Because I was indulged with sugar in my bread & milk at home, when I went to school I was provided with a store, carefully tied up in paper. I had a cocked hat for Sundays, during the rest of the week it lay in my box upon the top of my clothes, & when the paper of brown sugar was reduced in bulk, I deposited it in the cock of the hat. As you may suppose, my fingers found their way there whenever I went to the box, & the box was sometimes opened for that purpose, x thus the sugar was by little & little strewn over the hat. It was in a sweet clammy condition the first time I was sent for by my Aunt <Tyler> to visit her at Bath; & as the cocked hat was then in the last stage of its fashion, mine was dismissed to the hatter be rounded by the hatter, & I never wore one again till I was at Madrid, where round hats were prohibited. [5] 

One day in the week we had bread & cheese for dinner, or when baking day came, a hot cake with cheese or a small portion of butter at our choice. This to my taste was the best dinner in the week. Some of the boys would split their cake, lay their cheese in thin layers between the two halves, & then place it under the press, so as to compress it into one mass. This rule of going without meat one day in the week was then, I believe, general in country schools, – retained perhaps, for motives of frugality, from Catholic times. [6]  – One of the wo servants had the privilege of selling gingerbread & such things. We had bread & cheese for supper, & used to raise sallads for this meal, in little portions of garden, into which what had been the flower border of the great garden in better times, was divided; these were our property & transferable by sale. We raised mustard & cress, raddishes & lettuces. When autumn came we had no lack of apples, for it is a country of orchards. The brook which has before <already> been mentioned past thro one immediately before it entered the barton where our ablutions were performed; the trees on one side grew on a steepish declivity; & in stormy weather we constructed dams across the stream to stop the apples which were brought down. Our master had an extensive orchard of his own, & employed the boys to gather in the apples; there was of course free license to eat on that day, & a moderate deg share of pocketting would have been allowed, – but whether original sin was more peculiarly excited by that particular fruit, or not, [7]  so it was, that a subtraction was made enormous enough to demand inquiry, the boxes were opened <searched> in consequence, & the whole plunder was thus recovered. The boys were allowed <employed> also to squail at the bannets, – that is, being interpreted, to throw at his walnuts, when it was time to bring them down, – there were four or five fine trees on the hill side above the brook. I was too little to bear a part in this, which required considerable strength, but for many days afterward I had the gleaning among the leaves with which the ground was covered, – & the fragrance of those leaves in their incipient decay is one of those odours which I can recall at will, & which whenever it occurs, brings with it the remembrance of past times.

One very odd amusement, which I never saw or heard of elsewhere, was greatly in vogue at this school. It was performed with snail shells – by placing them against each other, point to point, & pressing till the weaker was broken in; that was called conquering, & the shell which remained unhurt acquired glory esteem & value in proportion to the number <over> which it had conquered <triumphed>, an accurate account being kept. A great conqueror was prodigiously prized & coveted, & two of this description would seldom have been brought to contest the palm, if both possessors had not been goaded to it by reproaches <& taunts>. The victor always added to his score <had the> number that of its opponents <conquests added to its own>, thus when one conqueror of fifty conquered another <which had been as often victorious,> it became conqueror of an hundred & one. Yet even in this, fame was sometimes obtained upon false pretences. I found a boy [8]  one day who had fallen in with a great number of young snails, so young that their shells were still transparent, – in fact a nest probably which had not been hatched more than two or three days, – & he was besmearing his fingers by crushing these poor creatures one after another against his conqueror, counting away, with the greatest satisfaction at his work. He was a good-natured boy, so that I (who had been bred up to have a sense of humanity,) ventured to express some compassion for the snails, & to suggest that he might as well count them & lay them aside unhurt. I should have prevailed if it had not been for a point of honour or of conscience: – he hesitated & seemd inclined to assent, till it struck him as a point of honour, or of conscience, & then he resolutely said no, that would not do, – for he could not then fairly say he had conquered them. – There is a surprizing difference of strength in these shells, which might be partly estimated by the appearance of their points, or tops (I do not know what better term to use) – the strong ones were usually clear & glossy there, & white, if the shell were of the large coarse mottled brown species. The top was then said to be petrified, & a good conqueror of this description would triumph for weeks or months. I remember that one of the most succesful ones <greatest heroes> bore evident marks of having once been conquered; it had then been cast away in some lucky situation where the poor tenant had leisure to repair his habitation, or rather where the restorative power of nature repaired it for him, & the wall was thus made x stronger than it had been before the breach. But in general I should think the resisting power of the shell depended upon the geometrical nicety of its form.

One of the big boys [9]  one day brought down a kite xx with an arrow, from the play ground which I think a more extraordinary thing than Apollos killing Python, [10]  tho a Belvedere Jack Steel (this was the heros <archers> name) would not make quite so noble <heroic> a statue. We had a boy [11]  there who wore Midshipmans uniform, & whose pay must have more than maintained him at school, his father was a purser, & such things were not uncommon in those days. – While I was at this school, the Corporation of Bristol invited Rodney [12]  from Bath to a public dinner, after his great victory, & we were all marched down to the Globe at Newton, by the road side, to see him pass & give him three cheers. They were returned with great good humour from the carriage window. Another circumstance <has> made me remember the day well, – looking about for conquerors in Newton Churchyard, [13]  I saw a slow-worm get into the ground under a tomb-stone; & on consequence when I met, no long time afterwards, with the ancient opinion that the spinal marrow of a human body produces a serpent, [14]  this fact induced me to <long> believe it without hesitation, upon the <supposed> testimony of my own eyes.

Tho I had a full share of discomforts at Corston, I recollect nothing so painful as that of being kept up every night till a certain hour, when I was dying with sleepiness. Sometimes I stole away to bed, – but it was not easy to do this; & once I was missed at bed-time, a hue & cry was presently made, & I was discovered fast asleep in a certain building, which tho appropriated for ease, was never intended for a sleeping place. But I dreaded nothing so much as Sunday evening in winter. We were then assembled in the hall to hear the Master read a sermon, or a portion of Stackhouses History of the Bible. [15]  There I sat at the end of a long form, in sight but not within feeling of the fire, my feet cold, my eyelids heavy as lead, & yet not daring to close them, kept awake by fear alone, in total inaction, & under the operation of a lecture more soporific than the strongest sleeping dose. – Heaven help the wits of those good people who think that children are to be edified by having sermons read to them!

After remaining here about twelvemonths, I was sent for home upon an alarm that the itch [16]  had broken out in the school <among us>. Some of the boys communicated this advice to their parents in letters which Duplanier [17]  conveyed for them, all others of course being dictated, & written under inspection. The report whether true or false, accelerated the ruin of the school – A scandalous scene took place of mutual reproaches between father & son, [18]  each accusing the other for that neglect the consequences of which were now become apparent; – the dispute was renewed with more violence after the boys were in bed; the next morning the master was not to be seen, Charley appeared with a black eye, & we knew that father & son had come to blows! Most, if not all the Bristol boys, were now taken away, & I among them, to my great joy. But on my arrival at home I was treated as a suspected person, & underwent a three days purgatory in brimstone. [19] 

Apr. 21. 1822.


* MS: Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester, Robert Southey Papers A.S727. AL; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), I, pp. 51–58. BACK

[1] The school at Corston that Southey attended 1781–1782 was run by Thomas Flower (d. 1799), an expert on astronomy, a subject on which he gave public lectures and took private pupils. BACK

[2] Thomas Flower had married Sarah Parker (dates unknown) in 1778. BACK

[3] A liquid soap, made from lime and potash; it was a common treatment for head lice. BACK

[4] St David (6th century), the patron saint of Wales; the leek is often used as a national symbol for Wales. BACK

[5] Large round hats that concealed the features of the wearer were banned in Madrid as part of the government’s attempt to reduce crime. The measure was deeply unpopular and was one of the triggers for the Esquilache riots 1766. Southey visited Madrid in 1796. BACK

[6] The tradition in many Christian communities of abstaining from meat on Fridays in remembrance of the crucifixion. BACK

[7] The fruit in the Garden of Eden which Adam and Eve were forbidden from eating was often interpreted as being the apple, Genesis 2: 16–17. The disobedience of Adam and Eve was the original sin that descended to all people. BACK

[8] Unidentified. BACK

[9] Jack Steel (dates unknown). BACK

[10] The slaying of Python by the Greek god Apollo was a popular subject for classical sculpture. Representations include the Apollo Belvedere, rediscovered in the late fifteenth century and now in the Vatican, hence Southey’s humorous comparison with the feats of the schoolboy archer, Jack Steel. BACK

[11] Unidentified. BACK

[12] The naval officer and politician George Bridges Rodney, 1st Baron Rodney (c. 1718–1792; DNB). In April 1782 he was victorious over a French fleet in the Battle of the Saints, thus preventing a French and Spanish invasion of Jamaica. On 15 November 1782, Rodney received a ceremonial welcome from the Mayor and Corporation of Bristol, a day that witnessed a parade, the firing of cannon and the ringing of bells, and that culminated in a civic dinner, loyal toasts, illuminations, fireworks and a ball. BACK

[13] The churchyard of Holy Trinity, Newton St Loe. BACK

[14] This view is found in, for example, Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC–AD 17/18), Metamorphoses, Book 15, line 389, and Pliny the Elder (AD 23–AD 79), Naturalis Historia, Chapter 86. BACK

[15] Thomas Stackhouse (1677–1752; DNB), New History of the Holy Bible from the Beginning of the World to the Establishment of Christianity (1737). BACK

[16] Scabies, a contagious skin infection, caused by the mite Sarcoptes scabiei. BACK

[17] Du Planier (dates unknown), was a French expatriate who ran a school in Bristol and taught part-time at Southey’s school at Corston. He returned to France in 1790. BACK

[18] Thomas Flower (d. 1799) and his son, Charles Flower (dates unknown), who taught at his school. BACK

[19] Sulphur: it was the standard treatment for scabies, usually in the form of a powder or ointment. BACK

People mentioned

Southey, Margaret (1752–1802) (mentioned 1 time)
Tyler, Elizabeth (1739–1821) (mentioned 1 time)


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