My Father

Home » Works and Memoirs of W. T. Stead » My Father

My Father

W. T. Stead (The Jarrow Guardian, February 29, 1884)
Reprinted by Darlington Public Library (1884)

For the last hour I have been lying on the old couch in my father’s study, watching the “shadows from the fitful firelight” dancing on the familiar walls within which so much of my earlier life was spent. The gloaming has given place to darkness. I have lit the gas, and I will now endeavour, before the first day after the funeral has gone, to jot down as faithfully as I can a few reminiscences of the father to whom, and to my mother, I owe all that I am, all that I have, all that I ever will be. The place is congenial for such a retrospect. Here, on the very spot where I am writing, my father taught me to read, and helped me, then a shy and timid child of six sitting upon his knee, to pick my way through the Latin grammar. Thirty years have gone by since those early days, when father’s study was both my schoolroom and my favourite playground; but how little is changed! The small room with its book-shelves – which then seemed to me to be laden with all the learning of the world, but whose literary furnishing now seems so poor and meagre – is just as it was. The bed is changed, but all else is there. A little room it is, with one draughty window – a study and a bedroom in one; yet there was lived out within its four walls a noble life of patient service for others, of humble devotion and simple piety. Oh! my dear, my patient, long-suffering father! How utterly inadequate are my poor words to express in merest outline the debt I owe to you, or to describe the image of personified goodness which dwells in all our memories!

In these reminiscences, jotted down on the day after the last sad rites have been rendered, I do not intend to speak except incidentally of my father as a minister. Of his fidelity to his conception of the duties of the pastorate all can speak whose lot has been cast for long or short time in that grimy spot, befouled and bemired, poisoned by chemical fumes, and darkened by the smoke of innumerable chimneys, known as Howdon-on-Tyne. Of his preaching and his visiting, of his teaching and his counsels, of his quiet unostentatious services on committees and on public bodies I will make no mention. Of his sermons, of which in the course of a forty years’ ministry he had accumulated a store of several thousands, a holocaust was made a few days before his death, by his express request. Of all that voluminous pile of MSS., every page of which was penned with eager anxiety to benefit, to instruct, or to inspire the souls of men, there now remains not a single fragment. His message has been spoken. His sermons have gone up in flame, and such memory of them as still lingers in the minds of his hearers will soon pass away. But that which will never pass away is the effect of that spoken word, reinforced by the example of that faithful life, on the characters of those among whom he laboured, and especially of those of his children.

It is more as a father than as a minister that I would speak of him. As a minister there have been many more popular, although none more respected; and there are many who were more eloquent and more successful, although no one could have been more faithful and devoted. But as a father, I never knew, I will not say his superior, but even his equal. My experience of men is wider now than it was when first I was called from Tyneside, but the wider the range of my acquaintance with the families of the world, the more deeply am I impressed by the fact that in him we had all but realized the ideal of fatherhood. His life was lived for his children. Every moment he could spare from study was ours. We were always with him. One of my earliest recollections is that of constructing stables for my toy horses with Hume and Smollett’s calf-bound History of England as building materials, under the table on which father was writing his sermons. One of the earliest traditions of the household is the lament that I raised when but two years old, when my father was from home, that there was “no yire in ‘tuddy” (no fire in the study), and as a consequence, being shut out from my accustomed haunt, I was miserable. My father possessed a rare gift of concentration, and could write and study undisturbed by the noisy chatter of his children, who were making doll houses or riding a rocking-horse at the other end of the room. That rocking-horse – what memories it recalls! It was of his own making. Accustomed from youth to manual labour – he served his apprenticeship as a cutler in a Sheffield forge in the days when rattening was an ordinary incident of the cutler’s life – he was never at a loss to make what he had not the means to buy. This rocking-horse was fearfully and wonderfully made, with four legs as straight as bedposts, a neck of unplaned deal, and a tail of rags; but it rocked as well as the best, and it only succumbed at last when some six of us attempted to ride it at once. Had it not been a home-made article it would have collapsed long before. How there was ever room for it in this little room, in which even with a smaller bed there now seems to be scarcely room to turn round, I cannot imagine, but it used to be there.

There was literally nothing – that was not contrary to the Ten Commandments – that our father would not have done to encourage us.

Himself reserved, and humble almost to a morbid point, he fully appreciated the importance of praise as a means of encouraging to effort. Among other things, he taught us to draw, and one of our earliest treasures was a box of paints, with which we used to produce some startling effects on the backs of old envelopes and letters – for paper was dear in those days, and rigid economy was a necessity in the family of a Nonconformist minister. These early efforts of ours were pinned up in the study, until the whole wall was covered from the mantelpiece to the ceiling with our childish daubs. Seldom has minister’s study been converted into so absurd a picture gallery, but we children were as proud of it as if it had been hung with the works of the old masters, and great were our lamentations when our mother’s artistic taste revolted at the patchwork of daubings, took out the pins, and consigned the whole gallery to oblivion. He taught me almost all that I ever learned, sitting on his knee at the table. I never went to school until I was twelve, and my two years’ schooling, although invaluable in other things, added comparatively little to my grasp of the instruments of knowledge – except, perhaps, in algebra and mathematics. He taught us Latin almost as soon as we could read, and we were reading in the Old Testament before we were five. I learned the Latin grammar before the English, and well I remember my disgust when I first discovered that in English the substantive had only three cases, as against the six of the Latin. My elder sister and I were taught together. In every respect we were educated alike. We had the same class books, were set the same lessons, and did the same tasks. Although there were only two of us, we always went up and down in class. Top was father’s knee. Bottom was a chair; and many a tear was often shed by the eager child who, at the close of the class, was off the knee. Sharp pupils I dare say we were, but not docile; and had our good father not been one of the most patient of men, he would soon have found us insufferable.

Our school day began at six o’clock in the winter morning, when father, who down to the very last was an early riser, would hear us our spellings as we lay in bed, when he was busy lighting the fire. It was an informal class, but effective; nor did he ever allow a false spelling to escape him in all his domestic cares. After breakfast and family worship – to which morning and evening with unfailing regularity the whole household was gathered – father leading in prayer two days before he died, we had one Bible lesson, and others which kept us busy till eleven. Then we were free until after dinner, when he taught us again for an hour or two, after which, beyond learning our tasks for next day, our schooling was over. It may appear insufficient to high-pressure educationalists, but it was all the schooling I had till I was twelve, and I have never had any reason to regret it. The actual teaching was, however, but one branch of our education. To be with our father day after day, at every meal except supper, to play in his study when it was wet, to go out walking with him when it was fine, to live constantly under the stimulating and inspiring shadow of his presence, this was an education in itself. We were constantly encouraged to inquire. No question was too absurd to be disregarded; no theory too wild not to be treated with kindness. Our father could not sneer, least of all at the blunders of a child. Where other parents suppress their children’s questionings as troublesome or impertinent, he was ever ready to encourage. We talked to him about everything, and he told us about everything. Always studious and fond of reading, and possessing a singularly retentive memory, he was to us a perfect library, the volumes of which always opened themselves at the right place whenever we sought information. When we had to wait for a train at a railway junction for a couple of hours, he used to while away the time by weaving out of his head fascinating and endless stories of the adventures of some imaginary hero, in whose career we were soon intensely interested, who in the most natural way in the world was always visiting places or making discoveries or happening misfortunes, which led to the imparting of immense stores of information. My first knowledge of the convict system was gained in this way, and I dare say that most of my earliest ideas as to the world and all it contains reached me from my father’s lips. Few persons whom I have ever met possessed the art of making his knowledge more pleasantly available to others. He never read a book or a newspaper without gathering some facts, some incidents, some illustrations to tell us at meal times, or to serve as a subject for discussion when we were out on his invariable midday walk.

But it was not merely in supplying information in a most attractive form that we found invaluable assistance in the development of our mental faculties. To educate is – philologically – to bring out far more than to pour in; and for promoting reflection and stimulating thought in his children I never knew his-equal. To begin with, he made us feel absolutely on an equality with himself. Not one of us ever felt the least awe of him so as to be afraid to ventilate an opinion in his presence. No one was snubbed for ignorance, or silenced for presumption. Each one was taught that his opinion was worth having. In our little commonwealth every citizen had a right to a voice, the only unpardonable thing was not to have an opinion at all. To outsiders, admitted for the first time into the vehement democracy of our household, the first impression was naturally one of scandal. The fierce young disputants showed little conventional, reverence for their father. He debated with them on a footing of; perfect equality. If he indulged in a fallacy it was exposed as mercilessly, and his mistakes were denounced as roughly as if he had been one of the boys; nor did he ever resent the liberties taken by his children. Oh, how he allowed us to quiz him, and ridicule his opinions, and denounce his arguments, without ever showing the least glimmering of resentment – indeed, with what mild wonderment he would have gazed upon any one who had suggested that he should feel aggrieved at liberties which he had himself encouraged. Sometimes I fear I used to go too far, for I was impetuous beyond measure; and in assailing a position or in defending a thesis to which I was committed, I sometimes grieved my mother, if I did not hurt my father, by the vehemence of my retorts. Twenty years and more have passed since those days, during which father was teaching his eaglets to fly, but how vivid is the sense of gratitude, how deep the impression of those hot and eager days. He never lost our respect by enduring what others called our impudence. He never asserted his right to reverence as a matter of authority, but there was not one of us who did not revere him beyond all other men.

Pre-eminent among the means by which he quickened our wits and familiarized us with dialectic was the Sunday morning breakfast. Each of us – and in those days there were six, besides father and mother, making eight in all – had to commit to memory one verse of Scripture, each selecting a chapter and taking the verses consecutively. At breakfast the youngest began by repeating his verse; every member of the family from the youngest upwards had to give his or her interpretation of the text; and so on until all the eight had said their texts, and given their explanation of their own and of each other’s. Of course, the very young ones did not contribute much to the polemic, but father, mother, and the elder ones contrived to raise almost all the issues of religion and morality in these discussions at the breakfast table. There were two distinct tendencies. My sister represented that of Arminianism – the gospel and the miraculous; I led the party in favour of Calvinism, natural law and rationalism. The ramifications of these tendencies were infinite, and the younger disputants waxed as hot and fierce as if they had been mature theologians discussing in a synod or general assembly. Each one had to speak in turn, but the order of debate was frequently broken in upon by youthful impetuosity not to be restrained, and then the breakfast table for a time became a miniature bear garden, until the cheerful firmness and genial good nature of our father restored peace and order into warring chaos. Whatever may be thought of the propriety of beginning the Day of Rest with so vehement a polemic, there can be no doubt as to its value as a means of stimulating thought, familiarizing the mind with the practice of debate, and training the intellect to detect flaws in argument. There was no beating about the bush. Each one went to the root of the matter with a zest. Since these old days I have had some little experience of discussions with all sorts and conditions of men, I have had to discuss face to face with the foremost men of our time the most pressing questions of our day. But never in all my recent experience have I ever had such consciousness of intense mental activity, such an eager strain of every intellectual faculty, as that which I used to feel when discussing in the old family circle the great problems of the world. The experience that came nearest to it – although it did not equal it – was that of the fierce half-hour in which my late editor and I used to discuss the affairs of the universe every morning before we settled down to work. But my editor was only one, whereas at home each had to hold his ground against half a dozen.

Another most useful habit which my father inculcated was that of remembering the leading points of whatever we heard, and repeating them over to him when he came home. Many a painful moment I have had when I forgot the heads of a sermon, but the training was most useful. Afterwards when we grew older we were set to take notes. My brother Herbie taught himself shorthand in this fashion. I, less fortunate, was confined to longhand; but the habit of taking a condensed précis of a speech or sermon stood me in good stead in after life. To this hour, if I want a condensed report of a speech, I would rather have my longhand summary than the cutdown report of the most efficient reporter. These reports at first were read over on Sunday night to the family, criticised, approved, or condemned as the case might be. I remember once having to take a speech of Mr. Goschen’s at Ripon myself, our reporter having missed the train. I did three columns single handed before the paper went to press, and I remember thinking that it would have been simply impossible but for the exercise in rapid note-taking gained in taking down father’s sermons. This faculty of remembering what has been said to you in order to repeat it at home has been of great use to me in many ways. In interviewing it is invaluable. I have frequently, without taking a single note, been able to dictate or write out three columns of close print report of an interview, to the accuracy of which the person interviewed has given his most emphatic testimony. The report of the interview which was the means of securing the despatch of General Gordon to the Soudan was dictated entirely from memory at two o’clock in the morning, after a long and fatiguing day.

It would be a mistake to imagine that my only memories of my father are those of a strenuous teacher always eliciting inquiry or supplying information. He was our best, our most delightful playmate. I mixed little with the boys of the village. My sister, my father, and I were playfellows. He made us our swing. He made us our first kites; carved our first bat, and taught us how to play at cricket.

It was with him that we learned to use the bow and arrow, and to fish. Almost the only things which I did not learn from him were riding and rowing. He had a nervous dread of boating, and he was never quite free from fear about horses. So deeply rooted was his antipathy to boating, and so scrupulous was the regard which we paid to his wishes, that I was twenty-three years of age before I ever handled an oar. It is very curious for one who had such an instinctive shrinking from unnecessary danger that he should have encouraged us in making all manner of chemical experiments. For years, every winter we used to amuse ourselves in manufacturing gunpowder or making squibs and in firing toy cannons. I can still see the pane of glass in the study window through which the leaden bullet fired out of a cannon I had made from an old key perforated a hole as round as a pea; but other accident we had none. There never was an interest of ours which was not his interest also. He lived our lives as well as his own, and to the last he was a boy among his boys.

That evergreen youthfulness of heart which distinguished him was a great charm to us all. His mind was always fresh. His appetite for new facts was insatiable. The last day I spent with him I read him the article on Ashantee in the current number of the Nineteenth Century, and his interest was as keen as when he was in his prime. When I was in an office on Newcastle Quay, and we were too poor to take a daily newspaper, I had to bring him every night a summary of the day’s news, and the retailing them over to him when I arrived was one of the pleasures of the day. He had an abiding impatience of words and phrases. “What are the facts?” was his constant inquiry. “A phrasy body,” his rendering of the French phraseu?; was with him a term of infinite contempt. To this day, when I give a reporter instructions to convey the essence of the meeting he has been attending, I cannot do better than get him to feel as I felt when I had to describe at home what I had heard and seen. There were limitations in later years to the range of his interest, but the papers daily and weekly were read to him to the last, and one of the last inquiries he made about the affairs of this world on the morning of his death was as to the arrival of the Pall Mall Gazette.

Akin to this youthfulness of heart there was a great and unruffled cheerfulness of speech. Few but those who lived in closest intimacy with him ever knew how sore sometimes was the heart, while the face bore the same placid, kindly smile. He walked to the grave of his loved ones without betraying by a single sigh to the survivors the anguish, too deep for tears, that lay within. Oh, my dearly loved father, what depths of passionate tenderness lay beneath that calm and unruffled exterior! How little even we suspected the almost heart-breaking strain of sympathetic emotion which you were bearing, until some chance incident let loose the flood-gates of grief, and we stood amazed at the intensity of your anguish! Oh, what love was there, even passing the love of woman – so tender and true, so unselfish, so unchanging and unchangeable! He was emphatically a healthy man – healthy and whole-souled, with a sovereign hatred of shams and fine phrases, which was kept from being rancorous by a fine spirit of charity and a hearty human sympathy, I think he was the heartiest laugher I ever knew. When anything touched his sense of humour he would literally explode with peal after peal of Homeric laughter, shaking the very room in which he sat. He had a smile for every one, especially for little children, whom he naturally attracted; and nothing was more painful and conclusive evidence of his failing powers than the fact that for the first time last summer the presence of his little grandchildren failed to rouse him to romp with them, to tell them stories, and to be once more a child among the children.

There was a fine spirit of inflexibility about his notions of duty. It was not a question of “ought” with him, but merely one of “must.” He did not preach much about the obligation of doing our duty. He only made us feel that to neglect doing our duty was as flat a flying in the face of the law of the universe as the neglect to breathe. Punctual as the sun himself, he tolerated no remissness in others. Whatever might be a man’s theological creed, of one thing he was sure, that whosoever did not try to do that which he knew to be his plain duty to do, that man was in the way of perdition, and would if he persisted therein come to dwell in the everlasting burnings. Yet, strong and vehement as were his feelings on such subjects, it was rarely that he expressed himself harshly about individuals. In his roughly humorous way he would deal out wholesale anathemas upon classes, such as publicans, and peers who used their position of privilege for their own profit at the expense of the commonwealth; but towards individuals, with perhaps the exception of men who maltreated women, he was uniformly humane.

I do not remember, during the thirty years I knew him, to have seen him lose his temper once. The meekest and mildest of men, I have seen him bear insults which made me long, boy as I was, to smite the insulter to the ground. But he never displayed any other sign of feeling than that of rubbing the side of his head with his hand. His humility was extreme. “Never think of yourself more highly than you ought to think” was a maxim ever in his mind. He carried it out by always thinking of himself less highly than he ought to think. The faculty of self-estimate is rare. We always either overdo or underdo. Our father underdid it. Modest and reserved, he never pushed himself; and what is more, he always discouraged others from pushing themselves. He always restrained; never incited to new ventures. Cautious in the extreme, he was never bold except when he saw clearly that a certain cause was right. Then all hesitation disappeared. But when of two courses neither might be right, he always preferred the more retiring. He doubted at first whether I should go on the press, and afterwards when I was called up to London he shook his head. “Why can you not remain where you are? I don’t see why you should be changing.” Of all things he abhorred pride. The last warning which he addressed to me the day on which I took leave of him for ever was : – “Walk humbly before God, and take care that you be not carried away by too great popularity.”

Father was a man of great vigour of mind and body, but his early training had been hard. Experience had administered a cruel chill to the ardour of his hopes. Behind all the placid content and tranquil enjoyment of the delights of existence there lay deep buried – but never altogether forgotten – the mournful ghost of an unrealized ideal. He had hoped for so much, he had realized so little. Alas! it is the experience of life. He was not as useful as he had hoped, as he had prayed to be; and although he had ever strove to murmur, “Thy will be done,” at times a sigh would escape him that the realities of age bore so little relation to the dreams of his youth. In his family alone were his hopes fulfilled. But even there death was busy, and ill-health has seldom been absent. He never repined; but sometimes the mystery of pain and of sin and of sorrow lay heavy on him, and he began to long to go hence and to be at rest. His work was done. Why should he linger behind ?

Kinder man never trod God’s earth; nor a more generous soul. Nor, as I look back upon that long life now brought to an almost ideal close, can I refrain from marvelling at his courageous faith. When he began to train us, no one could have believed more implicitly that whosoever did not believe as he believed was doomed to remediless perdition. But so absolutely certain was he of the truth of his creed that he never seems to have had a single misgiving when he launched each of us upon the sea of free inquiry, with no other chart but that of always and everywhere regarding the voice of duty as the voice of God. He held back nothing from us, No books were forbidden us. We were challenged to discuss everything, invited to question everything, and compelled to accept nothing or any other authority but that of reason and of truth. As any one might have foreseen, the cultivation of that habit of thought in a variety of minds was certain to result, if not in the rejection, then certainly in the modification of much that he held to be essential to salvation. But when that time came, our father had himself come to recognise the inadequacy of some of his early formulas. That which to his more limited range of vision had seemed to be merely a fog of phrases without meaning, gradually became transformed into a beautifully poetical aspiration, and finally was accepted as a probable key to many mysteries.

The closing hours of our father’s life were passed in perfect peace. It was almost an ideal death. He was in harness almost to the last; and then a rapid decay, with only sufficient pain to render release more welcome. Towards the close he longed to be gone and to be at rest. Yet even in these last days of extreme weakness his spirit never flagged. One of his favourite hymns, which was read over to him many times as the moment of parting drew near, was the triumphant processional hymn of Dean Alford –

Forward be our watchword,
Steps and voices joined;
Seek the things before us –
Not a look behind.

It was characteristic. With him it was ever “Forward!” even to the last. But on the morning of his death-day, when he had but a few hours to live, he asked not for the marching music of the processional hymn, but for Dr. Alexander’s touching verses –

I’m kneeling at the threshold – a-weary, faint, and sore;

I’m waiting for the dawning, for the opening of the door.

The opening was not long delayed. “The wasted, worn, and weary” had not long to wait. After the last solemn messages had been delivered, the All-merciful bade our father rest.