The intellectual life of the British Working Classes


Jonathan Rose

p60 (Chapter, Mutual Improvement)

To all this must be added countless informal networks for sharing reading matter. In the first years of the nineteenth century, shepherds in the Cheviot Hills maintained a kind of circulating library, leaving books they had read in designated crannies in boundary walls. The next shepherd who came that way could borrow it and leave another in its place, so that each volume was gradually carried through a circuit of 30 to 40 miles, on which the shepherds only occasionally met.14 The Lochend poet Alexander Bethune (b. 1804) and his brother John could afford few books, but Alexander remembered that “After it became known that we were readers, the whole of our acquaintances, far and near, and even some people whom we could hardly number as such, appeared eager to lend us books.”15 Even in that hospitable atmosphere, the pursuit of literature could be a struggle for a man like John Bethune. A laborer whose annual earnings rarely exceeded £19, he hoped to write his way out of poverty like Robert Burns. His Tales and Sketches of the Scottish Peasantry was published in 1838, but as his brother Alexander recalled, the writing of it

had been prosecuted as stealthily as if it had been a crime punishable by law. There being but one apartment in the house, it was his custom to write by the fire, with an old copy-book, upon which his paper lay, resting on his knee, and this, through life, was his only writing-desk. On the table, which was within reach, an old newspaper was kept constantly lying, and as soon as the footsteps of any one were heard approaching the door, copy-book, paper, pens, and inkstand, were thrust under this covering, and before the visitor came in, he had in general a book in his hand, and appeared to have been reading.

Mutual improvement was useful for acquiring and sharing general knowledge, but it could not provide the privacy necessary for writing and serious study. The Bethune brothers actually went to die trouble of building a room for John, to no avail: the day after it was finished, work called him away to another town.16
Mutual improvement continued to gain momentum in Scotland through the nineteenth century. In the rural northeast region around Aberdeen, lan
Carter found nineteen such societies in 1851, and between thirty-five and fifty by 1897, many of which maintained their own libraries. In an otherwise conservative region, they were a backbone of radical Liberalism, closely linked with the Free Church of Scotland (founded 1843) and the temperance movement.


We rented a garret, for which we paid (I think) 25s. a year, bought a few second-hand forms and desks, borrowed a few chairs from the people in the house, bought a shillings worth of coals, had the gas (which was already in the house) laid on at the cost of a few shillings, and started our College. We did not advertise it in the newspapers or on the streets, for we could not afford to do that, but we invited all our friends and acquaintances to join us, and in a few days we had about twenty members. … We had no men of position or education connected with us, and I believe we were better without them, but several of the students who had made special study of some particular subject were appointed teachers, so that the teacher of one class might be a pupil in another.