A Gown-boy at Charterhouse

Suddenly there dawned a wonderful day for Jackie. He was to go to school in London. In January 1714, the family heard that the Duke of Buckingham had nominated him to Charterhouse. It seemed a far cry from the rectory in the sombre Isle of Axholme to the heart of the city, and the discipline of a famous school. The boy was excited and eager; his mother was anxious but resigned. How could she close the door that had opened! The time was coming when the training of the schoolroom at Epworth was to be tested in the rough and tumble outside. She waved farewell, and went back again to pray and to teach.

It was all very exciting. The little boy just over ten years old, rode up to London to mix for the first time in his life with the great world. How strange he felt amongst that crowd of boys! There were forty-four in his house, gown-boys, and they had not learnt politeness in a rectory schoolroom! How prim and proper he must have seemed to them!

There he is sitting in chapel, dressed in his little black cloth gown and knee-breeches, perched somewhere in one of those rows of seats which were placed solemnly in front of the Founder’s tomb. The great Head Master, Dr. Thomas Walker, very near him, in a strangely erected seat, must have looked very formidable to a little boy. He was not a new head master! He had been there thirty-five years. People like Addison and Steele had been amongst the boys whom he taught. In another seat, rather like a pepper-box, sat the Usher or Second Master, Andrew Tooke. A little further off, but very important, sat the organist, T. Love. Amongst all these great people in the somewhat dim light, the little boy from the Epworth rectory looked round, gazed at the tomb of Thomas Sutton, Esq., looked out of the corner of his eyes at Dr. Walker, and wondered what his sisters

Emilia, Hettie, and the rest were doing in that school that was so different, in the little room at Epworth.

It was certainly a sudden change for him. Food had never been varied, or too plentiful at Epworth, but each child had had enough. At Charterhouse the big boys organized raids on the meat supply of the little boys. The probability is that he did not have much meat there at all but lived even more plainly than at Epworth. However, he was not the kind of boy to grumble—every morning he ran three times round the Green—a distance of a mile—and so was always ‘in training’.

Round and round the field ran the little fellow who was some day to be a leader of men. The very ground on which he trod was an epitome of history. Nearly four hundred years before it had been called No Man’s Land. Then came a great pestilence to London, and fifty thousand dead were buried there. In Pardon Churchyard and New Church Haw, they lay, victims of the Plague. Presently the monks came—twenty-four Carthusians—and sang their orisons in a new Priory built to receive them. They did not stay long. A day came when the monastries were destroyed, and the monks fled, or, dallying, were hanged at Tyburn. Court officials dwelt in the new mansion, and the young Queen Elizabeth was the guest of Lord North whilst they prepared for her coronation. From Charterhouse, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, went to die the death of a traitor, because someone had poked out his secret papers hidden under the tiles. At last, a wealthy merchant, Thomas Sutton, dreamed a dream of a hospital for aged men and a school for poor boys. On June 22, 161 I, he obtained Letters Patent from King James, and his dream became reality.

A hundred years later little Jackie Wesley galloped round the Green, or sat solemnly reading the classics where wretched, plague-stricken bodies had found resting-place at last, where Kings and Queens had paused at the foot of their thrones, where traitors had bidden farewell to life itself and where a successful merchant had found his greatest joy. Nobody noticed the frail little figure sitting amongst the rest. He was not brilliant enough to attract attention by his genius, nor was he dull enough to be accused of indolence. The Governors were important men. They were heirs of a great tradition. Archbishops and Lord Chief Justices were their predecessors. Oliver Cromwell and Judge Jeffreys had been on the Board. How could their pompous successors be expected to notice the corning of a small boy from a poverty-stricken Lincolnshire parsonage?

They passed him in the cloisters as unnoticed as the other ghosts of Charterhouse. The little boy stole by in the shadows unconscious that long afterwards those walls would ring with his name as generation after generation of Carthusians sang their school song—

Wesley, John Wesley, was one of our company,

Prophet untiring and fearless of tongue;

Down the long years he went,

Spending, yet never spent,

Serving his God with a heart ever young.

He was only at the beginning of his journey, but he began well. Modest and industrious, accepting hardship without complaint, he loved Charterhouse, in spite of its ghosts and its bullies, and within its walls learnt to be a man.

When he had been at school about two years strange things began to happen in the old Epworth rectory. Loud knockings were heard about the house, and no one could tell who made them. When the children ran from one room to another, peering into every corner, there was nobody there. It must be a ghost! They were not very frightened. It was rather good fun. They named him ‘Old Jeffrey’. He was specially annoying during family prayers, and most particularly when Samuel Wesley prayed for the King! The family thought he must be a Jacobite. Doors were banged open, little soft taps were heard on the wall, the cradle began to rock, stones seemed to be thrown amongst the bottles that lay under the stairs. The big dog, a mastiff, began to cry and whine. Even Susanna wondered. Once she saw something like a badger running out of the room. For more than two months there was constant excitement but no one seems to have been very much afraid.

When Jackie grew up he examined all the evidence and came to the conclusion that it really was a ghost. Many people think it is much more likely that it was some of the villagers, who were still angry with the rector, and often tried to irritate him and perhaps hoped, eventually, to drive him away.

I think I can see little Jackie, walking down the cloisters at Charterhouse, whispering the exciting story of Old Jeffrey to some of his friends. He would feel rather important—a boy with a ghost of his own!

In spite of scanty meals, and perhaps a little bullying, and quite a lot of hard work, Jack learnt to love Charterhouse. He little thought that some day he would be called ‘the greatest Carthusian’. He was just a little boy who had learnt his lessons pretty well, grown strong and wiry although he was still rather small. But when he left Charterhouse in 1720 he set out for Christ Church, Oxford with a School Exhibition of £40 a year. The masters thought he was a ‘very promising classic’ and that he had a special gift for Latin verse.

Before he went to the University his father had asked him to call and see Dr. Sacheverell, hoping that he would give him letters of recommendation to Oxford.

It was an exciting journey, as a journey always has been to the schoolboy just leaving school. The rector of St. Andrew’s, Holborn, was a great man now. A few years before Dr. Sacheverell had preached a sermon which annoyed the Whigs. He had been impeached in the House of Lords and suspended, but what did that matter? The Tories had come back to power and he was in favour again.

The Charterhouse boy left the quiet cloisters, crossed the Green, and came out through the great gate on his way to Cheapside. Through narrow little streets, with posts to mark out the paths for pedestrians, he walked eagerly. Wooden stalls stood in the gutters, porters swung along carrying sedan-chairs with great ladies going to the rout; now and then a coach rumbled past. Everybody was shouting or ringing bells. The shop-signs creaked on their rusty hinges, and the street-sellers cried their goods. ‘A Bed Matt or a Door Matt’, ‘Any Bakeing Peares’, ‘Buy a Rabbet a Rabbet’, ‘Buy my Four Ropes of Hard Onyons’, ‘Delicate Cucumbers to Pickle’, ‘Old Chaires to Mend’, ‘Old Satten, Old Taffety or Velvet’, ‘Hott Baked Wardens Hott’—surely you could buy all the treasures in the world between Charter-house and Holborn. The small boy lingered a little to catch the fragrance of the hot pies and wished his father were a great gentleman whose son could buy a savoury pie, but the man with the steaming tray passed on. ‘Hott Baked Wardens Hott’, be sang, and the boy sighed.

Up the street he trudged. There were so many queer signs outside the taverns—Blue Boars, and Red Lions, Flying Pigs, and Hogs in Armour—surely there could not be all these wonderful creatures in the world—unless in Africa!

How could one hurry with so many brave sights! The bishop drove past, with his lackey bewigged. Gentlemen of quality walked on their way to the chocolate-houses, to sip and to chatter politics or scandal. How elegantly they tapped their snuff-boxes! Brave world of colour and fashion. Dull little gown-boy of Charterhouse.

Soldiers pass; the scarlet and blue of the Life Guards, the long red coats of the Halberdiers—the heart of the boy beats quickly. There is something in him that responds to the quick march of this world of which he has known so little.

Some one sticks up a play-bill. He stops, as any boy would, to read. It tells of a new paradise at Hampstead: ‘These are to give notice that Belsize [a stately building in front of the highway of Hampstead] is now opened for the whole season, and that all things are most commodiously concerted for the reception of gentlemen and ladies; the park, wilderness and gardens being wonderfully improved, and filled with a variety of birds, which compose a most melodious and delightsome harmony. Every morning, at seven o’clock, the music begins to play, and continues the whole day through; and any persons inclined to walk and divert themselves in the morning, may as cheaply breakfast there, on tea and coffee, as in their own chambers. . . .’ What passionate dreams of delight! What cared the little gown-boy that Hampstead was a long way out, that highwaymen and footpads lurked by the road! He would not hide behind the ‘twelve stout fellows completely armed’ who, the bill said, would protect travellers to Belsize.

Eh! dear! So this is Holborn, and here is the house of the reverend Dr. Sacheverell. He must pull himself together. His father had told him the great man would open the gates of Oxford for him. Oxford! Epworth! Oxford—Dr. Sacheverell!

But John Wesley was not very much impressed. This is what he says: ‘I was a very little fellow when I was introduced to him. I found him alone, as tall as a maypole, and as fine as an archbishop. After I made known to him the object of my visit, he said, “You are too young to go to the University, you cannot know Greek and Latin yet, go back to school”.’ This might have rebuffed a boy who had not grown accustomed to meet criticism. He said: ‘I looked at him as David looked at Goliath and despised him in my heart. I thought, if I do not know Greek and Latin better than you! ought to go back to school indeed. I left him, and neither entreaties nor commands could have again brought me back to him.’

He had no letter in his pocket, but he does not seem to have been distressed. He was going to Oxford and if Dr. Sacheverell would not open the door, he was prepared to climb over the top.