Gerald Massey - Chartist, Poet, Radical and Freethinker

First published 1995, revised 2009 by David Shaw. Buckland Publications. £14.12.

Norwood has more than its share of famous people, but there will always be some who escape notice for one reason or another. Until now Gerald Massey is one who, in spite of living in South Norwood for many years (and dying there), has not attracted attention. He was born in a poor (some would say poverty-stricken) family in Tring in 1828. His father, William, was an illiterate labourer but his mother, Mary, had managed to acquire basic literacy. As a child he was sent to work in Tring Silk Mill in conditions that today would be unacceptable to an adult, but at the time were accepted as normal. Under the influence of his mother he gained literacy by attending a ‘penny school’ run by a Church, and at Sunday School used it to read the Bible, Wesleyan religious tracts and works by John Bunyan. That was as far as his education went. His comments later were that he had had no childhood, and had always experienced an aching fear of want. As early as 1843 he had submitted poems for publication, and had one (‘Hope’) published by the Aylesbury News. This encouraged his intention to break out of the cycle of poverty and depression and seek his future in London, where he obtained a job as a draper’s assistant. This enabled him to travel about the town delivering orders, and in doing so he took full advantage of each and every opportunity to visit bookstalls and acquire a collection. He then became a self-educated man, and his reading caused him to become more conscious and aware of the social conditions of the poor and, in the absence of voting qualifications, their lack of any way to change their position. This attracted him to the Chartist Movement and its disappointment about the lack of a full franchise in the 1832 Reform Act. Chartism had 6 main aims: a vote for every man over twenty-one, vote by ballot, no property qualifications for MP’s, equal electoral districts, payment of Members of Parliament and annual election of Parliament. The changes introduced by the Reform Act went nowhere near far enough to meet these aims, even though it widened the franchise for those with money and property.

In the circumstances, and given similar unrest in the rest of Europe in 1848, the Chartists staged a massive protest which led to riots and civil disturbances. They failed to achieve their aims by this method, and gradually declined as an influential movement. In the following years a number of organisations sprang up arguing the principles of social reform, and many produced publications, some short-lived, which gave Massey an opportunity to become an activist and show his talent as a poet and as a writer. Poetry was regarded at the time as a powerful means of advancing views to the public. He became a joint editor of a publication called ‘The Uxbridge Pioneer’ but with others became disappointed with its policies and helped to set up, instead, the ponderously titled ‘The Uxbridge Spirit of Freedom and Working Man’s Vindicator conducted by Working Men’ Its views were so radical that opponents labelled it ‘The Spirit of Mischief’ and ‘The Working Man’s Window-Breaker’.

Massey then went to London to become the secretary of one of the first co-operative movements – the Co-operative Association of Working Tailors. That Association set out to cut out the ‘middle man ‘ and deal directly with customers, thus improving the income of the tailors. It was however founded on the concept of Christian socialism which did not suit everybody’s taste, mainly because the Church was seen by some as part of the upper class that ruled the poverty-stricken working Class. Massey’s poems and articles in various publications developed his literary reputation.

In 1850 Massey attended a demonstration of clairvoyance by a young woman, Rosina Knowles, and later married her. One witness was Thomas Hughes, the author of ‘Tom Brown’ s Schooldays’ .

Rosina apparently changed Massey’s outlook on life, and he became a professed radical and freethinker. He had already begun to be known as a lecturer on a wide range of subjects, and applauded the move in France towards republicanism. The main issue at the time was called association, and was regarded as the democratic alternative to capitalism.

Unfortunately, the otherwise successful Association of Working Tailors had to be disbanded because of accounting deficiencies, but was re-established with new leadership. The failure was however helpful in that it showed that associations had no legal protection, and this was remedied by Parliament in 1852 after a Commission of Enquiry. In about 1851 Massey entered into new territory by writing articles about Tennyson’s poetry, was described as a descriptive romantic, but managed to introduce what at the time was the controversial subject of women’s rights. In the same year he published a collection of his poems entitled ‘Voices of Freedom’ which included some which were political and some which were about romantic love. There were mixed reviews.

Massey had throughout his life been plagued with financial difficulties, and at that time one way of supplementing his income was, together with his wife, giving demonstrations of mesmerism. He entered seriously into the world of prose writing, and wrote for a publication called ‘Friends of the People’. His output included articles on John Milton’s and Tennyson’s poems, and reviews of Wordsworth’s and Poe’s works. In ‘A Portrait of Beranger’ he made an unfavourable comparison with the poems of Thomas Moore, and although it was criticised it showed the breadth of his reading. He continued however with his activist role in many areas of social reform, including soliciting support for penniless refugees from disturbances in Europe.

Expecting to lose his income from articles in the ‘Star of Freedom’ Massey and wife mounted lectures and demonstrations under the broad heading of ‘Mesmerism and Clairvoyance’. The rather, by today’s standards, overblown advertisement read as follows:

‘The truth of Phrenology illustrated by Phreno-Mesmerism ….. catalepsy induced by means of Mesmeric passes and Readings of Books, Papers, etc., by means of Inner Vision, the ordinary visual means being suspended by way of the audience, closing and holding the eyes of the Clairvoyante with their own hands. The Clairvoyante, Mrs. Gerald Massey, long known as ‘Somnambule Jane’, has manifested the peculiar power of Clairvoyance or Second Sight, for a period of eleven years, during which time she has been satisfactorily tested by numerous persons… Admission to the Hall 3d, gallery 4d, Reserved seats on the Platform, 6d.’

Massey then decided to go into lecturing more or less full-time, and announced his availability to give 44 lectures on a variety of subjects on tour. In the meantime Chartism was officially dead although, it was said, its principles would live on.

His lecturing venture had mixed success and Massey was in need of money - he and his wife by then had 2 children and had moved to cheaper lodgings. He therefore took on the job of book-keeper to the publisher John Chapman. He continued however with his lectures, and in 1854 published a further selection of his poems, including one that attracted praise called ‘The Ballad of Babe Christabel. It was successful and went to five editions, although Massey gained little financial reward for it. It had some influence on the work of George Eliot. Alfred Tennyson, John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle were sent copies and responded with comments. Massey also established contact with Samuel Smiles. At about this time he left his employment with Chapman.

Massey’s wife Rosina was showing the first signs of bad health in late pregnancy, and then gave birth to their third child, Marian, who sadly died later. A fourth child, Sidney, also died not long after birth, and Rosina’s health was a cause for serious concern for some years.

He had at that time attracted the patronage, financial at times, of Lady Marian Alford, which was to be of benefit to him in later times. In May 1855 he took up the post of Editor of the ‘Edinburgh News’ and moved there with his family. Before doing so he wrote articles on the poetry of Thomas Hood and Alfred Tennyson which attracted favourable comment. His experience at the newspaper is said to have refined his otherwise emotional style of writing, and would have helped him with his later literary works. Unfortunately he was made redundant and then had to rely on the income from his writing and poems. The blank verse poem ‘Craigcrook Castle’ was initially successful, but sales then were disappointing. He was however successful in gaining a reputation for reviewing books, and did so for ‘The Atheneum’. This gave him useful subjects for lectures in the winter of 1857. He continued with his lectures but was hampered by the illness of Rosina, which manifested itself at unpredictable intervals.

Robert Burns’ centenary fell on 25th January 1859, and the Crystal Palace Company organised a special poetry competition. There were 620 entrants, and Massey was placed fourth. Although he did not win the prize his poem was in the top six which were subsequently published. Without salaried employment his finances were in a parlous state, and he was encouraged to apply for a pension from the Civil List. This attracted a gift of £100. After a short stay in the Lake District the family moved to Rickmansworth. Massey continued with his poetry-writing, including one with a patriotic bias dealing with the Indian Mutiny. His financial troubles persisted, and he decided to try again for a pension from the Civil List, and also to ask for help from the Royal Literary Fund. He continued with his lectures, assisted by Rosina when she was well enough, and was finally helped financially with a Civil List pension of £70 per year.

Massey’s book reviews had created an interest in Shakespeare, in particular his Sonnets and their genesis. His interest did not however produce an income, and he had to be helped financially by Lady Marian Alford and Lord Brownlow, and received a grant of £50 from the Royal Literary Fund. During 1865 Massey devoted himself to writing a major work on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and completed in October. In 1866 Rosina died, and a consultation that Massey had with a spirit medium subsequently caused him to develop an interest in the afterlife and its nature. One of his poems was composed on the death of his benefactor, Lord Brownlow, and called ‘In Memoriam’: this included spiritualistic sentiments but was received well and regarded as one of his best.

In 1868 Masssey married Eva Byrn, who provided him with a secure and stable family environment in which to bring up his 2 children. In the period 1868/9 Massey, in his lectures showed more and more his interest in spiritualism, a subject which, both then and now, attracted strongly opposing views on both sides. By 1870 he had become an avowed spiritualist and lectured widely on the subject.

By 1871 he had 3 more children, but was more solvent than hitherto. Massey then embarked a lecture tour of America, but the arrangements for it went awry and he had to be content with a much more modest tour. His lectures, controversial though some of them were, attracted good audiences (although with mixed reviews). Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ had been published in 1859, and it had aroused considerable interest and controversy. Massey’s tour was generally successful, and yielded him the useful sum of $3,000.

Massey’s winter lectures on a variety of subjects went well, but in 1874, in advancing his theories of man’s origin, and in doing so casting doubt on the accepted interpretations of the Old Testament, one meeting finished up in uproar. His interest in the origins of religion, not solely Christianity, developed into major research, and he maintained a keen commitment to spiritualism in all its aspects.

In 1876 his only son was born. During that year spiritualism experienced a severe setback when a practitioner from America was accused of fraud and swindling. In 1880 he was elected Chosen Chief of the Most Ancient Order of Druids, and continued in this post until 1906. By 1881 he had completed the first two volumes of his major work ‘A Book of the Beginnings’. Some reviewers did not know what to make of it, others condemned or ridiculed it, but one usefully summarised it as:

‘The aim of the work is to demonstrate, or, at the least, to render credible, the hypothesis that at some far away time, and somewhere in the interior of Africa, the Negro, or primitive man, was evolved from the ape – for the author is nothing if not an evolutionist – and that, in process of time, the Negro race descended the valley of the Nile, peopled Egypt, became a civilised and cultured people, sent out colonies all over the world, and spread ‘mythology, religion, symbols, language’ and all that civilisation implies, to the uttermost ends of the earth’

Massey’s concentration on the next two volumes of his major work caused him, once again, to run into financial trouble, relieved only by another grant (£50) from the Royal Literary Fund. The two volumes, entitled ‘The Natural Genesis) continued with his theme. They attracted more favourable reviews, but many criticised the amount of detail and the need for them to be condensed. He then developed the theories included in his books in a series of lectures in London, and embarked on a second American tour. In America his lectures attracted criticism, to some extent because they were seen as a denial of Christianity. One reviewer described a lecture as having ‘magnificent vagueness and unequalled unintelligibility’, and concluded that ‘Colney Hatch* would afford him the quiet and seclusion necessary for this purpose’. Massey issued a writ for libel, but was advised not to pursue it. Following a spell of ill-health he continued his lectures, one of which described him as having spoken rapidly for two hours. In 1886 he went on to Australia and New Zealand with mixed receptions.

On his return he supported Gladstone and Home Rule with some poetry. He continued with his lectures, interposing some relating to literature rather than his less orthodox theme seen as challenging Christian beliefs. His financial position still caused him concern, and an application for an increase in his Civil List pension produced an increase of £30 in 1887. He responded to requests for a condensed version of his books by publishing private1y 10 of his lectures drawn from them. After completing his major works he looked again at his book about Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and recast it for publication in 1888 as ‘The Secret Drama of Shakespeare’s Sonnets’

He continued to encounter financial difficulties, and was given a further grant of £80. A third American tour was arranged, but after one lecture he had to return to England because his daughter Hesper was very ill. She died in March 1889. He then published a two-volume edition of most of his published poems. Sadly, a second daughter, Elsie, died in 1890.

Later in 1890 Massey moved to 266 Lordship Lane, East Dulwich, and met Dr Albert Churchward of Erroll Lodge, 206 Selhurst Road, South Norwood, a general practitioner and senior freemason who shared some of Massey’s theories. He then moved to 11 Warminster Road, South Norwood in 1893, where he had to receive the sad news that his only son had died in Bermuda. Although suffering from ill-health he continued to work on the third part of his trilogy, but in 1903 found himself yet again in financial difficulties and had to move to a more modest property at ‘Redcot’ 24 South Norwood Hill. He also received a further grant of £150 from the Royal Literary Fund, which also provided £100 towards the publication of his third book ‘Ancient Egypt: the Light of the World’ in 1907. In the Norwood area Massey was still regarded as a notable Victorian poet, and just prior to his 79th birthday the ‘Norwood News’ sought an interview with him. In the event because of illness his daughter had to take his place, and the reporter had to obtain further material from elsewhere.

Massey did not live long after the publication of his last book and died in October 1907. H Keatley Moore from the Town Hall, Croydon mentioned that Croydon Library had purchased an autographed copy of ‘Ancient Egypt’ in which Massey had added a verse saying that it was not every borough that could boast of a living poet amongst its burgesses. He left his family of his wife and 3 unmarried daughters without very much financial support, and appeals were made on their behalf. They moved to 43 Casewick Road, West Norwood in 1912, and eventually to 7 Stodart Road Penge.

Note: This article started out as a book review, but the subject proved to be so interesting that it grew into something more comprehensive.

Eric Kings

* A lunatic asylum

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