Nanny Holland and the Knockle-Heading

The Life of Roger Langdon Told by Himself, with Additions by his Daughter by Roger Langdon and Ellen LangdonA few days ago, we got an email from a descendant of Roger Langdon (1825–94), whose Life, ‘told by himself, with additions by his daughter’, we have just reissued. The relative wanted to know whether perhaps another branch of the family had suggested it, and was interested in getting in touch with them.

In fact, Langdon was suggested by one of our academic advisors as an interesting example of a self-taught scientist from a ‘humble’ background, rather like the people described in the unhelpfully titled Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way!, of which the sub-subtitle (after Or, Science in the Cottage), An Account of the Labours of Naturalists in Humble Life does what it (eventually) says on the tin, while at the same time promoting a ‘self-help’ ideology, stressing how disadvantages could be overcome by those with ability and determination.

I had not looked at the Langdon book (which is only 104 pages long) until we got the email query, but the title of the first chapter – ‘Why was I born?’ – drew me right in. It is a great pity that he did not live to complete his autobiography, which takes us as far as his marriage in his mid-twenties: the opening chapters are lively, though occasionally extremely grim, and his sardonic treatment of the behaviour of his supposed betters works better than would a straightforward denunciation of hypocrisy, and even crime. Dickens would have appreciated of the pillar of the Jersey establishment whose income, and hence position in society, was achieved by adulterating the spirits he imported with sulphuric acid, among other additives; and indeed Langdon calls the novelist’s works to witness that it was ‘the age that was to blame’ for the misery of so many children.

Langdon had caring and responsible parents, and received his only formal education from them: they ran the Sunday school (his father being the parish clerk) in the Somerset village of Chiselborough. But at the age of eight, Roger had to be sent to work on a nearby farm, where he was bullied and tormented by a drunken ploughman, but apparently never revealed his suffering either to the farmer or to his parents. He does not explicitly mention his early interest in science, except that, in the course of an anecdote about the kind-hearted but absent-minded vicar, he reveals that his great ambition in life was to purchase Pinnock’s Catechism on Astronomy, which cost ninepence from a printmaker’s shop in Crewkerne (the story ends with his not getting the hoped-for ninepence).

By the age of fourteen, Roger was tall enough to enlist in the army, and determined to run away from home (looking back, he acknowledges the anguish his disappearance must have caused his mother). Perversely, though, when he was actually approached by a recruiting sergeant in Dorchester (Thomas Hardy, anyone?), he turned down the Queen’s shilling and headed on to Weymouth, where, he believed (on the basis of various sentimental sea-songs he had heard), any ship’s captain would be willing to take him on as a cabin boy. Disabused of this notion, he got a boat to Jersey, where he found employment with the said adulterator of spirits (and eventually wrote to his mother saying he was alive, and would she like to come over for a holiday, which she did). Returning to the mainland in the mid-1840s, he found various jobs (including serving writs for a solicitor, which required ingenuity), until, at the age of twenty-five, ‘I thought it time to begin to see about “committing matrimony”’. A Miss Anne Warner agreed to have him, on condition that he got a stable job; he became a porter on the Great Western Railway in 1850, and was posted to various stations in the West Country until in 1868 he became the station-master at Silverton near Exeter.

Langdon’s own account breaks off in the early years of his marriage, which (in spite of the casual way in which he describes himself as ‘committing matrimony’) it is clear from his daughter’s account was a devoted and happy one: indeed, his own last words are: ‘We were very happy together, and I was glad that I was born!’

His daughter Ellen now takes up the story, mentioning in passing some of her father’s achievements: he learned Greek with the curate (he also acquired French, Spanish and shorthand), he made a harmonium which he lent to the church, and mechanical toys – such as ‘Stoke Canon church’ with a working peal of bells – to raise money for church funds, held lantern slide shows for family and friends, and could construct almost anything you care to mention once he had seen a model or a diagram of it. But Ellen is very clear and detailed about the most important part of her father’s activities (carried out in the ‘leisure’ between his twelve-hour shifts at the station). The interest which caused the child to yearn for a ninepenny book about astronomy deepened over the years, and led him to construct four telescopes of his own, each bigger and better than the last. He read an article in the English Mechanic and World of Science by Dr A. Wolsley Blacklock about ‘Speculum Casting and Grinding’ which started him off, and got further advice by corresponding with Blacklock and with James Nasmyth. For his fourth telescope, he built an observatory in the front garden of the station-master’s house.

His observations led to his making a plaster-of-Paris model of the surface of the moon which contained details including a crater which ‘scientific’ observers had not yet discovered. He also read a paper to the Royal Astronomical Society about Venus, which, as Ellen says with pride in a footnote, was cited both by later editions of Thomas Webb’s  Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes, and Agnes Clerke’s  A Popular History of Astronomy During the Nineteenth Century.

Langdon died in 1894: ‘It was a painful time’, Ellen says, ‘but as we all gathered around his bed, he often made us laugh by his jokes.’ He was buried in the private burial ground of the Acland family (Sir Thomas Acland, educational reformer and patron of Ruskin’s Guild of St George, was the local landowner and a friend), near the graves of two of his sons who had pre-deceased him. As it says in the Preface:

‘The career of Roger Langdon provides for all of us a striking illustration of what force of character will accomplish even in the humblest surroundings and in the face of the most serious obstacles. Such men working persistently onwards and upwards with such slight recognition and encouragement are the real heroes of life, and their memory should be kept green for the benefit of those who come after them.’ Not quite George Eliot’s ‘number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs’, but equally true.

As for Nanny Holland and the knockle-heading, you’ll have to read the book (though not while you are eating)!


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1 Response to Nanny Holland and the Knockle-Heading

  1. Pingback: Cuckoos And Cowpox | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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