Saturday, 25 June 2011

Mark Twain visits Leek November 1899

Mark Twain perhaps America’s most distinguished men of letter visited Leek on Wednesday 29th November 1899. His signature appears in the visitor’s book of the Nicholson Institute in a very clear and strong hand. Samuel Langhorne Clemens the real name of Mark Twain was born on the 30th November 1835. It is therefore possible that he celebrated his 64th birthday in the town. This is a matter for conjecture because an extensive search of the Leek Times has revealed no additional information about the visit and one has to conclude that the visit was private and secret.

Mark Twain was one of the most celebrated writers in the world in the 1890s He had created Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn’ two of the best loved and enduring characters in world literature so the lack of comment in the local press is mystifying. News of this most celebrated of authors would have certainly made the headlines and press coverage would have been extensive. It should be said that Leek at the end of the 19th century was well used to receiving high profile visitors. Indeed a reading of the newspapers reveals a very rich cultural and political heritage. In October 1899 the pioneer of investigative journalism who would later die on the Titanic WT Stead spoke at a well attended anti Boer war rally in the town and in December the first Labour MP Keir Hardie spoke in Leek and was fully reported in the Times.

Twain when he visited Leek that late autumn day had endured many tribulations. Since 1895 he had more or less been on a permanent lecturing tour in order to clear debts following the collapse of his publishing firm. The following year his beloved daughter Susy died of meningitis at the family home in Connecticut while Twain was forced through circumstances to stay in England. Just prior to his visit to Staffordshire Twain had undergone a health cure in a sanatorium in Sweden where he had stayed for several months before returning to Britain in October 1899. His main preoccupation as a writer in these years was the production of political essays and what exercised him most was the colonial wars that both the United States and Britain were engaged America in the Philippines and Britain in a war in South Africa- the Boer War. Twain was bitterly opposed to both military adventures. He had a card printed, which bore the slogan

"I bring you the stately maiden called CHRISTENDOM- returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonoured from pirate raids in South Africa and the Philippines; with her soul full of meanness, her pockets full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and towel, but hide the looking glass".

The Leek Times in late November was full of news from the South African War and one can make an assumption that as a journalist himself Twain might have read the edition. The newspaper printed the previous Saturday 25th November was full of bad news. The British were suffering reversals in places, which would become very well known to the general public- Kimberley, Belmont, and Colenso. A small news item in the paper noted the capture of a journalist named Winston Churchill following an attack on an armoured train. A Leek man was wounded at the Battle of Modder River.

The Boer War certainly divided opinion in Leek the architect Larner Sugden wrote a lengthy letter defending the Boers describing them as "intrepid peasants" for which he received much obloquy. The war was going so badly that the reservists were being called up. In fact a childhood memory my grandmother had as a 9 year old were the soldiers in their red coats marching to Stoke Station to the war at about this time.

Further delving into the newspapers of the time uncovers fascinating snippets of information. Interestingly there is a review of a novel called " One hour and the Next" by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland on the conditions of the mills in Leek largely written in dialect. The Duchess herself would be fictionalised in Arnold Bennet’s " The Card". And on the subject of fiction and in a story that might have come from the pen of Thomas Hardy there is a description of an elderly man in a letter recounting a boyhood incident when he visited a witch who lived in Russell St. She would discourage the many black witches in the town by throwing a "dashun" of salt into the fire when one passed.

A perusal of the pages would rapidly disabuse you of the notion that this was a golden age for children. Mortality was very high whether it is through disease or by accident. Clarice Burgess aged 8 of Garden Street was reported killed when she was hit in the head by a wooden seat of a swing while playing on Westwood Recreational Grounds. Arthur Sheldon 9 was sentenced to three strokes of the birch for annoying Mr JPF Smith of King St by ringing his doorbell frequently.

The sports writer for the Times seemed to have a Twain- like sardonic turn of phrase describing a poor season for Leek Town

"the unexpected happened on Saturday last Leek actually won a game and against the Congleton Hornets".
Many of the stories had almost a modern ring and the late Victorian’s were equally concerned with lawlessness and excessive drinking. Writing in November 1899 the Chief Public Health Officer was deeply concerned at the easy availability of alcohol.

"The returns of the Commissioners of Inland Revenue show on the whole that users of alcohol consume about 25% more than alcohol users of 50 years ago…. English people today do breath less poisons than their fathers and grandfathers did, they voluntary swallow much more" Such opinions were supported by a very well organised temperance movement in Leek who were strongly of the view that drink did the poor no good at all. The members of the Leek Board of Guardians put this view into practical action and stopped the one-pint ration of beer for the Christmas dinner of the workhouse inmates. As Twain himself wrote a few years earlier in "Pudden’head Wilson’s Calendar "Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits."