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It was in a rather out-of-the-way spot, and quite concealed from ordinary passers-by, and during all the time that we frequented it, we were never disturbed by visitors.
Among the interesting places in the town itself were the castle and the Bluecoat School. The castle was a modern building in the castellated style, but it stood in spacious grounds of about four acres near the middle of the town, with the river flowing through a part of it, and with about two hundred yards of the old defensive wall still remaining in a very complete state. During a short period the family of some of our schoolfellows lived in the castle, and we occasionally went there to play with them, and enjoyed scrambling along the top of the old wall, which, having a parapet still left, was quite practicable and safe. The moat which formerly surrounded it, and was connected with the river, had been long filled up and formed into gardens, which sloped down from the outside of the wall. The original castle was built by Edward the Elder to protect the town against the Danes.
The Bluecoat School was a branch of the celebrated school of the same name, or more properly, Christ's Hospital, in London. It stood at the upper end of Fore Street, opposite where the London Road branched off. Enclosed by lofty iron railings and gates was an oblong playground, about four hundred feet long by a hundred feet wide, bounded on each side by low buildings, forming offices, schoolrooms, and dormitories, while at the end were the large dining-hall and schoolrooms, and in front, near the great gates, the master's residence. On the gate pillars stood two nearly life-size figures of boys in the costume of the school—long blue coat and yellow petticoat, with breeches and yellow stockings, a dress which was quite familiar to us. Occasionally we went to see the boys dine in the grand dining-hall, where the old-world style of everything was of great interest. At the ringing of an outside bell the boys, 250 in all, came in, and seated themselves at the long rows of tables. Then one of the older boys mounted a sort of pulpit and read a long grace, followed by a hymn, in which the boys joined. Then the serving began, a number of the boys taking this duty by turns. Hot meat and vegetables were served on flat wooden platters instead of plates, and I used to pity the boys for not having any place for gravy, which to me was (and still is) the chief luxury of hot meat. What was still more amusing to us was that in place of mugs there were little wooden flagons with wooden hoops and handles, in which they had, I think, beer. If I remember rightly, during the meal the boy in the pulpit read a chapter from the Bible, and at the end there was another grace and hymn. All was carried out with great regularity and very little noise, and the crowds of brightly clad boys, who had red leather belts over their blue coats, and whose yellow stockings were well visible, together with the fine, lofty hall, had a very pleasing effect.
Among the other features of interest in the town were All Saints' Church, adjoining the Grammar School. I used to wonder at what seemed to me a curious and rather dangerous plan of groups of four very slender pillars instead of one large one to support the arches on each side of the nave. I did not know then that these were characteristic of the Early English Gothic, but are not common in our churches, Another feature of this church was its peal of ten bells, which were not only uncommonly numerous, but were of very fine tones, so that when they were well rung, as they frequently were, they produced an exceedingly musical effect, which I have never heard equalled since. The church has since been burnt down and rebuilt, but whether the bells were saved I do not know.
Very conspicuous was the square, ugly brick Town Hall and Market Place at the bottom of Fore Street. This had, however, a large clock-face projecting outwards and supported by three or four pieces of wood which seemed to hold it quite detached from the building, and I used to wonder whether it was a huge watch with all the works inside it. What made this more curious (to me) was that it struck the hours and quarters on very loud and sweet-toned bells, which again I have never since heard surpassed. In this hall were the law-courts, where the Assizes were held, and to which I sometimes gained admittance, and heard a trial of some poor sheep-stealers, who in those days were liable to transportation for life, in order to protect the landed interest, which then ruled the country.
The elections for members of Parliament were at that time scenes of considerable show and excitement, and the members elected had to undergo the ceremony of being chaired, which consisted in being carried round the town on their supporters' shoulders seated in a chair highly decorated with rosettes and coloured ribbons. I well remember the election which took place after the Reform Bill of 1832 was passed, when Thomas Slingsby Duncombe was the Radical member, and was returned at the head of the poll. I saw him being chaired, and when he had been brought back to the door of his hotel, the chair was overturned, as was then the custom, and he had to jump out into his friends' arms to avoid an awkward fall. There was then a scramble for the ribbons and chair-coverings, which were carried away as trophies.
To celebrate the great national event the passing of the Reform Bill—a banquet was given in the main street to all who chose to attend. It was summer time, and fine weather, and we went to see the feast, which was enjoyed by almost all the poorer people of the town on rows of tables which filled the street for a long distance.
In connection with the game of cricket, I may mention that in those days the players, whether professional or amateur, had none of the paraphernalia of padded leggings and gauntlets now worn; while a suit of white duck, with an ordinary white or black top-hat, was the orthodox costume. This was the time when the practice of overhand bowling was just beginning, and there was much controversy as to whether or no it should be allowed. I once saw tried a curious bowling machine which it was thought might advantageously take the place of the human bowler. It was called a catapult, and was on the principle of the old instrument used for throwing stones into besieged cities. It consisted of a strong wooden frame about three feet high. On a cross-bar at top was a place for the ball, and this was struck by a knob on an upright arm, which was driven on to it by a powerful spring, something in the manner of a spring-trap. The upright arm was pulled back and held by a catch, which was released by pulling a cord. By slight alterations in the position of the ball and the force of the spring, the ball could be made to pitch on any spot desired, and could thus be slightly changed each time, as is the case with a good bowler. It seemed to answer very well, and it was thought that it might be used for practice where good bowlers were not available, but it never came into general use, and is now, perhaps, wholly forgotten.
HERTFORD : MY SCHOOL LIFE
My recollections of life at our first house in St. Andrew's Street are very scanty. My father had about half a dozen small boys to teach, and we used to play together ; but I think that when we had been there about a year or two, I went to the Grammar School with my brother John, and was at once set upon that most wearisome of tasks, the Latin grammar. It was soon after this that I had the first of the three serious illnesses which at different periods brought me within a few hours of death in the opinion of those around me. I know that it must have been after I went to the school by the way the illness began. We had school before breakfast, from half-past six to eight in summer, and as we had nearly half a mile to walk, it was necessary to be out of bed at six. One morning I got up and dressed as usual, went down the two flights of stairs, but when I got to the bottom, I suddenly felt so weak and faint and curiously ill all over that I could go no further, so I had to lie down on the bottom step, and was found there shortly afterwards by the servant coming down to light the fire. That was the beginning of a severe attack of scarlet fever, and I remember little more but heat and horrid dreams till one evening when all the family came to look at me, and I had something given me to drink all night. I was told afterwards that the doctor said this was the crisis, that I was to have port wine in tea-spoonfuls at short intervals, and that if I was not dead before morning I might recover.