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James Runciman

From Side Lights (1893) by James Runciman

A Note on the Author by Grant Allen

I knew James Runciman but little, and that little for the most part in the way of business. But no one could know that ardent and eager soul at all, no matter how slightly, without admiring and respecting much that was powerful and vigorous in his strangely-compounded personality. His very look attracted. He had human weaknesses not a few, but all of the more genial and humane sort; for he was essentially and above everything a lovable man, a noble, interesting, and unique specimen of genuine, sincere, whole-hearted manhood.

He was a Northumbrian by birth, "and knew the Northumbrian coast," says one of his North-Country friends, "like his mother's face." His birthplace was at Cresswell, a little village near Morpeth, where he was born in August, 1852, so that he was not quite thirty-nine when he finally wore himself out with his ceaseless exertions. He had a true North-Country education, too, among the moors and cliffs, and there drank in to the full that love of nature, and especially of the sea, which forms so conspicuous a note in his later writings. Heather and wave struck the keynotes. A son of the people, he went first, in his boyhood, to the village school at Ellington; but on his eleventh birthday he was removed from the wild north to a new world at Greenwich. There he spent two years in the naval school; and straightway began his first experiences of life on his own account as a pupil teacher at North Shields Ragged School, not far from his native hamlet.

"A worse place of training for a youth," says a writer in The Schoolmaster, "it would be hard to discover. The building was unsuitable, the children rough, and the neighbourhood vile—and the long tramp over the moors to Cresswell and back at week ends was, perhaps, what enabled the young apprentice to preserve his health of mind and body. His education was very much in his own hands. He managed in a few weeks to study enough to pass his examinations with credit. The rest of his time was spent in reading everything which came in his way, so that when he entered Borough-road in January, 1871, he was not only almost at the top of the list, but he was the best informed man of his year. His fellow candidates remember even now his appearance during scholarship week. Like David, he was ruddy of countenance, like Saul he towered head and shoulders above the rest, and a mass of fair hair fell over his forehead. Whene'er he took his walks abroad he wore a large soft hat, and a large soft scarf, and carried a stick that was large but not soft."

To this graphic description I will add a second one. "He was a splendid all-round athlete," says another friend, who knew him at this time, in the British and Foreign School Society's London college. "Six feet two or three in height, and with a fine muscular development, he could box, wrestle, fence, or row with all comers, and beat them with ridiculous ease. No one could have been made to believe that he would die, physically worn out, before he was forty. His intellectual mastery was as unquestioned as his physical superiority; he always topped the examination lists, to the chagrin of some of the lecturers, whom he teased sadly by protesting against injustice the moment it peeped out, by teaching all the good young men to smoke prodigiously, by scattering revolutionary verses about the college, and finally by collecting and burning in one grand bonfire every copy of an obnoxious text-book under which the students had long suffered."

This was indeed the germ of the man as we all knew him long afterwards.

Runciman left the college to take up the mastership of a London Board School in a low part of Deptford; and here he soon gained an extraordinary influence over the population of one of the worst slums in London. Mr. Thomas Wright, the "Journeyman Engineer," has already told in print elsewhere the story of Runciman's descent into the depths of Deptford, how he set about humanising the shoeless, starving, conscience-little waifs who were drafted into his school, and how, before many months had passed, he never walked through the squalid streets of his own quarter without two or three loving little fellows all in tatters trying to touch the hem of his garment, while a group of the more timid followed him admiringly afar off. From the children, his good influence extended to the parents; and it was an almost every-day occurrence for visitors from the slums to burst into the school to fetch the master to some coster who was "a-killin' his woman." The brawny young giant would dive into the courts where the police go in couples, clamber ricketty stairs, and "interview" the fighting pair. "His plan was to appeal to the manliness of the offender, and make him ashamed of himself; often such a visit ended in a loan, whereby the 'barrer' was replenished and the surly husband set to work; but if all efforts at peacemaking were useless, this new apostle had methods beyond the reach of the ordinary missionary—he would (the case deserving it) drop his mild, insinuating, persuasive tones, and not only threaten to pulp the incorrigible blackguard into a jelly, but proceed to do it."

Runciman, however, was much more in fibre than a mere schoolmaster. He worked hard at his classes by day; he worked equally hard by night at his own education, and at his first attempts at journalism. He matriculated at London University, and passed his first B.Sc. examination. At one and the same time he was carrying on his own school, in the far East End, contributing largely to an educational paper, The Teacher, and writing two or three pages a week in Vanity Fair, which he long sub-edited. His powers of work were enormous, and he systematically overtaxed them.

It is not surprising that, under this strain and stress, even that magnificent physique showed signs of breaking down, like every other writer's. A long holiday on the Mediterranean, and another at Torquay, restored him happily to his wonted health; but he saw he must now choose between schoolmastering and journalism. To run the two abreast was too much, even for James Runciman's gigantic powers. Permanent work on Vanity Fair being offered to him on his return, he decided to accept it; and thenceforth he plunged with all the strength and ardour of his fervid nature into his new profession.

"It was during this period of insatiable greed for work," says the correspondent of a Nottingham journal, "that I first knew him. You may wonder how he could possibly get through the tasks which he set himself. You would not wonder if you had seen him, when he was in the humour, tramp round the room and pour out a stream of talk on men and books which might have gone direct into print at a high marketable value. The London correspondent of a Nottingham paper says that Runciman was justly vain of the speed of his pen. That is true. He considered that a journalist ought to be able to dictate an article at the rate of 150 words a minute to a shorthand writer. I doubt whether anybody can do that, but Runciman certainly thought he could. He loved to settle a thing off on the instant with one huge effort. Here is an authentic story that shows his method. It is a physical performance, but he tackled journalistic obstacles in the same spirit:

"A parent, who fancied he had a grievance, burst furiously into the schoolroom one day, and startled its quietness with a string of oaths. 'That isn't how we talk here,' said Runciman, in his quiet way. 'Will you step into my room if you have anything to discuss?' Another volley of oaths was the reply, and the unwary parent added that he wasn't going out, and nobody could put him out. Runciman was not the man to allow such a challenge of his authority and prowess to be issued before his scholars and to go unanswered. Without another word, he took the man by the coat-collar with one hand, by the most convenient part of his breeches with the other hand, carried him to the door, gave him a half-a-dozen admonitory shakings, and chucked him down outside. Then he returned and made this cool entry in the school log-book: 'Father of the boy —— came into the school to-day, and was very disorderly. I carried him out and chastised him.'"

It was while he was engaged on Vanity Fair that I first met Runciman—I should think somewhere about the year 1880. He then edited (or sub-edited) for a short time that clever but abortive little journal, London, started by Mr. W.E. Henley, and contributed to by Andrew Lang, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edmund Gosse, and half a dozen more of us. Here we met not infrequently. I was immensely impressed by Runciman's vigorous personality, and by his profound sympathy with the troubles and trials and poverty of the real people. He called himself a Conservative, it is true, while I called myself a Radical; but, except in name, I could not see much difference between our democratic tendencies. Runciman appeared to me a most earnest and able thinker, full of North-country grit, and overflowing with energy.

His later literary work is well known to the world. He contributed to the St. James's Gazette an admirable series of seafaring sketches, afterwards reprinted as "The Romance of the North Coast." He also wrote "special" articles for the Standard and the Pall Mall, as well as essays on social and educational topics for the Contemporary and the Fortnightly. The humour and pathos of pupil-teaching were exquisitely brought out in his "School Board Idylls" and "Schools and Scholars"; his knowledge of the sea and his experience of fishermen supplied him with materials for "Skippers and Shellbacks" and for "Past and Present." He was always a lover of his kind, so his work has almost invariably a strong sympathetic note; and perhaps his best-known book, "A Dream of the North Sea," was written in support of the Mission to Fishermen. He produced but one novel, "Grace Balmaign's Sweetheart"; but his latest work, "Joints in our Social Armour," returned once more to that happier vein of picturesque description which sat most easily and naturally upon him.

The essays which compose the present volume were contributed to the columns of the Family Herald. And this is their history:—For many years I had answered the correspondence and written the social essays in that excellent little journal—a piece of work on which I am not ashamed to say that I always look back with affectionate pleasure. Several years since, however, I found myself compelled by health to winter abroad, and therefore unable to continue my weekly contributions. Who could fill up the gap? Who answer my dear old friends and questioners? The proprietor asked me to recommend a substitute. I bethought me instinctively at once of Runciman. The work was, indeed, not an easy one for which to find a competent workman. It needed a writer sufficiently well educated to answer a wide range of questions on the most varied topics, yet sufficiently acquainted with the habits, ideas, and social codes of the lower middle class and the labouring people to throw himself readily into their point of view on endless matters of life and conduct. Above all, it needed a man who could sympathise genuinely with the simplest of his fellows. The love troubles of housemaids, the perplexities as to etiquette, or as to practical life among shop-girls and footmen, must strike him, not as ludicrous, but as subjects for friendly advice and assistance. The fine-gentleman journalist would clearly have been useless for such a post as that. Runciman was just cut out for it. I suggested the work to him, and he took to it kindly. The editor was delighted with the way he buckled up to his new task, and thanked me warmly afterwards for recommending so admirable and so gentle a workman. Those who do not know the nature of the task may smile; but the man who answers the Family Herald correspondence, stands in the position of confidant and father-confessor to tens of thousands of troubled and anxious souls among his fellow-countrymen, and still more his fellow-countrywomen. It is, indeed, a sacerdoce. The essays are usually contributed by the same person who answers the correspondence; and the collection of Runciman's papers reprinted in this little volume will show that they have often no mean literary value.

For many years, however, Runciman had systematically overworked, and in other ways abused, his magnificent constitution. The seeds of consumption were gradually developed. But the crash came suddenly. Early in the summer of 1891, he broke down altogether. He was sent to a hydropathic establishment at Matlock; but the doctors discovered he was already in a most critical condition, and four weeks later advised his wife to take him back to his own home at Kingston. His splendid physique seemed to run down with a rush, and when a month was over, he died, on July —th, a victim to his own devouring energy—perhaps, too, to the hardships of a life of journalism.

"This was a man," said his friendly biographer, whom I have already quoted. No sentence could more justly sum up the feeling of all who knew James Runciman. "Bare power and tenderness, and such sadly human weakness"—that is the verdict of one who well knew him. I cannot claim to have known him well myself; but it is an honour to be permitted to add a memorial stone to the lonely cairn of a fellow-worker for humanity.

Grant Allen


Grant Allen