John Robinson (b. circa 1850): Who Taught you to Write like That? – Writing Lives

John Robinson (b. circa 1850): Who Taught you to Write like That?

In the years following the Education Act of 1870, thousands of working-class individuals were granted the gift of literacy. This allowed many of them to go above and beyond the days of functional literacy, when many could do little more than sign their names on the marriage register1.

A Graph Outlining Literacy Rates in the UK from 1580-1900.
Date set’s:

While we can not be completely certain if our Butler benefited from this new Education Act, one thing is for certain: he was very literate. Opening up his memoir, Robinson alludes to the breadth of his reading mentioning the ‘number of magazine articles which have of late appeared’ (2) to discuss the service industry, as well as gesturing to works on ‘slavery [and] the elite of Athens’ (2). Not only does this show our butler to be an avid reader, but it displays a capability to digest and understand these works critically. Never one to be a show off, Robinson also flashes his comprehension skills by admonishing Lady Violet for her ‘clever pen’ (2) before cheekily quoting her own article right back at her, as he asks if lacking intelligence is ‘indispensable ‘to that [the servant’s] delicate art of living?” (2).

Attempt to do something towards raising the moral and intellectual standard of servant life.’

Robinson, J. (1892) ‘A Butler’s View of Man-Service’ in The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review. Vol, xxxi. January-June.

Here, we can take Robinson’s literary proficiency one of two ways. We can assume, rightly or wrongly, that he is at least in part an autodidact2 — a rare gem among working-class society able to surpass the standard teachings of board and ragged schools through want of his own. Or, we can understand him as just one of many strikingly literate working-class men3, who stands out only for his published debasement of the ideologies surrounding the ‘intellectual standard of servant life’ (2).

Robinson, himself, has his own opinions on the literacy and intelligence of the average working-class servant however. Writing of the ‘moral [and] intellectual shortcomings’ (5) of the servants he works alongside, Robinson appears to classify all those in the service industry as ‘fit for nothing better’ (4). Of course, you would be forgiven for considering Robinson’s own value judgements a little oxymoronic here. Has he not proven himself to be of a decent intelligence and working within service?

For this too, Robinson has an answer. Rather than blaming the general state of working class literacy, Robinson lays the blame upon the impairing nature of the service industry, as he accuses it of ‘debilitating… [a man’s] chances of developing a strong and intelligent manhood.’ (7). By blaming the societal misfortunes of the class and not the workers themselves, Robinson pushes back against the ideology of the ‘stupid man servant’ (11) that was perpetuated during the 19th century. This too, could have been the reason for his rather peculiar publication in The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review as the voices of the working-class are hidden rather than absent from the discourse they are themselves involved in. We could further this and imply that Robinson uses his notable literacy in order to force those of the higher classes to listen to his opinions as he works to un-pick the assumptions of his employers. And what better place to do that, than in a magazine that he may have even found laying around his employers own drawing room.

Robinson, J. (1892). ‘A Butler’s View of Man-Service’ in The Nineteenth Century, Vol. 31. Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s. p203-9.

1. Vincent, D. (1980). ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ in Social History. Vol, 5.Iss, 2: pp223-247.

2. Rose, J. (1992). ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ in Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol, 53. Iss, 1. pp47-70.

3. Silver, P. Silver, H. (2007). The Education of the Poor: The History of a National School, 1824-1974. p14.

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