John Castle (1819 – 1888): An Introduction – Writing Lives

John Castle (1819 – 1888): An Introduction


A Typical Shop Front
A Typical Shop Front

“Ahead; them; keep pushing; and elbow your way;Unheeding the envious who wish you to stray;

All obstacles vanish; all enemies quail

In the path of their progress who nev’r say fail.” (28)

Extract from ‘the Colchester Co-operative Society Song’

John Castle was born in Great Coggeshall, Essex in 1819, an area where fifty per cent of workers were either unskilled or semi-skilled. His memoir is a twenty-two thousand word typed account written in 1871 documenting his life up to this point told through a series of significant events. John alludes to his early childhood briefly, a childhood littered with many tragedies and much toil, through to the eventual culmination of all his labours, being one of the founding members of the Colchester Co-operative society.

It is difficult for me to understand why this account is so intriguing, I guess simply the world described by John Castle is so unfathomable to a person of my generation that it makes me feel privileged to have what I have. What struck me instantly upon reading it was the shear hardship this extraordinary man has suffered throughout his life. The poetic verse written above is an extract from the song of the Colchester Co-operative Society and is a perfect summation of that attitude and resilience that enabled a man of such humble beginnings to achieve great things.

John Castle having attended writing school became a weaver shortly before a point in time where the industry almost collapsed; having been relieved of this position he then worked for the local union. He was discharged from the union following an incident where he stated to the Chairman of the board of Guardians that his ill brother could not carry on working on such little food. He says of the incident in his memoir, ‘I am not afraid of him or any other when I speak the truth’. (8) This honesty and integrity is the second reason I was drawn to the memoir. Not only does John rise from challenging circumstances to become foreman of a weaving plant, he also paves the way for future generations of working class men to improve their own circumstances. When discussing his failure to be re-elected to the office of rate collector John remarks, ‘I rejoice that my fall from such a position was because I had aimed to raise my fellow man morally, socially, and physically!’ (39), again a testament to the spirit and character of the man.

John uses a mixture of two different styles in his account. On the one hand he has a very factual discourse naming specific bread allocations and distances he has walked without too much reference to their relevance. On the other hand, he writes in a more emotive style when relating particular incidents and situations. It is this second style that really interested me.

Although he documents his response to many terrible family deaths, it is his relationship with education and religion that I feel provides a real insight into the nature of a clearly intelligent man. Religion undoubtably played an important role in society at the time and to not be religious was almost unheard of. Religious scepticism is however present. In describing his feelings John says, ‘I was awakened to a deep sense of my state as a sinner and felt should. I be called to die that I must be lost forever’. (17) John seeks redemption from the church. In doing so he encounters clear contradictions in religious teachings. ‘My mind was led to ask “How comes it about that one man preaches so diametrically opposite to the other?” (17)

To sum up, I have no real connection to John Castle by means of similarity of lifestyles, geography, or experience. What I do have, however, is admiration for a clever and gracious man who has achieved much in his life. I think the personality of John Castle shines through in his account. I also think that in beginning to understand his life it has put perspective onto my own. A truly moving memoir.

Burnett archive of working class autobiographies. 1:134


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