John Castle (1819 – 1888): Habits, Culture & Belief


When discussing the habits and practices of any individual in the middle of the 19th century the question of class is always the first alley for exploration. Class is the chief indicator for mobility and leisure. One working class occupation constantly alluded to throughout the 20th century certainly and probably much earlier is the consumption of alcohol. Certainly this is a stereotype as alcohol consumption is not exclusive to any sector of society, but more was and is a unanimous pastime. John Castle uses one tragic incident to portray what he calls the ‘drinking customs of our country’ (1). When walking with a friend Castle decides to ‘have just one pint before we part’ (2) where the two meet a group of drinkers led by one John Carter. The group with Castle and a friend in tow decide to go rooking (stealing birds eggs from the local gamekeeper). The incident results in John Carter falling from a tree and being paralysed for the rest of his life. This experience clearly had a lasting effect upon Castle’s life and is the only instance of drinking but also the only instance of any activity that could really be described as recreational, but not a happy one.

John Carter features in more than this capacity in the memoir however following his accident he quite exceptionally represents another cultural experience, and one not typically associated with the working class, Art. Quite exceptionally John Carter learnt to paint with his mouth, to a very high standard, culminating in Queen Victoria purchasing one of his paintings. Describing his work Castle gives it the fine praise, ‘no artist with hands could excel it’ (18). This is the only brush with what nowadays we would refer to as culture, meaning a form of activity perceived to be above the ordinary, and remarkably it comes from the same man who presented the argument for the other end of the spectrum. Castle is appreciative of the work but far more of the skill of the artist, in this I recognise the distinction between classes again this art is interesting because it was produced by a friend it is not viewed as a recreational activity.

The idea of leisure time was a very separatist thing in the 19th century and used as a distinction between middle and upper classes, and working classes. Castle doesn’t refer to any forms of leisure; any free time he had was used to visit family, enduring much hardship along the way. When having recently acquired a position in London on the weekend before starting work he walked the ninety mile round trip from Leighton Buzzard and back to tell his mother and family of the news. ‘Well, what was to be done? To London I must get by night, as I began my duties at six the next morning’ (17). These examples of toil and hardship are alien to the modern reader forty-five miles in one day is a huge distance on foot especially with ‘boots wrecked through’ (17).

Religion was integral to the life of any person living in the 19th century and crucial to the moral, social, and cultural impetus. Castle talks of the relevance of religion throughout his life and quotes passages from his favourite hymns to illuminate different experiences throughout his life. The two ideas of mortality and repentance are ever present in these hymns and Castle uses them as sentiment for goodbye or understanding of wrongdoing. When John Carter dies in 1871 Castle recognises the effects the two had had upon each other’s lives. To display this he uses the following hymn by Joseph Addison;

A drawing by John Carter
A drawing by John Carter

“When all my mercies, O my God,

My rising soul, surveys

Transported with the view I’m lost

In wonder, love and pride.

Thy Providence my life sustain’d

And all my wants redrest,

When in the silent womb I lay

And hung upon the breast.

When in the slippery paths of youth

With Heedless steps I ran,

Thine arm unseen convey’d me safe

And led me up to man.

Through hidden danger toils and death

It gently deared my way,

And through the pleasing snares of vice

More to be feared than they.

When worn with sickness oft thou hast

With health renewed my face

And when in sins and sorrow sunk

Revived my soul with grace.

Ten thousand, thousand precious gifts

My daily thanks employ,

Nor is the least a cheerful heart

That tastes those gifts with joy. (20 – 21)”

The reason this hymn is so interesting is because it both summarises the life and times of a dear friend John Carter but also the relevance of religion, individually to Castle but also to the whole of 19th century society. There are several key lines to pick out, the first is ‘when all my mercies, O my God. . .’ this shows pride and love for John Carter and what he has accomplished. The second is ‘when in the slippery paths of youth with heedless steps I ran’ this suggests the recognition of failure throughout life and the obvious incident is the Rookery incident mentioned above. Lastly the line ‘and when in sins and sorrow sunk revived my soul with grace’, this line shows the recognition of change and repentance that Castle sees in Carter but also himself.

There are also some elements of religious scepticism in the memoir, something that was certainly very rare for the period. ‘My mind was led to ask “How comes it about that one man preaches so diametrically opposite to the other?’ (17) It is clear that Castle believes in God ‘the lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world’ (20), his questions are aimed at the varying sects of religion and how many different organisations believing in ultimately the same thing can interpret the Bible in so many different ways.

Habits, culture and belief is the broadest of titles however my intention is to present through the one story of John Carter because as I previously stated I believe it sums up what habit, culture and belief was at the time. Obviously surviving paralysis to become a famous artist is exceptional but it shows the value of perseverance in Victorian society as well as to John Castle the ever presence and power of God.

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