Joseph Terry (1816- 1889): Reading and Writing

My warm thirsty enthusiastic mind drank in the sweetest and purest draughts of knowledge (Terry 33)

James Hinton proposed that many of the working class were ‘anxious to deploy a taste for high culture as a means of distinguishing themselves from their self-assigned class’ and this perspective aligns with our author Joseph Terry. He would use reading as a form of schooling, a way to further educate himself and ‘cultivate his mind’ (Terry 74). However, for Joseph, this seemingly mundane task was not merely a mental labour but also a source of great pleasure and a form of escapism. With the pressures of his family weighing heavily upon his shoulders, the medium of literature permitted him to no longer be this working-class waterman and instead created a distraction by engrossing his mind on literary works.

Inkwell, ink bottle and pen used by people in the 19th century,
Inkwell, ink bottle and pen used in the 19th century,

Whilst his fellow peers would be engaging in trivial activities, Joseph Terry would immerse himself in a book and despite possessing ‘few’ he ‘valued them much’ (Terry 33). Reading had major implications on Joseph’s life, and not only in an educational sense. It induced much inspiration for him to create his own works of literature, such as poetry, which allows him to enunciate an emotionally expressive aspect to his character; one that is not often apparent in his memoir.

Though dark and dreary the rough way appears/ And hope itself lies languid in the breast’ (Terry 84).

This excerpt of Joseph’s poetry permits an insight into his visceral desire to provide for his family whilst casting light on his raw emotions and inner anxieties. Reading propagated his own desire to ‘write something worth reading’ (Terry 74), influencing him to produce poetry and possibly this very memoir.

Jonathon Rose writes of how memoirs enable us to ‘enter the minds of ordinary readers… to discover what they read and how they read it’ (Rose 1). However, some critics argue that autobiographical anecdotes should be taken with a pinch a salt and not treated as ‘transparent’ (Allington 12). Daniel Allington stated that they should ‘be interpreted in terms that neither presume nor deny the reality of what they describe’ (Allington 12). By associating themselves with culturally valued reading, for instance, authors may be purposely formulating a favourable version of themselves, a version that they wish to endorse. But, this is not to say that we must question the sincerity of Joseph and all memoirs as the authors may not even be aware that they are doing this and the misrepresentation could occur subconsciously.

Joseph’s own memoir was written whilst in his late forties/ early fifties and this retrospective mentality could have involuntarily distorted the reality of what really happened. A way in which he partakes in this notion is through the books he notes as he may be (intentionally or unintentionally) relaying the ones that construct an idealised image of himself. He describes the works of Swedenborg as being ‘suited to his taste’ (Terry 33). We cannot question the great significance of religion in Joseph’s life, but you could interpret his outlining of only religious books as a technique to depict himself as religiously learned and open-minded.

Bronze statue of Emmanuel Swedenborg in Chicago.
Bronze statue of Emmanuel Swedenborg in Chicago.

Swedenborg was a renowned Philosopher with eccentric ideas concerning religion. He was known to have many spiritual experiences which lead to him becoming glorified as a ‘father of spiritualism’. Joseph himself was able to find ‘religious truths’ (Terry 33) in Emanuel Swedenborg’s words and it resulted in his belief in not deviating ‘much’ from the ‘close and prayerful’ (Terry 33) reading. Books became a means through which Joseph was able to define himself and, without these resources, his religion may not have become as absolute. They assisted in the development of his faith and it becoming the source of unwavering strength it was.

Joseph’s reading habits enable us to discover further dimensions to his character. Instead of categorising his joy of reading into a purely individualising or a sociable activity, I think it would be more accurate to suggest that it’s an intertwining of the two. Joseph’s idiosyncratic character does not comprehend recreational activities in the same way as his peers as, for him, advancing his career and future prospects is what reaps the long-term rewards. He would spend many ‘delicious hours’ (Terry 33) reading and surrounds this act with beautiful natural imagery of him ‘breathing the sweet perfumed air, made rich by the smell of cowslip red and white clover’ (Terry 33). The coalescing of education and ‘ecstasy’ (Terry 33) gave Joseph an advantage in propelling his knowledge and attaining his goals.




Allington, Daniel. (2010) ‘On the use of anecdotal evidence in reception study and the history of reading’. In: Gunzenhauser, B. (ed.). Reading in history: new methodologies from the Anglo-American Tradition. London: Pickering & Chatto, pp. 11-28.

Hinton, James. ‘The “Class” Complex’: Mass-Observation and Cultural Distinction in Pre-War Britain’, Past and Present, no. 199, May, 2008.

Rose, Jonathon. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Terry, Joseph. ‘Recollections of My Life’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection

Image Reference: Inkwell, ink bottle and pen used in the 19th century.  (Accessed 06/12/2015)

Image Reference: Bronze statue of Emmanuel Swedenborg in Chicago. (Accessed 06/12/2015)


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