Literary Landscapes of England: Elihu Burritt: An American’s View of Victorian England
An American’s View of Victorian England
It is always interesting to read what others think of us. In recent years we have had Bill Bryson giving us his thought-provoking views on England and the English, but a century and a half ago one of his compatriots did the same thing, albeit for a specific area of the country. This man was Elihu Burritt, who was the United States Consul in Birmingham at the time and his consular duties obliged him to travel extensively all over Birmingham, the adjoining Black Country and many of the rural areas of Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire and Shropshire. In 1868 he published a book about these journeys called Walks in the Black Country and its Green Borderland.
Elihu Burritt was in many ways a remarkable man. He came from a humble background, born the son of a labourer in New Britain, Connecticut, in 1810. At the age of 16 he was apprenticed to a blacksmith and soon acquired the nickname of the “learned blacksmith” because of his thirst for knowledge. He had an enormous appetite for books and, for someone of little formal education, developed a surprising fluency in several languages. Later he became a well-respected crusader for world peace and travelled widely throughout America and Europe, attending international congresses and writing numerous books, articles and pamphlets. He also widened his activities to include other worthy contemporary causes, including the antislavery campaign in his own country and the temperance movement. One cause that he espoused was the promotion of a
cheap universal postal system, believing that greater communication amongst peoples and nations could lessen the likelihood of war in the future.
In 1865 Abraham Lincoln appointed him to the post of United States Consul in Birmingham and during his five years in the job he took up residence in Harborne, at the time still a rural village and now a pleasant suburb on the south side of the city. The house in which he lived, which he named “New Britain Villa” after his American birthplace, still stands in Victoria Road. Nearby is Harborne’s medieval church in which he worshipped. In his book he describes the congregation coming “across the broad fields that converge from every direction into the solemn aisles of the churchyard trees”. Even now this part of Harborne manages to retain much of its previous village atmosphere with the old church flanked by a bowling green and the Bell Inn.
If Elihu Burritt was a remarkable man, his book is equally remarkable, painting a detailed picture not only of Birmingham and the Black Country, then at the zenith of its industrial greatness, but also of the “green borderland”, as Burritt called it, the countryside that surrounded the industrial conurbation. The opening sentence gives a vivid description of the Black Country that has been widely quoted: The Black Country, black by day and red by night, cannot be matched, for vast and varied production, by any other space of equal radius on the surface of the globe.
After initial chapters on Birmingham — its industries, its leading citizens, major buildings and institutions — he goes on to describe the towns and industries of the Black Country and the final chapters are devoted to the green borderland, through which Burritt took a number of long-distance walks. His descriptions of these rural areas are particularly glowing. He writes: The Black Country is beautifully framed by a Green Borderland and that border is rich and redolent with two beautiful wealths — the sweet life of Nature’s happiest springs and summers, and the hive and romance of England’s happiest industries.
This last quotation indicates that, like many English writers of the Victorian era, Burritt was prone to go over the top, which in many ways is an admirable quality and the result of his curiosity and unbridled enthusiasm for what he saw on his travels throughout the Midlands. Referring to the Lickeys, a small range of hills rising to just under 1,000 feet on the south-west outskirts of the city, he says: ... these remarkable hills look as if transported from the Highlands...they are perfectly Scotch in cut and clothing.
Now many Brummies have a deep affection for the Lickey Hills, a favourite weekend and bank holiday destination, especially in the days before most people had a car, but even the most patriotic of them would think that comparing them with the Scottish Highlands is perhaps going a bit too far.
This over-exaggeration is not just confined to the attractive countryside, old churches and other undoubtedly fascinating historic places that he visited. He gives lavish descriptions of three of Birmingham’s residential suburbs, including the one in which he lived. He writes: Moseley, Edgbaston and Harborne..... are as goodly suburbs as any town in England can show. Hills, dales, gentle slopes, valleys and streams, make a picturesque scenery. The residences of many of the prosperous businessmen of the borough are interspersed in the landscape, and the ornamental grounds form a pleasant feature. Edgbaston especially is full of these elegant houses and gardens.
As someone who spent much of his youth walking and cycling through these areas of the city, it is pleasing that much of what he wrote about them in the 1860s still holds good today. Of particular interest to me are his comments on my old school, Moseley Grammar School, which had only recently been built as a training college for Nonconformist ministers. He describes it as a “noble edifice” erected on a “beautiful and picturesque site” and compares it favourably with the buildings of his native Yale and Harvard.
On most of his long walks through the Midlands countryside Burritt was accompanied by the poet Edward Capern, who also lived in Harborne at the time. Capern was born in Devon where he had been a postman and, like Burritt, was a self-taught man with an enormous thirst for knowledge. The two men, the “learned blacksmith” and the “postman poet” had a strict walking routine which most walkers nowadays would find a little strange. Many of their walks were done in November, not usually thought of as the best month in England for embarking upon lengthy hikes. Also they used to start late in the day at a time of year when the days are at their shortest. Burritt would spend the morning writing up the previous day’s activities, after which they would take a light lunch and walk until dusk, sometimes not reaching their intended destination until well after dark.
Strangely for a man born and bred in New England, an area renowned throughout the world for the unique beauty of its fall, he is particularly complimentary about the English autumn,
frequently commenting that it was his favourite season in England. He writes: The scenery in England in the autumn cannot be equalled by that of any other country. When describing the view from the summit of the Wrekin, he comments: The mellowest sun in an English autumn was descending the western horizon and no other autumn sun the wide world round equals it.
On their journeys Elihu Burritt and his companion visited many of the wellknown beauty spots and places of historic and architectural interest in the Midlands. These included the Clent and Lickey Hills, Stratford-upon-avon, the castles at Warwick and Kenilworth, Lichfield Cathedral, Wenlock Priory, the Roman remains at Wroxeter and the Ironbridge Gorge. They also climbed the Wrekin and were particularly fascinated by their visit to Boscobel House where Charles II hid from Cromwell’s troops after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651.
After reading Burritt’s book I was inspired to visit some of the places that he did and walk some of his routes. This was not easy as his book was not a walking guide. Except in a few cases I could not follow his exact routes as many of the country lanes and rough tracks that he would have used are now busy main roads. Also many of his country walks began from his home in Harborne — then a rural village on the edge of Birmingham — and the surrounding countryside is now covered by the city’s expanding suburbs. But the book made an ideal companion as it is a unique piece of social history, written from the perspective of a foreign visitor and providing both an affectionate and sympathetic insight into an area of England that was — and still is — a mixture of urban and rural landscapes.
Perhaps it is appropriate to finish with a quotation in which Elihu Burritt explains the aim of the book. It is intended, he writes: ...to give distant readers a bird’s-eye view of the district of which it treats, and, perhaps present a few points and aspects of interest which some persons residing within it may have overlooked. I think he achieved that goal!
(continued) Burritt said of Lichfield that it “...looks like a city of steeples on approaching it in any direction.”
The church at Tong, in Shropshire, was likened to a “...village Westminster Abbey.” Burritt was impressed by the ruins of the Roman city of Viroconium, near Wroxeter, “...once a goodly city under several Roman emperors.”
The architecture of Birmingham Town Hall, in Victoria Square, drew favourable comment from Elihu Burritt.
The Four Stones on the summit of the Clent Hills, were described by Burritt as: “...the breathing ground of the miners and forgers and the other sooty workers of the Black Country.”
“But of all the manufacturers in Birmingham none has such a wide reputation abroad, in America especially, as Gillott’s Steel Pens. Happily there are a hundred ‘young ideas taught to shoot’ with a pen where one is taught to shoot with a gun. Pens are...
The view across the South Staffordshire countryside, from above the village of Enville, looking towards Shropshire. Inset, Elihu Burritt.
Elihu Burritt viewed the substantial remains of Wenlock Priory in Shropshire “...with its ranks of pillars and arches.”
The Wrekin in autumn — Elihu Burritt’s favourite English season and one of his cherished Midlands places.
In Burritt’s view, Kenilworth in Warwickshire, “...perhaps stands at the head of all old English castles.” “On a beautiful afternoon of the last of November, Capern accepted the challenge, and, having measured walking-sticks, we set out to see a...