Lit­er­ary Land­scapes of Eng­land: Elihu Bur­ritt: An Amer­i­can’s View of Vic­to­rian Eng­land

An Amer­i­can’s View of Vic­to­rian Eng­land

This England - - Contents - Brian Con­duit

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...

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