1989. Robert Southey to Andrew Bell [fragment], 29 November 1811

1989. Robert Southey to Andrew Bell [fragment], 29 November 1811 ⁠* 

Keswick, November 29, 1811.

My dear Sir,

Idle forms and endless procrastinations seem to be the curse of our nation in all its concerns, from the most momentous war down to the pettiest lawsuit. However, these great people have set their hands and ideas to the work, and that is of great importance. [1]  Under their countenance, there will be no lack of those who will set their shoulders to it. Murray sent me a large packet soon after your departure. [2]  Among other things, it contained the choicest specimen of Dragon spawn, which has yet come in my way – “The British System.” [3]  Here I found the knight of the rod, [4]  and some choice new invented punishments, more Lancastriano, [5]  which will not a little enrich the list of that worthy’s inventions. Murray has not sent me the Bishop of London’s letter, [6]  nor Mrs Trimmer’s book, which I much wish to see, having a vehement suspicion that some parts of it have been misrepresented. … [7] 

My main care is to make every thing as clear as possible: it is but to arrange the facts in their right order, and place them in their true point of view, and the conclusion necessarily follows. …  [8] 

There is a letter of Gilbert Wakefield’s in the last Monthly Magazine, (published, as it appears, for the first time,) in which he recommends the same philosophical plan for a dictionary as that which you have conceived. [9] 


* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Robert Southey, Caroline Southey and Charles Cuthbert Southey, The Life of the Rev. Andrew Bell, 3 vols (London, 1844)
Previously published: Robert Southey, Caroline Southey and Charles Cuthbert Southey, The Life of the Rev. Andrew Bell, 3 vols (London, 1844), II, pp. 644–645. BACK

[1] The National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Christian Church had just been founded in November 1811, to promote Bell’s methods. BACK

[2] See Southey to John Murray, 2 November 1811, Letter 1976. BACK

[3] Lancaster’s The British System of Education (1810). BACK

[4] Lancaster had satirised Bell as one of the ‘Knights of the Rod, who wish to perpetuate the reign of ignorance among the lower classes of society … These plead, with mighty virulence, for every mode of punishment that can embitter learning, and make school hateful to boys.’ Lancaster added, ‘The sinking empire of the rod is tottering daily to ruin, and many and bitter are the lamentations of its partizans’; see The British System of Education (London, 1810), p. 38. BACK

[5] i.e. ‘in the manner of Lancaster’. The British System of Education (1810), pp. 34–37, eschewed flogging, and substituted a series of ‘Instruments and Modes of Punishments’, to discipline refractory pupils. These included: a log placed around the neck; wooden shackles; confinement after school hours, if necessary by tying a pupil to his desk; and a sack or basket in which a pupil could be suspended above the classroom. Public humiliation was also used to enforce discipline: e.g. the faults of the offender were proclaimed before the rest of the school; a girl would wash the face of a dirty pupil before his classmates; inappropriate tone of voice when reading was held up to ridicule; and badly-behaved pupils had to wear labels describing their offence, e.g. ‘Idle’, ‘Suck finger Baby’. Lancaster assured his readers that these punishments had been tried for 13 years with great success. BACK

[6] Beilby Porteus (1731–1809; DNB), bishop of London from 1791 to his death. A supporter of Bell, evangelicals and the abolition of the slave trade. An appendix to his A Letter to the Governors, Legislatures and Proprietors of Plantations in the British West-India Islands (1808) consisted of ‘a short sketch of the new system of education for the poor; in a letter from the Rev. Dr. Bell’. BACK

[7] The educationalist and author Sarah Trimmer (1741–1810; DNB). Bell had praised ‘the good and pious’ Trimmer ‘to whose successful exertions in the cause of religion and piety her country is deeply indebted’ in his The Madras School, or Elements of Tuition (1808), p. 248. The ‘book’ is her anti-Lancastrian A Comparative View of the New Plan of Education Promulgated by Mr. Joseph Lancaster (1805). BACK

[8] Southey was expanding his defence of Bell in Quarterly Review, 6 (August 1811), 264–304, into book length, The Origin, Nature and Object, of the New System of Education (1812). BACK

[9] Wakefield’s letter, dated 15 July 1796, was published in Monthly Magazine, (November 1811), 349. It argued: ‘that no word has more senses than two: a literal or proper, and a translated or figurative signification … First, let the original and proper signification with its etymology be given and exemplified; then, the translated meaning in all its varieties. The shades of them, and their progressive explanation, so as to show their immediate rise through all their stages from the root, will constitute a most valuable and philosophical employment, of immense incalculable utility to literature … no dictionary can be truly valuable, but by a sacred observance of the rule here laid down’. Bell could have mentioned his plans for a dictionary in conversation with Southey. BACK

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