Here William Allingham's account of his childhood ends. The following reminiscences of his schooldays are given from two letters, the first written by his brother John in 1904, the second by an old schoolfellow, Mr Robert Crawford, the Engineer:
I can recall Willy since the thirties of last century, i.e. since he was seven or eight years old. In 1837 or 1838 he and I occupied the same bedroom in the old Bank House on the Mall. It had one window looking westa gable windowand off the room was a closet containing a number of books and pamphlets in the Norwegian and English languages. I remember the great storm of January 1839, and the window of our room being blown in, notwithstanding a feather bed being placed against it. Willy, I think, used sometimes to walk in his sleep at that time. He was very agile and expert at all juvenile games. He was then attending Wray's School in Church Lane, then the only school in Ballyshannon indifferently attended by Catholics and Protestants. Wray taught Latinnothing else. Willy left this school in the Spring of 1837 to go to a boarding-school at Killeshandra, Co. Cavan, kept by one Robert Allen, a commonplace person of the cocksure evangelical type. After a short time there my father got him into the Provincial Bank at Ballyshannon (of which he was Manager). This was in 1838, when Willy was fourteen years old: in December 1839 he was moved to the Armagh branch of the Bankand later to the Strabane and Enniskillen branches in succession.
He was a particularly bright and clever boy, and conquered the most difficult lessons with a facility that made him an object of envy to his less brilliant comrades. He devoted just sufficient time to his prescribed lessons to enable him to hold his own with Classwork, while he diligently pursued investigations on his own account in a far wider field of learning. As a result he frequently caused surprise to his seniors, by the fixed opinions he held upon many subjects usually supposed to be suited only to the comprehension of intellects of maturity, and by the clear manner in which he expressed his convictions concerning them. He was a great lover of Nature in all her phases, and particularly humane towards dumb animals, of which, however, so far as I know, he never made pets. Sports he abstained from, on principle, considering them cruel.
Allingham's recollections of boarding-school were by no means happy. He was still delicate in health, and an accident at this time to his sore finger produced severe inflammation of the arm, and necessitated surgical treatment. He was at Killeshandra for a year only; at the age of fourteen his school education was brought abruptly to an end.
His father, now married again, had been out of health for some time, and told by a doctor that he could not live very much longer: he determined, therefore, to put William, at once, in the way of earning his own living, and found him a place in the Bank at Ballyshannon.
p.42Here the lad began a seven years' service to his uncongenial work. The sudden end to the possibility of all further organised study and education was, to him, a deep disappointment and lasting regret. In December 1839 he was moved to the Armagh branch of the Bank, and here he was, at first, often very lonely and homesick. From Strabane Allingham wrote on 11 May 1841, asking his father to send him Elia, first series, and Shelley poems. I shall return Elia second part and Lamb's Tales. Johnson's Poets are very welcome and a great treat. In the summer of 1843, at the age of nineteen, he paid his first visit to London. The following was written to his father at this time.
Norfolk Hotel, Surrey St,
Strand, 22 July 1843
My Dear Father
Here I am in a very quiet place, within twenty yards of the busiest street in London.
I slept in Oxford, the night before last, and saw most of the city, the Bodleian Library, etc. I have seen no place equal to it, to please my taste. Old churches, colleges and halls at every step, and plenty of old houses with gables to the street and latticed windows.
I can find my way here capitally. I walked this morning, before breakfast, to St Paul's, round by Newgate St, Holborn, and Drury Lane. A matter of between two and three miles, I should think.
I write to let you know where I am. Of my journey I will tell you no more at present, except the following facts, which I thought rather droll
1st, then, at Stafford, in the neighbourhood of the great potteries, we had a horn vessel to drink from.
2ndly, at Birmingham (the World's Toyshop) a large shop had no Chinese Tumblers.
3rdly, at the Angel Hotel, Oxford, the bedroom was supplied with a Cambridge Bibleand lastly, the first tune I heard in London was the Sprig of Shillelagh.Yours, my dear father, truly,
W. Allingham, Junior
After seven years in the Bank, Allingham obtained, at the age of twenty-two, a post in the Customs. An account of this is given, as follows, in the few remaining pages of this first part of his autobiography.
Heartsick of more than seven years of bank-clerking, I found a door suddenly opened, not into an ideal region or anything like one, but at least into a roadway of life somewhat less narrow and tedious than that in which I was plodding. My father was offered a place in the Customs for my brother; John was too young for the post; it could not be kept vacant and was offered to me. In the spring or summer of 1846 I gladly took leave for ever of discount ledgers and current accounts, and went to Belfast for two months' instruction in the duties of Principal Coast Officer of Customs, a tolerably well-sounding title, but which carried with it a salary of but £80 a year. I put up at a Temperance Hotel in Waring Street, slept soundly (O Youth!) in a small front room in that narrow noisy thoroughfare, trudged daily about the docks and timber yards learning to measure logs, piles of planks, and, more troublesome, ships for tonnage: indoors part of time practised Customs book-keeping, and talked to the clerks about literature and poetry in a way that excited some astonishment, but, on the whole, as I found at parting, a certain degree of curiosity and respect.
I preached Tennyson to them, hitherto an unknown name, and recited bits from Locksley Hall, meeting at first a cold reception, but afterwards better acknowledgment. One of the head clerks came up to me one morning with the greeting, Well, I've read Locksley Hall, and it's a very fine poem!
I don't recollect being at a theatre in Belfast. I went a few times to a music hall, but my spare time was mostly spent in reading and haunting booksellers' shops, where I venture to say I laid out a good deal more than most people in proportion to my income, and managed to catch glimpses of many books which I
p.44could not afford or did not care to buy. From Belfast I repaired to the little town of Donegal, and entered on my office of Principal Coast Officer of the district, a very large one extending over many miles of coast, the greater part of it wild and rocky and lying exposed to the full violence of Atlantic gales and waves. Visiting wrecks was part of my duty, which sometimes demanded long journeys in stormy weather over rugged hilly roads, on an outside car, with various attendant discomforts which would now seem appalling. But these expeditions on the whole were pleasures, and have left pleasurable memories. They were part of the freer physical life upon which I entered in passing from the Bank to the Customs. Her Majesty's Customs at Donegal occupied a narrow little first-floor room in Dillon's Hotel, a goodsized and comfortably kept house, where I also boarded and lodged at moderate annual rate, having a back room where my meals were served to me separately, by particular favour, and the chairs, tables, and sometimes the floor, were piled and littered with books of all sizes, old and new. Here I could sit reading for hours every day with little interruption, stepping across the passage when wanted at my office to receive notice of the arrival of a vessel, or sign her papers when outward-bound, or make out a Light-Bill (so much for each Lighthouse passed on the voyage), or witness the engagement or paying-off of seamen. Outdoors, there came the occasional visiting of vessels, measurement of logs and deals, and breadstuffs (chiefly maize) andby far the most troublesome business, but the most interestingthe examination of the fittings and provisions of Emigrant ships, and the calling over, when ready for sea, of the lists of Passengers, who came forward one by one, men, women, and children, to pass the doctor and myself. There were also visits to coastguard stations, to navy and other Pensioners, and now and again, as I have said, to a Wreck, usually at some distant part of the coast.
I was the only Customs Officer in the district, which suited my mood perfectly, but no doubt helped to foster the feeling of isolation which is so strong in me. My district was officially in the Port of Sligo, to which I sent monthly accounts, and the collector visited me once a quarter, and I was also in some respects under the sub-collector of Ballyshannon; but there was seldom any interference. My family name was a guarantee in itself; I discharged my functions intelligently and conscientiously,
p.45as well as with popularity, and the nature of them and of the locus in quo, gave me a scope and freedom of action, and a personal respect everywhere, not usually associated with so humble an official position as mine. I enjoyed my new position on the whole, without analysis, as a great improvement on the Bank; and, for the rest, my inner mind was brimful of love and poetry, and usually, all external things appeared trivial save in their relations to it.
Yet I am reminded by old memoranda that there were sometimes overclouding anxieties, sometimes, but not very frequently, from lack of money, more often from longing for culture, conversation, and opportunity; oftenest from fear of a sudden development of some form of lung disease, the seeds of which I supposed to be sown in my bodily constitution. I can recall few details of my first year at Donegal.
I used to go over often to Ballyshannon in the evening and return in the morning, or from Saturday to Monday, sleeping at my Father's; generally travelling by the Derry and Sligo mailcoach, and kept up all my old intimacies with the places and people by the Erne.
I had for literary correspondents Leigh Hunt, George Gilfillan, and Samuel Ferguson; and for love-correspondent, F., whose handwriting always sent a thrill through me at the first glance and the fiftieth perusal. What a day it was when one of those letters reached me!all the more prized for the difficulties that beset their transmission. I loved an Ideal, angelically fine, impossible to hurt or destroy as a dream of Heaven; but it had a very sweet little human core, which (I am thankful) keeps its springflower-like tenderness in my memory. Appropinquity can breed love, it can sometimes sully or kill it. Fate kept us mostly separated in space even while we were one in spirit; our rare meetings were, to me at least, mystically sacred occasions.
The story of William Allingham's life, in strict autobiographic form, ends at this point. He wrote out, from his notebooks, conversations he had had with interesting men, evidently with the intention of incorporating them in his account, but beyond this date nothing was completed. The story is continued in diary form, the first entry being in June of the following year.