MY father was a village person, who had been left by his father — an East India Company Commissioner — a comfortable fortune; but his family numbering nine, he made investments to increase his income and thereby lost the lot. So the cost of sending my elder brother to a public school was the limit of what he could afford, and I was kept at home with the idea of being tutored by him. Thus began for me in 1876 a nightmare of an education — Latin, Greek, Hebrew—chiefly these because they were my father's subjects, as also were Euclid and Logic.
Algebra he tried to learn for the purpose of teaching me — a very painful process for both of us. The futility of it all tore as it were at my vitals; it got on my young nerves; it was like the continuous scratching of a sore place; and it was the worse by reason of the deep affection I bore for a very saint-like father and my appreciation of what he was so patiently trying to do for me. It ended in a sudden tearful and affectionate rebellion; I pointed out between my sobs the uselessness of the classics to one who could never go to college, and begged that I might be sent to the local grammar school with the farmers' and shopkeepers' sons; but my father shook his head at this. After my outburst, of which he never spoke, the lessons were dropped with the exception of Euclid and Logic; these with their problems were treated more as a mutual game than as instruction.
Looking back it seems to me that my father, with the problems of poverty, my unteachableness on the subjects he knew and his inability to teach me anything else, just gave up the matter in despair. In my mind the worrying thought of what would become of me was nearly always present, but it was a subject never mentioned in my hearing. I tried hard to educate myself — secretly in my attic room between dawn and breakfast. I had of course no system, and that my father's library was hardly helpful for the purpose is shown by the only books of that time which I can recall: British Fungi; Intestinal Worms, which interested me vastly; and Paley's Evidences, which I gave up as a bad job.
But at the age of fifteen relief came to this gnawing anxiety. My cousin Mary TyIer — on whom all blessings for her generosity — put up the money for my education. It was decided that I was to be a naval engineer and that — as I was so very backward — I should be sent to a military crammer at the same time as my brother, who was intended for the Army. My scholastic knowledge at that time was almost entirely confined to a very thorough knowledge of Euclid; but I had the advantage of a fallow mind, prepared in certain ways for study, and of the keenest wish to learn.
The incredible establishment which my brother and I now joined had been started by an usher from a well-known crammer to provide for the needs of a dozen or so young men who had been expelled from that place for rowdiness; and besides that group there were only my brother, myself and three others. The general idea was that, while the best of tuition would be provided, the question of using it lay entirely with ourselves.
The usher, who lived with his family in one of the inter-communicating pair of large semi-detached houses, made a mistake in psychology. He believed that his young men would play the game; that they would not so misuse the complete freedom given them as to turn his establishment into a public nuisance, and in other ways to ruin his venture; but that is what they did.
Their escapades were conducted in military fashion—at all events with military phraseology—and their tactics and strategy foiled the attempts of the police, which must have been made, to bring home a charge against them. There was the destruction by an explosive of a pillar-box; there was the firing of a Crimean cannon, charged with gravel, which partly destroyed the large conservatory of a city magnate; there was a tunnel dug from the garden in the direction of the neighbouring house, which was discovered by the next lessee.
These were foreign activities; domestic ones began when the usher refused to provide coal for bedroom fires; a saw was bought and the consumption of such furniture as could be spared — chairs and deal tables — began. Lastly came the ripping out of wooden mantelpieces, and then, in a spirit of mere destruction, competitions were held for speed in drilling holes through a partition wall.
These events were spread over two or perhaps three terms. It was said that the magistrates took a hand in closing the establishment; that could hardly have been necessary; it ceased to exist by disintegration.
The place has been referred to as incredible; it may at first sight appear incredible that no other could have better served my own particular needs; but so it was. There was the individual attention of a staff of first-class teachers who took an interest in the curious example of ignorance which I presented; and thus I got a start which would have been practically impossible at a school.
A year at a private school, failure to pass the naval medical examination owing to the doctor saying — quite incorrectly — that I had a goitre, and two years on the Worcester training ship, account for the rest of my education. Obviously, it had been a very scrappy one; but at the school I was top in mathematics and physics, and on the Worcester I carried off a lot of prizes and obtained an appointment as a Naval Reserve Midshipman.
I had no wish to go to sea; I chose the life because it would soonest make me independent, and from the time I joined a sailing ship I ceased to be a charge upon my people.