Spectator December 21, 1915
THE WHISTLER AT THE PLOW
This was the nom de plume of Alexander Somerville, who lived in Hamilton away back in the early sixties. He was born in Scotland in the year 1811, and died in Toronto in 1895. His parents were in humble circumstances, and at the early age of eight years, he had to earn a living by herding sheep on the grazing lands in Scotland. He had no school advantages, but, having a natural desire for an education, he studied while attending his flocks, and laid the foundation for a scholarship that resulted in his becoming learned in economic and political subjects. Early in the sixties, Mr. Somerville became a citizen of Hamilton, coming from Toronto, and earned a somewhat precarious living by writing for the newspapers, which, at that time, was not so profitable for either the owners of the newspapers or for the men who had educated brains to sell. The reader may ask, why is this resurrection of an ancient “penny-a-liner” at this time? A couple of weeks ago, an inquiry from Toronto came to the editor of the Spectator as to the matters of history that could be dug up of the time when Mr. Somerville was an occasional contributor to the columns of the Spectator, over the nom de plume of “The Whistler at the Plow.” There is not a man who was connected with the paper sixty years ago now living to answer it, for about that time, when Mr. Somerville lived in Hamilton, this Old Muser was sojourning down in Dixieland, shouldering a musket and standing up to be shot at for the magnificent sum of $16 a month, a corporal’s pay, and getting fat on hardtack and “sowbelly.” Let me here suggest that if the clock could only be put back to my age at that time, gladly would I feast on government rations, not to be a soldier again mind you, but to be young once again and have the promise of fifty years more of life in this beautiful world. But what has all that dreaming got to do with the story about ‘The Whistler at the Plow?” The only man in Hamilton the Muser could think of that would be able to give an answer to the Toronto inquiry was H. B. Witton, who has lived continuously in Hamilton for more than sixty years, and, who, at one time, was connected with the Canadian Illustrated News, in which paper appeared the literary contribution of Mr. Somerville away back in 1863. Mr. Witton was able to furnish the information the Toronto man desired, for one of Mr. Somerville’s sons worked under him in the Great Western railway paint shops as an apprentice boy, and afterwards was in business for himself in Hamilton for a few years.
In Mr. Witton’s private library – one of the most select, as far as rare and costly books are connected in Canada – is Somerville’s Diligent Life, “One Who Has Whistled at the Plow,” one of the many works of that writer. Mr. Somerville’s early life was spent in laboring work in Scotland, and, not having the advantages of learning a trade, he naturally fell in the ways of the indigent young men of Great Britain, preferring the queen’s shilling and a soldier’s life and two meals a day to digging ditches and other laboring work for a shilling a day. In the year 1831, he enlisted in the Scots Greys, known as the Royal North British Dragoons, one of crack horse regiments in the British service. In those days, young Scotsmen smitten with military ambition, and not less than five feet ten inches of upright bulk, talked vauntingly of the “Greys;” of the horses with long tails, of scarlet coats and long swords, the high bearskin caps and the plumes of white feathers encircling them in front, the blue overalls with the broad yellow stripes on the outside, the boots and spurs, the carbines slung at the saddle side, the holster pipes and pistols, the shoulder belts and the ammunition, and the long scarlet cloaks flowing from the riders’ necks to their knees in wet and wintry weather, and the grey charges with white tails. It was an easy matter for the recruiting sergeant to fill up his quota of recruits with such a picture to present to the young Scot, who had no desire to shoulder his spades at daylight and take to the ditches. And then King Billy, of blessed memory, was paying a bright English shilling, with two meals a day, a comfortable barracks to live in, and a uniform such as only the gentry could afford to wear. It was a temptation that not many could withstand. Somerville saw the day, and not long after his enlistment in the Scottish Greys, he wished he had never straddled a horse in that regiment.
On the first day of March, 1831, the first reform bill was introduced into the British house of parliament, which resulted in a threat by the anti-reformers that they would stop supplies. It is not our purpose to peer into the history of those stirring times any further than to introduce into this brief chapter the mistake of a soldier entering a discussion of political affair of the government under which he was serving. Alexander Somerville had given some attention to political economy in his readings while herding sheep, and, unfortunately for him, he gave expression to his ideas in one of the leading newspapers, which were copied widely and led to his undoing. London and every town in the kingdom were the scenes of riots, and the windows of the home of the Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel and other leading anti-reformers were broken with stones by the mobs. The Scots Greys were booted and saddled for three days, ready to turn out at a moment’s notice. Not since before the battle of Waterloo had the swords of the Greys been rough-sharpened, and old soldiers spoke of it as threatening dire calamity to the rioters. The soldiers had no desire to be called out to shoot or saber down their own countrymen, and many letters were written by them to that effect and dropped in the streets. Somerville sent his letters to the newspapers.
Up to this time, Somerville’s standing in his troop was first-class; and then even the suspicion did not rest upon him as being the writer of the objectionable letter that was widely published in the newspapers. Some innocent men were suspected, and while it might not be possible to prove what was denominated a military crime, the sergeant-major, adjutant, riding master and commanding officer had them watched until they were driven into some fault for which they could be punished. To save his comrades, Somerville confessed to the major commanding the regiment that he was the writer of the objectionable letter, and from that time forth, every effort was made to catch him in some delinquency that would bring him to a court martial. One day the riding master was very cross with Somerville, and finally charged him with insubordination in not mounting his horse when commanded to do so. Somerville had been put through this part of the drill of mounting and dismounting until the unfortunate soldier was physically worn out and unable to obey the command to mount. This was the desired moment the riding master was waiting for, and a corporal’s guard was summoned and Somerville sent to the guard house. The next morning he was tried by court-martial, and, of course, convicted of insubordination, and sentenced to two hundred lashes with the cat-o’-nine-tails, and that afternoon the regiment was paraded to witness the infliction of the punishment.
It was an unusual proceeding to hurry the punishment immediately after the trial. The regiment was formed in four square, the sentence of the court read by the commanding officer, and Somerville was roped to an upright ladder with his wrists and feet fastened to iron rings in a wall. The regimental sergeant-major, with book and pencil in hand to count each each lash and number, gave the command. “Farrier Simpson, do your duty.” Simpson took the “cat,” as ordered, and swinging it twice around his head brought the brutal instrument of torture with full force across the bare back of the unfortunate Somerville. This was repeated for twenty-five times, and then another stalwart soldier took the lash and continued the punishment. The farrier and the trumpeter alternated till one hundred lashes were administered, and by this time Somerville’s back was raw. Figure in your mind, the number of strokes with a cat-o’-nine-tails with six knots in each tail, making 5,400 gashes on Somerville’s bare back. No wonder the commanding officer’s heart revolted at such brutality, and when the last of one hundred lashes were given, he gave the command “Stop! Take him down; he is a young soldier.” After cutting the man to pieces, he was then sent to the hospital for repairs. And all this brutal punishment was inflicted on the plea that Somerville had disobeyed the command of the riding master to mount his horse when he was physically unable to do so.
That one hundred lashes sounded the death knell of the whipping post in the British army and navy, for in due time, it became the subject of a parliamentary inquiry, and was prohibited by law. The authorities were slow in action, and it took several years before it was finally prohibited. A penny fund was raised in England with which to buy Somerville’s discharge from the army and a sum of 30 pounds was collected, and in 1833, he became once more a private citizen. Somerville was a man of excellent habits, free from the vice of drink, and always attentive to duty. Had it not been for that letter, he would have been promoted to be a non-commissioned officer, and in time further advanced to a commission.
There is a fascination about a soldier’s life that unfits a man who has served even for the short space of three years from settling-down to civil life after his discharge from the army. The boys who are now returning from the world war and are being mustered out will miss the bugle call and the daily routine of a soldier’s duty. This old Muser can sympathize with them, for he passed through the stages of returning to civil life and to his printing office at the close of the American civil war. There are three conditions that unfit a man for civil life – to serve as a soldier, as a fireman, or as a policeman. Somerville after his discharge from the Scots Greys became interested in newspaper work, as a writer on the Weekly Dispatch, but he could not settle down to it. In 1835, he again heard the bugle call and re-enlisted in the Eighth Highlanders, serving under General Sir De Lac Evans in the army in Spain. But we will not follow the history of Alexander Somerville, further than to say that on his return to civil life, he became an author of some repute, writing a library of books principally on political science.
After retiring from the army, Somerville married and settled down to civil life, earning his living as a writer. In the month of July, 1858, he left England to make a home in Canada, intending to settle in Toronto. When they sailed from Liverpool, his wife and family were in excellent health, but shortly after arriving in Quebec, his wife’s health gave way and speedily developed into consumption. Eleven months from the day of quitting her native city of London, Mrs. Somerville died in Quebec. Out of work and with a family of six children to provide for, Mr. Somerville tried the lecture field as a means of earning a living, but it was not a success. After struggling as best he could, friends came to his assistance, and through their kindness, he was able to pay the fare of his family to Toronto. A year or two later, he came to Hamilton, and made a precarious living for a time as a contributor to the Spectator and the Canadian Illustrated News. Old-timers will remember “The Whistler at the Low,” but not many of that class are now living in Hamilton. One of his sons learned the painter’s trade in the Great Western shops, under Mr. Witton, and another son carried the business of manufacturing window blinds. Those who remember Mr. Somerville recall him as they used to see him in the streets with his luxuriant crop of gray hair streaming down his shoulders. Herbert Gardiner, one time editor of the Spectator, and later editor of the Times, remembers the old man well, and can recall many interesting incidents of the days when he lived in Hamilton.
That cruel flogging of one hundred lashes with the cat-o’-nine-tails that Alexander Somerville received, without cause, when he was a private in the Scots Greys in the year 1832, was the means afterward of saving the backs of hundreds and thousands of men in the British army and navy.
A PUNISHMENT THE MUSER RECOLLECTS
In briefly telling the incidents in the life of Alexander Somerville, The Whistler at the Plow, recalls to memory a similar scene that occurred in the citadel at Quebec less than eighty years ago when this Muser was a child living in the citadel, his father being a soldier in the Seventieth regiment. An unfortunate soldier named Michael Macnamara drank too much liquor at times, and when in that condition would steal whatever he could lay his hand on. Michael was a member of the pioneer corps of the regiment, for in those days each regiment had a detail of six men whose duty was to keep the barrack grounds clean. Michael was a stalwart soldier of six feet in height and built in proportion, with a kindly face. Every child in the barracks loved Michael, for he always carried in his pockets a stock of candy for the young ones. But the poor fellow could not resist the temptation to steal, and the money he got from the articles he stole and sold was mostly spent in buying candy for the children. Every kind of mild punishment was tried on Michael, for the colonel of the regiment had a kind heart and looked with sympathy on the erring soldier’s penchant for stealing, especially as he knew that Michael stole to give pleasure to the children. Finally patience ceased to be a virtue, and as Michael was proven guilty of more than ordinary theft, and he was sentenced to fifty lashes with the cat-o’-nine-tails. That was a sad day in the old citadel at Quebec, for almost every child in the barracks cried because their old friend was to be punished. To carry out the sentence, the regiment was paraded in the citadel and formed four square. In the center was the triangle to which poor Michael was tied up, and when the sentence of the court martial was read, a stalwart drummer was detailed to inflict the punishment. There was not a man in the regiment that was not in sympathy with the kindly old Irishman who stole mainly to give to the children. For years after, this old Muser could in imagination hear the shrieks of the children’s friend as the cruel lash tore the flesh off his back. When twenty-five lashes had been administered, the kindly old colonel could not stand it any longer, and he ordered the drummer to stop. That was the last soldier in the Seventieth regiment to be punished by flogging.
Poor old Mike, when he came out of the hospital, fell back into his old ways. The love of liquor was his ruin. Finally he was again tried by court martial and sentenced to be drummed out of the regiment. That was another sad day for the children, who were dismissed from school that they might see their friend receive his punishment. Well do I remember that day. Poor old Mike was marched around the barrack square with a file of the guard behind him, the drum corps playing that old tune – the Rogue’s March :
“Once, twice, for selling my kit,
Three times for desertion,
If ever I ‘list to be a soldier again,
The devil be may be my sergeant.”
Twice in long years did we hear that same tune played when two men who had been incorrigible thieves were drummed out of camp during the American civil war. The days of flogging had long since passed, but there was another punishment that was inflicted in the early days of the civil war. Men who were incorrigible, and being put in the guard house had no terrors for them, used to be tied up by the thumbs and left suspended till such time as they would beg forgiveness and promise to reform. The company officer, who ordered the man to be tied up, suffered for his brutality, and many a one had his head punched, when he did not know who was his assailant. A general order was issued prohibiting the tieing up by the thumbs as a means of punishment
THE MONTREAL HERALD
Having had an existence of 108 years, in a most forbidding constituency for an English newspaper, the Montreal Herald recently fell asleep in the hands of a receiver; and if there is enough left after it passes through the receiving process to pay a dividend of ten per cent to the creditors, the venerable Herald will not have died in vain. There was a time in the early history of the Herald when it was one of the brightest papers in Canada. This old Muser took the first lessons in the newspaper trade away back in 1846 in the Herald office, when that paper was published as a semi-weekly. Before daylight on a cold winter morning, we had to start out with a route of nearly two hundred papers, and have them delivered at the home of the subscribers in time for the head of the family to read while at breakfast. The newsboys in those days were provided with a tin horn, which they blew loud and long to notify the householder of his approach. Then home to breakfast after the route was delivered, and back to the office before eight o’clock to take the first lessons in the rudiments of the typographic art, which were picking up the type the compositors dropped on the floor, sweeping out the office, and them sorting and distributing the pi. The remainder of the day was spent in learning to set and distribute type, or at the roller, for there were no marching presses in the Herald office in those days. And all this for the extravagant salary of one dollar per week for the first six months, and a promise of a raise if the proprietor though you were worth it. There were no extravagant salaries paid to boys or men severnty-two years ago. Eight years later, the four newspapers in Hamilton were paying from $7 to $8 a week, when in March, 1854, the printers plucked up courage, organized a union, and humbly asked for a slight advance to $9 a week. Now they are getting nearly three times that sum and are rolling in wealth. The old Herald could not stand the pressure. Farewell, the typographical mentor of my youth !