Precocious Tring poet who never knew a real childhood

Tring poet Gerald Massey
Tring poet Gerald Massey

The first instalment of a two-part feature on the life of celebrated Tring poet Gerald Massey, by Joan Hands

Just before Christmas in 1826, Tring’s St Peter and St Paul parish church witnessed the marriage of William Massey and Mary Rooker.

William was an illiterate labourer and boatman, relying on occasional work on the wharves or at the flour mill by the side of the Grand Junction Canal. Mary, his wife, could read and write a little.

After their December 19 wedding, they set up home together and rented a humble flint cottage on Gamnel Wharf for one shilling (5p) a week.

Thomas Gerald, their eldest son, was born on May 29, 1828, and the family continued to grow, with three more boys meaning that money was always tight.

Everyone was expected to contribute as soon as they could, and Gerald was packed off to the nearby silk mill at the age of eight, – a year below the legal age which was in force at that time – so that he could help with the family’s meagre budget.

Despite his tender years, Gerald was expected get up at 5am for six days of every week.

After being summoned by the mill bell at 5.30am, his working day stretched ahead of him until 6.30pm – and for all those hours he was paid just nine pence (4p) for his first week’s labours.

Sadly he wasn’t able to proudly produce his first earnings to help the household – he lost it all in a game of pitch and toss before going home!

His poem Lady Laura later recalled the misery and drudgery of his early ‘childhood’ – although it must be noted that the conditions at the mill were better than those which were experienced by the young workers in northern factories or labouring in coal mines.

In his poem, Massey wrote:

“Come, little children,” 
the Mill-bell rings, 
and drowsily they run,

Little old Men and Women, 
and human worms who have spun

The life of Infancy into silk; 
and fed, Child, Mother and Wife,

The factory’s smoke of torment, 
with the fuel of human life.

His mother tried her best, and brought the children up in a strict Calvinistic Sunday School tradition.

Gerald received his first education at a ‘penny school’, probably in the Baptist Chapel at New Mill, and later went on to the town’s National School.

The Silk Mill was badly damaged by fire in January 1836 and Gerald had to resort to straw plaiting to earn what he could.

This local cottage industry caused him as much heartache as silk throwing and he had several attacks of fever.

The family income suffered when father William was out of work, or had drunk all his wages, so the family was always up against it.

Massey himself later wrote: “I never knew what childhood was. I had no childhood.

“Ever since I can remember, I have had the aching fear of want, throbbing in heart and brow.

“The currents of my life were early poisoned and few would pass unscathed through the scenes and circumstances in which I have lived – none, if they were as curious and precocious as I was…”

Just how precocious and talented the young Massey was will be revealed in the second part of this feature.

There is more information about the Silk Mill, the straw plait trade and Tring in Gerald Massey’s time to be found at Tring Local History Museum in Brook Street.

The Museum is open every Friday and Saturday from 10am to 4pm, admission free.