The Mystery of the Class of 76 and a cautionary tale on the dangers of believing secondary sources, wherever they may be.
This month I promised you all about the Edinburgh Boys ‘Class of 76’. It’s a fact that Robert Louis Stevenson, James Matthew Barrie, Samuel Rutherford Crockett and Arthur Conan Doyle were all educated at Edinburgh University. RLS first matriculated in 1867. His university career was less than distinguished and probably best not dwelt on. Besides, he’s too early for our class.
When I sat down to write this piece I soon discovered that I have been working on the potentially erroneous assumption that nine years later, the other three writers all arrived, fresh faced at Edinburgh to matriculate for the first time. It’s easily done. Dates in 19th century history are notoriously unreliable. The way people kept records there in that pre computer age, is, frankly, terrifying. On closer inspection, I realised that there is more to this than meets the eye. For example, Barrie did not in fact go to Edinburgh University in 1876… the plot, as they say, thickens. Once again, the facts get in the way of a good story.
However. I shall plough on regardless with what I DO know! The first fact is that all these men did study at Edinburgh University and so we can happily call them ‘the Edinburgh Boys.’ So here’s a few things about J.M.Barrie, S.R.Crockett and Arthur Conan Doyle – being called the ‘class of 76’ isn’t the only wrongly attributed label any of them have had to carry!
James Matthew Barrie. Born 9th May 1860 died June 19th 1937. He was born in Kirriemuir, son of a weaver. His secondary education was at Glasgow Academy for three years from 1868-1871 then a year in Forfar, then Dumfries Academy from 1873. (This is largely because he had a minister –or was it a schoolteacher – brother with whom he lodged which will have helped defray costs.) At Dumfries, inspired by the Theatre Royal (the oldest working theatre in Scotland) Barrie wrote his first play ‘Bandelero the Bandit’ which was performed by the Dumfries Amateur Dramatic Club in 1877.
I noticed that recently Edinburgh University have added JMB onto their list of famous alumni (along with Arthur Conan Doyle, though Crockett is conspicuous by his absence from the list!) But they need to check their dates. The site says that Barrie went there aged 22. This would be in 1882. However, they also state that he graduated in 1882, which would make his University career the fastest one ever! It just goes to show that Wikipedia is not the only unreliable source on the web.
Richard D. Jackson who has done a lot of research on S.R.Crockett (among others) and has definite evidence of Barrie matriculating in 1878. He is matriculating into the Junior Arts course so the strong suggestion is that this is his first year at University.
While Barrie was at Edinburgh he wrote theatrical reviews and on his graduation in 1882 he took off to London, via a stint at Nottingham, to pursue his literary career, first in journalism, then novel writing (his first novel Better Dead was published in 1891) and then drama.
It is worth pointing out that university degrees in the 1870’s were quite unlike those of today. Jackson’s research reveals that many students who matriculated never actually studied for full degrees. However he notes:
‘For those who did wish to obtain an MA degree the University of Edinburgh Calendar for 1876-77 sets out, under the heading of ‘The Curriculum in Arts’, the procedures to be followed. The ordinary curriculum extended over four Winter sessions. Students were required to attend not less than two Sessions (Junior and Senior or First and Second) on the Classes of Humanity (Latin), Greek and Mathematics and not less than one Session on the Classes of Logic and Metaphysics, Moral Philosophy and Natural Philosophy. They were also required to attend the class of Rhetoric and English Literature. It was possible to acquire an MA in three Winter Sessions if you passed certain examinations entitling you to go straight into the Senior classes in Humanity, Greek and Mathematics. Degrees were not held to be conferred on any student who was not present at the Graduation Ceremony even if all the required examinations had been passed.’
The Winter session ran from October to April, allowing a six month period where students could pursue other endeavours – working being one of them!
Back to the inappropriately named class of 1876. S.R.Crockett definitely first matriculated at Edinburgh in 1876. Jackson has undertaken much research which offers insight into his time at University. But there is always uncertainty. In 1895, at the height of his fame, an article on Crockett in ‘The Idler’ magazine contains plenty of inaccuracies and these were taken as gospel by Harper, who wrote the only contemporary biography of SRC.
Crockett is a perfect case in point about how you can’t trust even legal documents in history. If you go to Crockett’s memorial at Laurieston you’ll find that it has the wrong date of birth for him. This was an error that stood for years – the truth is he was born in 1859, NOT in 1860 as the memorial, and many other sources state. Born in September 1859 he was some eight months older than J.M.Barrie.
There is not one of Crockett’s ‘official’ documents in history that can be claimed as fully accurate from his birth certificate to his marriage certificate to his death certificate. In an age where we see such documentation as sacrosanct, it can be hard to deal with the vaguaries of such earlier record keeping, but it’s just something you have to get used to.
What we do know is that Crockett sat for, and won, the Galloway Bursary, which allowed him to go and study at Edinburgh, though not without taking on other work to support himself. We also know that he first matriculated as ‘Sam Crocket’. His tranformation to Samuel Rutherford Crockett took quite some years.
In his first year at Edinburgh Sam lodged with his cousin William Crocket. His diaries have proved a good source of information for Jackson. From him we find:
The annual examination was held at Castle Douglas on 21 and 22 September 1876, when Crockett was still sixteen going on seventeen. [ his 17th birthday was on 24th September 1876 ] The examiner was Dr John Gordon, one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools and a number of the members of the Association were also present.
In his diary William records that on 4 October he was told that “Sam had got the bursary.” On 11 October he “received a letter from Sam stating that he would lodge with me” and on Thursday 26 October he records that he “met Sam at Princes St. Station. After tea we arranged books etc. We had a walk as far as the University.”
Crockett wrote an account of his first arrival in Edinburgh in a work published in 1909 entitled ‘My Two Edinburghs: Searchlights Through The Mists Of Thirty Years,’ though it conflicts on some dates with his cousin’s diary. He notes:
“October 20th, 1876.- A third class carriage hurrying eastward from Carstairs, that black wild cave of the winds set on the moorland. Out of the window in defiance of regulations, a boy of sixteen was hanging to the risk of his neck and to the annoyance of sundry other fellow passengers less enthusiastic than he. That eager, impressionable nuisance of a boy, with poetry-filled head protruding Edinburgh-wards, was the present writer.
“Smuts flew in his eyes. Weird illuminations from paraffin shale mines challenged his sidelong regard. But he saw them not. He was looking for Wallace, and Bruce, and John Knox, and Queen Mary, and Claverhouse (though him he hated) riding out of the West bow with all his troopers behind him.
He watched long and the wind blew chill. Suddenly the train swerved and he saw, swimming in a pale green windy sky, the Castle rock, tower-crowned, no bigger than a toy. It was purple of the deepest, but to the boy’s eyes looked infinitely remote and solitary. Then he sat back in his hard cushionless bench with something like a sob, and his long-suffering neighbour told him, if he was quite done, to put the window up. But he did not care. He had seen.
“That night I took my cousin’s arm (he had been there a few weeks earlier than I) and he piloted me. He also helped me with my box upstairs. It had been made by a country joiner and even when empty was about as heavy as a piano. We lived next the sky in a many-storied grey house, but one of our two windows, by God’s grace, looked up to the mural battlements of the Salisbury Crags and across the valley to the western shoulder of Arthur’s Seat. That seemed in some far-off way to suggest home. But from the other window, looking down on the twinkling lamps receding into the distances by the city dusk – frankly, to go near them, they made me giddy. And what is stranger still, after years of mountain climbing and uneasy muleback, the giddy feeling of that first night comes back to me in dreams, always connected with my old lodgings and my first glimpse of the long lines of yellow Edinburgh lights. I had never been in a city before, so my cousin was very kind and compassionate.”
They were lodging with Mrs Christina Clow, a widow who lived in a tenement at 50 St Leonard’s Street in the Pleasance which held about fourteen households and some sixty-five people. Crockett later described this as “a garret in an old house, which looked on the Park and Arthur’s Seat.”
There is a lot of information about Crockett’s time at University career, which I shall spare you at the moment and put into a separate article. For now, we’ll move on to the third of our ‘triumvirate’ Arthur Conan Doyle. (22nd May 1859-7 July 1930)
The third member of our mysterious class of 76 is a man for whom mystery became a career. Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, though his parentage was Irish. His schooling at Stoneyhurst was paid for by Jesuit uncles until 1875, then he did a final year at the Jesuit school Stella Matutina in Feldkirch, Austria. But by the time he matriculated at Edinburgh University in October 1876 he had given up religion. Like Crockett, he won a bursary, but on arrival at the University it turned out that the bursary was only for students studying Arts courses and Conan Doyle was enrolled for Medicine. Once again some mysterious (mis) information to be found on his website states:
‘The young medical student met a number of future authors who were also attending the university, including James Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson.’
It is quite possible, but unrecorded, that he might have met Barrie, but Stevenson left Scotland in 1876 so the chance that he ever mingled with Conan Doyle as a student is unlikely. Later in life, Conan Doyle and Barrie did collaborate in writing a play, but we have no way of knowing whether this was because they were friends at University. It seems even less likely that their paths would have crossed than that Crockett and Barrie shared a classroom.
All of our Edinburgh Boys were writing for publication while at university. In Conan Doyle’s case ‘The Mystery of Sasassa Valley’ was accepted in Chamber's Journal, which had published Thomas Hardy's first work. His second story ‘The American Tale’ was published in London Society, making him write much later, "It was in this year that I first learned that shillings might be earned in other ways than by filling phials."
All of our three needed to supplement their income as students. As far as I know Barrie did it solely through journalism. Crockett combined journalism with work as a tutor, both in Edinburgh and abroad. And in 1880, when Conan Doyle's was in his third year of medical studies, he signed on as ship’s surgeon on a whaling boat ‘The Hope.’ A return to classes in October 1880 must have seemed dull by comparison!
After University, Barrie took the direct route, straight into journalism. Crockett went into the ministry and Conan Doyle became a doctor. But the lure of writing was too great for both of them. All three men were well experienced and well positioned for their ‘break through’ in the early 1890’s, a time when mass market publishing was seeing an explosion in opportunities. All three wrote serially, for money and then had novels published. All three had ‘bestsellers’ and became to some extent blighted by them. But that’s another story. For another episode. If I’ve learned anything from these serial writers, it’s to leave the audience on a ‘hook.’ And if I’ve learned anything else, it’s that one has to be really careful in checking and rechecking and cross-checking historical sources because the most obvious view is rarely the most factually correct – especially when dealing with writers of fiction.
Next month, in what is a connection, though not necessarily a linear one, I shall start ‘Digging up the Kailyard.’
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