James Leigh Joynes: Some Reminiscences

James Leigh Joynes: Some Reminiscences

EVENTS change rapidly in the Socialist movement; and here, as elsewhere, there is a danger that while excessive attention is paid to the leading figures, the quiet devoted worker who has fallen by the way may be too readily forgotten. For this reason I am glad to comply with the request of the editor of the SOCIAL-DEMOCRAT, and write some personal reminiscences of my brother-in law, the late J. L. Joynes, whose name, though probably unknown to the majority of recently-enlisted Socialists, is very familiar to those who bore the brunt of the battle in the early days of the S.D.F. Of his actual work, and of the value of his work, at that period, there are others who are better qualified to speak than myself; but of his Cambridge and Eton life, which had an important bearing on his subsequent Socialism, I may be able to contribute some particulars that are not without interest. If in this connection, writing simply and without reserve, I sometimes mention myself, my readers will not misunderstand me, or suppose that I am a victim of that flattering illusion to which so many biographers are prone.

James Leigh Joynes was born in 1853, at Eton, where his father was an assistant master for many years. When about twelve years old, he was elected to one of the Foundation Scholarships, and after several years as a “Colleger,” went on to King’s College, Cambridge, in 1871. His health had been delicate in boyhood, and owing to this he had lived much at home and was little known to his schoolfellows; in whose games and amusements he seldom took part. He was shy, silent and retiring; yet I think it was in the long run an advantage to him not to have caught the facile Etonian manner, for the true strength of his character lay in quite different qualities. Certainly for myself, who, though nominally his schoolfellow at Eton, had not really known him till we met at King’s, it was a surprise and profit to see one so genuine and unsophisticated, who had not the least respect for the humbug of “appearances,” whose abruptness and angularity were in marked contrast to the Etonian polish, and whose bluntness of speech was only less notable than the kindliness of his heart.

I think we were brought together by our common impatience of the petty routine and respectability then dominant at King’s; a system well calculated to make rebels and freethinkers. Imagine a small college, small in numbers and small in tone, with a code of unwritten yet tyrannical observances which it was “bad form” to neglect, and you will understand why the conjunction of Learning and Silliness, so often found among the academical, was in “the full bloom of its imbecility” in the King’s College of a quarter-century ago. An epigrammatical professor once summed up a fellow-academician as “a damned fool with a taste for the classics.” King’s was pre-eminently a classical college, and the imbecility bacillus was rampant within its walls.

Amidst this cultured circle the “freshman” Joynes, characteristically indifferent to “what people thought,” proceeded to take his own course with imperturbable serenity. Our friendship was a mutual alliance against the Respectables, pursued with a youthful regardlessness of consequences which, looking back, I feel to have been highly beneficial. While reading very hard on our own lines, we were guilty of every species of “bad form.” We did not row on the odoriferous Cam (rowing was regarded as a patriotic duty), but devoted our afternoons to long country walks and the study of natural history, in which we always gave the preference to those woods and fields where it was stated that “Trespassers will be Prosecuted.” We wrote heretical articles in the Undergraduates’ Journal. I have before me the number for November 19, 1873, containing an article by Joynes on compulsory chapel, in which he inveighs against the ordinance of full choral service, where the unfortunate “man without an ear” is doomed, for two long hours, “to sit, stand, and kneel in wearisome succession.” When it was our turn, as King’s Scholars, to read the lessons in chapel, we irreverently docked and shortened Holy Writ to suit our private purposes. “Here endeth the Lesson,” we cried, when we had read, perhaps, half-a-dozen out of a score or two-score verses; and immediately the great organ would sound and the pompous ceremonial continue. (I think they secretly blessed us for that illegality.) As a protest against the exclusiveness of the Senior Fellows, a few old gentlemen who allowed none but themselves to cross the College Lawn, we let out a mole; and no greater consternation could have been caused by the pollution of the Holy of Holies than by the appearance one morning of a chain of earth-heaps on that hitherto f1awless expanse. In this outrage we had as an abettor a fellow-undergraduate who is now head master of an important school, but I forbear to publish his name for fear of injuring his reputation. I may mention, however, that when, a few years ago, this reverend gentleman discovered one of his pupils reading Socialist pamphlets, he could think of no more weighty warning against such pestilent heresies than to tell the boy that the only two Socialists whom he had known had both “come to a bad end,” and he did not scruple to name them.

In 1875 Joynes took his degree in the Classical Tripos (he was seventh in the first class, next on the list to Gerald Balfour, the present Irish Secretary), but he did not obtain a Fellowship at his college, as the Respectables, who had the award of such honours, seized this opportunity of paying off old scores, and avenging the memory of the mole. A little later we were both Assistant Masters at Eton, and here the same revolutionary process went on, though in a less open manner, for the Eton Master is a more decorous and responsible person than the Cambridge undergraduate, and the atmosphere of the place, intellectually, is about as depressing as that of a London fog. For several years Joynes was an exemplary tutor, diligently doing for his pupils, in accordance with what is euphemistically known as the Eton “tutorial system,” the work which they were too lazy to do for themselves, and writing or revising about thirty thousand Latin verses per annum. This is the way to win golden opinions (and, what is more valuable, a large income) at Eton; but unfortunately we were both under suspicion as radicals and freethinkers, also we had adopted vegetarianism, which was felt to be a dangerous and immoral practice, and then, again, we rode tricycles, which was thought be almost as bad. (Everyone cycles at Eton now.) So gradually our friend’s affairs were drifting towards a crisis—and it came.

What brought matters to a head was the visit paid to England and Ireland by Henry George in 1882. We had all read “Progress and Poverty,” and Joynes had been greatly impressed by it; and when, in the summer holidays of that year, he met and travelled with George in Ireland, a friendship at once sprang up between them which had an important influence on his life. It is unnecessary to tell at length a story that has often been told. By a ridiculous blunder of the Irish Constabulary, under the infamous Coercion Acts, the two travellers were arrested and locked up as dangerous conspirators; and, though they were quickly discharged when the magistrates discovered the error, the whole Press of the country rang with amused comments, including a parody, by J. K. Stephen, of Gray’s "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” evidently written up to the one line, “To snatch a fearful Joy(nes).” The incident, however, was a serious one. The Government had to apologise to Henry George as an American citizen; and a brilliant account of the fiasco, written by Joynes, was published in the Times, and caused great scandal in Etonian circles, where publicity is regarded—not without good reason—as the thing of all things to be deprecated. Great, then, was the horror of the Eton authorities when, a few weeks later, an advertisement announced Joynes’ forthcoming volume, “Adventures of a Tourist in Ireland”. In hot haste he was informed by the head master, Dr. Hornby, that he must choose between his mastership and his book. He, of course, chose the latter, and resigned his post at Eton at the end of 1882. Then and there terminated his academical career, and his career as Socialist began. It was the “bad end” to which his old fellow collegian, the head master of —, so tearfully and tastefully alluded.

Probably if an estimate of Joynes’s character were written by one of his academical colleagues, and were compared with another written by one of his Socialist fellow-workers of a later period, the contrast would be absolute and complete. The reason is that the escape from Eton, to a man of his sympathies, was something more than a mere change of occupation; it was a veritable passing from death-in-life to life. Everyone used to notice the surprising improvement in his health, spirits, and appearance; due to the fact that in Socialism he had at last found work in which he thoroughly believed. I say Socialism, because his clear mind necessarily did not stop short at Henry George’s measure of Land Nationalisation. If I remember rightly, it was an invitation received by him from Champion and Frost, who wished to entertain him at a complimentary dinner after his retirement from Eton, that first brought him into contact with Socialists. The S.D.F. had been instituted in 1881, and Joynes threw himself with ardour into the work, attended the committee meetings at Westminster, and was on terms of friendly association with Hyndman, Champion, Frost, Bax, Morris, Quelch, Carpenter, Scheu, Burns, Burrows, Williams, Foulger and others well known in the movement. He was co-editor and founder of the Christian Socialist and To-Day, which were started respectively in 1883 and 1884, and he was also a contributor to Justice and the Commonweal, and author of “The Socialist Catechism,” one of the most successful pamphlets that have been issued by the Socialist press. In short, there was very little S.D.F. work at that early period in which Joynes did not take a part.

Others, as I have said, are better able to describe this phase of his character; but I think I am right in saying that it was his honesty, candour, and fearlessness that made him a valuable propagandist. If a thing, however disagreeable, had to be done, he would get up and do it, and what he undertook to do was never forgotten or neglected. These are the strong, sincere, homely qualities that make themselves respected, perhaps more than any others, in revolutionary propaganda, where there is generally so much profession that does not harden into practice. Even among the people who most disliked Joynes’s views, and were irritated by his tart manner of expressing himself, I never knew one who personally distrusted him. Sincerity was written in every line of his face, and heard in every syllable that he uttered.

Nor was it to Socialism only that he gave his support, for there was scarcely an advanced cause to which he did not in some measure contribute. In addition to Justice and the Commonweal, he wrote at different times in a number of reform journals, besides those which he himself edited, such as Progress, Our Corner, The Food Reform Magazine, &c. For some years he was a regular diner at the vegetarian Wheatsheaf Restaurant in Rathbone Place, often in company with Bernard Shaw, for whom he always felt a strong regard and liking.

His literary work was pretty equally divided between poetry and prose. To be frank, I do not think his writings were the best part of him, though he had a clear, trenchant, analytical mind which made him at times a very damaging critic. His poems are very unequal; and in this respect the extreme facility of his pen was far from being an unmixed benefit to him though one could not but admire the inexhaustible energy with which, at one period, he used to write almost every day a copy of verses for the Pall Mall Gazette. His “Socialist Rhymes” contained one or two good pieces but in his later and more critical years he expressed to me the dissatisfaction he had felt on re-reading these early verses, and I think this judgment was a sound one. On the other hand, his translations from the German, “Songs of a Revolutionary Epoch,” have always seemed to me exceedingly good, and it is to be regretted that this volume is so little known among Socialists. Let us hope it may some day be reprinted.

In 1884 and part of 1885 he carried out a long-cherished wish by travelling for some months on the Continent and making a lengthy stay in Germany, where he had relatives. (He was himself German on his mother’s side.) During his absence there occurred the secession from the S.D.F. which led to the formation of the Socialist League; and after his return Joynes was less closely associated with the active work of the party. This was not owing to any change of feeling on his part, personal or political, for his views did not alter in any way, and he remained on most friendly terms with all his former comrades, in whichever branch of the party they might now be ranked. Indeed, I cannot remember an instance of anyone quarrelling with Joynes—it would scarcely have been possible to quarrel with one so disinterested and dispassionate by nature, so catholic in his friendships, and so determined to make the best of men and circumstances, whatever their attitude towards himself. While not in any degree devoid of strong feelings and emotions—he was, in fact, keenly sensitive—he possessed the most unruffled and dignified temper that I have ever seen.

I must not forget to mention his love of nature and the country, of children, and of all simple and beautiful things. He was never more happy than when living a quiet and hardy life in a country cottage, among his bees and his flowers, and spending whole days in the open air. Burnham Beeches was one of his favourite haunts when he was living at Eton, and he was fond of visiting the Cumberland mountains at all seasons of the year. Though certainly not strong in constitution, and not practised in athletics, he was, outdoors as indoors, a man of eminently helpful and self-reliant habits; could shift for himself under any circumstances, and help others as well. In his own family he was the one to whom all came for advice and assistance, from the most important matter to the most trivial. He was a good walker, and a most expert and daring mountain-climber; fond also of boating, swimming, driving, cycling, and all open-air occupations, except those which consist in murdering one’s fellow-creatures under the name of “sport.” In these he never had any share whatever at any period of his life, to which fact he was doubtless indebted for the true manliness that distinguished him.

A strong leaning towards scientific and medical studies led him, about 1887, to enter himself as a student at the Middlesex Hospital, and the subsequent break-down in his health was mainly caused by the overstrain of a severe course of reading, in which he unwisely tried to pass his examinations in less than the ordinary time, he had had one or two indications of a weakness of heart, but did not sufficiently attend to them until it was too late. In the summer of 1889 began the long illness which disabled him from all active work for the rest of his life; yet even during this weary time of suffering and disappointment, borne with the quiet humorous patience so characteristic of him, his thoughts, and even his pen, were busy. In his cottage at West Hoathly, on the mid-Sussex hills, a wild upland district in which he much delighted, he wrote or revised the poems included in his last volume, “On Lonely Shores,” which far surpass any of his earlier verses in form and workmanship, but are perhaps too closely modelled on certain favourite authors. The last letter written by him was one to William Morris, whose friendship he valued as greatly as he admired his genius.

He died at West Hoathly in January, 1893, and was buried in the beautiful churchyard which looks across the weald to the line of the Sussex Downs.

I cannot conclude better than by quoting from Sydney Olivier’s stanzas, “To a Revolutionary Poet,” which admirably sum up the character of him to whom they were in fact addressed:

“Because you could not choose to cramp
Your stripling soul in custom’s mail,
Nor prate the catchwords of the camp,
Nor strive to shine, nor fear to fail,
Therefore your soul was made aware
Of many secrets of the air.

“Because your heart was wont to move
Less for its own than other’s pain,
Because you did not fear to love
With only loving for your gain,
The tedious years have had no power
Your sturdy cheerfulness to sour.

“Comrade, because your soul was free,
Because in strife with gloom and wrong,
Your ear and pen learnt mastery,
Because your heart was blithe and strong,
Therefore for us these songs of yours
Breathe of the beauty that endures.”

Henry S. Salt

Social Democrat, No. 8, August 1897