I have here a good story for hard times. It is of a clergyman and cotton
spinner of the Church of England, who, upon an income of twenty-four
pounds a year, lived very comfortably to the age of ninety-four years,
reared a family of eight children respectably, gave two of his sons a
University education, and left an estate worth two thousand pounds.
Every one will admit that this was a good deal to do upon a salary of
one hundred and twenty dollars; and some readers, who find the winter
hard to get through, may be interested to know how he did it. To this
day, though he has been dead one hundred years, he is spoken of in the
region where he lived, as Wonderful Walker. By this epithet, also, he is
spoken of by the poet Wordsworth, in the "Excursion:"--
"And him, the Wonderful,
Our simple shepherds, speaking from the heart,
Deservedly have styled."
He lived and died in the lake country of England, near the residence of
Wordsworth, who has embalmed him in verse, and described him in prose.
Robert Walker, the youngest of twelve children, the son of a yeoman of
small estate, was bred a scholar because he was of a frame too delicate,
as his father thought, to earn his livelihood by bodily labor. He
struggled into a competent knowledge of the classics and divinity,
gained in strength as he advanced towards manhood, and by the time he
was ordained was as vigorous and alert as most men of his age.
After his ordination, he had his choice of two curacies of the same
revenue, namely, five pounds a year--twenty-five dollars. One of these,
Seathwaite by name, too insignificant a place to figure upon a map, or
even in the "Gazetteer," was situated in his native valley, in the
church of which he had gone to school in his childhood. He chose
Seathwaite, but not for that reason. He was in love; he wished to marry;
and this parish had a small parsonage attached to it, with a garden of
three quarters of an acre. The person to whom he was engaged was a
comely and intelligent domestic servant such as then could frequently be
found in the sequestered parts of England. She had saved, it appears,
from her wages the handsome sum of forty pounds. Thus provided, he
married, and entered upon his curacy in his twenty-sixth year, and set
up housekeeping in his little parsonage.
Every one knows what kind of families poor clergymen are apt to have.
Wonderful Walker had one of that kind. About every two years, or less, a
child arrived; and heartily welcome they all were, and deeply the
parents mourned the loss of one that died. In the course of a few years,
eight bouncing girls and boys filled his little house; and the question
recurs with force: How did he support them all? From Queen Anne's
bounty, and other sources, his income was increased to the sum mentioned
above, twenty-four pounds. That for a beginning. Now for the rest.
In the first place, he was the lawyer of his parish, as well as its
notary, conveyancer, appraiser, and arbitrator. He drew the wills,
contracts, and deeds, charging for such services a moderate fee, which
added to his little store of cash. His labors of this kind, at the
beginning of the year, when most contracts were made, were often
extremely severe, occupying sometimes half the night, or even all night.
Then he made the most of his garden, which was tilled by his own hands,
until his children were old enough to help him. Upon the mountains near
by, having a right of pasturage, he kept two cows and some sheep, which
supplied the family with all their milk and butter, nearly all their
meat, and most of their clothes. He also rented two or three acres of
land, upon which he raised various crops. In sheep-shearing time, he
turned out and helped his neighbors shear their sheep, a kind of work in
which he had eminent skill. As compensation, each farmer thus assisted
gave him a fleece. In haying time, too, he and his boys were in the
fields lending a hand, and got some good hay-cocks for their pains.
Besides all this, he was the schoolmaster of the parish. Mr. Wordsworth
positively says that, during most of the year, except when farm work was
very pressing, he taught school eight hours a day for five days in the
week, and four hours on Saturday. The school-room was the church. The
master's seat was inside the rails of the altar; he used the communion
table for a desk; and there, during the whole day, while the children
were learning and saying their lessons, he kept his spinning-wheel in
motion. In the evening, when school was over, feeling the need of
exercise, he changed the small spinning-wheel at which he had sat all
day for a large one, which required the spinner to step to and fro.
There was absolutely no waste and no luxury known in his house. The only
indulgence which looked like luxury was that, on a Saturday afternoon,
he would read a newspaper or a magazine. The clothes of the whole family
were grown, spun, woven, and made by themselves. The fuel of the house,
which was peat, was dug, dried, and carried by themselves. They made
their own candles. Once a month a sheep was selected from their little
flock and killed for the use of the family, and in the fall a cow would
be salted and dried for the winter, the hide being tanned for the
family shoes. No house was more hospitable, nor any hand more generous,
than those of this excellent man. Old parishioners, who walked to church
from a distance and wished to remain for the afternoon service, were
always welcome to dinner at the parsonage, and sometimes these guests
were so numerous that it took the family half the week to eat up the
cold broken remains. He had something always to spare to make things
decent and becoming. His sister's pew in the chapel he lined neatly with
woolen cloth of his own making.
"It is the only pew in the chapel so distinguished," writes the poet,
"and I know of no other instance of his conformity to the delicate
accommodations of modern times."
Nineteen or twenty years elapsed before this singular and interesting
man attracted any public notice. His parishioners, indeed, held him in
great esteem, for he was one of those men who are not only virtuous, but
who render virtue engaging and attractive. If they revered him as a
benevolent, a wise, and a temperate man, they loved him as a cheerful,
friendly, and genial soul. He was gay and merry at Christmas, and his
goodness was of a kind which allures while it rebukes. But beyond the
vale of Seathwaite, he was unknown until the year 1754, when a traveler
discovered him, and published an account of his way of life.
"I found him," writes this traveler, "sitting at the head of a long
square table, dressed in a coarse blue frock, trimmed with black horn
buttons, a checked shirt, a leathern strap about his neck for a stock, a
coarse apron, a pair of great wooden soled shoes, plated with iron to
preserve them, with a child upon his knee, eating his breakfast. His
wife and the remainder of his children were, some of them, employed in
waiting upon each other, the rest in teasing and spinning wool, at which
trade he is a great proficient; and, moreover, when it is ready for
sale, he will lay it upon his back, sixteen or thirty-two pounds'
weight, and carry it on foot to the market, seven or eight miles."
He spoke also of his cheerfulness, and the good humor which prevailed in
the family, the simplicity of his doctrine, and the apostolic fervor of
his preaching; for, it seems, he was an excellent preacher as well. The
publication of this account drew attention to the extreme smallness of
his clerical income, and the bishop offered to annex to Seathwaite an
adjacent parish, which also yielded a revenue of five pounds a year. By
preaching at one church in the morning, and the other in the afternoon,
he could serve both parishes, and draw both stipends. Wonderful Walker
declined the bishop's offer.
"The annexation," he wrote to the bishop, "would be apt to cause a
general discontent among the inhabitants of both places, by either
thinking themselves slighted, being only served alternately or
neglected in the duty, or attributing it to covetousness; all of which
occasions of murmuring I would willingly avoid."
Mr. Wordsworth, to whom we are indebted for this letter, mentions that,
in addition to his other gifts and graces, he had a "beautiful
This admirable man continued to serve his little parish for nearly
sixty-eight years. His children grew up about him. Two of his sons
became clergymen of the Church of England; one learned the trade of a
tanner; four of his daughters were happily married; and, occasionally,
all the children and grandchildren, a great company of healthy and happy
people, spent Christmas together, and went to church, and partook of the
communion together, this one family filling the whole altar.
The good old wife died first. At her funeral the venerable man, past
ninety years of age, had the body borne to the grave by three of her
daughters and one granddaughter. When the corpse was lifted, he insisted
upon lending a hand, and he felt about (for he was almost blind) until
he got held of a cloth that was fastened to the coffin; and thus, as one
of the bearers of the body, he entered the church where she was to be
The old man, who had preached with much vigor and great clearness until
then sensibly drooped after the loss of his wife. His voice faltered as
he preached; he kept looking at the seat in which she had sat, where he
had watched her kind and beautiful face for more than sixty years. He
could not pass her grave without tears. But though sad and melancholy
when alone, he resumed his cheerfulness and good-humor when friends were
about him. One night, in his ninety-fourth year, he tottered upon his
daughter's arm, as his custom was, to the door, to look out for a moment
upon the sky.
"How clear," said he, "the moon shines to-night."
In the course of that night he passed peacefully away. At six the next
morning he was found dead upon the couch where his daughter had left
him. Of all the men of whom I have ever read, this man, I think, was the
most virtuous and the most fortunate.