Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Senior’s conversations

Nassau William Senior, a London lawyer better remembered as a pioneer of political economic thinking, died 150 years ago today. He had a great liking for travel in his later years, and kept detailed journals of his trips. However, these diaries are very unusual for being less a tourist narrative of what he saw, than a record of the informed and intelligent conversations he had with people everywhere he went.

Senior was born in 1790 at Compton, Berkshire, the eldest son of a vicar, and educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford. After achieving a first in classics, he  focused on a career in the law. As pupil to Edward Sugden, later lord chancellor, he became a certificated conveyancer, and then, in 1817, once Sugden had become master of chancery, he took over the practice. He was called to the bar in 1819. Two years later, he married Mary Charlotte Mair. They set up home in Kensington Square, and then, a few years later, built a larger house at Hyde Park Gate.

In the late 1810s, Senior began writing articles for the Quarterly Review on legal and literary subjects, but then, in 1821, he published one on the state of agriculture. This drew favourable attention from economists, and led on to him becoming a member of the recently-formed Political Economy Club. In 1825, he was appointed to the newly-created Drummond professorship of political economy at Oxford. He explained, in his introductory professorial lecture, that his interest in political economy was largely motivated by humanitarian concern for the poor, and by a conviction that understanding the causes of poverty was an essential preliminary to relieving it. He held the chair till 1830, and then again from 1847 to 1852. Many of his lectures were published as pamphlets, or included in his first book, Outline of the Science of Political Economy (1836). He was also an examiner in political economy at London University, which elected him to a fellowship in 1836.

In parallel to his legal practice and academic work, Senior was a regular adviser to the Whig party, and he was called upon by the government, as early as 1830, to sit on various commissions and undertake various reports, the first of which was on the laws relating to strikes and trade combinations. He also worked on a major report concerning the condition of the handloom weavers.

Senior refused various of offers - a knighthood, a Canadian governorship, and a place on the new poor-law board - but he did accept an appointment in 1836 as one of the twelve masters of chancery, a post that gave him an annual lifetime salary of £2,500. He was friends with many influential European intellectuals and statesmen of the time, and travelled often abroad. One of his last services to government, in 1857, was to serve on a royal commission concerning popular education. He died on 4 June 1864. Further information is freely available from Wikipedia, the Dictionary of National Biography (out-of-copyright version), or the Economic Theories website.

Later in his life, as mentioned above, Senior often went on European tours, during which he kept detailed diaries. During these tours, Senior went out of his way to meet and talk with as many people as he could, often those in positions of power or influence, or with some special knowledge/experience, but not always; and he made a particular note of recording these conversations in his diaries. Indeed, the published diaries contain far more transcribed conversations than they do texts of his own personal narrative.

Senior published one book of his diaries during his own lifetime: A Journal kept in Turkey and Greece in the Autumn of 1857 and the Beginning of 1858 (Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts, 1859). This is freely available at Internet Archive. In his own preface, Senior says: ‘The following pages contain extracts from a Journal which I kept in Therapia, The Troad, Smyrna, and Athens, in the autumn and winter of 1857-1858, It was written with no view to publication; but, as it throws light on questions of political importance, I think that I ought not, under present circumstances, to withhold it.’

Three further books of Senior’s diaries were edited after his death by his daughter (M. C. M. Simpson), and each one published in two volumes: Journals, Conversations and Essays relating to Ireland (Longmans, Green and Co., 1868); Journals kept in France and Italy from 1848 to 1852, with a Sketch of the Revolution of 1848 (Henry S. King and Co., 1871); and Conversations and Journals in Egypt and Malta (Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1882). Whereas the transcribed conversations, as recorded by Senior, in the early published book flow within the daily diary entries, this is not true of the diaries edited by his daughter, in which the conversation texts have been published with titles (i.e. the subjects of the conversations) and as if they were a printed interview.

Here are several extracts from A Journal kept in Turkey and Greece, (generally, the entries which include conversations are too long to include here).

13 September 1852
‘We took the omnibus to Kilrush, and the steamer from thence to Tarbert, where we were forced to sleep, there being no means of getting on to Killarney the same day. The inn, however, though simple and unpretending, is excellent. The town is poor, but beautifully situated on an eminence overlooking the Shannon, and surrounded by woods.

When Bonaparte was at Elba, a Captain Flynn, of the Royal Navy, was presented to him. He asked Flynn (as was his custom) where he was born.

“On the banks of the Shannon,” answered Flynn. “Ay,” said Bonaparte, “the Shannon is a grand river, one of the finest in Europe, though you make little use of it. During the Peninsular War, all the grain-ships for the supply of your army in Spain used to rendezvous and lie at a little port in the Shannon, called Tarbert. Below the anchorage you have a 14-gun fort, well-built and strong. But a little lower down on the river is a hill, which overlooks and commands it. A small force might easily land in the night and occupy that hill, and then your fort would be useless.”

I verified these facts to-day. There is the anchorage, the small fort, beautifully placed on a little green conical eminence, and the unoccupied hill behind it, within musket-shot, from which you can look down into the fort, and could pick off every man at the guns.

The young women at Tarbert have the usual beauty of the South of Ireland. I met two girls this evening, bare-foot, ragged, but with the figures and walk of princesses - at least of the princesses of fairy-tales - regular features, and bright ruddy complexions. Simple food, an open-air life, and the absence of stimulants, of hard labour, of stays, and of superfluous clothing, are great beautifiers.’

15 September 1852
‘The Muckross Hotel is ill-situated. The woods of Mr. Herbert’s beautiful place, Muckross Abbey, cut off the view of the lakes. [. . .] We dined with Mr. Herbert. I spoke of the waste state of the greater part of the land between Tarbert and Killarney.

“It is much worse than waste,” said Mr. Herbert. “All that man has done there is mischief. Much of the land which you saw yesterday is good land. Ragweed, indeed, does not flourish on any other. But in order to make it worth cultivating, the first thing to be done is to level the innumerable mounds with which the misdirected industry of its occupiers has intersected it; and the next is to relieve it from the exhaustion to which the alternation of oats and potatoes, and the permanence of weeds, unaccompanied by manure, have reduced it.”

We talked of the squalid appearance of Killarney its ragged half-starved population, and ruinous houses. I said that it reminded me of Fondi or Itri, or the other desolate dilapidated towns between Gaeta and Rome. He thought that I did injustice to Fondi. Wretched as it is, it seemed to him less wretched than Killarney.

“To what,” I said, “do you attribute the peculiar misery of Killarney?”

“I do not think,” answered Mr. Herbert, “that it is peculiarly miserable for an agricultural town in the South of Ireland without trade or manufactures. The deserted houses are the results of death or emigration. The half-starved and quarter-clothed loungers about the streets are attracted thither from the neighbouring country by the hope of casual employment from visitors. What may be called the middle classes - that is, those above the labourers and cottiers - spent the greater part of their little capital during the famine, the successive potato failures have diminished what remained, and the low prices of agricultural produce prevent their recovering their losses.

I will give you a proof of the poverty of this neighbourhood. Kerry and Clare are both bare of wood: the people at Listowel are forced to go fifteen miles off - to Tarbert, or to Tralee - to get even handles for their flails. I was able, therefore, before the famine to sell the thinnings of my woods for rather more than 1,000l a year. Now they do not pay for the cutting.” ’

19 November 1857
‘We started at six yesterday evening, and after a rough passage reached the Piraeus at five this morning. We landed at eight, found carriages and custom-house officers waiting on the beach, had our baggage examined and loaded in less than half an hour, and reached Athens before ten. The day is dark and stormy; the Acropolis and Lycabettus looked down upon us during the whole road, from a background of black clouds charged with snow, none of which, however, fell in Athens. Hymettus to the east, Parnes and Pentelicus to the north and west, attracted it.

We are lodged in cold splendour, in large bedrooms and a salon thirty feet square, looking north-west, with a Lilliputian stove.

The scenery of Athens wants nothing but trees and a river. The Cephisus is a brook, and can be traced only by the long strip of olives which it waters. The Ilissus is a rill. Though we are now towards the end of the rainy season, I stepped across it three or four times to-day. Parnes, Hymettus, and Pentelicus, once waving with forests, do not seem to bear a tree. A garden has been planted round the palace, which 100 years hence, if the trees, now as close as those of a nursery garden, are properly thinned, will be beautiful. It is not more than pretty as yet. Every other tree in and near Athens, except one noble palm in a convent garden, was destroyed during the war, and those which have been planted in their room are still saplings.

When Wordsworth visited Athens in 1832, it did not contain half a dozen inhabited houses. Its present population amounts to 36,000 persons, which supposes about 5000 houses. These are scattered irregularly over about a square mile, to the north of the Acropolis. Those nearest to it, which mount about half way up its side, are fortunately the worst. I say fortunately, because it is supposed that they cover valuable remains, which cannot be recovered until they have been demolished. The better houses are those of an English watering-place, but lower and more scattered; each good one has its little garden. The calcareous soil, and the dryness of the climate, render the streets clean but dusty. Their comparative smoothness is a delicious contrast to the rocky pointed pavements which tormented us during the whole of our residence in Turkey.’

28 November 1857
‘We have now inhabited Athens for ten days, but the weather has been so inclement, that I have not ventured on any excursions beyond walking distances. The thermometer has seldom fallen below 44° out of doors, or below 54° within, and there has been scarcely any rain, but the winds, generally from the north, have been violent. The air out of the house, has been full of dust, and within of smoke; for there are few open fireplaces, none in any sitting room in this inn, and the Greeks have not skill enough to manage a stove. I am told that this is a most unusual season. The Wyses say that they do not recollect so cold a one, that generally the December weather of Athens is charming; and certainly the one calm sunny day which we have had was delightful. As is usually the case in southern countries, the precautions are all against heat. The rooms look north or north-west, and are large and lofty, with numerous doors, and ill fitting casements reaching to the ground.

In summer, when for four months no one ventures out between seven in the morning and seven in the evening, they may be pleasant, they are comfortless now. Nothing but my anxiety to know something of a country and a people which have occupied my thoughts from boyhood would induce me to remain here.

The most interesting ruins in the world are those of Egyptian Thebes and of Athens; I own that I was most struck by those of Thebes. [. . .] I have seldom seen the Acropolis except darkened by a cloudy sky, and a biting north wind. The mountains among which it rises are much higher, and more varied in outline and disposition than those of Thebes, but they are grey, and reflect the grey sky. The sea is beautifully broken by promontories, bays, and islands, and bounded by the fine coasts of the Isthmus and the Morea, but it is three miles off, and is a far less glorious object than the Nile flowing below your feet at Luxor. I have great reverence for Salamis, and for the Academy, but the real civiliser of mankind was not Greece, but Egypt. It was from Egypt, then, and for many centuries, perhaps for many thousand years, before, a powerful empire, great in arms, in art, and in learning, that Danaus and Cecrops brought civilisation to the barbarians of Attica and Argolis.

But, next to Thebes, the place best worth visiting is Athens. The five points that attract me most are the Pnyx, the Areopagus, the Temple of Theseus, the Temple of Jupiter Olympius, and the Acropolis.’

20 November 1857
‘The northerly winds have given Mrs. Senior a cough. She has called in Dr. Macas, a Greek, who appears to treat her exceedingly well. There are several good physicians in Athens. Her cough prevented her from accompanying me this evening to a hall at the palace. We were invited at a quarter before nine. Sir Thomas Wyse took me. We found, in the first of three large rooms, about one hundred and fifty ladies, sitting on one side, and about two hundred men standing on the other. The women were dressed, some in an ordinary European costume, some wore the red velvet cap, long tassel, and short jacket of Greece; and some had their heads and necks wrapped in a large handkerchief, which showed only the face. This is the head-dress of Hydra. Of the men, some were in uniform, some in plain black suits, and some wore the Albanian dress, which the Hellenes have adopted as national: a jacket, either of red and then embroidered with gold, or grey and then embroidered with silver, an open collar, a white petticoat called a fustanelle, plaited like a ruff, reaching from the waist to the knees, and long gaiters, red or blue. Several of the older men looked, what I was told that they had been, robbers. They had risen from that profession to be partisan soldiers, and had been made aristocrats partly by plunder, and partly by gifts from the crown of the national domains.

At about half-past nine, the king and queen came in. A circle was formed of men, and they walked round it, not together, but with a considerable interval. He is a gentlemanlike man, with quiet, easy manners. He wore the Albanian dress. The queen wore a Parisian dress, with an enormous crinoline or cage. She talked much and gaily, particularly to the Prussian minister. The circle lasted long, perhaps three quarters of an hour. During that time the women kept their seats, and the men stood in the other part of the room, the circle being between them.

At last the queen took Sir Thomas Wyse’s hand, the king that of the Russian ambassadress, and walked a polonaise, to which a waltz succeeded, and it being about half-past ten I went away.’

13 January 1858
‘This is the Greek New Year’s Day. A great ball was given at the Palace. I went at about nine, and found the rooms, which are very large, full. [. . .] I was introduced to Mr. Rangaby, the minister of foreign affairs. He asked me “what were the improvements of which Greece seemed to me to be most in want?” I said roads; that if I could appoint a prime minister for Greece, it should be one of the Macadam family.

“It is true,” he answered, “that the absence of roads is a barbarism which we have inherited from the Turks. In this country, intersected by torrents, bridges are wanted every two or three miles. The government by law ought to make the bridges, the demoi [people] the roads. The government has totally neglected its duty. The demoi have sometimes performed theirs, but their roads, having become useless from the want of bridges, have gone to ruin. But we are now seriously at work. We have passed a law, requiring every man to contribute from six to twelve days’ work on the roads every year, and the minister of the interior promises us bridges. As we know nothing of roads, we have sent to France for a road-maker.

The Ponts-et-Chaussée have given us M. Galiani. We pay him three times as much as we pay to any of our ministers. But he says that he can do nothing with Greek workmen. So some cantonniers are to be sent from France to help them. In the mean time he is repairing the Piraeus road.”

“He is repairing it,” I answered, “by throwing on it a bed, about a foot thick, of unbroken shingle taken from the beach, which will never bind, through which it is difficult to force the wheels of a carriage. I fear that you have made a bad beginning. Another subject of complaint, “I continued, “is the collection of your land revenue.”

“The collection of it in kind,” he answered, “is a serious evil, but we cannot substitute a money payment until we have a cadaster - a general valuation of all the lands in the country.”

“At least,” I said, “you might require the farmers of the revenue to send and take their tithe, instead of requiring all the grain of every district to be sent to the areas at an enormous expense of labour and time.”

“I fear,” he answered, “that to require the farmer of the land revenue to send for his tithe would involve so much expense, and so thorough a change of system, that I despair of its being attempted. We must wait for a cadaster, and then take payment in money.”


Here is Senior’s daughter’s preface to Conversations and Journals in Egypt and Malta, dated September 1881; and one extract.

‘In publishing my father’s Conversations I have always endeavoured to seize the moment when the countries whose politics and habits they record were objects of especial interest. There surely will never be a more opportune occasion than the present for the appearance of his Journals in Egypt and Malta. When, in 1859, Mr. Senior brought out his Journal in Turkey and Greece, much that was valuable and interesting had to be omitted, and the names of nearly all the speakers suppressed. The lapse of a quarter of a century has relieved me almost entirely from the necessity of omitting either names, facts, or opinions; and yet the present volumes cannot be considered out of date; for, as my father says in one of his conversations, “The East does not change.” ’

25 November 1855
‘We started at six this morning for the Pyramids. We left our boat and mounted asses at the dirty town of Geezeh, As the inundation has not sufficiently subsided to enable us to take the direct road, we had to travel along a dike, whose windings made the distance amount to 12 miles instead of 6. On one side of us was a green plain of young crops, on the other side was water, or land, just left by it, and covered with black mud. We saw the process of cultivation: one man was throwing sand upon the mud; another, with a flat piece of wood at the end of a pole, was beating it down into the mud, and so mixing it with the soil: as far as the inundation extends this supplies the place of sowing, ploughing and harrowing.

About a mile from the end of the inundation the dike had given way, and the water was flowing in two or three black-looking streams. Forty or fifty half-naked men collected round us, hoisted us, two to each person, by putting their arms round our legs, carried us over, and, what was more difficult, pushed and pulled over our asses.

After a ride of two hours and a half we reached the sandy slope, about a mile within the desert, leading to the rocky plateau on which the Pyramids stand, that of Cheops, the largest, being nearest to the Nile. We had brought no lights with us, and the Bedouins, who had collected on our arrival, had only about an inch of taper. We were unable, therefore, to enter. Some of the party, each assisted by two Bedouins, scrambled to the top. I was not one of them. The day was hot and hazy, and I was not inclined to take half an hour’s violent exercise in the sun, to be rewarded by a prospect much inferior to that from the terrace of the Citadel.

The Pyramids do not gain by a near approach. Seen from Cairo, or even from the distance of a mile or two, their noble proportions appear; when you are under them, they look like fantastically formed rocky hills.’

The Diary Junction

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