Speaking Volumes: Life of Francis Place

May 31, 1996

Alice Prochaska on Graham Wallas's Life of Francis Place .

I first opened Graham Wallas's Life of Francis Place, 1771-1854 as a research student in search of the origins of British socialism and its split from the politics of radical reform. In the century since Wallas first published, Place has become a minor character in the unfolding drama of political and social reform in the early 19th century.

Wallas and his Fabian contemporaries, especially Sidney and Beatrice Webb, saw in Place the self-taught tailor, an exemplar of working-class self-improvement. He was for them, writing in a high-minded age, a respectable radical.

He wanted his stacks of papers to go to the British Museum library. Wallas helped the Place family to realise that expectation. My research introduced me to one of the historian's greatest pleasures - complete immersion in the primary sources. I also found the man himself, a passionate and cantankerous personality, a man of iron determination and huge energy, ready to help all who wrote to him for advice. He was, besides, rude, dogmatic, interfering and self-righteous. He had educated himself after the age of 13, at first in circumstances of the direst poverty, and bore the hallmarks of the autodidact. But he had collected all manner of evidence about the lives of the common people since the mid-18th century, in which he showed a compassion which belied the rest. Equally endearing were the flashes of sheer devilry that showed through his pious work on the great march of the people towards a higher moral plane.

Place's belief in classical economics and avowed dislike of class conflict put him on the opposite side of the fence from another generation's selection of leaders. Some of these were more bourgeois than Place, but their more extreme rhetoric contrasted with Place's "respectability" (a protean concept in 19th-century history).

In Wallas's papers at the LSE I found a fascinating correspondence with Place's grandson and others. The grandson's insistence on discretion, his pained reference to his grandfather's moral falling off when he married an actress of doubtful repute, a letter describing the elderly Place's robust language and love of the theatre explained omissions in Wallas's account, and erasures in the Place papers themselves. Now I can guess at the confessions that lie beneath the glue in the manuscript autobiography.

Place appealed to me for the same reasons that made life uncomfortable as a student in the early 1970s. Only in the middle-aged 1990s is it easy to confess that preferring democratic and constitutional reform to class-based revolution, may have drawn me to Francis Place. What he has given to me also is a deep respect for the legacy of individuals.

Alice Prochaska is director of special collections, the British Library.

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