Arthur Slack’s Diary

Arthur Slack’s Diary, 1878

Discovery of Arthur Slack’s personal diary at the end of 2015 has given new insights into the life of one of Chesterfield’s leading Victorian Christian philanthropists. His family owned a tannery and a drapery shop in the town but he is primarily remembered for setting up the town’s Ragged School. Amazingly, the diary is for the very year the school opened, confirming dates in the chapel records and listing the volunteers who worked with Arthur to bring hope and help to “the children of the poor”.

The find, which fell from a gap between a wall and an old bookshelf in the Slack’s former home at Gladstone Road, was totally unexpected and much credit goes to the owner’s father for recognising the significance of the small, dusty volume. He contacted Chesterfield Museum who, in turn, phoned the chapel secretary who read the entries and made the following notes.

Diary entries throughout the year show Arthur to have been a keen supporter of the local Methodist and Congregational chapels. This included ongoing mission work in Froggat’s Yard and Brown’s Yard. At the beginning of the year we find:-

Monday, 31st December:  Watchnight service, myself, W. Tucker, Henry (his brother), and Mr. Shaw prayed. Good meeting. Fred (Conroy), Shaw and I had supper at Miss Booker’s.

Tuesday, 1st January:  Went to bed at a quarter to one. Got up at 7 o’clock. Cottage meeting in Brown’s Yard.

After a quiet few days with toothache, he recovers in time to take a 7.15 train down to Sheepbridge to hear Rev. Samuel  Pearson preach at the opening of a new schoolroom at Whittington Moor and walks back home with Ada Snahall and Miss Gill. Then follow five successive evening prayer meetings in his home chapel’s “upper vestry” where he is pleased to record that on Thursday the room was full.

For the week commencing on Sunday, 13th January, the entry begins (as do many others) “Full day”. This usually meant that besides the day job, Arthur spent his evening taking an active part in one or more gatherings. A full day on Sunday was morning church followed by an afternoon helping with Sunday school work in rooms down Froggat’s or Brown’s Yards and perhaps an evening service to round off the “day of rest”. On Monday, 14th, he attended a District meeting of the County Union (of Sunday Schools) at which speakers from Riddings, Alfreton and Dronfield took part. On Tuesday, 15th, he went to a Sacred Concert at Brampton (Congregational) chapel. On Wednesday that week he enjoyed a tea party with twelve others at Mrs. Bowen’s that lasted from 5 o’clock until 1 o’clock. The entry ends “enjoyed myself” so it wasn’t all serious talk. Thursday, being fine, Arthur took the train to Mansfield (a frequent business trip) but was back in time for his regular evening class. On Friday that week he visited a sick friend, Mr. Welsh and on Saturday he led a YMCA meeting.

Later in the diary he records buying books including “Life of Josephus” (the Roman historian who was a contemporary of Christ and wrote of him), “Evening Hours” and “Pilgrim’s Progress”. He also reads the life of Grace Darling, the lifeboat heroine.

Informal evangelistic meetings were sometimes held at the “Cross Keys”. On Sunday, 3rd February, the diary records that Fred Conroy, Henry and Arthur all spoke a gospel message there and he notes that the clientele were “attentive”. This turns out to be another very busy week for on Monday we read that he attends a prayer meeting, on Tuesday a cottage meeting, on Wednesday a lecture and on Thursday his evening class.  There is a charmingly honest entry one Saturday evening admitting that he simply fell asleep and missed a meeting as he did not rouse until a quarter to ten.

This demanding weekly round of work, chapel and social life does seem to have taken its toll on Arthur’s health from time to time. It was fortunate that by 1878 it was possible to travel by train to Mansfield and Matlock (albeit by a somewhat circuitous route). He travels to the latter in April for a few days hydrotherapy, recording such delights as the “Gas box”, “mustard plaster” and “Steam Bath” accompanied by shower baths.

On Easter Monday, it seems the workers at the tannery enjoyed the day off, giving Arthur the chance to do some stocktaking. He notes that the morning was spent with Snashall, Conroy and Shaw, going through the skin yard. The Ragged school founders were evidently colleagues at work as well as chapel.

In May, Arthur notes that two students from Curbar (Cliff College) were coming over every week to conduct open air meetings. Two services were held in the Market Place on Sunday, 5th May.

On Whit Sunday, 9th June, there was a special Sunday school meeting in Marsden Street chapel. On the following morning, Bank Holiday Monday, the scholars assembled in the Market Square for the annual Sunday school demonstration, or “Whit Walk”, returning to the school room afterwards for a “bun”. In the afternoon 28 teachers and friends enjoyed a trip out to Ashover. The means of transport is not mentioned but later Arthur describes long walks and also drives into the peak district in horse drawn conveyances. A trip to Ashover would have needed a fair degree of stamina after an already tiring morning.

Work only gets a mention if something goes amiss. On Friday, 24th May, Arthur is at South Normanton when a cart shaft breaks. He is able to borrow another cart to complete the journey back to Chesterfield and writes that he is thankful that things were no worse. He feels very weak after his trip to Mansfield market on 20th June and goes to Jackson House, Matlock, to recuperate for a few days. He is soon well enough to enjoy a walk up Lumsdale and, later, a drive around Chatsworth, Bakewell and Haddon Hall. Once back at work, he then sensibly allows himself an occasional break during the summer months for a long walk or drive.

Thus refreshed, Arthur is ready for the biggest challenge of the year, and indeed for many subsequent years. On the evening of Thursday, 18th July he records having some serious talk with Shaw and Conroy about starting a “Ragged School” somewhere around the Dog Kennels ( the name given to the densely populated, low lying yards near the river Hipper).  The next day, he writes that “H. Shaw and I have been down Wheeldon Lane and found a room which we think will be suitable when cleaned and whitewashed”.  On Saturday, 20th July, he and Shaw meet the owner, Mr Hadfield (who owned the pork butchers on Low pavement and  land and buildings from there right down to the river). Mr Hadfield was clearly in favour of the proposal for he let them have the room (now known as the Upper Room above the present chapel) rent free for the first three months and subsequently became an active supporter of the school. He owned a little square of terraced houses that backed on to the Ragged School that were locally known, (with ironic wit) as “Hadfield Town” and in due course open air services were sometimes held here too.

On Sunday, 21st July, the three friends do the rounds of morning chapel, Sunday school, the lodging house, Cross Keys, and out to Whittington Moor in the evening for Mr. Selbie’s anniversary sermon. Shaw, Conroy and Arthur, with another helper, Woodrup, then spend every night that week cleaning, whitewashing and arranging their Ragged School for opening on Sunday, 28th July. On that day, Arthur is able to record “Started our Ragged School. 109 scholars. Shaw and Henry addressed the assembly from The Desk. Sang several hymns and Conway prayed, very encouraging. Thank God”.

The following Sunday is wet but still eighty turn up for Sunday school. The next week, 11th August, they open in the afternoon as well and 120 scholars attend. On 18th August Arthur writes “Held a service for adults in the Ragged School room at 6 o’clock. Mr. Douglas spoke on the prodigal son. About fifty adults and as many scholars present, enjoyed it much”.

In less than a month, Arthur and a few friends had established a chapel with three Sunday meetings that each attracted an attendance of around a hundred people. They hadn’t even got anywhere to sit until 28th August when Arthur and friends fetched 36 old forms from the recently closed British Schoolroom. He records that they were “very dusty and we swept them”. This was evidently not good enough for on the following day he records that “Mrs Bunwell has been scouring the forms”. This was as well because on Sunday, 1st September, numbers had risen to over 150. At a special meeting on Thursday, 12th September we read that over 200 people came.

Thereafter, Arthur seems to have been too busy to keep a daily diary and entries are sparse. Attendance continued to grow and Chesterfield Ragged School soon joined the Sunday School Union and took its place alongside the other churches and chapels of the town. Within ten years, scholars on the books totalled over 300. The building was purchased outright. When Markham Road was cut through the Dog Kennels, extra land on the frontage was acquired and a new schoolroom for 150 infants was built. On the Whit Walk, Arthur’s Ragged School was for some years the largest contingent in the procession.

One marvels that an institution destined to benefit four or more generations of Chesterfield folk could have been set up and be operating in just nine days. What would it take to do such a thing in 2016? There would be months, maybe years of negotiation and committees to set up and register a charity, appoint trustees, raise funds, apply for grants, seek planning consent for change of use, employ consultants and contractors to carry out the conversion and arrange training and CRB checks for the teachers. Arthur just did it. Of course, once open, he organised regular meetings of the teachers and other volunteers. Patrons and trustees were recruited. Paperwork was completed. But his first priority, his vision, was to get a Ragged School up and running to help the people who lived in the “Dog Kennels” and he let nothing else stand in his way.

Today, 138 years later, that part of town has changed beyond recognition. The housing has gone, the factories have gone and the children have gone. Only Arthur’s Ragged School still stands. Its doors remain open and its community work continues; a legacy of which he might have been justly proud. He became somewhat of a local celebrity, supporting the work of other, like minded, charities. His name will be found on one of the foundation stones of the Gospel Mission in Brampton. The Slack family remained keen supporters of the chapel in subsequent generations. One of Arthur’s descendents still organises social events.

At Sunday school anniversaries in past times a favourite recitation used to be Edgar Albert Guest’s little ditty, “It couldn’t be done”. There could be no more fitting verse to sum up Arthur Slack and his determination that Chesterfield should have a Ragged School.

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done

But he with a chuckle replied

That “may be it couldn’t” but he would be one

Who wouldn’t say no ‘til he’d tried.

So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin

On his face. If he worried he hid it.

He started to sing as he tackled the thing

That couldn’t be done, and he did it!

Somebody scoffed, ”Oh you’ll never do that;

At least, no one ever has done it.”

But he took off his coat and he took off his hat

And the first thing we knew, he’d begun it!

With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,

Without any doubt he might quit it,

He started to sing as he tackled the thing

That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done.

There are thousands who prophesy failure.

There are thousands to point out to you one by one,

The dangers that wait to assail you.

But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,

Just take off your coat and go to it.

Just start to sing as you tackle the thing

That “cannot be done” and you’ll do it.

The diary is now deposited with Derbyshire Records Office