The Useful Life of JOHN POTCHETT
Part 1: Civil, communicative and helpful to all

By Stephen Best

PART OF THE NEW SNEINTON AREA in the mid-19th Century. The crowded nature of the housing surrounding Potchett’s school in Eyre Street can clearly be seen. (From Salmon‘s map, 1861).

THROUGHOUT ITS TWENTY FIVE YEARS Sneinton Magazine has seldom mentioned libraries and librarians. It is therefore good to be able to celebrate my own occupation by writing about a man who lived and worked in Sneinton for some years, and who was, among other things, a librarian. Although he may have had scant qualifications for this title, he was a man highly esteemed in the Nottingham of his day. He makes his first appearance here, however, in a different guise, that of schoolmaster.

The Sneinton section of White’s directory of Nottinghamshire for 1832 included an entry for John Potchett, with the designation: ‘Academy, Eyre Street. ’ Official returns for 1833 made to Parliament showed that nine private ‘daily’ schools were being conducted in Sneinton.1 Between them they taught 132 boys and 138 girls, who were ‘educated at the expense of their parents.’ There were in addition two Sunday schools: one of them Church of England, the other Wesleyan. The latter provided free instruction on Sundays, held writing classes on Mondays, and ran a small lending library.

None of these schools was an extensive concern, the smallest having only 14 pupils, and the largest 43. Five of the nine accepted children of both sexes, while two each would take only boys or girls.

In his manuscript notes on the history of Sneinton,2 compiled several decades afterwards, Percy J. Cropper stated that, of the fees in force at the Sneinton schools in 1833, the lowest were those of Martha Blasdall in Sneinton Road, whose charges ranged from 3d to 6d per week per pupil (just over 1p to two and a half pence in decimal values.) The highest were at John Potchett’s school, where parents had to find from 6d to 10d (4p) a week for each child taught.

Cropper also provided one arresting detail about conditions in Potchett’s classroom. So inadequate was the floor space for accommodating between thirty and forty scholars that the little boys had to be housed ‘in a sort of gallery on the walls, not unlike a gigantic linnet cage. ’

EYRE STREET IN THE LATE 1950s looking towards the derelict Windsor Castle in Sneinton Road. Shortly after this picture was taken all the buildings were pulled down, with the exception of the comer shop on the extreme left. This has long been empty , in spite of attractive restoration. (Anne Day Collection).

Eyre Street was, as it remains today, a very short thoroughfare linking Manvers Street and Sneinton Road, at the Carlton Road end of both streets. Nowadays it has no buildings at all on its eastern side, and just two on the western, with an outbuilding between them. These are the King William IV pub at the Manvers Street corner; and a handsomely restored (though empty) shop at the other end, which actually bears a Sneinton Road number.

It is not easy to imagine any Eyre Street premises (apart from the pub) into which so many humans could have been fitted. Quite apart from the children taught by John Potchett, the schoolmaster’s family also had to be housed here. An examination of maps, directories, and census enumerators’ returns, however, points strongly to Potchett having occupied a house at the comer of Sneinton Road, on a site marked today by a railed-off grassy area in the grounds of Bentinck Court.

This house, in its latter years Mason’s newsagent’s shop, was, although considerably larger than the homes adjoining it, far from roomy, so it is not surprising that Potchett was forced into taking drastic steps to fit in all his pupils. Together with the other remaining buildings on this side of Eyre Street, it was demolished during the wholesale Sneinton redevelopments of the late 1950s and early 60s. Some idea of how cramped the neighbourhood was may be gained from the fact that by the middle of the nineteenth century the building shared party walls with houses in Eyre Street, Eyre Yard, and Sneinton Road, while its back wall looked out on to Windsor Place. The last- named was not as grand as its name might suggest, consisting in the 19th century of three back-to-back dwellings and a row of outdoor pail closets.

Dearden’s directory for 1834 confirmed the existence of nine day schools in Sneinton. At this date John Potchett was the sole schoolmaster, all the other establishments being under the supervision of mistresses.

Seven years later, the census of 1841 revealed a considerable family at Eyre Street. Potchett was listed as a schoolmaster, bom outside Nottinghamshire. With him were his wife Nanny, and their children. These included Eliza and Mary, both described as tambourers - a sort of embroider: Jane, a lace mender: and John, lace warehouseman. Next came the teenage Sabina and Emma, who were lace dressers, and the youngest of the Potchetts, Charles and Adolphus. Reflect on these names if you will, and sympathize with a little lad who had to live in Sneinton burdened by a name like Adolphus Potchett.

By this time, however, John Potchett had become not only a schoolmaster, but also a librarian. In November 1837 he had been appointed librarian of the newly formed Nottingham Mechanics’ Institution at a yearly salary of 12 guineas (£12.60p,) an amount which would be augmented by one third of the fines received from members of the library.

During the early years of the movement, Mechanics’ institutions endured a hard time. On the one hand, they were regarded by the upper classes as hotbeds of revolutionary thought, likely to foster atheism, republicanism, or anarchy. At the other end of the spectrum, the very artisans whose interests the institutions sought to serve were reluctant to take advantage of membership.

THE FIRST MECHANICS’ INSTITUTION premises in Nottingham, at 17 St James’s Street. John Potchett worked here until the Mechanics’ moved to new premises in 1845. (Drawing by Alice Kiddier).THE FIRST MECHANICS’ INSTITUTION premises in Nottingham, at 17 St James’s Street. John Potchett worked here until the Mechanics’ moved to new premises in 1845. (Drawing by Alice Kiddier).

At the first stage of its existence, the Nottingham Mechanics’ was located at 17 St James’s Street, part of which building was occupied by the short-lived Nottingham Medical School. Some sources have asserted that the school lasted only until 1835, but it must have gone on for a year or two longer, as an account of the first half-century of the first fifty years of the Nottingham Mechanics’3 clearly stated that one early privilege of membership was admission to dissections in the medical school. The Institution would remain here until 1845, when a new, purpose-built hall was opened in Milton Street.

To begin with, the Mechanics’ was open only in the evenings, but in time longer hours were introduced, resulting in the library being available for two hours at lunchtime, and between four and ten p.m. Potchett’s routine must have been an exhausting one. He not only taught his thirty or forty pupils, but afterwards also had to walk into the town centre to supervise the workings of the Mechanics’ Library.

As will become very clear, Potchett was a firm believer in the principles which underlay the Mechanics’ movement, and also took a prominent part in other educational and intellectual activities in Nottingham. He was, however, no doubt also glad of the extra income from the library post.

We already know that his fees at the Eyre Street school varied between 6d and 10d per week for each child. If an estimate of his income be based on an average of 8d, with a daily attendance of forty assumed, then John Potchett’s weekly takings from it would have amounted to no more than £1.6.8d. Although there were several other wage-earners besides himself at Eyre Street, the school premises had to be kept up, and equipment to be purchased for the classroom. It is easy to see that he would not have made a fortune out of the school, and the later years of his life confirm this supposition.

In his Old and New Nottingham, published in the town in 1853, William Howie Wylie listed Mr Potchett among those local men who had delivered lectures at the Nottingham Mechanics’ in the course of its second year. Potchett was here in rather distinguished company. Also on the list was William Felkin, prominent in the lace and hosiery trades, of which he wrote a history. A future Mayor of Nottingham, he was also an expert on labour questions, the Corn Laws, and much else. Other speakers resident in Nottingham included the Rev. Benjamin Carpenter, minister of High Pavement Chapel for about forty years, and the Rev. W.J. Butler, rector of St Nicholas’ church for a similar period. Lectures were also delivered by the surgeons John Higginbottom FRS (a passionate opponent of alcohol) and Booth Eddison: and by John Hicklin, historian of Nottingham Castle, and for some years editor of the Nottingham Journal.

Wylie also referred to John Potchett’s earlier role in one of the first debating societies in Nottingham, whose prime mover had been the writer Spencer T. Hall, widely known by the pseudonym ‘Sherwood Forester.’ ‘There were many people belonging to the rising classes in the town, who, unqualified by their social rank for an aristocratic debating society which met at Bromley House, were still anxious to enjoy the sweets of intellectual communion with their fellows. The meetings of this club, originated by the incipient Sherwood Forester and Samuel Lewin, then a shoemaker on Garners Hill, and whose chief support was Mr Potchett, were at first Mr Newton's school-room, Bottle Lane.’

It is interesting that Potchett moved in the same circles as Hall, who was a remarkable figure. Bom at Sutton-in-Ashfield, he was put to work as a framework knitter, but ran away to Nottingham, where he found a job on a newspaper. Returning to Sutton, he became postmaster there, in addition to running a small printing business. For a couple of years he lived at Wilford, and published a steady stream of books throughout his life. Deeply interested in mesmerism, he practised as a homeopathic doctor. His final years were marred by poverty.

Later moving to the Bluecoat School, the debating society’s members included, in addition to Potchett, some notable men. Edwin Patchitt of Forest House and Ben Hawkridge of Carrington became prominent lawyers, while Dr Edmund Hart deserves to be better remembered, especially in and around Sneinton. Working in Red Lion Street (Narrow Marsh) and the Poplar area of Sneinton (lying between Pennyfoot Street and Island Street) he treated needy patients without ever expecting payment. Hart was believed to have given free vaccinations to thousands of poor children, and the Town Council recognized his services by making him a freeman in 1813.

Potchett’s name cropped up in the Nottingham Guardian of 20 October 1937, in an article by William Lewin (a descendant of Samuel?) on the founders of the Nottingham Mechanics’. 'The first librarian, Mr John Potchett, was originally a schoolmaster, who with Dr Spencer T. Hall had taken a great interest in classes for discussion, and was particularly interested in the study of astronomy. His first task was to classify books presented, which, fortunately for the library, happened to be of good educative quality. ’

Lewin went on to observe that the stock of the library at first erred on the dry side, no fiction being admitted at that date. There had, he stated, been a number of instances of the clergy disposing of unwanted theological works from their shelves to the Mechanics’, which cannot have made for a particularly lively collection. The 1840 printed catalogue of the library, for which John Potchett must have been responsible, confirms this impression of a worthy body of books, rather than a rollicking one.

Although the catalogue included by this date a class of 'Poetry, the Drama, and Works of Fiction,' the last-named were few, and of a stultifying respectability. In the light of the Institution’s stated aim of avoiding any sort of political or religious controversy, it is perhaps rather surprising that another class of books consisted of 'Divinity, Ecclesiastical History, Mythology, Law and Physic.' These no doubt included the discards from vicarage and manse alluded to by Mr Lewin. One oddity may be recorded. The library’s very small reference section featured a volume called Punishments of China. Was this regarded as essential reading for the earnest Nottingham student of 1840?

The minute books of the general committee of the Mechanics’4 throw more light on John Potchett’s time there. In Christmas week of 1838, for example, his salary was raised to £15.15.0d a year, while in October 1841 reference was made to his lectures on astronomy.

Probably the worst period of his 24 years at the Institution came in 1844, when the committee, considering their likely staffing requirements for the new, purpose-built premises in Milton Street into which the Mechanics’ was about to move, resolved to create a new post, which would be open only to a man and wife with no children. As a history of the Institution put it, in a note referring to the then recent discovery of the minute books: ‘In May a resident librarian and his wife were appointed at a joint salary of £45 ‘For their entire services which is to include payment for all cleaning required by the Institution.' About the same time Mr John Potchett was appointed Evening Librarian at a salary of £18, and there is evidence that relations were not wholly harmonious between the whole-time and part- time librarians.’5

Inspection of the minute books reveals that this decision amounted to considerably more than a storm in a teacup. On 7 June it was recorded that John Potchett told the committee that, if only a married couple without children might apply for the new post, then it was ‘no use soliciting the confidence of the committee, but if any arrangement could be entered into, he should feel grateful for this favor [sic] shown him.’

Later in this month Potchett wrote to his employers, informing them that he would resign at the end of 1844, unless he be allowed ‘to attend as Evening Librarian as usual.’ The committee quickly agreed to this, at the same time minuting that the luckless sub-librarian and the man who cleaned the existing rooms were to be given notice.

John Potchett may have owed his continued career at the Mechanics’ to the strength of popular feeling. On 12 July the committee noted receipt of a memorial signed by 173 members of the Institution, furious at the way affairs had been conducted. These members regretted that it had been decided to take on a resident librarian for the new building: ‘Had arrangements been made for Mr Potchett to have been appointed, with a boy to assist,’ they felt that the great body of the membership would have been satisfied. They further expressed ‘the high opinion they entertained of Mr Potchett’s services as librarian,’ in which position he was considered ‘civil, communicative and helpful to all.' Librarians today whose posts are threatened would be delighted to receive such stalwart support from their public.

A man named George Hall was appointed librarian from a list of 25 applicants, two of whom (Messrs. Goodwin and Davis) were from Sneinton. The division of library responsibilities between him and Potchett would, whatever its drawbacks, remain in force until the end of the latter’s working life there. With benefit of hindsight one can only suggest that, if the resident librarian’s job involved the cleaning of the building, then John Potchett, nearer sixty than fifty in 1844, was well out of it, as was his wife. Hall’s post sounds more like that of caretaker than librarian.

In 1844 Potchett was still conducting his academy in Eyre Street, as well as attending to his library duties. His annual salary had gone up by 50% from its 1837 figure, though it seems likely that, with the arrival of Mr and Mrs Hall, he would no longer be receiving his one-third share of the fines money.

Potchett’s views on education came to wider notice in the summer of 1844 with a series of letters by him on the subject of the ‘Education of the Working Classes’, printed in the Nottingham Review, the town’s influential Radical weekly newspaper. Potchett was clearly in favour with the paper’s editor and proprietor, each of his contributions occupying a substantial number of column inches.

Over the years he contributed a number of items to the Nottingham press, and this series is typical of the kind of subject that interested him. To these letters he was able to bring practical experience and a great deal of passion. They seem to me quite striking, written as they were in 1844 by a man living in very modest circumstances in New Sneinton.

In the first of them, printed on 14 June 1844, he argued that education was usually too narrowly defined: 'I mean it to be understood to apply to the acquiring of knowledge of every kind, whether that arising out of the routine of schools, mechanics, institutions, or other modes of conveying information on history, mechanical arts, the sciences, &c... '

John Potchett was keenly aware that the world was changing very quickly: ‘The age in which we live must be regarded, not only by ordinary observers, but by the most careless and indifferent, to possess something extraordinary, something in its character great and important, the fermentation and excitement of the human mind being rife for action in some way or another, and not being confined to this or that country... ’

He believed that, in Britain, schools and Sunday schools had ‘raised up a race no longer willing to be held in slavish fear by sovereign power, or the trammels of a corrupted priestly establishment, whether pagan, popish, or protestant.‘ Well-informed Christians, he said, no longer doubted the value of the spread of knowledge, however widely opinions might differ about the best way of achieving it.

Not surprisingly, John Potchett praised the role of mechanics’ institutions in extending the availability of libraries to working people, when only a few years earlier they had been within the reach only of the well-off. He lamented, however, that there were members of ‘the higher classes,’ and of the clergy, who still regarded ‘the enlightening of the people as an undertaking calculated to cause the greatest alarm for the safely and welfare of society.’

Signing himself ‘John Potchett, Snenton,’6as he did throughout the series, he told the editor that he would be obliged if this letter were printed, and that, if permitted, he would again ‘advert to the subject. ’

Letter 2 appeared on 12 July, Potchett continuing his advocacy of mechanics’ institutions. ‘It is every man’s duty to contribute his mite towards enlightening the minds of his fellow-creatures to the extent of his means, in every way which the object is likely to be attained, and not to allow his sphere of usefulness to be contracted by political or sectarian prejudice, and as mechanics’ institutions profess to be governed by principles of toleration, they may become powerful means of aiding so desirable an object. ’ He lamented that far too few working men had thus far availed themselves of what were, after all, intended to be places of education and recreation for workers. Potchett went on to point out the value of studying mechanics and chemistry, and their usefulness in everyday life.

In his third letter, published on 26 July, he turned to the importance of chemistry and hydraulics, before going on to discuss how everyday things could affect and reflect the way people developed. ‘For instance it has been said- 'observe the pictures on the walls of the working man’s house, and a very good idea may be formed of his disposition and habits.'

Many people, said Potchett, grew up with religious or historical pictures in their home, others with family portraits. Some, on the other hand, had on their walls scenes of horse racing, bull baiting, bare-knuckle fights, or even pictures of famous thieves, like Dick Turpin. All of these, he reasoned, helped form a child’s education, whether for good or ill. He closed by saying that, in promoting the spread of education, England still had much to learn from Scotland, America, and some European countries.

His fourth letter, appeared in the Nottingham Review of 16 August, and dealt with pneumatics, electricity and optics. Potchett reminded his readers that the last-mentioned was no abstract science, and that, thanks to it : 'Persons of advanced periods of life are furnished with spectacles, which restore their partially decayed vision nearly to its original clearness and distinctness...’

He warned readers of his fifth letter that it was 'more especially intended to be read by those individuals whose education has been circumscribed within comparatively narrow limits, and may who may not have been accustomed to close abstract reasoning.’ Anyone who persevered in spite of this daunting preamble would find him arguing that the lower classes were frequently opposed to change, even when it was likely to be to their advantage. It was therefore vital, he wrote, that the reasons for new schemes be clearly explained, and readily comprehensible by those they were intended to benefit.

He went on to discuss the widely supported Bell and Lancaster educational systems. Both made widespread use of the teaching of children by other children, Lancastrian schools having large numbers of children taught by monitors - older, partially educated, children. This resulted in a minimum of paid teachers, and of course, made for a cheap education system, enabling successive governments to avoid the spending which proper teaching staffs would have made necessary.

Of these schools, Potchett considered that: "It is to be regretted that many parents whose means were sufficient to have afforded a suitable education for their children, have taken advantage of the cheap instruction which these schools offered, and thereby reduced the education of their offspring within narrower limits than they otherwise would have done in the absence of such schools... ’

While acknowledging that such schools were "a valuable means of imparting knowledge, to a certain extent, in a wholesale way,’ Potchett asserted that: ‘Our Sunday schools, though limited to one day in the week, being conducted by a different class of teachers, have done far more good as a means of disseminating learning (exclusive of the religious benefits concerned) than all the schools of Bell and Lancaster in the kingdom.’

He finished by touching on the subject of compulsory education, pointing out that many favoured enforced attendance at elementary schools, where only reading and writing would be taught, He warned, however, against compulsion in adult schools, 'where that class of persons called youth are taught. ’ This, he argued, would infringe upon civil and religious liberty: ‘The people themselves, in their respective localities, must be the chief instruments in carrying out any scheme for their own improvement... ’

John Potchett’s sixth and final letter on 'Education of the Working Classes' appeared in the newspaper of 20 September. Conceding that the education system practised in Prussia was regarded as the best in Europe, he nevertheless believed that its compulsory nature would not be acceptable here.

While many people looked with favour on a compulsory system of ordinary education, these same people, he reasoned, might be strongly opposed to any attempt at enforcing religious education. Potchett felt that accepting the one would lead inevitably to the other. The state, he said, was currently Protestant, but it might one day revert to Catholicism, or even become Pagan or Mahommedan. If any government were permitted to enforce Protestant teaching now, then it would, after any such major change in society, have to enforce the teaching of whichever of these beliefs was the religion of the land. And John Potchett had little confidence in the good sense of governments: 'It is well known that governments find precedents more powerful in enforcing any scheme or plan they may be desirous of introducing, than appeals to reason, so far greater deference is paid to the wisdom of our ancestors than that which we ourselves may possess.’

His arguing the pros and cons of compulsory education brings this series of letters to a fitting end. In one of the longest sentences imaginable - split into three paragraphs here to make it more digestible - he provided plenty of food for thought. 'Compulsory education, though strongly objected to by numbers, yet, is met by this argument...namely, that all education, under every system, whether in public or in private schools, or even that in private dwellings, is of a compulsory character, for if left to themselves, none would submit to the trammels of education... ’

Having reminded his readers that, on the whole, children would avoid lessons if they could, Potchett trained his attention on their parents, '...but as vast numbers of parents neglect their children’s instruction, an influence compelling such to get their offspring educated, would be conferring a boon on them, and a benefit to society; at the same time those parties who are willing to give their children instruction, would be left at perfect liberty to use their own discretion as to the choice of schools, and the kind and extent of education they might think fit to confer upon them; as it is fair to presume that those possessed of adequate means would perceive the propriety of giving them instruction in those branches suited to their respective requirements, while those parents whose means are inadequate, or who themselves being uneducated do not duly appreciate education, might be induced to send them to free schools... ’

Even if he did not approve of state compulsion, Potchett showed himself able to contemplate a sort of double standard, albeit an understandable one. Educated and comfortably off parents would need no coercion in sending their children to school, but uneducated and poor parents might need, if not a stick, then a carrot, to get their children some schooling.

While acknowledging this, he went on: ’...if compulsory education is at all admitted as being justifiable either on the part of governments, or by a special minister of public instruction, district or local directors. &c., no valid objection can be raised against entrusting some party to compel the attendance of those children at the schools, who may be found wandering about the streets, being destitute of both education and employment, and consequently training up as candidates for transportation or the gallows. Beyond this boundary, government interference ought to be strictly guarded against by every true friend of public freedom. ’

There, I think, we have it. In this breathless outpouring of prose John Potchett indicated that he would be prepared for a degree of state intervention in education, provided that it were kept to a minimum. Whether or not we agree with him, we may detect in him a deep thinker and man of strong principles. If these letters were indeed written on the dates which they bear, between 29 May and 9 September 1844, they are even more surprising than they may appear at first sight. For much of this period Potchett must have had plenty of other things on his mind, preoccupied and upset by events at the Mechanics’ Institution, and facing the prospect that he might soon have no job there.

His appetite for writing to or for the press would remain undiminished, and he was still active in this field over a decade later. And we have yet not finished with the summer of 1844, during which Potchett made another incursion into the columns of the Nottingham Review.

Part Two will cover the latter period of John Potchett’s working life, his declining years in a new home, and his death. It will also explain his reasons for coming to Nottingham in the first place. A full list of references for both parts of this article will be included at the end of Part Two.

THE NEW MECHANICS’ INSTITUTION premises in Milton Street, opened in January 1845. On the left is Holy Trinity Church, and on the right the Baptist Church which later became part of the Mechanics’.THE NEW MECHANICS’ INSTITUTION premises in Milton Street, opened in January 1845. On the left is Holy Trinity Church, and on the right the Baptist Church which later became part of the Mechanics’.