A Tour to the North

Introduction (extract)

On 27th August 1849, two days after his eleventh birthday, Richard Bissell Prosser and eleven other pupils at a boarding school in Kennington London embarked on a three week tour of the "North of England".

The group of schoolboys, whose known ages varied from between 11 to 16 years, were accompanied by their headmaster John Collis Nesbit, aged 31, and one of their teachers, 21 year old James Bailey.

The proposed tour was, to say the least, to be an intensive and intense formative experience, which must have been remembered by the boys for the rest of their lives. On 18th June 1913, aged 74, Richard Bissell Prosser was to mention the "Tour" to Sir William H. Bailey of Sale Hall, Cheshire in a letter a copy of which is now held by the British Library: "I first visited Manchester in 1849 as one of a party of schoolboys who made a tour through the manufacturing district under the guidance of an enlightened master, one J. C. Nesbit".

John Collis Nesbit (1818 - 1862) was a scientist specialising in agricultural chemistry. His original entry in the Dictionary of National Biography was written by Richard Bissell Prosser (see Appendix). His father, Anthony, was also "a schoolmaster and writer of school-books... About 1814 he set up a school at Bradford, removing in 1821 or thereabouts to Manchester, where his school in Oxford Road became well known.

About 1841 he removed to London, and started a school at 38 Lower Kennington Lane" (DNB, again written by RBP ). J.C. Nesbit had taught at his father's school in Manchester and took a "leading part" in the management of the new school in London (RBP) ; he became its headmaster on his father's retirement.

Nesbit had advertised his London school in the national press from about 1845; the advert (in which Richard is named as a referee) was placed in issues of the Birmingham Gazette during 1849 and 1850. 

It was to this boarding school that Richard Prosser sent his eldest son at some unidentified date in the 1840s; his wife Sarah, Richard Bissell's mother, died on 29th February 1848 following the birth of their seventh child, a daughter who only survived three months. His mother's death had occurred less than eighteen months before Richard Bissell and his fellow pupils boarded the train in London and started their journey to the North.

The carefully planned "Tour" commenced in the Derbyshire Peak District where the group spent their first week lodging in Matlock, a spa town on the south east edge of the District. On long walks the boys studied the geology of the area, collected fossils and visited several mines; they were also taken to Chatsworth House and Haddon Hall and were allowed access inside these mansions, both of which clearly impressed young Richard Bissell.

On 4th September the party left Matlock journeying north by carriage to Castleton where it stayed two nights in this village in the High Peaks of Derbyshire; again mines were visited and spectacular caves. The boys next destination was Manchester, travelling by carriage from Castleton to "glossip" (Glossop - one of very few spelling lapses in the journal), they there caught a train to the then great manufacturing city.

A week was spent in Manchester touring numerous manufactories; that access was allowed, and manufacturing techniques and machinery explained in detail, was unusual (manufacturer's then (and now) being keen to prevent industrial espionage - Nesbit's past reputation in the city must have been influential).

The party actually lodged at a "Mrs. Nesbit's" in Oxford Street the address of the family's school in Manchester. In the 1851 census a Frances P.Nesbit, a widow and school proprietor, aged 43 was living in Sidney Street close to Oxford Street. Presumably, her late husband had been a brother of J. C. Nesbit and had continued to run the Manchester school.

On 13th September the group took an omnibus to the Liverpool & Manchester Railway Station and then travelled by train to Liverpool. It was an even busier day than usual; St. George's Hall and the docks were visited and a steamer was taken to Birkenhead to view Paxton's gardens. The boys returned to Liverpool to spend the night.

On the following day the party boarded a train for Birmingham, where after visiting "the exposition", another train was taken to King's Norton the village south of Birmingham where the Prosser family home, High House, was situated. The "exposition" must have been the 1849 Exhibition of the Manufactures of Birmingham and the Midland Counties that was held in the grounds of Bingley House on Broad Street.

The twelve boys and the two school masters actually stayed with the Prosser family at High House for the next four nights; their time there was spent going on an outing to Dudley and visiting yet more manufactories including a works which made Richard Prosser's tubes and a paper mill owned by the father of another pupil.

On the trip to Dudley the group were accompanied not only by Richard Prosser but also by a "Miss Potter", who must have been Hannah Somerton Potter, Richard Bissell's aunt, the younger sister of his recently deceased mother, and his future step-mother.

On 18th September the adventure ended and the boys returned by train from Birmingham to London, but not before they had toured Birmingham's Town Hall and the Philosophical Institution followed by a visit to a manufactory which had been closed on their first attempt to do so. J. C. Nesbit's pupils, surely exhausted by the pace set by their inexhaustible headmaster, did not have their usual early night and arrived in London at "about 10 o’clock P.M." - the final words in Richard Bissell's journal.

Richard Bissell's account of the "Tour" is in effect a diary recording each day's events in considerable detail; apart from those on the three Sundays, which were presumably much needed rest days. The Sunday entries are limited to just three lines.

Unless young Richard Bissell was blessed with a prodigious memory, it is reasonable to assume that he wrote up each day's activities at some time on the same day, probably in the early evening in bed after having had his tea - "had tea and went to bed" or a similar comment were the last words of many of the entries. He wrote with pen and ink in a slim notebook with ruled pages and a marbled paper and cardboard cover with a leather-bound spine and corners.

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