The Weekly Machen

This week’s dispatch is a wonderful glimpse into the history of wireless communication in England. The juxtaposition between this invention and the plodding stubbornness of the horse conveying our roving reporter is not lost on Machen as he indicates in his conclusion. Though his voice in the article is warm toward the young journalists-in-training, it would be interesting to know his interior thoughts, since he disliked the profession for himself. Regardless, he does not spare the English education which will receive harsher punishment in his novel The Secret Glory (1922). Speaking of Machen’s novels, Morse code is plays a part in The Terror (1917). 

Twentieth-Century Village:
Schoolboy Journalists and Wireless at Work
Arthur Machen
February 27, 1913

Bugbrooke: Photo by Stephen McKay

I was sitting here listening at ten minutes to nine on the night of February 10, when a message came from the Eiffel Tower.

“‘Voixi nouvelles,’ it began, and it went on to tell how Captain Scott and his companions had all perished. And that’s how I heard the news of the Antarctic disaster.”

The speaker was Mr. Frank H. Wright, headmaster of the Council Schools at Bugbrooke, a village in Northamptonshire; the place was the cloak room of the schools—and also the experimental wireless elation officially known as:—

W — —— ——
F — — —— —
     X —— — — ——

We were in the peaceful heart of England—and in a grove of small caps and small coats—and here was the village schoolmaster talking calmly of voices that reached him from the Eiffel Tower in Paris, from Poldhu in Cornwall, from the Admiralty in Whitehall, and from ships far out upon the heaving floods.

There is not a railway station at Bugbrooke, or within five miles of it. I had driven out from Northampton behind a gently ambling horse, who went slowly up hill because he was tired, and slowly down hill because it was dangerous, and slowly on the level because he felt like it.

Home News Over Sea

My chief object in visiting Bugbrooke was to hear about the school paper, which I had been told was known as the “Bugbrooke Budget.” Mr. Wright laughed at the title.

I’ve never heard it called that,” he said. “It’s known to us as the School Letter. I’ll tell you how I came to think of it. About twelve years ago I was in the van that goes between here and Northampton, and two women were talking. It was dark, and they didn’t recognise me. One asked the other what was the latest news of her daughter Nelly.

‘I never hear from her,’ Nelly’s mother replied. ‘You see, they teach them all kinds of queer things at the school, but they never think of teaching them how to write a plain, straightforward letter.’

I thought that conversation over, and that’s how the Letter came to be started. I get the children to bring me any scraps of village news—no gossip—or nature observation, or information from friends’ letters that they can gather from day to day. I ‘edit’ these scraps and write them out on the blackboard. The children copy the blackboard matter: and Friday is our ‘publishing day.’ Everybody in the parish reads the Letter, and it is sent, all over the world to my old pupils—in Australia, in Canada, in the United States, and on battleships, and it gives them the news they want of the old place and their old friends.”

School Reporters

Mr. Wright showed me a couple of folios of copy from two of his young reporting staff. One begins:

The weather this week has been very fine. The Grafton Hounds met at the Booth on Monday and killed two badages up Mr. Burns feilds.

I think that in next Friday’s Letter Bugbrooke will read of badgers slain, in place of “badages,” and the spelling of “feilds” will be reformed.

Another newsgetter reports that:

Mr. W. Long had four lambs born on his farm during last week; and Mr. Moore had two lambs born during last week.

I looked through one of the bound files of the letter: read stories of storms and floods and pathways under water, read of otter hunts, of the plums and cherries swelling in the sun, of how the gypsies went along the turnpike one Sunday afternoon “with two bears and other animals.” 

{Editor’s Note: Incredibly, the Bugbrooke School Letter survives and has been archived here. For the period of Machen’s visit, see here.}

Schoolmaster’s Pride

But the Letter is by no means all talk of the stile and the farmstead and the garden and the green.

We have passed from the young lambs and the ploughing of the brown earth to world-politics; from the quiet corner of England to the fiery waters of the East. And the same Letter tells of a “Flying machine which passed over Mr. Heygate’s meadows”; and of a reported aeroplane which turned out to be Frank Barford’s box-kite.

I think Mr. Wright is proud—and justly proud—of this admirable Letter. He has hit on one way of making good the deficiency that at present makes so much English education an expensive sham.

But I suspect that proud as Mr. Wright is of the Bugbrooke letter, he is prouder still of “W. F. X.” and all that it implies. With his own hands and his own ingenuity he has constructed all the complicated apparatus that stands on the window ledge facing the hats and coats. I saw jam jars (I think), a brick, an old thermometer, divers odd bits of lead and chunks of wood, and a tangle of wires. Outside in the playground was the “aerial,” the wires joining a flagstaff seventy feet high to an elm-tree.

The Morse Code

And at this home-made installation the village schoolmaster is teaching the village boys and girls to be expert wireless telegraphists, and they delight in the work.

I was shown how quickly and accurately they could read the Morse code. First a girl operator of thirteen, then a boy of ten, went into the wireless room and sent messages to the class.

Tingle, tingle, ting, ting, tingle, went the bell, and down went the letters in the copybooks. The message was strange to the children, but they got it perfectly; they were able to handle a communication, delivered at the “commercial speed” of twenty-five words a minute.

And outside the school, all the depth of country peace, old walls old roof-trees that have changed but little in the passage of three hundred years.

The Weekly

Previous: The Joy of London I

Next: Does the Seaside Hotel Pay?

Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2023 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

6 thoughts on “Twentieth-Century Village

  1. Surely the mantle of Dickens — anyway the Uncommercial Traveller Dickens — fell on Machen’s shoulders. What a fine piece of writing.

    Your discovery of the online “newspaper” is a nifty sidebar for Machen’s article, Christopher.


    1. Thanks Dale!

      Over the years, I have read in several sources that Machen’s journalism amounts to hackery. I simply cannot agree. With pieces like this one, and the recent “Joy of London” series, I hope to show that Machen gave the work his best, despite his dislike for the profession.

      I was stunned that the juvenile material had not only survived, but had been archived online.


      1. Yes. Probably too many people have been content to take Machen’s own words about the weariness of journalism as meaning that such work — assumed to be “lost” in old newspaper “morgues” anyway — may be dismissed unread. I would have enjoyed this present piece, for example, whether or not I knew it was by Arthur Machen.

        Machen no doubt contrasted the writing he did on assignment with the greater works he felt he could and would have written if he had not had to earn a living by his pen.

        Also — the journalism bears witness to the heart and mind of the man. He brought not only literary taste (whereby he would forgo a descent into mere sentimentality when writing about the children’s work) but that alertness to wonder, to this occasion too. He adds much, for example, to the story by the “irrelevant” detail of the journey by horse-drawn conveyance, something that some reporters wouldn’t have mentioned at all, or else would have spoiled by grinning at such “quaintness.”

        And really, the horse adds a lot to this piece. The horse makes a dutiful, repetitive journey in harness. Well, that’s what schooldays were like for lots of children. But these children have a schoolmaster who, it seems, can tune in to children’s imaginations. They evidently find at least this part of their schooltime exciting and meaningful. As a father who homeschooled, I remember how people used to grumble about our kids missing out on “socialization” because they weren’t cooped up with youngsters their exact same age all day in regimented classrooms. But “socialization”! My kids could interact with people of all ages in the community — somewhat as these children must have done in their news-gathering (as well as getting together with kids their own age). Who’s better socialized, really? Once schooldays are over, nobody’s going to spend all of his or her time with people born within a few months of himself or herself.


  2. Fascinating – thanks! Wireless telegraphy follows a long international history of wire telegraphy, which leaves me wondering how all those preceding generations of efficient telegraphists learnt their skills? How novel is this (sensible) in-school telegraphic practice? I have the sense that in my lifetime lots of people still learnt Morse code, though I never did – I wonder how many still do? I also seem to recall it proved useful to some Allied POWS during WWII – maybe to some of these young fellows during WWI a couple years after this, too.

    I wonder if the “van” Mr. Wright described was also horse-drawn. Reading Don King’s recent biography of Warren Lewis I was astonished to learn how horse-drawn a lot of WWI transportation was, something Lewis ended up very involved with!

    I wonder, too, whether Machen, in learning of the scriptorium-style approach to School Letter production (as distinct from the wide-ranging newsgetting), was quietly reflecting on similarities to book production from Roman antiquity through the Middle Ages.

    I’ve started to browse the period selection you link, and see on 7 March “A journalist and photographer from the ‘Mirror’ visited us and took several photos of the children at their actual work, in order to illustrate the article in the (London) Evening News”!


    1. I browsed a few pages of the book which Christopher linked to in this week’s post called “Twentieth-Century Village: Schoolboy Journalists and Wireless at Work.” On page 16 of the “Bugbrook Council School Weekly Letters for 1913-1914 [January 1913 to March 1913]” collection there is a letter for the “Week Ending 14th February 1913.” This is about two weeks before Machen’s article appeared in the newspaper. The letter seems to suggest how important the wireless was to the classroom when it begins:

      “In common with the rest of the country, we felt the great force of the gale on Friday afternoon and night last. Fortunately the trees are now bare of leaves, or without a doubt many a proud Elm would have kissed the ground. As it is, we have not heard of any serious damage in this neighborhood and our ‘wireless’ stood it well.”

      The letter goes on to report about a variety of news stories that are “received by the Wireless every night.” Also, I find it amusing how both then and now we talk about the weather. If I want to know which days were foggy in the local area, and even in Paris, then this letter would fill me in on all those details. What a fascinating resource these letters must be to the local residents. It’s wonderful to see that these letters are available for locals, and people in far-off America, to read.



  3. Reading Robert Colquhoun’s memoirs of his experiences in the Glasgow police department, Life Begins at Midnight (1962), I encountered his description (p. 30) of it “forming its own embryo Flying Squad” in 1929: “until then the entire motor pool available to the city’s detective force had consisted of one Vulcan motor-car, plus the occasional unofficial loan of a 10 h.p. Singer saloon.” They then (p. 31) “splashed out by purchasing three Ford cars. One was a tourer, the second a saloon, the third a van.” Prior to that (he joined in 1923), he noted (p. 19), the whole “police mobile wing consisted of a motor-van or two, plus some horse-drawn carriages. If we needed transport in a hurry we commandeered a taxi.”


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