Religious People - Hugh James Rose

Hugh James Rose and his Untrodden Spain.

The English who 'discovered' Spain in the 19th century were generally men of leisure, eager to explore the country which they had first encountered in the pages of Cervantes or the pictures of Murillo. As far as the Spanish language was concerned, they were self-taught. At the University of Oxford, for instance, there was no official teacher of Spanish until the appointment of Lorenzo Lucena (a native of Aguilar de la Frontera) as a part-time instructor in 1858.

Most of the curiosos impertinentes who recorded their travels in Spain for the benefit of the English reading public travelled in relative comfort, observing the passing scene at a certain distance. Not so Hugh James Rose, during the four years he spent in Andalucia he shared the life and studied the character of working people at close quarters, initially in the mining district around Linares. The experience affected him profoundly.


Hugh James Rose came from a long line of scholarly clergymen. His father, Archdeacon of Bedfordshire and Rector of the country parish of Houghton Conquest, was a distinguished academic, as were two of his uncles. Following their example, in 1860 Hugh proceeded to Oxford as a member of Oriel College which, thirty years earlier, had been famous for its brilliant intellectuals: men such as John Henry Newman and Blanco White. While Hugh was no academic (he graduated with 4th class honours - a degree below what was expected of a Rose), he was a young man of independent mind, warm heart and strong character - a sportsman and a poet. Following in his father's footsteps he was ordained priest in 1865 and for the next seven years served first as a country curate and finally as a military chaplain. The death of his beloved father in 1873 left him free to take his life in a different and more adventurous direction. That was when he left England by ship for Andalucia, landing at Malaga, to be chaplain to the expatriate mining community at Linares.


Over the short period of 24 years Linares had been transformed by the development of a lead mining industry which by 1867 had become the largest in the world. During that time the population rose from 7,000 to over 40,000, and the landscape was transformed by the proliferation of engine houses and chimneys which followed the design of similar buildings in Cornwall, the centre of the lead mining industry in England (and the area from which skilled men were recruited for Spain). It is probable that Rose was brought to Linares by Thomas Sopwith, the head of the Spanish Lead Company which had been formed in London in 1864 to work the mine of La Tortilla. Sopwith was appointed to be the resident British Vice-Consul in 1871.


Rose's arrival in Málaga in September 1873 coincided with the last days of the cantonalist República Democrática Federal (First Republic) which had been so popular there. He found the city still under the control of local voluntarios, who turned out to be quite friendly and accommodating. There were days of 'utter anarchy and licence', but he was in no doubt that Pi y Margall and the cantonalist cause were enthusiastically supported by the majority of the population. Rose saw how their hopes turned to hopelessness following the imposition of order (or 'pacification') by General Pavía. His account of the fast-moving political crisis which culminated in the military coup of 3 January 1874 is remarkably unprejudiced. He recorded the rise nd fall of the popular reputation of Castelar, who was hailed as a saviour on his accession to the Presidency on 6 September, only to be vilified as an enemy of the people a few weeks later, when he brought in the army to disband the intransigentes. When Rose arrived in Málaga the sereno, on his nightly rounds, was still intoning 'Viva la república democrática federal!', but by the time he reached Linares the cry had reverted to the traditional 'Ave María purísima!'


 At Alora, on his way north, Rose saw a sight for which he was not prepared. His description of it is a perfect example of his gift for scene-painting:  'Walking out the next morning [after his arrival] I heard in the distance the well-known strains of the Marseillaise played in the most lively manner by a brass band, and presently a tiny coffin, swung between four boys, came round the corner - the coffin of a little fair-haired child of some seven summers, laid out in blue paper, with a glass lid to show its peaceful face. A crowd of boys, cutting capers, singing and shouting, ran before it, while close behind, at a swinging pace and playing their loudest and liveliest, came the band I had heard: behind them, four abreast, walked fifty or sixty young men, chiefly of the mining or artisan class'. These deposited the coffin on the edge of the burial pit, and departed. For Rose, a man of deep (yet unostentatious) faith, the irreverence and disregard for the Christian rites of passage in this rural community were deeply disturbing. He noted with horror the poverty and neglct of the cemetery: little bodies of dead children wrapped in silver paper, the sandy soil littered with human bones, human hair clinging to the thistles, and 'no tombtones worthy of the name'. How had this come to be? He would give much thought to this question.


  Linares he found to be a place 'without one particle of beauty': nothing but plomo, plomo, plomo wherever you looked.  It was Spain's 'Black Country', comparable  with the Black Country of the English Midlands which hd been so disfigured by coalmines, ironworks and factory smoke He went underground to see the working conditions for himself, and tramped the hills around to visit his scattered flock in the outback. There were some seventy English in and around Linares, most of them Cornish Methodists: sober, taciturn, matter-of-fact men, wedded to their work and their bibles. He admired their sturdy independence of spirit, but preferred the merrier company of the Spanish miners and their families. 'Spaniards have one Christian grace unknown to Englishmen', he wrote: 'the grace of natural courtesy'.

From the beginning Rose was determined not to let himself become the prisoner of his employers. He saw his job as an opportunity to learn about the Spanish miners and their families, who were attracted by his good humour, compassion, simplicity of life and manly bearing. (According to his obituarist he was 'very tall, and might easily pass for a Spaniard, with his dark hair and eyes and the courteous and dignified carriage he had acquired by long residence in the Peninsula'). Above all he never proselytised - in fact he was criticised by the Bible societies for failing to do so. He and his wife (for his wife came with him, though we are told almost nothing about her) learned much from their servants. The younger, Isidra, 'a mischievous, hot-tempered, reckless little hoyden', fascinated him with her vivacious impudence and witty repartee. The elder, Isabel, lived in the house with her husband, Manuel. Rose noted the intense devotion she lavished on her household god, a statue of the infant San Juan Bautista. 'Every evening she would undress and dress San Juan, feel her saint's legs, and make me feel them as I walked up to bed, all the while calling 'Pobre, pobre!' One evening she stuck one of Rose's half-smoked cigars in the hand of the 'little dressed-up doll', stationed at the foot of the marital bed, ready for Manuel to enjoy when he returned from work.

There was hardly any aspect of life at Linares, above and below ground, which escaped Rose's attention. He described all the processes of lead production, and its effect on the environment, and reported the high rate of deaths from calentura, pleurisy, lead colic and what he calls pulmonary consumption.The provision of medical care was still rudimentary, and he found Dioscorides' Herbal (in the edition originally published in 1695) still  in use as the official pharmacopoeia. Though the local workers were careless of their health and safety, the government was quick to investigate the cause of accidents and to impose fines on the foreign companies when they were at fault. Other topics he covers include the workers' pay, diet, sports and leisure activities. For evening entertainment they had the choice of the venta, the café (where they might play dominoes, or enjoy the occasional zarzuela) or the brothel. At the ceremonies of Semana Santa he was struck by the sudden switch from raw passion to self-mockery, as when a group of boys sang 'the wild, wailing chant of the Lenten ditty', only to break off with a shout of laughter.


After a year at Linares Rose was appointed to be the chaplain to the English-speaking community at Jérez and Cádiz, which gave him the opportunity to explore more widely. The impressions he gained on his travels, and his reflections on what he saw, are to be found in the first section of Untrodden Spain. What he has to say about the charitable insitutions at Cádiz and elsewhere gives his work a documentary value which has yet to be fully appreciated by social historians. He was impressed by the relaxed régime of the Casa de Misericordia at Cádiz, where the albergados benefited from a mixture of freedom and restraint, assistance and self-help. How much more humane, he thought, than the rigid, joyless system which prevailed in the 'Poor Houses' of his native England! He was impressed also by the Escuela Normal at Cádiz: a teacher-training college and model school combined, where physical education and music were part of the syllabus, and trainee teachers were instructed in the teaching of the deaf and dumb. But the republican government which had introduced this enlightened system had also obliterated almost every trace of religion from public life: these institutions were deprived of chaplains, churches were robbed of their paintings, priests went unsalaried, and at the Casa de los Niños Espositos the rite of baptism had been discontinued.  Only the Sisters of St Vincent de Paul continued to work in the hospitals, orphanages and hospices, and Rose has nothing but praise for their dedication. He was taken aback by the indifference or even hatred felt towards the Church. How to account for it? He addresses this question in his chapter on 'The Decay of Faith in Spain'. 'My religion has broken down', an old boatman tells him in Cádiz. The Church was no longer looked to for instruction, inspiration or support. It had lost its hold on the masses. Like an old officer trying to re-assert his authority over a demoralised company of soldiers, the Church was simply ignored. Yet Rose came to appreciate the unwritten, unspoken Christianity that was deeply embedded below the surface: what an Irish poet would later call 'the secret scriptures of the poor'. 


Untrodden Spain was well received by English readers, and from his new home at Jérez continued his investigations. He planned to complete a systematic study of Spanish folklore, but meanwhile published a series of sketches for an English magazine which appeared in book form under the title Among the Spanish People (1877).  His interest in costumbres is reflected in the variety of topics covered in thi second work: nursery rhymes, dances, superstitions, fairs, rustic theatre, and even the new fashion among the upper class for English sports such as horse-racing, rowing, and even cricket. He himself felt more at home in the world of the barrios bajos.. In the introduction he wrote that 'being poor, he frequently had to travel on foot, and to dine and sleep with the poor', and had found in the Spanish peasantry 'what he had sought, but not hitherto found: truth, brotherly kindness, chivalrous devotion, true nobleness of character, religion without cant, and every virtue - mixed with a little dirt'.


In addition to his articles for the magazine Temple Bar, Rose was a correspondent for the London Times, reporting on social reforms in Spain. These reflect his increasing interest in prison reform. This was not prompted by motives of prurient curiosity, he protested, but by a sense of duty to the poor, and 'a wish to do good to a country to which I have become attached, and to whose inhabitants I owe a debt of sincere gratitude'. In the course of his investigations he found much that the British system could learn from. Solitary confinement was unknown, and in the presidio at Cartagena all who had a trade were allowed to work at it, and to teach those who had none. How different from the so-called 'model' gaol in Oxford, where prisoners were put to the fruitless and merely punitive exercise of the treadmill! At the women's gaol at Alcalá, mothers were allowed to have their children with them - something unheard-of in Britain - and he was touched by the solidarity of the inmates: since he did not have enough money to give them all separately, the 'haves' halved their alms with the 'have nots'. 'Where would you find in the 'religious world', a self-sacrifice to equal that?' he exclaimed. He paid tribute to the republican government for these improvements, but at the same time painted a horrifying picture of the conditions he discovered in the dungeons of the Saladero in Madrid, and in the Hacho at Ceuta: 'Language fails to paint the darkness, the filth, the seething corruption of these dens of convicts - dens into which not one speck of sunlight, divine or human, ever finds a way, and where nothing is heard or seen but assassination and cruelty on the one hand; misery, starvation and obscenity on the other!'


As a journalist Rose was methodical, sensitive and observant.  In Madrid, notebook in hand, he headed not for the Prado or the Buen Retiro, but for the washing-grounds of the Manzanares, to seek out the lavanderas and to enquire into their pay and working conditions. Among the Spanish People has a whole chapter devoted to these 'toilers of the river', complete with a laundry list giving the prices of the various articles of clothing. The lavanderas were evidently intrigued to find a curioso impertinente in their midst, taking such a close interest in their work. They might have been even more intrigued if they had known that he was a clergyman of the Church of England.


In another chapter he decribes Madrid as 'the curse of Spain' - a place 'where men have no pity, no mercy, no bowels of compassion for women'. Yet in the gipsy quarter he found among the cigarreras and bailarinas that 'true nobleness of character' which he had long been searching for, so that he could write, in words befitting a caballero andante: 'To have known a common gypsy woman in all her height of purity and depth of devotion; in all her self-denial; in all her religion, without religion's offensive savour, is a liberal education'.


By the end of 1876 Rose was a sick man. He returned to England, where he died six months later, on 6 July 1878, leaving a widow and two children. He is buried in the quiet country churchyard of Houghton Conquest, the village in which he spent his childhood and youth. But Spain was the country in which he found fulfilment, and he gave the best of himself to its people.

This text is adapted for from an introduction by Martin Murphy to the 2009 Spanish edition of Hugh James Rose's 1875 book 'Untrodden Spain, and Her Black Country: being Sketches of the life and character of the Spaniard of the Interior"

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English Edition available from Amazon

Spanish Edition


Traducción de Victoria León Varela. Prólogo de Martin Murphy.

Martin Murphy is author of The Duchess of Rio Tinto: The Story of Mary Herbert and Joseph Gage.