Charles Kingsley, Christian Socialist

Malham Moor, and Tom The Chimney Sweep
Brontë Bedford-Payne
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

Charles Kingsley, born in 1817, was a native of Devonshire, and having been ordained in 1842, he became rector of the parish of Eversley in Hampshire. His marriage in 1842 to Fanny Grenfell proved to be a very happy one, with four children in their nursery. His most famous and best-loved fairy tale, The Water Babies is full of beautiful, evocative imagery not only of seashore and underwater life [1], but also, in the first three chapters, of the upland landscape of Malham Moor and Littondale. It is this imagery which attracted my interest when, as an adult, I re-read the book a few years ago.

The Water Babies was published in 1863, at about the same time as other well-known children’s books, such as the brothers Grimm’s Fairy tales, Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and only four years after the publication of Darwin’s controversial On the Origin of Species. It has been said that the book is a brilliantly adapted theory of evolution for children [1] in which the god-like character Mother Carey makes creatures ‘make themselves’ through the shuffling explorations of natural selection [2], but it is also a fantasy, and a deeply moralistic book which intrigues adults probably more than children. It has been said that it is an example of turgid, class-ridden Victorian moralising; it is not a children’s story at all and if inflicted on minors should be used solely as a punishment [3].

However, there is another view, despite these critical comments. One of Kingsley’s biographers, Brenda Colloms, mentions how his publisher, Alexander Macmillan of Macmillan’s Magazine, in writing to Kingsley’s friend and business associate James MacLehose, described the book as ‘.....the most charming piece of grotesquery, with flashes of tenderness and poetry playing over all.’ while Rose, the eldest of Kingsley’s four children, recalled in later years how he read the instalments to his family as they arrived from the printer, this being ‘the greatest excitement in the nursery world that I remember’ [4].

So what do we think inspired Kingsley to embark on his tale, which some have also said is a lively critique of Victorian materialism [1] in its vivid portrayal of the Squire, Sir John Hartover, his wife in her night-wig, Ellie in her pure white bedroom, and their servants? What was his message, and why did he write such a strange book? What was his political, social, and religious background? And what was his connection with the area around Malham?

Wrapped in his fantasy, Kingsley blended an appreciation of the innocence of childhood with his political and religious protestations about the torments of an exploited work-force which had evolved in late Georgian and Victorian England as the industrial revolution gained momentum. Being much concerned with the sufferings of the working classes, he became deeply interested in the writings of Carlyle and social reform. He drew attention to the plight of orphaned children and particularly that of boy chimney sweeps, who were very cruelly treated by their masters, and so he dramatised the fate of ‘climbing boys’ in the same way as Harriet Beecher Stowe had dramatised slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (It is of interest to know that, whilst travelling in Britain in 1858, the Beecher-Stowes stayed for three days with the Kingsleys in their home at Eversley). Earlier in the century, in 1837, Charles Dickens had already shown how narrowly Oliver Twist had escaped the plight of apprenticeship to a master sweep, while in 1850 Kingsley himself had published a novel entitled Alton Locke; in this story he exposed the social injustice suffered by agricultural labourers and workers in the clothing trade.

Charles Kingsley was a radical clergyman, who was much influenced by the Rev. F.D. Maurice, Chaplain of Lincoln’s Inn, and Professor of Divinity at King’s College, London. His growing concern for the relief of social suffering led him to seek the company of other young men who were prominent Liberal thinkers during the mid-nineteenth century. These friends and associates included the philosopher and economist, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hughes, the barrister who wrote Tom Brown’s Schooldays, (a bluff, honest young man with whom Kingsley shared a passion for fishing [5]), the social revolutionary John Ruskin, and Henry Fawcett, the blind Professor of Political Economy in Cambridge. Eventually, in 1848, Maurice, Hughes and Kingsley were instrumental in founding The Christian Socialist Movement based on the philosophy that politics and religion are inseparable, and that the church should be involved in addressing social questions; they believed that the church could help to prevent revolution by tackling the reasonable grievances of the working classes. They supported Trade Unions and welcomed the foundation of The Working Men’s College, whilst associating themselves with prominent Tory parliamentarians such as Richard Oastler and Lord Shaftesbury; these men were evangelical Christians who in 1865, only two years after the publication of The Water Babies, brought forward legislation limiting the length of a child’s working day in factories to ten hours.

Picking up a copy of The Water Babies and reading the first two chapters, I recognised that this deeply evocative fairy tale had been set with great accuracy and precision into a landscape which must have been intimately familiar to the author. But, how did Kingsley know and understand about the minutiae of this unique landscape, its geological features, the distinctive habitats of its wild flowers, and the habits of a vixen with her cubs or the game bird, the grouse? I sought to find evidence for his visits or connections with the area; but any such references are few and far between. Here, I am indebted to my friend Richard Harland, who produced from the Skipton Friends Meeting House Library a very readable biography by Brenda Colloms published in 1975, from which I have been able to extract some answers to my questions. For instance, I learned that Charles had been a shy, timid child who was used to such solitary occupations as reading, rambling over the countryside, and collecting botanical specimens and objects of natural history. As a student at Cambridge he had attended the lectures of the highly respected Professor of Geology, Adam Sedgwick, who, as a devout believer in God ‘insisted that every human being was born with a conscience, a built-in moral principle by which later experiences could be judged’ [6].

At some time in the 1850s Kingsley stayed in a Yorkshire manufacturing village with a Quaker family named Forster, members of whom who were interested in social reform, W.E.Forster becoming Education Minister in Gladstone’s first government. Whilst there, his biographer tells us that ‘he fished, and climbed the limestone crags, filling his mind with landscape notes for a story he had in mind’ [7]. It was perhaps, whilst staying in this village, which was probably Keighley, that Kingsley wrote the words of a poem he was to publish in the early part of his story, when he describes Tom’s life as an apprentice to the bully Grimes:

     Dank and foul, dank and foul,
     By the smoky town in its murky cowl;
     Foul and dank, foul and dank,
     By wharf and sewer and slimy bank;
     Darker and darker the further I go,
     Baser and baser the richer I grow,
     Who dare sport with the sin defiled?

It is likely to have been here that he heard ‘between black slag walls, the groaning and thumping of the pit-engine in the next field’, as he wrote at the start of Tom’s early morning walk, with Grimes selfishly riding on his donkey along the Keighley/ Kendal turnpike, on their way to sweep the chimneys in Malham Tarn House. Or was this place Ingleton, also a coal-mining village on the turnpike, and within reach of roads leading to Malham Moor?

I now know that in 1845 Kingsley was appointed Canon of St Alkelda’s Church in Middleham; whilst there, he frequently went fishing on the river Cover, for he was a very keen angler, especially for the wild brown trout which inhabit our northern rivers. Many years later he was to recall his memories of this ‘delicious glen in Coverdale’ in an essay entitled ‘Chalk Stream Studies’, where he described ‘wading up beneath the ash-fringed crags of limestone, out of which the great ring-ouzel hopped down to feed upon the strand, or flower banks where golden globe flower, blue geranium and giant campanula bloomed beneath the white tassels of bird cherry’ [8].

From the writings of the Victorian clergymen Canon Shuffrey and Archdeacon Boyd [9] it is thought that Kingsley had been a frequent and devoted visitor to the vicarage in Arncliffe. In one of his poems, Kingsley identified Littondale as ‘a quiet, silent, rich, happy place’ and ‘a narrow crack into the earth, where the bottom of the valley was just one field broad’. Here he would have become familiar with the cool, clear waters of the river Skirfare into which he later imagined Tom had stumbled. Was it here, during long solitary hours on the banks of this swiftly flowing river, or from a rowing boat on Malham Tarn that he pondered on Darwin’s theory of evolution, and how he, Kingsley, was convinced that the survival of the species depends not on the condition of the body but of the soul? Here, he may have willed the task of The Water Babies ‘to keep the pools clean and tended, like water-gardens’ after man’s sinful dirt is cleared away. For water and cleanliness are important symbols, recurring throughout the story of Tom and his master Grimes, whose name is no coincidence.

The only direct links I could find with Malham Moor were as follows: firstly an obituary, written in 1922 by Geoffrey Dawson of Langcliffe, at that time Editor of The Times newspaper. The obituary was written for his friend and neighbour, the millionaire and Liberal politician Walter Morrison [10], whose summer residence was the mansion by Malham Tarn. Dawson refers to Charles Kingsley as having been one of Morrison’s guests at Malham Tarn House, together with Charles Darwin and those other eminent Victorian men of similar religious, political and social persuasion mentioned earlier in this essay, namely John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hughes, John Ruskin, and Henry Fawcett. My second link is through the survival of two letters dated July 5th and 6th 1858 respectively, in which Kingsley wrote home from ‘Malham House, Skipton’, to tell his wife, Fanny, how he was staying at a most charming place, built by old Lord Ribblesdale, now belonging to ‘Mr Morrison, an Oxford First - Class man .....The house looks out of fir woods and limestone scars, over a lake a mile square, and simply the best trout fishing I have ever seen’.

In the second letter he described ‘...having been to church in Horton in Ribblesdale. All that I have ever heard of the grandeur of Gordale Scar and Malham Cove was, I found not exaggerated. The awful cliff filling up the valley with a sheer cross wall of 280 feet and, from beneath a black lip at the foot, the whole river Aire coming up as clear as crystal from unknown abysses. Its real source is, I suppose, the great lake above - Malham Tarn - on which I am going tomorrow .........that wonderful Malham Tarn will come into the book and all around it’ [11].

And so it was that the landscape of Malham Moor became familiar to Kingsley and inspired him to describe so intimately the terrain over which his hero scrambled that hot summer’s day some 150 years ago.

How did Walter Morrison and his guests reach the remote, upland estate at Malham Tarn, situated, as it is, at more than 1,000 feet above sea level? It would seem logical that they travelled by train on the L.M.S. line from London, the passenger service from Leeds to Skipton having been opened in 1847 and taken by the ‘little’ North-Western railway through to Clapham and Ingleton in 1849. The nearest railway stations for Malham Tarn were at Bell Busk and Settle. It was well known that Morrison preferred to walk the good six or eight miles [10] from either of these stations to his ‘mountain home’, but there would doubtless have been a horse and carriage awaiting his guests. During those journeys, the visitors would have toiled up the steeply winding road of either Langcliffe Brow from Settle, or Cove Lane if coming from Bell Busk via Malham village. From the latter, Kingsley would have had his first glimpse of the white stone walls, the abundance of wild flowers and, inevitably Malham Cove where, we are told, dark smudges on the limestone reminded him of soot left behind by the young ‘climbing boys’ as they swarmed down chimney walls, and where the sparkling water of the river Aire flowed from the base of the cliff; all these features form a significant part in his writings, illustrating a tangible contrast between the sinful grime of the colliery village from whence came the chimney sweeps, Tom and Grimes, and the purity, the white cleanliness and innocence of the limestone countryside.

Summer days by Malham Tarn in the mid-Victorian period could have been idyllic, providing the weather was favourable. As Kingsley wrote: ‘3.00 o’clock on a mid-summer’s morning is the pleasantest time of all the twenty four hours and all the three hundred and sixty five days.’ He also described how ‘.....the strange murmuring noise of bees around a hive’ had puzzled the ignorant young, town-bred chimney-sweep. To these memories we might add our own, such as the sound of splashing oars from a boat on the Tarn, and the smell of hay drying in the meadows.

In more than one paragraph in his book Kingsley draws the attention of the reader to the many alterations which had taken place in the structure of the imaginary mansion Hartover House. In fact, he devotes a couple of pages to it; but shortly before he came to Malham, Kingsley had visited Ovington House, near his home at Eversley in Hampshire, and Walter Morrison himself said that this was the mansion described as ‘ .....having been built at ninety different times, and in nineteen different styles ... it was a great puzzle to antiquarians and critics, architects and all persons who like meddling with other people’s business, and spending other people’s money.’ However, it is tempting to believe that when Kingsley wrote ‘For now the house looked like a real live house that had a history and had grown and grown as the world grew’, he was recounting conversations and exchanges of opinion amongst Morrison’s guests over new plans for the extension of the Georgian lodge in which they were staying, which had been built originally for Lord Ribblesdale. He would certainly have known that the original 17thC farmhouse had been buried beneath the platform on which the lodge stood. (If you go down a flight of stone steps into the cellar beneath the former housekeeper’s room at the west end of the house, you will find yourselves in the remains of an older house. Its mullioned windows are still in situ, but now blocked, being below earth level.)

We must remember that the house shown in my illustrations was not the one known to Kingsley when he stayed there in 1858, for, as Arthur Raistrick has pointed out in his survey in 1963 for the Field Study Council, ‘The glass covered veranda (made in Coalbrookdale) was added to the Georgian part sometime between 1862 and 1885, when the east wing was constructed to a design influenced by John Ruskin.’ The tower or Italianate campanile at the east end was considered to be unsafe and was therefore demolished some time after Dr Raistrick’s report was written.

Morrison’s guests would have exchanged views and opinions whilst enjoying the hospitality of a host who made no demands upon them other than to enjoy each other’s company. There would have been a plethora of servants in the house and around the estate, and a plenitude of good food, including fish from the Tarn and game from the estate. Their days might have been spent out with the guns on the famously well-stocked moors, and when the evenings were cool, we might think of them with their feet round a glowing peat fire as they sank into deep leather armchairs in the comfortable library, no doubt stuffing their pipes or lighting their cigars and imbibing port from Morrison’s well-stocked cellar. Brenda Colloms tells us that Kingsley ‘...was gregarious, and his warm personality, his amusing often Rabelaisian conversation, but never crude, given an unexpected titillation by his stammer, combined with his propensity to hold forth on any number of subjects, made him a fascinating addition to any dinner party’ [12]. I feel that it was this aspect of his personality which prompted him to write of Tom’s encounter with ‘...a black beetle setting off to be married with a sky blue coat and scarlet leggings, as smart as a gardener’s dog with a polyanthus in its mouth’, and that it was typical of such a man to enjoy reading fresh instalments of the fairy story to his excited children in the nursery at home.

No one could read Kingsley’s description of the terrain over which Tom fled without identifying its limestone structure as that of Malham Moor and recognising the heather-covered gritstone as that of Fountains Fell. For instance, potholes and limestone pavements are mentioned, together with the mid-summer flora and fauna associated with these particular habitats. As he fled from his pursuers, Tom came across great patches of flat limestone rock, just like ill-made pavements, where deep cracks were filled with ferns. His bare toes were caught between the stones and ledges as he ran. Now and then he passed a deep dark swallow-hole going down into the earth as if it were the chimney of an underground dwarf’s house. He could hear water falling, trickling, many, many feet below, and he longed to climb down to cool his parched lips. But, brave little chimney sweep as he was in using his knees and elbows in dark, narrow spaces, he dare not descend such as those.

Those of you who walk over the heather moors may have seen Kingsley’s great spiders with crowns and crosses on their backs, skilfully camouflaged as they spin their webs over and amongst the gritty stones, and you will perhaps recognise the description of old Mr Grouse washing himself in sand, like an Arab; this brings to mind hot, arid desert conditions where the rock is hot as an oven and the air dances reels over it. When Mrs Grouse berates her husband for his fears that the end of the world is come, and that the fateful day of August 12th has not yet dawned, we are again reminded that the fairy tale had been inspired on a hot, dry day in July, and not in August when grouse-shooting would have begun. The description of such acid-loving plants as blueberries and whinberries being in flower is another a reminder that it was mid-summer on the Fell, when there was no fruit to be had to assuage Tom’s thirst.

The sentence ‘while out on the moors, heather and bog and rock stretch away up to the sky’ serves to remind the reader that Tom had covered a great distance since climbing over the wall surrounding Hartover House and its woodland. Kingsley expounds on this view: ‘...why, what a big place the world is’, gasped Tom. Who has not stood at the top of Malham Cove on a clear day, and gazed with awe beyond the ancient field systems and the infant river immediately below? Who has not stood on the summit of Ingleborough, as Kingsley claimed to have done in his letter to Fanny ,

‘........ Last night we went up Ingleborough, 2,380 feet, and saw the whole world to the West - the lake Mountains, and Western sea beyond Lancaster and Morecambe Bay for miles..... to the far distance where, spread out like a map, great plains and farms and villages amid dark knots of trees lead to where the shining salmon river widens into the sea, and little white specks which are ships lie on its bosom.’

It has always been a matter for debate as to whether Kingsley imagined Tom to have climbed down Blue Scar whilst hearing the bells of Arncliffe church, or whether he imagined the climb to have been down Malham Cove, where black streaks do indeed appear on the face of the cliff. In that case, it would have been the bells of Kirkby Malham church which beckoned him on. However, the reader is presented with a clear description of Tom’s descent down a series of ledges such as we know exist on the Yoredale series of rocks, similar to those on Yew Cogar Scar above Cowside Beck. You would have been giddy perhaps in looking down, but Tom was not. First he went down three hundred feet of steep heather, mixed up with loose brown gritstone, as rough as a file. ‘And down he went, bump, down a two foot step of limestone. Then another bit of grass and flowers. Then bump down a one foot step...rockrose and saxifrage, thyme and basil. Then another bit of grass and flowers for fifty yards, as steep as a house roof, where he had to slide down on his tail...., he had to crawl along the edge, for fear he would roll over and drop another ledge, and so... by stock and stone, by sedge and ledge, bush and rush,... as if he had been born a little black ape with four hands instead of two, ... three hundred feet of limestone terraces, one below the other, as straight as if a carpenter had ruled them with his ruler and then cut them out with his chisel’.

At last he got to the bottom, but at the foot of the crag were heaps and heaps of fallen limestone boulders with holes between them, full of sweet heath fern such as hangs from the basket in your drawing room. You will notice how the flowers which grow on the limestone terraces were carefully described, to be followed by equally accurate descriptions of the different trees and shrubs, ferns, and sedges banked at the base of a cliff, including whitebeam with its great silver-backed leaves, mountain ash and oak.

It is generally thought that the tiny dame school where Tom was revived by the schoolma’am was at Bridgend in Arncliffe, and that it was quite clearly the Skirfare into which he stepped from the smooth lawn bordering the river, whilst hearing the bells of Arncliffe church. The bells offered him refuge, but it was a refuge which he dare not take until he was clean and his sins had been washed away, for is not cleanliness next to Godliness? Those that wish to be clean, clean they will be. It is here we should realise the skill of Kingsley as he drew together the threads of his fairy story: here, by a small stretch of imagination, we can see how the compassionate school mistress became the watchful Irishwoman, barefoot in her crimson madder petticoat; the mysterious woman who, unseen by Tom, had followed him all the way across Malham Moor. Here at last, she quickened her footsteps to overtake him, and to step ahead into the river. Meanwhile, the dirty, smelly small boy lay on the grassy river-bank, ‘dead beat and besieged by gnats and midges and flies’, as Kingsley described so vividly. But it was the insect bites which caused him to get up, to pull off all his clothes, crying, ‘I must be clean’, and to put his hot, sore feet into the water. All the while, the church bells rang, as the Water-Babies claimed both Tom and his own Good Fairy, laughing with joy at the return of their Queen with a new brother.

     Clear and cool, clear and cool,
     By laughing shallow and dreaming pool;
     Cool and clear, cool and clear,
     By shining shingle and foaming weir;
     Under the crag where the ouzel sings,
     And the ivied wall where the church-bell rings;

(Editors’ note: the word weir is spelled wear in American editions).

Main Sources

  • Colloms, B., 1975. Biography of Charles Kingsley. Publ. Constable, London.
  • Dawson, G., 1922. Obituary of Walter Morrison. Reprinted in The Times from The National Revue, February 1922.See
  • Morkill, J. W., 1933. The History of Malhamdale. Publ. Bellows, Gloucester.
  • Raistrick, A. and Gilbert, O., L., 1963. Malham Tarn House, its Building Materials etc. Reprinted from Field Studies: Vol.1 No.5.


  1. Kingsley, C., 1995. The Water Babies, Publ. Penguin Popular Classics.
  2. Polkinghorne, J., 2008. Article in The Times :Faith Register ‘shining a light where science and theology meet’. 20/09/2008
  3. Minty Jack, 2007. This review concerns The Water-Babies: The Fairy Tale for a Land-baby (Puffin Classics) 19/07/2007
  4. Colloms, B., p.256.
  5. Colloms, B., p.88.
  6. Colloms, B., p.44.
  7. Colloms, B., p.231.
  8. Colloms, B., p.79.
  9. Boyd, W., and Shuffrey W.A., Littondale: Past and Present, 1893 (unknown publisher)and Shuffrey, W.A., Some Craven Worthies, 1903, Publ. F. E. Robinson, London.
  10. Dawson, G., 1922. Obituary of Walter Morrison.
  11. Newspaper cutting From The Life of Charles Kingsley. Title of newspaper, date and publisher unknown.
  12. Colloms, B., p. 265.

Malham Tarn House, 19th C
Malham Tarn House, 19th C
Water Sinks

Malham Tarn House, 19th C

Malham Tarn House, 19th C

Water Sinks