Charles Kingsley

Author, vicar, professor, campaigner: Charles Kingsley was a 19th century English intellectual who was passionately opposed to the social injustices of the time and spent his life working for better conditions for the poor. His most famous book is one that he wrote for children, The Water-Babies, and like all his other work it is permeated throughout by many of the issues which were closest to his heart: the plight of the working class, whether in terms of work, education or health; pollution of nature; and the difficulties faced by many Christians of the time in reconciling Darwin's newly-published theory of evolution with their faith.

He was born in Holne, Devon, in 1819, son of the local vicar, also called Charles Kingsley, and Mary Kingsley. After his education at King's College, London, and Magdalene College, Cambridge, he followed in his father's footsteps, becoming the curate of Eversley in Hampshire in 1842. Two years later he married the love of his life, Fanny Grenfell, and in 1846 he became Eversley's rector which he remained for the rest of his life.

"We have used the Bible as if it was a mere special constable's handbook, an opium dose for keeping beasts of burden patient while they are being overloaded."

His faith was a central fact of his life, and when he read The Kingdom of Christ by Frederick Denison Maurice in his early 20s, its combination of Socialism and Christianity, and emphasis on the importance of the church's role in society, made an enormous impression on him. He was a strong supporter of Chartism, the working men's movement that petitioned the government to take action to redress some of the greatest injustices current in Victorian society, but when this was ultimately rejected by the House of Commons in 1848, Kingsley, Maurice and another contemporary, Thomas Hughes, started the Christian Socialist Movement. They published two journals, Politics Of The People and The Christian Socialist, started several Working Men's Clubs and opened a night school in London as part of their campaign to change the way social problems were approached and provide practical help and a chance for education to those who needed it. They believed that the church could not be separate from the political life of the country and it needed to play an active part in improving the conditions of the poor. Equally, though, the state needed to undergo fundamental change in its attitude towards the population - away from a purely laissez faire approach that abandoned the majority of its citizens to lives of grinding toil and early deaths, and towards a fairer society.

"The age of chivalry is never past, so long as there is a wrong left unredressed on earth, or a man or woman left to say, I will redress that wrong, or spend my life in the attempt."

Kingsley wrote extensively about his ideas (sometimes under the pseudonym 'Parson Lot') in journals, pamphlets, articles and several books, whether quite directly (Alton Locke, Yeast) or at more of a distance (Hypatia, the story of the Ancient Greek thinker and teacher murdered for her ideas by fanatical Christians), earning him the sobriquet "the Chartist Clergyman". His historically-based works led to him being appointed a professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge in 1860, a post that he occupied until 1869 at the same time as tutoring the Prince of Wales, writing The Water-Babies and arguing with ever-intensifying ferocity with J.H. Newman and other prominent Catholic writers, a debate that culminated in Newman's Apologia.

After The Water-Babies he stopped writing novels and concentrated instead on articles, both for children and adults, essays and non-fiction books such as Town Geology and his final work, Health And Education. His responsibilities within the church also grew as he was made Canon of Chester and later Canon of Westminster in 1873. However, this pace was exhausting and after six months touring in America he died on 23 January 1875, aged only 55, leaving behind him a legacy of idealistic literature, practical improvement in many people's lives and a lasting influence on the intellectual life of Victorian England.

Main works:

  • Yeast (1848)
  • The Saint's Tragedy (1848)
  • Alton Locke (1850)
  • Hypatia (1851)
  • Westward Ho! (1855)
  • The Heroes (1856) (Greek legends retold for children)
  • The Water-Babies (1863) (his most famous work for children)
  • Hereward the Wake (1866)
  • At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies (1871) (notes from a tour of the West Indies)
  • Town Geology (1872)
  • Prose Idylls, New and Old (1873) (collected essays)
  • Health and Education (1874)


Hutchinson's Twentieth Century Encyclopaedia, 1956

And for the quotes:

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