A Hebrew dictionary and a lost abbey

NOT MUCH REMAINS of Ramsey Abbey in a part of Cambridgeshire, which used to be in the former county of Huntingdonshire. Like most of the monastic institutions in England, Ramsey Abbey was ‘dissolved’ by Henry VIII. Ramsay was closed in 1539.

Founded in 969 by Bishop Oswald of Worcestershire (died 992), this abbey in the Fens achieved great importance, rivalling Ely and Peterborough. Three centuries before the first college (Peterhouse) was established at Cambridge in 1284, Ramsey was a renowned centre of scholarship. In addition to theological matters, the scholars at Ramsey studied a wide range of other subjects. One of the most eminent scholars, Abbo of Fleury (c945-1004), was brought to Ramsey by Oswald in 985. Abbo brought much knowledge from both the Classical world and the Arabic world to Ramsey, where he stayed for 18 months. Another leading scholar was Byrhtferth (c970-c1020), who was well-known for his studies of English history. He also wrote a scientific compendium in about 990. This included material about mathematics, properties of matter, astronomy, and medicine.

Geoffrey of Huntingdon, who lived in the 13th century, was Prior of Ramsey Abbey for about 38 years. He was a scholar, with great fluency in the languages of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. When the Jewish people were expelled from Britain in 1290, he bought from them as many Hebrew texts as he was ablee to find, including from the synagogues at Huntingdon and Stamford. Under Gregory’s influence, Ramsey became a centre of Hebrew studies. From the books and texts collected at Ramsey, a priest, Laurence Holbeach (died c1420), compiled a Hebrew dictionary in about 1410.

When Ramsey was dissolved in 1536, the dictionary was amongst the many scholarly works taken (or stolen) from the monastery by Robert Wakefield (or ‘Wachefeld) of Oxford, where he taught Hebrew from 1530 until his death. Wakefield, who died a year later, was a renowned English orientalist and Hebraist who taught at famous universities including Cambridge, Oxford, Paris, Louvain, and Tübingen. What became of this dictionary, I have not yet been able to discover.  

Whether the dictionary remains in existence or not, I cannot say, but I do know that by visiting the small town of Ramsey, the visitor can see some remains of the former abbey. These include the remains of a gatehouse, which is now looked after by the National Trust and the Church of St Thomas à Becket, now a parish church. The latter was already constructed in the 12th century. It was probably originally built as a hospital or infirmary for the abbey, but by 1222, it had become a parish church. The aisles were rebuilt in the 16th century and the current west tower was built in 1672. The church contains some lovely stained-glass windows both behind the high altar and on the eastern part of the southern wall. These windows, created in the early part of the 20th century, were made by Morris & Co, a company founded by William Morris.

The former abbey has a connection with Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), who was born in the nearby town of Huntingdon. In 1540, the estate of the former Ramsey Abbey was sold to Sir Richard Williams (1510-1544), also known as ‘Sir Richard Cromwell’. This man, who was Oliver Cromwell’s great grandfather, demolished most of the abbey, which was:

“… turned into a quarry, the lead from the roofs being melted down into fodders and ingots for sale to the highest bidder. Gonville and Caius college in Cambridge was built from the stone and Kings and Trinity were partly rebuilt. Stone from the Abbey also found its way into many local churches and other buildings” (https://ramseyabbey.co.uk/richard-cromwell/)

Richard’s son Henry built a Tudor house on the former abbey’s grounds. Henry’s son Oliver (born 1562), who was an ardent Royalist, much to the embarrassment of his nephew Oliver Cromwell, the famous Parliamentarian and ruler of England (the ‘Lord Protector’), lived in the house his father had built. This, the manor house, was sold to Coulson Fellowes in 1737 by the then owners, the Titus family. In 1804, the architect Sir John Soane enlarged the house. The building was further enlarged in 1839. Now the building houses Ramsey’s Abbey College. Currently the building looks far from being Tudor and by looking at its exterior, one cannot guess that it contains some remains of the early mediaeval abbey, on which it was built.

As a notice beside the remains of the gatehouse aptly states:

“After existing for nearly four centuries as the grounds of a private residence it is most fitting that a large part of the abbey site is now occupied by the Abbey College. The eighty or so monks in their black habits have been succeeded by a far greater number of students. Across the generations Ramsey has been the home of scholars who have sought to expand their knowledge of the world …”

I am certain that Bishop Oswald would be pleased to know although his scholarly establishment was closed by a King with dubious intentions, Ramsey continues to be a place of scholarship.

A village, a school, and Jemima Puddleduck

LONG MELFORD IN Suffolk is a village that I have passed through several times. It was only during our most recent visit in August 2021, when we stopped there to see its church and Melford Hall that I realised that the place has a connection with Highgate School (in north London), which I attended between 1965 and 1970.

Melford Hall sits on land that was once owned by the abbots of St Edmundsbury. As with all monastic property, it passed into the hands of King Henry VIII when he ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. The king with an eye to profit rather than the prophets sold the properties he had confiscated to wealthy buyers (nobles, merchants, and lawyers). Melford Hall and its lands were sold to a local lawyer, William Cordell (1522-1581). His father was a personal assistant (‘steward’) to Sir William Clopton, a lawyer and owner of Kentwell Hall at Long Melford. Young Cordell was sent to study law at Lincolns Inn and was called to the Bar at the early age of 22. An active politician during the reigns of Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I and a founder of the Russia Company, William Cordell acquired great wealth. It was he that bought the estate at Long Melford along with its stately home, Melford Hall. In addition, he married Sir William Clopton’s granddaughter, heiress to estates in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire.

Cordell did not build Melford Hall, but he did modify it in various ways. However, he did build the nearby Hospital of the Holy and Blessed Trinity in 1573. Situated across from the cathedral-like parish church, this was an almshouse for 12 aged men and women. The Great Church of The Holy Trinity stands behind and above the almshouse. It is a superb example of 15th century gothic architecture and is distinguished by having a separate Lady Chapel, which cannot be entered from the church, at its east end. It is one of the only parish churches in the country, which was never part of an abbey, to have such a feature. Within this fine church, Sir William Cordell’s elaborate sculpted tomb can be found in the chancel to the right (south) of the high altar. He died childless.

Amongst other important roles, William Cordell became Recorder of London. He succeeded his acquaintance, another lawyer from Lincolns Inn, Sir Roger Cholmeley (c1485-1565). Sir Roger was the founder of Highgate School during the final months of his life. This is the school I attended many years later.

Thomas Hinde, author of “Highgate School. A History” wrote that after Cholmeley, William Cordell was the school’s greatest early benefactor. Connected with two other educational establishments, St Johns College in Cambridge and Merchants Taylors’ School, Cordell became a Governor of Highgate School in 1576.

When I was at Highgate, it only admitted boys. Some pupils, including me, were day boys, and others were boarders. The boarders lived in one of four houses: School House, The Lodge, Grindal House, and Cordell House. Grindal was named to commemorate Bishop Edmund Grindal (c1519-1583), who helped establish Highgate School and Cordell was named to honour William Cordell. Until We visited Long Melford, I had no idea about the reason for giving Cordell House its name.

Returning to Melford Hall, once the home of William Cordell, it has passed through many generations of the Hyde Parker family, who acquired the hall and its grounds in 1786 from a descendant of both William’s sister and his cousin, Thomas Cordell. In 1890. The Reverend Sir William Hyde Parker (1863-1931) married Ethel Leech (1861-1941) in 1890. Ethel had a cousin, who has become extremely well-known, the children’s author Beatrix Potter (1866-1943). She used to visit the Hyde Parkers at Melford Hall, where she stayed occasionally. She used to draw and sketch many features of the hall and its grounds. We were shown one of the bedrooms in which she used to sleep. Nearby in a glass-fronted display cabinet, you can see a toy duck, wearing the outfit that Beatrix had created for it. This duck was the inspiration for her book “The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck”, which was first published in July 1908.

I had seen photographs of Melford Hall, which made me want to visit it, and I was not disappointed. However, I had not expected to learn that the Hall and the village have connections with both Beatrix Potter and one of the earliest benefactors and governors of the secondary school I attended in Highgate. Our visit to Long Melford certainly broadened our minds, as the popular saying goes. I will leave you with how GK Chesterton, who attended St Paul’s School rather than Highgate, expressed this idea in his “The Shadow of the Shark”:

“They say travel broadens the mind, but you must have the mind.”

Locked in a church overnight

THE BATTLE OF NASEBY was fought on the 14th of June 1645 between the Royalists, led by King Charles I and his nephew Prince Rupert of the Rhine, and the Parliamentarians, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell. It was a victory for the Parliamentarians and the last major battle in the (First) English Civil War (1642-1646), putting an end to any hopes that the king had of winning the conflict. The battlefield at Naseby is about 5 miles southwest of the small Leicestershire town of Market Harborough, which we visited for the first time in July 2021. We dove there, almost accidentally, after having had a frustrating experience navigating the ring road around the town of Rugby without finding a route to its old centre.  Shamefacedly, I must admit that we were completely ignorant of this town’s connections with the Civil War and the Battle of Naseby.

It was at Market Harborough that King Charles had his headquarters before the fight at Naseby. I am not sure which buildings in the town were used by the king, but one of them, still in existence, might possibly have been visited by the royal person. This is the former coaching inn, The Three Swans. Its website informs us with appropriate cautiousness:

“Like most old inns, The Three Swans has become the subject of a number of legends, often passed on with varying degrees of accuracy. One is that Charles I visited the inn on the night before the Battle of Naseby in June 1645. According to surviving records made at the time, the king actually retired for the night two miles down the road at the private house of Lubenham Hall. He was raised from his bed at 11pm by reports of the unexpected arrival of the Parliamentarian army just eight miles away at Naseby. He rushed to Market Harborough to meet his senior General, his nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, who had established his military headquarters in the town.

At midnight they met with several other commanders for a council of war. The venue for the meeting is unknown. It could have been The Swan, or it could just as easily have been anywhere else in the town…” (from a pdf accessed via www.threeswans.co.uk/about/history/).

An information plaque in the town suggests that on the eve of the battle, the king and Prince Rupert conferred in an Inn on Church Street, the site of the present Kings Head Pub. The present establishment was built in the 19th century.

There might be some uncertainty about the king’s whereabouts in Market Harborough before the Battle of Naseby, but there is no doubt where some of his soldiers spent some time as prisoners after the Royalists were defeated. After the battle, the Parliamentarian Provost Marshall had to secure the 4000 to 5000 Royalist soldiers who had been captured during fight at Naseby.         The only building in Market Harborough large enough to house this large number of captives and to secure them was the centrally located church of St Dionysius, which is close to both the Three Swans and The Kings Head. They were held in the church for one night before they were marched to London via nearby Northampton.

St Dionysius church and The Old Grammar School in Market Harborough

The construction of the Church of St Dionysius with its tall tower with steeple was started in the 13th century, but much of its structure dates to the 14th and 15th centuries. High up on a wall at the west end of the church is a depiction of the royal coat-of-arms dated 1660. This was the date when the monarchy, led by King Charles II, was restored in England. Five years earlier, the church was crowded with tired soldiers, who had fought in vain for Charles’s father, who was executed on the 30th of January 1649.

Some, if not all, of the Royalist soldiers, who were about to be incarcerated in St Dionysius, might have noticed a curious structure next to its southern side. Built in 1614, this building, which stands on sturdy wooden posts at least 6 feet high, must have seemed quite new in 1645. It was the grammar school founded by in 1607 by Robert Smyth, a resident of the town who became Comptroller of the City of London’s Chamber and member of the Merchant Taylors’ Company. The structure, which you see today, was funded by Smyth’s money. The school, which is accessed by a staircase, stands raised high above the ground. The space beneath it was created to keep the town’s market dry in wet weather. Many years later, a descendant of this school was established elsewhere in the town. Now known as the Robert Smyth Academy, one of its past students was the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Sir William Henry Bragg.

Today, the centre of Market Harborough is pleasantly vibrant with a good range of shops and eateries. Contemporary life and memories of the town’s history rub shoulders harmoniously in this place that deserves the attention of more tourists.

On our return from Market Harborough and the fascinating Foxton lock staircase nearby, we did manage to find our way into the heart of the town of Rugby, which did not impress us nearly as much as Market Harborough.

Sexey in Somerset

THE RIVER BRUE flows through the Somerset town of Bruton. In the Domesday Book (1086), its name was recorded as ‘Briuuetone’, which is derived from Old English words meaning ‘vigorously flowing river’. In brief, this small town is picturesque and filled with buildings of historical interest: a church; several long-established schools; municipal edifices; an alms-house; shops; and residences. On a recent visit, we drove past a Tudor building that was adorned with a crest labelled “Hugh Sexey” and the date “1638”. At first, I thought it was a sort of joke, rather like ‘Sexy Fish’, the name of a restaurant in London’s Berkeley Square. I walked back to the building after parking the car.

I looked at the sign, and my curiosity was immediately aroused. The crest bears a pair of eagles with two heads each, double-headed eagles (‘DHE’). Now, as some of my readers might already know, the DHE is a symbol that has fascinated me for a long time. This bird with two heads has been used as an emblem by the Seljuk Turks, the Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires, Russia (before and after Communism), the Indian state of Karnataka, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, and some people in pre-Columbian America, to name but a few. In the UK, several families employ this creature on their coats-of-arms. These include the Godolphin, the Killigrew, and the Hoare families, to name but a few. Each of these three families has connections with the county Cornwall, which, through Richard, Earl of Cornwall (1209-1272) and King of the Germans, had a strong connection with the Holy Roman Empire, whose symbol was the DHE.  Until I arrived outside the building in Bruton, Sexey’s Hospital, I had no idea about the existence of the Sexey family nor its association with the DHE.

Sir Hugh Sexey (c1540 or 1556-1619) was born near Bruton. He became royal auditor of the Exchequer to Queen Elizabeth I and later King James I, and amassed a great fortune. After his death, much of his wealth was used for charitable purposes in and around Bruton. Two institutions that resulted from his money and still exist today are Sexey’s Hospital, outside of which I first spotted the crest with two DHEs and Sexey’s School (www.sexeys.somerset.sch.uk/about-us/the-sexeys-story/). The school, which is now housed in premises separate from the hospital (now an old age home), was first housed in the same premises as the hospital.

According to the school’s website:

“…a two headed spread eagle is taken from the seal used by Hugh Sexey later in his life which can be seen on his memorial on Sexey’s Hospital …”

The article then considers the DHE (‘spread eagle’) as follows:

“Traditionally the spread eagle was considered a symbol of perspicacity, courage, strength and even immortality in heraldry. Prior to notions of medieval heraldry, in Ancient Rome the symbol became synonymous with power and strength after being introduced as the heraldic animal by Consul Gaius Marius in 102BC (subsequently being used as the symbol of the Legion), whilst it has been used widely in mythology and ancient religion. In Greek civilisation it was linked to the God Zeus, by the Romans with Jupiter and by Germanic tribes with Odin. In Judeo-Christian scripture Isa (40:31) used it to symbolise those who hope in God and it is widely used in Christian art to symbolise St John the Evangelist. An heraldic eagle with its wings spread also denotes that its bearer is considered a protector of others. Sexey’s seal and crest may have included the spread eagle to symbolise the family’s Germanic heritage.”

Some of this is in accordance with what I have read before, but I need to cross-check much of the rest of it, especially the Greek and Roman aspects. The final sentence relating to Germanic heritage seems quite sound, as the DHE was an important symbol in the Holy Roman Empire.

There is a sculpted stone bust of Sir Hugh Sexey in the courtyard of his hospital (really, almshouses), which was built in the 1630s. This portrait was put in its position in the 17th century long after his death. Above the bust, there is a carved stone crest bearing two DHEs, which was created by William Stanton (1639-1705) from London. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (‘DNB’):

“ Later in the seventeenth century a stone bust of Sexey, together with a coat of arms (that of the Saxey family of Bristol, with which he had no known connection), was placed over the entrance hall…”

The plot thickens as I now wonder whether the DHEs are related to the Sexey family or that of the above-mentioned Saxey family. A quick search of the Internet for the coats-of-arms of both the Sexey and the Saxey families revealed no DHEs except on crests relating to Bruton’s two Sexey foundations.

One family that was involved in the history of Bruton and whose crest bears the DHE is Hoare. They took over the ownership of the manor from the Berkely family in 1776. This is long after Hugh Sexey died and is therefore unlikely to be the reason that William Stanton included the DHEs on the crest above Sir Hugh’s bust. So, as yet, I cannot discover the history of the DHEs that appear all over Sir Hugh’s hospital and neither can I relate them to any other British family that uses this heraldic symbol. But none of this should mar your enjoyment of the charming town of Bruton.

What’s in a name?

THE NAME MOLESWORTH immediately recalls a naughty schoolboy who cannot spell properly.  Nigel Molesworth, a pupil in St Custards, a preparatory school, appears as a character in books by Geoffrey Willans (1911-1958) such as “Down with Skool”, “How to be Topp”, and “Whizz for Atomms”. However, for the Cornish town of Wadebridge, the name Molesworth has other significance.

One of the main shopping thoroughfares in Wadebridge is called Molesworth Street. The Town Hall was opened in 1888 by Sir Paul Molesworth (1821-1889). A pub called The Molesworth Hotel, a former coaching inn housed in a building that dates back to the 16th century, is located on the street named after Molesworth. The pub was only named as it is today in 1817. Previously, it had various names including The Fox, The King’s Arms, and The Fountain.

Wikipedia informs us that:

“The Molesworth, later Molesworth-St Aubyn Baronetcy, of Pencarrow near St Mabyn in Cornwall, is a title in the Baronetage of England. It was created on 19 July 1689 for Hender Molesworth.”

Hender Molesworth (c1638-1689) was a Governor of Jamaica from 1684 to 1687 and from 1688 to 1689. Pencarrow House is just under 4 miles southeast of Wadebridge. Each of the 2nd, 4th,6th, and 8th Baronets represented Cornwall or parts of the county in Parliament. The Molesworths were (are?) major landlords in the area around Wadebridge.

Sir William Molesworth, 8th Baronet (1810–1855), was the grandfather of Sir Paul, who opened the Town Hall in 1888. This edifice bears a weathervane in the form of a steam railway locomotive. After undertaking a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, which lasted from 1828 to 1831, William made his way to Pencarrow, where he:

“…devoted time to establishing the Wadebridge-Bodmin Railway company. He engaged Hopkins the civil engineer to survey the land for the route with the prospectus for the formation of the Railway Company drawn up by Mr Woollcombe, from the family’s firm of solicitors.” (www.pencarrow.co.uk/story/sir-william-molesworth/)

This railway opened in 1834, was the first steam railway in Cornwall.  It continued in service until 1979. The tracks have been removed but some of Wadebridge’s station buildings have been preserved,

William became interested in radical politics. In 1832, he was elected Member for East Cornwall, and re-elected in 1835. As an MP, he:

“…had joined a group named the ‘Philosophical Radicals’ who advocated various reforms such as universal education, disestablishment of the church and universal suffrage.”

Between 1837 and 1841, William, having alienated his Cornish electorate, sat in the House of Commons, representing Leeds. After falling out with his Leeds constituents on account of his views on foreign policy, he retired to Pencarrow, where he dedicated his time to improving the gardens.

In 1844, William married a widow, an opera singer Andalusia (née Carstairs), who died in 1888. The year after his marriage, William was elected MP for London’s Southwark constituency, a seat he held until his death. Amongst his positions whilst representing Southwark, he was Secretary for The Colonies during the last few months of his life. He had wished to be buried in his grounds in Pencarrow, but instead he was buried in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery.

Sir William and his family are deeply involved in the history of Wadebridge and it is right that the Molesworth name is so prominent in the town. From now onwards when I hear or read the name Molesworth, a naughty schoolboy with spelling problems will not be the only thing that springs to mind.

Friedrich Engels and his unfortunate neighbours

FRIEDRICH ENGELS LIVED almost opposite London’s Primrose Hill at number 122 Regents Park Road. A colleague and friend of Karl Marx, he lived between 1870 and just before his death in 1895 in this large house located 360 yards west of the railway lines that run from Euston to places outside London.  His residence had been chosen for him by Jenny (1814-1881), wife of Karl Marx. Every Sunday, Engels used to hold an ‘open house’; all visitors were welcome. Liberal amounts of food and drink would be available and there was music and singing. According to Tristram Hunt, a biographer of Engels, the visitors included, for example, leaders of European socialism such as Karl Kautsky, William Morris, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Keir Hardie, Eduard Bernstein, and Henry Hindman. Hindman, who was a mentor and supporter of the Indian freedom fighter Shyamji Krishnavarma, who was active in Highgate between 1905 and 1910, nicknamed Engels ‘The Grand Lama of Regents Park Road’. Amongst visitors from Russia:

“The founders of Russian Marxism, George Plekhanov and Paul Axelrod, considered the visit to his house in Regents Park Road a necessary pilgrimage whenever they were in London. Vera Zasulitch, who lived in London was another regular visitor as indeed was Stepniak, the terrorist author of “Underground Russia”” (note 1)

The congregation of so many socialists at his home attracted the attention of the police, who frequently kept number 122 under surveillance. Lenin, who first visited London in 1902, clearly would have not been able to visit Engels at Primrose Hill.

We visit Regents Park Road on some Saturdays and Sundays when parking is easy and free of charge, but, alas, we were born far too late to have been able to enjoy the stimulating atmosphere that must have reigned in the home of Engels on Sundays. Despite the absence of the great Engels, there is much to enjoy along the road where he lived, even during these restricting times of the covid19 ‘lockdown’. Apart from fresh air in plenty on Primrose Hill, there are interesting food shops and a few places that serve hot drinks to passers-by. One of these, which we favour, is Greenberry Café, which is located near to the railway lines. Almost next to this establishment, there is a building set back from the road. Its red brick façade is topped with a green tiled pediment with white lettering that reads:


Chalk Farm Garage

Proprietors

The Flight Petroleum Co Ltd

The ground floor of this building, which might once have included the workshops of the garage are closed in with modern glazing. Now used as the art gallery of the Freelands Foundation (https://freelandsfoundation.co.uk/about), this used to be a regular local petrol filling station. Flight Petroleum is a company that still exists. It is based in Mississippi (USA).  Before becoming a gallery, the former filling station was a branch of the Bibendum company that supplied alcohol not as motor fuel but in the form of wines and spirits.

Almost next to the former garage, a few feet left (i.e, west) of it, there is a curious looking white building, that was not built as a dwelling or a shop. On 19th and early 20th century maps, this is marked as being a ‘chapel’. An extremely detailed (5 feet to the mile) map of 1895 reveals that this chapel was in the grounds of the ‘Boys’ Home Industrial School’. The school’s grounds occupied much of the corner of Regents Park Road and King Henrys Road that meets the former at an acute angle. Where the former garage stands now used to be the entrance to the courtyard around which the school’s buildings were arranged.

I looked at two useful websites, www.childrenshomes.org.uk/EustonBoysIS/ and http://whispersandvoices.blogspot.com/2009/07/boys-home-regents-park-road-london.html, to learn about the school and its history. The school was originally founded by the physician and social reformer George William Bell (1813-1889) as the ‘Home for Unconvicted Destitute Boys’ in 1858 in some houses on Euston Road, where the British library stands currently. Later that year it became a certified ‘Industrial School’, which admitted boys sent by the courts for their protection as well as those who came voluntarily. In 1865, the school had to move because its premises were to be demolished in order to build a railway goods shed.

The school moved to new premises on Regents Park Road, initially a row of three houses. The chapel, one of whose pediments bears the letter ‘T’, was added after the school received a donation from a generous donor and was later superseded by the establishment of the St Marys Church on the northeast corner of Primrose Hill.  In 1868, a new school room was built on the northern side of the school’s yard. This was raised on arches, the spaces beneath them being used to store materials such as wood that was used in some of the practical classes taught in the establishment. By the 1890s, the school occupied the buildings that now form the corner of Regents Park and King Henrys Roads.

The boys learnt a variety of skills including carpentry, brushmaking, tailoring, shoemaking, and so on. They were also hired out to local residents, as Edward Walford described (writing in 1882):

“A large quantity of firewood is cut on the premises, and delivered to customers, and several boys are employed by private families in the neighbourhood in cleaning knives and shoes. The amount of industrial work done in the Home is highly satisfactory. The products of the labour of the boys and their teachers —clothes, shoes and boots, brushes of every kind, carpentry and firewood—are sold, and contribute to the general funds of the institution …”

I wonder whether any of these highly productive young boys did jobs for the household of Friedrich Engels, who lived close by. At the same time as they were beavering away, so was Engels. During his residence close to the school, he:

“ … wrote many of his famous works at № 122—The Housing Question (1872), Anti-Duhring (1877-78), the revised form of three chapters of this book published as Socialism, Utopian and Scientific (1880), Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Ludwig Feuerbach (1888).” (www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/sections/britain/pamphlets/1963/london_landmarks/index.htm).

Engels died in 1895. The school closed in 1920. On a map surveyed in 1938, the school’s courtyard still existed, the garage was not yet built, and the chapel was still marked as such. Today, there is no memorial to the school where it used to stand, but Engels’ house is distinguished from its neighbours by a circular plaque. Both the school and Engels were involved in social reform and the welfare of the oppressed, but few today would associate this pleasant road near Primrose Hill with those historical activities.

Note 1:

www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/F19FEAB88CAD3C1ACBB7B917B1EC1E00/S0020859000002364a.pdf/russian_emigration_and_british_marxist_socialism.pdf

A Christmas carol

I HAVE JUST HEARD a BBC concert of Christmas music this evening (18th of December 2020). The performance was good, the music and songs enjoyable, and that was just about it until we reached the final item, a performance of “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. The ‘author’ of the words of this carol, which were originally in Latin, is uncertain but might be one of the following: John Francis Wade (1711–1786), John Reading (1645–1692), King John IV of Portugal (1604–1656), and anonymous Cistercian monks. Hearing this carol evoked strong emotions and recalled memories of long ago.

St Michaels, Highgate

Every Christmas term when I was at school, we had to sing the carol in Latin. Its first verse is as follows:

“Adeste fideles læti triumphantes,

Venite, venite in Bethlehem.

Natum videte

Regem angelorum:

Venite adoremus, venite adoremus, venite adoremus,

Dominum.”

Hearing the tune of this hymn transports my mind to the wooden pews in the large draughty nave of the Victorian Church of St Michael in Highgate (built by 1832). Our school’s Christmas Carol service took place in that church. For some inexplicable reason, the carol moved me much more than any of the other carols that were sung year after year, and whenever I hear it, it still stirs up strong emotions.

After leaving my school in Highgate, and completing my PhD, I used to spend Christmas with my PhD supervisor, Professor Robert Harkness, and his family. On Christmas morning after breakfast, we used to tramp across the fields in the Buckinghamshire countryside to Hedgerley Church, where we attended a Christmas morning service. The service involved carol singing. The song “O, Come All Ye Faithful” was sung every year, in its English translation. Robert, who had been schooled at Winchester and had a strong, good singing voice, always sung the song in Latin whilst everyone around him sung it in English.

I left school fifty years ago. I last spent Christmas with the Harkness family in about 1998, and Robert died in 2006. Far off as these events are becoming, hearing this carol, either in Latin or in English, always manages to evoke a welling of nostalgic feelings. Why this should occur, is a mystery to me.

ABC and a London school

I WAS HAPPY TO find a reprint of “History and Antiquities of Highgate” by Frederick Prickett, first published in 1842. He wrote in detail about the early history of Highgate School, which was founded in 1565 and which I attended between 1965, when the school celebrated its 400th anniversary, and 1970. While not wanting to reproduce all he wrote, I will present several aspects of his history of the early years of my ‘old school’, which attracted me.

Part of Highgate School

The story of Highgate School begins at Muswell Hill, one and a third miles north of Highgate. In mediaeval times, there was a holy well located there in what was an outpost of the central London Parish of Clerkenwell. Also, there was an image of Our Lady of Muswell, to which many pilgrims were attracted. The chapel associated with it was established in 1112 by the then Bishop of London. Pilgrims travelling from London to Muswell Hill would have had to ascent the steep slope of Highgate Hill. At the summit, there used to be a chapel or hermitage established some time before Robert de Braybrook (died 1404), Bishop of London, gave it to the poor hermit William Lichfield in 1386. Pilgrims could stop at the chapel to say prayers or rest in a small room attached to the chapel.

In 1531, Bishop John Stokesley (c1475-1539), the Roman Catholic Bishop of London and opponent of Lutheranism who christened the future Queen Elizabeth I, granted the hermitage/chapel to William Forte, the last hermit of Highgate. In 1565, the firmly Protestant Bishop Edmund Grindall (c1519-1583), who was Archbishop of Canterbury between 1576 and 1583, granted the chapel and “ houses, edifices, etc., gardens and orchards”,  to the ‘Grammar School’. It is at this point that we need to meet Sir Roger de Cholmeley (c1485-1565).

According to Prickett, Sir Roger:

“…turned his attention to the law, and so effectually that he became successively reader in Lincoln’s Inn, a bencher of that society, serjeant at law, king’s serjeant, chief baron of the exchequer, and, finally, chief justice of the Kings Bench.”

Disaster struck when Queen Mary (reigned 1553-1558) came to the throne. Sir Roger was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his part in drawing up the will of King Edward VI and for signing Lady Jane Grey’s instrument of succession as queen, and his daughters were disinherited. On his release, he settled in Hornsey, did not resume any of his former governmental positions, and worked as a barrister.

Sir Roger was a self-made success, not having relied on parental assistance. Out of gratitude to God, he:

“… he entertained the desire, participated in by many other pious and distinguished Protestants, of endowing a public grammar school, for the diffusion of knowledge and maintenance of true religion …”

He founded what was to become Highgate School in 1565, shortly before his death that year and left money in his will to support its existence.

In December 1571, the school’s six governors, one of whom was Sir Roger’s son, Jasper Cholmeley Esq., signed the school’s rules, laws, and statutes. There were thirteen of these regulations, the first of which included the words:

“ … there be an honest and learned schoolmaster appointed and placed to teach the scholars coming coming to this free school; which schoolmaster that so shall be placed, be Graduate of good, sober, and honest conversation, and no light person, who shall teach and instruct young children in their ABC and other English books …”

The ‘ABC’ mentioned was not, as I first thought, a simple introduction to the alphabet, but, as Prickett points out:

“… a black letter book, called the ABC with the Catechisme: that is to say, an instruction to be taught and learned of every child before he be brought to be confirmed by the Bishop…”

Prickett wrote that the “ABC with the Catechisme” was written by King Henry VII and then reprinted in the reign of Edward VI. Ian Green suggests that the text in this booklet first appeared as a section in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer and then later separately (https://extra.shu.ac.uk/emls/03-3/rev_bru2.html#).

The school is no longer a ‘free school’ and has not been so for a long time. By the 1820s, the school, like many others in England at that time, had declined considerably, both materially and pedagogically. New classrooms and school buildings were built.  Then, in 1824, the statutes were modified considerably. Forty scholars chosen by the governors, and no more than this, from Highgate, Holloway, Hornsey, Finchley, Kentish Town, and other close areas, were to be admitted free of charge. Boys had to be between 8 and 18 years old. Each pupil, on being admitted to the school, had to pay twenty-one shillings (£1.05) towards the library. In addition to the forty scholars, other boys could attend the school for an annual fee of £12 and 12 shillings (£12.60).

How times have changed, Today, the school admits children between the ages of 3 and 18, both boys and girls. Sir Roger de Cholmeley would be pleased to learn that recently the school he founded has been recognised as the winner of ‘The Independent School of the Year 2020’ award. However, he might be shocked to learn that the annual fees for his ‘free school’ are in excess of £21,000

Woodwork or Latin

A FRIEND POSTED A PICTURE of something he had created in wood at school when he was about 14 or 15 years old. It looks to be an extremely competent creation. Seeing this, reminded me of when I had to attend woodwork classes at roughly the same age at my secondary school, Highgate in north London.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Once a week, under the watchful eye of the woodwork teacher, Mr Bowles, I participated in a woodwork class in the school’s specially equipped workshop. Mr Bowles was well-known for saying of the timber he supplied in the class:

“Don’t waste it. You know that wood does not grow on trees.”

Although many years later, I was able to perform complex manual tasks whilst practising dentistry, in my early teens I was not skilled at performing three-dimensional manual exercises. I could draw and paint reasonably well, but model-making and woodwork were not amongst my skills.

I struggled with a tool called the sliding bevel when trying to create dovetail joints, which seemed to be of great importance to Mr Bowles. We were set what he regarded as simple tasks. With great difficulty, I completed two of these. I produced a tea tray, which was next to useless as it was only able to rest on two of its four corners at any one time. The bookshelf which could hold up to eight average thickness paperbacks suffered the same problem. Somehow, I had managed to introduce a twist into it so that its two ends were not in alignment. My parents, for whom it was suggested by our teacher that these would make fine gifts, were totally unimpressed. It would have been dishonest of them to have been otherwise.

My prospects of becoming a skilled carpenter were not looking great. Then, my fate changed suddenly one afternoon. I had just finished the school day and was walking across a polished wooden floor, when I slipped and fell. As I began to get back on my feet, I noticed that my left wrist was bent in an unnatural way and was a bit painful. Having recently completed a first-aid course, during which we were taught to tie complicated bandages instead of learning resuscitation and life support, I realised that I had most probably broken a bone.

I walked over to the caretaker’s home across the school’s quadrangle and found him. He said that he would ring my parents and while we were waiting for them to arrive, he gave me a cup of tea and biscuits. This kind gesture meant that I had to wait several hours before it was safe for me to have a general anaesthetic for setting my arm at the nearby Whittington Hospital.

My arm was encased in plaster, which remained in place for six weeks or longer. This accident was a lucky break for me. First of all, my popularity rating rocketed. Prior to my accident, many of my school fellows believed that I was rather unexciting and unadventurous, not even a ‘nerd’. Seeing my arm in plaster, suggested to these classmates that I must have been up to no good. Maybe, I had fallen out of a tree or had an accident on roller skates or on a bicycle. I kept quiet about the innocuous cause of my fracture and enjoyed experiencing the increase in my ‘street cred’. Even after my plaster was removed, my schoolmates retained their improved opinion of my personality.

Doing woodwork with one arm in plaster was not thought advisable. So, I was excused from the second and final term of woodwork classes. Actually, I doubt that using only one arm would have affected my woodwork much, as it was already appalling with two arms. 

At the end of the school year during which we had to study woodwork, we had to make subject choices. Basically, the choice was to follow the ‘arts’ or the ‘sciences’. The choices were history or physics; geography or chemistry; and … wait for it … Latin … or  … woodwork.  To be honest, the latter was a ‘no brainer’ of a choice. Woodwork did not get my (or my parents’) vote. But, as it is good to be truthful, my Latin was barely better than my woodwork. Although I struggled with Latin at school, it has proved useful especially when studying anatomy and, also, when wandering amongst tombstones. As for woodwork, Mr Bowles might be pleased to learn that over the years I have put up several shelves that were able to carry heavy loads. Now, as you read this, do not get any ideas about getting in touch with me to put up shelving in your homes.

A Jewish academy in north London

WHEN I ENTERED HIGHGATE School at the age of thirteen, daily attendance of religious activity was obligatory. Highgate School was basically a Church of England establishment, but by 1965, 400 years after the school’s founding, it recognised religious diversity to some extent. I was offered the choice of attending ‘chapel’ (Church of England), or ‘Roman Catholic Circle’, or ‘Jewish Circle’. In those, now far-off days, the options of ‘Hindu Circle’ and ‘Islamic Circle’ or even ‘Witches Circle’ were not available.

A few days ago, I received a facsimile edition of “The Northern Heights of London” by the Quaker William Howitt (1792-1879), published in 1869. In a short section on religious communities in Highgate, I read the following:

“Some years ago there was a Jewish academy in Highgate, conducted by Mr Hyman Hurwitz. It was the only thing of the kind in the kingdom, except one on a small scale in Brighton. It had generally about a hundred pupils, sons of the chief families of the Jews; and there was a synagogue for their use. There was also a school for Jewish young ladies, established by Miss Hurwitz, the sister of Mr Hurwitz.”

Seeing this, which was information I had never seen before, I reached for my copy of “A History of the Jews in England” by Albert Montefiore Hyamson (1875-1954), published in 1928. I bought my copy of this book in a second-hand bookshop in Bangalore (India) for a mere 200 Indian Rupees (currently just over £2).  Hyamson, a civil servant and historian, was an ardent advocate of founding a single state for Arabs and Jews in Palestine, an idea that infuriated many Zionists. Regarding Hyman Hurwitz (1770-1844), he wrote in some detail, which I will summarise and add to.

Hurwitz, born in Posen (now ‘Poznan’ in Poland), was a friend of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who is buried in Highgate, where he died. They lived near each other in Highgate:

“Coleridge and Hurwitz were neighbors and friends living in Highgate, London, England. There are fourteen letters from Coleridge discussing the work of both Hurwitz and Coleridge, including publishing and editing. One letter dated 17 May 1825 from Coleridge encloses a note from his nephew John Taylor Coleridge regarding publication of Hurtwitz’s work through Mr. Murray. A theoretical discussion on the history of language by Coleridge is the subject of the 16 September 1829 letter. The correspondence also includes a recommendation from Coleridge to Leonard Horner regarding Hurwitz’s position as Hebrew professor at the new University College, London, dated 27 November 1827.” (https://franklin.library.upenn.edu/catalog/FRANKLIN_9954204173503681).

 Hurwitz opened The Highgate Academy, a higher school for Jewish boys, in about 1799. Later, on the recommendation of Coleridge, he was appointed the first Professor of Hebrew at University College (London), now UCL, which was founded as a university for Jews, atheists, dissenters, and women, in 1826. Hurwitz’s publications included “Introduction to Hebrew Grammar” (1835), which was the standard grammar for English Jews for many years, and “Hebrew Tales” (1826) as well as “Vindicia Hebraica” (1820).  

The school in Highgate was housed in Church House, which I will discuss soon. In 1821, Hurwitz extended the lease on these premises for another seventeen years. Soon after this, he handed over the direction of his school to his assistant Leopold Neumegen (1787-1875), who moved from Highgate to Kew in 1840, where he lived in Gloucester House, and is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Fulham. In 1821 or 1822, Hurwitz moved his home from Highgate to Grenada Cottage in the Old Kent Road (“Marginalia: Camden to Hutton”, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, publ. by Princeton University Press: 1980).

Chris Rubinstein wrote (www.friendsofcoleridge.com/MembersOnly/CB24/12%20CB%2024%20Rubinstein.pdf) that Coleridge’s friendship with Hurwitz continued after Hyman left Highgate:

“Coleridge described him as the Luther of Judaism. His eulogies of Hurwitz in his Notebooks and letters were copious from 1816 onwards. The two co-operated in the field of Hebrew learning, each of use to the other as they both well knew. Coleridge relied on Hurwitz for much of his understanding of meanings in the Old Testament, as Hurwitz was authoritative regarding the subtleties of Hebrew, ‘the science of words’ Coleridge’s own phrase. Without his help Coleridge’s vast erudition would have been seriously diminished. And he helped Hurwitz with publication of a least two of his books, one a study of the Hebrew Language, then innovative though ultimately superseded, and the other Hebrew Tales, a best-seller in the 19th century. Coleridge himself contributed three of its many insightful and telling anecdotes. Each of them used the other’s knowledge openly and with attribution.”

So much for the close relationship between a famous poet and a now obscure Jewish scholar. Let us return to Church House in Highgate. Church House is currently number 10 South Grove, next door to the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution, in the heart of Highgate Village. The land on which it stands was once owned by Sir Roger de Cholmeley (c1485-1565), who founded Highgate School in 1565, which I attended between 1965 and 1970. The present building with its red brick façade was built in the early 18th century.

In 1759, the house came into the possession of Sir John Hawkins (1719-1789), a surveyor and lawyer. Following his death, the house was left to his wife, and then to his son, John Sidney Hawkins, who died in 1842.  It was from this man that Hurwitz leased Church House at first between 1800 and 1820, and then for a further 17 years as already mentioned (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol17/pt1/pp32-38).

Well, I did not know anything about Hurwitz and his Highgate Jewish school when I was at the older educational establishment not many yards away. I used to pass Church House every Thursday morning when those, including me, who had opted for Chapel rather than Jewish Circle or Roman Catholic Circle, attended a morning service at the Victorian Gothic Church of St Michael not far from it.

Hurwitz was born in what was Prussia a couple of decades before my great-great grandfather Dr Nathan Ginsberg (1814-1890), who was born in the Prussian city of Breslau (now ‘Wrocław’ in Poland). Both men were intellectual giants. Neither of them would have been able to teach in German universities without first converting to Christianity. Both of them founded schools for Jewish children, Hyman in London, and Nathan in the Prussian city of Beuthen (now ‘Bytom’, in Poland). Nathan, my ancestor, started his school because he was unwilling to be baptised in order to be eligible to accept the professorships he was offered in Germany. Hyman established his school in London before Jews were able to teach in English Universities, but fortunately for him the establishment of University College with its willingness to accept Jewish people, allowed him to become a professor. I wonder whether my forefather, Nathan,  ever considered trying to become a university teacher at the university in London that opened when he was only twelve years old and about which he must surely have been aware as he grew older.