(Excerpt from Autobiographical Recollections of Sir John Bowring, with a brief memoir by L.B. Bowring (King & Co, 1877). He was born in 1792 and died in 1872 after a very distinguished career. p. 44-50)
I was sent to school at Moreton-Hampstead, then one of the rudest spots in Devonshire, the joke being that it was made out of the rubbish that was left when the rest of the world was created. There were then no roads passable by wheel-carriages of any sort, and everything was conveyed to and from Exeter on crooks, bent branches of trees which were fastened to pack-saddles, seated on one of which I departed from home. The schoolmaster’s name was Bransby, James H. Bransby. He was the son of an instrument-maker at Ipswich, I think, and being dissatisfied with the orthodox faith of his fathers, deserted to the Unitarians, and was educated by Mr. T. Kenrick in an academy of divinity established in Exeter. He was not a very wise, nor a very honest man, but had in him some dry humour, some knowledge of old books, some amusing stories, and was of what was called an affectionate nature. I recollect the first sermon he preached to his country congregation at Moreton-Hampstead. The text was ‘Fulfil ye my joy’. He represented himself as bound to his hearers till death, bound by inseparable links. Afterwards a larger salary was offered to him at Dudley, which, naturally enough, he accepted, but how bitterly was he reproached by the Moretonians. The ‘Fulfil ye my joy’ sermon, with all its protestations, all remembered, all recorded (for they had been most flattering to the pride of the rural flock) was flung at his head, and cast into his teeth. Poor man! He did not inspire his pupils with much respect, for they found out that he could tell little fibs and do little dishonesties. He was accustomed to accompany his scholars in their country walks. On one occasion he tumbled over a stone, and told us he had hurt his shin and must go home, but that we were to continue our walk, and return by the same road. With the common perverseness and disobedient spirit of boys, we determined to go home by a different road; and lo! at about a mile or two from the town, on the opposite side from that by which we had gone out, we suddenly stumbled upon our master, seated on a stile, with the young lady he was courting, and reading love-poetry to his ‘mistress eye-brow’. The words we heard were:
‘Humid seal of soft affection,
Love’s first snow-drop virgin kiss!’
He had not the courage to reprove or punish us, and we had among us some wicked wits, who would certainly have given him a Roland for his Oliver. On another occasion, however, he did punish us, and that also was connected with the history of his lady-love. Her name was Isaac, and she was the daughter of a Welsh Baptist minister who kept bees, wrote a book about them, drank nothing but mead or metheglin made from his own hives, and rejoiced greatly in a pun of his own making, that he ruled over one of the most ancient nations of the world, the Hivites, proudly referring to the Bible for his authority. Mr Bransby was passionately in love with his fair one, and sometimes sadly neglected the duties of the school, in order that he might enjoy her company, for she lived in an adjacent street. Our evening lessons were frequently left without superintendence. Our schoolroom was over a cellar, in which was a pump, and one evening, when our tutor had run away to pay his devoirs to his chosen one, it was determined that all the school should retreat to the cellar, that the two lowest stairs should be sawn away, and the cellar then be filled with water from the pump, while the heroes were to keep themselves dry on a heap of coals that lay in a corner. In due time the master came home, found the schoolroom empty, wandered over the house, where he discovered nobody, and at last, hearing some noise (intentionally made) in the cellar, came down in a great rage, himself and the lighted candle (soon extinguished) falling into the water. While he was splashing about in the dark, the lads managed as best they could to make their way up the stairs. The joke was too good a joke to be repudiated, as everybody in the school was concerned in it, and openly avowed it, and I believe there was not one who would not have suffered the penalty over and over again for the enjoyment of the fun, so we all submitted cheerfully to our castigation.
My schoolmaster afterwards committed a forgery, hid himself in Wales, where he became the editor of a country newspaper, and died in obscurity. But I owed him something. He had some knowledge, more taste, and was full of pleasant anecdote. He gave me encouragement, and set my cheeks glowing when he told me I had written a very good line when he gave me ‘death’ as the theme. It was:
‘Monarchs must die as well as meaner men’
But, to say the truth, it was stolen property, for there was a picture in an old book, I believe it was Drelincourt on ‘Death’, at the foot of which was this inscription ‘the philosopher tells the king that in the grave, monarchs and meaner men were all alike’. However, mine was truer, and makes a tolerable line of poetry. I sometimes attempted a little poetry then. There was a boy who excited much envy and jealousy. His name was Moore. He entered the army, turned out a sad profligate, and was killed or died in very early life. A subject was given out, it was ‘orchard robbing’ and he read a poem he said he had written, beginning:
‘A boy ascends the tree,
To steal another’s pears,
And thinks no one will see,
And if they do? Who cares?’
The boy’s heroism, and the poet’s verses were equally applauded, and Moore was the hero of the hour; but, alas! the following day the poem was discovered printed, and Moore’s reputation was suddenly lowered, notwithstanding his solemn averment that he had written a poem on apple-stealing, and had, by mistake, confounded his composition with the printed and lauded poem.
I have some distressing recollections of school-life. One of my masters was a man named Tucker, and I remember his fascinating my father by exhibiting a picture of the ‘Haven Banks’ at Exeter. He was a drunken good-for-nothing fellow, but was himself the son of a schoolmaster and wrote a fine hand. He was an accomplished flourisher of swans, and eagles, and angels’ heads and wings, with which he adorned the first pages of our writing and cyphering books; and of his exploits in this part of the field he was very proud, as I learned to my shame and sorrow. Well do I recollect the schoolroom, on whose walls he had inscribed in big black letters, ‘Let emulation prevail’. There was only one boy about whom I cared a rush, and his name was Edward Pearce. He was fond of drawing, as was I, but he was incomparably my superior, and I looked at his work as something unapproachable. He loved his books too, was gentle in manner, and kind to me, his junior, asking me to his uncle’s house to see his pictures. I had a new arithmetic book, on the title-page of which Tucker had exhibited one of his finest specimens of ornamental penmanship. He was delighted with his work, and so was I, its possessor. I was hanging over it with a pen full of ink in my hand, when a large drop fell from the pen, blotting and obscuring the glories of the artist. He was in a desperate rage, and determined to visit me with condign punishment. I believe I had never been punished before, certainly never whipped, but I was conducted into the cellar, my trousers pulled down, and Edmund Pearce (my friend) was sent for, the birch was put into his hand, and he was ordered to lay it on severely, which he did. It was one of the bitterest moments of my life. To be so punished for what was at worst but a little carelessness, to be punished by the hands of him whom, out of the circle of my family, I loved best in the world! I thought at the moment ‘Edmund will not flog me, or if he flog me, I shall come off with a slight visitation. I could not flog him. No! I would die first.’ From that hour I hated the master, from that hour my feelings towards Edmund Pearce became frozen (I believe he was afterwards frozen to death on Dartmoor), and the early lesson of human faithlessness was engraved on my heart. As to Tucker, had the opportunity been in the way, the will was not wanting to inflict upon him summary vengeance. It was perhaps well for him and for me that we never met in a solitary place after I grew strong enough to revenge a wrong of which I retained so bitter a memory. New scenes brought other thoughts, and I mention the matter as an additional evidence of the indigested plans of education, and an example of the ill-judging and improper instruments to which, in the last century, the formation of character was confided.
We were only eight boarders at Moreton, but were as mischievous as any eighty or eight hundred could be; and the little respect in which we held Mr Bransby left our wicked propensities full play. A cane lay on his desk for flogging the boys, which we cut up into small pieces, and it was fine fun to see what an impotent instrument of punishment he held when he took it up, intending to lay it on the shoulders of one of us sinners. On one occasion, the boys made an excursion to a place called Sentry Field, where, to the great annoyance of the inhabitants of the town, they filled up a well with stones, so that no water could be drawn. An another time, one of the boys fired small cannons into the bedroom of an opposite neighbour, filling the family with alarm; and it was no unusual thing to put gunpowder into the snuffers, which exploded when they were used. Once, when our master neglected his school for his lady-love, whom the boys pleasantly called Miss Saucer-eyes, they blackened all the desks with ink, and told the tutor they had gone into mourning for his absence. They disturbed him at night by their racket, and always pretended to be asleep when he entered the bedroom, attributing the noise to cats and rats.
Moreton, like most small towns, had its celebrities. There was a man who mended our shoes, who bore the illustrious name of Ptolemy*. The tonsor who cut our hair was always called ‘Dip my head, sir!’, that being the form of ejaculation with which he interlarded his discourse. There was an old woman who lived in a hut filthier than herself, with no end of cats around her, in whose skins, and those of hares and rabbits, she traded, and whose hovel, holding our noses, we sometimes visited. One day she asked us what was o’clock, and offended us (as we were all Presbyterians) by answering, ‘Aye, yours is a Presbyterian clock!’ meaning, or course, that it was not to be trusted, but I doubt if the beldame ever went to church. Had she done so, the congregation would assuredly have soon taken flight. Cats prowled about her garden, occupied her cottage, and were carried about in her arms. They shared all she had in her of tenderness and kindness. Could a creature so hideous ever have loved? I never heard that she had an acquaintance, still less a friend, and her domicile was at some distance from the road, and far away from other dwellings. Among the characters was the Welsh Baptist minister, father of Miss Saucer-eyes, who we used to call Parson Jacob Isaac, or Farmer Isaac Jacob, the King of the Hivites. He used to say that he ruled over a very irritable and ungrateful community, who often stung him in recompense for his care and kindness, and who I have often seen him approach, shrouded under the protection of a heavy black veil, and wearing thick leather gloves. His scheme consisted in stealing the honey without destroying the bees, and I understood that the whole secret of his management was traceable to his intimate alliance with the sovereign queens. By his influence behind the throne, he contrived to direct the policy (whether or not he won the affections) of the whole Hivite nation. I remember well the indignation of our teacher when one of his congregation asked him if Miss Saucer-eyes (she had large bright eyes) were well. He blushed like a peony and exclaimed ‘For shame!’ but the Moreton-Hampstead rustics were not distinguished for refinement, and a joke was not the less appreciated because it was coarse.
*Could this have been John Tallamy, who appears as a shoemaker in the 1793 directory ?..