THOMAS ARNOLD: FLOREAT RUGBEIA

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 12:27

From 1829, when the death of Thomas Arnold’s mother occurred, into the middle ‘Thirties, other tragic and semi-tragic events added to the concomitant worries of his headmastership. In 1830 his father-in-law died in Fledborough: in 1832 his sister Susanna’s life of suffering ended: and circa 1835 his aunt, Susan Delafield, died at the age of eighty. When on holiday in the Lake District the children were required by their father to observe a set of safety rules. One wonders, therefore, how accidents which smack of carelessness could have happened at Rugby where Matthew nearly lost an arm through septicaemia caused by a phosphorous burn, and William was rescued by the prompt action of a servant, Mary Parsons, when he fell in the fire and burnt his head and neck. At another time the baby, Walter, was seriously ill, and later a measles epidemic struck the family, the masters, and many of the scholars. To add to Arnold’s distress, both Matthew and Thomas suffered from speech defects.

When Mary’s father left her £1,800 Arnold advised her not to dissipate her capital. He, having inherited nothing, insured himself with an endowment policy for £5,000, which he intended to draw when he retired in fifteen years’ time. Against the contingency of premature death he wrote a letter to Trevenen Penrose (to be opened posthumously) charging him to supervise the family’s spiritual welfare. Unfortunately, the letter was lost until thirteen years after Arnold’s death.

At Rugby Mary continued to bear children. 1830 brought Susanna. The short-lived baby of 1832 nearly cost its mother her life. Frances appeared in 1833, Walter in 1835, so at forty Arnold had fathered nine.

As soon as they could walk, all the children were subjected to a full educational programme. At five, under a governess, they did Latin grammar, French verbs, and were expected daily to learn one hymn plus a passage from the Bible. When the question of sending them to other schools arose, Arnold found it difficult to decide where they should go. For Matthew he chose John Buckland’s school at Laleham, where he did so badly that he was withdrawn and, for him and Thomas a private tutor was employed. In 1836 the pair went to Winchester, but in 1837 their father, worried about evil influences there, took them into his own school.

Meanwhile Arnold’s extra-mural activities continued to multiply as he visited the poor, raised money for charity, organised a dispensary for free medicine, lectured workmen at the Mechanics Institute, did his garden, and founded and wrote for a newspaper called The Englishman’s Register – a project too expensive to be maintained, but one that introduced him to a Mr Platt who edited the Sheffield Courant. Platt liked Arnold’s outspoken articles, and asked their author to write for him.

During extensive travels in 1829 he called to see Niebhur in Bonn. Niebhur spoke good English, so their conversations encountered no difficulty. Two years later, when he and Mary made a grand tour of the British Isles, they heard Wordsworth read unpublished poems, and were persuaded by him to rent a house at Rydal. In 1833 Arnold, with vacations and retirement in mind, decided to build a house above Ambleside. ‘Fox How’, completed in 1834, was a twelve-roomed house standing, like Slatwood, in twenty-five acres and ideally situated for shooting, bathing, fell-walking, model boat sailing, and in winter sliding on the frozen Rydal Water. It was there the children produced the Fox How Magazine for which Jane did amusing illustrations.

Had Arnold been prepared to confine his literary output to his sermons and classical treatises (his Thucydides was said to be ‘the first attempt in English philology to investigate the principle of the Greek language and to show the history and geography of a Greek Historian’ and Archdeacon Hare, the brother of the more publicised Augustus, thought his Roman History the first to deal adequately with the genius of Hannibal), he would not have made many powerful enemies, alienated friends, forfeited the chance of a bishopric, and almost lost the headmastership of Rugby. But, seeing more clearly than most the current evils, he felt compelled to do verbal battle with their perpetrators, in consequence of which he inveighed cheap labour and poor housing (thus offending the factory owners who sent boys to Rugby), condemned the lethargy of politicians, the exclusiveness of Freemasons and friendly societies and, above all, the state of the Church with its bigotry and opposing factions. Holding John Bunyan as an exemplar, he thought his Pilgrim’s Progress reflected true Christianity unmixed with ‘none of the rubbish of the theologians’. In 1829 he shocked many by publishing a paper entitled The Christian Duty of Conceding the Roman Catholic Claims which supported Wellington’s Catholic Emancipation Bill. Further, in the Edinburgh Review he attacked the Oxford Movement, referring to John Henry Newman and Edward Bouverie Pusey as ‘formalising Judaizing fanatics who have ever been the peculiar disgrace of the Church of England’.

Rumours spread that Arnold took his revolutionary ideas into the classroom. This he emphatically denied. Judge Coleridge warned him that he was neglecting his duties to indulge in controversy. Extremely pained, he said his moral and political writings were done in spare moments. With the Press against him, Arnold faced a drop in the number new pupils. Theodore Hook, the editor of John Bull, made similar allegations. The Northampton Herald criticised the school fees which stood at £130 a year. It also raked up information concerning an incident involving a struggle in which a very unruly fag’s head was knocked against a wall by praepositors before the boy was expelled. In March 1836 the Trustees issued a statement in Arnold’s defence, but in September only a divided meeting with equal numbers for and against saved him from dismissal. Undeterred, he refused to be silenced. For three years he served on the Board of Examiners for London University then, being dissatisfied with the Board’s treatment of a religious question, he resigned. In 1838 once again the Trustees were behind him.

While controversy waxed and waned outside, Arnold at Rugby, his conscience clear, remained unruffled. His prefectorial system functioned well. To prepare boys for it, he reduced the fifth form to a maximum of twenty-four. At the boys’ request he permitted the non-political Rugby Magazine to be printed. In it poems that copied the works of some contemporary poets appeared. The new Debating Society reduced chaotic arguing to orderly discussions, and he and his wife enjoyed performances staged by the Dramatic Society. In the sick-room he and Mary played cards with invalids – each visit ending, appropriately, with a prayer.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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