Posted by Admin on 25 July 2011, 12:33 pm

It was the film Tom Brown’s Schooldays which reminded me that Dr Thomas Arnold (a role for which Robert Newton had been miscast) had been born in Cowes – and reminded me also that many years ago I photographed the house situated opposite the police station in Birmingham Road where a circular terracotta plaque tells it to be his birthplace. It reads ‘Thomas Arnold, D.D., Headmaster of Rugby School 1828-1842, was born in this house 13th June 1795’. I photographed also a misleading duplicate plaque, disproportionately large for the country cottage on which it is displayed, in Hillis Lane some two and three-quarter miles to the south-west. (See article Potter’s Plaque)

The Arnolds were not an Island family. William, Thomas’ father, was born in Warwick in 1745, but his parents came from Lowestoft. He was, apparently, a scholarly man, kindly, sociable, and possessed of moral integrity – his one recorded lapse being an affair with a Hoxton woman during his eleven years in the Lombard Street GPO – a fall from grace of which later he was ashamed.

Preceding William as an Isle of Wight resident was a bachelor uncle who, in Newport, had made a home for William’s grandparents where they lived to be 82 and 99. At that time the most ancient title under the Crown was that of Customs and Excise Collector, a post held by the uncle for forty-three years, and one in which, due no doubt to the family connection, he was in September 1777 succeeded by his nephew.

Having left the Postal Service and taken up his new appointment, William rented half of Birmingham Hall, a commodious red-brick building with a back garden sloping to the Cowes harbour, and with an adjoining field. Incidentally, a nonagenarian aunt of mine could remember when fields bordered one side of Birmingham Road.

With him to Birmingham Hall (some reference books say “House”) William took his parents, Matthew and Mary, the former surviving only until the following year, the latter living another 51 years to reach 78 when, in 1829, she was buried in the churchyard of what was known as ‘the chapel on the hill’, i.e. St Mary’s Church before it was rebuilt in 1867. In addition to most of the above information Rear-Admiral D. Arnold-Forster, in his book, At War With The Smugglers, tells us Martha’s sister, Susan Delafield, also lived with the family, Martha being William’s wife.

By 1795 Birmingham Hall lacked enough space to accommodate William’s growing family which eventually comprised Thomas, his two elder brothers William and Matthew, and four sisters, Frances, Lydia, Susanna, and Martha. William died in 1806 and Matthew in 1820. Of the females, only Susanna who died in 1832 failed to outlive Thomas. A letter written by Martha in 1795 tells of a move to East Cowes where on an estate of 25 acres a farmhouse was demolished to provide a site for a new and more roomy home called Slatwoods. The house, pleasantly located in the triangle now formed by Maresfield Road, Cambridge Road, and Old Road, gave the Arnolds a view of Cowes Roads.

Referring to Arthur Penrhyn Stanley’s perhaps over-eulogistic Life of Thomas Arnold, D.D., we learn that as a child he was shy and reserved, with a certain stiffness in manner thought to have been caused by constantly associating with his elders and having books read to him which were more suited to older readers. He did, however, take great pleasure in fighting naval battles with model ships in the garden, in acting scenes from Homer’s epics, and reciting heroic speeches from Alexander Pope’s translations of the Iliad. It says much for the ability of his Aunt Susan (who taught him until he was eight) that when under seven he wrote a short tragedy dealing with the Earl of Northumberland which, if not a portent of genius, was noteworthy for the accuracy of its orthography and blank verse metre. Having a strong memory he was, apparently, extremely forward in history and geography – the latter encouraged by his aunt by means of cards which showed a dissected map of England. At the age of three he received from his father Smollett’s History of England for his ability to recite the successive reigns. In a book still possessed by the family Thomas recorded all the ships in the Royal Navy, their registration numbers and origins.

When, in 1943, I witnessed in the garden of Warminster’s 18th century grammar school a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I was unaware that for four years Thomas Arnold had been one of its scholars. Now, thanks to the courtesy of Mr R. J. Field, the chairman of the Warminster History Society, who lent me his copy of Robert Hope’s book, A History of the Lord Weymouth School, Warminster, I am able to impart facts concerning that seat of learning and of Thomas’ schooldays there. An advertisement for the school dated 1867 mentions separate beds as a special feature, so presumably when Thomas entered it in 1803 the old custom of two or three boys sharing a bed still prevailed – partial confirmation of this being given in 1849 when Thomas Provis fraudulently claimed to be not only the son of Sir Hugh Smyth, Bart., but also Arnold’s bedfellow at school.

In 1778 the sum of twenty-five guineas a year covered board and tuition, a few shillings extra being asked for pens and ink. To obtain the key to a scobbe (a large box for personal belongings) a boy paid one shilling. According to a receipt dated 1807 the fee for Thomas’ education had risen to nearly fifty-two pounds per annum. The round hats with bands and buckles worn in 1789 cost seven-and-sixpence to eleven shillings each, and although dancing was included as a part of the curriculum, geography was charged as an extra, and Thomas asked his mother if he should take it. He mentioned also his awkwardness when dancing.

Another letter from Thomas to his mother indicates the boys were not well fed. In it he explains that drinking tea two or three times a week cost him between 4d and 8d, and that eggs at 1d each for breakfast every day further reduced his pocket-money. In small plots the boys were allowed to grow radishes, lettuces etc. A meal with a master was important enough to be recorded in detail.

During the four years (1803-1807) he spent at Warminster, Thomas Arnold came under the influence of the headmaster, the Reverend John Griffith, some of whose ideas he took with him to Rugby, and that of the second master, the Reverend J. T. Laws. William Arnold and both masters were on friendly terms, and Thomas’ elder brother, Matthew, was at the school from 1799 to 1803. It is possible that William’s recommendation was responsible for the presence of other Isle of Wight boys in a school situated in what then was a remote part of Wiltshire. One wonders, therefore, why the other brother, William, was educated at the King James Grammar School in Newport.

To be continued.

T. C. Hudson

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

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