Sunday, 10 June 2012

Benjamin Hall Kennedy


One of the most profound indications of the genius of Rann Kennedy was that all of his sons and many of  his grandchildren proved to be immaculately gifted classical scholars.  The most distinguished of Rann’s sons was the eldest, Benjamin Hall Kennedy.  He was born in 1804 and was to have a glittering educational record which first took him as pupil to Shrewsbury School at the time when it was led by the famous educationalist Rev. Samuel Butler.   Rev. Butler had already brought about major improvements in the school which prior to this time had been run by a cabal of prominent townspeople intent on providing a free education of no particular merit to their sons.  Rev. Butler’s predecessor used to have a flitch of bacon hung up in the kitchen which he would try to kick every morning.  He was often the worse for drink. Rev. Butler inherited the existing usher Jeudwine who was a figure of fun to the boys who called him ‘Jacky’ and hung onto his coat tails.  Rev. Butler communicated with Jeudwine by letter the entire time he remained at the school.  He also set about raising standards in teaching of the obligatory Classics.  Soon Shrewsbury pupils were notching up major honours and the school was re-establishing its name again.  Rev. Butler was a latitudinarian clergyman who disliked Evangelicals with a passion.  He was unpopular in the town for firmly adhering to the principle that the school should be run by its headmaster,  not by the town bailiffs.

As in Birmingham, the boys certainly liked to fight at Shrewsbury but they seem to have been more interested in chasing local farmers’ pigs around.  They were also fond of using fishing rods to hook ducks out of farmyards,  much to the surprise of the farmers and their wives as they saw their fowls rising up in the air without the aid of wings. There were also incidences of boys visiting the local inns and leaving the worse for wear.

Benjamin’s talent for composing latin poetry and prose led him to be entered for the prestigious Porson Prize,  named after the great 18th Century Classics Scholar.  He was to be the only schoolboy to win this prize.  He left there as Head Boy.  He went on to  St John’s College, Cambridge where he became President of the Union,  Senior Classic, Pitt Scholar, four times Browne Medal winner, the Porson Prize another three times, Members Prize and Chancellor’s Medal. 

Benjamin inherited the jowly features of his father,  and likewise a mercurial way of emanating at times both liberal conviviality and at other times an almost sinister, darker aspect.  His temper was fearsome, but soon blew over.  He also inherited the deep eccentricity of his father.

He was elected to the mainly (though not exclusively) liberal secret society The Cambridge Apostles in 1824.  This put him in a rarefied atmosphere of scholarly brotherhood,  where no subject was too sacred for debate and where he was able to exchange ideas with the most gifted and open minded of his generation. He was to dedicate his life to education and the Church,  as his father had done. In 1830 he was ordained as priest.  A year later he married Janet Caird.  At this time he was an examiner at Harrow  where he stayed 6 years.  His performance there was so impressive that when the vacancy of headmaster came up at Rugby School he was one of the favourites for the role.  Instead Thomas Arnold was appointed however.  His brother George John Kennedy however became a master there and achieved notable results with pupils scoring well in the University Tripos.


In 1836 he was recommended by Rev. Butler to be his successor.  He was appointed and duly returned to Shrewsbury School as Headmaster after a spell as a master at Harrow and presided there for thirty years and sent an unprecedented number of his boys to achieve First Class Classic Triposes at Cambridge.  The relationship with his pupils was stern enough to instil scholarly excellence but there is evidence of a love of life in Benjamin.  His boys were encouraged to play sports – the first Cricket Pitch was laid at the school during his tenure.  On one occasion some of his pupils ripped bits out of his famous Latin Primer and scattered them along the route of a cross-country route.  He seems to have taken this jest in good heart.

He generally backed his staff to the hilt.  In 1842 an anonymous letter was printed in the London Times to the effect that the regime at Shrewsbury encouraged Catholicism.  Benjamin rebutted this in an open letter to the Bishop of Lichfield,  his predecessor Rev. Butler.

In 1843 he was made prebendary of Lichfield and published his elementary Latin Grammar which was to become the standard work of its type in schoolrooms across Britain and the World.

In Sept 1846 his wife Janet gave birth to their eldest son Arthur Herbert Kennedy in Shrewsbury.  They went on to have three daughters,  the eldest, Marion growing up to be a formidable intellectual.  Her mother was a dominant figure in the life of the school.  She shepherded the younger boys about when they needed it,  and ran the financial affairs of her husband who was well-known to be unable to manage money himself.

1847 saw the tragic death of Benjamin’s brother George from a fever at Rugby School where he taught.  George left behind a widow and three sons.  He had showed great promise at University and would surely have gone on to achieve even greater things at Rugby School and beyond, had he survived.

In 1853 by a decision of  the  Probate Court the inheritance of Illedge Maddox fell to Benjamin Hall Kennedy as the first descendant of Rann Kennedy.  The will in question was that of Rann Dolphin Edwards was the grandson of Illedge,  son of his daughter Mary Edwards.  This secured Benjamin’s income in his old age and gave his successors a substantial inheritance.  It is possible that his quick-tempered brother Charles Rann Kennedy in particular regarded this as unfair.  The other family wills had been shared between the brothers and their heirs. 

Some critics felt that the emphasis was too much on the Classics at Shrewsbury, especially in the light of the massive changes in British Society over the preceding decades.   Benjamin defended the old system stoutly and to his credit the practices he laid down were little changed well into the succeeding century.  Not everyone was in favour of the bias towards dead languages. The grandson of Benjamin’s old headmaster at Shrewsbury,  also named Samuel Butler, was a pupil of Benjamin’s at Shrewsbury School.  He later wrote eloquently though allegorically, in his book ‘Erewhon’,  published in the 1870s, of what he saw as the futility of a classical education which he thought to have either no effect or else positively damaged the prospects of pupils forced into it.  He portrayed the Erewhonians’ Universities of Unreason as futile refuges for irrelevant academics. Butler also parodied the Church of England by allegorising it as a goddess universally worshipped by the Erewhonians but disparaged by them in normal conversation and ignored in their everyday lives.

Kennedy introduced a business school with more varied courses for boys who were less classically-inclined but it was not a great success and ended up being closed down before he ended his tenure at the school.  It seems that this was because of the attitude of the boys as  much as anything.

Butler also wrote ‘The Way Of All Flesh’ which was only published after he died because of its bitter attacks on the education system and the Church of England.  The hero grows up the son of a stiff, snobbish Anglican rector and goes to a school much like Shrewsbury – ‘Roughborough’.  He regards the headmaster, the brilliant Dr Skinner, as some kind of evil genius who uses his armoury of academic books to intimidate and humiliate the boys.  His only comfort at Roughborough is his loving aunt.  From this book it seems Butler was no admirer of Victorian classical education.  Conversely he also wrote a two volume biography of his grandfather in which he extols his achievements in teaching the classics at Shrewsbury and uses many quotes from Benjamin Hall Kennedy to illustrate his grandfather’s achievements.  His main point in the biography is to counter the then-prevailing view that Kennedy was the bringer of all that was good at Shrewsbury,  by pointing out that Kennedy had inherited many great works from his predecessor.  He also points out that his grandfather was doing everything that Thomas Arnold was supposed to have introduced in Rugby School,  only much earlier.

However the intellectual establishment of the British Empire was overwhelmingly in favour of Greek and Latin and the study of those languages was indivisible from the Anglican Tradition.  Indeed Gladstone,  the leading light of the Anglican Church in the corridors of power for much of the century,  throughout his life showed a profound love and respect for the classics and those who had excelled in them.  Ironically he himself,  whilst a very able scholar,  was not in the front rank.  He founded a secret society in the mould of the Cambridge Apostles whilst at Oxford,  but the group,  nicknamed the WEGs,  was not a long term success and could not move out of the long shadow of their founder.  The love that Gladstone and others in the establishment nurtured for Latin scholarship was to have profound impact on the map of Europe.

Italy in the early 1800s was broken up into a patchwork of small states,  some prosperous such as Piedmont in the north,  some ramshackle and repressive such as the Papal States,  which were run literally by the Pope.  The southern states were similarly run by tinpot monarchs.  Gladstone was at the forefront in the 1850s of the campaign in favour of supporting the pan-Italianist Risorgimento – inspired by the bourgeois Cavour,  prime minister of Piedmont,  the conspiratorial freemason Mazzini and the firebrand Che Guevara of the 19th Century Garibaldi.  Gladstone’s attitude sprang as much from an Anglican desire to thwart the temporal power of the Pope,  as much as it did from a love of Latin culture and the ancient Roman unity of Italy.  At one time in the 1840s during a visit to Rome, Gladstone was riding in a carriage with the celebrated portrait painter George Richmond when the then Tory politician and adherent of Sir Robert Peel reportedly waved his hat and shouted out “Liberty!”.  The British Navy supported the Neapolitan landings by the “Red Shirts” of the Risorgimento.  Garibaldi was lionised at banquets by Gladstone and the English Radicals when he visited after his final victorious conquest of the Papal States.  Of course he had a very different reception from the Irish Catholics living in Britain, who reviled him for his assault on the Holy See,  as they saw it.  Several political meetings held by Radicals in favour of Garibaldi’s campaign saw riotous intrusions by angry Irish crowds.  Another disturbing impact of the Risorgimento was that the Austrian Habsburg Empire lost its ancient possessions over the Alps and was thus left looking hungrily and resentfully eastwards.  When Germany followed Italy’s suit in the 1860s and Bismarck united the patchwork of small monarchies,  Austria naturally moved into the axis of her newly pre-eminent co-linguist nation and nursed her resentment.

It is not clear what was Benjamin’s personal attitude to matters of foreign policy.  He was very much more suited to academical circles than smoke-filled political clubs.  He inherited much of his father’s eccentricity and the tales told of him were many.  He was once at a game of whist where he stated that he had just played without knowing that hearts were trumps.  The photographs of him in later life show him to very much resemble pictures of his father at the same age, with the same bejowled, irascible expression.

He made many translations from German to English.  It is certain that he had a great admiration for the literature of Germany and  perhaps hoped for a new cultural renaissance to arise from the cauldron of German Unification.

He was Headmaster of Shrewsbury School for thirty years.  Shortly before he retired he presented a letter to the Archbishop of York regarding the Public Schools Bill then before Parliament.  The substance of the public letter was an eloquent defence of the independence of a school from the local authorities which the bill was to establish.  He pointed out the undemocratic practices associated with institutions and agreed with the bill’s provision for such bodies to lose any leading role in the government of the public schools.  He defended the principle of townspeople paying for their children to attend the school in order to protect the funds of the school and enable it to be refurbished and properly staffed and supplied.  The burgesses of Shrewsbury had fought him and his predecessor for years for their offspring to be taught free at the school.

The following year after he left the school he became Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge University and Canon of Ely Cathedral,  a few miles outside Cambridge, and the religious focus of the district.  From 1887-1889 he was part of the committee that revised the New Testament.  One of his descendants maintains that he was substantially helped in this work by his daughters.  He campaigned hard for women to be admitted fully to British Universities as did many of his liberal cohorts belonging to the secret society of classically-minded Cambridge progressives – The Apostles.  The Arms of Newnham College, Cambridge contain elements of the Kennedy Arms in honour of his and his daughters’ contribution to the foundation of the college.

Apart from his Greek and Latin translations he translated much from German,  including many Lutheran tracts and hymns.  This is a clue as to where his spiritual leanings lay.  He was an Anglican cleric who leaned towards the teachings of Martin Luther and his 16th century pupil Arminius – the great rival of Calvin. Both men preached a firm but tolerant form of Protestantism that certainly did not eject all of the attractive ritual elements of the Roman Catholic Church whilst at the same time firmly closed the door on the Pope’s spiritual authority.  This is a very important point,  because it puts Benjamin on the High Church side of the warring factions that tore the Church of England apart in the later Victorian era, and identifies him very much with Gladstone and the Anglican clerics of the Tractarian Movement and against the idea of the Calvinist God that condemns a high number of people to hell even before their birth.

He wrote the Latin Primer and Latin Grammar which were the staple diet of classical education well into the next century and which are published and widely used today.  He published an autobiographical book of poetry “Between Whiles…” in English, and also wrote verse in Latin and Greek. 

His daughter Marion known familiarly as Maisie, collaborated extensively with him in his later years .  She contributed many notes to the family historical research.  In ‘The Way Of All Flesh’,  the hero meets Skinner at the end of his life and a  favourable impression is given of Skinner’s daughter who is dining with him.

He died in 1889.

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