Ackworth Old Scholars in the Oxford Database of National Biography

In the 120th Annual Report of the AOSA, published in 2001, I summarised the biographies of those Old Scholars who had merited an entry in the original Dictionary of National Biography (DNB). Oxford University Press has now published a totally new edition of this mammoth work, and unlike its predecessor it is available electronically on-line. As with the previous article, searches were undertaken for “Ackworth School” and other variant phrases. Accounts of founders, staff and those former pupils who were treated in the earlier article have not been included.

The editors of the Oxford DNB were keen to emphasise that women had been given greater prominence in the new edition, while maintaining that their inclusion was determined solely on merit. One would expect, therefore, that a greater proportion of women Ackworth Old Scholars would feature in the new edition, and this is indeed the case. In the earlier article there were 24 men and no women. In my article published in the 1997 AOSA Annual Report, based on “Who’s Who” and “Who was Who” (covering only the last 100 years) there were 20 men and 1 woman. In the present account there are 15 men and 5 women.

John Gilbert Baker 1834-1920

An outstanding plant taxonomist, Baker was born in Guisborough but in the same year his family moved to Thirsk. He attended Ackworth from 1843-46 before going on to Bootham. At the age of 20 he helped John Nowell to issue a supplement to Baines’ Flora of Yorkshire. In 1859 the herbarium exchanges, which had formerly been undertaken by the Botanical Society of London, were transferred to the Thirsk Natural History Society where Baker gained a reputation for efficiency. Six years later, Joseph Hooker appointed him to a position in the Kew Herbarium, and while the botanical exchanges continued, his major task was to complete the publication of the late Sir William Hooker’s Synopsis Filicum. He went on to contribute to several major colonial floras, including those of Mauritius and the Seychelles, South Africa, India, Madagascar and Tropical Africa. He also wrote some useful handbooks on bulbous plants for gardeners, as well as several more works on ferns.

William Arthur Bone 1871-1938

Born in Stockton-on Tees, William Bone first attended Middlesbrough High School before spending a short time at Ackworth and then at Stockton High School. An early graduate of Owen’s College, Manchester (which subsequently became the University of Manchester) he studied the chemistry of combustion in Heidelberg and Battersea before returning to Owen’s College in 1898 as lecturer in chemistry and metallurgy; he gained a chair there in 1906, and then became the first professor of coal, gas and fuel industries at Leeds University. His later career was spent in London at the Royal College of Science (now Imperial College).

Susanna Corder 1787-1864

Born into a Quaker family, Susanna attended Ackworth from the ages of 10 to 12 years. After teaching for some years in Clonmel, Ireland she helped found a progressive girls’ school at Fleetwood House in her birthplace, Stoke Newington. A biographer, her most frequently consulted work is Memorials of Deceased Members of the Society of Friends, whose second edition was published in 1839, though she also prepared biographies of the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry and her sister Priscilla Gurney. She retired to Chelmsford, Essex.

William Darton 1781-1854

An engraver and publisher, William specialised in children’s books. His father William, who joined the Society of Friends at the age of 22 years, was also a publisher and worked in partnership with Joseph Harvey. Their books included anti-slavery literature and juvenilia. William jnr. Was his eldest son, and besides books he also produced jigsaw puzzles and table games. His skill at engraving enabled him to complete Dix’s Atlas of the English Counties in 1822. He died in Islington.

Henry Doubleday 1810-1902

Best known because of the agricultural research organisation that bears his name, Henry was distantly related to a family of American Quakers, including the founder of the Doubleday publishing house. He attended Ackworth from 1822-24. Although his career as a lace designer was marked by the award of a bronze medal at the 1851 Great Exhibition, his main claim to fame was as a manufacturer of starch and gelatine gum, which was used by the firm De La Rue to coat Penny Black stamps. He also experimented with plants with potential to yield vegetable gum. Despite being elected an FRS for his work on Comfrey hybridisation, he was unable to afford the membership fees. His cousin Henry was a noted entomologist.

William Farrer Ecroyd 1827-1915

Born at Lomeshaye near Burnley into a family of worsted spinners, William attended Ackworth from 1837-41. He worked for the family business, becoming a partner in 1849, and in 1851 married Mary Backhouse, the daughter of Thomas Backhouse of York, a railway director and keen botanist. After campaigning unsuccessfully against the Corn Laws and for ‘fair trade’ for many years, he eventually won a sensational by-election at Preston in 1881. In later life he spent much time in developing his country estates at Credenhill, Hereford (later the base of the Special Air Service) and Whitbarrow, Westmorland.

George Edmondson 1798-1863

The capital of Russia in the 19th century, St. Petersburg, was able to be expanded thanks to the efforts of this eminent Lancastrian whose brother Thomas (q.v.) also achieved wide recognition. George attended Ackworth until the age of 14 years, and became an apprentice teacher to William Singleton, Ackworth’s former reading master, who had opened a school at Broomhall in Sheffield. While there he learnt bookbinding, and was befriended by Daniel Wheeler who taught him agriculture. While accompanying Wheeler to Russia as tutor to his children, he experienced the great flood of 1824 and was active in draining the marshlands around the city. The Tsar was unable to persuade him to remain, and he returned to open a school in Blackburn. Later, he became the head of Queenwood Hall, a Quaker technical school in Hampshire.

Thomas Edmondson 1792-1851

George’s elder brother grew up showing considerable mechanical aptitude, and after his early business ventures were unsuccessful he became a railway clerk at Brampton, Cumberland. Irked by the tedious task of preparing handwritten tickets, he invented a machine that could print individual tickets on demand. A Dublin watchmaker named Blaylock made the prototype, which worked flawlessly, and the method was adopted by the Manchester and Leeds railway. He went into partnership with Salford engineer William Muir, who manufactured ticket machines on the lower floor of a factory the upper part of which was the Edmondson ticket-printing works.

Eva Margaret Sadler, née Gilpin 1868-1940

The daughter of a Nottingham stockbroker, Eva attended Ackworth until c. 1883 when she became a pupil-teacher at a school in Holland Park, London run by two sisters of the historian William Lecky. Following a period as governess to her cousins in Ilkley, she moved to Weybridge and after matriculating in maths and Latin she opened her own school in Weybridge village hall in 1898. A frequent visitor to the continent, she introduced new teaching methods including mixed ability classes and the use of linocuts in art, promoted music and drama, and established a school parliament called ‘The Court’. Unusually for the 1920s, the school also catered for children with mental or physical disabilities.

Thomas Hancock 1783-1849

A native of County Antrim, Thomas went from Ackworth to Ireland as a doctor’s apprentice in Waterford before studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. His thesis on epidemic diseases was a theme which he continued to study throughout his life. He took up medical practice in London, and published several works on the plague and cholera. He also wrote an account of the 1798 Irish rebellion from a Quaker perspective , and campaigned against capital punishment. After the death of his wife he moved to Liverpool in 1828, and ten years later returned to Lisburn in Ireland where he died.

Sir Joseph Burtt Hutchinson 1902-1988

Born to a Northamptonshire farming family, he attended both Ackworth and Bootham before reading botany at Cambridge. After working on the genetics of cotton-breeding in Trinidad and India he was based in Khartoum, Sudan from 1944-49. Elected an FRS in 1951, he chaired the council of Makerere College (later University) in Uganda and was knighted for services to African agriculture before returning to Cambridge as professor of agriculture. A life-long Quaker, he preached in various Cambridge chapels and churches as well as supporting his Meeting.

Jane Procter 1810-1882

Born in Yorkshire, Jane went to Ackworth in 1821 and stayed on to train as a teacher before moving to Doncaster to teach at a private Quaker school. At the age of 18, following the death of her mother, she took charge of her younger sisters in Selby and soon founded a girl’s school there. In 1848 the school was removed to Darlington but retained the name Selby House. Following the passing of the Education Act of 1870 Jane was active in promoting teacher training among working-class women, and also supported the temperance movement. She died suddenly while visiting Rome and is buried there in the Protestant Cemetery.

Sir James Reckitt 1833-1924<

By building up his father’s starch and dolly-blue business, and later merging it with J. & J. Colman of Norwich, James helped establish the firm of Reckitt & Coleman and pioneered welfare provision for its staff. Educated at Ackworth and at Packer’s Academy in Nottingham, he was something of an advertising genius and the business grew to be one of the largest in Yorkshire’s East Riding. A garden village was built in Hull to accommodate the firm’s employees, and he endowed a public library and a sanatorium. The firm’s other enduring legacy was the creation, four years after Sir James’s death, of the University of Hull, founded in 1928 by the Chairman of Reckitt’s, Thomas Ferens.

John Henry Salter 1862-1942

Born in Suffolk but brought up in Scarborough by his widowed mother, Salter attended Ackworth, and later Flanders, in the 1870s and 80s before reading Botany at Owens College (later the University of Manchester). After teaching at various Quaker schools he worked briefly at University College, London before becoming assistant lecturer at the University College, Aberystwyth, taking leave in 1896 and 1897 to study in Germany. He became Professor of Botany at Aberystwyth in 1899, in which year he also married, and worked there until 1908 when his wife’s poor health led to his early retirement. After living abroad and in the New Forest he eventually returned to Aberystwyth, a widower, in 1923. He was best known as an author of botanical and ornithological books; he also kept a very detailed nature diary over 68 years. He made a large collection of plants and insects (now in the National Museum of Wales), and was also a keen egg collector.

Joseph Edward Southall 1861-1944

Born in Nottingham and brought up in Birmingham after his father died in 1861, Southall attended both Ackworth and Bootham before taking lessons in watercolour painting from Edwin Moore in York and later studying at the Birmingham School of Art. His preferred medium was tempera, and under the influence of Burne-Jones and Morris he adopted an “Arts and Crafts” style. He married his cousin Anna Baker in 1903 and they travelled abroad to Italy and France to find landscape subjects, though his major works were large easel paintings on mythological and romantic themes. He also worked as a portrait painter in Birmingham, especially for the Quaker community. A staunch pacifist, he prepared highly charged political cartoons during the First World War and later became active in the Independent Labour Party. Many of his works are preserved in the Birmingham City Art Gallery.

Elizabeth Robson, née Stephenson 1771-1843

Born to a seafaring family in Bridlington, Elizabeth was one of Ackworth’s first pupils. She married Thomas Robson of Darlington, a linen manufacturer, and had seven children. She became an active Quaker preacher, travelling widely in the British Isles and on the continent, and visited North America from 1824-28. Her tour was controversial, as she opposed the theology of Elias Hicks, and the schism which occurred among American Quakers in 1827 was to last for more than a century. She died at West Derby and was buried in Liverpool.

Sarah Ellis, née Stickney 1799-1872

Brought up in a farming family from Holderness, Yorkshire, Sarah was related by marriage to the Backhouse family of York. She attended Ackworth from 1813-16, but was mainly educated privately. A rider and horse-trainer, she was also a competent artist and had drawing lessons from John Sell Cotman. During the 1820s she started to sell drawings to Ackermann and to publish moral books such as Home, or the Iron Rule. In 1837 she married the widower William Ellis, a Congregational minister, and as well as being stepmother to his four children she continued to produce books on temperance, cookery and household management as well as accounts of her husband’s travels on missionary work. In 1844 she opened a girls’ school in Hoddesdon, Essex; her writings attracted some satirical attention due to their perceived overemphasis on female domesticity.

Peter Derek Strevens 1922-1989

A linguistic scholar who was born in Norwich, Peter was the elder son of a master mariner of Trinity House. He attended Ackworth from 1936-38 and after wartime service in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit he read French and German at University College, London. From 1949 to 1956 he lectured at Cape Coast college, Ghana and at Edinburgh University from 1957-61. He then moved to Leeds for three years before being awarded a chair at the new University of Essex, the first in the UK to cover ‘applied linguistics’. His final years were spent in Cambridge, Michigan and Illinois. He had a major influence on language teaching, and published several books on phonetics and educational theory.

Henry Tennant 1823-1910

Born in Wensleydale, Tennant attended Ackworth until c. 1839 when he worked as a railway company bookkeeper and clerk in Newcastle and rose swiftly to become general manager of the Leeds and Thirsk railway in 1848. This involved him in a spate of mergers, which led the Leeds Northern to join with the York, Newcastle and Berwick railway to form the North Eastern Railway in 1854. He first worked as its accountant, becoming general manager n 1870. Despite encountering difficult economic conditions he succeeded in maintaining the company’s viability, and he served on the boards of other railway enterprises. A resident of York for most of his working life, he was active in promoting education for the children of the working class, and was also a leading light in the temperance movement.

Thomas Thomasson 1808-1876

Born at Turton near Bolton, Thomas came from a family of cotton manufacturers. He attended Ackworth from 1813-16, and then joined the family business, building a new cotton mill in 1841 at Haulgh. This prospered in the expanding markets of the 1840s and 50s, employing 650 workers. He was an early supporter of universal suffrage. He was also active in Bolton’s Anti-Corn Law Association and later the national League, in close co-operation with his near contemporary and former Ackworth scholar, John Bright. He was an active Liberal in local government, and advocated non-sectarian education. His son became MP for Bolton, and his grandson, owner of the Tribune newspaper, MP for Leicester.

John Edmondson