The period when the seventeenth century turned into the eighteenth was not the easiest of times for the Nottingham Free School, the ancient predecessor of the present day High School. You only have to look at the wooden board behind the school receptionist’s desk at the High School, and the list of names and dates that is up there. During this period, some three hundred years ago, Headmasters come and go, thick and fast. Just to refresh your memory:
Edward Griffith 1691 – 1707
Richard Johnson 1707 – 1720
William Smeaton 1718 – 1719
William Saunders 1719
Thomas Miles 1719
John Womack 1720 – 1722
John Swaile 1722 – 1731
Let’s look at the diary of these turbulent and potentially disastrous twenty years. Edward Griffith, the first Headmaster on the list, seems to have been an astonishing man. He could have talked his way into so many jobs in our own time, most of them probably in politics. Or maybe even financial advice:
Edward Griffith, the Headmaster for the last six years, was summoned to court “for neglecting the school, whereby the school is much decayed in its reputation.” Griffith promised to concentrate on the school and never to work again as a full-time clergyman as well as his main job as the Headmaster.
Griffith took up a lucrative post as the new Vicar of Stapleford.
Friday, December 19th 1698
The Town Council gave Edward Griffith the sack, alleging that
“…he has very much neglected his duty, whereby the said Free School is very much decayed and lessened, ….. the School Wardens do give him a discharge, which they have done accordingly. And if he shall refuse to leave the said Free School, that they shall withdraw his Salary.”
Griffith made no reply whatsoever to this decision. Sit tight and it will all blow over.
The Town Council issued a second decree that Griffith should quit his post. He took absolutely no notice of this one either.
It was agreed by the Town Council that Griffith should keep his job and salary until further notice. Result!!
The Town Council told Griffith that he was “discharged from being Schoolmaster any longer”, an order which, not surprisingly perhaps, he again ignored completely. He did, however, make a promise to depart in the very near future.
Griffith was again told to leave his job, and that his salary would henceforth not be paid.
The school wardens were told by the Town Council to pay the £85 of Griffith’s wages which had not been paid to him over the past two years. Once he had been given this cash settlement, Griffith had promised to leave.
Griffith at long last departed, a mere ten short years after being told to do so. And now, Richard Johnson…..
The new Headmaster, Richard Johnson, seems to have been, for the first five years or so of his reign, a vast improvement on his predecessor. Johnson was the author of an impressively long Latin poem describing a horse race on the Forest Recreation Ground, which was then called “The Lings”. Here is the site nowadays:
Race meetings used to take place in July of every year, and they attracted prominent people from miles around. Here is the Racecourse in the late nineteenth century:
In 1708, the race was won by the Earl of Cardigan on his horse, Carlessus. Johnson’s long Latin poem mentions the Duke of Rutland, Sir Thomas Willoughby of Wollaton Hall and Sir Thomas Parkyns of Bunny. It refers specifically to the fact that, because of the recent outbreak of smallpox in the town, comparatively few women were present…
“Now, to enhance the glories of the race,
See, many lovely women bring their grace.
Yet others, eager for the festive day,
With tearful prudence choose to stop away,
Lest swift and dreaded pestilence arise,
And desecrate that loveliness they prize.”
Here is another, mid-Victorian view of the Forest Racecourse with two boys, who may well have been members of the new High School. Notice the distant footballers busy playing in the middle of the racecourse:
The newly appointed Headmaster, Richard Johnson, gave so many promises about how well he would perform in his new job at the Free School that it was decided to improve his living quarters and to build extra classrooms for all the new pupils who were bound to be attracted by the extreme excellence of this new Headmaster. Plans were already afoot to appoint two more members of staff, namely a second Usher and a visiting Writing Master, giving an overall staff of four. That should cope with the almost countless hordes, all eager for a free education of a very high standard.
(This won’t end well. It all sounds like pie in the sky to me.)
Very little is known about what happened in the school in the years between 1711-1718, but, as an expert on the subject, I was 100% right about the pie.
The Council now sought to sack Richard Johnson, given that they thought he was a madman:
“…for all or most of the time…he very much omitted and neglected to teach and instruct the Sons of Nottingham….For the space of three Months and upward, he hath been, and is now, Delirious and Non Compos Mentis. He is incapable of performing and executing the Office of the Headmaster of the said school.”
Certainly, Johnson had fallen ill in 1714. He wrote ….
“I suffered such pains in my limbs that for a whole year I could not sleep without the aid of opium.”
(A drug addict running the school. That’s just what we need.)
More seriously, though, Johnson does seem to have suffered from a certain amount of ill health. The Town Council’s motivation for removing him from his position, though, may have had more to do with politics than any touching concern for his welfare or the school’s success. They conceivably exaggerated the Headmaster”s medical problems to create a trumped up charge of incompetence, which could then be used to remove a political thorn from the Town Council’s side.
Inadmissible circumstantial evidence it may well be, but Johnson’s difficulties certainly seem to have begun not long after the national Jacobite rebellion in 1715, which was led by the so-called “Old Pretender”, James Stuart. Here he is in his younger days:
Nottingham was a Whig town, and Johnson may well have been a Jacobite. Around this time many other schoolmasters throughout England lost their jobs because they were Jacobites.
For whatever reason though, madness, drugs or politics, the Town Council tried to throw Johnson out. Johnson may well have spoken to his predecessor, Edward Griffith, though, because he decided that the best policy was, quite simply, to refuse, point blank, to leave.
(If that happens, just ignore the situation, and bring in another Headmaster of your choice)
August 11th 1718
The Town Council appointed William Smeaton as Headmaster.
(In that case, Jacobite Johnson, just ignore them. Take no notice whatsoever)
August 12th 1718
Johnson refused physically to leave the school.
Later on in late 1718 or, more probably, early 1719
Fed up with the whole situation, Sulky Smeaton resigned in an apparent fit of pique, and eventually got out of Dodge, never to be heard of again.
The Council then appointed a local man, William Saunders, but at a much reduced salary. A legal action to eject Johnson from the school was taken, but in court Clever Clogs Johnson did not bother with a lawyer. He conducted his own defence with great skill. He duly won his case:
Johnson explained to the court how unreasonable it was to leave a man of his advanced age penniless in the world, and asked that he be given a decent reference, so that at the very least he could go elsewhere and earn an honest living. At one point, Councillor Abney, knowing of Johnson’s previous mental frailty, accused him:
“…what has happened to you is what Felix said of St.Paul ; much learning has made you mad.”
Johnson replied to the Councillor
“…you will never go mad from the same cause.”
(That got a lot of laughs)
The school now had, arguably, more Headmasters and ex-Headmasters than pupils. There were only five students left. The Deputy Headmaster, George Bettinson, taught two, and Johnson, gallant to the end, did the lion’s share of the work with the other three. Indeed, there were so few pupils that they could well have had a couple of windows each:
Very soon afterwards, the Town Council was again repeating its charge that Johnson had been delirious for the last eighteen months and that he was, to use the technical terms of psychology, as mad as a fish.
Finally, though, a compromise was reached. Johnson would leave and in return, he would be paid a pension of £10 a year for life.
William Saunders, the Town Council’s very, very recently appointed choice for the job, was now told that he too had to leave town before sundown.
later in 1719
Thomas Miles was made Headmaster.
(Problem solved !! Result !!)
Thomas Miles did not take up the post.
Amazingly and incomprehensibly, Thomas Miles said he didn’t want to work in an atmosphere of such considerable confusion. There was no confusion with the boys, though. Their parents voted with their feet. Numbers were still exceedingly low. On a good day, classes could have fitted inside a telephone box, if they had only been invented. Here is the site of the very confused Free School. No traces remain nowadays of the original building on the corner of Stoney Street and Barker Gate. Look for the orange arrow:
Next up to the plate was John Womack, a Bachelor of Arts from Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University, no less. I have been unable to trace if he was related to Bobby Womack, but this is still a superb soul classic. Enjoy:
Neither John Womack nor Bobby Womack held the poisoned chalice for long. John Womack died in April 1722. By now, the school was well on its way to six headmasters in three years. It was beginning to look like an unsuccessful football club.
But then the knockabout fun of “The Free School meets the Crazy Gang” came to an abrupt end.
Richard Johnson, Headmaster Number Two in a Series of Seven, Johnson the Madman, “Mr Delirious”, “Mr Non Compos Mentis”, “Jacobite” Johnson the Opium Addict, the Drug User, went out one day into the Nottingham Meadows, found a small stream which ran through it, and then, in a fit of despondency, he apparently drowned himself:
A witness spoke:
“of the extreme horror of meeting, one evening as I was walking in the Meadows, a venerable grey-haired man, carried dead on a stretcher. It was Richard Johnson. He appeared to have been sitting on the bank of the river, and was found in shallow water with his head downward.”
The incident was even reported in London newspapers:
“They write from Nottingham that some days since, the Reverend Mr. Richard Johnson, lately Master of the Free School there, being a little Melancholly, took a walk into the Meadows, and drowned himself in a Pit near the Old Trent.”
Here is the old Trent Bridge of the time, the so-called Bridge of Hethbeth:
Despite his apparent suicide, Johnson was eventually allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. He was probably given the benefit of the doubt, and his death was adjudged to be an unfortunate accident. And indeed, he may have had some kind of seizure or fit, perhaps brought on by trying some of those Ecstasy tablets which contain dog de-worming substances. (Unbelievably, yes, some of them do.) Equally, if Johnson’s death were suicide, then it may well have been decided that he was insane at the time he committed the act.
All of these strange circumstances have led a number of historical analysts to suggest, though, that Johnson’s burial in consecrated ground came about, not because his death was not the result of suicide, but because somebody knew very well that that his unfortunate demise was actually murder. Consider some more circumstantial evidence. Johnson was an awkward so-and-so as his appearances in court show only too well. He was a political problem as a possible Jacobite, eager to see a different monarch in place and a return to Roman Catholicism. He was a financial burden to the Town Council with his Golden Goodbye of a pension of £10 a year for life.
Shadowy figures might well have decided that their own lives would be easier with one less Johnson in the world. One fewer ex-Headmaster above ground. Scratch one Jacobite. The questions are there to be asked. Why the mysterious drowning? Why did a man racked with pain in all his limbs go for a long walk at the side of a river? How did he then manage to drown in the “shallow water” of a “small stream” ?
If only one sadly missed detective had been around:
Whatever the reason, this era marks probably the lowest level to which the school has ever sunk.
For years and years afterwards, wary of appointing another highly qualified and learned man who might turn out to be a second Johnson, the Town Council limited itself to local men, whose good character was well known, even if that meant that they did not have any university experience.
During this period, in the summer, the classes used to begin at 7 am, and then continued until 11 am The afternoon then began at 1 pm, and finally finished at 5 pm, or even later, if the Master so decided. From October 14th to February 14th, school started at 8 am, and finished at 4 pm. It was a six day week, but the Master was allowed to grant holidays and extra playtimes up to twelve hours per week.
(Not a bad deal. Twelve hours free every single week, if you feel so inclined! Twelve hours!)
A poignant plaque in St.Mary’s Church has always been considered to be a description of the education given at the Free School. I have translated it from Ye Olde Englishe:
“ Here lies interred
Henry eldest son of John
Born 22 July, 1708
Deceased January 3, 1718.
In these few
and tender years he had to
a Great Degree made himself
Master of the Jewish, Roman
and English History, the
Heathen Mythology and
the French tongue, and was
not inconsiderably advanced in
the Latin ”
Not quite the end! Let’s not forget, John Swaile. He succeeded John Womack, and steadied a very shaky ship over the next nine years, 1722-1731. He did, however, have his problems with George Bettinson, the Usher or Second Master , who, after serving under six different headmasters in just two and a half years, was well used to running the school himself, and did not take kindly to some fool of a new Headmaster trying to give him orders. But that, as they say, is a different story…
18 responses to “Was it suicide…..or was it………………..murder ?????”
That was a very entertaining read! Funny to enjoy a history of a school I’ve never heard before you so much. You have a definite gift for this sort of writing!
Thanks very much, you are very kind. I think what you are enjoying here, certainly, is the parade of human beings who go through the place over the years. Drug addicts, conmen, embezzlers, madmen, and, probably, murderers!
An intriguing and piquant account John. Dave is quite correct, you have a flair for this type of writing. Most entertaining!
Thank you very much. Now to Hollywood and beyond!
I say murder – you could get away with it far easier than today!
I agree with you. I’m sure it was murder. And I’m equally sure that the perpetrator got away with it very easily. There wasn’t even a hint of a police force at this point in history.
Great story. Very similar to my last school.
Thank you. I suspect a number of our local state schools nowadays have an equally colourful recent history. Not too long ago, there was a minor gun battle across the staff car park in one nearby school. Not the teachers, of course, but local drug dealers apparently.
Laughed all the way through! Sounds like a modern academy or ‘free school’ and the council are ofsted! Ignore them and they go away – if only! Definitely
Murder though, it must be very hard to drown yourself a in a small stream. A large river you simply tie a heavy weight to your body bit a small stream no! you’d have to be held down or be unconscious at the time. Now, where’s my raincoat I’ve a job to do!
As far as I know, nobody has ever combined a Sherlock Holmes type detective and the RAF in WW2, but perhaps there is a niche to be filled there. Actually, though, there must have been murders, even there. Presumably, they were all hushed up at the time.
No doubt there were. Dark nights, rationing, black market etc, ‘spivs’ no doubt went beyond the ‘niceness’ of Private walker to achieve their aims. Even in the forces themselves, skull duggery may well have played its part and that could not have been made public.
Such thorough research. Colombo’s wife would have led him to the answer
You’re probably right Derrick. To tell you the truth, my own conclusion about this incident is heavily influenced by the thoughts of my better half!
This poor school seems to have some kind of heavy cloud over it or a curse. My goodness! The run of headmasters and their outcome is astonishing. It’s a wonder that any parent sent their child to this school. It’s also a wonder this school stayed open. Great post, John. ❤
You are very kind, Amy. I suppose any organisation will have its ups and downs, but we got through it, and we’re still here!
Good read. Enough bad practice to keep the Employment Tribunal busy for years!
Absolutely. History always makes me wonder how on earth we have managed to get even to the state we are now!
It is because what goes around, comes around and we never learn. History is our future!