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BRIEF MEMOIR OF
DR. BIRKBECK HILL
GEORGE BIRKBECK NORMAN HILL, second son of Arthur Hill and Ellen Tilt, daughter of Joseph Maurice, was born on June 7, 1835, at Bruce Castle, Tottenham, in Middlesex, at that time a quiet and picturesque village. His father was one of a band of brothers, sons of Thomas Wright Hill, of Birmingham, who, one and all treading in the footsteps of their father, a disciple of Priestley and an ardent Reformer, not only threw themselves with enthusiasm into the political movement towards Reform, of which Birmingham became the centre, but took an active part in furthering the cause of truth, justice, freedom, and social welfare according to their lights. They were free traders, condemners of the harsh penal code, haters of all religious inequality and intolerance, and earnest supporters of the anti-slavery cause. Withal they were thorough Englishmen. Never did they desire the victory of the French in the long war.
At the time of Birkbeck Hill's birth, Thomas Wright Hill and his sons were chiefly known as the founders of the Hazelwood' system of education, which with its reliance on love as the principle to which all trainers of the young should chiefly trust, its elaborate constitution of government by the boys, and its endeavour to discover each pupil's natural bent, attracted much attention in the early part of the last century, and greatly influenced general education. The other brothers, notably Rowland Hill, the Postal Reformer, and Matthew Davenport Hill, afterwards Recorder of Birmingham, had left the school before the birth of Birkbeck Hill, to devote themselves to a more public career; but Arthur Hill found his absorbing interest in education, and in 1833 became head master of the new school established at Bruce Castle to carry on the system originally founded at Birmingham. Birkbeck Hill's mother, Ellen Tilt Maurice, who died when he was only four years old, was on
After the name of the house in the Hagley Road, Birmingham, where the school was carried on from 1819 to 1833.
her father's side related to Frederic Denison Maurice; on the mother's side she was of Huguenot ancestry. All who knew her bear witness to the singular charm and brightness of her
Birkbeck Hill used to say that he had been brought up as a utilitarian; yet there were other influences present in his childhood and youth which served to cultivate the imaginative and literary side of his nature. The old Jacobean mansion which had inherited from far earlier times the name of Bruce Castle was destined to be his home, with a short break on his marriage, for more than forty years. The park,' to quote his own words, 'was but small, yet so thick was the foliage of the stately trees, and so luxuriant the undergrowth of the shrubberies, that its boundaries failed to reach the eye. Hard by the main building stood an ancient tower which was standing when Queen Elizabeth visited the mansion, and when Henry VIII met there his sister, Queen Margaret of Scotland'.' Furthermore his father, though deeply interested in reform in common with the rest of the 'Hill brothers,' had in his nature a strong literary bent. Injury to sight which had befallen him when still a young man, from earnest study under unfavourable conditions as he thought, raised a barrier to so full a cultivation of this side of his character as he would otherwise have enjoyed. Even with this impediment, which did much to cut him off from entering on new fields of literature, so great was his love of Shakespeare that he had stored in his retentive memory at least eight plays, which when close on eighty he could still recite by heart; while at a still greater age he was able to translate Horace's Ars Poetica into blank verse almost entirely from his recollection of the original.
Moreover, though Birkbeck Hill would sometimes regret the excessive influence of the utilitarianism with which he was surrounded in childhood and early youth, yet to much of the faith of his fathers he clung tenaciously throughout his life. From his father he inherited, in addition to a strong moral rectitude, a love of justice, a hatred of tyrannies and shams, and a sympathy with the oppressed. 'Beg of Arthur not to get over-intoxicated with the Greek news,' had been written of his father in 1829 on the tidings of the battle of Navarino. Of Life of Sir Rowland Hill, i. 181.
Birkbeck Hill himself it is told that, after he had succeeded to the head mastership of Bruce Castle, he was once asked to receive into the school the son of a planter whose wealth was raised in great part by slave labour. With his detestation of slavery the first thought was to refuse; but afterwards reflecting that the boy might receive good from the school, he determined to take him, resolving at the same time to devote all the fees to charitable objects. Like Dr. Johnson he might have given as his toast, 'Here's to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies.'
It was in his father's school that Birkbeck Hill was educated until he matriculated at Oxford. The teaching was excellent, so far as it went. Thoroughness and good discipline were achieved: individuality and intelligence were encouraged. Yet, as he himself admits, the scholastic attainments of the founders of the new system were not equal to their ingenuity and enthusiasm. He was wont to mention with regret the fact that he did not begin Greek until he was sixteen. From Bruce Castle School Birkbeck Hill went up to Oxford, matriculating from Pembroke College on March 1, 1855. Here he passed into a new world. 'I was brought up,' he writes, ' among those whose canon of taste was contained in the Edinburgh Review. I sat, as it were, at the feet of Jeffrey and Macaulay. Not a doubt did I ever hear cast on their infallibility. In them was contained all the law and the prophets. Byron's English Bards and Scotch Reviewers was constantly in the hands and on the tongues of my young associates. . Wordsworth was our scoff. . . . I entered Oxford as ignorant of the new School of Poetry as any one well could be. I do not think that I had ever seen a single poem of Keats or Shelley. Mr. Browning's name was, I believe, unknown to me. Of Wordsworth and
Tennyson I had read only a very few poems. Tennyson I had heard treated with the same scorn as his great forerunners'.' It was for him a happy day when he became acquainted with Mr. William Fulford, a member of his college and editor of the short-lived Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, to which Rossetti and William Morris were contributors. Fulford introduced him to the little fraternity, of which Burne-Jones and William Morris were the leaders. 'It was,' to quote his own words, ""a nest of • Writers and Readers, p. 99.
singing birds," who night after night were found in the neighbourhood of Dr. Johnson's old college, often in the college itself.... The subjects which I had always heard discussed were never discussed here, while matters on which I had never heard any one speak formed here the staple of the talk. I recall how one evening the nineteenth century was denounced for its utter want of poetry. This was more than I could bear, for the nineteenth century was almost an object of adoration in my father's house. I ventured to assert that it could boast at all events of one piece of poetry-the steam engine. The roar of laughter which burst forth nearly overwhelmed me. The author of The Earthly Paradise almost overturned his chair as he flung himself backwards overpowered with mirth. I was too much abashed to explain that I was recalling the sight I had once had of an engine rushing through the darkness along a high embankment, drawing after it a cloud of flame and fiery steam'. In this fraternity Birkbeck Hill was not unfrequently in the company of Rossetti, who, 'with a friendly band of young pre-Raphaelite painters,' was covering with frescoes the walls of the new Debating Room of the Oxford Union Society 2. Of Swinburne, too, he was a contemporary and friend.
So ardently did Birkbeck Hill drink in the new knowledge that, when he had scarcely taken his degree, he dared to give a lecture at the Mechanics' Institute of the very village in which he had been brought up, wherein he challenged a place for Tennyson among the great poets. For a time he even went to the opposite extreme, and learnt to speak as contemptuously of Pope as he had before spoken of Wordsworth and Tennyson.
Other friends he had, not of this set, like Professor Dicey, and, perhaps above all others, George Rankine Luke of Balliol, afterwards Senior Student of Christ Church, a man of singular ability, high character, and enthusiastic energy, whose untimely death by drowning in the Isis in 1862 robbed the University of 'a great and beneficent influence,' to quote the late Master of Balliol, and was lamented in an eloquent tribute by Stanley in a farewell sermon to the University3. The sudden loss of one so dear to him and so honoured was perhaps Birkbeck Hill's first great grief.
'Letters of D. G. Rossetti to W. Allingham, p. 177.
2 Now the Library.
For a brief account of Mr. Luke, and a testimony to his influence, the
Ill health, the result of a severe attack of typhoid, proved a bar to any attempt at honours, and he was obliged to be content with an 'honorary fourth class' In Literis Humanioribus. He took his B.A. degree in the Michaelmas Term of 1858, but never proceeded to an M.A. through dislike of the religious tests then imposed. In 1866 he took the degree of B.C.L., and in 1871 that of D.C.L., availing himself of the University Tests Act passed in that year.
On leaving Oxford in 1858 Birkbeck Hill joined his father in the school, though he did not take orders as he had originally intended when he went up to Oxford. In the January of the next year he was married to Annie Scott, the daughter of Edward Scott, a solicitor of Wigan in Lancashire. They had become engaged before Birkbeck Hill went up to Oxford, when they were still boy and girl.
At Bruce Castle School, first in partnership with his father, but from 1868 as sole head master, Birkbeck Hill remained until 1877. At Tottenham all his seven children were born. The school continued to enjoy fair prosperity and success. Some changes were introduced, chiefly in the direction of bringing up the teaching to modern requirements, but on the whole the old principles were maintained to the end. Yet it may be said here that the profession was not one suited to Birkbeck Hill's sensitive nature-unsupported, as he at any rate came to be, by enthusiasm or even confidence in his calling; while many of the duties incumbent on the master of a private school, though always performed with that conscientiousness which was a characteristic of his work, grew more and more irksome to him as years went on. It may be of interest to some of Birkbeck Hill's friends who are aware of his denunciation of the tyranny of over-organized athleticism in our schools and universities, to hear that while at Bruce Castle he was a keen cricketer, taking part as a regular member of the school eleven in the matches of the boys. He was always a vigorous walker. In earlier manhood a holiday passed amid the Lake mountains was one of his greatest pleasures; nor in his later years did this source of health and happiness desert him. I well remember the long mountain rambles we took
reader is referred to the Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett, i. 331, where a portion of the late Master's obituary notice of him, contributed to the Times, is given.