24 July 2010

Thomas Hughes at Uffington, Oxfordshire

Thomas Hughes (1822-96) was born in Uffington, Oxfordshire, where he spent his first ten years. His famous novel Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857) is semi-autobiographical in that it introduces many elements of his younger years in Uffington, and his later youthful years at Rugby School.

Interestingly, Hughes did not intend the book to be a good read, as he makes clear in his Preface to the sixth edition. His aim is didactic:

'Several persons, for whose judgment I have the highest respect, while saying very kind things about this book, have added, that the great fault of it is, "too much preaching;" but they hope I shall amend in this matter should I ever write again. Now this I most distinctly decline to do. Why, my whole object in writing at all was to get the chance of preaching! When a man comes to my time of life and has his bread to make, and very little time to spare, is it likely that he will spend almost the whole of his yearly vacation in writing a story just to amuse people? I think not. At any rate, I wouldn't do so myself.'

In Tom Brown's Schooldays, Hughes particularly criticizes bullying, and the fagging system, present in public (meaning private!) schools.

'Our village was blessed amongst other things with a well-endowed school. The building stood by itself, apart from the master's house, on an angle of ground where three roads - an old gray stone building with a steep roof and mullioned windows.'

Tom Brown's School Museum next to the parish church is understandably mainly dedicated to Thomas Hughes, although there is also a large amount of information there about the general history of Uffington.

The school orders.

Once a village shop, Benjy's Cottage is named after the character in Tom Brown's Schooldays:

'But old Benjy was young master's real delight and refuge. He was a youth by the side of Noah, scarce seventy years old - a cheery, humorous, kind-hearted old man, full of sixty years of Vale [of the White Horse] gossip, and of all sorts of helpful ways for young and old, but above all for children. It was he who bent the first pin with which Tom extracted his first stickleback out of "Pebbly Brook," the little stream which ran through the village. The first stickleback was a splendid fellow, with fabulous red and blue gills. Tom kept him in a small basin till the day of his death, and became a fisherman from that day.'

The parish church of St Mary's, more familiarly known as 'The cathedral in the Vale', is where Thomas Hughes's grandfather was the vicar.

John Betjeman (1906-84) has a way of imposing his presence in many places, and he spent eleven years in Uffington - from 1934 to 1945 - as a tenant at Gerrards Farm. Betjeman had recently married Penelope Chetwode, and the couple soon became prominent features in the village, with John being the People's Warden of the church, and Penelope a keen director of plays. As the landlord John Wheeler wanted the farm for his son in 1945, the Betjeman family then moved to Farnborough in Berkshire.

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