A Memoir of William Dawson (1805–1889)

Preface to the Online Edition

The content of this page has been transcribed from a printed memoir of the life of William Dawson 1805–1889. My copy of the latter was given to me by the husband of my late godmother, Dr Bernard Mallett. It is inscribed “Bernard, Hope you enjoy for the long association with No. 27. (signed) Peter Fallowfield”.

The aim of publishing the memoir here is to make the content available to anyone researching William Dawson for their family history.

Preface to the Printed Edition

The memoir in this book, written by Esther Seebohm just after William Dawson’s death, was published anonymously in 1890. His granddaughter, Helena, was born in 1891. Three of the four children of her marriage to Joseph Fallowfield survive at this date together with Nora Josephine, the widow of Joseph Francis who died in 1976. They are followed by three generations.

The original booklet, published locally and carefully preserved by Hitchin Library is now fragile after more than a century, as is another copy held by the family. It seemed prudent, therefore, to reproduce the booklet in a more durable form. The objective is to distribute a limited number of copies in the new format to members of this branch of the family and their descendants. However, this life spanned most of the nineteenth century and is part of the history of Hitchin town. For this reason two copies have been offered to Hitchin Library for use as deemed appropriate.

In the chapter devoted to William Dawson in Hitchin Worthies, Reginald Hine wrote of a “life as gracious, and in its way as fruitful of good, as any that was ever lived in Hitchin town” and he noted that the quintessence of it has been admirably set down in the memoir.

This family is indebted to the authoress whose close connections with him in his old age enabled her to give us a unique record of a life of much self-achievement. A good life marked with gentleness and modesty earned him the love and respect of those around him. He laboured long in the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and truth. In life he taught and inspired many and may this memoir continue to inspire his descendants in the years to come.

“I have fought the good fight to the end.
I have run the race to the finish.
I have kept the faith.”

St. Paul
References: Hitchin Worthies: Four centuries of English Life Reginald W. Hine F.S.A. Fr.Hist.S
The Natural History of the Hitchin Region Edited by Reginald W. Hine
A Suppressed Cry Victoria Glendinning

29th June 1999

William Dawson

“Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honourable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

St. Paul

Of native gentleness, and village born,
He loved the flowers and ferns and living things
Of Nature, and was truly Nature’s child.
But rich in human love he loved Man most,
And Milton, Dante, Homer, were his friends.
Schooled by such converse, lovingly he taught
Three generations, and was loved by all.

Those who receive the ‘Dawson Prize’ will be glad to know something about William Dawson, in memory of whom it is given year by year. They will want to know why his friends and fellow-townsmen wished that his name should not be forgotten in the place where most of his life was spent.

The story of his life is a very simple one.

He was born at Pirton September 17th 1805. The little white cottage is still there with its high-pitched roof and its fenced garden round. It stands close upon the ‘Little Green’, so called to distinguish it from the ‘Big Green’, on the other side of the church and the old Toot Hill.

His father, James Dawson, had come on foot from Banbury, in Oxfordshire, when quite a young man, and had married and settled at Pirton, as a shoemaker. He was a bright energetic little man, upright alike in figure and in character, and he won the respect of his fellow-villagers. He became village constable as well as shoemaker, and being what his neighbours called a ‘religious man’, he did all he could to stir them up to an earnest Christian life, by holding meetings in his cottage and welcoming any visitors who came to Pirton with a like purpose whether they belonged to his particular church or not. To some his firmness of character made him seem austere, but his son, when himself a white-haired old man, still cherished his memory with love and reverence.

James Dawson’s wife came from Langley. She died early, leaving three children, of whom William was the eldest. He could only remember his mother faintly as a kind and gentle woman, whose sympathy was called out by suffering, and how she used to visit an old woman who was looked upon by the more ignorant villagers with suspicion and dislike as a witch, trying to comfort her amid the petty persecutions to which she was subjected by her neighbours.

Fortunate as he certainly was in his parents, the little Pirton lad had few other advantages. How few these were we may judge from his own account of the only school the village could boast. It was held by a dame who gathered the girls and boys round her in her cottage, and instructed them in reading and straw-plaiting. Writing was an accomplishment which could not be reasonably expected, and even the reading was not of a very advanced kind for the good dame herself pronounced ‘simplicity’ as ‘simple city’, and told her pupils when they came to hard words to “say ‘Jerusalem’ and pass on”.

Once having learned to read, however, the boy found himself possessed of a means of satisfying the great thirst after knowledge with which he was gifted. The few books within his reach became a part of his little world. Among them were the Bible, an old dictionary, and Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. Pirton and its surroundings became in his imagination the scene of many a thrilling incident of which he read. The Slough of Despond, the Hill Difficulty, the spot where Christian saw Apollyon coming to meet him, were all there, and away beyond in the direction of Lilley, rose the Delectable Mountains. The river Jordan wound across the common, where he often spent long days minding sheep. Further down was the Dead Sea, and hard by were the meeting places of Jacob and Esau and of Isaac and Rebecca. At home, too, his mind was busy, and the simple objects of household use which surrounded him presented problems as to how they were made, and filled him with wonder at what seemed to him the almost supernatural power of those who could produce them.

So anxious was he to increase his little store of knowledge that when he had learnt all the good dame was able to teach, he walked over to Hitchin every day to attend the British School, taking back books with him from a lending library in Cock Street, where he met with kindness and was encouraged in his love of reading. Thus he fed his mind with the thoughts of others and began to form those book-friendships which in after life were to be such a delight to him.

He would often read late into the night and wake early to read again. But it was not only books that claimed his interest. In the long days spent under the open sky he had found much opportunity for observing nature, his ear had grown quick to hear the music of the wind in the grass and in the trees, and he became familiar with the songs of the birds. A passionate love of flowers grew up within him. The country round his native village was full of enjoyment to a boy like him, buoyant and light-hearted, with eyes and ears awake. He took long rambles through the woods in spring time, and the chalk hills became to him in very truth ‘Delectable Mountains’.

The simple village life too was full of human interest. He was keenly alive to all that passed around him, and in his old age could tell many a story of the hard times which followed the wars with Napoleon. The widespread distress among the peasantry was accompanied by deeds of violence for which those who had committed them were sentenced to transportation. The wives of the convicts being unable to write themselves were glad to come to him to get letters written for them to their husbands in Botany Bay. Some of the scenes he saw and the words he heard in the village he would gladly have forgotten, for his soul revolted against all that degrades human beings, and wrong and oppression filled him with indignation. With his thirst for knowledge and his eager zest for life, he had too a quick instinctive sympathy with and reverence for goodness, and very early on in his boyhood he had made up his mind that if he could not be great he would at least endeavour to be good.

His father destined him for his own trade, but he himself had no liking for it. He was what his fellow-villagers called “a proper bad shoemaker, that hated the lapstone”. After a while he gave up the trade he found so irksome and got more congenial work on a farm. Here, according to contemporary report, he might have been heard singing merrily on the slippery top of a load of barley in harvest time, or seen thrashing out corn in winter with a flail, or busy in the fields when

‘In summer ’tis a blithesome sight to see,
As, step by step, with measured swing, they pass,
The wide-ranked mowers wading to the knee,
Their sharp scythes panting through the thickset grass.’

And all this time new worlds were opening out before him as he worked away in his spare hours at his Greek and Latin Grammar and the Botany books lent him by his Hitchin friends.

At the age of nineteen he married the ‘belle of the village’, a tall lithe dark-eyed girl who lived with her mother and grandmother in a cottage close by the pond on the Big Green.

He had loved her for a long time. At his work he had listened for the rushing sound of her dress as she bounded across the green, and once even the shoemaking had been transfigured in his eyes, for her shoes came for him to mend. It took long to win her, but she was won at last, and then came days when they worked together in the fields at harvest and made up their lovers’ quarrels over the beer at resting time – and evenings when he read aloud ‘Tom Jones’, or some other book from the library to her and her mother as they sat at work.

They made room for him in the cottage, and the old grandmother, who was partially paralyzed soon became very fond of him. ‘Her Bill’, as she called him, was like a son to her, and she would listen for his step as he came back from his work that she might take her little daily walk two or three times round the room, supported by his careful arm. She died in his arms at the age of 80.

His home life was not free from trials, but they were met by him with patience and unfailing care and thoughtfulness for the happiness of those about him.

It was soon after his marriage that he began his career as a teacher, and, following the advice of his Hitchin friends, he went for a year to the Borough Road Training School in London. On his return early in 1828, he took charge of the British School at Pirton, held in the ‘Old Hall’, now a public house. The ‘Old Hall’, with its gabled roof and mullioned windows, was the remnant of a large manor house, and still bears a coat of arms on the outer wall with the motto ‘En Dieu est tout’, and the date 1609. Here from sixty to eighty scholars assembled through the week, and a Sunday School was also opened. Besides the Pirton children there were farmers’ sons from Hexton, Pegsdon, Shillington, and Holwell, some of whom are described as ‘audacious’ and like ‘little ragged colts’, so that the good master’s hands must have been full. He had resolved on starting that, as far as in him lay, his influence with his pupils should be for good, and that he would never say anything that might tend to lead them from what was right. He succeeded in winning their respect, and in many cases lasting affection. He is spoken of by surviving pupils as ‘strict but not cruel’, a ‘wonderful good-tempered man who used to correct them in a decent sort of way’, and we are told that he ‘turned out pupils fit to go anywhere, unless they were dunces and he couldn’t knock it into them’. After a time, he could promote some of the more intelligent among them to help in the teaching.

“I knew very little of him” (writes one who remembers those days) “until, I think, 1833, when I was sent to him for health and education. I with another were the only boarders he ever had. The school was a very primitive one, the scholars being a few farmers’ sons, and the villagers. I assisted in teaching, which enabled Mr. Dawson to have more time for the study of languages, in which he was very successful. He had then mastered Latin and Greek, and had commenced Hebrew, but the modern languages he gained after I left… During the holidays, and in other spare time, he did most of the land surveying round the neighbourhood, and I accompanied him to draw the chain and place the arrows. We usually combined botany with our excursions, always looking for any rare specimen of the wild Flora. During the winter he superintended an evening school at Hitchin, and I was with rum to assist; and on fine, clear nights our walk home was made most enjoyable and instructive by conversation mainly on astronomy." The land-surveying here referred to was undertaken chiefly in the interest of reapers, who were paid by the piece, and had no means of accurately measuring for themselves the amount of work they had done. On one farm of about 1,000 acres, as many as seventy-five Irish reapers were employed during harvest time, and for these William Dawson used to survey the ground.

On the foundation of the Hitchin Mechanics’ Institution in October, 1835, he was appointed librarian and instructor of the classes for Grammar, Arithmetic, Geography, Geometry, and Astronomy, to be held on five evenings of the week. He therefore left Pirton and came to Hitchin with his wife and her mother. He also found employment as an assistant master at Mr. Bristow’s School in Bancroft, and afterwards at that of Mr. Isaac Brown.

Mr. Brown was at the time engaged with others in compiling a Flora of Hertfordshire, and he had undertaken to record the localities of wild plants found in the district round Hitchin. William Dawson entered into this work with heart and soul. Botany was already a favourite study with him, and he soon learnt to know better than anyone else where the rarer species were to be found.

When Mr. Brown left Hitchin, William Dawson continued to teach in other schools in the town, and later in Mr. Seager’s School at Stevenage.

In spite of his success as a teacher, and the great personal influence he exercised over his pupils, he did not fully appreciate his own power. He judged himself by a high standard of his own. Looking back from his thirtieth year, the progress he had won by his untiring effort had seemed to him so small that tears came into his eyes when he thought of it. Even when twice that age he felt himself sometimes over-estimated, and perhaps as often under-estimated, but neither could hurt him, for he knew the truth about himself. So great was his fear of falling short in his teaching that he often went over to Stevenage oppressed with anxiety lest he should find himself not sufficiently prepared for his lesson, or lest he might be set to teach something which he did not feel to have thoroughly mastered himself. Then when the lessons were over and he came out into the fresh air, the rebound of his spirits was so great that he would run and leap for joy.

He also gave private lessons, and for many years from 1845 his time was chiefly devoted to teaching in several families in the town. A former resident of Hitchin describes him as being an “utterly unaffected man, artless and guileless, to whom the heavens by night and the fields by day were a perennial magnet”, and adds that his pupils might be troubled to say just what they learned from him. There were other lessons than mathematics and languages derived from his weekly or daily visits.

He brought such a glow of enthusiasm with him, took such delight himself in mastering difficulties, and showed so eager an interest in the subject in hand that his pupils could not but enjoy his lessons. He would quite lose himself over some favourite passage of Homer or Virgil, and, taking the words out of his halting pupil’s mouth, would translate to the end of the passage himself with rapturous delight, getting up sometimes to enforce the meaning of the words by acting them.

What little spare time he had was spent, as in former years, in study and in scouring the country round for mosses and wild flowers, and in the society of his friends. He took such a kindly and unaffected interest in every one, and was such good company that he was welcomed at many a fireside in the villages round, and he frequently did not get home from these expeditions till late at night.

He had a good voice and a great love for music, and, in early days, had often walked over to lead the choir or play the flute in some village church. When settled in Hitchin, he led the choir in most of the chapels at one time or another, and it was always a joy to him to sing the familiar tunes that he had sung in ‘glorious old Pirton’ when he was a boy.

It was during these years, too, that some of the deepest lessons of his life were learnt. His wife had long been an invalid, and a severe illness ended in her death. Her mother had died quite suddenly not long before while nursing her daughter, and William Dawson himself was at the time lying ill and helpless. It was long before he regained his strength and was able to drag his weary limbs as far as Gaping Hill, where he could lie stretched at full length in the sunshine and feel his way back into the life around him, among the birds and flowers he loved. In after years, the greenfinch’s plaintive call would always bring back those strange sad days to him. But time restored full vigour of body and a renewed zest for life with, perhaps, a deeper and wider sympathy with his fellow-creatures, whether human or other. His nature was so rich in the power of loving that the sorrows and troubles of his own life could not embitter his spirit. They only served to increase his eager devotion to everything worthy of love and reverence within his reach, whether in men. or books, or nature.

‘For life, with all it yields of joy and woe.
And hope and fear, …
Is just our chance o’ the prize of learning love,
How love might be, hath been indeed, and is.’

He did not lose the chance. An overflowing sympathy, seeking for sympathy in return, drew others to him while his high standard of truth and right insured respect. It was this combination that made his friendship so delightful. His gentle courteous manner, and constant little thoughtful services for others, made him beloved alike by rich and poor – by those who could not share in his intellectual pleasures as well as those who found in his keen pursuit of knowledge a stimulus to their own.

He afterwards married again, and then new claims upon his time and interest found a ready response as his children grew up round him. They were early initiated into the delights of flower-hunting, and often on half-holidays a merry little party might be seen sitting in some wood eating nuts and apples after a successful search for a rare moss.

The quiet home life, with its busy well-filled days, was broken into now and again by a short visit to a fellow botanist in Herefordshire, with whom he kept up a correspondence and exchanged specimens, or by a tour with a friend along the coast of North Devon, or through Gloucestershire, or with his son in Wales. If these treats were few and far between, their scarceness was made up for by the keenness with which they were enjoyed, and the remembrance of them was stored up as a source of endless pleasure and interest. The first of these little expeditions had been one to the Isle of Wight, planned for him by some of his friends, and the enjoyment is as fresh as ever, when he recalls it, some forty years afterwards, and writes to an old pupil describing an excursion by boat round the Needles, exclaiming “What a glory was the grand old sea to me that day, for I had for the first time seen it the day before.” One of his last holiday visits was to Cromer, where he was found by a friend sitting under the cliffs on the sea shore reading his favourite Dante.

So the years passed, filled with wholesome work and simple pleasures, till old age found him still learning, still working, still young and joyous at heart.

On his seventieth birthday he was presented with a letter of congratulation written by the late Mr. F. D. Delme Radcliffe on behalf of his many friends, and accompanied by a more solid proof of their affection and esteem.

His was a typical old age. His mind was rich with the harvest of a long life, and his heart, disciplined by its full share of joy, sorrow, and conflict, brimmed over with human kindness, making his face under its crown of white hair one of the sunniest ever seen.

He was still active, taking long walks before breakfast, from which he returned laden with botanical spoils to be enjoyed at leisure, for the old enthusiasm for the study of mosses and flowers was in no way abated. He would go down on his knees by the roadside to examine closely some minute growing things, and pore over his microscope, the kind gift of a friend at home. He had turned the little yard behind his house into a garden, and here it was his delight to tend his pet plants. There were a few rare wild flowers among them, but the wild flowers did not need to be rare to find a welcome in his garden, where they might grow side by side with his choicest carnations, and the roses, and single pinks, which made it such a sweet corner in summer time.

In the autumn of 1883 a severe chill brought on an illness from which it was feared he could hardly recover. But there were still a few remaining years in store for him, years in which the more complete leisure for the enjoyment of books and the companionship of his friends would go far to make up for the loss of bodily vigour. For he never regained all the old strength, though he enjoyed comparatively good health up to the last few months of his life.

He did not quite give up his teaching even now, and on his eightieth birthday was found giving a lesson between eight and nine in the morning. His mind was still vigorous as ever, and the new leisure came as a boon. Among other things it gave him time to begin the study of Anglo-Saxon, and he could spend long summer mornings with his ‘Anglo-Saxon Reader’ or his Dante under the trees in a garden near his own, or in the little wood beyond, not, however, too much absorbed in his book to note what tune the wind was singing in the leaves above his head, or to be drawn back into his boyhood by the songs of the birds.

A letter written at this time describes these almost daily visits to the little wood, and tells how he is ‘charmed with the cawing of the rooks and the singing of various birds, but most of all by the delicious breezes through the trees, and, at the Eastern leaning-place [a gate] towards the rising sun, especially with the music of the trees, which has been most exhilarating for several gusty days, rising and falling in undulating sounds like a mighty Aeolian harp’; and how he has also ‘read a good deal in the summerhouse in the dell, every now and then looking off to watch the new-born foliage in the shimmering sunlight, or listening to some bird perching near me and bursting out into song.’

In Dante’s ‘Divina Commedia’ he found great delight and it became his constant companion to be read and re-read with ever-increasing enjoyment. He read slowly, and never carelessly. Each word was made to give up its full meaning before he let it go, and he would linger over a beautiful passage, reading it again and again till he had stored it in his mind for himself and his friends. It was not merely the beauty of Dante’s language. nor the thoughts to be found ever and anon expressed with Dante’s terseness and power, that gave the poem its charm for him. It lay in the fact that his own soul was in full sympathy with the upward-striving of the souls on the Mount of Purgatory, and with the intense pure joy in goodness and beauty and light which pervades the Paradiso.

“Luce intellettual piena d’amore,
Amor di vero ben pien di letizia,
Letizia che trascende ogni dolzore.”

Light intellectual replete with love,
Love of true good replete with ecstasy,
Ecstasy that transcendeth every sweetness.

–Par.xxx., 40

He read much also from our own English poets, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and, among modern ones, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Matthew Arnold. Whittier and Lowell were also favourites, and Browning was added to the number of his friends during these last years of his life.

If the long country rambles with the return home by starlight were joys of the past, the loss of which no books could quite make up to him yet it was no small gain that evenings could be spent in exploring fresh fields of literature, for which, heretofore, the studies more directly connected with his teaching had left little time.

Kingsley’s works and George Eliot’s novels and many others were borrowed in turn and read with keen interest. It was still his habit as of old to localize in spots familiar to him scenes which took hold of his imagination, and the little wood where he spent so many hours reading went through a number of mental transformations to serve as the scene of very varied episodes. He could feel the fascination of Charles Lamb’s writings and the eastern beauty of the ‘Light of Asia’. He could also throw himself heart and soul into such a book as Lord Bacon’s ‘Advancement of Learning’, or Mommsen’s ‘Rome’, or Herbert Spencer’s ‘Sociology’, only regretting that he had not read them “forty years ago”.

His reading was by no means always solitary. He had so many friends to share it, besides his own family, that scarcely a day passed without one or another looking in on him, sure of the usual hearty greeting of outstretched hands and a torrent of welcoming words. The friend once settled into an easy chair over his fire in the full beam of his kind eyes would be beguiled by him into sharing a canto of Dante or some new treasure in the shape of a poem, the full meaning and beauty of which he thought he had never seen before. Once when a friend went in, he exclaimed “Yesterday was the first day for nine weeks that no one came to see me and it felt quite flat!”. Another day when shut in by cold and rain he writes ‘I have been busy with the third canto of Paradiso, and toying a little with Anglo-Saxon… I have has several visitors, four of my old pupils, so that it has not been dull or sunless with me although the weather has been so stern and harsh’.

He was fond of being read to and there never was a more eager and intent listener. No word escaped him and he would often break in with exclamations of delight and ask to have a passage read again that he might more fully grasp and enjoy it: perhaps some description of country life or country labour that he could pronounce “true to the very life”, having himself folded the sheep at night, gathered in the golden grain, bent with the mowers in the hayfield, and lingered after the day’s work was done to enjoy the night air laden with ‘the perfume which the day foregoes’.

His thoughts often lingered over his boyhood, not regretfully, for old age had brought him so much of good, but rejoicing in the memory of days when he had been glad and young and abounding in strength. Once the thought that through that long life of his, only for one day had he lacked his daily bread brought sudden tears to his eyes.

Life was very dear to him still, but he knew by the gradual failing of his strength that it was slipping away from him. This knowledge made him sad at times, but the sadness was kept to himself and would melt away in the fellowship of those he loved and the beauty of the world around. The sunshine and the sound of wind in the trees and his friends’ faces were all dearer to him than ever because he knew that he must leave them.

The failing strength was made the most of to the last. He was still to be found at work in his little garden or chopping wood in the shed, with a thrush singing to him from the cherry tree. He still talked of rubbing the rust from his mind with a spell of mathematics and tired himself out with hours of steady work over a new botany book. He still turned to his old favourites for fresh enjoyment and invigoration. The old Bible stories that had been so much to him as a boy still held their early fascination for him, and the long-loved familiar Hebrew psalms still found a response in his heart.

‘His life grew fragrant with the inner soul:
And weary folk who passed him in the street,
Saw Christ’s love beam from out the wistful eyes,
And had new confidence in God and man.
And so he worked and longed, and lived and loved,
Did noble deeds, not knowing what he did,
Thought noble thoughts unconscious of their worth.’

In the autumn of 1888 he was taken ill again. His strength failed rapidly this time, and after a few months of weakness and suffering – months which those near him could ill have spared, and he himself felt to have brought him something he would not willingly have missed – he passed peacefully away from the world in which he had found so much to love.

On his gravestone are inscribed these words:

In memory of


a native of Pirton, in their county
the loving and revered teacher of three
generations in the town and
neighbourhood of Hitchin.
A man of unspotted life,
whose high attainments were adorned by
gentleness and modesty.
A bright example of the domestic virtues.
A sure friend and delightful companion.

Died Feb. 27th, 1889, aged 83 years.

To preserve the memory of such a life, his friends
and neighbours have erected this stone.

Take hallowed earth, ’tis all thy claim,
the weary head, the wasted frame;
the rest triumphant, borne away
from blinding dust and clogging clay
beholds, with rapture ever new,
the pure, the beautiful, the true.