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Monica Jones on Thomas Roberts the School Master with Wooden Hands

[Marian Southwick] (0:01 – 0:35)

Today is the 14th of March 2024. I am Marion Southwick interviewing Monica Jones, Secretary of the Local History Society, on the life and times of Thomas Roberts. The recording is taking place in the old school at Hatherleigh and forms part of the Heritage Lottery-funded project to preserve and record heritage relating to St John’s Church, Hatherleigh. For much of this interview, Monica is reading from her notes gleaned from the Hatherleigh History Society archives.

[Monica Jones] (0:35 – 9:53)

Thank you Marian. It was around 1796 that a certain group of tradesmen in Hatherleigh decided that having a first-rate day school would benefit the town and bring in some good revenue. This was rather than sending sons abroad or a long way away to be educated.

Thomas Roberts’ name had been mentioned as just the person they needed by travellers on the coaches from Biddeford and even the fishermen from Clovelly who came to sell their fish in Hatherleigh and surrounding villages. John Pearce, a prominent owner of a tannery and also a wool business in Hatherleigh, was sent to Clovelly to interview this man, Thomas Roberts, a man with wooden arms. Thomas Roberts was born in 1771 in the village of St Anthony across the Tamar River from Plymouth.

His godfather was Rear Admiral Thomas Graves who was in charge of the Royal Naval Dockyard in Plymouth. Growing up here, it was no surprise that Thomas was destined for a naval career and at the age of 10 was commissioned as a midshipman. His first ship to serve on was HMS London in the American War of Independence and it was part of a flotilla of 26 ships under Rear Admiral Graves.

They went to evacuate the besieged British army in Yorktown on the coast of Virginia but a fleet of 30 French ships had landed troops near Jamestown to reinforce the Allied French and the US armies under George Washington. During the battle between the two fleets midshipman Roberts was throwing grenades at the French ship to clear the decks when one went off prematurely. It blew off his left hand at the wrist and his right arm had to be amputated below the elbow.

After months of recuperation on board the ship, the ship’s carpenter made him a pair of hands that had holes in so that Thomas could fit various tools including a quill pen and he was a bright young man and taught himself to write again and as such became the personal secretary to the Admiral. He remained in this position in the Navy for another seven years. After leaving the Navy, Thomas returned home where he improved his education from the vast libraries of books belonging to his father and godfather the Admiral.

He then became a tutor to the children of Sir James Hamlyn at Clovelly Court where he remained for a number of years before being approached by John Pearce in 1796. John Pearce was very impressed by the man who had had his hands blown off and reported that he had excellent handwriting and was a very ingenious person. With promises of sending his own sons and other boys he could procure to the school in Hadley, John Pearce managed to persuade Thomas Roberts to accept the offer of headmastership.

Not everyone in Hatherleigh was pleased to welcome Thomas as the new headmaster. One of the principal farmers of the parish, Mr Arthur Southcombe blamed John Pearce for bringing a man with no hands to the parish as he was sure to become a burden upon the ratepayers. Thomas Roberts then came to Hadley in 1797 with his newly married wife Mary Anne Knee Brent who had been a neighbour in Clovelly.

The day school was held in the old vestry, a room over the gateway leading to the churchyard and here he taught mathematics, Latin, writing, arithmetic and drawing. It was not known when it was decided to start up the school as a boarding and day school but later John Smale Short in his manuscripts history mentions that the school had an average of 80 boarders beside the day scholars. By this time Thomas had built a house for his residence next to the Georgian dragon as it was known then and John Pearce recorded that Thomas then purchased Eddie’s tenement, raised the old buildings and on that site built a house to receive his boarders and a school room.

It is thought that the money to buy the old property may have come from Admiral Grave’s capital. He had died in 1802. Other properties close to Eddie’s house, Walnuts and Wadlands, which were on the crossroads then called Peddrick’s Corner after the blacksmith’s smithy, also became part of the boarding school.

Such was its popularity. On the lower part of Haverley Moor, Thomas had dug a large pond that’s still known today as Thomas Roberts Pond. This is where the boys were taught navigation and sailing qualities of miniature fleets of ships made in the school workshop.

The boys also had access to a couple of fields owned by Thomas, one off Dark Lane now called Park Road. This was Molly Pearce’s field and another that adjoins Coombe Lane and that was called Lumcroft’s. Both fields only took five minutes for the boys to arrive at for games and recreation.

The River Loo had two pools just above the bridge called Salmon Pool and Swimming Pit which were ideal for the boys to learn how to swim. Most of the boys were sons of naval captains or personnel so probably expected to learn swimming and of course navigational skills. It was said that Thomas Roberts educated up to 1800 boys in his time and that not one boy died, a record that spoke volumes for the sanitary conditions of the houses and the safety of the neighbourhood.

In 1812 it had become necessary to erect a new gallery by subscription in the church at the west end of the North Isle. This was put up at the expense of Thomas Roberts to accommodate his 80 to 100 boarders. The vicar at this time was the very popular preacher Craddock Glascott who became a great friend to Thomas.

Thomas Roberts took his place in the business of the parish too and filled in turn the offices of Overseer of the Poor, Church Warden and Portrave. Whilst acting as Portrave, the Duchess of Clarence, later Queen Adelaide, passed through Hadley in 1827 to visit Lord Clinton and she received a presentation of address from Thomas and a hearty welcome from the town including decorations and the ringing of bells. The Duchess having heard of Thomas’s wonderful writing skills sent for him later and honoured him with a reception.

A great sample of Thomas’s handwriting has been mentioned in a minute book after the death of Craddock Glascott in 1831. Thomas was the secretary at a meeting held in the subscription rooms to organise the erection in the church of a memorial tablet for Craddock Glascott. It is possible this book may have been deposited in the records office in Exeter or along with many of Thomas Roberts’ personal papers which were given to a relative to archive and they subsequently disappeared.

We do have a couple of very fragile pages of Thomas’s handwriting in our own history archive found during some refurbishment of the house walnuts. There is also a carved wooden wing by Thomas held by our Lord of the Manor with other memorial documents and memorabilia. In 1845 Thomas gave up the school and lived the last few years of his life in his home on Pendricks Corner until his death in 1848.

He was buried in the same grave as his wife who had died three years earlier. The grave was one of the first to have been laid on the land at the top of the churchyard formerly known as Bowling Green because it was said it was used by the priest who used to live in Hadley at one time and then used by the townsfolk. It was said by many who knew Thomas Roberts well that he retained all his life that particular personal charm which endeared him to all he came in contact with or associated with.

He was essentially a lovable man. 

[Marian Southwick] (09:50 – 09:52)

Thank you very much Monica. 

[Marian Southwick] (09:53 – 09:54)

Thank you.