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Never a dull moment...

Former RGS student related to Henry Smith


By Clive Wilkinson (RGS 1952-1959)

“Back in 2018 I stood in some awe in front of the superb monument to Henry Smith, which stands close to the altar in Wandsworth Parish Church. Born and buried in Wandsworth, it is a magnificent tribute to the man who made Reigate Grammar School possible, bedecked as he is in the majestic robes of his office of alderman and carrying a skull as a memento mori.

I had made the 300-mile trip to London especially to see this monument, for over recent years I have come to understand what Henry Smith has meant to my family as well as to RGS and the wider community. When I was a student at RGS I had no idea that the school owed its existence to Henry Smith. Still less did I know that I owed my very existence to the Smith family!

Rumours of a wealthy ancestor

For almost as long as I can recall there had been some talk in my family about a very wealthy ancestor who had been an alderman in London who had left a legacy that we could call on if any of us were ever to encounter rough patches in our lives. The story had it that in the late 16th and early 17th centuries Henry Smith had been a wealthy salt merchant, had possibly dabbled in the silver business, and had at one time been captured by Moorish pirates off the north coast of Africa. He almost certainly benefited from the big land grab that followed the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII.

His encounter with Moorish pirates, if true, may account for the fact that Henry Smith’s Will included an investment of £1,000, the proceeds of which were ‘for the use of the poor captives being slaves under the Turkish pirates.’ My family’s personal interest in the man is that Smith’s Will also bequeathed a legacy for ‘the use and relief of the poorest of my kindred’, through his sister Joane, as Henry Smith had no children of his own. Some members of my own widely extended family have, in recent years, benefitted from that generosity.

More than three hundred years later I undertook my own research. What I uncovered astonished me, for it seems that my family has a very personal link with Henry Smith. I have a letter from the Henry Smith Charity confirming my pedigree, through my mother’s side, in the long line of descendants from the Smith family. I can trace my lineage directly back to Henry Smith’s sister. Technically speaking, therefore, Henry Smith is my great, great… to the 11th degree Great Uncle. I suppose therefore that I am entitled to refer to the eminent man as Uncle Henry!

School days

I attended RGS when it was under local authority control, and so had no fees to pay. If fees had been payable, and if I had known about my personal connection with Henry Smith, that would not have been a problem. But I didn’t know then, and I can only be grateful for that short interlude in the long history of RGS that the matter of expenses was taken care of by Surrey County Council. I loved my time at Reigate Grammar School, and will always be grateful for the many benefits its very fine education brought me.

Whether apocryphal or not, I do not know, but the story in my family also had it that towards the end of his life, Alderman Smith eschewed his fine robes and took to being a bit of a vagrant. Tramping the highways and byways of Surrey, he rewarded those parishes that treated him well with a legacy that, by the terms of his Will, should be used for the relief of poverty, the setting up of apprenticeships and the teaching and education of poor children. This is how the good people of ‘the Towne of Ryegate’, were able to purchase the land on which RGS now stands.

Today, the Henry Smith Charity is one of the largest independent grant makers in the UK, and in 2016 distributed £28 million. It aims to continue the legacy of philanthropy established by its founder, strengthening communities, and aiding organisations working with disadvantaged people. I feel immensely proud of my ancestor for his philanthropy, courage and understanding of what it was like to be poor.

I did not have the good fortune to be brought up in a stable and financially secure household. Consequently, my time at RGS was fraught with insecurities and I was not able to capitalise fully on the academic opportunities open to me. The possibility of going to university never occurred to me.

A love of learning that continued

I shall always be grateful to the Revd Dr Joe Brice, who suggested that I apply to Westminster Teacher Training College, Oxford, and offered to write a reference for me. Going to this Methodist college was the best thing I ever did, as it put my life on an even keel. As a newly-qualified teacher I taught in Surrey for a few years before going to what is now Zimbabwe to work at a Methodist mission school for boys. There I sharpened my love of geography and returned to this country to study the subject at Newcastle University, at the Methodist Church’s expense, and subsequently went on to complete my doctoral studies on human migration in Lesotho.

I remember Joe Brice with admiration and affection. Small in stature, he was a giant in saintliness. Our paths converged as we walked to and from school each day and we often talked. I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for enabling me to make sense of my life, and of religion, at that wonderful college, now absorbed into Oxford Brookes University.

It was through the headmaster of RGS, Mr Holland, that I developed my love affair with the poetry of T.S. Eliot. ‘Dutch’ would sweep into the room as silently as a bat, wrapping his academic gown round his shoulders as if afraid it would fall off. Kindly Mr Adkins taught me to love maths, something of which I was able to pass on to those lads in Zimbabwe, at least one of whom also became a maths teacher in the Birmingham area.

I owe my abiding interest in geography to Mr Farries, who always flustered into the room trailing a fine mist of chalk dust and wore his tattered academic gown like a piece of old rag. After dumping an unkempt roll of Ordnance Survey maps and a careworn leather briefcase on the table, he invariably used a corner of his gown to clean the previous lesson from the board. But he taught me to love maps and the landscape they depict, a joy I have carried with me throughout my life.

At RGS I inherited a rich legacy which enabled me in turn to pass on something of its values to my school pupils and undergraduate students. And as I stood and pondered that monument to Henry Smith in Wandsworth, I was very conscious of the fact that if it were not for him not only would RGS not exist but neither would I. What a debt of gratitude I owe to my Uncle Henry!”

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