Death of Barnstaple’s Grand Old Man – Thomas Wainwright

100 years ago today the local newspapers published the news of the death of perhaps the most well-known Librarians of the North Devon Athenaeum, Thomas Wainwright. Born in Leeds in 1826, Wainwright moved to Barstaple having spent time in London and Bridport. In trying to write a post about him I came accross this obituary for him in the North Devon Journal which was written by someone who knew him…

Thomas Wainwright - Harper Album 1-22It is with profound regret that we have to record the death of Mr. Thomas Wainwright, the Curator and Secretary of the North Devon Athenaeum, Barnstaple, who passed away on Friday morning in his 91st year. On the 7th of April he celebrated his 90th birthday, and then, despite his great age, he was able to discharge his official duties—as well as to devote some time on his birthday to the work of translating the ancient Latin Registers of the Bishop of Exeter. During Eastertide, however, he was taken ill with bronchitis, and sank so rapidly that on Thursday there was no hope of his recovery. The news of his decease caused general sorrow, for Mr. Wainwright was held in the highest estimation not only in Barnstaple but throughout a wide district. For half a century Mr. Wainwright was a leading figure in literary and scientific movements in North Devon. In the sixties he came to Barnstaple to conduct a private boarding school which had been established in Ebberly-lawn by Mr J. P. Harris, and in 1872 was appointed Head-master of Barum’s ancient Grammar School. He filled this position with great ability until 1890, when he resigned in order to become the Librarian of the Athenaeum—the gift to Barnstaple of his old friend, William Frederick Rock. For several years previously, Mr. Wainwright had acted Hon. Secretary of the Literary and Scientific Institution (High-street), of which the Athenaeum was the outcome and the development. The Athenaeum was fortunate indeed in securing as its Librarian such a man as Mr. Wainwright—scholar, antiquarian, and botanist. Mr. Wainwright was an authority on all matters pertaining to the history of North Devon in general and of Barnstaple in particular, and he was jointly responsible with the late Mr. J. R. Chanter for “Barnstaple Records”—a collection that is simply invaluable. He also published Barnstaple Parish Register. He was a frequent contributor to “Notes and Queries,” as well as to the local papers, of articles dealing with local history, and his wealth of antiquarian knowledge was ever at the disposal of students and inquirers. His collection of materials bearing on antiquarian research is monumental, and it will be of immense value to future historians.

One of the oldest members of the Devonshire Association (in connection with which he did valuable work), Mr. Wainwright was responsible (with Mr. W. P. Heirn, F.R.S.), for the inauguration of the local weekly botanical walks which for several years proved a delightful means of instruction to a band of enthusiastic students. The love of botany was a passion with him, and he maintained his custom of taking long country walks (a visit to Braunton Burrows, the “botanist’s paradise,” was for years a weekly pleasure) until he was almost a nonagenarian. For a long time it was his happy custom to place in the magazine room of the Athenaeum specimens of the wild flowers he gathered in his familiar rounds. Mr. Wainwright took an enthusiastic interest in meteorological affairs, and was the means of making the Athenaeum a centre for the collection of data relating to the whole of North Devon.

A keen educationalist, Mr. Wainwright was for ten years a member of Barnstaple School Board, acting as vice-chairman for some years. He was a devoted Churchman, and for eighteen years acted as Lay secretary of the Ruri-decanal Conference for Barnstaple and Shirwell. He had the kindliest and happiest of dispositions, and possessed a keen sense of humour. To know Thomas Wainwright was to honour and revere him.

NDJ 4th May 1916 5f
North Devon Journal 4th May 1916 page 5 column f

After his death the Directors closed the Athenaeum for nearly a month while they searched for his replacement and asked his daughter to stay on in living quarters she shared with him while they did so.

Thomas Wainwright left his mark on the North Devon Athenaeum. We continue the work he started in transcribing the parish records for future generations and just two days before the anniversary of his death a researcher was using his transcript of the Latin Registers he was working on when he died…

…Barum Athena

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