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Saturday, 24 May 2014

ERASMUS SMITH (1611-1691) AND THE DROGHEDA SCHOOL



My 8x great grandfather Austin Cooper, Austin the Settler as he is known in the family, was the first Cooper in my family tree to settle in Ireland, which he did in 1661. His father held a position in the court of Charles I and Austin’s children were all born at Hampton Court, the royal palace on the Thames. At Hampton Court Austin married his bride, my 8x great grandmother Mary Dodson. Mary was a niece of the great Irish educational philanthropist Erasmus Smith, my 10x great uncle.

Erasmus Smith (1611-1691)
merchant, philanthropist

Austin remained a royalist during the English Civil War, and his move to Ireland despite the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 was the result of his having bought property from a Cromwellian officer (the real estate equivalent of sleeping with the enemy). Erasmus Smith on the other hand was a staunch republican, a shrewd merchant who supplied Cromwell’s armies with food rations, particularly during those armies’ ruthless campaigns of suppression in Ireland. One can’t help wondering how Austin and Erasmus got on.

While Austin the Settler had to sell up in England for only £1500 and start from scratch in Ireland, his uncle-in-law Erasmus amassed vast estates there. Erasmus received 666 acres of confiscated Irish land from a cash-strapped Cromwell, in lieu of payment for his services to the army. Many English officers in the same position were very happy to sell him their unwanted Irish land for ready money. By the time of his death his original 666 acres had been expanded to the tune of some 19,000 acres.

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) (1656, painted by Samuel Cooper, no relation)
and Charles II (1630-1685) (c1670, painted by Peter Lely)

After the restoration, when Charles II was installed on the throne, Erasmus Smith – unlike Austin Cooper – was able to retain his Cromwellian holdings. One of the keys to his success was an annual £100 donation to Charles II’s favourite school, Christ’s Hospital (now in Sussex, but from 1552 to 1901 in London itself). He also won favour by his establishment in 1669 of an educational Trust, funded by part of the income from the Irish estates. Such a charitable act, he convinced his former enemies, could hardly be rewarded by the confiscation of the very estates which funded the charity.

Erasmus was a pious protestant, who believed – like many of the protestant dominations which emerged during Cromwell’s regime – that education was the key to godliness. He was convinced that the Irish rebellion of 1641 (whose suppression his rations fuelled) was the result of poor education.

Erasmus Smith’s idea of education was to teach children “fear of God and good literature and to speak the English tongue.” To this end he put money into two existing Dublin institutions, Trinity College and the Kings’s Hospital School; and founded three grammar schools, at Templemore, Galway and Drogheda.

Templemore Christian Brothers School
formerly Erasmus Smith’s Grammar School (building of c1820)

Drogheda had been the scene of one of the worst of Cromwell’s atrocities in 1649, a massacre of thousands of Catholic Irish men, women and children in which I’m sorry to say another of my 8x great grandfathers General Hugh Massy may have had a hand. The memory of the event was still fresh and raw when Erasmus established Drogheda Grammar School only twenty years after it; excluding Catholic children from it cannot have helped local feeling.

Galway Grammar School (building of 1807)
after its restoration by Yeats College in 2006

Of Erasmus Smith’s three grammar schools, Templemore in Tipperary is now a Catholic school run by the Christian Brothers. Galway’s closed in 1958, but the derelict building has recently been restored and now forms part of Yeats College. Drogheda Grammar School is now run on Quaker principles for children of all faiths and none. It will celebrate the 340th anniversary of its opening in 2019.

Drogheda Grammar School’s former premises, the two red-brick buildings in which Samuel Cooper was a schoolboy. They were built 1730-1740 and demolished in 1989. The school moved to a new rural campus in 1976 (picture from www.geograph.ie)

In the 1760s when Drogheda Grammar School was approaching its first centenary, one of its pupils was my 4x great grandfather Samuel Cooper (1750-1831), great great grandson of Austin the Settler. Samuel could have called Erasmus his 6x great uncle, and I wonder if he was aware of the relationship. Probably not, after four generations – but when Samuel grew up, he became a professional estate manager; and amongst his portfolio were the estates of the Erasmus Smith Schools Trust.

2 comments:

  1. "One of the keys to his success was an annual £100 donation to Charles II’s favourite school, Christ’s Hospital in Sussex."

    Christ's Hospital is in Sussex now, but it was in London between 1552 and 1901.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Anonymous! Always grateful for the chance to get it right - I have amended my text accordingly.

    ReplyDelete

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