Dr Malkin, I presume

Robert Hey reflects on a famous 19th-Century Headmaster

(from the Old Burian Magazine, 2015. Mr Hey died in 2018, aged 93 – you can read his “Farewell” here.)

As you walk purposefully through the Cathedral cloisters, clutching your spiritual thoughts firmly, lest they slowly dissolve into thin air, your consciousness may well fail to register awareness of a white stone memorial clinging to the North wall of the sacred building. If so, then you would have lost a precious opportunity to recall and perhaps revere, the image and memory of one who was, if not a great man, then most certainly a benefactor to the town … a great Headmaster. There is little else, alas, here now by which to remember him.

The once famous “Bury School”, to which families from the North of England came so that their sons might be educated under his care, has since modified and resurrected itself. Malkin’s most renowned pupil, Edward Fitzgerald, largely forgotten (although there are signs of a fresh interest in his unique work “The Rubayat of Omar Khayyam”) and Malkin’s erudite work “Essay in Subjects connected with Civilisation” merely exists as No. 8411 66 20 on the shelves of the British Library. His account of a son who died in infancy “A Father’s memoir of his Child”, with its fine engraving, once thought to be by the artist William Blake, is now available via the internet.

Born in 1769, Malkin was educated at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1810 he was award a DCL by the University of Oxford. In 1829, after twenty years as our Headmaster, he was appointed to be the first Professor of History Ancient and Modern at the newly-established University of London. In addition to all this, he published five books: “Essay on Subjects connected with Civilisation”, 1795; “Almahide and Hamet”, 1804; “The Scenery, Antiquities and Biography of Wales”, 1804; “The Adventures of Gil Blas”, 1809 and “Classical Disquisitions and Curiosities”, 1825. Clearly he was a man of ambition, energy and wide interests, well grounded in classical culture, yet one who was in many ways forward-looking and well aware of the faults of established institutions. He deplores – “This extravagant veneration of gilded aristocracy”, “the monstrous union of Church and State” and writes “mankind have not hitherto been greatly benefited by ecclesiastical institutions to force the superstitions of the 16th century on the free and enquiring spirit of the present age”.

His views on education were strongly held, and much in advance of his time: “it is not then climate, colour or geographical position, but the cultivation of mind that constitutes civilisation” – especially “the noblest end of life is virtuous action and the furtherance of general good. I would therefore earnestly recommend it to instructors, not to forget the end in too anxious an attendance to the means” – and he would teach “the foundation of moral duties, and the relative situation of man in the universe. It is such sentiments as these that mark Dr Malkin as an outstanding individual, and very much of “an independent mind.”

However, we do sometimes find conflicting statements: “… almost the entire business of public schools consists in teaching two dead languages, the acquisition of which occupies the space from the age of eight to eighteen years.” Here, he remembers his own education at Harrow: “I would not suffer a child or ward of mine to attain the age of six years without being introduced to the latin accidence.

Darwin published his “Origin of Species” in 1859, yet Malkin writes strikingly in 1795: “instinct appears in perfection in animals, and reason is the perfection of man”. Malkin’s cerebral interests were balanced by a genuine sensibility for the misfortunes of others; at a time when Victorian acts of charity may have seemed cold, he writes: “The sorrow of sickness and poverty must be alleviated with delicacy and feeling… the air of arrogant liberality must be suppressed.” This sensitivity is shown in a very modern light when applied to punishment: “The inefficacy of punishment is clearly demonstrated by continual repetition of offences … the most rational mode of punishing a breach of duty or of good faith, is not by any arbitary severity, which may appear to originate in the passion of revenge, but by causing some inconvenience to arise out of the action itself, which may convey a warning against the repetition.” (Compare this with an article from our School Statutes of 1583 – “Any boy misbehaving himself either in church or in any public place, shall be flogged.”)

As regards the education of girls Malkin was not yet ready for complete equality: “their (girls’) employments are to be sedentary, and their life retired, while the employments of men are active and their life public.

Even when he appears fair and appreciative, the choice of words betrays him. “The office of mother is one of the most important which an human being can be called upon to perform, yet it consists principally in minutiae.

His deafness to the value and delights of music caused him to write “As music ranks among the Sciences, to introduce it into this essay may be considered a digression…. As a relaxation from severer pursuits it is innocent, rational and interesting, but it is too apt to occupy the mind with a fatal pertinacity, and operate to the exclusion and neglect of important duties… yet I prefer a nation of musicians to a nation of debauchees.(Essay On The Arts).

A final quotation from his work “Essay in Subjects connected with Civilisation” shows his belief in the importance of a moral and humanitarian approach towards education: “It is beyond all doubt that the precepts taught by an illiterate individual in an obscure corner of Judea are calculated to contribute more efficaciously to the improvement of human character, and to strike more deeply at the roots of vice than all the theories of the Grecian sages and sectaries.

The character of Dr Malkin was clearly very complex, broad-minded and forward-looking, moral and dutiful. His two key words were “duty” and “rationale”. Certainly Malkin practised what he preached; he was a great help to William Blake in establishing him in his career; he founded the Society for the Improvement of the Working Population in Glamorgan, besides raising the numbers and the standard of our School. Yet, perhaps, he did succumb somewhat to the social attractions of the town, dining regularly at the Angel, and, as we read in James Oakes’ diary: “On June 24th 1824 at the School Speech Day, he entertained about one hundred ladies and gentlemen to dinner in the School Hall, the library and two other rooms.” Little wonder that he was frequently in debt to the bank! Nevertheless a fine tribute was paid to Malkin by J. W. Donaldson, a later Headmaster: “for laying the foundation and encouraging the growth of manly character and the independent mind… Bury School, under Dr Malkin, was (so far as I can judge by what I have seen and heard since) one of the very best in England.

The next time you pass this way, throw him a glance.