Object 21: Romilly’s Opinion

Sir Samuel Romilly

Dr John Lemprière

Above: Romilly’s Opinion

“I think thus …” wrote Sir Samuel Romilly KC on 9 April 1809 when asked for his opinion as to whether the Mayor and Corporation could dismiss the headmaster of the day. It was his opinion that, given certain circumstances, they could. The headmaster in question, Dr John Lemprière, was a distinguished scholar whose academic reputation should have lent great lustre to the School; instead he is accused of bringing it to its knees.

Lemprière may well have been a distinguished scholar but he was also “a born litigant”, “an obstinate pluralist” and, “one of the most colourful and troublesome men in Abingdon in the 1790s”. His dispute with the Corporation went back many years and centred round several of Roysse’s ordinances: who should pay for the upkeep of the headmaster’s house and the schoolroom; was the headmaster allowed to charge the town boys for attending the school; could the headmaster also hold a church living; did the boys have to go to church on Sundays two-by-two; was he entitled to lock the schoolyard against the town boys after school hours.

Eventually the Corporation decided to take counsel’s opinion, itemising their queries in an eight-page document, the bad feeling evident on every page. Lemprière was accused of “studiously disregarding” the rule on church attendance and his complaint about the lack of repairs to the schoolroom had met with the response, “Do it yourself, the mischief has arisen from the wantonness of your boarders and your own inattention or sufferance.”

According to Romilly, Lemprière should be summoned and given the opportunity to resign the living of St Helen’s Church – which he held in contravention of Roysse’s ordinance no. 3. If he refused then they could dismiss him. Romilly gave his opinion on 11 April 1809, Lemprière was summoned for the 13 June and the advertisement for a new headmaster was in the newspapers for 10 July.  Lemprière had chosen to resign as the schoolmaster not as vicar of St Helen’s. The School was then closed until October 1810 whilst extensive repairs were carried out.

Did he bring the School to its knees? Lemprière appears to have condemned himself by the words from his own mouth – or rather from his own pen. When asked how many free boys, sons from poor families, he had usually had on the roll, his reply had been – not more than two, generally one and often none. He did not mean that this constituted the total number of boys at the school but this is how it has often been understood. In fact, one of his former pupils remembers that in his day there were generally 30 to 40 boarders and the same number of dayboys. The problem was that Lemprière was receiving an income of £90 from Roysse’s Birchin Lane endowment, and for this he was meant to be educating the sons of Abingdon’s poor without any charge. 

Lemprière was 23 when he wrote the Classical Dictionary with which his name is forever associated. A classical reference book, alphabetically arranged, it was an immediate success and no household, gentleman’s library, school or college was without a copy, which allowed laymen access to the classical knowledge that had previously only been accessible to scholars. First published in 1788 the book remains in print today with reprint and ebook versions also available. The School has two editions – 1806 and 1826 but no first edition.