James Rowley


In 2001, the University of Bristol celebrated the 125th anniversary of the foundation of its predecessor, University College, Bristol.  UCB opened its doors in 1876 with just two Professors in post, and one of them, James Rowley, the Professor of History and Literature, came to live in the newly built Ardmore in Leigh Woods, on his arrival from Ireland.  Rowley lived in Leigh Woods for the rest of his life, with his wife Marianne.  He was 42 and she was 30;  both were from County Armagh in the north of Ireland.  They moved from Ardmore to Denegarth in the 1890s, and then moved again to Little Garth, where he died in November 1906, having retired from UCB only the year before, aged over 70.  At the time of his retirement he was the only member of the original staff of 1876 still in post

A year before Rowley was appointed to his Chair, he was still, in his own phrase, “an obscure teacher” at Monkstown School in Ireland.  However, in the autumn of 1875 he had been brave enough to take on one of the greatest historians of the day and wrote two articles challenging the factual accuracy of aspects of Green’s newly published “History of the English People”, and won. He became a celebrity in the world of academia and got the job in Bristol..

Thereafter, in post, Rowley wrote and published very little, but became a superb and much loved lecturer and teacher.  He was required to cover both History and Literature, to teach students in both day and evening classes in Bristol, and to teach extension classes all over the south-west.  Many of his working notebooks and his handwritten lectures survive in the University archives, and prove his detailed knowledge and skill of expression.  But it is in the many reminiscences and memoirs of the time that the real feel of the man is to be found.  It is clear that he brought an insight into history and literature for his students that was, at the time, simply unavailable anywhere else, and for which - especially the new women students of UCB - they simply yearned.  Again and again we can read of the inspiration as well as the insight that the “charming Irishman” provided.

James Rowley has the special honour of having given the very first extension lecture, when, on 9th February 1876 he got on the train (probably down Rownham Hill at Clifton Bridge Station) and went to Bridgwater, where he  spoke on “The History of England during the Tudor Period” - reputedly to an audience of 200 “mainly ladies".  The University holds his notebooks for his weekly class in Bournemouth in October/November 1884; meticulous preparation for representing academia in new territory - and, incidentally, quite a journey to undertake each week in the pre-motor age.

Rowley was a man of great personal warmth and friendship, but of great modesty too.  When told of the influence he had over his students and of the affection in which he was held, his response was “I only tried to teach them something”.  His successor as Professor of History, who had started as one of Rowley’s evening class students, wrote of “the magic of his spell” and how, in teaching about poetry and literature “he made us see the stars and feel their beauty”.

Professor Leonard also emphasised James Rowley’s deep attachment to the Church of England, which he shared with Marianne. "Its restrained and stately services suited well his own reserved temperament”.  Michael Marston, in his history of the foundation of St. Mary’s, Leigh Woods, has noted Marianne Rowley’s support and personal efforts, and her gift of a rush chair and a hassock for the new church to which they were both devoted, as they were to Leigh Woods itself. Reminiscing about his mentor in 1936, Professor Leonard came back to both those loves in his final words about James Rowley, which I think deserve to be quoted in full in memory of this distinguished former resident : “He used to say that his spirit would haunt the woods he loved, and those who believe in haunted churches will like to think that his spirit lingers on in the little church among the birch trees and the firs where he loved to be”.

 © Derek Smith   September 2002


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