Text: William Elijah Hunter, “Poe and His English Schoolmaster,” Athenæum, Oct. 19, 1878, pp. 496-497


­[page 496, column 2, continued:]


Durham, Natal. S. Africa, August 29, 1878.

IN ‘The Works of Edgar Allan Poe,’ and again in ‘Gill’s Life,’ both published by Messrs. Chatto & Windus, there is a somewhat grotesque illustration purporting to be the portrait of the “Rev. John Bransby, M. A., Poe’s English Schoolmaster, circa 1820.” It represents a clergyman in wig and [column 3:] gown, and I should take it to be a portrait of an old English divine flourishing certainly not later than the eighteenth century. At all events the picture is utterly unlike the Dr. Bransby who was Poe’s schoolmaster; on the other hand, it might serve very well for a fancy portrait of a character introduced by Poe in his tale of ‘William Wilson.’ In this tale, William Wilson, a mythical person, gives some account of a pedagogue whom he calls Dr. Branby, and to whom he refers in the following passage, “With how deep a spirit of wonder and perplexity was I wont to regard him from our remote pew in the gallery, as with step solemn and slow, he ascended the pulpit! This reverend man, with countenance so demurely benign, with robes so glossy and so clerically flowing, with wig so minutely powered, so rigid and so vast — could this be he who, of late, with sour visage, and in snuffy habiliments, administered, ferule in hand, the Draconian Laws of the Academy?” — The academy is described in the same tale as “a large, rambling, Elizabethan house,” with “pointed Gothic windows and a ceiling of oak.”

Now the story of ‘William Wilson’ has been held to be partly autobiographical, and the portions which I have quoted have been embodied, over and over again, in Poe’s memoirs, as giving a matter-of-fact account of his English school and schoolmaster. Mr. Hotten, however, states, in a preface published in 1872, that by chance he had been able to identify the house where Poe was at school, at Stoke Newington, near London, but not as having “Elizabethan gables,” described in the story, but as “a roomy old structure of Queen Anne’s time.” Surely then Poe’s later biographers, Baudelaire and Gill, amongst others, should hardly take for granted that Dr. Bransby, of Stoke Newington, was the prototype of the schoolmaster described in ‘William Wilson,’ after being aware, as they must be, that the account of the schoolhouse is so entirely a romance.

The fact is, that the Dr. Bransby of the tale, with the exception of his name, is quite as much a product of Poe’s imagination as is the schoolhouse itself.

The Rev. John Bransby, D. D., Poe’s schoolmaster at Stoke Newington, was a cousin of the eminent surgeon, Sir Astley Cooper. After leaving Stoke Newington, he received the appointment of head master of the King’s Lynn Grammar School, where I was a pupil of his for four yeas, and remained on friendly terms with him till his death, which occurred in 1856. As I remember him, he was a portly and venerable gentleman, with the reputation of being a thorough scholar, very apt at quotation, especially from Shakspeare and Horace, and passionately fond of horticulture. His flower garden, with the lofty tower, all that was left of the old Grey Friar’s Monastery, standing in the midst of of [[sic]] it, was one of the shows of the town.

Undoubtedly he was a strict disciplinarian, but I never remember him flogging a boy who did not deserve it, or more than he deserved; in this he was very unlike his predecessor, Dr. Kidd, of whom the tradition was handed down, in the school, that he caused the under-masters to flog the boys, then and there, for every offence, however slight, committed on any day of the week except Saturday, on which day he went into business himself and administered to those boys who had already suffered castigation a double dose of the birth, because they had been thrashed previously. Saturday was repetition day for flogging. It was at this school, by the way, Eugene Aram was usher when he was arrested for the murder of Mr. Daniel Clark.

At the time when Poe resided with the Bransby family, it consisted, I believe, of two sons and four daughters, besides the doctor and his wife; the latter was a kind motherly person and the daughters were highly educated girls; one of them afterwards married a captain in the Royal Navy, and another, whose photograph lies before me, helping me to recall old memories, is now the widow of an Indian officer. It was a family in which, I am sure, Poe would meet no harsh treatment, but with much consideration. That he profited ­[page 497:] under Dr. Bransby’s care is shown by the fact that when he entered the school he was very backward with his studies, not having had any regular instruction, and that when he left it he was able to speak the French language, construe any easy Latin author, and was far better acquainted with history and literature than many boys of a more advanced age who had had greater advantages than he had. I spoke to Dr. Bransby about him two or three times during my school days, having then, as now, a deep admiration for his poems, a copy of which I had received as a prize for an effort in English verse. Dr. Bransby seemed rather to shun the topic, I suppose from some feeling with regard to his name being used distastefully in the story of ‘William Wilson.’ In answer to my questions on one occasion, he said, “Edgar Allan” (the name Poe was known by at school) “was a quick and clever boy and would have been a very good boy if he had not been spoilt by his parents,” meaning the Allans; “but they spoilt him, and allowed him an extravagant amount of pocket-money, which enabled him to get into all manner of mischief — still I liked the boy — poor fellow, his parents spoilt him!” At another time he said, “Allan was intelligent, wayward and wilful.” This was about all that I could ever learn from him with regard to his former pupil.

It is quite possible that other reminiscences of Poe survive in the Bransby family, but, in the fifteen years that I have been absent from England, its members have become scattered and our correspondence has ceased, so that now I am unable to say, with certainty, where they reside. I think, however, that I could print out the direction in which inquiry for them would prove successful.




The present clipping survives as item #747 in the Ingram Collection.

In the Athenæum of October 26, 1878 appears a letter from John T. D. Kidd and Richard B. Prson Kidd defending Dr. Thomas Kidd from the charge of flagrantly imposing the use of the rod as punishment for even the slightest of offences.

Almost nothing is known about William Elijah Hunter, although he appears to have been a missionary in South Africa. He is known to have performed baptisms there as late as 1884, at St. Mary the Virgin, an Anglican church in Barkly West, South Africa. (This church appears to have been established in 1872, as the first church on the Diamond Fields.) In addition to this article, Hunter sent a letter to J. H. Ingram, in which he included several poems that he hoped Ingram could place in a reputable English magazine.


[S:0 - ATH, 1878] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe and His English Schoolmaster (W. E. Hunter, 1878)