Celebrating the 200th birthday of iconic Devon author Charles Kingsley
PUBLISHED: 10:37 11 June 2019 | UPDATED: 15:12 11 June 2019
STEVE ROBERTS celebrates the life of one of Devon’s most famous sons on the 200th anniversary of his birth
He was a polymath, a mate of Charles Darwin, chaplain to the Queen, a famous novelist…and was born in Devon. And his name was Charles Kingsley.
Born 200 years ago on 12 June, 1819, Kingsley emerged into the world at Holne vicarage, Dartmoor. It was Devon where Charles imbibed nature study and geology and became fascinated by the world about him.
Between 1831-36 we know that he was in Clovelly, where his father (another Charles) was curate, then rector, and where the Kingsley Museum can be found among the cobbles today. It must have been a picturesque childhood.
Although he moved away, Charles would never lose his love of North Devon, in particular, and would enjoy describing its landscape in his writing.
Cambridge beckoned when he was a late teen, an institution he'd return to as Professor of Modern History. Thoughts of entering the legal profession were abandoned, meanwhile, in favour of religion.
In his mid-20s, Kingsley headed for Eversley, Hampshire, where he became curate, or vicar's assistant (1842), then rector in 1844. For Kingsley this proved to be 'Dunroamin' (but not quite as he returned to Clovelly and North Devon repeatedly for literary inspiration). He also married in 1844, to Frances Grenfell.
Kingsley showed he was no 'one trick pony' when he began being published, starting with the poem The Saint's Tragedy (1848), which was followed by influential social novels.
Kingsley was an accomplished poet, but his prose would make a greater impression on the world. It must have given him much to discuss with Tennyson, when he visited him on the Isle of Wight.
Kingsley regarded himself as a Christian Socialist and therefore immersed himself in schemes to improve the lot of the labouring poor.
Heavily influenced by F.D. Maurice (1805-72), who argued that the church should address social issues, Charles became a founder member of the Christian Socialist Movement, which sought to temper the worst aspects of industrialisation through ethical initiatives based on Christianity. Kingsley would write his social reform tracts under the pseudonym Parson Lot.
Some of Kingsley's pet hobbyhorses were adult education (self-improvement), enhanced sanitation and the Co-operative movement. This was religion with a bit of clout (or 'muscular Christianity' as it was also termed).
Some of Charles' writing betrayed his anti-Catholic bias and fear that England might be slipping insidiously back in that direction, something that felt 'clear and present' thanks to the Oxford Movement (a Catholic revival within the Church of England).
This led to a spat with John Henry (Cardinal) Newman, an Anglican priest who went on to become a Catholic Cardinal. Whatever Kingsley's religious views, his heart was humanitarian; you'd only need to read some of his published sermons to establish that.
The literary works kept on coming though. Westward Ho! (1855) was a tale of Elizabethan England with a Devonian title, but also a saga where English Protestantism faced off against Spanish Catholicism.
Kingsley's beliefs shone through in his literature. His writing also shaped the part of the world he came from. Not only was the village of Westward Ho! named from a novel, but Kingsley's tome also inspired the building of a short-lived railway, the Bideford, Westward Ho! and Appledore Railway (1901-17), which was developed to serve a peninsula experiencing a Victorian tourist boom thanks to CK's writing.
Aptly, considering the impact the novel had, it was written in the area (reputedly at today's Kingsley Cottage, Clovelly and early 19th century Northdown Hall, Bideford), although Kingsley himself did not appear to like what Westward Ho! became. Hereward the Wake (1866), one of his later novels, focused on Anglo-Saxon resistance to the Norman yoke, 800 years on from 1066.
The work Kingsley's most remembered for, however, is his fairy tale, The Water Babies (1863), which was written for his youngest son, whilst he was staying in Clovelly.
Here he combined his earnest concern over sanitary reform with his interest in natural history and the theory of evolution: he was a friend and correspondent of Charles Darwin (1809-82).
Kingsley was the leading figure in a literary family (two brothers, a sister and a niece were also published). He died in January 1875 following a punishing tour of the United States. He was 55.
Ten Kingsley facts
- The Kingsley family (clergymen and soldiers) came originally from Cheshire.
- Charles' brother, George Henry (1827-92), wrote books on sport and travel.
- Another brother, Henry (1830-76), lived in Australia and wrote novels of Australian life.
- Mary, Charles' sister (1852-1931), married the rector of Clovelly, and wrote novels.
- Mary Henrietta, Charles' niece (1862-1900), was a travel writer and adventurer.
- Kingsley wrote 'social-problem' novels (à la Dickens), historical romance and children's fiction.
- Charles enjoyed 'yomping' across Exmoor, sometimes managing 20 miles in a day.
- By 1897 Kingsley's swashbuckling Westward Ho! had been reprinted 38 times.
- Charles Kingsley is buried at Eversley, Hampshire, not Westminster Abbey as some think.
- It is believed that comic novelist Kingsley Amis (1922-95) was named after Charles Kingsley.
The bicentenary in Clovelly
Charles Kingsley's bicentenary will be celebrated in Clovelly between 12-16 June with a host of activities, talks, workshops, exhibitions, plus live themed music and street entertainment.
The Clovelly Gardening Group will celebrate Kingsley with plants and colour schemes for The Water Babies and his other inspirations.
There will also be colourful displays of yarn bombing.
Kingsley is commemorated with a plaque in All Saints' Church, Clovelly.