John Henry Piggin 1861-1932


The first successful literary man born Piggin was John (1861‑1932), son of the Methodist New Connexion minister and leader Henry Piggin. The Manchester Guardian reported 1880/01/29 that Mr J.H. Piggin of St Peter's School, York had been elected to a classical scholarship at Trinity College, Oxford. During his studies, he seems to have reverted to Anglicanism and forsaken his surname by adopting his mother's maiden name, Fowler, in 1884 (inviting the acid comment from his Piggin relations that ďhe at least remained in the farmyard!Ē). Thereafter he went under the name John Henry Fowler. He does not seem to have been related to a more famous Fowler, his contemporary and fellow Oxonian H.W. Fowler (1858‑1933), author of the Concise Oxford Dictionary. John won the Chancellor's Prize for English Essay at Oxford University in 1886 with The influence of the theatre on life and character (his first published work) and became a secondary school teacher. Within four years he brought out his first anthology for schools, Sportella, or Unseen Passages for Higher Forms (1890), followed by XIX. Century Prose (1897). He had by this time been appointed to a position at Clifton College (website), a boys' boarding school in Bristol, and had married in 1896. The 1901 census shows the couple living at 16 Canynge Square in Bristol and employing a cook and a housemaid.

His literary ability was distilled for pupils in A Manual of Essay‑Writing (1899). About 1905 Fowler was made general editor of Macmillan & Co.'s series English Literature for Secondary Schools, and did the selections for it from the authors Addison, Byron, Gibbon, Hawthorne, Stevenson and Tennyson. He also brought out various annotated versions of the Palgrave/Binyon Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics. According to the obituary below, he unsuccessfully sought a university professorship about 1912. In 1919 he became a member of the British government's Departmental Committee on English Studies. Over many years, Fowler wrote a series of pamphlets for the English Association, a slightly nationalist organization of teachers which he had helped to found. The pamphlets included English Literature in Secondary Schools (1907), The Teaching of English Composition (1910), School Libraries (1915), De Quincey as Literary Critic (1922) and The Novels of Thomas Hardy (1928).

From around 1920 (when the Literary Who's Who reports him still living at 16 Canynge Square, Clifton, Bristol), he appears to have been established as a minor author, though his focus remained on the 19th century, rather than contemporary literature of the day. In 1922 he wrote The Life and Letters of Edward Lee Hicks, Bishop of Lincoln 1910‑1919 (a celebrated left-leaning bishop who had been a minister in the Mancester slums) and he edited a book of sermons by his local vicar, John Gamble, in 1930. His final work, a legacy of his teaching experience, appears to have been The Art of Teaching English. Lectures and Papers (1932), but his school editions continued to appear in fresh impressions until at least 1967. Hesperides Press re-published his notes to Palgrave and Binyon, which are now in the public domain, in 2006.

His obituary, headed "Died 16th January, 1932," appeared in the Cliftonian Magazine the following month, February 1932. It appears to have been written by one of the older masters, and concedes that Fowler was not popular with most pupils:

A wide circle of friends, not only among Cliftonians, will have heard with regret of the death of J.H. Fowler. He had already established contact with Clifton before he actually became a master, for as a scholar of Trinity College, Oxford, in the early 'eighties, he was a contemporary and close friend of several of that remarkable circle of Cliftonians, including Cannan, Quiller-Couch, Newbolt and Paton, who made the Clifton of those days more than usually distinguished. His first teaching post was at Manchester Grammar School, but in 1894 Glazebrook appointed him at Clifton, and here he remained until his retirement in 1920.

Later generations of Cliftonians probably think of him primarily as a modern-side master, but by upbringing he was a classical scholar, and for more than half his time at Clifton he taught the Classical Lower Sixth. Later he developed an increasing interest in the teaching of English Literature, and in his last years as a master, besides taking the Modern Sixth and Upper Fifth, he was generally responsible for the English and historical work of the whole Sixth. In this probably lay his most valuable work at Clifton, and his numerous publications on the teaching of English made his name widely known in the educational world. He always stood for a liberal view of education, and in particular he believed firmly in the value of a regular English essay: the "essay-notes" which (following the practice of S.T. Irwin) he distributed to his pupils were models of their kind. The purity and severity of his taste were obvious in the exact, unpretentious and scholarly style of his own writing -- the papers that he read to learned societies and the sermons that he preached in Chapel.

His standards, both intellectual and moral, were so high, not to say exacting, that some, less conscientious and persevering than he, may have thought him, if not a pedant, at any rate better fitted to be a professor than a schoolmaster. It was, perhaps, a pity that he was unsuccessful when, shortly before the war, he stood as a candidate for the Chair of English at one of the modern Universities; but it would be a great mistake to suppose that he was out of place in a Public School. It was not to be expected that he would be appreciated by those who were in the habit of making no effort to understand what was not immediately obvious, and wanted to have their literature made easy for them. His appeal was to relatively few, but in those individuals who were prepared to take pains, his knowledge, his scholarship and his taste exercised, in a modest and unobtrusive way, an influence which they will value all through their lives.

After his retirement Fowler continued to live at Clifton, and devoted his leisure to literary work of various kinds, and notably to the English Association, for which he gave lectures that were appreciated up and down the country. This brought him the satisfaction of a wider recognition of his merit, and helped him to bear, with a quiet and cheerful courage, the domestic anxiety which unhappily overshadowed his later years. To some men old age brings increasing narrowness and lack of contact with the world, but the contrary was true of Fowler, as, released from the routine and restrictions of school life, he felt freer to express his views. He developed his interests in many subjects, social and religious as well as literary and educational, and every year that passed brought him increasing breadth and mellowness.

From: The Cliftonian, February 1932, pages 193-194.

His own writing

The influence of the Theatre on life and character. The Chancellorís Essay 1886 1886
A Manual of Essay Writing 1899, 1905, 1914
A First Course of Essay-Writing 1902, 1902
Notes to the Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics Books I-IV (Issued as a book in its own right, starting at page 52 without the poems. Fowler covered Books I, III and IV, while Bell annotated Book II) 1904
English literature for secondary schools 1905, 1908
The Teaching of English Composition 1910
School Libraries 1915
English Exercises for Middle Forms 1918
De Quincey as Literary Critic 1922
Viaticum, or Travellerís Scrip. Verses and sentences chosen and arranged 1922
The Novels of Thomas Hardy 1928
The Art of Teaching English. Lectures and papers 1932, 1935, 1949

His original publications from manuscript sources

Withers, Harry Livingston The Teaching of History and other papers. Edited with biographical introduction and a selection from his letters. 1904
Hicks, Edward Lee The Life and Letters of Edward Lee Hicks, Bishop of Lincoln 1910-1919 1922
Gamble, John The Sower, and other sermons 1930

His literary criticism in annotations to famous works

De Quincey, Thomas Essays 1900, 1900, 1910
Palgrave, Francis Turner Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics (4 volumes) 1901-1924, 1925, 1929, 1938
Addison, Joseph Essays 1905, 1930
Byron, George Gordon Byron Childe Haroldís Pilgrimage, Cantos III. and IV. 1906, 1958
Gibbon, Edward The Age of the Antonines (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) 1907
Hawthorne, Nathaniel Stories from a Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys 1908
Tennyson, Alfred Tennysonís English Idylls and other poems 1909
Tennyson, Alfred Tennysonís The Lady of Shalott and other poems 1909
Gibbon, Edward Narratives from the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire 1910, etc.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel Tanglewood Tales 1912, 1912
Buckley, Elsie Finnimore Children of the Dawn. Old tales of Greece (adaption of 1908 first edition) 1912
Stevenson, Robert Louis Virginibus Puerisque, and other papers 1925
Binyon, Laurence Golden Treasury of Modern Lyrics (2 volumes, supplementing Palgrave) 1927-1928
Hardy, Thomas The Dynasts 1928
Hardy, Thomas The Trumpet-Major 1929
Tennyson, Alfred Idylls of the King 1930
Tennyson, Alfred Poems 1832-1842 1950, 1967
Ruskin, John The Crown of Wild Olive 1962

His works of compilation

Sportella, or Unseen Passages for higher forms 1890
XIX. Century Prose 1897, 1902
English Essays: materials & models for composition from the great essayists 1907
A Book of English Prose, 1470-1900 1911, 1920, 1928
British Orators 1915
A First Book of English Prose for Repetition 1917

Most of the dates above are those in the British national bibliography, and are not always of first publication. Given that Fowler has been dead for more than 70 years, all his work is in the public domain. Google Books has a downloadable version of his Golden Treasury Notes. Some samples of his writing are on a separate page. For a review of the Hicks book, which is probably the most substantial work he edited, see the Times Literary Supplement 1922 p. 795

© Jean-Baptiste Piggin 2000-2009
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