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Childhood and Youth


Henry Barclay Swete was born at Redlands, Bristol, on March 14, 1835, the twelfth child of the Rev. John Swete, D.D., but the only one of his second marriage. This marriage was of one of romance rather than wisdom. A widower with six children still living, whose ages ranges from nineteen to seven years, Dr. Swete had fallen in love with his cousin and ward, Caroline Ann Skinner Barclay, a delicate girl of twenty-one, who almost immediately after her marriage in June, 1834, fell a victim to the family scourge of comsumption, and died of that disease a month after the birth of her son. There is a charming miniature of her which shews her to have been not only very attractive but of a sweet and gentle disposition; and the witness of the portrait is borne out by the love of her stepchildren. Anne, the eldest, barely two years her junior, writes of her after her death: “During the /2/ little time she was with us she set us a bright and beautiful example; her humility, her gentleness, her untyring, never varying kindness, the absence of selfishness in her character, were very striking; never shall I forget her Christian deportment. O for grace to follow her as she follewed Christ!” To her son she transmitted her gentle, lovable character and a certain taste and aptitude for dwawing; she painted and etched on ivory with delicacy and skill. She left him also an ideal of womanhood which he never lost. His devotion to his unknown mother was touching; he bore her name with pride; he was intensely loyal in his affection to all relatives on her side, and his last thougths and words were of her “The thought of my mother has been ever with me throughtout my 82 years,” he could say on his death-bed; and the last words he spoke were a reminder of his request that her wedding-ring, which he always wore, should be buried with him.

The young mother committed her infant son to the charge of Anne, who writes in her diary: “Before his birth one night when I was sleeping with her, Caroline with much affection committted her precious babe to my care, begging me, if she were taken away, to be a mother to her little one.” The charge was nobly fulfilled. Anne devoted her whole self to him; from her he received his first Bible lessons and later learnt to read his Greek Testament. “My sister,” he often said, “laid the /3/ foundations of my love and study of theology when as a small boy she made me use my Sunday afternoons by writing a life of St. Paul.” Her sittingroom was ever his harbour of refuge, and to her were written the letters of undergraduate days which told of his work, his hopes and his fears. It was to the memory of the two whom he held most dear, his mother and his sister Anne, that he dedicated his book The Ascended Christ.

In 1838 Dr. Swete married again. His wife was a first cousin of Caroline, Marianne De Medina. For his family it was an unfortunate marriage. Mrs. Swete was a sincerely religious but naturally masterful and unsympathetic woman, and to the little Henry she was a repressing influence; she never won his love, and the memory of his childhood was a grey one. “I did not have a happy childhood” would be his defence when in later years he was taken to task for over indulgence of some youngster. And his early years did indeed lack the joyousness and freedom of healty boyhood. He was himself very frail; he was more than eighteen months old before he was considered strong enough to be taken to church for his baptism; and this extreme delicacy continued for years. Over the whole family hung the shadow of consumption. It has claimed as a victim the eldest son; one daughter died of it the year that Henry was born, and another before he was in his /4/ teens, while it wa thought probably that he had inherited the disease from his mother. And Anne, the mother-sister to whom they all turned, became a permanent invalid in 1836 through a spinal affection. Playfellows of his own age he had none. Next in age to him was his brother Horace, eight years his senior - too great a gap to be bridged in the days of youth, while the sisers were still older still. Red-letter days were those when a little cousin, Lily Headland, a niece also of Mrs. Swete, came to stay and play with him. The whole environment was bad for a delicate, sensitive child; and undoubtedly it led to the great shyness and reserve of later life and made him unable to sympathize with the exuberance of youth, The fear that he would be in the way or was giving trouble was a haunting one through the greater part of his life, and the evening shadows begun to lenghten berfore he could be brought to realize that he was really wanted and loved by his friends. “Uncle was born old,” a graceless nephew was once heard to exclaim; and in his impatience he spoke half of a truth.

In 1842 his father, Dr. Swete, gave up the school for boys at Redlands which he had conducted succesfully for twenty years, and took charge of the parish of Wendy, a little village near Cambridge. The reason of the move was apprehension for the health of his elder son, than an over-grown lad of /5/ fifteen. A year's work on a farm happily removed this fear. The ywar saw a terrific thunderstorm - still remembered in the locality as “the great storm” - over this part of Cambridgeshire; this and his first visit to Cambridge were Henry's memory of the time. He would give a detailed and vivid description of the former, while of the latter he would say, “I can well remember two things of my first visit to Cambridge: the windows in King's Chapel, and eating bread and marmelade in some kind Fellow's rooms.”

Dr. Swete returned to Bristol the following year, and there became a curate, partly voluntary, at St. Mary Redcliff. The beautiful church made a profound impression on his little boy; he loved it and delighted to wander aobut it and pretend he was Chatterton, the ill-fated poet and forger of ‘antique’ verses, who was so intimately connected with St. Mary's. “I used to stain paper with coffee and write on it in uncials and play I was Chatterton and had discovered a Greek MS.” For the next seven years the family lived in Bristol, Henry being educated by Anne and his father, though for a short time he was as Bishop's College; this was probably later, between the years 1850-1852. Dr. Swete must have been a born teacher; his own education was for the most part received at Middleton School, Cork, from whence he proceeded to Trinity College, Dublin, as a medical student. He did /6/ not take honours at Trinity College, and immediately after his degree he read theology with a view to taking Holy Orders. The change in his plans was due to his association at this time with a little band of earnest Evangelicals holding strong Calvinistic views. By their influence he was “converted,” and at once abandoned his former intention of becoming a medical man and sought to enter the ministry. His extreme Calvinistic opinions were, however, not favourably regarded by the Bishops of the Church of Ireland, and both the Bishops of Clogher and of Cork and Ross refused him ordination. In his distress he turned to the Church of England. A friend, the Rev. T.T. Biddulph, vicar of St. James, Bristol and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, on being assured by the bischop of Cork of his high personal character and moral integrity, accepted him for Deacon's Orders. He was ordained Deacon in ht Church of England om October 27, 1811. Seven years later Dr. Swete resigned the curacy of St. James, and in 1823 he openend a school for boys in Redlands, Bristol. His educational qualifications for such a step were slender, but in spite of this he proved himself to be able and succesful schoolmaster. His most famous and dearly loved pupil, Dean Church, writes to him from Oxford, November 17, 1836: “I write you a few lines /7/ to tell you that I finished my examination to-day; and I daresay that you will be glad to hear with better success than I had hoped for before I went in. The class list is not out yet, so that nothing is known officially; but from what the examiners said to me, I believe I may hope for my first class. I have not time to add much, but I must take this opportunity of again acknowledging your kindness to me while I was with you and the share you have had in my success. … I hope that you will not refuse me a holiday for my old schoolfellows.” Again, in April 1838: “I have just time to write you a line to say that I have just been elected Fellow of Oriel College. Everything of this sort which is given me I should be very unthankful for if I did not think of you in connection with it. May I ask of you the favour of a whole holiday for my old schoolfellows? I consider this something more tham my class: so I hope it will be doubly celebrated.“ Though not in the strict sense a scholar himself, Dr. Swete had all the scholar's love of accuracy and thoroughness; and this he combined with a clear mind and style and the gift of stimulating his pupils, and of making scholars of some of them. Dean Church and his own son are evidence of his power as a teacher.

In 1850 Dr. Swete accepted the living of Blagdon, situated on the Mendips, some twenty /8/ miles from Bristol. The change to a country life in such beautiful surroundings was welcome to all the family. To Henry it opened new interests. He became a great walker, and would recount with pride how he and his brother, then finishing his medical studies at Bristol, had sometimes wlaked from Bristol to Blagdon on a Saturday afternoon, returned in time for school on the following Monday. Dr. Swete was an enthousiastic gardener, and he imbued both his sons with his love of horticulture. Horace became, like himself, a skilled gardener, and also made some way as a botanist. He was at one time lecturer in botany at Medical School, Bristol, and in 1854, when only 27 years of age, he wrote the well-known Flora Bristoliensis, which has formed the foundation of later works on the subject. Henry never became proficient in the technical knowledge of a garden, though he had all his father's love and delight in it. In his walks he took notice of all wild flowers; there were few that he could not identify; and in after years his lessons on botany in the National School delighted the children of his country parish. Entomology was another hobby begun in these years and carried on into Cambridge life. Another joy of his quiet boyhood was his father's chamber-organ. This had been built for Dr. Swete in 1833, and at his death it passed intot the keeping of his som, who first /9/ installed it in his College rooms, and afterwards, when he moved to Ashdon, gave it to the church; there it became the basis of the present organ, and has been three times enlarged. Henry had a real talent for music, and to some extent he cultivated it. At one time he bade fair to be a good organist, and composed chants and hymns; but pressure of other works and the real business of life gradually crowded out this pastime. Yet to the end he had his little American organ, at which odd moments were spent, chiefly while he was waiting for the final gong to announce a meal; there he would be found improvising to his own delight an to that of those who could slip into the room while he was still oblivious of them and all else save his harmonies.

It was thought advisalbe that Henry should be prepared for Cambridge by two years' study at King's College, London. His earlier education was sound enough, as after events proved; but he was backward, and had much to make up if he was to take an honours degree. In 1852 therefore the next two years at 32 Guildford Street, the home of his mother's first cousin, the wife of Dr. Headland, a well-known London physician. Of his College career he never had much to tell, beyond that he worked hard and was glad of the opportunities offered. But his residence with the Headlanss /10/ stoot out in his memory, and indeed it must have formed no smaller part of his education at this period. To Dr. Headland he was genuinely attached, but Mrs. Headland was, like her sister Mrs. Swete, of too austere a piety to be attractive to him. It was a new expeerience, moreover, to find himself in the midst of a family of clever, handsome, lively young people. The two sons, one of whom was already an undergraduate at Caius College, Cambridge, were older than he; the daughters were more of his own age. All were kindly and friendly, and quite naturally helped to draw him of his shell of shyness and reserve. The fact that these cousins were on his mother's side made a link between him and them which was never broken. When later one of them, his chief friend and playmate in childhood, then the wife of Dr. J.K. Spender, asked him to be godfather to her eldest son, it was an office he filled with pride and never considered it to be renounced.

Henry Barclay Swete. A Remembrance, London 1918,1-10.