Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/Benjamin Kennicott, D.D
BENJAMIN KENNICOTT, D.D.
BENJAMIN KENNICOTT was born at Totnes on 4 April, 1718, and was the son of Benjamin Kennicott, the parish clerk of that town. The family had been one of some respectability, as in 1606 one Gabriel Kennicott was mayor of Totnes. Probably, if a well-to-do tradesman family at one time, it had sunk, and Benjamin senior was quite content to act as clerk on a small stipend. His son was educated at the Grammar School, founded by King Edward VI in 1554, and held in a building adjoining the Guildhall, both of which occupy a portion of the old dissolved priory of Totnes, on the north side of the church. The trustees of Eliseus Hele had endowed the school, and the corporation were empowered to send three boys to the school to receive their education free of expense; and there can be little doubt that Benjamin the younger was one so privileged. After quitting school he was appointed master of a charity school for poor children, male and female, at Totnes; which same charity children were provided with quaint and antiquated garbs. Young Kennicott now doubtless thought that he was provided for for life.
In 1732, when he was only fourteen years of age, the bells of Totnes tower were recast, and at the same time the ringers presented to the bell-ringing chamber an eight-light brass candlestick inscribed with the names of the ringers. Benjamin Kennicott the elder headed the list, and Benjamin Kennicott the younger brought up the tail. But in 1742, when new regulations were drawn up and agreed to by the ringers, the youngest ringer had become the leader.
Bell-ringing was a pastime dearly loved and much practised in Devon at the time. There were contests between the ringers of various churches, and challenges, the prize being either money or a hat laced with gold. All over the county one comes on old songs relating to these contests, and in these songs are recorded the names of ringers who are now only represented by moss-grown stones in the churchyard. A party of ringers, say of Totnes, would sally forth to spend a day in contest with those of Ashburton or Dartmouth, and all day long the tower would be reeling with the clash of the bells. Here is one of the songs touching the ringers of Torrington:—
1. Good ringers be we that in Torrington dwell,
From the portrait at Exeter College, Oxford
One day in October,
On this song the late Rev. H. H. Sheppard remarked: "There is an indolent easy grace about this tune which is quite in keeping with the words and charmingly suggestive. The sunny valleys, the breezy downs, the sweet bell-music swelling and sinking on the soft autumn air, the old folk creeping out of their chimney-nooks to listen, and all employment in the little town suspended in the popular excitement at the contest for the hat laced with gold; all this, told in a few words and illustrated by a few notes, quite calls up a picture of life, and stamps the number as a genuine folk-song. The narrator is unhappily slightly intoxicated, but no one thinks the worse of him; stern morality on that or any other score will in vain be looked for in songs of the West."
Such a picture as this must have occurred again and yet again in young Kennicott's life whilst head of the ringers at Totnes.
Kennicott's sister was in service as lady's-maid to the Hon. Mrs. Elizabeth Courtney, of Painsford in Ashprington, near Totnes; and in 1743 that lady had a narrow escape from death, having eaten a poisonous herb in mistake for watercress, which it much resembled. The charity-school master, on hearing of this, composed a poem on her recovery, which he dedicated to "Kelland Courtney, Esq., and his Lady." It consisted of no fewer than three hundred and thirty-four lines; and this effusion having gained him the favour of the family, he was taken in hand, and sent in 1744 to Oxford, where he became a student of Wadham College. But the Courtneys, though his principal patrons, were not the sole. Archdeacon Baker, the Rev. F. Champernowne, and H. Fownes Luttrell, Esq., subscribed to send him to college.
At Oxford he speedily attracted attention by his industry and abilities, and was elected Fellow of Exeter College in 1747, and was admitted to his B. A. degree a year before the usual time. He took his M.A. degree in 1750, about which time he entertained a design of collating the Hebrew texts of the Old Testament. In 1753 he published his first volume on the state of the printed text, and in 1760 his second volume. In these works he pointed out various discrepancies, and proposed an extensive collation of manuscripts.
Subscriptions were obtained, and between 1760 and 1769 no less than £9117. 7s. 6d. had been raised for the work. This work occupied ten years. To aid in it, persons were employed to examine the MSS. in all parts of Europe. In 1769, Dr. Kennicott stated that of the 500 Hebrew MSS. then in Europe he had himself seen and studied 250; and of the 16 MSS. of the Samaritan Pentateuch eight had been collated for him. Subsequently other MSS. were heard of, and the collation extended in all to 581 Hebrew and 16 Samaritan MSS.
In 1776 appeared the first fruit of all the labour, being the first volume of his Vetus Testamentum Hebraicum cum variis lectionibus, and the second appeared in 1780.
Kennicott took his degree of D.D. in 1761, and received from the Crown a pension of £200. In 1770 he was made Prebendary of Westminster, but this he afterwards exchanged for a canonry at Christchurch. He was also rector of Culham, a valuable living, but resigned it, as owing to his studies he was unable to reside and pay attention to his pastoral duties there.
Against the garden wall of Exeter College grew a fig tree, and Kennicott was very partial to figs. Now in a certain year there was but a single fig on the tree. The Doctor watched it, eagerly expecting when it would be ripe, for a fig is like a pear, it ripens and reaches perfection all at once, before which moment it is no good at all. To secure this fruit for himself he wrote out a label, "Dr. Kennicott's Fig," and hung it above the fruit on the tree. But just as the fig was fit to be gathered and eaten, some audacious undergraduate managed to get it, plucked, ate, and then reversing the label wrote in large letters thereon "A Fig for Dr. Kennicott."
When the reverend divine was at the height of his fame he visited Totnes, and was asked to preach in the parish church. This he consented to do. In the vestry he found his old father, still parish clerk, prepared to robe him. The Doctor protested. No on no account would he suffer that. He could perfectly well and unassisted encase himself in cassock and surplice and assume his scarlet doctorial hood. But the old man was stubborn. "But, Ben—I mean Reverend Doctor—do it I must, and do it I will. You know, Ben—I mean Reverend Sir—I am your father and you must obey." So the Hebrew scholar was fain to submit and give to the old parish clerk the proudest hour of his life. Dr. Kennicott died on 18 September, 1783, in the sixty-sixth year of his age.
The portrait given with this article is from one in Exeter College.