Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cookson, Henry Wilkinson

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COOKSON, HENRY WILKINSON, D.D. (1810–1876), master of Peterhouse, born 10 April 1810 at Kendal, Westmoreland, was the sixth son of Thomas and Elizabeth Cookson. Wordsworth, for whose poetry he always cherished a reverential admiration, was one of his godfathers. He was educated at Kendal grammar school and at Sedbergh school, then under the head-mastership of the old friend of the family from whom he derived his second baptismal name. In October 1828 he commenced residence at St. Peter's College, as he always preferred to style the most ancient college in the university of Cambridge. His private tutors were Henry Philpott, who as bishop of Worcester pronounced the last words over his grave, and the famous Hopkins of Peterhouse. In due time he was appointed to the tutorship; his pupils included Sir William Thomson (Lord Kelvin). He was proctor in 1842. In 1847 he succeeded Dr. Hodgson as master of his college, and as rector of Glaston in Rutlandshire till 1867, when this rectory was by the new college statutes detached from the headship with which it had hitherto been combined. In 1855 he married Emily Valence, elder daughter of Gilbert Ainslie, D.D., master of Pembroke College, by whom he had one daughter. He died, after an illness of a few days, on 30 Sept. 1876, in Peterhouse Lodge; and, in accordance with a wish expressed by him in writing two months before, he was buried in the churchyard of the college benefice of Cherry Hinton, near Cambridge, a simple academical funeral appropriately closing a university life of great though absolutely unostentatious usefulness.

During a large proportion of the twenty-nine years through which he held his mastership Cookson was one of the most influential, as he was always one of the most active and most conscientious, members of his university. With mathematical acquirements he combined strong scientific sympathies and distinct literary tastes; he was a sound protestant of the least sensational type; in politics his clear-eyed conservatism shrank with unconcealed dislike from the more imaginative phases of party opinion. His services to the Cambridge Philosophical Society, of which he was president 1865–6, were too solid to be forgotten; and he worked with a will when chairman of Mr. Cleasby's committee at the parliamentary election of 1868. It remained no secret that in 1867 he was offered, through Lord Derby, the bishopric of Lichfield, which he declined. He was energetic in his college and the university. Not only was he elected vice-chancellor on five occasions (1848, 1863, 1864, 1872, 1873); but he was almost continuously a member of the council of the senate from the institution of that body in 1856; and there was hardly a syndicate of importance concerned with the organisation or reconstruction of the university studies and examinations from 1851 onwards of which he was not a member. He also contributed very materially to the settlement of the relations between the university and the town of Cambridge, which came under discussion during his vice-chancellorship in 1873. In all the transactions in which he bore a part he showed the prudence and caution for which his name became proverbial at Cambridge; but he was hardly less distinguished by a genuine zeal for progress, manifesting itself especially in a desire for the extension of the studies of the university, and an increase in the number of its professorial chairs. Thus he delighted in such practical evidence of the success of his endeavours as the augmentation of the Woodwardian Museum, the enlargement of the botanical garden, and the erection of the new museums; and he was one of the first to advocate the application of a proportion of the funds of the colleges to the endowment of new professorships. Altogether, he has no slight share in the extraordinary development reached by Cambridge in the years which immediately preceded the time of his death, and in those which have since ensued. An admirable portrait of Cookson by Lowes Dickinson occupies a place of honour in the college hall at Peterhouse; in the parish church of Cherry Hinton, partially restored in remembrance of him, a mural brass, designed by G. G. Scott, records his deserts and renders justice to his qualities. The inscription was composed by W. M. Gunson of Christ's College.

[Memorial articles in Cambridge Chronicle, 7 Oct., and Saturday Review, 14 Oct. 1876; personal knowledge.]

A. W. W.