Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hill, Thomas Wright
HILL, THOMAS WRIGHT (1763–1851), schoolmaster and stenographer, born at Kidderminster on 24 April 1763, was the son of a baker and dealer in horse-corn. His forefathers for three generations had been freeholders and tradesmen of Kidderminster, being descended from Walter Hill, a landowner of Abberley, Worcestershire (d. 1693). They claimed relationship with Samuel Butler, author of ‘Hudibras.’ Thomas received part of his education at a school kept by Dr. Addington, a dissenting minister, at Market Harborough, Leicestershire, and was afterwards removed to the grammar school of his native town. In early childhood he developed a taste for literature, and interested himself in mathematics, astronomy, and natural philosophy. When nine years old he heard several of the philosophical lectures of James Ferguson, of which he gives an interesting account in his autobiography. When fourteen years of age he was apprenticed to a brassfounder in Birmingham, but he found the business uncongenial, and his voluntary efforts as a Sunday-school teacher at the chapel of Dr. Priestley led him ultimately to devote his special attention to teaching. He joined Dr. Priestley's congregation, and was much influenced by his pastor. He made a close study of letter sounds. Dr. Guest, in his ‘History of English Rhythms,’ i. 9, attributed to him the discovery of ‘the distinction between vocal and whisper letters.’ He invented a system of philosophic shorthand, and he devised and induced a scientific society to adopt the scheme for the representation of minorities, which Mr. Thomas Hare afterwards reinvented. Honest, guileless, and unconventional, Hill is said to have been endowed with every sense but common sense. And that deficiency his wife, Sarah Lea, a woman of strong character, tried to supply. A manufacture of woollen stuffs in which he had engaged was ruined by the French war. Reduced to great straits, Hill at the suggestion of his wife opened a school in order that his children might be properly educated. The school was first opened about 1803 at Hill Top, then on the outskirts of Birmingham. His simple love of truth and courtesy made him a fair teacher, but he lacked mental perspective, and treated all kinds of knowledge as of equal importance. His private pupils in mathematics in the town included Edwin Guest [q. v.], afterwards master of Caius College, Cambridge, and Benjamin Hall Kennedy [q. v.], afterwards professor of Greek at Cambridge. Hill never freed himself from debt, but his buoyant optimism never allowed his embarrassments to trouble him, although his wife felt keenly their heavy burden, and their son Rowland soon took charge of their money affairs, with admirable effect. Hill remained at Hill Top till 1819. His son Rowland had then become chief director of the school, and removed it to Hazelwood, where he introduced his well-known scheme of education [see Hill, Sir Rowland].
In 1827 Hill and his sons removed the school to Bruce Castle at Tottenham. Hill died at Tottenham on 13 June 1851, aged 88. By his wife, Sarah Lea, he was father of Matthew Davenport Hill [q. v.]; Edwin Hill [q. v.]; Sir Rowland Hill [q. v.], the postal reformer; Arthur (1795–1885), headmaster of Bruce Castle school; Frederic (b. 1803 and still (1891) living, inspector of prisons in Scotland, and afterwards in England, subsequently an assistant secretary to the post office; and Caroline (1800–1877), the wife of Francis Clark of Birmingham, afterwards of Adelaide, South Australia. Two other children died young.
Hill's ‘Remains,’ containing an autobiographical fragment and some notices of his life, were privately printed at London, 1859, 8vo. A volume of ‘Selections from his Papers’ appeared in London in 1860. They consist of: 1. ‘A Lecture on the Articulation of Speech,’ 1821. 2. ‘Phonotypy by Modification, a means by which unusual types can be dispensed with.’ 3. ‘A brief Account of his System of Shorthand.’ He originally devised this ingenious system about 1802, and by various changes at length reduced it to a complete philosophical alphabet, on a strictly phonetic basis, without depriving it of its stenographic character. 4. ‘A System of Numerical Nomenclature and Notation, grounded on the principles of abstract utility,’ 1845. In this new system the names of the numbers are made, by virtue of arithmetical significance given to the vowels and diphthongs, to indicate their precise meaning by their structure. 5. ‘Scheme for Conducting Elections.’ 6. ‘Easy Calculations for Matching the Days of the Month and the Days of the Week in Dates.’ First printed privately in 1849.
[Hill's Remains; Gent. Mag. 1851, pt. ii. 326; Dr. G. Birkbeck Hill's Memoir of Sir Rowland Hill; Colvile's Worthies of Warwickshire, p. 405.]