Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Jessopp, Augustus
JESSOPP, AUGUSTUS (1823–1914), schoolmaster and historical writer, was born at Cheshunt 20 December 1823, the third son and youngest of the ten children of John Sympson Jessopp, J.P., of Cheshunt, by his wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Bridger Goodrich, of Bermuda. The family moved to Belgium about 1832, and Augustus Jessopp received a roving education at schools abroad and later at Clapham under the Rev. A. J. Plow. He was a studious boy and, much to his relief, was sent in 1844 to St. John's College, Cambridge, after three irksome years in a merchant's office in Liverpool. In 1848 he took a pass degree, and was ordained to a curacy at Papworth St. Agnes, Cambridgeshire. In the same year he married Mary Ann, daughter of Charles Cotesworth, R.N., of Liverpool. They had no children. In 1855 he returned to Cambridge, but shortly afterwards moved to Helston, Cornwall, as master of the local grammar school, which had fallen on evil days and had hardly any pupils left. Jessopp soon restored its fortunes, leaving in 1859 to become head master of King Edward VI's School, Norwich, where a bigger task awaited him.
Norwich School was at a low ebb: it had few day-boys and but one boarder; discipline was bad, the buildings dilapidated. Under Jessopp's twenty years' rule it was transformed into a modern public school, with buildings enlarged, teaching and equipment improved, and with a good record at the universities. Jessopp was an imposing, if unconventional, head master; not a great scholar, but a teacher of originality and enthusiasm. He set the boys new standards in work, in discipline, in games; was admired by them for his vigour, fine presence, and noble voice; beloved for his kindliness and magnificent moments of indiscretion and frivolity. He interested himself for a time in larger educational questions, took some part in public discussion, and wrote one or two school-books; but his tastes were mainly antiquarian.
As early as 1855 Jessopp had published an edition of Donne's Essays in Divinity, and since 1866 he had been at work upon the records of the Walpole family, of several members of which he has given an account in this Dictionary. His One Generation of a Norfolk House—perhaps the best of his works—appeared in 1878, and the next year the Camden Society issued his edition of a seventeenth-century text, The Oeconomy of the Fleete (prison). In 1879 Jessopp retired from Norwich School to the rectory of Scarning, Norfolk, in order to find leisure for studies which had become his chief interest. There for many years he lived the life of a well-to-do country parson of wide accomplishments, active in his poor parish, well known in East Anglia as a learned antiquary, and outside it as an attractive writer on mediaeval England, and a vigorous critic of the conditions of village and clerical life of the day. The last question was much to the fore in the 'eighties, and Jessopp's racy, provocative articles were readily taken by (Sir) James Knowles for the newly founded Nineteenth Century magazine; many were later reissued by Jessopp in his volumes, Arcady, for Better for Worse (1887), and Trials of a Country Parson (1890). Of his historical articles—many of them also written for the Nineteenth Century—the best collections are The Coming of the Friars (1889), a well-known book, Studies by a Recluse (1893), and Before the Great Pillage (1901); they give popular, sympathetic accounts of parish life in the middle ages. Of more lasting value are Jessopp's edition of the Visitations of the Diocese of Norwich, 1492–1532 (Camden Society, 1888)—the first English monastic visitations to be printed—his text of the Life of St. William of Norwich (with Dr. M. R. James, 1896), and his reports on MSS. of the bishop and chapter of Ely, at Shadwell Court, and at Holkham House, for the Historical Manuscripts Commission (1891, 1903, 1907). He also wrote biographies of Donne (1897) and Lord Burghley (1904), of Queen Elizabeth and others for this Dictionary, besides many minor works.
Jessopp's work and record brought him popular repute, eminent friends—especially George Meredith—and, in time, academic recognition. For high preferment his name was passed over. He incorporated at Oxford (from Worcester College) and took the degree of D.D. in 1870; he was select preacher there in 1890. In 1895 his Oxford and Cambridge colleges elected him honorary fellow on the same day. In that year also he was made honorary canon in Norwich Cathedral, and in 1902 a chaplain in ordinary to the King. After the death of his wife (1905) his circumstances were much reduced, and he was granted a civil list pension. Later, his mind became affected and, having sold his library, he resigned his living in 1911, retiring to Norwich, where he died 12 February 1914.
Jessopp disclaimed the title of historian, called himself ‘a smatterer and a fumbler’, but he had some of the gifts and equipment of the best historians. Had his powers been directed to more solid historical work it would at least have redeemed his ‘exile’ at Scarning from the futility which he was wont to deplore; ‘I was burning my boats in taking a country living’, he used to say. Yet his achievement was not without merit. He called attention to much unworked material for English parochial and monastic history, and encouraged the sympathetic study of those subjects; while by many who never read his books he was remembered as one of the most stimulating head masters of his time.
[The Times, 13 February 1914; Norvicensian (Norwich School magazine), 1914; Letters of George Meredith, edited by his son, 2 vols., 1912; Cornhill Magazine, November 1921; private information. Photographic portraits of Jessopp are prefixed to his Arcady and Random Roaming (1894).]