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Thring, Edward (DNB00)

THRING, EDWARD (1821–1887), schoolmaster, born at Alford in Somerset on 29 Nov. 1821, was fifth child of John Gale Dalton Thring, the rector and squire of Alford, by his wife Sarah, daughter of John Jenkyns, vicar of Evercreech in the same county, and sister of Richard Jenkyns [q. v.], master of Balliol. He was educated first at a local grammar school at Ilminster, and afterwards at Eton, where he became the head of the collegers, and was captain of Montem in 1841 on nearly the last occasion of that famous festival. In the same year he entered King's College, Cambridge, as a scholar. Three years afterwards he gained the Porson prize for Greek iambics, and became a fellow of his college. At that date, and for three centuries before, the King's scholars were allowed to proceed to a degree without examination. Although it was generally understood that Thring was the most distinguished scholar of his year, he objected earnestly to the continuance of this exceptional and time-honoured privilege, and in 1846 and 1848 he, as a fellow, wrote pamphlets strongly advocating its abolition. After much discussion, and with the consent of the provost and fellows, the custom was abandoned in 1851. Thring was ordained in 1846, and became a curate of St. James's parish in the city of Gloucester. Here he manifested a strong interest in the children of the parochial schools, and he afterwards looked back on the experience he thus gained as the best professional training of his life. To the last he preached the doctrine that the most elementary teaching requires the highest teaching skill and power. After a year at Gloucester he spent two years as a private tutor at Great Marlow, two years as curate at Cookham Dean, Berkshire, and six months in travel in Italy. In September 1853 he was elected to the head mastership of Uppingham school.

Until the end of his life Thring's name was identified with the history and fortunes of Uppingham, a country grammar school founded by Robert Johnson (1540–1625) [q. v.] in 1584, and endowed with an annual income of about 1,000l. He found it with twenty-five boys and two masters, in mean premises, and with little repute, and in the course of thirty-four years raised it to a foremost position among the public schools in England, with noble buildings, a fine chapel, ample appliances for teaching and recreation, a library, thirty masters, eleven boarding-houses, and upwards of three hundred boys. From the first he dedicated all his best powers to the business of teaching. His chief desire was to study the needs and aptitudes of individual boys, and to give to each work which would interest him and call forth his powers. He thought that most public schools were too large for this purpose, and he restricted the number of boys at Uppingham school to 320, and in each boarding-house to thirty.

Thring held fast by the study of languages and mathematics and cognate subjects, as forming the main course of discipline, to which every scholar should conform. To English composition, pursued pari passu with composition in the ancient languages, he assigned a high place in his system of instruction. But lessons on these subjects were begun at seven in the morning and were over by midday. In the after part of the day classes were held in French, German, chemistry, turning, drawing, carpentry, and music; and every boy was expected to take up one, or perhaps two, of these at his or his parents' choice. He established workshops, laboratories, gardens, an aviary, and a gymnasium. Uppingham was the first great public school to make special provision of this kind for varied culture outside the traditional range of classical study. Although himself deficient in the musical faculty, Thring attached high value to music as an educational instrument, wrote some spirited school songs, and took pains to choose highly skilled teachers, and to give them, by means of school concerts and otherwise, opportunities of cultivating their art. To the artistic decoration of the school and chapel he paid special attention, as well as to the study of drawing and design. The class-rooms were adorned with pictures symbolical or historical, and with the portraits of men famous in the several departments of learning or science to which the lessons pertained. While encouraging athletics, he thought they received excessive attention. He deprecated the habit of multiplying prizes and scholarships, especially if they were regarded as motives for work instead of records of having worked.

In 1875 a serious attack of typhoid fever, attributable to bad drainage in the town of Uppingham, caused several deaths and much alarm, and threatened the ruin of the school. Thring met the emergency with characteristic courage and promptitude, found an unoccupied hotel and some lodging-houses at Borth, a little fishing village on the Cardigan coast, and in three weeks made arrangements for the removal of the whole establishment. There the school work was carried on with unbroken spirit and success for more than a year and until the danger was past (cf. Edward Thring, a Memory, by the Rev. J. H. Skrine).

Thring is one of the few great schoolmasters who have written copiously on the principles of education. His works have been largely read in America as well as in England, and, though they do not profess to be text-books or pedagogic manuals of rules and formulæ, have proved in a high degree inspiring to English-speaking teachers. One of his earliest books, ‘Thoughts on Life Science’ (1869, 2nd edit. 1871), which bore the pseudonym of ‘Benjamin Place,’ concerns itself with reflections on the old problems of the relations of Christian faith to knowledge and to human progress. His matured convictions on educational methods are set forth in ‘Education and School’ (1864; 2nd edit. 1867), in ‘The Theory and Practice of Teaching’ (1883, new edit. 1885), and in a posthumous volume of ‘Miscellaneous Addresses’ (1887) delivered before various bodies of teachers. All his writings are characterised by a deep sense of the moral and religious purposes which should be served in education, by fine enthusiasm, by intuitive insight into child nature, by happy and pregnant aphorisms, and by an active and often grotesque fancy which, though it illuminated his talk and his books, led him to indulge in analogies occasionally remote, and, it must be owned, somewhat tantalising. It was a prominent feature of his educational system that English grammar treated inductively and analytically furnished the best basis for language training, and among his earliest books were the ‘Child's Grammar’ (1852), the ‘Principles of Grammar’ (1868), and ‘Exercises in Grammatical Analysis’ (1868). In all these what he called ‘sentence anatomy’ was shown to be one of the most fruitful of linguistic exercises, and to be applicable to the study of Latin and Greek as well as of English.

With no less earnestness, and with scarcely less magnetic personal influence than Arnold, Thring displayed even more originality in his educational methods, and was the pioneer of no less important reforms in public school life. He was the founder of the headmasters' conference, laid down the main lines of its action, and was for some years one of its most influential members. The first meeting was held, on his invitation, at Uppingham in December 1869. His was the first public school to establish a mission to the poor of London, and the North Woolwich settlement, which was founded also in 1869, established a precedent, followed seven years after by Winchester, and subsequently by nearly all the great public schools. He founded an old scholars' association and the Uppingham School Society, and sought to render himself and its members useful to the people of the town by establishing classes for mutual improvement and for cookery and useful arts. He was the first headmaster to evince sympathy with the best modern efforts to give a liberal education to girls; and in 1887 he invited the headmistresses' association to hold their annual meeting at Uppingham. To one phase of educational development Thring was resolutely opposed. He was not in sympathy with modern movements for the legal control and organisation of secondary education, or for the examination and inspection of schools by public authority. All such expedients appeared to him to restrict mischievously the lawful liberty of the teacher, and he never fully recognised that public measures which would have been needless in his own case might be very necessary for the rank and file of uninspired teachers and for the maintenance of ordinary schools in efficiency.

Thring died at Uppingham on 22 Oct. 1887. At Christmas 1853 he married Marie Louise, daughter of Carl Johann Koch of Bonn, who held the office of councillor or commissioner of customs under the Prussian government. His wife, three daughters, and two sons survived him.

Besides the works already named, Thring was author of a volume of ‘School Sermons’ (1858, 2nd ser. 1886), ‘School Songs’ (1858), ‘Borth Lyrics’ (1881), ‘Poems and Translations’ (1887), and a remarkable discourse entitled ‘The Charter of Life,’ contributed to a volume of sermons addressed to public school men, and edited by Dean Vaughan, under the title ‘The School of Life,’ 1885.

[Life, with long extracts from Thring's diaries, by G. R. Parkin, 1898; Uppingham by the Sea, by J. H. Skrine; Edward Thring, Teacher and Poet, by Rev. H. D. Rawnsley.]

J. G. F-h.