Thursday 7 May 2015

The school books of Thomas Skaife

A month into Project Genesis and work has progressed from the horticultural records of James Russell to the Borthwick's ‘private deposits,’ a group of some fifty archives that range in date from the 11th to the 20th century and in subject from the manors of medieval Yorkshire to Colonial America and 1950s Nigeria. 
As you might imagine such a diverse group of archives contains more than a few gems, such as these exercise books used by Thomas Skaife while he was a student at ‘Mr A. Nesbit’s Academy, Manchester’ between 1822 and 1824.  
The title page of Thomas Skaife's copy book.
Such books are a rare survival among estate and family papers where you might more usually expect to find property deeds, household accounts and correspondence, making Thomas’  ‘Ciphering Book’ and beautifully penned copy books filled with mathematical tables, specimen problems and calligraphy all the more charming.
Specimen page from the copy book commemorating Admiral Nelson whose death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 was still within living memory.  The text reads 'To Heroes yet unborn shall Albion tell /How Nelson triumphed and how Nelson fell,' together with the famous signal sent from HMS Victory, 'England expects every Man to do his Duty.'
The Skaife family originated from Braisty Wood and Kirkby Malzeard in Yorkshire.  In the fifteenth century they had been keepers of the cattle for Fountains Abbey and the time of the Abbey’s dissolution in the sixteenth century Robert and William Skafe were the tenants of the Abbey’s lands in Braisty Wood.  In 1601 Thomas Skaife purchased a lease of Braisty Wood from Sir William Ingilby and the family settled there permanently, building a house there in 1656.  For the next nine generations the successive owners of the estate were named Thomas - presenting something of a challenge for the researcher – but it is possible the young Thomas Skaife who studied at Manchester was the son of Thomas and Elizabeth Skaife who married in 1808.  Thomas Skaife the elder died at Manchester in 1855 and his son inherited the estate and later became a common councillor at Ripon.   The exercise books, together with other deeds and papers pertaining to the Skaife family, were donated to the Borthwick Institute in 1969.
Page from Thomas Skaife's 'Ciphering Book' showing specimen mathematical problems - in this case using measurements of wine and rum.
But what of the mysterious Mr A. Nesbit whose academy put such an emphasis on penmanship and practical arithmetic?  He was Mr Anthony Nesbit, the son of a Northumberland farmer who became a successful school teacher and was the author of several very popular textbooks on arithmetic, measurement and surveying in the nineteenth century.   His school, the ‘Classical, Commercial and Mathematical Academy’ opened in Oxford Street, Manchester around 1821 and remained there until 1841 when he moved the enterprise to London, establishing the ‘Classical, Commercial and Scientific Academy’ at Lower Kennington Lane in Lambeth.
Mr Nesbit died in 1859 but he was not the last of his family to make it into print.  His granddaughter Edith is still widely known today as the author of the bestselling novel ‘The Railway Children.’