Benjamin Hall Kennedy (1804‒89)
Benjamin Hall Kennedy was Headmaster of Shrewsbury School for 30 years, and then Regius Professor of Greek in the University of Cambridge and a Canon of Ely Cathedral. He was a staunch advocate of higher education for women, and three of his daughters were early participants in the suffragette movement. He is best remembered for what was known popularly as ‛Kennedy’s Latin Primer’ ‒ i.e. a manual of Latin grammar and vocabulary ‒ which was used widely in secondary schools from 1888 up to the present day.
Benjamin is the subject of a cartoon by Ronald Searle (resident of Petersfield, Cambridge!) entitled The Private Life of the Gerund (a gerund being a grammatical category). This is a set of four cartoons, with the titles ‘The gerund attacks some peaceful pronouns’, ‘Kennedy discovers the gerund and leads it back into captivity’, ‘A gerund shut out. No place for it in one of my sentences’, ‘Social snobery. A gerund “cuts” a gerundive’.
Parents and Siblings
Benjamin Hall Kennedy was born in Summer Hill, Birmingham, 6 November 1804, and baptised at St Paul’s Church, Birmingham, 19 March 1805, son of the Rev Rann Kennedy (1772‒1851) and Julia Kennedy (née Hall) (1780‒). Rann Kennedy’s family home was at Shenstone in Staffordshire, but from 1784 he and his mother lived at Withington, near Shrewsbury. Rann (Benjamin’s father ‒not buried in Mill Road Cemetery) studied at St John’s College, Cambridge (1791‒95), entered the church, then went to King Edward’s School, Birmingham first as a master (c.1798‒1807) then as Second Master (1807‒c.1836). He was also curate of St Paul’s Church, in the centre of Birmingham (1797‒1817), then served as its Rector (1817‒c.1847). Rann was a classicist, poet and writer; among other things, he was editor of A Church of England Psalm-Book (1821).
Benjamin was the oldest of five children, his siblings being Charles Rann (1808‒67), Julia Damaris (1809‒10), George John (1811‒47) and William James (1814‒91). All four sons were outstanding classicists while students at Cambridge; all won the highest university prize for a written Greek verse composition (the Porson Prize), Benjamin three times (1823, 1824, 1826), Charles Rann twice (1828, 1829), George John and William James once each (1831 and 1835).
Between 1814 and 1818 Benjamin was educated at home and at King Edward’s School, Birmingham (while his father was Second Master). From there in 1819 he went to Shrewsbury School (the Headmaster at the time being Samuel Butler, author of the satirical novel Erewhon and distinguished Classics scholar); Charles Darwin was a contemporary of Benjamin’s at the school (1818‒23). Benjamin already showed outstanding ability in Classical languages.
He left Shrewsbury in 1823 and entered St John’s College, Cambridge, where he was one of the most brilliant classicists of his day, graduating B.A. in 1827, and returning to Shrewsbury School as an assistant master. From 1828 to 1836 he was a Fellow of St John’s College and lecturer in Classics. In 1830 he was ordained a priest in the Church of England, and in the same year was appointed an assistant master at Harrow School.
Family and Career
Benjamin married Janet Caird in Paignton, Devon on 26 March 1831. By 1851 the couple had had five children: four daughters (Charlotte Amy May, Marion Grace (‛Maisie’), Julia Elizabeth (‛Poppy’), and Edith Janet) and one son (Arthur Herbert).
When, in 1836 Samuel Butler was made Bishop of Lichfield, Benjamin was appointed to replace him as Headmaster of Shrewsbury School. The censuses of 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871 show him living with his growing family at ‛The Lodge’, School Lane, St Mary, Shrewsbury. Between them, Butler and Kennedy made the school a major centre of training in the Classical languages, sending many pupils to Oxford and Cambridge. Kennedy was a much loved and admired teacher. After retirement from the school, in 1866 Benjamin became Rector of the parish of West Felton, near Oswestry in Shropshire (which had become vacant at his son-in-law William Burbury’s death).
In 1867 he was appointed Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge University and a canon of Ely Cathedral. In Cambridge he took a keen interest in the education of women. The first two women’s colleges, Girton and Newnham, had been founded in 1869 and 1871; and in 1881 Kennedy made a powerful speech advocating the opening of the University’s lectures and examinations to women students at those colleges. In the 1870s he was a member of the committee for the revision of the New Testament in English translation. In 1880 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of St John’s College, and in 1885 was made a Doctor of Divinity of the University of Dublin.
At the time of the 1871 census, Benjamin and his wife lived at ‛The Elms’, Bateman Street with two of their daughters, Marion and Julia (then aged 34 and 31), Charlotte and Arthur having by then married. The household must have been quite grand, for it sported five servants ‒ a cook, 1st, 2nd and 3rd housemaids, and a butler ‒ as well as a former domestic servant (an ‛old retainer’).
His wife died in the spring of 1874, aged 65. The street directory for 1881 shows him still living at ‛The Elms’, although on the census day in that year he was staying with his son Arthur and family in Upton-cum-Chalvey, Slough, Berkshire, while Marion and Julia were at the ‛The Elms’ with four servants. (In March 1904, ‛The Elms’ became the home of St Mary’s Roman Catholic Convent, the nuns of which ran the neighbouring St Mary’s School in Paston House; ‛The Elms’ is now part of the School ‒ see illustrations.) At his death from bronchitis on 6 April 1889, Benjamin was staying with his daughter Edith and her family in Torquay, but his body was returned to Cambridge for burial. His personal estate amounted to £28,166 3s. 9d ‒ a significant sum!
Benjamin was the author of a Greek Primer (1847), and Public School Latin Primer (1866, rev. 1888) and Public School Latin Grammar (1871), both of which were used in almost every English school for many decades. He also published verse translations of Aristophanes’ The Birds (1874), the Psalms of David (1876), Aeschylus’s The Agammemnon (1878), and Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus (1882), a translation of Plato’s Theaetetus (1881), and numerous other works.
A fine portrait in oils of him by Walter William Ouless (1883) survives At St John’s College, and also a bust of him (see illustrations of both).
Kennedy’s Latin Primer
Benjamin’s Revised Latin Primer first appeared in 1888 and was an instant success, guiding generations of Latin learners up to the present day. ‛Revised’ because it was a replacement for a version Kennedy had produced in 1866 that had been badly reviewed and a resounding flop. This one was much improved, so the story goes, because he had let his daughters, Marion and Julia, rewrite it for him.
This was more than exploitation of his family. Kennedy trusted women and believed in their intellectual capacity. He had been Headmaster of Shrewsbury School for thirty years when he became Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge in 1867. Though he published several detailed commentaries on classical Greek texts, his major achievement was the Primer and his leading role in the campaign to allow women full access to the University and its qualifications. He not only pressed the issue on committees and working parties at the highest level but also took on teaching women students who were often not allowed to attend formal lectures ‒ and he would even turn up to invigilate their exams, which they could not take in the same room as the men. (Mary Beard)
Parish : All Saints
Census reports 1841‒1881
Births, Deaths and Marriages
Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 22, pp. 1302‒1304 (Benjamin), 1321‒1322 (Rann)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Online) (Benjamin)
We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the staff of St John’s College, Cambridge, including Tracy Wilkinson, archivist, Fiona Colbert, biographical librarian, Kathryn McKee, special collections librarian, and Richard Sellens, library graduate trainee 2014/15. The materials that they have provided are presented here with thanks to the Master and Fellows of St John’s College.
By Ian Bent and Mary Beard, with assistance from Richard Sellens