Patrick Carroll | Helstonia – William Clifton Odger, Helston Schoolmaster
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Helstonia – William Clifton Odger, Helston Schoolmaster

William Clifton Odger was a prominent figure in Helston life throughout the mid-19th Century.  He was born in the town, circa 1797.  His father, also William, was a watch & clockmaker and almost certainly an engraver.  One of his productions – a beautifully engraved sundial – was presented to John Rowe in 1792 to mark the end of the fourth of his seven terms as Mayor of Helston.  The sundial was held for many years by St. Michael’s Church but is now exhibited in the Helston Museum.  William Odger the elder was made a freeman of Helston in April 1813.

It seems probable that William the younger served some kind of apprenticeship under his father as he became noted in later life as an engraver.  In the mid-1830s he engraved the brass plate and inscribed a written memorial, both laid within the foundation stone of the Grylls Monument at the foot of Coinagehall Street   No record of William Clifton Odger’s working life prior to the establishment of his school in Lady Street has yet been discovered, and whether he worked in the Odger’s business is unclear.  Pigot’s Directory of 1822-’23 lists a Thomas Odger as a watch & clockmaker.  This would appear to be a relation of William’s, possibly a younger brother, nephew or cousin.  A Thomas Odger is recorded as having died in 1823, aged 22.

It is likely that Mr. Odger opened his school in the 1820s.  When he married Mary Roberts Edwards in November 1824 his occupation is given as Schoolmaster.  Mr. George Cunnack, who wrote an account of his time at Mr. Odger’s school to be quoted later, left the school in 1833.   It was certainly in existence by 1840 when it is listed Robson’s Directory of that year.  The school does not appear in Williams’ Directory of 1847, although it does reappear in Slater’s Directory of 1852-’53, being located as “near Coinagehall Street”, and in Kelly’s Directory of 1856 as Mr. Odger’s “Academy, Lady Street”.

The Census of 1851 lists William Clifton Odger, age 53, Schoolmaster, as Head of a household including Mary, aged 57, Wife, Schoolmistress: Maria Edwards, age 12, niece, Scholar; and Elizabeth Thomas, 27, House Servant.   In the 1861 Census Mr. Odger is now 63; his wife, Mary, 67; the niece is now Mary Penelope Edwards, 24.  Jane Jenkin, 47, is listed as Domestic Servant.  By 1871 – Mr. Odger’s last appearance in a Census – he, Mary and Jane Jenkin are all ten years older and the niece is no longer resident in Lady Street, The nature of Mr. Odger’s school may be imagined from the following, taken from Deirdre Dare’s The Unknown Founder – The Story of Helston Grammar School from 1550 – 1972:  “A third school, which had links with the Grammar School, was that run by William Clifton Odger… His school was in Lady Street [known for a time in the 1860s as Pig Street] directly opposite Leslie House.  Its rounded room on the first floor can still be seen on the corner and it is amazing to think that 50 boys and a few girls could be taught there. However, George Cunnack, who attended the school before going to the Commercial Academy, speaks highly of the teaching he received:

“Mr. Odger’s tuition was confined to writing (and his pupils were the acknowledged best penmen about), Arithmetic as far as the roots, the principles of grammar as set forth in Lindley Murray, with an acquaintance with Geography and English History.  For this he charged the modest sum of £2. 2s per year, with 1/- in addition for pens.  Pens at that time were quills and entailed no small amount of labour on the part of the master in making and mending them each day.  Some of the boys, a favoured few, (from the Grammar School mostly, who came to be taught writing) had ruled copybooks, but the majority of us had home made ones, with brown paper covers and double foolscap inside; these had to be ruled by the master who, from long practice, was a wonderfully correct and rapid ruler.

“Mr. Odger was a firm disciplinarian and used the cane freely on the boys who in most cases richly deserved it… he was stringent in enforcing punctuality in attending at stated hours; these were 7 o’clock in the morning to repeat lessons, often by candlelight; 9 to 12:30 in the morning; 2 to 4:30 in the afternoon; being late, without a written excuse from home, frequently set the cane in action, and that very briskly, with a grim humour accompanying now and then.  A scholar named Cocking coming in late one bright summer afternoon, at once the master’s eye was on him, and the question came, “Where have you been, Cocking?”  The reply from the culprit, who stuttered a little, was, “Down having a wash (that is bathing).”  “Ah!” was rejoinder, “then I shall give you a wipe,” and accordingly the cane took the place of the towel.  For holidays we had three weeks at Christmas, the same at Midsummer, with two days at Easter and one at Whitsuntide.  Flora Day, May 8th, was looked at with disfavour by Mr. Odger and if we were dismissed an hour earlier in the afternoon we considered ourselves well off.”

The account goes on, “George Cunnack was at Mr. Odger’s school before the opening of the Wendron Street school and the grammar school boys apparently walked around the corner to Odger to learn penmanship. Before the move to Wendron Street in 1835 the Grammar School had been located in lower Coinagehall Street on the site now occupied by the solicitors Borlase & Co.  There is some physical evidence uncovered by the present occupiers of Old Schoolhouse (No. 8 Lady Street) indicating that there was, in fact, a footpath leading from the rear of the Coinagehall Street Grammar School building through the back garden of the Odger’s house and on to Lady Street where there were stairs going directly up to the schoolroom.  Another account quoted by Deirdre Dare writes of, “a good soul who lived in the town and came to teach us writing and mathematics – quite an inferior person, of a benevolent and fine temper, kind and gentle, whom my memory much esteems.”  W.F. Collier had been a pupil at Helston Grammar School and Deirdre Dare drew heavily on a memoir of his schooldays published in the Cornish Magazine in 1889.  She observes of the above extract, “…this sounds like Mr. Odger, who, despite his cane, was highly respected by Cunnack, who describes him as a fine artist in water colours and oils, an excellent musician and writer of hymns and a highly skilled engraver.”   Mr. Collier in his reminiscences comes across as someone – to use P.G. Wodehouse’s phrase – “acutely alive to the existence of class distinctions”. The idea that the highly accomplished schoolmaster son of a master craftsman and freeman of the town was “quite an inferior person” jibes with his description of himself as “gentry” and thus entitled to dance in the Midday Furry Dance on Flora Day.

As well as his engraving, much of which took the form of initials and crests on articles of plate &c, another of Mr. Odger’s accomplishments was his skill as a miniaturist, noted for an unusual ability to work from memory.  In Mr. Cunnack’s summing up of his old schoolmaster, he writes:  “He was an unassuming man who shunned popularity and public notice but as a schoolmaster, as a local preacher and class leader in the Wesleyan Society, he exercised a deep and lasting influence for good in the town and district.”

In his religious activities Mr. Odger was involved in the often-convoluted Methodist splits and schisms of his period.  H. Spencer Toy in his History of Helston gives the following account: “In the year 1836 a Connexion of Churches known as the Wesleyan Methodist Association, was formed in England as a result of differences in the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion and the secession from it of large numbers of members.  In Helston the parent body suffered severely, more severely in proportion to its size than did many other societies elsewhere, and ‘many of the most talented and prominently useful members joined the Association.’ …The construction of the Market House [now Helston Museum] and of Penrose Road in 1838 opened a new corner site on which the United Methodist Church now [1936] stands.  In 1838 a brewery stood on this spot; it was purchased by members of the Association, led by William Odger the schoolmaster and Thomas Treloar, and they erected a chapel there…”  The church, known as ‘The Little Ship’, was demolished in the 1960s but for one wall facing Church Street, behind which is now a private car park.  According to Mr. Cunnack, Mr Odger was, in fact, “…expelled at the time of the disruption of 1835 for the part taken in the agitation, the Wesleyan Association (so named) was shortly after formed and Mr. Odger to the time of his deathwas the principal supporter of the Society in the Helston Circuit, and with Mrs. Odger was indispensable in all matters connected with the work of the Church.  It may be assumed – considering his recorded opinion of Flora Day – that Mr. Odger, in common with many Methodists (of whichever sects) held strong views on the consumption of alcohol; in which case he was probably gratified at the idea of replacing a brewery with a chapel.

Mr. Odger’s school and residence was located in No. 8 Lady Street. This brief thoroughfare had for some time come to be called Pig Street due to pigs being driven along it going to and from market, Mr. Cunnack relates that Mr. Odger sent “a poetical requisition which was clever and worth preserving…” and subjoined it to his account. I have just recently had the opportunity to hear this “poetical requisition” read at a meeting of the Helston Historical Society.  It is in the form a petition in verse, dating from 1853, to the burgesses of Helston requesting them to remove the name Pig Street from the town’s electoral roll and amend it with the more proper name of Lady Street.  In reply the Town Clerk, Frederick Hill, wrote that not only would the Borough Council accede to Mr. Odger’s request but that the Council wished to offer him the post of Town Laureate.  The schoolmaster graciously declined this offer. 

William Clifton Odger died of enteritic [sic] (typhoid) fever after a three months illness on 29th September 1872, aged 75.  [It may be noted that Mr. Odger’s death occurred during the period of the smallpox epidemic that ravaged the West Country in the early 1870s.]  According to his death certificate John Best was present at the death.  Mr. Best was [probably, as was his father before him] a master painter-decorator and a long-serving Helston Borough Councillor. The following appreciation appeared in the Helston section of The West Briton newspaper’s local news columns: The Late Mr. W.C. Odger  — On Friday last the principal inhabitants of Helston followed to their last resting place in Helston churchyard, the remains of their highly and universally esteemed townsman, Mr. Odger.  Though he was habitually modest and retiring, Mr. Odger was almost invariably foremost in any philanthropic movement in the town, and by the energy of his character, and the influence of a steady, consistent Christian life, he has left a deep impress for good over a wide area, where his name will long continue to be mentioned with reverence and affection.  In public matters Mr. Odger was a warm Liberal, having been an active advocate for the reform bill, the abolition of slavery, the repeal of the corn laws and the abolition of the church rate, and his example greatly contributed to the triumph of Liberal principles in the town and neighbourhood.”

The West Briton was at that time a strongly Liberal organ.  In contrast, the broadly Tory-supporting Royal Cornwall Gazette not only did not print an appreciation of Mr. Odger but in its Births, Marriages & Deaths column managed to misspell his name as Ogden.  Party political feeling ran high in Cornwall in that day and time.  John Best was also a Liberal.

Mary Odger, the old schoolmaster’s widow – who would have been over 80 at the time – is listed in the 1873 Kelly’s Directory as a Private Resident living in Lady Street.  By 1878 if she was still alive she was no longer living in Helston.

On the 10th day of January – 1873 the Will with a Codicil thereto of William Clifton Odger late of Helston in the County of Cornwall Schoolmaster – deceased, who died on the 29th day of September 1872 at Helston aforesaid was proved in the District Registry attached to Her Majesty’s Court of Probate at Bodmin — on the Oaths of William Edwards of the parish of Padstow in the said County Farmer Thomas Treloar of Helston aforesaid Accountant and Richard Gundry Rows of the parish of Wendron in the said County Farmer the – executors named in the said Will they having been sworn duly to administer Effects under £3,000 – &[?] Leaseholds Extracted by Commins & Son Solrs Bodmin Cornwall

This is the last Will and Testament of me William Clifton Odger of the Borough of Helston in the County of Cornwall Schoolmaster First I give and bequeath unto my dear Wife Mary the sum of four hundred pounds sterling and also all benefit and advantage arising from and under a certain Policy of Assurance No.10191 which I have effected on my life in the Norwich Union Life and Fire Assurance Society I also give and bequeath unto my said Wife all my books, wearing apparel, plate, linen, china, stores, household goods and Furniture  I also demise and bequeath unto my brother in law William Edwards and unto my friends Thomas Treloar of Helston aforesaid and Richard Gundry Rows of Tresprison in the parish of Wendron in the said County and the survivors and survivor of them All those my freehold houses and premises in Helston aforesaid Upon trust to permit and suffer my said Wife to hold and enjoy the same, or to receive the rents and profits thereof during her life and on her death Upon trust to convey the same to any person or persons to be nominated  by and on behalf of my Niece Elizabeth Bradford Best the Wife of Mr. John Best of Helston aforesaid Painter to be held and enjoyed by the said person or persons for the sole benefit and behalf of the said Elizabeth Bradford Best her heirs and assigns for ever  I give and bequeath unto the aforesaid Richard Gundry Rows his executors administrators and assigns the sum of Three hundred and fifty pounds invested in the Helston Wesleyan Association Chapel now called the United Methodist Free Church Chapel, and, so secured by certain Policies of Assurance when the same shall become payable in and by virtue of certain Indentures of Mortgage and Agreement respecting the said Chapel dated respectively the 16th and 17th days of December 1864  All other my estate and effects I give and bequeath to my said Trustees Upon trust to pay thereout in the first place my debts funeral and testamentary expenses and secondly to pay the income arising from my said estate yearly and every year at Christmas unto my dear Wife during her natural life and upon her death Upon Trust to convert the said estate into money and divide the same into five equal parts and to pay one fifth part thereof unto my Niece Mary Penelope Edwards, now residing in Trevone in the parish of Padstow in the County of Cornwall her executors administrators and assigns And to pay one other fifth part thereof to Mary Ann Hoskins daughter of my late sister Ann Hoskins her executors or assigns And to pay one other fifth part to my brother in law Thomas Hoskins his executors administrators or assigns  And to pay the remaining two fifth parts of my estate and effects to the executors or administrators of my said Wife  Provided always and I hereby further declare that my said Trustees and survivor of them his executors administrators or assigns shall be at liberty to re-imburse themselves or himself all costs and expenses they or he may be at in the execution of the Trust of this my Will and that they or the survivor of them shall not be answerable for any loss of the said trust property or any part thereof unless the same shall happen through their or his wilful or voluntary act or means  Lastly I hereby appoint my said Trustees Executors of this my Will   In Witness whereof I have to this my Will set my hand this fourteenth day of September 1868 – Signed published and declared by the said Testator as and for his last Will and Testament in the presence of us, who at his request and in his presence and in the presence of each other, have subscribed our names as witnesses hereto

– George Chesson

James Needham

In consideration of the long and faithful services of my domestic Servant Jane Jenkin and in anticipation of her remaining in the service of my dear Wife after my death I give unto the said Servant a yearly Annuity of Fifteen pounds during her life provided that said Jane shall be in my Wife’s service at the time of my Wife’s death and not otherwise unless the removal from my Wife with her consent in writing And I hereby make my shares in the Helston Gas Works liable for the payment of such Annuity the same to commence on the death of my said Wife.  Witness my hand this twenty third day of July 1872

– W.C. Odger

Signed and declared by William Clifton Odger as a Codicil to his last Will and Testament in the presence of us who at his request in his presence and in the presence of each other have subscribed our names as witnesses hereto

– Thos. Treloar Richd G. Rows

Proved at Bodmin on the 10th day of January 1873 with a Codicil by the Oaths of William Edwards, Thomas Treloar and Richard Gundry Rows the Executors to whom administration was granted.

The Testator William Clifton Odger was late of Helston in the County of Cornwall Schoolmaster and died on the 29th day of September 1872 at Helston aforesaid.

Under £3,000 – Extracted by, Commins & Son Solrs  Bodmin, Cornwall

I hereby certify that the foregoing is a true Copy compared and examined with the Original this 11th day of January 1873

NOTE:  There is fine studio photograph of Mr. Odger, the caption of which gives his middle name wrongly as Charles (a mistake also made by H. Spencer Toy in his History of Helston) and inaccurately adds an ‘s’ to his surname.  The sundial, presumed to have been executed by Mr. Odger’s father, is displayed in the Helston Museum, which also holds a copy of the miscaptioned photograph of Mr. Odger.

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