John Charles Buckmaster

Local historian Ken Howe looks back at the life of a noted Teddington worthy…

A couple of months back, I gave a talk on one of my favourite Victorians, John Charles Buckmaster, who was awarded a portrait and a case clock as a reward for his public service. Yet not many people are familiar him, although anyone using Teddington Library will have seen the foundation stone listing his name. So, I thought I’d revisit my past articles to give you a flavour of who he was.

John Charles Buckmaster (JCB) was born to a farming family in Slapton, Buckinghamshire in 1819. His mother died when he was very young and he was eventually – and unfortunately – sent to live with a sadistic uncle in Uxbridge at the age of seven. (His only respite from a cruel upbringing was at the local British and Foreign Society Elementary School and Sunday School, where it is reputed he stayed from 11am to 8pm). Aged 13, he was apprenticed to a local carpenter; after a failed attempt to run away, he eventually broke free in 1837, having sent all of his tools ahead and walking 50 miles to Andover.

A move to Tiverton in Devon the following year saw him heavily involved with the local Anti-Corn Law Movement. This was a bad time for the national economy and JCB grew to be a formidable public speaker and political activist. Taking the advice of Lord Morpeth, who said  the Government would next have to tackle the ‘Education Question’, JCB joined St John’s College, Battersea, as a trainee teacher in 1844. The College offered a difficult course, being only 18 months rather than the usual 3 years (working hours were 5.30am to 9.30pm daily). He also assisted at the Norwood School for Pauper Children, an experience which instilled in him a strong sense of public duty.

On qualifying, JCB took up a post at Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight between 1845-47. Here he was highly critical of the management and by chance had the opportunity to show it. On a day when popular reformers Charles Dickens and Hepworth Dixon came to visit, JCB was the only one of the staff present to escort them around the buildings. He was able to give vent to his opinions as to where the regime was going wrong and his listeners were only too pleased to jot it down. This was later in national print and JCB was sacked for his trouble. 

There are a few blanks at this point, which are difficult to fill, so let us skip forward a few years to 1854, by which time he was married to Emily Anne Goodliffe. 

Britain’s recent Great Exhibition had raised the nation’s awareness of the new era of science, and suddenly JCB found himself advising Sir Robert Peel on how science should be taught. During this period, he took up a post at the School of Mines and Science and also worked at Wandsworth Trade School and Poplar Trade and Navigation School, both under the control of the Department of Science and Art. 

His work came to the attention of HRH Prince Albert, on whose recommendation JCB was appointed Keeper of the Animal and Food Collection at South Kensington. To assist his teaching, he started to produce text books on various aspects of science, the first of which – The Elements of Inorganic Chemistry – was published in 1858. The following year he was given the all-embracing title of ‘Organising Master of Science and Art Schools and Classes’ at the Department of Science and Art.

By 1869 JCB was travelling the country to promote the new sciences; he had an easy way of addressing his audiences, a store of racy anecdotes to enliven the factual content of his lectures and most importantly, a natural inspirational power. 

In 1871 he was persuaded to undertake the delivery of a series of food and cookery lectures. According to family legend, he rushed home to see his wife and tell her that she had to teach him all the arts of the kitchen in the next few weeks. The family claimed that whilst the voice in these lectures was that of John, the words and acts were those of his wife Emily. 

These lectures were a great success and caught the attention of the society of the day. It was even said that to attend one such lecture was far more entertaining than attending many of the West End plays. One of the particular attractions was that JCB managed to persuade many famous chefs from the top clubs and hotels to demonstrate their signature dishes. Out of these lectures grew The National Training School of Cookery, and the whole concept of ‘Domestic Science.’ A batch of new cookery schools opened in the capital and later across the country. 

The success of his early text book prompted his publishers to look to JCB to create others: The Elements of Acoustics, Light and Heat, The Elements of Magnetism and Electricity and Buckmaster’s Domestic Economy and Cookery continued to be in use until WW1.

In 1890 he came to live in ‘Ashleigh’ a three-storey detached house (now part of 252 Kingston Road) in South Teddington. He had barely settled in when his beloved wife Emily died and was buried in Teddington Cemetery.

It would be quite normal for any man to sit back and enjoy his retirement after such a full life, but not JCB. He became a Justice of the Peace on the Spelthorne Branch in 1893 and in 1894 he was elected as a Councillor to Teddington Urban District Council.

His first notable act was to persuade the UDC to acquire Craig Hall in Clarence Road. This was a redundant Baptist Chapel and once purchased, was converted into a Court House and was in regular use for hearings. Apart from Craig Hall, JCB was known to attend all local Police Stations to hear minor cases and administer justice.

He was against the Jubilee Drinking Fountain, calling it ugly and saying that if it was the best design (out of a competition to design the most memorable drinking fountain to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee) then he would dread to see the worst! 

He refused to pay the Library Rate, stating that the £70 collected was being misused on the cost of newspapers and the Chairman’s rent. At the same time, he had been in correspondence with Andrew Carnegie for a grant to open a Free Library. This was finally done in 1904 at a cost of nearly £5,000. 

In 1908 whilst attending a fete in aid of the Kingston Guild of Cripples, he felt a chill, left early and went home. He did not leave his bed for over two weeks and passed away peacefully from heart failure. The end of a most remarkable life. 

Read the full story in Ken Howe’s Collection of Local History Articles (ISBN 978-1-5272-7235-4); price 12.99 availailable at Teddington Waterstones, The Loft and Landmark Arts Centre shop.

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