Charles Henry Cooper – the Father of Modern Cambridge

From the British Newspaper Archive, the death of Charles Henry Cooper in 1866 led to may tributes, including this one from Professor John Mayor of St John’s College, who was a Professor of Latin at Cambridge University.

The Town Clerk, Coroner, Local Historian and Antiquarian amongst other things, I describe Charles Henry Cooper as the Father of Modern Cambridge for his work in laying the foundations for the modernisation of our town. For it was him that called for the abolition of the hated Spinning House that enabled the Vice Chancellor to have townswomen locked up without trial, following the inquest into the death of Betsy Howe – where as Coronor he came very close to recording a verdict of unlawful killing by the Vice Chancellor.

He was also the man who got our first large civic assembly hall and concert hall built – one which still stands today at the back of the Guildhall, opened in 1862. Even then, his ambitions for our town were far greater than the hall that the councillors gave approval for.

Above – original design by Peck & Stephens Architects for C.H. Cooper in The Builder, 14 Jan 1860

This would have made for a splendid guildhall. With my own dream and vision of a new large concert hall for a 21st Century Cambridge, I hope any designers and architects take huge inspiration from the arches, columns, the detailing, and the twin towers to produce something as magnificent as this could have been for our town at the time.

Sadly it was not to be. Mr Cooper died a couple of years before his 60th Birthday. There is a bust of him on the Peas Hill entrance to the Guildhall (opposite St Edward’s) on the staircase. It really could do with either a label on it, or be put in a much more prominent place inside.

I’ve transcribed this tribute from the old Sun of London (not linked to the present print publication, which evolved out of a different newspaper) from the British Newspaper Archive.

“The following earnest and affectionate tribute to the memory of Mr. Cooper is from the hand of John E. B. Mayor, of St. John’s College, who writes thus of the departed scholar :

“Charles Henry Cooper, F.S.A., was born at Great Marlow, Bucks, 20th March, 1808, and died at Cambridge, 21st March, 1866. When our fellow-townsmen, of all parties, are lamenting the death of our town’s chief ornament, you will perhaps allow me, who for 13 years maintained an unbroken literary intercourse with him, to say word respecting the greatness of our loss.

“All who had the privilege of knowing Mr. Cooper have admired his intelligence, his ready memory, his rare familiarity with English history, topography, and biography, his wide range of reading, his large and statesman-like view of persons and events. No one could see that clear eye and open brow without feeling that he was in the presence of no common man. But his intellectual endowments were Mr. Cooper’s least merit.

“I have never known a man of letters more single-minded, modest, and unselfish; himself scrupulous even to excess in confessing the smallest obligation, always ready to communicate to others, he was indifferent whether his services were acknowledged or merely used; the best years of his life were devoted to investigating our academic history, though few of those for whom he toiled appreciated his work, and many ignorantly regarded him as an enemy; they might have learned that he loved to identify himself with the university, rejoicing when he could add a new name to our list of worthies; was because he clung with fond reverence to our “Sparta’ whose every stone spoke to him of struggles and sacrifices and noble memories, that he adorned it as no gowns man has done.

“The man who dwelt so continually amidst the wise and good of all ages could not fail to catch somewhat of their spirit; those who knew him best, knew that reverence for holy things was natural to him; cheerful and frank as conversation was, and without taint of cant, it never bordered on licentiousness or profanity.

“The clergy testify that his blameless life, not less than his direct support, the national church in the town. One of them remarked, but a few days before his death, “it was strange to see attentive he was in church;” for in deed, whatever he he did with all his heart.

“The patience which carried him through his studies guarded him from the worst incidents of public strife. Far too busy to nurse malice, he would, on quitting the courts or hustings, quietly resume his researches, as whose home lay above the atmosphere of faction His habitual temper was singularly even and serene, under whatever provocation or suffering; nor should it be forgotten that his great knowledge was acquired in of bodily infirmities, which made visits to his chose haunts, the university registry and library, a daily of penance.

“He might have taken for his motto Chaucer’s description of the scholar:— “And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach;” for he was far too genuine a student to fret under criticism, as I, to him in antiquarian studies but a tiro, day by day through long years. His judgments were formly gentle; patient and thorough in collecting and sifting evidence, he was judicial in the candour of his summing up. Compare his account of Cranmer with given by writers far less conversant with the facts, Hallam and Macaulay; I well remember his saying he began a strong prejudice against the archbishop, which melted away under the light of testimony.

“The void which Mr. Cooper has left behind cannot be filled. Cambridge never had, nor will have, a town clerk so entirely master of its archives, or more devoted to its interests; no town in England has three such records to boast as the:

The last two are unfinished, and who shall bend the bow of Ulysses? A prentice hand may bring more minute scholarship to the task; but the terseness, the fairness, the legal slant the steady industry, the quickness, the sure memory’, t'” commanding survey and firm grasp, of the master, rival? Compared with Wood, Baker, and Cole, he comes nearest to Baker. The prejudices so winning in Wood, the childish in Cole, warped Mr. Cooper’s judgment as little as that of the nonjuring ” Collegii Divi Johannnis socius ejectus :” most works of research published during the past 15 years have been largely indebted to Mr. Cooper, as Kennet, Strype, Hearne, and their compeers , owe half reputation to Baker.

The Gentleman’s Magazine, Notes and Queries, the London and Cambridge Antiquarian and other serials and institutions, have lost their most assiduous and valued contributor. Alma Mater has for who did her work, under great discouragement, better any of her sons could have done it.

“The university’ has lost its most constant student, to whom it owes many of its gifts, and countless suggestions for the improvement of its lost catalogues and the supply of its wants.

We have all lost perhaps the most perfect example of unflagging diligence which Cambridge has seen during this century. One need not be a prophet to foretell that 200 years hence. Mr Cooper’s works will be more often cited than any Cambridge books of our time.”


Below – via Mike Petty MBE, Charles Henry Cooper in 1858.

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