Barrister and benefactor who helped educate thousands

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: There are many lost tombs and graves at Croydon Minster, where the records reveal fascinating insights into the people buried there, as DAVID MORGAN has discovered

‘Wealth got by law, the Gospel taught to spend’: John Pynsent remembered at the school he founded in Devon

The tomb of Archbishop Whitgift and the framed remains of the memorial to Archbishop Grindall are visible reminders today to visitors to Croydon Minster of historical benefactors who realised the importance of education. They both left legacies to schools. Grindall’s support was for St Bees in his native Cumbria, while we are most familiar with the Whitfgift foundation schools in our own borough.

Were it not for the fire that destroyed most of Croydon Parish Church in 1867, we would have had a third memorial to an educational benefactor. Instead, the flames and searing heat destroyed this tomb with the name on it being subsequently forgotten by the local community. Yet the tale of John Pynsent is no less worth the re-telling, reminding us all that we neglect the education of own young people at our peril.

Like Grindall and Whitgift before him, Pynsent nurtured a link between education and the church. He wanted the person appointed to run his Free School to be “a schoolmaster of good name, manners and teaching and conformable to the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church of England”. It was the middle of the 17th Century, a time of Civil War after centuries of religious strife. Clearly, defining a person’s doctrinal outlook and approach to church discipline was a matter of some importance.

School’s out: the house which Pynsent’s endowment paid for, now available for holiday-makers as a B&B

Thanks to the Minster archives, we know exactly what was written on the black marble memorial for John Pynsent on the north wall of our church, although we have no illustrative sketch. The epitaph informed us that he died on August 28 1668, aged 61.

He was a barrister who worked in the Inns of Court in London and was described on his memorial as being “one of the Prothonotaries of His Majesties Court of Common-Pleas”, a protonotary being a court’s chief clerk, Pynsent’s court dealing mainly in property claims.

No other factual information can be obtained from this epitaph, the remainder of the wording being a eulogy to a kind and generous Christian gentleman.

Pynsent lived in the “manor house at Combe”. He was clearly very wealthy, as this was one of a number of properties that he owned, including a town house in Bartlett Court, off Fetter Lane in Holborn, a property in Oxfordshire and another in Carlton Curlieu in Leicestershire.

Free grammar: advertisements for the school, like this from around 1860, appeared throughout its 250-year history

John Pynsent was born in Chudleigh in Devon on May 16 1607, the second son of John and Joan Pynsent. Nothing is known of John’s early life until we find he was married in 1625 to Mary Clifford. John and Mary Pynsent had three daughters: Grissell, Elizabeth and Anne. His eldest daughter, Grissell, married John St Barbe, of Broadlands, Romsey in Kent in 1645. They had four sons, two of whom died young.

John Pynsent took on the guardianship of John and Edward, his surviving grandsons, after their parents both died of the “sweating sickness” in 1658. Grissell is buried together with her husband in Romsey Abbey.

The first mention of John setting up his free school in his home village of Chudleigh, near Newton Abbot, was in 1666. The plaque outside the old grammar school building recorded the starting date as 1668, so it took a two-year planning, preparation and recruitment period to realise the fulfilment of his dream.

It was also the year when John died, and so it was from his will that “30 pounds per year for ever” would be used to finance the running of the school. This £30 was to go to pay the salary of the headteacher of the Free Grammar School of Chudleigh.

Wanting to establish the school so that it would provide free education for the children of the parish, Pynsent had negotiated with Lord Clifford and other leading parishioners to acquire “part of the sporting place adjacent to the church yard amounting to one acre”. The ground was walled off for a garden, an orchard and a playground. The school was duly built to accommodate 20 boys, together with the schoolmaster’s accommodation.

The house still stands today, in Fore Street near the parish church, and now called “Old House”. The present owners run it as a bed and breakfast for holiday-makers.

The death of Pynsent caused further delays in opening the school. The Trustees were slow in administering Pynsent’s wishes that were laid out in his will. As a result, the house was not completed until the early 1680’s and the charity not formally established until 1682. Despite this stuttering start, the school functioned in various forms until it was finally closed down in July 1913.

There are some interesting snippets recorded in the annals of the school.

Bequest: the terms of Pynsent’s generous will was recorded in this local directory

An advertisement from the 1770s shows that the terms for board and schooling were to be 20 guineas per annum, plus 3 guineas entrance fee. The advertisement also reflected the attitude of the time: “Security and separation from the Town, and surrounded by proper Fences, within which the Boys are always confin’d”, suggests that it had become an elite establishment, not quite what its founder intended.

The same ad stated that the curriculum included the classics, some English literature, arithmetic, French, drawing, and dancing. It further stated that the maximum number of boys at the school was 25.

In October 1822, the Rev Cuming, the then schoolmaster, had built up the numbers to 10 local boys and 22 boarders. For this, he had had to build additional space. His good practice must have been continued as White’s Directory of Devon, dated 1850, stated that the headmaster was Rev Moyle and that the school was held in high regard.

There is a tenderly worded memorial to Rev Moyle in the local parish church which was erected after his death in 1861.

By 1872, the school had fallen on tough times. It was inspected by the Charity Commission and was found to be inefficient with a recommendation to close. Some local people, though, fought to keep the school going. In 1877 the Pynsent Exhibition Foundation was formed and in May of that year the alumni were asked for donations to repair and upgrade the buildings. In September 1877, the school fully reopened under Rev Crofton Green.

Teacher’s new home: Mackay got to buy the building for £700 after the school closed in 1912

By 1912, the school roll was again low, down to 12 pupils, and the decision to close made for the following year. The building was sold to a Mr Mackay for £700. Mackay was the school’s Senior Master and it was sold to him below the market price as a reward for teaching many years on a meagre salary. After his death, his widow continued to live there until 1925.

The young people of Croydon were remembered in Pynsent’s will, too, as there was £100 “for apprenticing 20 poor children from Croydon and Chudleigh”. His widow and brother were among those having the responsibility of nominating 10 children from each place.

Pynsent was a man who recognised that the education of young people is vital for the future. He invested in them, in the belief that it was his Christian duty to help youngsters get the best possible start in life.

As you can read in his epitaph, he was “the Church’s and the poor man’s friend”:

“The meanest part of him is only told
In this inscription, as this Tomb doth hold
His worser part, and both these easily may
In length of time consume, and wear away;
His virtue, doth more lasting honours give,
Virtue, and virtuous souls for ever live;
Thus doth embalm our dead beyond the art
Proud Egypt used of old; his head and heart
Prudence and piety enriched, his hand
Justice and Charity did still command;
He was the Church’s and the poor man’s friend;
Wealth got by law, the Gospel taught to spend.
From hence he learnt that what is sent before
Of our estates, doth make us rich far more
Then what we leave, and therefore did he send
Great portions weekly; thus did he command
His faith by works; in heaven did treasure lay;
Which to possess his soul is called away.
Here only is preserved his precious dust
Until the resurrection of the just.”

Previously by David Morgan:

Become a Patron!

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
This entry was posted in Charity, Church and religions, Croydon Minster, David Morgan, History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply