Hatherleigh's Handy man
To paraphrase Wilde 'to lose one hand is unfortunate, to lose both is carelessness' - yet this is exactly what happened to one Thomas Roberts who, though handless, lead a full active life as schoolmaster of Hatherleigh for nearly 50 years.
Born at Tor Point, Cornwall in 1771 he had for his godfather Lord Graves then in charge of Plymouth Dock who, when Thomas was only 4 days old entered him in the Royal Navy as a midshipman! This wasn't as bizarre as it seems as promotion then depended on length of service and clearly if one's 'service' began as a baby you had a great advantage over later entrants.
Thomas joined Graves on his ship the 98 gun London in 1780 and was soon in action during the War of American Independence. During one engagement young Thomas was about to throw a grenade when it exploded destroying both of his hands and wounding him in 17 places. Treatment at that date consisted of cauterising stumps of limbs in boiling tar - an experience Thomas survived.
The ship's carpenter rigged up a wooden hand which held a pen and Thomas learnt to write again becoming the Captain's clerk.
In 1788 Thomas left the Navy and spent some time carving himself an improved set of 'hands' as well as broadening his reading. This stood him in good stead when, aged 21, Sir James Hamlyn of Clovelly hired him as tutor to his children.
Whilst there Thomas both surveyed and laid out what we know today as Hobby Drive using skills picked up at sea. Thomas stayed in Clovelly for about 8 years becoming locally famous as the handless teacher'. His fame spread to Hatherleigh where there was then no school. John Pearse, a prominent wool merchant, decided to remedy this and rode over to Clovelly to invite Thomas to become master at his new school. Thomas agreed and in 1797 came to Hatherleigh where the old vestry room over the gateway leading into the churchyard had been set up as a schoolroom. He didn't come alone as on the 24th of August 1797 he married Mary Ann Brent at Clovelly.
The couple went on to produce ten children of whom seven reached maturity.
Thomas realised very quickly that he and his wife couldn't live on his teacher's wages and he began advertising for boarders. His fame must have been fairly great, as within a few years there was 'generally an average of eighty boarders beside day scholars.' They were taught 'Mathematics, Latin, Writing, Arithmetic, Drawing etc.' The old vestry room soon proved insufficient and Thomas purchased an old building in the centre of Hatherleigh at the junction of South, High and Higher Streets, razed it and built a new school on the site. As something of a novelty playing fields were provided whilst swimming was available in two pools in the River Lew not too far away.
Where Thomas got the money from to do this is a mystery although Lord Graves might have advanced it to him. Wherever it came from the investment was well made and Thomas ran the school until 1845 - nearly 50 years of service. It is recorded that 'During this period he educated upwards of eighteen hundred youths, boarders in his house.' It was also noted that 'amongst this large number of boys and during this extended period of time, not a boy died at the school' which reads rather oddly today.
In intervals between teaching Thomas continued an active life turning out many ship models, produced chess sets on a lathe and even carved himself a whole series of different 'hands' suitable for different jobs. He was an 'enthusiastic sportsman' shooting over Hatherleigh Moor and a keen fisherman who somehow tied his own flies. He also at various times filled the office of Overseer of the Poor, Churchwarden, Surveyor of the Highways and Portreeve (equivalent of a Mayor) of the town.
His wife died in December 1845 aged 72 and Thomas decided to retire. He lived another three years dying in December 1848 and was buried next to his wife in Hatherleigh churchyard. His memory was kept alive by three things; a local pond he built to sail his model boats on and teach his pupils navigation known as 'Roberts' Pond', a gallery in the North aisle of Hatherleigh church which he erected at his own expense in 1814 and the 1800 or so pupils he had taught. Perhaps the best lesson he ever gave, however, was the one he gave to everyone - that a seemingly crippling disability could be overcome if one tried hard enough.