• Debbie Challis

The Rise and Fall of a Classicist

When I was in the Year 12 (then known as lower sixth), my school library had a few tatty books in boxes by the door. At that time, I occasionally trawled second-hand book fairs at weekends, once going from Bolton to Wigan to spend a (rare) sunny afternoon on the pier bemused by stalls of postcards, traditional clog makers and, of course, old books. I did not buy many, partly as I was reliant on money from being a waitress, partly as the adventure was in the going to a new place and hunting a book. I also stole books from pubs where they used them as decorations – a weird 1990s fashion. I picked out Victorian novels, histories and anything Greek or Roman.

two old books open at the title page. One says The Odyssey, the other Aeschylus' Tragedies in Ancient Greek.
Books rescued from school

Anyway, the boxes in the library at school caught my eye as they were full of Greek and Latin titles. I asked the librarian why I had not seen these before and she replied that they had been stored, but were now to be thrown away. Evidently it had been decreed by the powers above* that the classical world was better off dead. Certainly one of the RE teachers thought it was possibly deviant and a danger to young minds, which was a large part of its appeal to me. Scandalised, I asked if I could have them. The librarian was as surprised as I was scandalised, and said yes, if I really wanted. I fetched various friends and students who I thought would be interested and we divided the spoils between us.


These books – The Odyssey, Aeschylus and Pindar in Greek, the first 6 books of the Aeneid in Latin etc – have travelled with me from Bolton to various houses in Birmingham, London and are now on my shelves in Cheshire. My favourite is a very battered copy of the Iliad of Homer translated by the eighteenth-century Alexander Pope with illustrations by neoclassical artist John Flaxman and copious notes by a Theodore William Alois Buckley (possibly part of the Chandos Classics series). I read this Iliad soon after procuring it from school – it mixed English literature and classics for me perfectly. I returned to the illustrations by Flaxman as a postgraduate, then by chance read the notes for my PhD as they drew a great deal on a recent history of Greece by George Grote (published in volumes from 1846 to 1856).**

Title page for The Iliad of Homer

It was only this year when I unpacked my books onto newly built shelves – the first time all my books are in one place in one room – that I paid any attention to Theodore Buckley. Buckley’s introduction to Pope’s Iliad, which I had read for his take on Grote, belief in scientific progress and reference to various antiquities mentioning Homer, begins:


‘Scepticism is as much a result of knowledge, as knowledge is of scepticism.’


Buckley argues that knowledge means we must daily unlearn something as much embrace new ideas and rails against prejudices and superstitions, including of the Church. For the first time I wondered who this Rev. Theodore Alois Buckley really was.


Buckley (1825-1856) has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, written by James Mew and revised by M.C. Curthoys, which tells us that his mother was an accomplished musician and Buckley an excellent pianist. A protégé of George Burgess, a Greek scholar, Buckley frequently visited the British Museum Library and self-taught himself from the age of 12 – picking up Greek and Latin books at second-hand stalls! Friends clubbed together to pay for him to go to Christ Church Oxford as a servitor – a kind of menial student, which meant he learnt but could never get further on in academia. He was there too late to have crossed over with John Ruskin and Charles Thomas Newton, who was by that point a curator at the British Museum. (Although I want to imagine Newton was one of his friends who pulled strings for Christ Church). While at Oxford, Buckley published numerous translations of Greek and Latin works, then, after returning to London in 1853, wrote for various magazines, including Household Words.


Writing with two men in academic dress in the centre of the page.
Tufthunters and Toadies

Buckley became addicted to opium and alcohol and was described after his death as ‘never entirely drunk, but always three-parts gone’.*** He died of alcoholism on 30 January 1856. Six months later, a insurance company disputed a life insurance claim, made by Mr Pridmore (a friend of Buckley’s), as they claimed that the alcoholism of Buckley was well-known. The jury found in favour of Pridmore but the court case casts a light on the sad end of Buckley’s life, with publicans and chemists remembering him as affable but drinking small quantities of spirits from morning until night.


Christ Church was one of the most aristocratic of aristocratic colleges at Oxford University and clearly had an impact on Buckley. On the one hand he could publish translations as a scholar, on the other he could never get any higher. Buckley’s The Natural History of Tufthunters and Toadies (1848) is a convoluted satire on the upper-middle class and nouveau riche chasing after nobility or tuft-hunting. It is illustrated by H. G. Hine and makes numerous references to media of the day – Punch, the Morning Post etc. It reminded me of Anthony Trollope at his most socially vicious. For example, the lesser aristocratic Mr. De Vernon Plantagenet Jones goes to university where he learns to both ape and flatter the aristocratic ‘tufts’ and become a ‘tuft-hunter’. Learning anything does not actually matter at university. Antiquities and the British Museum get a mention with the supposed discovery of an inscription about tuft-hunting from the Greek period (image below). Socrates, Plato, Aristotle are all declared to be tuft-hunters – arguably they were! The penultimate paragraph has a sentence that could have been written this morning (if ‘peers’ were substituted for 'the rich'):

A Greek inscription saying 'To the Tufthunter' under text.

‘Politicians talk of equalization of rights, and public spirit, and then dine with peers, and sell them-selves, and their constituents.’


But it is not a story of our time. Jibes about the new Punch and observation of social customs position it very much in 1848, itself a year of revolution across Europe and Chartism in England. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn made 1848 mark the end of the Age of Revolution and begin the Age of Capital. Buckley’s Tuft-hunters and Toadies is as much a record of 1848 as Elizabeth Gaskell’s social novel on the industrial revolution Mary Barton is. Buckley, his writing, social class (and his reflections on it) and ambivalence about scholarship sum up much of my own interest in the past – modern and ancient. And so, here’s to remembering Buckley and my accidental acquisition of a battered Iliad.


* The powers above were, in my opinion at the time, mercenary puritans with no sense of beauty or social justice. In essence, the opposite of William Morris, one of my teenage idols.

** By recent, I mean recent in terms of my PhD which was looking at the material from the classical past procured, taken and pinched for the British Museum during the nineteenth century.

*** ‘Court of Exchequer before Mr Baron Martin. Indisputable Insurance Policies’, Exeter Flying Post, 26 June 1856, 8.

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