By Mary Grover
Sheffield children owe a great deal to a woodcutter called John Eadon. He had five study sons who worked with him and each son might have spent the rest of his days being a ‘woodman of renown’ had not the men taken shelter from unusually heavy rain at an inn in the Ecclesfield area in the mid eighteenth century. This is how the story in the inn unfolded, according to Robert Leader, in his Reminiscences of old Sheffield, its streets and its people, edited by Robert Eadon Leader and printed in 1875:
Whilst drinking the “nut-brown ale” many were the topics of conversation. Some talked about themselves, others about their children – how clever Susan was, and what a sharp chap Tommy was; and as for Bill, the village schoolmaster had never had his like. Every man appeared to have a clever lad in some way or other; but old Ayton (Eden, now Eadon) heard all this with a sorrowful heart, and at length, breaking silence, he said, “See,'” pointing his finger, “there is a thickhead, that lad of mine is nineteen years of age and he does not know A from B.” This was enough. The shame of being exposed in public company, and by his father, too, raised the pride and kindled a spark in that young man’s breast which never went out till the spirit left his body. Whilst he sat in that room abashed amid his compeers, he determined that he would know not only A from B, but something more. He began next day, brought a penny primer, found out an old woman who knew the letters – these he soon mastered – made out little words, and soon he laid the foundation of all knowledge – the acquirement of the art of reading. He found someone to assist him in the art of arithmetic; and in this way his leisure time was spent, till he began to think he knew more than most people about him.
At this juncture the mastership of the Free Writing School became vacant. He offered himself and was elected, and held the post till his death. From the time of his publishing the ‘Arithmetician’s Guide,’ in 1756, to his death in 1810, would make his tutorship of that school fifty years, at least.
You can read more about the contribution of the Eadon family to schooling in our city if you download Reminiscences. The Arithmetician’s Guide mentioned by Leader, which you can see here, seems to have been a handbook to help teachers teach arithmetic. It contains all sorts of mnemonics and rhymes to help pupils remember arithmetical principles.
The Free Writing School was one of a number of schools founded and supported by grants from the Church Burgesses Trust, still very active today. The Trust was founded in the reign of Mary Tudor who was successfully petitioned by the citizens of Sheffield for the revenue of the Parish Church and other Church lands that had been confiscated by Edward VI following his father’s dissolution of the monasteries. Despite its name, the school aimed chiefly to train boys in mathematics and John Eadon was obviously devoted to this task and became a very well-read man. He also became grandfather to one of Sheffield’s most distinguished literary figures, Samuel Bailey, the poet, philosopher and radical liberal who was widely known as the ‘Bentham of Hallamshire’. So John Eadon’s father’s cruel jibe at the expense of his son not only produced a fine teacher, but also helped establish a dynasty which was vital to Sheffield cultural life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.