“Understanding yesterday, for the benefit of today and tomorrow”
Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-
Anna Laetitia Barbauld was born on 20th June 1743 at 'The Old House' in Kibworth Harcourt, the eldest child of John and Jane Aikin. She is remembered especially for her splendid literary works, prose and poetry, and was a pioneer in writing for children.
Today 'The Old House' stands on a quiet corner of Main Street and looks out over a scene which will have scarcely changed. It was built in 1678 by the Parker family but had changed ownership by the time John Aikin decided to rent it as a home for his family and also as a Dissenting School for the sons of mostly local Dissenting families. But it was far from quiet at that time in its history, for Main Street was part of the main road to Leicester and the north and, in the other direction, to Market Harborough and ultimately to London. In the eighteenth century the only means of transport involved either riding a horse, or travelling by stage, or private, coach. During the century, eight coaching inns were established in Harcourt and are still visible to this day, though most are now private houses. Riding represented the only means of making 'fast' communication between any part of the country, so the cobbled street would have resounded to the clip-
Anna Laetitia Barbauld
Drawing by Corral Sutherland
One of the first events that Anna Laetitia recalled was the alarm in the family at the news of the advance of the Young Pretender's (Bonnie Prince Charlie) army southwards along the road which would have brought them through Kibworth. Fortunately the news of his defeat at Derby ended their concerns.
Across the road from Old House were the village green and the village pump, still visible together with remains of the old village cross. Hogg Lane (now Albert Street), an extension of Main Street where it sweeps round in front of the Old House, led down the hill to where there was probably a ford across the lane and linked up with the old drovers' way from Melton Mowbray to Market Harborough. Most of villagers were employed on the land and in the care of the livestock. There would have been animal noise and smell all around.
Anna’s father, John Aikin, was born in London on 28th December 1713, and his father, another John, had moved south from Kirkcudbright and established a draper's shop in Blowbladder Street very soon after the rebuilding of the city following the Great Fire of London in 1666. He had married Anne Bentall, whose father was a wealthy citizen and a Dissenter. One of the difficulties that Dissenters faced was that the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge were closed to them. They sought to establish their own Dissenting Academies and so John Aikin was sent to the new Academy in Market Harborough founded by Philip Doddridge, and who, in his turn, had been a pupil of John Jennings' Dissenting Academy in Kibworth Harcourt.
The Jennings and Aikin families were soon to be closely connected by marriage, as John Aikin married one of the daughters of John Jennings, Jane. Jane's mother was the daughter of Anna Laetitia Wingate, after whom their first child was named. Laetitia means 'joy' but within the family she was known as Nancy. She was baptised when two weeks old by her uncle, John Jennings, Jane's brother, who was pastor of a Presbyterian congregation in St. Ives, a drive of 50 miles. Due to ill health, John Aikin had decided against pursuing his first profession as a clergyman and had opened the new Academy in the Old House.
Some four years later a son, John Aikin, was born on 15th January 1747. The sister and brother were devoted to each other, a devotion which was to remain for the remainder of their lives. The Academy thrived, and Anna was surrounded by the boys in their school uniform of gray wig, purple velvet cap with gold tassel, and plaid tunic. The frustrations of being raised in a predominantly male environment by a mother keen for Anna to display gentle manners were often reflected in the poetry and prose she was later to write
'The fair damsels of old, by their mothers were told, that maids should be seen and not heard; the reverse is my case, for you'll ne'er see my face, to my voice all my charms are transferr'd.'
She enjoyed imagining bad girls like 'The Misses' (Miss Chief, Miss Management and Miss Lay). She writes of Miss Chief perhaps in a childhood she would have wished to have had
'This young lady was brought up, until she was fourteen, in a large rambling mansion in the country, where she was allowed to romp all day with the servants and idle boys of the neighbourhood'.
At the age of seven an earthquake was felt in the village, on 30th September 1750 at twelve-
'Houses trembled, plates and glasses fell from their shelves, roof tiles slid down and crashed.'
One of her most delightful poems 'Washing-
However, the memorial of John and Maria Jennings, her paternal grandparents, is readable in the main aisle of St Wilfrid’s Church, the Latin inscription translated reads
'Here lie the mortal remains of the man who was Revd. John Jennings, who originated from the county of Shropshire, a graduate of Christ's College, Oxford formerly Rector of the church at Hartley Westpall in the county of Hampshire; who left this body on September 20, 1701 aged 66. Here also is buried Maria his wife, who died on February 6, 1721 aged 75. This disorderly dust does not deceive Christ.'
Anna had a much easier relationship with her father than her mother and he was persuaded by her to be taught Latin and some Greek, French and Italian and a knowledge of English Literature. This in an age when girls were not usually educated. However, her mother was later to write
'I once indeed knew a little girl who was eager to learn as her instructors could be to teach her, and who, at two years old, could read sentences and little stories in her wise book, roundly, without spelling; and in half a year more could read as well as most women; but I never knew such another, and I believe never shall.'
However, their life in Kibworth Harcourt was to come to an end when her father accepted a post at the newly established Academy in Warrington and in September 1758 the family moved to Warrington. Warrington was to become famous as a seat of learning and Anna Laetitia's life changed dramatically for
'A small group of men and women would meet together whose liberal humanism and breadth of learning were to give Warrington the name of ’Athens of the North’.'
But memories of Anna remained in Kibworth Harcourt for one of her admirers, a wealthy Kibworth farmer, travelled to Warrington to request her father's consent to marry her. Anna’s niece, Lucy, recalled
'My grandfather answered that his daughter was then walking in the garden, and he might go and ask her himself. With what grace the farmer pleaded his cause I know not; but at length out of all patience at his unwelcome importunities, she ran nimbly up a tree, which grew by the garden wall, and let herself down into the lane beyond leaving her suitor.'
He returned home to Kibworth distressed and died many years later a bachelor. Although he was not known for acquiring books
'The works of Mrs. Barbauld, splendidly bound, adorned his parlour to the end of his days.'
Many years later a middle aged John Aikin sent his sister a letter relating a visit to Kibworth when staying some forty miles from the village
'This morning I came to Harborough to breakfast, and thence, with beating heart, rode the five miles to Kibworth ... I found that I had no acquaintance living at Kibworth; so mounting again I made a slow circuit quite through the town, which I found vastly lessened in my eyes; yet, our old house still makes a respectable figure. It is inhabited by the widow Humphreys. The casement windows and balcony remain as before. I made a complete tour of the churchyard and recognised many familiar names among the tombs, but was disappointed in not meeting with that of our grandfather. Had he a monument? There are several become illegible through a coating of moss. Such has been my visit to my native village. I am not sorry I made it, though I scarcely know where to call the impression on the whole agreeable or otherwise.'
So ends the involvement of the village of Kibworth Harcourt with Anna Laetitia and her brother John Aikin.
At the age of 30 Anna married Rochemont Barbauld the grandson of a French Huguenot. The marriage took place in May 1774 and the couple moved to Palgrave on the Norfolk/Suffolk border where they established a school which became famous for the care and teaching which the young boys received. There were many problems within the marriage as Rochemont had inherited a mental disorder and although the marriage was childless they did adopt Charles, a son of her brother John and his wife Martha.
John having qualified as a physician moved to Great Yarmouth with this family so that the brother and sister were able to continue to support each other. In due course Anna and Rochemont gave up the school at Palgrave and moved to London where she was very much part of the literary scene. Life became difficult for her brother as a Dissenter in Yarmouth and he moved to London and eventually both families lived near to each other in Stoke Newington. John became famous in his own right as a physician, botanist and author.
John died in 1819, but Anna outlived most of her contemporaries and died on 9th March 1825.
For more details on the life and literary works of Anna, see Pat Thomas’ book ‘Kibworth’s Gifted Poet -
Pat Thomas & Corral Sutherland.