By A H Beadles

Head of History, Harrow School, Headmaster of King’s School, Bruton 1985-1992, Headmaster of Epsom College 1992-2000

History can throw up the most astonishing connections.  I hope today to entertain you with some unusual links of an ancient and royal school in a textile town in Somerset, Bruton, with the history of Australia - connections which would, I am sure, have delighted that remarkable founder of the first colony in Australia, Admiral Arthur Phillip.

If he had been able today to visit Canberra, he would surely, in his modest way, have been pleased with the developments – the evidence of a firmly based democratic constitution and of the rule of law enshrined in the impressive new Parliament Buildings; and he would have stopped for quite a time to view one particular exhibit, the 1297 Inspeximus Magna Carta sold in 1952 by King’s School, Bruton for £12,500to the Australian government.  He would have immediately recognised the relevance of such a document to his colony and the future Australia.

In 1787, Lord Sydney, the then Home Secretary, appointed Captain Arthur Phillip as Governor of the projected penal colony in New South Wales.  He was given eleven ships and managed to bring over 1,000 people – 772 convicts and 230 marines, civil officers and their wives and children – to Botany Bay to start a new colony.

Let me start my patchwork of historical links by telling you of the remarkable case of two of those convicts.   Henry Kable was convicted for burglary at the Norfolk Assizes in 1783 at the age of 17.  His father and an accomplice were hanged, but Henry was reprieved and sentenced to transportation, partly on account of his youth and partly because the system could not execute everyone convicted of theft.  In Norwich Castle Jail, a makeshift affair like many 18th century jails, he met 19 year-old Susannah Holmes, also convicted of theft, but also saved by the judge from execution and sentenced to be sent to plantations in America.  In 1786, Susannah gave birth to a son; and Henry Kable was the father.  In 1787, Henry was ordered to join Phillip’s fleet, and, as there were insufficient women prisoners, Susannah’s fate was changed and she was sent to join an old ship at Plymouth, one of the eleven ships to go to Australia.  However, the captain of this hulk at Plymouth refused to accept the accompanying breast–fed baby, as he had no authority to do so.  The prison turnkey, a Mr Simpson, who had ferried Susannah to the hulk, amazingly took matters into his own hand and took the infant to London to confront no less than Lord Sydney himself.  Undeterred by unwelcoming servants, he managed to see Lord Sydney and persuade him that mother and child be united.  Simpson then went to Norwich, collected Henry and delivered all to Plymouth.  This 600-mile mercy dash attracted the attention of the press, not only in Norwich, but also in London; and this story of the humane turnkey fascinated Elizabeth Sloane, Lady Cadogan.  She raised a public subscription to buy a parcel of goods for this family.  £20 was gathered, twice the annual salary of a labourer.  After eight months, the family of three all landed in Sydney Harbour, chosen by Arthur Phillip and named after Lord Sydney.  Henry and Susannah married shortly after, and Henry, who had proved himself on the voyage, was given responsibility for Governor Phillip’s garden.  However, the parcel of goods, given to a Captain of another ship, had never reached Henry and Susannah.  On 1st July, 1788, a writ was issued from the new court of Civil Jurisdiction in New South Wales, naming the ship’s captain as defendant. The captain maintained that the Kables had no rights in law as they were felons, but when challenged, he could not prove this as all the documents about the convicts had been left in England.   The court found in favour of the Kables.  This was the first civil case in Australia and occurred at the behest of two convicts under sentence, and named an important figure in the colony, a ship’s captain, and then vindicated the property rights of the convicts.

I should add that Henry Kable later became a successful businessman in shipping and other areas, and a Constable of Police and later Chief Constable, although some years later he fell out with Governor Bligh.  Henry and Susannah had ten more children.

I trawled the court proceedings of this case to find an appeal to Magna Carta in order to link my historical chain; but found none.  However, I am sure that, if not uttered, it would have been in the mind of the Kables and of the court.  For what we have here is the first proof of the glue that was to pull together this extraordinary and difficult colony.  Unsurprisingly, given the makeup of a convict population and an officer and marine element, conflict was regular in those early years, especially between what became known as Emancipists and Elitists. All could have fallen apart many times, but the determination that a rule of law should exist was to be crucial.  It was not an appeal to the widest Rights of Man of Tom Paine and American Radicals or of the ideas of the French Revolution, but it did have its roots in the culture and enlightenment of late 18th century Britain.  Lord Sydney, once much maligned, must be given credit not just for selecting Phillip, but also for insisting that a legal structure was put in place.  Arthur Phillip, of course, in his five years worked along such principles.  His punishments, as 18th century law and order required, could still be harsh, but he tirelessly supported the legal system and, despite problems, it stalwartly outlasted his departure.  Whatever the conflicts in this disparate society, those in control, and indeed all sections of society, knew that this had to happen. 

Thus the letters to colonial newspapers in New South Wales are studded with references to Magna Carta, to Habeas Corpus, the Bill of Rights, the Act of Settlement – to their birthright from Britain as laid down in Blackstone’s Commentaries of 1765 and part of the natural debate in Britain in the period of Arthur Phillip’s youth and career.  Phillip, educated in London, must have been aware of all the claims and counter claims of the Wilkes affair; he would have known how often the American Colonists, when complaining, started with Magna Carta.  For Arthur Phillip, Magna Carta would have been an element of his cultural and political inheritance, for that document revived in the early 17th century by Parliamentarians like Sir Edward Coke, less heralded in the early 18th century, became part of the political language from 1765 onwards when John Wilkes launched the radical process by his extravagant publicity and regularly proclaimed Magna Carta.

Thus Arthur Phillip would have been fascinated to know that a 1297 copy of that charter lay in the Parliament of Australia and that a special Magna Carta Place had been constructed to celebrate that Charter’s 700 years.  The 1297 copy, one of four existing of that year, is particularly appropriate.  The 1215 Charter – of which we have four copies – was annulled rapidly by King John; and the 1216, 1217 and 1225 Charters were issued as a promise that the new regime of a young king would not repeat arbitrary royal authority.  In 1297, Edward I, a great imperialist facing suddenly some dire threats, reissued the Charter and put it for the first time officially in the royal statutes.  It was issued with an accompanying Forest Charter to all 42 counties.  The Canberra copy is to the county of Surrey, having Comm Surr Exam written across the Charter’s foot either side of the green and pink silk cords.

Back we go to the historical links.  This Charter was found by Tom Tremlett, the Head of History at King’s School from 1931 to 1948, and a good antiquarian, in the manuscripts, 185 of them, belonging to the school that were being kept by the school lawyers and the school land agents in Bruton.  Tremlett had been particularly interested in the fine Charter for King’s School issued by Edward VI in 1550.  The school had originally been founded in 1519 by Richard Fitzjames, Bishop of London, his nephew, John, Chief Justice of England, and John Edmunds, Chancellor of St Paul’s, granting lands to the Augustinian Abbey in Bruton in return for a site and payment of a schoolmaster.  When that abbey was dissolved in 1534, the school went into abeyance until Edward VI refounded it in 1550.  Tom Tremlett compiled, and had published, a small booklet of all these manuscripts, and included the 1297 Magna Carta, having first taken the Charter to the Public Record Office for verification.  He appears to have avoided publicizing it widely, and is always said to have kept it under his bed during the war.  The Governors of King’s School, therefore, seem to have known little about it until it appeared in an exhibition in the school for the 400th anniversary of the re-foundation in 1950, two years after Tom Tremlett left to teach at RMA Sandhurst.
How it came to be in the school archives remains a mystery, although some very recent evidence may suggest that it might have moved from one box to another in some solicitor’s office.  Its companion piece, the 1297 Forest Charter to Surrey written in the same hand appeared in 2007, having been all along with the British Museum, but not properly catalogued or recognised as an authentic copy.  This Forest Charter came to the British Museum in 1905, with a batch of other documents, from a legal family in Somerset named Louch, living only 20 miles from Bruton.  If the British Museum had catalogued this Forest Charter correctly, they might have been able in 1952 to claim the 1297 Bruton Magna Carta as its companion piece and that document might never have come to Canberra.  It is obviously possible that the Louch family may have had Magna Carta as well and it jumped boxes in a solicitor’s office, but it is not certain for, so far, we can find no link at all between the Louch family and the school solicitors.  We may never be able to prove what happened beyond doubt, although the historical chase still goes on.

Whatever, the Governors of King’s School took this Magna Carta to the British Museum in 1951 and then to Sotheby’s to be valued.  The British Museum desperately wanted to buy, but only at a small price, and, in a bitter and personal row, attempted to stop any export license.   The Chairman of the Governors of King’s School, Lord Blackford, had many influential contacts, and he had approached the Australian High Commission.  The Lord Mayor in 1951, Sir Leslie Boyce, was an Australian; and no doubt Sir Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia, would have heard about it all and would have wanted to assure the sale.  Lord Salisbury and Rab Butler of the new Conservative Government became involved, and pushed the Australian case.  Pressure thus came from several sides, an export license was granted, and the sale eventually went through, perhaps by a fortuitous but wonderful set of circumstances.  Lord Blackford must be added to those circumstances. It was realized, late in the day, that it could be sold, definitely for a higher price, to the USA, but Blackford said that he had given his word, and refused to break it.  I thought that this was just another story until I recently found an article from the Sydney Morning Herald of 25 August 1952 welcoming the new document and saying that it had been bought despite the attempts of the National Library in Washington; and I have also recently found a letter in the school archives confirming that it could have been sold to the USA.  All things work out, of course, as in 1970 the Brudenell family from Northamptonshire found another 1297 copy and sold it in 1983 to Ross Perot for $1 million.  In 2007, he sold it by auction at Sotheby’s to the National Library in Washington for $22.1 million.  This Charter and the Canberra Charter are the only two of the seventeen existing copies of Magna Carta issued before 1300 to be outside England.  (By the way, one of the other two copies of the 1297 Charter, Lord Mayor, as you would know, is in the possession of the Corporation of London.)

Thus a small, but very special, school in Somerset is inextricably linked with Canberra.  At present, we are trying to revive some interest at the school and two copies of the Canberra Magna Carta have kindly been sent by the Parliament Art Collection in Australia for us to make an effective display, tell the story and encourage an educational awareness of its importance in the development of our liberties by incorporating it in the curriculum and by lectures at both the senior school and at our preparatory school, Hazlegrove House, which was purchased through the sale of Magna Carta.
History being so wonderfully intertwined, I can even add two further connections.  King’s School was responsible for educating two of your famous sons.  It is almost certain that William Dampier was a pupil there in the 17th century – Dampier, ‘a man of exquisite mind’, pirate, explorer, hydrographer, naturalist, thrice a circumnavigator of the world, the first Englishman to lead an expedition to Australia and the first European to set foot on the mainland of Australia - in 1688 in Western Australia, one hundred years before Phillip landed in New South Wales.  And we have recently realized that the man who in 1850 took the first convict settlers to Perth to join the other settlers there, Sir Edmund Henderson, was also educated at King’s School, Bruton alongside some distinguished Victorians in a strong period of the school’s history.  Henderson is a fitting follower to Arthur Phillip.  When Western Australia became a penal colony in 1850, Henderson was appointed the colony's first Comptroller-General of Convicts.  He found the colony completely unprepared for convicts, lacking even a jail large enough to house them. He secured lodging for them, and then began construction of the Convict Establishment, later known as Fremantle Prison. He has been described as  ‘a kindly and just man, moderate and understanding, opposed to the harsher forms of discipline.’ He thought that flogging as a punishment did more harm than good, and might be abolished except in rare cases, and that putting men in chains was useless and aggravating.  He insisted on a clear system of law in the colony.   He found chaos, in the words of one, and he left organization.    He returned to England in 1858, and was later the 2nd Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
So our patchwork of history is woven. Whenever any of you see the Magna Carta in Canberra, you should have in mind to remember the wondrous story of Henry and Susannah Kable and the establishment of the principles of British law in the early colony; you should think of Arthur Phillip’s stalwart, skilful, determined and intelligent leadership of that colony based on the rule of law as he understood it, a rule of law that became the glue of that colony; and you should think of a special, ancient and royal school in a lovely town in Somerset that has the most remarkable connections with Australia – producing one of that continent’s first discoverers and educating a great leader of early Western Australia – and, most extraordinary, the source, by a strange and fortuitous set of circumstances, of the 1297 Magna Carta now in Canberra,  recently described as ‘the most evocative and totemic of memorials to the origins of Australian as of English constitutional history.’* The great Arthur Phillip, a Somerset man in his later years, would have smiled wryly at the ironies of this story.

*Professor N Vincent – The Magna Carta