The dissenting scholar of Higham Hill

Portrait of Eliezer Cogan (credit The Trustees of the British Museum)
Portrait of Eliezer Cogan (credit The Trustees of the British Museum)

Researcher James Thomas takes a look at a little-known but highly influential figure from the borough’s past

Waltham Forest is rightly proud of its emphasis on education and the borough’s diversity of religious beliefs and languages. Readers may be interested, therefore, in the historical figure of Unitarian schoolmaster and classical scholar Eliezer Cogan (1762-1855) whose period of residence in Walthamstow from 1802 until his death encompassed all three aspects.

The product of a dissenting Protestant upbringing in Daventry, Northamptonshire, Eliezer was the son of surgeon John Cogan and had, by late 1801, established himself as a private schoolteacher in Higham Hill. Here he rented premises at Essex Hall (previously Higham Hall), from which august residence he imparted classes in Latin, Greek and theology to the sons of prominent non-conformists, until his retirement in 1828.

Prior to this Eliezer, an infant phenomenon in Latin grammar, had studied and taught at Thomas Belsham’s liberal Unitarian Academy in Daventry and, from 1787, been minister to the ancient Presbyterian congregation in Cirencester. Married in 1790, he spent the subsequent decade at Ware, Enfield and Cheshunt (where he preached at a chapel in Crossbrook Street). During this period he taught classics and divinity, publishing a series of works that included Reflections on the Evidences of Christianity (1796) and Christianity and Atheism Compared (1800).

The basic tenets of Unitarianism consisted in denial of the Holy Trinity at the core of Roman Catholicism, but also separation from the established Church of England, particularly the ‘high’ wing represented in the mid-19th Century by the Oxford Movement – an influence on William Morris.

Inspired by the pedagogical example of rational theologian Joseph Priestley (another graduate of the Daventry academy), Eliezer published An Address to the Dissenters on Classical Literature (1789), where he argued in favour of non-conformists studying the classics, despite being theoretically excluded, with Catholics, from Oxford and Cambridge until 1828.

The Walthamstow congregation which Eliezer ministered from January 1801 (alternating with Cheshunt for a year) had its chapel or ‘Old Meeting’ in Marsh Street. Forms of Presbyterian worship here dated back to around 1672, though numbers of non-conformists increased markedly during the ministry of Hugh Farmer (1737-1780). The subsequent tenure of Unitarian Joseph Fawcett (1780-1787) aroused controversy, with Evangelicals establishing their own meeting elsewhere. Eliezer’s liberal Unitarianism, including his views on teaching classical literature, was probably a key factor in his appointment.

Eliezer combined teaching at Essex Hall with his ministry at Marsh Street from 1801 until December 1816, after which he focused solely on private education. His congregation held him in high regard, one member whose daughter had died remarking: “To your instructions from the pulpit and at home, I attribute a great proportion of the happiness I derive from the children who are still left me.”

Eliezer’s Christianity was imbued with a liberal utilitarianism – he opposed flogging and slavery – at odds with the rigid Calvinism that Charles Dickens would satirise in Bleak House and Little Dorrit. A selection of his Walthamstow discourses, the two-volume Sermons Chiefly on Practical Subjects, appeared in 1817.

Eliezer’s legacy, however, is primarily built on his teaching and the subsequent fame of certain pupils. Perhaps the most prestigious was Tory prime minister and novelist Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), a student at Higham Hill from 1817 to 1820. Biographers suggest his father met Eliezer in a bookshop and was impressed by his liberal approach to modern education.

Disraeli, who had converted from Judaism to Anglicanism in July 1817, remembered Eliezer as “a Greek scholar of eminence.” M.L. Clarke’s Greek Studies in England, 1700-1830 has Eliezer being unduly quick to judge character through grammatical exactitude: “I don’t like Disraeli… I could never get him to understand the subjunctive.”

Nonetheless, the subjunctive, as most linguists know, is important. One pupil who learned it well was Bible translator and Egyptologist Samuel Sharpe (1799-1881), nephew of poet Samuel Rogers. Samuel boarded at Essex Hall from 1807 until 1814 and would remember leaving school “just as I was beginning to feel my lessons a pleasure”.

Despite the pleasure of learning with Eliezer, one anecdote involving the great classical scholar Richard Porson (1759-1808) serves a salutary reminder to the pitfalls facing professional linguists. Introduced as “one passionately fond of Greek”, the author of Letters to Travis (1790) remarked: “Mr Cogan must be content to dine on bread and cheese for the rest of his life.”

While many translators will relate to this sentiment, the dissenting scholar of Higham Hill managed nonetheless to amass a small fortune. He saw out his days walking, reading and expanding his copious knowledge of Greek. An inspiration to all those in the borough who wish to engage in quiet contemplation of the subjunctive!