Richard Valpy was born the eldest son of Richard Valpy and Catherine Chevalier. After attending St Mannelier he was sent to schools in Valognes, Normandy, and Southampton and Winchester Grammar Schools, and completed his education at Pembroke College, Oxford.
He had intended to join the Royal Navy, but was dissuaded by his mother. In 1777 he took orders. After holding a mastership at Bury, in 1781 he became headmaster of Reading Grammar School, a post which he held for 50 years. From 1787 he held also the rectory of Stradishall, Suffolk. During the early part of his long headmastership the school flourished greatly. At least 120 boys attended it.
He was the author of Greek and Latin grammars which enjoyed a large circulation. His Greek Delectus and Latin Delectus were long familiar to public school boys. He is said to have been a mighty flogger, and to have refused two bishoprics. In 1800 he was requested by his old pupils to sit for a full-length portrait and thirty years later, on the occasion of his jubilee, he was presented with a service of plate. Mary Mitford has spoke of him as vainer than a peacock.
The school was declining before Valpy's long reign closed. His successor was his son, Francis Valpy, appointed in 1830. Richard Valpy died in London. A statue was erected in St Lawrence Parish Church to commemorate him.
He was the father of printer and publisher Abraham John Valpy and of New Zealand pioneer William Henry Valpy.
'From The Graphic, 21 January 1922. Written by an un-named Valpy descendant
The name of Valpy is rare, even in its native Jersey, but during a whole century it was the best-known of all names to English public school boys, for it stared them in the face every time they opened a classical textbook, and for that reason the patronymic was anathema maranatha to them all.
In the year of Waterloo Dr Richard Valpy published his Greek Delectus, and it proved such a Waterloo to so many boys that they took it out of his namesake, the present writer. Yet that was rather unjust, for as headmaster of Reading School – for nearly 50 years – Richard Valpy was one of the founders of the public school system, and actually the first man in this country to teach Latin in English, while a hundred years of school boys had benefited either by his methods and those of his younger brother Edward, who was headmaster of Norwich Grammar School, or by the textbooks beautifully printed and published by his eldest sonh, Abraham John.
In teaching Latin Richard Valpy was really returning to his mother tongue, for he traced back to an Italian family named Vulpi, which settled at Lucca. Some of them had migrated to Normandy after the return of the Normans from Italy under Roger I, in the 11th century, and about 1500 they found their way to the Island of Jersey where Richard was born in 1754, and where the name is still pronounced as if spelt Volpi. Although the name is the Italian form of Fox, Richard in his role of schoolmaster was the hunter, not the hunted, and Vulpes haud capitur laqueo is the legend on the family coat of arms.
He got his first schooling in what was once his native Normandy, and reached Oxford via Southampton and Guildford Grammar Schools, at the latter of which he produced a volume of Poetical Blossoms in 1772. Taking his BA at Pembroke College in 17765, and holy orders in 1777, he started his career as schoolmaster at Bury St Edmunds, moving in 1781 to Reading, where he spent the rest of his life teaching boys for 50 long laborious years up to five years of his death in 1836.
When he began the school was at low ebb, though it had produced Laud; but Valpy soon made it famous, and he quickly became the most important citizen in the town, so wrapped up in his work that he twice refused a bishopric. His devotion to duty was rewarded by the making of a whole race of notable men.
Valpy was a strict disciplinarian to himself – hence his enormous activities – and to his pupils, one of whom, Mr B B Bockett, writing as 'Oliver Oddfellow', pictured him in Our School (1857), with the aid of Cruikshank, as the 'Rev Duodecimus Wackerback'. On the other hand, Talforurd, his favourite pupil, in the preface to a long-forgotten play, Ion (1836), declares that his kindness of disposition was the ‘secret but active law of his moral being; his system of education was framed to enkindle and quicken the best affections, emulation itself being subservient to the generous friendships which it promoted’.
His activities in Reading included a chaplaincy of Yeomanry, Cruikshank and Bockett presenting him deliciously in full field day canonicals. As a preacher he was eloquent. He is recalled daily in the new School Chapel at Reading, where the boys in their Bidding Prayer thank the Giver of all good gifts for the ‘pious and charitable memory of Richard Valpy, sometime headmaster of this school’.
His brother Edward, who was born after him and died before him (in 1832) became headmaster of Norwich Grammar School in 1810, with only four or five pupils: within two or three years he got nearly 300. He wrote a school book Elegantiae Latinae, and he, too, was a strict disciplinarian. One of his pupils tells us that “no meeting of the Society of Friends equalled in stillness the school when he was there”.
Yet, with all his strictness, “he won the esteem and recerence of his boys”, excdept George Borrow, an incorrigible subverter of discipline, who ran away from school and never forgave the master for birching him for it.
But Edward Valpy turned out some good men, who made their name throughout the Empire, like Archdale Wilson, of Delhi; Rajah Brooke of Sarawak; Vincent Eyre, the founder of Esapore; and Charles Stoddart, of Bokhara. The last of his pupils were Henry Reeve, editor of the Edinburgh Review, and Dr Martineau, who died in 1900.
The family tradition for scholarship was carried on by Richard Valpy’s second son, Abraham John, a scholar of Pembroke, who started young in London with the idea of rivalling Aldus and Stephanus, as printer, publisher and editor. Gathering round him a fine staff of classical scholars, he produced from his press between the years 1807-1837, a regular library of classical books – which he advertised in the very first number of the Sunday Times – including some by his father, his uncle and his brother Francis. His edition of Shakespeare is still popular, and his printing office stands, the fine old pre-Fire of London house in Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. A printing office to this day, full of books and documents which belonged to Valpy.
Abraham’s youngest brother, Francis Edward Jackson, inherited the father’s eloquence and scholarship, and succeeded him as headmaster at Reading, but lacking the old man’s masterfulness, he soon retired to a Norfolk rectory. I remember him in his very tall beaver hat, the chimney pot, with curl in neither crown nor brim, and his swallow-tail coat with shiny buttons for everyday wear.
Of his son, the Rev Antony Valpy, Rector of Stanford Dingley, Berks (the advowson in herited from Dr Richard Valpy), my earliest recollection is seeing him on the top of a ladder in the chnurch, with a hammer, tapping the Puritan whitewash off the early 13th century freswcoes, including one of St Christopher holding the infant Christ in the earliest known representation of that beautiful legend. Unfortunately the rubble wall of the nave was crumbling, and an imminent danger to the whole structure, so that it was impossible to preserve this fresco. Like most of his kinsmen, he was a profound scholar.
The instinct for scholarship and schoolmastering which was in the Valpys, has come down to the present day, for one of the great Richard’s great-grandsons, John Herbert Julius, who was senior optime in 1891, and a half blue, is the headmaster of the Royal Grammar School at Henley on Thames. His brother George Cordy Valpy, who was in the first division of the ClassII Classical Tripos of 1899, is in the Civil Service, and now on special duty on Christmas Island. Their cousin, who took a first in theology in 1888, has followed in the wake of Abraham as a publisher and printer, after a long period of tr45avel and exploration in many out-of-the-way parts of the world.