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Henry Hanby Hay

Epithet: Professor of Boyology (1848-1940)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

At the closing ceremony of each academic year at Girard College, Philadelphia, USA, the words of 'Farewell to Girard College' ring out:

We'll not forget you
Till our hearts be still.

and the assembly thus remembers the song's author and former staff member, the poet and scholar Henry Hanby Hay. Yet this man is all but forgotten on the Isle of Man, the place of both his birth and his death.

At the time of his birth, the Hay household at Springhill consisted of John Hay, gentleman farmer and his wife, Sarah, their three daughters, three sons, a Scottish governess, a housemaid and three farm workers. Henry probably received his early education from the governess but later attended the Crescent Academy, a day and boarding school, under the tutelage of Alex Steele.

At sixteen Henry left the Island to join a brother in the USA. He made meteoric progress, for by the age of 23 he was principal of Newcastle High School, Delaware, and superintendent of all Schools Systems. In 1876 he joined the staff of the prestigious Girard College, in charge of English studies where he remained for the next 40 years. There he began to write. In 1893 he published his first volume of poems, Created Gold, followed in 1896 by Trumpets and Shawms with a foreword by Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine and a dedication with all love to Manxland', including his mother - 'that dearest and truest of friends'. In 1895 he wrote a magazine article about Hall Caine, the Revd Thomas Edward Brown and High Bailiff Samuel Harris, entitled 'The Isle of Man and some Manxmen'.

Many years later in their obituaries, the 'Isle of Man Weekly Times' called Hay 'dogmatic, honest in criticism, generous in praise', 'The Manxman' 'sharp, shrewd and critical'. He had the gift of drawing around him cultured, thoughtful men. In Philadelphia he was the founder of 'The Club' - 'centre of cultural life in Philadelphia' - which had many notable academics as members.

In 1895 Henry married Sophia Boothe Rodney from a family which boasted three state Governors amongst its members. The following year he visited the Island to meet friends old and new, including T.E. Brown, and to find material for a further book of poems, With Friends and Fern in Sulby Glen.

Hay stayed at Girard College until 1916 when, at the age of 68, he somewhat reluctantly retired. One of his confreres compared him to the English Mr Chips, not only, one suspects, because he was beloved by his students, but because he could not loose the strings that bound him to Girard. His students respected, even adored, him. They sought his company, ran his errands, copied out his revised poems, and he rewarded them by turning a blind eye to minor misdemeanours. They affectionately dubbed him 'The Professor' and 'The Doctor' though he could lay claim to neither title by academic right. Yet to the end of his life, even in the Island, he was known as Professor Hanby Hay.

His colleagues appear to have been less enthusiastic. One entitled him 'Professor of Boyology' and stated that he had strong traits of character which made him peculiar and even eccentric.

After his wife died in 1923 Hay returned to the Island and made his home next door to Deemster Reginald Douglas Farrant in Albert Terrace, Douglas. He became a prominent member of the Manx cultural scene, particularly the World Manx Association. He had written several poetic tributes to T.E. Brown and at the 1930 Brown Centenary Festival in the Villa Marina recited his ode 'When Poetry Came to T.E. Brown. It was Hay who founded the [now defunct] T.E. Brown Fellowship.

Once settled in the Island, Hay's style of writing changed; he became a Shakespearean devotee and wrote long, dramatic poems and plays around historical figures. Some of these contain excellent passages like this description of Douglas Market in the nineteenth century from One by the Sea - a Boy:

'I see a bowbent bay - an old red pier
Set in a cold and restless sea.
Behind the pier a cluttered marketplace.
Hemming a stunted church:
and round the church
A dozen cart-wide elbow-bending lanes.

In 1934 Hay sent a copy of his long dramatic poem Leonardo, Lord of Expression, a fantasy of da Vinci's meeting with Mona Lisa, to Mussolini; an acknowledgement is pasted inside Hay's own copy. The prologue contains the lines 'Again thou'lt dominate the world; Bright Italy; Brave Italy'.

In November 1940, now 92 years old, Hay became ill. His physician, Dr Robert Marshall, seeing his old friend was near to death, took his hand and quoted from Hay's beloved Browning, 'Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be'. Hay completed the quotation, ending with 'Trust God, see all, nor be afraid'. He died with those words on his lips.

Biography written by Dollin Kelly.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.210-1.)

Culture Vannin


Nationality: Manx

Gender: Male

Date of birth: August 1848

Date of death: November 1940

Name Variant: Hay, Henry Hanby, Professor


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