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A Spiritual Dick Whittington

All good stories begin ‘once upon a time’ and what I am about to tell you is so fabulous (in its true sense) that it deserves no less.

Once upon a time, then, by the chalk streams of a tributary of the River Test in Hampshire, there was born a child called Anthony. He was the illegitimate son of Sarah Purver, and was christened at St Peter’s, St Mary Bourne on 28 December 1702, it being then the local custom to baptise all ‘base born’ children in the days around Christmas. No father is named in the register (or has ever been identified). Although the Purver family had been solid merchants or farmers in the area going back to at least Tudor times, this was a very unpropitious start in life. The baby Anthony was handed over to be brought up by an uncle, Thomas Purver, a farmer from the neighbouring village of Hurstbourne Tarrant. His mother Sarah was married off in 1711 to an Andover merchant, Christopher Treadgell.

Anthony attended the village school for a while, but obviously soon outgrew the local schoolmaster: when he was
…prevented by illness from attending school, he did not suffer the time to remain unimproved, but applied himself with such diligence and success to the study of arithmetic that upon his return to school he was able to explain the process of evolution to his master, whose attainment had not then been great.

A similar account of his childhood says that at the age of ten he ‘taught his master the doctrine of square and cubic roots’.

Although of course, ‘the process of evolution’ meant something else in the 1700s, he must have been a rather un-nerving pupil, and Anthony was soon sent to the Free School in the nearby town of Andover, where he lived with his mother and her husband until the age of 15, at which point he was apprenticed to a shoemaker back in Hurstbourne Tarrant. His task as an apprentice involved looking after the shoemaker’s sheep on the hills above the village. While he tended the sheep, Purver read Rusticos ad academicos by Samuel Fisher, the Quaker from Philadelphia who fulminated against existing translations of the Bible.

Purver decides to re-translate the Bible.
At this point, Anthony Purver decided that the language of the King James Bible was too difficult for ‘the common man’. The fabulous part of the story is what happened next. Having decided that he was called by God not just to simplify the English of the Authorised Version but to re-translate it from the original Hebrew, he was lucky that at that moment there passed through Hurstbourne Tarrant ‘a wandering Jew’ who, even more luckily, was able to stop wandering long enough to teach Purver Hebrew (at that time there were of course no published Hebrew-English dictionaries or grammars). During his apprenticeship to the shoemaker, he also learnt Aramaic, Syriac, Greek and Latin.

What is it about shoemakers?
Thomas Dekker’s play of 1599, ‘The Shoemaker’s Holiday’, tells the story of Simon Eyre, who by virtue of industry and good luck, rises to become lord mayor of London. Several writers have drawn attention to the number of non-fictional shoemakers who have also subsequently achieved eminence, often as preachers or teachers. Is this because a shoemaker works on his own at tasks which occupy the hands but not fully the brain? Professors Hobsbawm and Rudé point out that:

‘Village radicals – as often as not the shoemakers, whose literacy and intellectualism were proverbial – provided a link with the wider world and formulated ideas and programmes which the labourers sometimes made their own’

In an 1883 survey of successful men who had begun life as shoemakers, William Winks points out that they:

‘were generally referred to by men of their own social status for the settlement of disputed points in literature, science, politics or theology. Advocates of political, social or religious reform, local preachers, Methodist class-leaders and Sunday-school teachers, were drafted in larger numbers from the fraternity of shoemakers than from any other craft.’

Purver moves to London and becomes a Quaker
Unsurprisingly, Purver decided he was better suited to teaching than shoemaking, and so in 1722 opened a school at Hurstbourne Tarrant, which occupied him until he moved to London in 1725 or 1727, possibly in order to meet scholars of Hebrew, who could deepen his knowledge of the language. We know he met John Wesley at this time but, instead of becoming a Wesleyan, in 1727 joined the Society of Friends. He made the acquaintance of Dr. John Fothergill, the plant collector, philanthropist and Quaker, who later became a Fellow of the Royal Society, and so impressed him that he eventually gave Purver £1,000 for his translation of the bible, which in 1764 Fothergill published at his own expense.

Purver returned to teaching for ten years, this time in Andover on behalf of the Friends, and became an established member of the local Meeting. It was at this period that he began his translation of the bible. He then set off again as a travelling preacher, supporting himself as a private tutor. On 17th August 1738 he married Rachel Cotterall, although Purver was thirty four and she was thirty nine. She was a fellow Quaker whom he had met at Frenchay, near Bristol. The Cotterall sisters ran a school and as Rachel was – again luckily- a woman of ‘some property’, it may have been through her financial support that Purver was able to devote so much time to his bible translation. No doubt Dr Fothergill’s assistance was also of prime importance. He described Anthony Purver as

‘a man of great simplicity of manners, regular conduct and a moderate reserve; steadily attentive to truth, hating falsehood, and having an unconquerable aversion to vice’.

The Text of Purver’s Translation
It would be nice to be able to relate at this point that his translation was published to rave reviews, but unfortunately this was not the case. Contemporary critics were on the whole unimpressed by the literary style of Purver’s bible but all seem grudgingly to have agreed that he could not be faulted on its closeness to the original Hebrew text. Purver’s own explanation of his approach was:

Axiom I: A translation ought to be true to the original. Axiom II: A translation should be well or grammatically expressed, in the language it is made in. It is well known that those called the living languages do alter, especially ours, who are such a changeable People. Hence it is necessary that new Translations should be made from one Time or Century to another, accommodated to the present use of speaking or writing. Corollary: When a translation is well made, yet some Explanation and Defence of it may be necessary.


God created the Heaven and the Earth at the beginning. The Earth, however, was vacant and void, and Darkness overwhelmed the Deep, but the Spirit of God hovered atop of the water…Lastly God looked on all that he had made, and lo it was very good. It had then been Evening and was Morning.

Job, chapter 14

Man who is born of a Woman is of Short time and full of Disquiet. He comes forth, and is cut off, as a Flower; nay, flees away without remaining, like a shadow.

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; I do not want. He makes me lie down in Pastures of fresh grass: leads me by still waters. He restores my soul, guides me in the Roads of Righteousness, for his Name’s sake. Nay, though I go through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I fear no Ill, since thou art with me; whose Rod and Staff comfort me. Thou furnishest a Table for my presence before my Adversaries, makest my Head wet with oil, my cup is quite full. Certainly Goodness and Kindness will follow me all the Days of my life, and I shall rest in the House of the Lord a long time.

Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon there we sate as also wept, when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps on the willows within it…how shall we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign country. If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill.

Critical reception
A hundred years later Mary Leadbeter writes that:

Aldborough Wrightson…was provoked at Purver’s translation of the Bible. (No wonder. Whatever the claims of Purver’s translation to correctness, it is strangely deficient in the pathos and beauty of the authorised version.) ‘This’, said he, taking an old battered Bible in his hand, and looking with disdain on Purver’s two volumes in folio, ‘this book, which one would think scarce worth taking out of the gutter, is worth a dozen of that.

The poet Robert Southey, writing in 1812, says:

This book is curious for its Hebrew idioms. By adhering to these, Anthony has in some rare instances excelled the common version; but when he alters only for the sake of alteration, he makes miserable work.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge quibbles with Purver’s alteration of
‘I am that I am’ to ‘I am he who am’.

Winks damns Purver with faint praise:

‘in his own way, he completed the Herculean task single-handed; and if his translation was not of any general and practical utility, it none the less deserves mention as a monument of self-acquired learning and honourable industry.’

Crushing though some of these comments are, most writers would be thrilled that their work was still being reviewed nearly 120 years after publication.

Anthony Purver’s achievement, first in translating the bible and then in finding someone prepared to sponsor its publication and pay him £1,000 for the copyright, remains astonishing for someone born with the stigma of illegitimacy, in the depths of rural Hampshire, at the beginning of Queen Anne’s reign, into a family of minor merchants and farmers, where his upbringing was left to an uncle, who apprenticed him to a shoemaker.

He was buried in the Quaker burial ground in Andover. There is no headstone, no statue of him in Andover, or memorial to his name in St Mary Bourne or Hurstbourne Tarrant. There is no permanent trace of him left, except his descendants (some of whom still live in the valley). And, although the massive volumes of his translation never made it into paperback, it is still called ‘the Quaker Bible’.

1. This post is written as a story: I have ironed out some nuances for the sake of the narrative, but it remains true in essence. If you would like to see it as a proper academic document with supporting footnotes, it is based on an article called: ‘Anthony Purver 1702-1777: Andover’s Spiritual Dick Whittington’ which I wrote for the September 2009 edition of ‘Lookback at Andover’, the journal of the Andover History and Archaeology Society.
2. The illustrations are kindly provided by the library staff of the Friends House in London
3. Captain Swing by E J Hobsbawm and George Rudé, Lawrence and Wishart 1969
4. Lives of Illustrious Shoemakers; William Edward Winks, London, 1883

7 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...

This isn't really a rags to riches story, rather one of a rags to 'richer' story. It seems to me that Mr Purver has a fascination for language and detail and the depth of intelligence to use it in what he would consider to be an excellent course.

His choice of religion and the nature of Society of Friends meetings, quiet, listening for inspiration and than standing to speak, while others listen, must have suited his particular character, intellect and skills, both as a listener and translator.

What an awesome thing to do. To discard the establishment and its authorized version, to produce something which he saw as being true to its roots.

I had never heard of this story, so will be intrigued to find our more.

30 June 2011 18:30
Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you very much, UKViewer, both on my behalf and also on behalf of Anthony Purver – at last we have done him justice with a good review!

30 June 2011 19:54
Gurdur said...


01 July 2011 07:08
Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you, Gurdur. As I live in his village, I have always felt impelled to try and tell his story and revive his memory. He would be thrilled to be blogged and tweeted about!

01 July 2011 07:19
Joan of Quark said...

Very interesting story, very well told. I am always keen to find out more about these people who taught themselves ancient languages etc. I am trying to learn Hebrew at the moment and, even when you allow for the fact that it isn't going to be easy, it still isn't easy.

I've always thought there was a spiritual dimension to my shoe habit, though. Now about those violet ostrich leather stilettos…

01 July 2011 13:22
Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you Joan.
I must say, I find this the most puzzling part of the story. If you were a 'wandering Jew' in rural Hampshire in the early part of the 18th c, you were perhaps a pedlar earning your livelihood by selling from house to house. In which case you would need to keep wandering. Do you suppose that the uncle put him up (and paid him) while he taught our Anthony the rudiments of Hebrew?
I looked at your blog which I enjoyed (but hope you will perhaps write more when your training starts?) I am enjoying the thought of your turning up there on high days and holidays in violet ostrich leather stilettos….

02 July 2011 08:57

[…] well-established merchants. And in 1702, Joseph’s great great great great grandfather, Anthony Purver, had been born in St Mary Bourne. Although born illegitimate, and beginning his life as a shepherd […]

02 August 2014 11:46

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