A Barnstaple Boy: William Frederick Rock.

Black and white etching of Christ Hospital School in London.

Christ’s Hospital (Bluecoat) School (1804) © MBND.

1. Known as Barnstaple’s biggest benefactor, William Rock came from a humble background. The son of a shoemaker in the High Street, a visiting friend luckily recognized William’s early intellect and helped him secure a place at Christ’s Hospital School, London.

A young William Rock looking sideways dressed in a ruff and jacket.

William Frederick Rock, unknown artist. © MBND.

2. William was an avid reader and writer of poetry throughout his life. Although mostly written for family and friends his poetry was regularly published. His love of poetic humour however resulted in resignation from his first job after a customer complained about his ‘clever verses’.

Portrait of Henry Rock, William's father.

Henry Rock (William’s father) by J.J. Foster (1843) © MBND.

3. Partnering with Thomas De La Rue, Rock helped invent a technique to reproduce fashionable Tuscan straw bonnets out of cheaper waterproof coloured paper. Subsequently he created the prosperous ‘Wholesale Fancy Stationers’ with his brother Henry, securing his fortune.

Portrait of Mrs Prudence Payne smiling, dressed in blue gown with white ruff collar.

Mrs Prudence Payne, sister of William Rock. © MBND.

4. The oldest of five children. William was a loving and responsible brother, Rock sent for his family, once he had secured his fortunes in London. His brother’s Henry and Richard became business partners whilst his sister’s Prudence and Ann ran an ornamental stationer’s shop in Greenwich.

View of the River Taw looking towards the Long Bridge in Barnstaple, featuring boatmen and walkers along the shore.

Barnstaple and the River Taw by Joseph Kennedy (1867). © MBND.

5. A devoted Christian and philanthropist William always held a great affection for Barnstaple. In 1845 he helped establish the Literacy and Scientific Institution. Furnishing the library with 600 books, Rock ensured 100 free memberships were provided every year to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Specimen of the mineral Wavellite, grey rock with yellow radiating crystals on surface.

Wavellite mineral from original Athenaeum collections © MBND.

6. Following the Institute’s success in 1888 Rock transferred the original collections to the building the museum occupies today, creating the ‘North Devon Athenaeum’. William gifted £12,000, a huge sum of money at the time, ensuring the Athenaeum remained for 100 years before moving to Barnstaple Library.

Portrait of Mayor John Roberts Chanter in black suit and long grey beard.

John Roberts Chanter, mayor and honorary secretary of the Literacy and Scientific Institute (1845-1861). © MBND.

7. Rock’s contribution to Barnstaple wasn’t just in education. Working with Mayor John Chanter he secured land along Taw Vale and opened Rock Park to the public in 1879. Originally the park included a mound known as “Rock’s Mount” formed from the remains of a lime kiln. This was replaced with a bandstand. Later additions included tennis courts, swimming baths, a boating lake and golf course.

View towards Barnstaple over looking the River Taw and the Long Bridge. St Peters church, Pilton and sailing ships are visible.

Barnstaple from Sticklepath, artist unknown. © MBND.

8. Rock was an outspoken activist who helped fund fellow reformers. He wrote open letters to the papers in London, Kent and North Devon attacking injustice and championing the poor.  One such incident involved a cholera epidemic in Barnstaple, where a year later, authorities had done nothing to improve conditions. Writing an open letter to the papers, Rock’s statement ‘Let the Rich Pay’ was circulated widely throughout North Devon.

Tall blue pitcher commentating William Rock

Commemorative pitcher produced by North Devon Civic Society. © MBND.

9. Many academics and creatives that shaped North Devon were inspired or mentored by Rock himself. Notable students include William Lethaby, Charles Brannam and Edward Capern, the Postman Poet. Admired by his peers William forever remained modest. He objected over Rock Park being named after him and left strict instructions that his name only be mentioned once at the annual Athenaeum founder’s day.

William Rock painted in his later years with long white beard and black gown.

William Frederick Rock (1802-1890) by John Edgar Williams. © MBND.

10. William Frederick Rock died on February 9th 1890 at the age of 88. His friend John Roberts Chanter, visited Rock just days before his death, reporting that he could not speak, but tried to do so; Chanter thought, however, that he could make out one word… “Barnstaple“.

Written and edited by Adam Murray

Receive news about exhibitions, events and family workshops.