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North Devon in 100 Objects: 5. A Portrait of a Young Man

A portrait of William Frederick Rock, wearing a white neck tie and dark jacket.

This portrait depicts William Frederick Rock, Barnstaple’s greatest benefactor.  We usually think of him as an old man with a flowing beard, but this portrait shows him in his youth.

William was born in 1802 to Henry and Prudence Rock. Henry Rock was a highly respected shoemaker and a Freeman of the Borough.  In 1812 William Busk, MP for Barnstaple nominated William to a place at Christ’s Hospital’s Blue Coat School in London.

From William Rock’s youth, one incident stands out.  One day a boy was pulled out of the River Taw. The boy was taken to the Exeter Inn in Litchdon Street, where the doctor suggested a healthy young person should get into the same bed to try and restore heat to the body. Rock immediately volunteered, but to no avail, the boy could not be revived. The father of the boy was so struck with young Rock’s pluck that he recommended him for a job in Mr Leys’ Bank, Bideford.

The young Rock was ambitious as well as compassionate. He was soon on his way to London, first setting up in business with Thomas de la Rue and later establishing his own successful printing company.  Throughout his life he campaigned, and paid for improvements to the lives of people in his home town, including for improved drains, creating Rock Park and setting up the Literary and Scientific Institution, later the North Devon Athenaeum and the forerunner of this museum.  On his death the town went into mourning.

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