Woodborough’s Heritage

Woodborough, a Sherwood Forest Village, recorded in Domesday

Mansfield Parkyns (1823-1894) “A life of sunshine”

Harry Mansfield Isham Parkyns was born at Ruddington in February 1823, as great-grandson of Sir Thomas Parkyns (1662-1741), the “Wrestling Baronet of Bunny”. The Parkyns family was notable for unconventionality, shrewd intelligence, physical strength and open-hand benevolence, all qualities inherited by Mansfield in very generous measure.

His mother was Charlotte Smith of Edwalton, whose heritage was also deeply rooted in the history of the county, for she was the grand-daughter of Abel Smith, founder of the Nottingham Bank that eventually became NatWest. Mansfield, like his Smith ancestors, was a good mathematician, but he preferred spending money to banking it.

Mansfield Parkyns revelled in his country childhood, cherishing a profound love of Nottinghamshire all his life. A friendly and inquisitive boy, he mixed readily with the village people, sympathising with the Ruddington framework knitters during the troubled 1830’s and learning all he could about the local environment from game-keepers and poachers alike!

Mansfield’s elder brother Tom, heir to the baronetcy, went to Eton, but Mansfield was sent to Uppingham School in Rutland, where education standards were then rather low, and where, bored and high-spirited, he was often punished – deservedly, he admitted cheerfully “Everything was fair in the open air”, Mansfield said of his boyhood. “I led a life of sunshine in rural Nottinghamshire”.

As a teenager Mansfield was locally famous as a “formidable boxer”, exceptionally good at shooting and “single-sticks”, a kind of fencing with wooden poles at which his hero, Lord Byron, also excelled. Mansfield was also a knowledgeable ornithologist, a skilled taxidermist, a talented artist and linguist; he was warm-hearted, good-tempered, and ready to make his mark in life.

In 1839, Mansfield went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read mathematics, possibly with an eye to a career in Smith’s Bank, but he left college in his first year after an incident described by a friend as “an unfortunate row”. One of Mansfield’s daughters later said her father had painted and dressed up some statues in the Trinity quad, and the humourless Master of Trinity, Christopher Wordsworth (the poet’s younger brother) had taken a dim view. Energetic and adventurous Mansfield accepted his fate philosophically, and decided to travel abroad before settling on a career.

Mansfield Parkyns turned out to have a gift for travelling and for writing about his experiences: he was a born communicator and an excellent listener, at ease with everyone he met. Never the archetypal “Victorian Englishman Abroad”, he could blend into any community. Lord Byron (whom Parkyns revered, he told a friend, “Because he was a Nottinghamshire man”), Mansfield wandered through Europe and the Middle East, but it was Africa “the Dark Continent”, then nine-tenths unexplored, which chiefly fascinated him. He planned to trek clear across Africa, and his travel journals formed the basis of Life in Abyssinia, the book which John Murray, Byron’s publisher later persuaded him to write.

In Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), Parkyns travelled light, without a European companion, learning to speak to local people in their own languages, which he could pick up with great facility: From the day I left Suez (March 25th, 1843) till about the same time in the year 1849, I never wore any article of European dress, nor indeed slept on a bed of any sort – not even a mattress.

He ate sparingly, avoided standing water for fear of malaria, and used a mosquito net at night. When he arrived in a village, he would squat patiently under a tree until someone invited him in, and would often repay his hosts with his healing skills. The tall Englishman was very competent at practical medicine and treating injuries, and would happily pass on his knowledge, believing firmly in the power of education as a civilising force. His view, far ahead off his time, was that European experts should be sent to Africa to teach crafts and trades and to open non-sectarian schools, not to be missionaries. He was no “big-game hunter”, preferring to observe and sketch wildlife, though he taught his servants to preserve specimens which were sent back to England to be stuffed.

In 1845, Parkyns sailed down to Blue Nile to Khartoum, where he acquired a mud house and a servant called Gabre Mariam who remained with him for life, later retiring to Ruddington and living at “Abyssinia cottage”, opposite the church. In Khartoum, the explorer Sir Francis Galton sought out Parkyns in his hut and found “the most magnificent physique of a man I have ever seen, looking quite wild” with shaven head, wearing a shirt kilt of antelope hide and a wildcat skin over his shoulder. Parkyns, quite at ease, introduced Galton to “all the life in Khartoum”, mixing with “the greatest scoundrels” as happily as he had befriended Ruddington poachers as a child. Galton’s admiration is clear: Of the many travellers whom I have known, I should place Mansfield Parkyns as perhaps the most gifted with natural advantages for that career. He won hearts by his sympathy, and could touch any amount of pitch without being himself defiled.

Because of civil wars, Parkyns abandoned his plans to cross Africa and in 1849 returned to London, where his skill with languages secured him a post in the Embassy in Constantinople, but he grew homesick for Nottinghamshire and returned to Ruddington to live with his brother Tom whilst working on his book on Abyssinia. When it was published in 1853 Life in Abyssinia was mauled by some reviewers who denounced Parkyns for “living like a savage” and being “an amateur barbarian”, but it sold well and readers enjoyed the author’s engaging humour, candour and practicality.

Parkyns began to put down roots in Nottinghamshire, buying Woodborough Hall and its estate, becoming a dedicated farmer, respected enough to be invited to judge for the Royal Horticultural Society. “I am one of those people who strives to do well that I take in hand,” he said and so he was all his life, but the dreams of returning to Africa and discovering the source of the Nile began to fade. He fell in love with the beautiful Emma Louise Bethell, daughter of wealthy lawyer Sir Richard Bethell, later to become Lord Chancellor, who allowed the marriage only on condition that Mansfield promised not to go back to Africa. Practical romantic that he was, Mansfield quickly agreed, married Emma Louise in 1854, and settled down to farming at Woodborough.

Almost immediately, anxieties about war in Crimea began and Parkyns joined the local “Volunteers”, mustered for home defence, distinguished himself as an organiser and was quickly promoted, eventually becoming Lieutenant-Colonel commanding the 8th Sherwood Foresters, the original militia battalion of the famous regiment. In 1855, a son was born, but sadly he died in infancy; eight daughters followed and Mansfield, a devoted father, revelled in family life, though expenses mounted. His father-in-law secured him a lucrative post as an official of the Bankruptcy Court, and on his own merits Parkyns rose to become Comptroller of the Court in due course. This meant he had to work in London, which he disliked, insisting that his daughters should enjoy a Nottinghamshire country childhood as he had done, thought because he missed his family they took turns to stay with him in town. “In all capitals I feel out of my element, losing at once my health and my spirits”, he complained.

Emma Louise died in 1877, to Mansfield Parkyns’ lasting grief, for he was deeply in love with her. One by one his daughters married, and in 1884 he was glad to retire from the Bankruptcy Court to a quiet life in Woodborough, where the locals thought of him as “Abyssinia Parkyns”. He was famously charitable, supplying hot soup or cough mixtures on demand to the needy, and he regularly visited local invalids, bringing them gifts and reading to them.

Always a talented artist, Mansfield Parkyns took up wood-carving in his retirement, and true to his nature, excelled at it, carving the beautiful choir stalls and tower screen in Woodborough church, as a memorial to his wife. A week after the carvings were dedicated he died on January 19th, 1894. In Nottinghamshire as in Africa, Mansfield Parkyns who could be happy anywhere but who had an abiding love of his home, left behind what the Arabs call “a sweet name”.


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