Alfred Rooker [Obituary]

Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1875, Vol VII, pp. 59-62.

Prepared by Michael Steer

A portrait of Alfred Rooker by an unknown artist is displayed in Tavistock Town Hall.  A digital copy of the portrait by ART UK can be accessed at: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/alfred-rooker-18141875-96066   The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

Alfred Rooker was born in April, 1814, at Tavistock, His family was of Dutch origin, the immediate ancestor being one of the followers of William of Orange, who landed with him in Torbay in 1685, and settled in England, The name was originally spelt Rucker. Mr. Rooker himself, though in the truest sense of the word a self-educated man, had the advantage in his early years not only of the training of his father, an Independent minister, but of the teaching of the Rev. Wm. Evans, then minister of the Abbey Chapel, Tavistock, a scholar of no mean repute, and one of the foremost of the literary and scientific men of that town. Religion and Nonconformity were with Mr. Rooker traditional inheritances. But in the quiet country town of Tavistock, surrounded by the solemn grandeur of Dartmoor, he caught something more than a tradition of religious life, Nature endowed him richly with the instinct of veneration, and we can well understand how the peacefulness of the minister's home, and the awe-inspiring solitudes of those silent hills and far-reaching moors, trained and strengthened this faculty. Physical and mental advantages equally great accrued from this early training. A robust and vigorous constitution, and an active, well-balanced mind, were the priceless endowments added. Choosing the profession of a solicitor, his mental capacity and unflagging industry soon brought him to the front rank of the lawyers of the town of Plymouth, where he settled.

It is a noteworthy fact, as indicating the manner in which Mr. Rooker's high qualities were appreciated in the town of his adoption, that he was made a member of the Corporation without passing through the ordeal of popular election, being chosen Alderman at once, and never sitting for any ward. There was not a single work which had for its object the advancement of the town with which he was not connected; there was not a social, religious, or philanthropic movement calculated for this end which he had not made his own. He was honoured, esteemed, and loved by all in the town. The best energies of his life were devoted to such institutions as the South Devon Hospital, and to the work of education, not only at Sherwell Schools (of which he was superintendent) and the Western College (of which he was secretary for many years), but also on the School Board, at the meetings of which he was an unfailing attendant. He was assiduous in the discharge of his duties as Alderman, and for many years was leader of the political party in the borough to which he was attached. On the vacancy caused by the elevation of Sir Robert Collier to the office of one of our Judges of Appeal, at the last general election he was a candidate for parliamentary honours as one of the representatives of Plymouth, but failed to secure a majority of the votes of the electors. It is a forcible illustration of his character, that even the exciting scenes and the keen disappointment of the day when Plymouth rejected his claims to parliamentary honours did not prevent his occupying his accustomed place at the weekly service at his chapel in the evening.
Possessed of unusual mental gifts, Mr. Rooker cultivated them with the same unwearying industry which marked his whole conduct. It was a matter of astonishment to those who knew the multiplicity of the claims on his leisure, how he contrived to keep fairly abreast of the intellectual culture of his times. He became a member of the Plymouth Institution in July, 1837, and rarely failed from that time forth to deliver one or two lectures a session. In 1842 he was a Vice President; in 1852 he was elected President of the Society, an office which he filled on one or two other occasions; and at the time of his death he was one of the trustees. His first lecture at the Athenaeum was delivered in December, 1837, on "International Law;" and the subjects of his subsequent lectures, which indicate a wide range of sound reading, and much original thought, are : 1839, "International Law," second; 1840, "Ancient Forensic Oratory," two; 1842, "The Prose Writings of Milton," and "Judicial Proceedings among the Anglo-Saxons;" 1843, "Milton's Minor Poetry," and "The British Association at Cork;" 1844, "Lunacy: its Legal Incidents," two; 1845, "Bise of the Italian Eepublics;" 1846, "The Decline of European Literature, and its Bevival in the Middle Ages;" 1847, "On the Philosophical Fictions of Sir Thomas More, Bacon, and Swift;" 1848, "Civilization in the Reign of Elizabeth;" 1849, "Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons;" 1851, "The Koran and its Sequences;" 1852, "The Poetry of the Old Testament Scriptures;" 1854, "Magna Charta and its Results," and "Landmarks of the Constitution;" 1855, "English Liberties: their Founders;" 1856, "Introductory Address," and "Thomas Fuller;" 1857, "India;" 1859, "English Parliaments: their Origin and History;" 1861, "Enigmas of History," and "Rise of the Italian Republics;" 1862, "Lord Macaulay's Speeches;" 1863, "Slavery in the United States: a History;" 1865, "Federal Governments;" 1866, "Ancient Books;" 1867, "Andrew Marvell;" 1868, "The Pyrenees;" 1869 “Bases of History;" 1870, "The Canadian Year-book;" 1871, "Literature from the Eighth to the Twelfth Centuries;" and 1873, "Sanitary Legislation."  His last lecture at the Athenaeum was on the local histories. Local history was a subject to which he had paid considerable attention, and he had on various occasions examined the local records on behalf of Mr. Hepworth Dixon and other well-known writers on historical subjects. Probably most of these lectures- as by the rules of the Society they must be read- remain in MS. This would not be so with many of the lectures delivered by Mr. Rooker at the Mechanics' Institute and kindred places, which were chiefly extemporaneous. His latest were descriptions of his travels, and were exceedingly popular. Mr. Rooker wrote several articles in magazines, &c; but it does not appear that he published anything separately, except "The Literature and Literary Men of Plymouth," 1845; a lecture "On the Ejectment of the Two Thousand Ministers in 1662," and one delivered at the outbreak of the American Civil War, entitled, "Slavery in America: Does it Answer?" He was one of the original members of this Association, having been present at the preliminary meeting when the Association was formed, and he attended several of its earliest meetings. 

Mr. Rooker's fame as a speaker extended throughout and &r beyond the West of England. His speeches were remarkable not merely for their solid basis, their richly ornate and picturesque style, with its fecundity of illustration and felicity of epithet; but for their flowing force, and the grace with which they were delivered. Fulness of thought made the construction occasionally involved, but the silvery tones and perfect intonation of the speaker rendered them to the hearer always clear. Mr. Rooker was a born orator, and had the skill to use his natural gifts to the best advantage. Some of his most striking speeches live only in memory, or are but imperfectly recognised. He was rarely more forcible, for example, than when he justified his conduct in leaving his Liberal friends At the election of 1853, and in' supporting the present Lord Selborne, because in his conscience he held character above party. 

His last year was his most brilliant one. A chief magistrate, standing side by side with the heir to the British throne, with a culture, a courtesy, a thorough acquaintance with all that society demanded, he did on that day, when that building, the new Guildhall, the erection of which he had at heart so long, was finished, that which would for ever be an honour to him and the town. 

He had long desired to visit the land where the Great Master trod. When his year of office was past he prepared to go, and on the 3rd of December last, accompanied by his : wife and two daughters, he quitted the shores of England. After visiting numerous places in Egypt and Palestine of historical interest, on the 22nd' of May, while journeying between Damascus and Baalbek, and near the latter town, he began to display symptoms of Syrian fever. The disease rapidly developed at Baalbek. Great sympathy was manifested, and on Mr. Rooker expressing anxiety to push on to Beyrout, eight men bore him on their shoulders in a litter through the day to a point where the horse-diligence to Beyrout was met. At that town he was attended by the resident English surgeon, and was surrounded by every comfort. Nothing could exceed the kindness manifested by the hotel attendants, and his wife and daughters were, of course, constantly by his side. There was occasional delirium, but the patient was during the greater part of the time perfectly calm and collected. For a day or two, on the 24th and 25th especially, he seemed to rally, arid hope predominated over fear. But this wad succeeded on the following day by more acute symptoms, and the American physician, who had been called in for consultation, gave but faint hopes of a favourable issue. He died at midday on Thursday, the 27th of May.