Sir John Simeon (1815-70)

It was during John Simeon’s time at Christ Church, Oxford (where he received his MA) that he first heard John Henry Newman preach. His inspirational words were to have a profound affect on Simeon’s life in later years. Soon after he graduated from Christ Church, Oxford in 1840 with a second class honours degree in Classics, he married Jane Maria Baker and they settled at the family estate of St. John’s just south of St. Cecilia’s Abbey. (Today it forms part of Oakfield Primary School). The Simeon Estate encompassed the whole of the eastern side of Ryde. Simeon Street and the Simeon pub mark the boundary of the estate. John Simeon was determined to follow his father Sir Richard Simeon into politics. In 1847 he stood as the Liberal Candidate for the Isle of Wight and was duly elected. The family were generous, kind and hospitable. As prominent Anglicans, they were generous benefactors of St. John’s Church at Oakfield on the edge of their estate which was built about the same time as St. Mary’s, Ryde. John was soon visiting the parish priest, Fr. John Telford and making private visits to St. Mary’s Church in Ryde High Street. It was during his visits to his Oxfordshire cousins that John renewed his friendship with John Henry Newman (now a Catholic priest). Newman outlined his thinking, which led him into the Catholic Church and Simeon found himself supporting the views and beliefs of Newman. If he converted he felt duty bound to resign his Parliamentary Seat. Simeon spent hours in prayer and reflection. In 1850 he entered St. Mary’s during Lent to find the sanctuary overflowing with lighted candles. Branched candlesticks adorned the altar either side of the throne and tabernacle as the Blessed Sacrament was exposed in the monstrance. During this Lenten Exposition, the faithful, he noticed, came and went in a most devout manner with double genuflections on each occasion. It was at this point that he realised that he believed in the Real Presence. Could he continue to put his political career before his religious beliefs? It was soon after this that Simeon heard that Henry Edward Manning had resigned as Archdeacon of Chichester. For Simeon, Manning and many others at the time, it was the Gorham Judgement and the interference, as they saw it, of the Privy Council in ecclesiastical affairs which was the watershed and finally persuaded them that their spiritual home was in the Catholic Church. Although they were disappointed, Simeon’s family respected his decision. He applied for the “Chiltern Hundreds” and turned his back on a political career to enter the Church of Rome. Sir Richard Simeon died in 1854 and John Simeon now inherited Swainstone Manor near Calbourne. This was formerly the country home of the Medieval Bishops of Winchester. He restored the 12th century chapel and Fr. Henry Manning is recorded as saying Mass there later in the year. His contribution to the Catholic Church on the Island was not reflected in such financial generosity as that of the Countess, yet nevertheless, he opened his chapel at Swainston to the handful of local Catholics in the area, and he gave moral support and encouragement to all the clergy and was always at their service. In a rare ecumenical gesture for this period, he even gave a part of his land for the building of a Methodist chapel. He also leased land for the establishment of Ryde cemetery in 1858.

Simeon gave freely of his time to the local community. He was a Justice of the Peace, Provincial Grand Master, Major of the IoW volunteers and Deputy Lieutenant of the Isle of Wight as well as being an enthusistic promoter of Christian values and civic responsibility as well as being a committed Catholic. William George Ward was another prominent Catholic on the Island. As Professor of Theology at St. Edmund’s College, Ware, he became one of the most influential Catholic laymen of the time, and with Newman he was a leading light in the “Oxford Movement”. Ward inherited property at Cowes and at West Wight. The two men fell out over politics (Ward was a conservative) and the influence of the Ultramontanes in the Church. Simeon had more Liberal views in both matters. The early provincial newspapers of the day delighted in reporting these two prominent Catholics clashing over politics and religion. Simeon’s popularity on the Island persuaded him to stand once again for Parliament at the 1865 General Election. Islanders respected his decision to resign in 1847 and admired his service to the community and his concern for others. However would they elect a Catholic as their MP? John Henry Newman’s visit to the Island at the time of this election was either coincidental or (more likely) providential for Simeon as they were politically like-minded. It certainly benefitted Simeon. He was duly elected once again with a majority of 83 over his Conservative opponent, Sir Charles Locock. His majority was substantially increased at the 1868 General Election. Such was his popularity that it was reported that he was heartily cheered and applauded wherever he went on the Island. (An occurence not experienced by most of today’s MPs).

One of Simeon’s greatest friends was Alfred Lord Tennyson who lived at Farringford. Barely a week would pass when the two men would not meet up to walk across Highdown Cliffs from Freshwater towards Alum Bay. Here was peace and tranquility away from the troubles of society. The narrow, winding lanes were a delight to explore. Here amid the ivy-clad trees, the thatched cottages and the lichen and moss-covered farmhouse walls was the epitome of Victorian rural England. In this serene and enchanted area of natural beauty with which Tennyson fell in love at first sight and found so conducive to his writing, they would walk and set the world to right while exchanging views on politics, religion, science and literature. The construction of a bridge over the River Yar in 1863 brought mixed blessings. It certainly opened up West Wight which had been rather isolated from the rest of the Island and brought an end to the “Isle of Freshwater”, but it also brought the tourists who invaded Tennyson’s privacy, making the great poet’s home and garden almost a public place.

Under the influence of Sir John Simeon, Tennyson gradually adopted a more tolerant view of Catholicism and he ranked Simeon as one of his greatest friends. When the two returned to Farringford one day after a brisk walk over the Downs, Simeon found a scrap of paper in the library with a couple of lines of poetry that Tennyson had discarded. He eventually persuaded the great poet that there was much potential in the lines and that he should persevere with it. Tennyson took his advice and the result was “Maud”, the powerfully repressive monodrama that ranks among his greatest works. It was a huge financial success and enabled Tennyson to purchase the lease on his beloved Farringford.

Simeon’s doctors advised him to rest in 1870. A change of air was needed and he set off to Italy with his wife. He was taken ill in Fribourg and never recovered. His death brought many tributes, even from political opponents. His most notable achievement was to prove that a Catholic can play an active role in public life. There was now no longer any conflict between the two. while on a tour of Europe. Tennyson wept when he heard the news. He walked over to Swainstone when the coffin when the coffin arrived back from Fribourg. After a few minutes paying his respects to his departed friend, he walked out into the garden of the Manor House taking Simeon’s pipe and stick and wearing his cloak. He sat beneath a cedar tree and with tears streaming down his cheeks he wrote what was arguably his most touching poem, “In the garden at Swainstone”,* which sums up his thoughts and feelings on his great friend. Tennyson referred to Simeon as the “Prince of Courtesy” and looked upon him as a father figure. He had been proud to introduce his best friend to all the poets, writers and artists who were drawn to the Freshwater circle (as it became known) including such international figures as Queen Emma of the Sandwich Isles and the Italian patriot, Garibaldi, who both visited Farringford in 1864. In a letter to Lady Catherine Simeon after the funeral he wrote: “John Simeon was the only man on earth, I verily believe, to whom I could, and more than once, open my heart. He has also given me, in many a conversation at Swainstone and Farringford, his utter confidence. I knew none like him for kindness and generosity”. The Simeon family motto was most apt; “Serviendo, nec temere, nec timide” (By serving, neither rashly, nor timidly). This epitomised Sir John’s attitude to the Church, his friends and the local community. News of his death brought universal regret throughout the Island. Flags on public buildings were flown at half mast. The Isle of Wight Observer reported; “he was held in the highest respect and esteem as an Islander, a gentleman, a friend and supporter of all local interests”. The arrangements for his funeral showed understanding and sensitivity. There was to be no Solemn Mass of Requiem in a Catholic church; instead a simple Low Mass (followed by the Litany of the Dead) was offered in the chapel at Swainstone by Fr. Thomas Fryer of Newport on 31st May 1870. The funeral courtege then proceeded to Calbourne, where friends, estate workers and local people (Lord Tennyson among them) lined the road from the Sun Inn to All Saints Parish Church. The vicar recited prayers as the coffin was taken down the narrow steps to the family vault beneath the north transept of the church to be interred with his forebearers. Inside the church, the north transept contains ten long mortuary tablets surmounted by the Simeon family coat of arms. A Catholic being buried in an Anglican church was rare in Victorian times; but, such was the esteem in which he was held, and his liberal and tolerant attitude to those not of his religious persuasion, there was no problem with the funeral arrangements. Later that week the Town Council presented an address of condolence to Lady Simeon and initiated an appeal for the erection of a stone monument in his memory beside the main road between Newport and Carisbrooke. It bears the inscription “SIR JOHN SIMEON, BART., M.P, OF SWAINSTON AND ST JOHN’S IN THIS ISLAND BORN FEBRUARY 1815, DIED MAY 21 1870. A MAN GREATLY BELOVED TO WHOSE MEMORY EVER HONOURED AND CHERISHED ERECTED BY MANY FRIENDS.”