Edmund Goodwin

Edmund Goodwin

There have been in the past, vital personalities who have surmounted physical handicaps and I think we should salute a Peel man, all too little known, who was such a personality, becoming, despite life-long infirmaties, a distinguished scholar and linguist, a teacher, writer and interpreter of music, and a man of many friends.

This was Edmund Evans Greaves Goodwin who was born at 27 Castle Street, Peel on 24th August, 1844 and died at Mount Morrison, Peel, on 3rd January, 1924.

Edmund Goodwin was lame virtually from birth, and contracted in childhood an illness which made him a semi-invalid and cripple for life, unable to walk abroad like other men. Later he also became very deaf. But he refused to be defeated by these handicaps and set to work to create for himself within the restricted area of his own home a mental kingdom.

His grandfather was a vicar in England whose wife was a sister of Florence Nightingale, and his father was a man of considerable culture who had travelled widely and was, amongst other things, a good amateur musician.

The Goodwins claimed descent from the Earls of Godwin, whose scion Harald, the Norse-Saxon ruler who opposed William the Conqueror, was slain in the Battle of Hastings, and Edmund is said to have declared jokingly that his father’s family were only Vikings who arrived in Mann long after the main contingent. His mother, Alice Morrison before her marriage, came of a family long identified in Peel with Manx cultural and national interests. Edmund was the eldest son of this marriage and inherited in full measure both his father’s musical ability and his mother’s Manx interests.

The two Goodwins ran a small private school in the Castle Street house where Edmund was born, which was then the principal street of the town and known as “the Big Street,” and in a short autobiographical note made for some friends, Edmund wrote:

At the age of twelve I picked up my first knowledge of German and French from old books which had belonged to my father. My first inducement to learn Latin and Italian was to be able to understand the words of Mozart’s Masses and Italian opera libretti.

I learned Icelandic in order to read the Sagas and Old Irish to read the Irish Annals and hero tales, and each new language I learnt made me eager to learn yet another for the language of a people gives one not only the Open Sesame to its literature but also to a fascinating new kingdom by the understanding it brings of a nation’s mentality and outlook upon life.

His musical education also began early, and when still quite young he achieved the status of a qualified teacher and began to support himself by taking pupils for singing and pianoforte, and in another note he recorded his pride and pleasure when one of these, his relative and close friend, Sophia Morrison, who was later to be associated with him in Manx scholarship, passed with honours the examination of the Trinity College of Music.

He also composed and arranged music and according to Mr Frank Kelly of Peel, in some notes in the Museum, “he recorded hundreds of Manx folk tunes.” Unfortunately though, Mr Kelly’s notes are in the Museum but the tunes referred to are not.

Where are they? Collections of Manx folk tune are far too precious to be lost sight of and this one, if still extant, should certainly be in our Manx National Library.

But it was as a linguist that Edmund Goodwin became totally outstanding. Confined to his room most of the time, he taught himself to read and write Greek, Latin, Manx, Irish and Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Breton and Cornish, French, German, Dutch, Swedish, Icelandic, Russian, Spanish, Italian and Romaic! One of his greatest pleasures was to receive a visit from any foreigners passing through Peel who would converse with him in one of these languages.

He also loved to gather round him Peel fishermen who would talk with him in Manx Gaelic; and some of the Manx Gypsies, whose headquarters were in or around Douglas, used to drop in occasionally for a chat with him in Romany. One of the last of these, Mrs Hart, told me some years ago that Goodwin was the best Gorgio she ever heard speak Romany.

When Yn Chesaght Ghailckagh was formed in 1898 for the preservation and revival in use of Manx Gaelic, he took the greatest interest in the movement and became one of the founding members. Classes for the study of the old tongue were at once formed in Peel and for these he produced the first elementary grammar and primer of Manx Gaelic devised especially for use as blackboard lessons to first-year students. This was published in 1901 as ‘First Lessons in Manx’ and is still the best elementary text-book for students beginning the language. It was almost unobtainable for some years, but has been reprinted and the last (1947) edition is still used as a text book by the current Manx classes.

He was one of the earliest authorities on Manx Gaelic in the 20th century, being considerably senior to JJ Kneen, who was his friend and associate in Manx studies and who was at times, helped by Goodwin in the elucidation of difficult passages in roughly-spelt manuscripts.

He was a life-long lover and student of our Manx Gaelic and his belief in its preservation and revival never wavered. Despite his wide knowledge and appreciation of other tongues and other literatures, he had a great veneration for all three branches of the Gaelic and thought the Old Irish and Scottish sagas the equal, and in some respects the superior, of any classical literature in the world, and he never failed to impress on Manx students that Manx Gaelic though lacking the ancient manuscripts of the two larger Gaelic countries, was still a key which could open a treasure-house of that literature.

Goodwin was also a keen genealogist and his genealogies of Manx families, most carefully and accurately worked out from the records available, are among the manuscript treasures of the Manx Museum’s national library and are an invaluable aid to researchers, many of them from America, Australia and other distant countries, seeking to trace the history of their Manx ancestors.

As he grew older, Edmund Goodwin’s physical handicaps increased. From being merely lame he became unable to do more than a few steps and that painfully. He was in almost continual pain, and his increasing deafness was a great hardship for a musician. Yet he remained cheerful and was apparently contented with his studies, his pupils and his many friends. Young men and girls, as well as older folk, frequently dropped in for a chat with him, finding that his wide knowledge and his ever-keen interest in the lives of his neighbours and in the affairs of the town and Island made him a stimulating and fascinating companion.

He never complained, but always made light of his troubles and often joked about himself as a unique specimen of humanity in this modern age. “Although I have seen aeroplanes, ” he wrote in one letter to a friend, “I have never seen a railway, I have never been on a steam vessel or a motor-car, I have not used a telephone or heard a gramophone or a wireless set, nor seen a cinema show or even a dramatic performance.”

When his family removed to Mount Morrison, he had to be taken there in a bath-chair and afterwards he wrote; “My ride was a most enjoyable one. Nearly all was new to me, almost everything had changed its appearance in the half-century that had gone by since I last hobbled along the road.” His many visitors of course, had told him of changes in the town but it was still a surprise to see them for himself. He could have been taken out in a bath-chair more frequently but he seemed quite content among his books in his own room – and probably too, the effort of getting out was painful.

As I have said, he was an endearing personality and one of his happiest traits was his love of old tales and his belief in the reality of supernatural experiences and second sight. He heard many such stories in Peel, things that would never have been told to a stranger or an unbeliever and it is a great pity he never published a book of Manx folk-lore.

One of the tales he delighted to tell was of how his parents, who were anything but well-off in his childhood, got the Castle Street house at a low rent because “Themselves” used to dance in it every night. “And did you ever see them?” he was asked. With a twinkle in his eye he would answer slowly: “Well no. I was in my own room and They never came in there and if I could, I wouldn’t have been so rude as to interrupt Them at their dancing. But I’ve heard Them many a time and so have the rest of the family. If you don’t interfere with Them, they’ll do you no harm. In the cellars they would be.”

The Goodwins lived in that house from 1840-1865 so evidently their nocturnal dancers didn’t worry them. It is described as “a quaint old house, dismal outside, but with a spacious, old-fashioned hall and staircase, rooms of fine proportions and cellars underneath it”, which makes one think of the old smuggling days when no doubt they were well stocked with contraband goods. It is said that officers of the Castle used to live there and also that at one time it was considered as a possible Bishop’s Palace protem, when some extensive alterations were being carried out at Bishop’s Court.

In one of his latest manuscripts, Edmund Goodwin wrote: “Now that I am in my old age, I enjoy my books with a fuller relish than ever. I linger over the words and call to mind other phrases connected with them in other languages. I have a collection of foreign newspapers and I like reading them for the sake of manner rather than matter. Each language has its own admirable qualities and its own defects.”

When he died at the ripe age of 80, another Manx scholar, William Cubbon, paid him this tribute: “Edmund Goodwin was a man of fine character and an industrious student. He worked both quietly and effectively and others have got much of the credit due to him. He was of an exceptionally retiring disposition, but he earned the respect and regard of all who knew him.”

Truly a man who lived all his life in the kingdom of the mind – and enjoyed that life, despite all his physical handicaps. He is, and will remain, one of those who are remembered affectionately and appreciatively in his native city of Peel where all his life as spent.


(source: This is Ellan Vannin by Mona Douglas (1965); photograph courtesy of Manx National Heritage from the imuseum)

Bernadette Weyde

Bernadette Weyde

I'm a web designer, amateur historian and keen gardener and I enjoy bringing Manx history, folklore and poetry to a modern audience.


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