Kennedy Road is so named in memory of Benjamin Hall Kennedy (1804-89), one of the three headmasters of Shrewsbury School honoured by street names in Kingsland.
Kennedy was brought up in Birmingham. His father was a clergyman and classical scholar and Benjamin was soon following in his footsteps. He entered Shrewsbury School at the age of 15, and was elected head boy when he was 16, a position he retained till he left in 1823 aged 19. His classical talent was so prodigious that he won a Cambridge University prize for Latin poetry while still at school. (After that they changed the rules to stop schoolboys entering!) He continued his classical studies at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he won a string of prizes and medals. He was not just a dull scholar, however, being also noted for his wit and social qualities. He often took part in the Union debates, and was elected President of the Union in 1825. This experience must have honed his public speaking ability since one contemporary regarded him ‘to be the best public speaker he had ever heard’.
After Cambridge, he returned briefly to Shrewsbury School as an assistant master, but soon returned to Cambridge when he was elected a fellow and tutor at his old college. Then he was appointed as an assistant master at Harrow School, but when Samuel Butler resigned as headmaster of Shrewsbury School in 1836, he nominated Kennedy as his successor. Kennedy remained in the post for the next 30 years, and during that time he introduced many changes into the school, such as the teaching of foreign languages and maths, regular religious instruction, and properly supervised ‘prep’ in the early evening to encourage the boys to do private study. He also encouraged participation in sports, especially cricket, providing a cricket ground at the top of Coton Hill (roughly where Coton Crescent is now). One problem he had to solve was that of the older boys going into town and getting drunk (it was not illegal to sell alcohol to juveniles at that time). He did this by the simple expedient of insisting that all pupils wear a cap when out of school and ordering all the innkeepers not to serve them!
One thing that did not change, however, was the pre-eminence of the teaching of classics. Despite the fact that the number of boys was significantly reduced during much of his period of office, a succession of Kennedy’s pupils gained the highest classical honours at university. The low numbers of pupils remained a concern in the town, whose burgesses fought tooth and nail for their historic right to influence the government of the school. Some prominent local leaders accused Kennedy that his insistence on the primacy of a classical education was the reason behind the falling number of pupils, but this was probably due to increased competition from other schools, and the woeful lack of facilities at Shrewsbury.
In 1866 Kennedy was appointed Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge, where he had a long and distinguished career until his death. His retirement gift from the School was so large that he used some of it to improve the facilities at the school chapel, and some to endow a new Latin professorship at Oxford. This gift reflected the great esteem in which he was held. He might be quick tempered, but his tempers were quickly forgotten, and mostly he was generous to a fault, treating the older boys as adults and colleagues. Above all, he had an astonishing teaching ability, enthralling his pupils with the depth of his knowledge and erudition, while encouraging them to think for themselves.
Kennedy was blessed by being surrounded by strong women. His wife Janet oversaw most of the practical organisation of the boarders, as well as the family finances. His daughters were formidably intellectual, and it was probably the influence of these women that made Kennedy an outspoken advocate of women’s education. (It is said that the arms of Newnham College, Cambridge, contain elements of the Kennedy arms in honour of this. ) In 1843 he had published an ‘Elementary Latin Grammar’, which was widely used, but also much criticised. He revised this over the years, but in 1888 a completely new edition appeared, called ‘Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer’. This was much praised and, astonishingly, is still the most widely used book of its type. But we now know that most of the work for the book was actually done by Kennedy’s daughters Marion and Julia – hopefully they also shared in some of the royalties!