English School , Late Seventeenth Century
Kyrle, also known as ‘The Man of Ross’, was one of the most celebrated philanthropists of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries…
John Kyrle (1637-1724), also known as ‘The Man of Ross’, was one of the most celebrated philanthropists of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
Kyrle was born in 1637 in the parish of Dymock in Gloucestershire and was the eldest son of Walter Kyrle (d.1660) of Ross, Herefordshire, a barrister and Member of Parliament for Leominster. The Kyrle family had been settled in the market-town of Ross-on-Wye since the thirteenth century, and following Kyrle’s education at Balliol College, Oxford, and then Middle Temple, London, he returned to Ross and stayed there until his death on 7th November 1724, aged eighty-eight. Although trained in law, Kyrle supposedly never practised his profession formally, and instead assisted neighbours in settling legal matters and disputes, most commonly regarding taxation and dole payments.
Kyrle’s kindness and generosity was quickly noticed by the great eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope, whose third Moral Essay (Epistle to Bathurst, 1733) published eight years after Kyrle’s death, praises at length Kyrle’s renowned charitable giving;
‘The Man of Ross divides the weekly bread:
He feeds yon almshouse, neat, but void of state,
Where age and want sit smiling at the gate:
Him portion’d maids, apprentic’d orphans blest,
The young who labour, and the old who rest.
Is any sick? the Man of Ross relieves,
Prescribes, attends, the medicine makes and gives.’
Increased interest in Kyrle inspired a local newspaper to be named after him and even led to a portrait of him being anonymously left at the house of a philanthropist in Boston, Massachusetts, as a symbol of quiet benevolence three thousand miles from Ross-on-Wye.
Perhaps Kyrle’s greatest legacy was ‘The Prospect’; an area of land beyond Ross churchyard set on a sandstone cliff, which he acquired from Lord Weymouth in 1696 and transformed it into an ornamental promenade for the public. The Prospect included a water fountain close to town which pumped fresh water up from the Wye via a reservoir, which in turn filled public water taps in the town. Public access to ‘The Prospect’ continued until 1837 when the landlord agreed to the building of the Royal Hotel, demolished one of the classical gates and prevented public visitation. This caused local outrage and led to a riot in 1848; public access was eventually reinstated in 1860.
Kyrle was buried on 20th November 1724 in the chancel of Ross church, at the feet of his friend Dr Whiting, founder of the local blue coat school. His grave was simple, without memorial, with only the initials J.K, which Alexander Pope saw as another act of Kyrle’s modesty.
This portrait type is thought to be one of three versions based on a lost original, possibly by Sir Peter Lely and owned by Lord Muncaster in the late eighteenth century. The two other versions, of varying quality, are both in public collections at the Herefordshire Archive Service and Ross-on-Wye Town Council.
Pope, Alexander. The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope, (Crissy & Markley, 1835) p.127.
The ‘Man of Ross’ newspaper ran from 1855 for 20 years; T.W. Higginson, Cheerful Yesterdays (Boston, 1898), page unmarked; National Portrait Gallery Archive.
C. Heath, The Excursion Down the Wye from Ross to Monmouth… (Monmouth, 1800), page unmarked.