‘When still a child John Ray drew attention to himself by his unusual intelligence and ability’. Dr. Derham, Rector of Upminster
Ray first attended his local school in St Peter’s and St Paul’s Church, Black Notley. He was taught by Thomas Goad, Rector of Black Notley, and Joseph Plume who succeeded him, both men of some eminence who undoubtedly found Ray a bright boy. Plume, a learned Suffolk man and a Fellow of Queen’s College in Cambridge, lived within 100 yards of the smithy where Ray lived. Plume’s influence probably attracted Ray to the church and he was likely to have been responsible too, for sending him to the Grammar School in Braintree and to have encouraged his studies there.
Braintree Grammar School was based in the Jesus Chapel of St Michael’s. Originally built as a chantry in 1535 (a place where prayers were said for the souls of the dead), it was turned into a school in 1548 during the Reformation. The marks from where the children sharpened their slate pencils on the wall are still visible.
Ray’s teacher is uncertain, but was probably a Mr. Love. Ray himself, according to Dr. Derham, sometimes used to lament that, at that time, it was ‘a not good school, a paltry school’ – a great misfortune in his younger days. However, as his subsequent record shows, it must have provided a good grounding in Latin, trained his memory, given him an orderly mind and a delight in his studies. It certainly taught him beautiful, legible handwriting. ‘The famous Mr John Ray, and tho’ he writ so much, writ a fair hand and very slow’, according to his contemporary, Thomas Hearne.
Ray's Cambridge Career
In 1644 Ray had come to the end of his education at Braintree. His teacher Samuel Collins had noted Ray’s unusually high abilities for a local tradesman’s son and looked into how to get him a place at the University of Cambridge. In the 1600s entrance to the university relied on having money, either through family connections or a scholarship. Ray’s family would never have been able to afford a Cambridge education, so the answer was found in the will of local man Thomas Hobbs, who had left money for Collins to send two or three poor scholars to Cambridge. ‘£5 yearly for two or three hopeful poor scholars being of sober and Christian conversation’.
Ray started at the University as a ‘sizar’ in June 1644, first at Catherine Hall as requested in Thomas Hobbs will, but soon after transferring to Trinity College, where Ray preferred the teaching style. The sizarship was a fixed allowance for food to save poor students from starvation. This indicates quite clearly Ray’s humble background.
Ray lived through a period of immense upheaval in England. Two years before Ray started at Cambridge, the English Civil War had started between Charles I and the Parliamentarians. Cambridge University predominately favoured Parliament and had been the centre of military activity during the outbreak of the Civil War. However, although the University’s theology was generally Puritan, many supported the King.
At Catherine Hall College, Daniel Duckfield, an Essex man, was Ray’s tutor. He was probably the son of the Vicar of Childerditch, near Brentwood. His death may have been one of the reasons for Ray’s transfer to Trinity in 1646. Here he was placed under James Duport, who had a great reputation as a scholar and a teacher. At Trinity, Ray met Isaac Barrow who, educated within a few miles of Ray at Felsted School, arrived a year later. Considered Duport’s most brilliant pupils, the young men became great friends.
When Ray arrived in Cambridge, the standard of education there was unquestionably higher than in the previous decade. However, the primary teaching focus remained Medieval Aristotelian Scholasticism. The main subjects were Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric and teaching was carried out through debates between opponents on standard themes. Students were judged on the style of the oration and the quality of their Latin. The aim was not to generate new knowledge and learning as modern science would aim to. Ray wrote in 1660 that he deplored the lack of interest in ‘experimental philosophy and the ingenious sciences of mathematics’ at Cambridge.
Elsewhere, Bacon, Milton, Descartes and the astronomy of Copernicus had a substantial following and were influencing scientific inquiry. Progressive students found the Cambridge curriculum limiting and gradually, despite opposition, change came about. Ray and Isaac Newton were two of the first scientists of their generation to use the new methods of observation and experiment.