James and Robert Pirie of Tooting:
Christian Science on Trial

AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES

PUBLISHED: 23 APRIL 2024

City of London School in Milk Street. James Bunstone Bunning / G. E. Madeley c. 1837. British Museum.

We begin with James Pirie, M.A., who lies buried in Streatham Cemetery, off Garratt Lane in South London. Born in 1844, he was brought up in Scotland, where his father was a watchmaker, but after graduating from Aberdeen University he came down to London. For a time he taught at one of the capital’s Jewish schools, and, although the name of the school has not come to light, we know that it introduced him to the study of Hebrew, which remained an absorbing occupation for the rest of his life. In due course he took up an appointment at City of London School, which at the time was housed in what was once described as ‘murky and uncomfortable buildings’ on the north side of Cheapside in Milk Street, although he was there long enough to work in the school’s second home on Victoria Embankment.

The records of Pirie’s years at the school are less than specific about the subject or subjects he taught, but they certainly included English literature, for he was remembered by former pupils for his ability to bring a lesson on Shakespeare or Walter Scott to life. Curiously, he also pioneered the teaching of shorthand, first as an extra subject which could be taken after school, and then as a fixed item in the curriculum. But his interest in shorthand, or phonography, was far from being a mere sideline. Indeed, Pirie was a close friend of Isaac Pitman, and in 1887 he read a paper on the teaching of phonography in schools at the Shorthand Congress, which was held at the Museum of Practical Geology in Jermyn Street.

He would seem to have been a sympathetic teacher who won the respect and affection of his pupils. Not only was his teaching style lively and engaging, but his manner was humane. Rather than pounce on the slightest indiscretion, he was happy to overlook minor instances of poor behaviour in the classroom. A boy who had sinned one day was able to start with a clean slate the next.

Interior of the Museum of Practical Geology in Jermyn Street. Benjamin Sly / C. D. Laing The Builder 28 October 1848.

From East London to South London

Pirie married Jane Ginevra Ovens, the daughter of a furniture dealer, in 1869. The couple had seven children, of whom the five oldest were born in Plaistow and the two youngest in West Ham. No doubt Pirie travelled into work on the London, Tilbury and Southend Railway, which connected the East London stations with Fenchurch Street. From Fenchurch Street to the school was no more than a brisk walk. But in later years the Piries lived in the southern reaches of the city, in Mellison Road in Tooting.

The reason for moving was presumably the fact that the children were getting older, and the journey from home to work was no harder than it had been before, and possibly easier, as the London and South Western Railway would have deposited Pirie a stone’s throw from the school at the station on Ludgate Hill. The house in Mellison Road — Feuerstein Villa — still stands. It has a distinctive flint-faced exterior, as do its four immediate neighbours, which are called, rather charmingly, Silica Villa, Casa Pedra Villa, Les Cailloux Villa and Flint Villa. I am sure that Mr Pirie, with his schoolmaster’s erudition, would have noted with amusement that these names all mean much the same in their various languages!

Perhaps it will come as no surprise that Pirie’s three sons all went to the school where their father taught. The oldest, James, went on to pursue a career in banking, but the other two boys had unhappier lives. The youngest of the brothers, Alexander, died of tuberculosis in 1901. He was only twenty-one, and had worked briefly as a feather merchant’s clerk. The middle brother, Robert, also died young, but in rather remarkable circumstances. And it is his strange and tragic story that follows below.

And then to Hull

Robert Stephen Pirie was born on 17 April 1877. He flourished at school, and by the time he left in 1896 he had been awarded two scholarships. The first, a Sir William Tite Scholarship, was named after the architect who designed West Norwood cemetery and a number of London railways stations, and who was known for his generous donations to good causes. The second was an award given by the Worshipful Company of Skinners, a livery company of the City of London with a long history of supporting charitable and educational institutions.

A further award followed when Robert won a place at Cambridge University and entered Gonville & Caius College in 1896 with an Open Classical Scholarship. However, in spite of the fact that he was regarded as ‘one of the shining lights’ of the college, he only remained in Cambridge for a year. Probably he had decided that Classics was not a subject he wished to pursue, for in 1897 he returned to London to study Modern Languages at King’s College.

Having graduated, Robert followed his father’s footsteps into the teaching profession. His first post was in Eastbourne, where he taught Modern Languages at New College for three years, starting in 1901. Then in 1904 he moved up to Hull to work as an assistant master at Hymers College, and it was here that his life took a dramatic, and fateful, new turn when he took up residence as a lodger in the home of a Christian Scientist.

Feuerstein Villa in Tooting. © William Ellis-Rees 2024

Enter Harold Boardman

Sadly, our knowledge of Robert’s time in Hull is not complete. However, we have good reason to believe that the Christian Scientist with whom he was lodging was a practitioner in her fifties by the name of Octavia Potts, who lived at no great distance from Hymers College at 9 Victoria Avenue. Indeed, given that Robert was himself inclined towards Christian Science, it is perfectly possible that he had chosen to lodge with Miss Potts precisely because he knew her to be a fellow believer.

Equally, it may be that Robert owed his ‘conversion’ to his landlady’s influence, and if not to hers then to that of a third important actor in the drama, a young Christian Scientist by the name of Harold Boardman. Given that Boardman was born and brought up in the same Yorkshire village, Welton in the East Riding, where Olivia Potts had lived for many years prior to moving to Hull, it is highly likely that they were acquainted. Indeed, at the time of the 1911 census, Boardman was lodging with her in Victoria Avenue in Hull. It is a reasonable assumption that it was their shared acquaintance with Miss Potts that brought Robert Pirie and Harold Boardman into the same orbit.

Boardman had been born in 1877 and was therefore the same age as Robert Pirie. We know very little about his early life other than that his father was a schoolmaster. He too was a schoolmaster, and in 1903, when Robert was in Eastbourne, he was teaching at the Latymer Higher Foundation School in Hammersmith. In the same year he obtained a degree in divinity at London University, but it is not clear at what point he had turned to Christian Science.

Magazine cover attacking Christian Science. Udo J. Keppler / Puck 1902. Library of Congress.

Mary Baker Eddy

The origins of Christian Science can be traced back to an American religious leader by the name of Mary Baker Eddy, who in 1879 received a charter to found a Church of Christ (Scientist) in Boston. A few years previously Eddy had published her Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures in which she set her core beliefs. She advanced the theory that the material world is nothing but an illusion, a consequence of which is that disease is not a strictly physical disorder, and is therefore to be treated not with medicine but with prayer.

The significance of Eddy’s teachings, at least as far as our story is concerned, lies in the fact that Robert Pirie was consumptive. How long he had been aware of his condition is not clear, but in the autumn of 1905, following a trip to the Continent, he consulted a doctor in Hull, who gave him a worrying diagnosis. He was suffering from progressive inflammation of the right lung. His health rapidly deteriorated, and the principal of Hymers College, Charles Gore, wrote to his father expressing his grave concern that Robert, in line with his Christian Science beliefs, was refusing further medical treatment. On 6 October James Pirie travelled up to Hull to bring his son back down to the family home in Tooting.

Tintype portrait of Mary Baker Eddy. McClure’s Magazine February 1907.

It’s my decision

At this point Pirie seems to have accepted that he could best help his son, who was obviously very unwell, by meeting him halfway. He contacted a practising Christian Scientist by the name of William Stephen Montgomery-Smith, a qualified surgeon who had recently rejected conventional medicine in favour of ‘mental and spiritual’ methods of treatment. Robert initially agreed to be treated by Montgomery-Smith, for a fee of 10s. a week, but the arrangement was terminated a few days later when it emerged that Robert had previously sought help from Harold Boardman. Whether Montgomery-Smith felt annoyed at not being Robert’s first choice of counsellor, or actively disapproved of Boardman, is not clear.

Boardman went over to Tooting, and arriving at Feuerstein Villa he urged Pirie to allow Robert to lodge with him at his home in Richmond, where no doubt he would be able to apply the method of prayer without let or hindrance. Pirie was not amused but Boardman was not deterred. ‘I love Robert,’ he said, ‘and I will take all the responsibility.’ Realising that the matter was now out of his hands, Pirie warned his son that if he left with Boardman he would be putting his life at risk. Robert gave this solemn warning an equally solemn response. It was his decision to go: his parents had nothing to blame themselves for.

Treating the sick. Reverend Mary Baker G. Eddy Christ and Christmas, a Poem 1897.

A question of trust

On 14 October Robert returned with Boardman to his home at 13 Salisbury Road in Richmond. James and Jane Pirie were asked not to visit, and were placated by Boardman with letters expressing such sentiments as ‘Your attitude should be one full of confidence in the all-powerful God’ and ‘As long as we trust in Christian love we are safe’. But the Piries were tormented by an understandable anxiety, and on 22 October, ignoring Boardman’s request for privacy, Robert’s mother went over to the lodgings in Salisbury Road. To her dismay she learnt from the landlady, Mrs Eliza Burton, that Boardman had taken Robert up to Sloane Square to have tea with a fellow Christian Scientist, in spite of the fact that it was a very cold day, and that Robert’s temperature was over 101°F. They did not get back to Richmond until nine-thirty that night.

Mrs Burton would say later that she had been aware that Robert was ill with consumption. However, even though his condition had visibly worsened during his stay with Boardman, she had been reluctant to intervene because she knew that Christian Scientists had ‘peculiar views’ about doctors. Then on the night of 26 October tragedy struck when she noticed that Robert had gone into a state of complete collapse. Boardman carried him up to his room. When all seemed hopeless, and in apparent defiance of Christian Science teaching, a doctor was summoned, but when he arrived in Salisbury Road he discovered that Robert was already dead.

Richmond in the 1930s. Wikimedia.

Difficult questions

At an inquest on 28 October the doctor, Thomas Goldney, confirmed that the cause of death was consumption, and that Robert’s life had been past saving for some time. But he added that proper treatment might have bought the young man more time, and, although a verdict of death from natural causes was returned, Boardman was strongly condemned for the delay in summoning Dr Goldney. But when asked why an avowed Christian Scientist had taken even this delayed action, Boardman said that a doctor would have to certify the death for Robert to be buried. It was a simple legal matter.

Throughout the inquest Boardman had been subjected to hostile questioning. The coroner pressed him on his beliefs as well as his practice. In response Boardman claimed that disease was a concept but not a reality, that it was as illusory as the so-called material nature of the world.

He hesitated over the question of pay, no doubt anxious not to be seen as a cynical charlatan, a con man who took advantage of his patients’ vulnerabilities. The answer he gave was that he charged his patients only what they were inclined to give him. He had accepted 10s. a week from Robert Pirie — the same fee Montgomery-Smith had charged — but from others he took little or nothing. This, as was pointed out by the Lancet in a report on the case, might be taken as a tacit admission that his services had no value.

And after

Boardman remained committed to Christian Science in the years following Robert Pirie’s death. In 1914 he married a fellow practitioner, Helenor Appleton, whose father, Leonard Lindley, had at one time been Mayor of Nottingham. In 1916 he appears to have been a tutor at Emmanuel College in Cambridge, but his unorthodox beliefs clearly coexisted with a sense of decency, for in the same year, at the age of thirty-eight, he enlisted in the 4th Royal West Kent infantry. His army records, in which he professed himself a non-conformist, give no indication of battle experience, but they at least preserve some physical details. He had decayed teeth and hammer toes, which was probably as near as he got to accepting the reality of disease. Later, in the 1920s, he ran a Christian Science boarding school, Paxton Park, in the Cambridgeshire town of St Neots. He died in 1952.

As for James Pirie, he had retired from teaching in 1903, two years after the death of Alexander and two years before that of Robert. The City of London School magazine noted that ‘in this’ — his retirement — ‘he was fortunate, for he thus escaped the pain of losing on the battlefields of Europe so many of his former pupils, as would have been the case had he continued longer in office’. Even so, there was sadness in store, for he lived long enough to bury both his wife and their youngest daughter, Lucy Amelia.

His own death, at the age of eighty, was in 1924. He was buried in Streatham Cemetery after a service at St Peter’s Presbyterian Church in Upper Tooting. He was loved and respected by all who knew him, and it was only fitting that the organ was played by one of his former pupils, who, one hopes, remembered his old teacher with affection.

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