Anglo-Spanish Edwardians (an occasional series) II: The Secret Life of Tomás Enrique Gurrin (1848-1913)

Sometimes in the course of research, a neat little mystery just falls right into your lap and upsets all your best laid plans, and everything else gets put on hold until you’ve solved it. Or is that just me? (I always did have a problem with focus…)

Hispanic Society of AmericaAs those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, I’m in New York right now, researching at the Hispanic Society of America (left)and writing up big chunks of the Edwardians project. This was supposed to be a post about that research, and about the correspondence between James Fitzmaurice-Kelly and Archer M Huntington, an Edwardian bromance if there ever was one. And that post may still come. But today, I was sidetracked by another Anglo-Spanish Edwardian, who started out as a footnote in a section I’m writing on language education in Edwardian Britain, but who has just presented me with the perfect Easter afternoon of sleuthing.

So … I have been looking at the dozens of manuals, readers, dictionaries, etc. that were available to Anglophone learners of Spanish between the 1880s and the first world war. One of the most comprehensive series was Hossfeld’s, which started in the 1870s with French and German (its very first publication was the rather stern-sounding On the Principle of French Before Breakfast) and moved into Spanish in 1885, before expanding into more unusual languages such as Dutch, Russian, Japanese, Norwegian and Portuguese. The series seems to have petered out during the 1920s and 1930s and come to a complete halt in the 1950s.


Hossfeld’s first Spanish volume was Hossfeld’s New Method for Learning the Spanish Language in the easiest and quickest way (1885), credited to one Tomás Enrique Gurrin, which went through four editions in 18 years. Great!  I thought. An expat Spaniard or South American to add to my new ‘Hispanic Britain’ database.* After all, lots of expat Spanish-speakers came to London in the 19th century and set themselves up as a ‘Professor of Languages.’ He’ll be another, I’m sure. So I put ‘Tomas Gurrin’ into the search engines and …

… nothing. No Tomas Gurrin to be found on any of the censuses or anywhere else but in connection with the New Method. I spend a *lot* of time with 19th-century censuses, so his absence was frustrating, but not entirely unexpected. Plan B: just enter the surname. Fortunately ‘Gurrin’ is pretty rare … and bingo! 1911! There, in a 14-room mansion in Swiss Cottage,** was Thomas Henry Gurrin, ‘translator of languages,’ born … in Norwich, England (Gurrin was also associated throughout his career with an address at 59 Holborn Viaduct). A bit more digging and cross-checking confirmed that this was indeed myman. Thomas Henry Gurrin was born in 1848 in Norfolk of an Irish father and English mother, and died in London in 1913, leaving an estate worth over £6000 (about £350k in today’s money). Some translator!

And that would have been the story – expat Spanish scholar revealed as Norfolk-born translator. Nothing unusual – he wouldn’t have been the first Anglophone to adopt a more ‘authentic’ pen name. Except … I couldn’t stop digging. What can I say, I’m a completist (it’s a blessing and a curse). So I went back further. And there, on the 1901 census, in a Bournemouth boarding house, was Thomas Henry Gurrin, b.1848 in South Lincolnshire (i.e. on the border with Norfolk), handwriting expert  *double take*

And another web search confirmed it. Gurrin was indeed a handwriting expert, employed by the Treasury and the Director of Public Prosecutions, among others, to examine documents and signatures and decide whether they were genuine or fraudulent. You can read several of his cases online. For example, he appeared as a witness at the Old Bailey on 13 May 1901, in the case of Arthur Long, accused of ‘Forging and uttering a request for the delivery of certain Jubilee coins, with intent to defraud’ (Long had answered an ad in the Exchange and Mart and paid for the coins with a fake deposit note). Gurrin was able to identify that Long had authored a range of documents, even when he had tried to disguise his handwriting, and Long was convicted and sentenced to four years in jail.

Gurrin mentioned in that trial that he had been a handwriting expert for some 16 or 17 years  – that is, since approximately 1885, the year when he wrote his New Method for Hossfeld – and had been employed in about 2,000 cases. I haven’t yet been able to identify his connection with Spain and the Spanish language, but it looks as if he wrote the New Method  at around the time he was beginning to make a name for himself as a handwriting expert – certainly, on the 1891 census, he is back to being a ‘translator of languages.’ Perhaps the Spanish semi-pseudonym, as well as adding a touch of authenticity, was an attempt to keep the two parts of his professional life separate. Certainly, as he became established as a handwriting expert, he seems to have stopped writing language manuals. He did produce at least two more, both in 1890: Hossfeld’s New Spanish Reader and an English manual for Spanish speakers, the Gramática inglesa: nuevo método práctico de Hossfeld para aprender el inglés. After this, his collaboration with Hossfeld seems to have ceased, although his manuals were regularly updated and re-edited by others.

However he managed his dual career, Gurrin lived well and died a wealthy man. But his story has an intriguing postscript. Among the hits from my final web search was one for Julian Barnes‘s 2005 novel Arthur & George, which explores the relationship between Arthur Conan Doyle and the Anglo-Indian George Edalji in the context of the ‘Great Wyerly Outrages,’ which saw Edalji convicted and imprisoned for a crime he had not committed. And there, on p.152, is Thomas Henry Gurrin, the real-life handwriting expert who had played a part in the historical trial. The passage cleverly melds historical and fictional versions of Gurrin, creating a neat character sketch in just a handful of lines:

The last part of the day was given up to Thomas Henry Gurrin, who agreed to the description of himself as an orthographical expert with nineteen years’ experience in the identification of feigned and anonymous handwriting. He confirmed that he had frequently been engaged by the Home Office, and that his most recent professional appearance had been as a witness in the Meat Farm murder trial. George did not know what he expected an orthographical expert to look like; perhaps dry and scholarly, with a voice like a scratchy pen. Mr Gurrin, with his ruddy face and muttonchop whiskers, could have been the brother of Mr Greensill, the butcher in Wyerley (152-153).

(You will have to read the novel to find out what Gurrin’s pronouncement is!)

So there we have it. The secret life of Tomás Enrique Gurrin aka Thomas Henry Gurrin: teacher, linguist, translator, handwriting expert, fictional character and … man of mystery. I still have to figure out his Spanish connection (Irish father in the army? time spent in Spain?),  and I can’t help wondering whether ‘Tomás Enrique’ had any meaning for Gurrin beyond a convenient pseudonym (visions of a secret traje de luces) but until then, I’ve enjoyed piecing together this  ‘story behind the footnote.’  Happy Easter weekend to all of you!


* Yes, Hispanic Liverpool has spawned. Be afraid…

** Gurrin lived at no. 10 Harley Rd, which is sadly no longer in existence (observe the large building site…). This link points to nos. 14 and 16, which give a good idea of the kind of house no. 10 most likely was.

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