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Photograph of S.S. Lewis - Reproduced by kind permission of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society and the Cambridge University Library

The Rev. Samuel Savage Lewis

Upon her first sighting of her future husband, the Rev. Samuel Savage Lewis, the famous Agnes Smith Lewis was unable to guess from his appearance that he was Fellow of Corpus Christi College. She also recalls in a book affectionately relating his life that he could be mistaken for a servant, if judged only by his “shabby working dress”. He appeared to have “looked something like a wizard”, with a long thick beard and a black cloth suit. It seems appropriate that this man, described in other places as “notoriously ugly”, was hard to pin down. Looking like a servant, even though speaking Greek, Hebrew and Latin like a scholar, Lewis had not always lived the scholarly life.

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Photograph of Agnes Smith Lewis – Reproduced by kind permission of Westminster College

Over the 55 years that he lived, Lewis, born in Bishopsgate, went from farming in Canada to College Librarian at Corpus Christi College. His time at St. John’s College, Cambridge, had a rather unexpected interruption in 1854 due to poor eyesight when Lewis was forced to end his studies and leave Cambridge. Agnes Smith Lewis tells how this ailment meant that Lewis was unable to read the books he had been inseparable from since school. It was, she writes, “the most miserable epoch of his life”, as Lewis relied upon his friends to read his texts to him. After two successful operations in 1864, Lewis’s sight was restored. He willing submitted to the operation, without an appointment or, more alarmingly, anaesthetic, which repaired his sight and bestowed on him the ability to see “almost in the dark”.

Only ten days after his operation, Lewis was back in Cambridge, organising his return to St John’s College, transferring to Corpus Christi College in Easter term. Here began a lifelong tie to Corpus Christi, which became both Lewis’s place of work and his home when he was elected as Fellow in 1869 and Librarian in 1870. Lewis took up his residence in the Old Court in May 1870, and remained there for over 20 years. In 1873, Lewis became the Secretary for the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, and was responsible for raising the dwindling membership for 18 to over 300.

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Photograph of Old Court courtyard, taken by K. A. Beats

During the ten years between Lewis’s early departure from Cambridge and his return, he began work as a farmer. First on a farm near Shepreth and then travelling over the ocean to Quebec in 1857 where he worked on the same farm for 3 years. During these years away from study, Lewis’s eyes began to recover and he returned to England under his father’s instructions in 1861. He continued his agricultural labours up until the same year as his ocular operations. Agnes Smith Lewis observes that although a dedicated student of agriculture, his diaries of this time are simply records of his work on the farms, masking his deep frustration with his inability to study. It must have been with great relief for Lewis that he was able to begin his studies anew.

In 1872, the same year as he was appointed lecturer in Classics at Corpus, Lewis was ordained as deacon and later that year, priest in the Church of England. His holy duties took Lewis across the Cambridgeshire countryside on a Sunday, from Waterbeach to Impington, Swavesey to Thetford. He also preached to congregations during his travels in Europe and the East. A collection of 15 handwritten sermons, now held at Westminster College Archive, provides a fascinating insight into Lewis’s manner as a man of the church, and the concerns of the congregation at the time. Lewis’s words passionately convey his belief in the importance of attending church services;

“Be sure of this, my friends, that every time you miss going to God’s house, you miss a means of grace to your souls” [Sermon – Heb. X.25]

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Photograph of the sermons – taken by K.A. Beats – by kind permission of Westminster College

Lewis discusses the themes of loneliness, restlessness, the tension between town and country, and the competitive nature of the times. Allusions to agriculture are sown into his sermons, reminding us of the impact made on his spirit by his 10 years on the field. With rather typical Victorian confidence, Lewis tells his congregation to “subdue the earth as well as to replenish it” (Sermon – John V.17). He speaks with admiration for the growth and progress of man in the world, without any insight into the later consequences of this radical improvement.

Lewis’s less typical Victorian attitudes are subtly included in these works. When speaking on nobleness, a sermon first given in Swavesey in 1883 and then many times subsequently, Lewis calls on the congregation to remember the great deeds of the Englishmen of the past generations. Significantly, added just above Englishmen, Lewis adds “& women” (Sermon – Acts XVII.11). It would be interesting to know whether this was a much later addition, but it is clear that Lewis was an advocate of education for women, as he taught Latin to the Association for the Higher Education of Women for two years.

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Photograph of the sermons – Acts XVII.11 page 5 – taken by K.A. Beats – by kind permission of Westminster College

It is through Lewis’s sermons that we see his spiritual side from which he drew strength from. In Lewis’s words; “… there are many on own great daily battlefield, which is the world we live in” (Sermon – Eph. VI.15)

Lewis’s fight on his own “daily battlefield” came to an abrupt end in 1891 on a train returning to Oxford. Lewis and his wife had spent the day travelling from Banbury, visiting friends in Leamington Spa and Kenilworth. After rushing around town and then rushing again to get on to the train in time, Lewis collapsed and died in the carriage. The pair had been married only 4 years. Lewis and Agnes Smith Lewis are buried in Mill Road graveyard.

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Photograph of Lewis’s grave at Mill Road Cemetery – taken by K.A. Beats

During their short married lives together, Lewis had continued to spend the majority of his time in Corpus. It seems he only spent one overnight stay in the house they were meant to share. The demands of College life were such that Lewis was able to visit for breakfast and lunch, returning to College in the evening to write his letters. Agnes Smith Lewis began to accompany Lewis to his parishes on Sundays in order for them to spend more time together. Despite the restrictions placed upon a College Fellow, theirs was a happy union, beginning with an argument over the correct pronunciation of Ancient Greek amongst his collection of antiquities.

Lewis’s sermons are available to read here.


The Fitzwilliam Museum : The Rev. Samuel Savage Lewis

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