Ruddle, Thomas

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Born on 15 November 1839 at Trowbridge, the son of a woollen yarn spinner of strict Nonconformist practice. He became a student teacher and, after studying at Borough Road Training College, taught at Lewisham and Portland. A natural student and omnivorous reader, particularly in English literature, his interests also included music and chemistry.

While he was teaching at the British School at Portland, a colleague, Mr. Beale, was forced to leave because he had been preaching for the Rev. William Hopper, the local BC minister, who had fallen ill. Hopper showed Beale an advertisement in the Bible Christian Magazine for the headship of the small BC grammar school at Shebbear. Beale was ineligible as he was married, but Ruddle applied and, in 1864, at the age of 23, he became the headmaster at Shebbear and held the post for 45 years. He resigned for reasons of ill health shortly before his death in 1909. Under him the school developed into an outstanding example of its kind and he heard himself described as 'the Thomas Arnold of North Devon'. In 1872 he gained an external BA from London University.

After accepting the headship Ruddle became a Bible Christian and a local preacher in the Shebbear Circuit, finding his wife, Margaret Allin, in one of the villages. She died in 1892. An original and forceful preacher, he preached the Conference sermon at Bristol in 1894. Active in the affairs of the Connexion, he served on the Committee of the Missionary Society, the General Connexional Committee, the Connexional Examining Committee and several others. He was part of the BC delegation to three of the Ecumenical Methodist Conferences, in 1881, 1891 and 1901, presenting a paper at Washington DC in 1891 on 'The Attitude of the Church towards Amusements' (more significant for its being given at all than for what it said!). At the first meeting of the UM Conference in 1907 he was elected one of the lay Guardian Representatives from the Bible Christians, an office he occupied until his death at Shebbear on 17 October 1909.


'His tempestuous manner, his amazing range of knowledge, and his ruthless methods of dealing with our frail structures, shook us all. But always we knew that he was a man of genuine piety: we eagerly looked forward to his sermons from the pulpit of the college chapel. He was often extravagant and heterodox. He appeared to find a mischievous satisfaction at the annual Conference in upsetting the gravity of the fathers in Israel. While the custodians of the true faith spoke of evolution as 'the gospel of dirt', he would exalt Darwin almost to the level of a Hebrew prophet. He had a fierce hatred of pretence and insincerity. Our little dogmas were shattered; for systematic theology he had no taste or aptitude. We sometimes thought then, as many of us still think, that he too readily ridiculed what lay outside the bounds of his mastery. His knowledge of the Bible seemed to us then to be one of the wonders of the world. How he kept pace with the teaching of Biblical scholarship, we did not understand; but I suspect that what easily impressed and even awed a callow youth would have disclosed many defects had it been exposed to genuine scholarship... He spent most of his fiery and almost inexhaustible energy in teaching, and only had the residue of a busy day for personal study. The pupils he sent out from the school showed, however, the thoroughness of his teaching.'

Richard Pyke, Men and Memories (1948) pp.37-8

  • Proceedings of the Second Ecumenical Methodist Conference (1891) pp.579-84
  • William John Michell, Brief Biographical Sketches of Bible Christian Ministers and Laymen (1906), vol. 1 pp.117-26
  • G.P. Dymond, Thomas Ruddle of Shebbear, a North Devon Arnold (1913?)
  • Richard Pyke, The Story of Shebbear College (1953) pp.15-23
  • Thomas Shaw, The Bible Christians 1815-1907 (1965) pp.63-64