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Rev HENRY HUNNINGS MA (1842-1886)


Article by Alan Swain (York)


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Early Life in Tottenham
Henry Hunnings descended from a large South Lincolnshire family which can be traced back to the Middle Ages. In 1788 Henry’s grandfather John Hunnings travelled to London from his home in South Lincolnshire taking the journey south along Ermine Street. Along the way he met and married Sarah Langley on 27th October 1788. They set up home together in Tottenham and had five children. William Butters Hunnings was their fifth child and was born on 26th July 1804.
In the early 19th Century Tottenham was largely a leafy village and at the centre of the Hunnings’ family life was All Hallows’ Church. William Butters Hunnings married Mary Offwood there on 25th May 1828 and together they had four sons. Sadly, second son Frederick died aged 20 months, and is buried in All Hallows’ churchyard. The three surviving sons were William John (b. 1829), Alfred (b. 1835) and lastly, born on 25th July 1842, Henry.
The Hunnings family lived at 516 High Road, Tottenham where William Butters Hunnings had established a ‘Printing and Stationers’ business. After leaving school Henry Hunnings joined the family ‘Printers & Stationers’ as a ‘Letter Press Printer’.
Henry brought his love of photography into the family business. He was the principal photographer. ‘WJ & H Hunnings’ took many photos of local scenes during this time, and there are a lot held in the Bruce Castle Museum Archives.

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Promotional photograph advertising ‘WJ & H Hunnings’ photographers, 1860’s


Photograph of Hunnings Printing and Stationery shop - Courtesy of Bruce Castle Museum



Photograph - William Butters Hunnings - Courtesy of Bruce Castle Museum

Henry’s Father - William Butters Hunnings
William Butters Hunnings relinquished day to day running of the family business in the 1850’s handing over responsibility to eldest son William John. William H Butters instead took on prominent roles within the local community being Vestry Clerk and Clerk to the Tottenham Burial Board amongst others.
There exists in the archives extensive records for the project from when it was decided that All Hallows and other Tottenham churchyards had reached capacity. As Clerk to the Tottenham Burial Board William Butters Hunnings was, in effect, the man who organised everything. He got to reserve plots 1 to 3 in the new Cemetery for his efforts, when the new cemetery was opened in 1858, where he is buried along with wife Mary, son William John and his wife Henrietta.

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Plot 1, Tottenham Cemetery


Bolton Percy, near York
In January 1868, aged 25, Henry left the family business in Tottenham and became a student at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. In 1870 he joined the Clergy and between 1874 and 1880 was one of two Curates at All Saints, Bolton Percy, near York. Whilst in Bolton Percy Henry Hunnings lived at ‘The Rectory’ and assisted the Venerable Archdeacon Stephen Creyke who was in charge at the time.


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All Saints Church, Bolton Percy

In very early times Bolton Percy stood near an important crossing of the River Wharfe. There is a substantial stone road running underneath the village coming from York and heading South which has all the appearance of a Roman construction. It may be an early precedent to the Ermine Street crossing in Tadcaster. It is therefore quite understandable how a community might settle upon it and how the Church of All Hallows at Bodeltone (as All Saints was originally called) may have come about. With the discovery of early mediaeval coins nearby it is fairly safe to assume there was a settlement there prior to the infamous Viking invasion of York in 867.
A church with a priest in residence is mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1083-1086. With the coming of the Normans to Yorkshire in 1069 the now valuable Manor of Bodeltone, with its church, passed into the hands of William de Percy, an ancestor of the famous Northumbrian family. By the year 1248 though it was in the hands of the Archbishop of York, having been exchanged for a church nearer to the Priory. Since that point until more recent times the old church (All Hallows) and newly constructed church of All Saints’ (consecrated in 1424) in the village now known as Bolton Percy has been in a close relationship with York and its Minster. In 1877 when Henry Hunnings was there it provided the resident vicar a valuable living of 1240 per annum, (enough for two curates and several servants) and its rectors, appointed by the archbishop were frequently men of high status and wealth.

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Extract from Register of Baptisms Solemnized in the Parish of Bolton Percy in the County of York – August 1877

Being one of two curates and a vicar assigned to the church, we understand that Henry Hunnings was not overwhelmed with his parish work so had spare time to follow some of his other pursuits.



The Inventor
Whilst at Bolton Percy, Hunnings closely followed the emergence of telephony which was invented in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell. Experimenting in his spare time and using crushed coke he collected from Bolton Percy station yard he successfully created his own telephone transmitter device which he patented in the UK on 16th September 1878.

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                The Hunnings Carbon Granule                Telephone Transmitter


The Hunnings transmitter was a great success, the secret being the use of carbon granules behind the diaphragm and this produced a clearer, stronger voice signal than any other at that time. He was able to produce carbon granules by crushing cinders he collected from Bolton Percy railway station.


His friends, Edward Harrison and Edward Cox-Walker, produced a “Hunnings Micro-Telephone”. On the 27th January 1880 they gave a bold public demonstration. Using existing telegraph wires that ran alongside the railway they connected up their telephone devices at Darlington and York Stations, a distance of 45 miles. This proved to be a huge success as both parties exchanged clear conversations and songs with great amusement.

Following legal arguments in the High Court which commenced in 1882 (Alexander Graham Bell & Thomas Edison had accused Hunnings and friends of copying their patents) and which concluded with an Appeal heard in January 1883, Hunnings agreed to sell his patent to Edison for 1,000. He also agreed to appear as an ‘expert witness’ on behalf of Edison at some future Court cases.

But the Hunnings carbon-granule transmitter very soon became the adopted standard and with minor alterations continued to be used around the world for generations. It was finally phased out by the British GPO in the 1980’s, over 100 years later.


 Family life and declining health
It was at Bolton Percy where Henry met Margaret Ann Ridley. Margaret lived with her family in one of the cottages adjacent to the Church. It was in the late summer of 1879 that the young 18-year-old Margaret Ridley became pregnant to 37-year-old, Rev Henry Hunnings. This was clearly unexpected and unplanned and the impact this had on this honourable man was significant and it is likely that he never fully overcame the grief, stress and shame of his predicament.
In March 1880 Henry and a seven-month pregnant Margaret were married. In May 1880 their first child William Butters (Jr) was born and in 1882 they had a daughter Katherine Mary.
Henry left Bolton Percy in 1880 taking other Curate’s positions in Seaforth (Lancs), Rothwell (Leeds), Ryde (Isle of Wight) and Eling (Hampshire) before securing his final role in November 1885 as Chaplain of Royal South Hants Infirmary. However, by this time he was in poor health and, in fear of losing his job, he sadly took his own life on 4th May 1886.

The post mortem held later that month gave a verdict of “Suicide in an unsound state of mind”. On his death Henry left an estate valued at 1222, 12s, 6d.

Whatever caused him to take his own life will never truly be known. The effects of ill-health, loss of job, loss of income, and stress of court cases were all considered and mentioned at the time as possible contributing factors. Of course, there was no mention of the scandal he had lived with for six years but had kept hidden from view but there is no doubt it was a tragic finale. Sadly, he died and was buried in relative obscurity.
But the historians of Tottenham have never forgotten Henry Hunnings nor indeed any of the Hunnings family who once lived at 516 High Road, Tottenham. They have benefited greatly from the photographs both he and his descendants have taken over the years. And in the village of Bolton Percy where Henry enjoyed his most successful time, he is fondly remembered too and commemorated in the Church of All Saints’ for his service to the people of that parish from 1874 to 1880 and for his invention there which made such a contribution to the modern world.


To conclude:
Henry Hunnings was born in Tottenham on 25th July 1842 and died at the age of 43 in Southampton on 4th May 1886. The following is a summary of his most notable highlights and achievements:
  • He was born and grew up on the High Road, Tottenham where he worked as a ‘Letter Press Printer’ in the family business until he reached the age of 25. He gained a BA and an MA at Oxford.
  • He was an able man; He brought photography into the family business and his photograph of Hare Pomare (son of an important Maori leader) now resides at the National Library of New Zealand. He was a pianist. Evidence exists that he played the harmonium and the organ on occasion at church services and events. He passed on his knowledge and learning to others and delivered many lectures about the telephone.
  • His career in the Clergy whilst unremarkable was successful. From newspaper reports he was clearly an able exponent of his duties as Curate and Chaplain until his health deteriorated.
  • He was a family man. Regardless of the circumstances leading to the conception of his son William Butters (Jr) he dutifully married Margaret Ann Ridley before the child was born and together in wedlock they had a second child Katherine Mary.
  • He was a Conservative. He was elected to the Committee of the Ryde Conservative Group & was a regular public speaker in that forum particularly speaking out against the Liberals.

But undoubtedly, however, it will be for his work as an inventor, introducing the carbon-granule microphone to the world, for which he will be remembered. He also had manufactured the Hunnings’ ‘Micro-telephone’ which was purchased and used in anger and he demonstrated and exhibited this device at events and exhibitions up and down the country winning accolades and awards along the way.
Thomas Edison, was so impressed by Hunnings’ device that, although he had defeated Hunnings in Court on appeal and on a technicality, he bought the Hunnings transmitter patent preferring it to his own.
And the British Post Office and others went on to adopt Hunnings’ carbon-granule transmitter as their transmitter of choice until it was phased out in the 1980s some one hundred years later.
Here are a few examples of British Telephones that made use of the Hunnings Carbon Granule Transmitter, maybe you remember some of them:

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And finally
My thanks to my friend from York, Alan Swain, (no relation!) for this article. Alan has written a comprehensive book on Rev Henry Hunnings which is available from Amazon or directly from Alan at email him for details.

The Biography of Rev. Henry Hunnings MA (Oxon)

Written by Alan Swain

So as not to confuse you with the contribution of two Alan Swain's in the preparation of this article, here is a photograph of the both of us taken at the Local History Fair at Bruce Castle Museum, Tottenham in February 2018. The author Alan Swain is pictured left and the website administrator and local historian (also Alan Swain) is pictured right.

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Post Script
It was intriguing to realise the possibility of yet more tenuous Tottenham connections by the name of the village Bolton Percy in Yorkshire where Henry Hunnings had settled. The origins of the village name dating from 1284 are owed to William de Percy, an ancestor of the famous Northumbrian family, who were Lords of the Manor. The former hamlet of Tottenham also had very strong connections with the Percy family and the Dukes of Northumberland who held considerable lands and estates in the area for many centuries. As we know there is to this day an area of Tottenham known as Northumberland Park that draws from this connection. Our world famous football team are also named ‘Hotspur’ in recognition of Earl Henry Percy (Harry Hotspur), a brave and courageous knight from the 14th Century. Tottenham Hotspur are now completing the restoration of the historic ‘Percy House’ along Tottenham High Road that will become the ‘Tottenham Hotspur Foundation’. It stands within the shadow of the new stadium that is due to be completed by Aug-Sept 2018.

Both Tottenham and Bolton Percy (York) are also located on the route of Ermine Street, the Roman road that had linked London with York.

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Original article written by Alan Swain (Bolton Percy) York and prepared for publication to this website by Alan Swain (Tottenham-SummerhillRoad)