R is for the 3 Rs

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The three Rs? They are “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic”.

Sir William Curtis (1752-1829) called the foundations of a basic education, reading, writing and arithmetic, the 3 Rs around 1825, when he was well over 70. Was he aware of the irony of his words? Was he funny or illiterate?

Sir Billy Biscuit’s origins were modest. Born in East London, William was the son of a manufacturer of sea biscuits, a ship’s staple known as hardtack in the US consisting of very hard unsalted bread. Business boomed during the Napoleonic wars, and so William became a very wealthy merchant. He founded a bank and then entered politics to become Lord Mayor of London and MP of the City of London, where he defended the interests of the mercantile community in parliament. He befriended King George IV and was made a Baronet in 1802.

Though he was a keen business man and politician, he was said to be almost illiterate. Yet Sir William was also an amateur cellist and owner of fine musical instruments. Surely a musician will have been able to read?

A satirical book plate making fun of him bears the Latin words for “We conquer by degrees” — and a sheep’s head!


4 Responses

  1. I’m not sure musician ALWAYS equals reader, wasn’t Miles Davis famous for not reading music?
    Or are you thinking differently than musician/sheet music/reader and i’ve missed the point again?

  2. You’re right. Perhaps literacy is overrated. Just think of the magnificant oral traditions all over the world. I was just thinking that a merchant who played a chamber music instrument in that era and then spoke before such an auditorium must be literate. But no idea, I didn’t find references to his “papers” in the bios available online.

  3. I was interested to read your comments about Sir William Curtis and the three rs. In 2010, I published “Billy Biscuit – The Colourful Life and Times of Sir William Curtis” which was written in collaboration with John Curtis Dolby who was a direct descendant of Billy Biscuit. Having done quite a bit of research on this man I believe he was semi literate because he was dyslexic. I also think that he was parodying himself when he coined the The Three Rs phrase and not speaking out of ignorance.
    I do not think his semi literacy would have prevented him from being the talented amateur cellist and musician that he was.

  4. Dear Nick,
    Thank you for writing, and you are so right to call me out. I was writing in my role an English teacher. I’ve also learned more about dyslexia in the past years and would not be as flippant today as I was ten years ago.
    I’m very curious: What made you look into Sir William Curtis in the first place?

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