School Days

‘When still a child John Ray drew attention to himself by his unusual intelligence and ability’. Dr. Derham, Rector of Upminster

In 1535, the south chapel of St. Michael’s Church, now called the Jesus Chapel, had been built as a chantry. During the Reformation in 1548 this chapel was turned into a two-storey building for use as a school, which Ray attended from 1638 to 1643. On one side of the Chancel pillars, marks scraped by the sharpening of slate pencils, can still be traced.

Thomas Goad, Rector of Black Notley, and Joseph Plume who succeeded him, were both men of some eminence who undoubtedly found Ray a bright boy. Plume, a learned Suffolk man and a Fellow of Queen’s College in Cambridge, lived within 100 yards of the smithy. His influence probably attracted Ray to the church. He was likely to have been responsible too, for sending him to the Grammar School in Braintree and to have encouraged his studies there.

Ray’s teacher is uncertain, but was probably a Mr. Love. Ray himself, according to Dr. Derham, sometimes used to lament that, at that time, it was ‘a not good school, a paltry school’ – a great misfortune in his younger days. However, as his subsequent record shows, it must have provided a good grounding in Latin, trained his memory, given him an orderly mind and a delight in his studies. It certainly taught him beautiful, legible handwriting. ‘The famous Mr John Ray, and tho’ he writ so much, writ a fair hand and very slow’, according to his contemporary, Thomas Hearne.

Ray's Cambridge Career

‘At the University, Ray showed great diligence, learning and virtue’. Dr. Derham

In 1644, at 16, John Ray started at Catherine Hall, Cambridge University, on a grant bequeathed in the will of Thomas Hobbs of Grays Inn – ‘£5 yearly for two or three hopeful poor scholars being of sober and Christian conversation’.


Cambridge University predominately favoured Parliament and had been the centre of military activity during the outbreak of the Civil War. However, although the University’s theology was generally Puritan, many supported the King.

At Catherine Hall College, Daniel Duckfield, an Essex man, was Ray’s tutor. He was probably the son of the Vicar of Childerditch, near Brentwood. His death may have been one of the reasons for Ray’s transfer to Trinity in 1646. Here he was placed under James Duport, who had a great reputation as a scholar and a teacher. At Trinity, Ray met Isaac Barrow who, educated within a few miles of Ray at Felsted School, arrived a year later. Considered Duport’s most brilliant pupils, the young men became great friends.

When Ray arrived in Cambridge, the standard of education there was unquestionably higher than in the previous decade. Elsewhere, Bacon, Milton, Descartes and the astronomy of Copernicus had a substantial following and were influencing scientific inquiry. Traditional teaching at Cambridge had concentrated on the study of Latin, Greek and the ancient world. Progressive students found this limiting and gradually, despite opposition, change came about. Ray and Isaac Newton were two of the first scientists of their generation to use the new methods of observation and experiment.