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All things bright and beautiful… Fanny Alexander and a disastrous fire

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 27 January 2012

Mrs Cecil Frances (Fanny) ALEXANDER, was also known by her initials C.F.A. (1818-1895)

Wife of the Bishop of Derry, and a hymn writer best known for All Things Bright and Beautiful, Cecil Alexander was born in Dublin in 1818, the daughter of John Humphreys,  a second lieutenant in the Royal Marines (later a major in the Tyrone yeomanry), and his wife Elizabeth Reed, a niece of General Sir Thomas Reed. Attracted with her friend Lady Harriott Howard to the Oxford Movement in the 1840s, the two began writing tracts with Cecil supplying the verse.

Marrying the Rev. William Alexander in 1850 she became deeply involved in parish work in Strabane, County Tyrone. Cecil, widely known as Fanny, was involved with her sister in the work of the Institution for the Deaf and Dumb at Strabane, which became the Derry and Raphoe Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, the proceeds from her early publications helping to fund this work.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Sadly the Institution was destroyed by fire in 1856, and “the poor children, terrified by the flames, ran into shelter from which there was no escape, and several of them lost their lives” (obituary). The fire started at night and was discovered at 2 am on the 7th of May 1856. Six children were killed and their bodies badly burnt. At the time the Master of the school was Mr (later Rev.) George A.W. Downing, who later went on to teach in London and Manchester. Fanny’s father Major Humphreys presided over an investigation that followed the inquest, but no fault could be attributed to any individual.

Fanny wrote a poem about the fire, and she also wrote The Twin Mutes; Taught and Untaught, a moral fable, to raise funds to build an infant school for the deaf and dumb in Manchester, and the poem was published by Dr. Stainer. Unfortunately we do not have any records from the Derry Diocese Deaf and Dumb Institution as it seems to have been termed.

Among her lyrics were the famous ‘Once on royal David’s City’, and ‘There is a Green Hill far away’, see this link http://www.cyberhymnal.org/bio/a/l/e/alexander_cfh.htm

Harron, Michael, fires and fire fighting in Strabane during the eighteenth and ninteenth centuries.

Deaf history snippets.  British Deaf News, 1997, Nov, 9.

Memorial plaque

Obituary. Quarterly Review of Deaf-Mute Education, 1896, 4, 155-56.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Then and Now