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John Honey: ‘a martyr to humanity’

John Honey: ‘a martyr to humanity’

 I have seen many affecting scenes, heard many eloquent men, but this crowns them all –  I have never seen it equalled, never in my life!
Dr Chalmers, contemporary of Honey, as quoted in Bruce

jh1At the turn of the century on Friday 5 January, 1800, five men were stranded on the sinking wreckage of cargo ship Janet the MacDuff some 300 metres off the coast of East Sands. The sky was roaring, the sea was rough, and there was no life boat in the docks – not that it would necessarily have been possible to sail one out to the crew in the harsh Scottish waters in any case.

… the crew, exhausted, were about to perish …
C Rogers, 1849, p. 66

Panic spread through the town like wildfire, eventually reaching the congregation of St Salvator’s Chapel – among the members of which was 19-year-old St Andrews student John Honey. Upon hearing the news, John raced through the town and down to the sands, tied a rope around his waist, stripped off his cloak and plunged into the icy sea. Undeterred by the storm and doubtless fearing for the lives of the crew, he tore through the treacherous waves and was able to carry the first of the crew back to shore.

… with the strength of a young Hercules and the skill of a Leander …
G Bruce, 1884, p.49

He made a second trip, and a third, and even a fourth – carrying each of the weary sailors in turn back to shore. With only the youngest crewmember left, and the ship fast crumbling around him, John was already a hero – but he wasn’t done yet. He would not rest until every man was safe. He set off one last time and finally hauled the fifth and final man back to shore, but the surrounding audience could clearly sense that something was amiss. John had been struck across the chest by the ship’s falling mast. Luckily, he pulled through, and was rewarded for his bravery by receiving a silver cup and the Freedom of the Cities of St Andrews, Perth, Forfar and Auchtermuchty.

The Magistrate invited him to an elegant entertainment, and presented him with the freedom of the city.
C Dempster, Dean of Guild, 1800, as quoted in Bruce

Sunset, St Andrews, by Sam Bough 1856
Sunset, St Andrews, by Sam Bough 1856

The year following, a lifeboat was purchased for the docks.

John married Ann, the daughter of a St Andrews Civil History Professor, on 20 October 1809. They had three sons – John, James, and George. Honey became the Minister of Bendochy in 1812 before finally, his heroism caught up with him. Many believe that the injury sustained on his fifth trip had stayed with him those fourteen years leading up to his death, aged 32 on 16 October 1814 and, indeed, had contributed to the tuberculosis that killed him.

 It is needless to comment on the magnanimity of the courage and sublime self-sacrifice …
G Bruce, 1884, p. 51

John Honey may have died in 1814, but his memory is alive and well in the St Andrews community. Throughout the town a number of monuments and traditions are dedicated to the alumnus to celebrate and inspire the courageousness of Honey in the hearts of students.

jh3In St Salvator’s − the very chapel Honey sprinted from in 1800 − there is a stained-glass window illustrating his expedition and immortalising his bravery.  The window stands beside memorials to fellow St Andrews legend Patrick Hamilton, and to the Fallen of World War One, reinforcing his place among the iconic University ‘greats’. In addition, the University’s first dedicated computer science building (which was opened in 1971) was called the John Honey Building, according to the longstanding tradition of naming School buildings after St Andrews icons.

… the gown is never fastened in St Andrews lest students find themselves in the waters of the North Sea.
J C Cooper, 2010, p. 36

Every Sunday, following chapel service, students don their red gowns and walk the length of the pier in his memory. These gowns are never fastened because of the superstition that the students might have to throw them off at a moment’s notice and run into the sea as Honey did all those years ago.

Although the University would never condone swimming in the North Sea on a stormy January morning (in part because there is no need any more – not only is the dock equipped with a life boat these days, but it is also manned by the coast guard), students are still encouraged to embody the spirit of Honey in the way they conduct themselves.

In 2002, the Students’ Association established the John Honey Award, to be given to those students who have shown outstanding and exceptional contribution to student wellbeing during their time at St Andrews. The award emphasises the fact that the true beauty of Honey’s act wasn’t its daring nature, but rather his dedication to helping others. The most effective way to commemorate Honey is to do good deeds in his name, to put giving at the centre of our lives; which the St Andrews community certainly does. Be it fighting for people’s rights, championing the environment, volunteering for anonymous wellbeing helplines, or raising money for those in need – there are dozens of ways to live life like Honey.

No deed of war, few acts of chivalry, ever rose to a loftier pinnacle of moral grandeur
G Bruce, 1884, p.52

Honey’s signature as found in the joint matriculation and graduation role. Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library. Item Classmark UYUY309.
Honey’s signature as found in the joint matriculation and graduation role. Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library. Item Classmark UYUY309.

In fact, we recently discovered that Honey himself had been the recipient of a small bursary of ten pounds in 1799 − the Foundation Bursary. It was thanks to the generosity and selflessness of those before him that he was able to study in comfort and that he had the strength to undertake such a selfless trial himself. Bursaries and scholarships enable us to fund the future scientists, doctors, writers, thinkers and, of course, altruists like John Honey: without help from generous providers, they may never realise their full potential.

It was bold, brave, cool, persistent, quiet, determined, humane, self-possessed and, above all, self-sacrificing.
G Bruce, 1884, p.52

Perhaps we should all ask ourselves what we can do to honour John Honey’s memory? How can we be more like John Honey in our day-to-day lives? Big questions indeed! Luckily, we have a fun QUIZ to help you find out the answers. Take it now to discover your Honey Factor, and to find out what you can do to improve it.

Works Cited

Bruce, G Wrecks and reminiscences of St Andrews bay: With the History of the lifeboat, and a sketch of the fishing population in the city, etc (John Leng & Co: 1884)

Cooper, J ‘The Scarlet Gown: History and Development of Scottish Undergraduate Dress’ Transactions of the Burgon Society, 10 (2010): pp 8-42

Rogers, C History of St Andrews, (Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black: 1849)


Rowan Wishart

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