Clarence Bicknell, after flirting with Volapük, discovered Esperanto in 1897, ten years after Zamenhof published his Unua Libro. How and where he heard about the language remain a mystery but the spark took flame in Clarence’s head.

Bicknell threw himself into Esperanto with gusto and some talent; this was his very nature. He had been a committed theologian for 14 years before leaving for Italy in 1879, but had become disenchanted with the narrow-mindedness of the Church of England and was criticised when he preached ecumenical beliefs. He threw off his dog collar and let himself be swept away by the warmth and beauty of the Ligurian coast of Italy and the town of Bordighera where he lived for the rest of his life. It was a vibrant, international community. Visitors from Britain, France, Germany and Russia made the town their winter or permanent residence.

Botanist, linguist, artist, and archaeologist

Clarence devoted himself to botany, art and later archaeology. He became an excellent botanist, recorded his finds in watercolours, and published books. He discovered, copied and catalogued 11,000 pre-historic rock engravings high in the Alps on the French-Italian border. During his lifetime, he created 38,750 pictures and preserved flowers which are stored and displayed in museums in and around Europe.

To communicate with like-minded researchers Clarence had perfected his French and Italian; Bicknell now realised how a universal language could be useful for corresponding with his botanist friends and other scientists in many countries round the world. Esperanto was both a practical and idealistic solution; Zamenhof’s ideals were Clarence’s ideals: justice, fraternity, democracy, pacifism, religious tolerance and international cooperation. Both men fervently believed that disparate people had the capacity, without divine assistance, to communicate, even to forge peace, by using a common language.

Within three years Bicknell started writing Esperanto; his piece La Piemonta Valo Pesio appeared in the collection Esperantaj Prozaĵoj in 1902 edited by Louis de Beaufront.

He became an ardent proselytiser for the Esperanto movement, even in his home town of Bordighera.

His letter of 15 March 1900 in the Journal de Bordighera bears witness to his sincerity and commitment.

“Dear Sir, I shall be grateful if you will make known to your readers that I greatly desire to interest my fellow-countrymen in the new international language called ‘Esperanto’. . . I have endeavoured to satisfy a jury of competent Esperantists by submitting to a long examination in writing, the result of which I have just heard, and now find myself a certificated teacher and a holder of the Society’s diploma . . . With very little study and with very great care I have been able to read and translate into ‘Esperanto’ some of the works of Shakespeare, Goethe, Poushkin, Tolstoi and others, and have corresponded with persons of four nationalities”.

Local notables learnt Esperanto, like Rosa Junck and the vivacious Eileen de Burgh Daly, the editor of the Journal de Bordighera and proprietor of Bordighera’s tea rooms.

Poet, translator and transcriber

Clarence worked hard at it; in a letter (in French) to Swiss botanist Emile Burnat in November 1903, Clarence mentioned how overwhelmed he was by the amount of work his involvement with Esperanto demanded.

“Too much to do. Always correspondence, and now I must contribute to a new English journal.” (The journal was The Esperantist, launched in London in November 1903.)

But Clarence found time to attend the first major international gathering of Esperanto-speakers which took place in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, in 1905, at which Zamenhof himself gave the keynote speech. He was keen to meet other Esperantists and converse with them in face-to-face conversation. The international congresses were an ideal opportunity to do so and were entertaining interludes for travel with his trusted research assistant and friend Luigi Pollini (photo left).

Around this time, Bicknell began writing poetry in Esperanto and became the first laureate of the Internaciaj Floraj Ludoj held in Barcelona in 1909. His original poems (“popular but somewhat primitive”) appeared in contemporary periodicals including La Revuo (1906-1914) and The British Esperantist. Many other poems remained in manuscript form.

In 1966, Kalocsay wrote in his study on Bicknell in Norda Prismo:

“One can ponder on C. Bicknell’s learning Esperanto at the age of 55 and his being probably over 60 when he produced his first poems, having to strive more than ten years before he succeeded in expressing himself directly in poetry.”

Bicknell was also a translator into Esperanto of works including Thomas Macaulay’s Horacio in 1906, Tennyson’s Gvinevero in 1907, Julian Sturgis’s Rikoltado de la PecojŜakludo in 1915 and William Wordsworth’s La Narcisoj published in 1926.

He produced a number of hymns that are still in use: seven translations, one original Adoru Kantante and nine texts in Adoru. Clarence contributed greatly to the first Esperanto collection of Christian hymns, Ordo de Diservo (1907).

He was also active in work on behalf of the blind and transcribed many Esperanto books into braille. Clarence gave financial support to Esperanto organisations and founded an Esperanto group in Bordighera.

One of Clarence’s most beautiful vellum-bound albums is dedicated to his favourite visitors in his mountain lodge, the Casa Fontanalba. Each page is dedicated to one person, with a few words about them in Esperanto, the first initial created out of flowery motifs and page illuminations in fragrant watercolours. 

Clarence’s interest and work in Esperanto remain as vivid and relevant today as they were in the early 1900s; he was a pioneer in many ways.

With all the help Clarence Bicknell gave to Esperanto as a force for world peace, one can only imagine the dismay Clarence felt in his last days in the summer of 1918, four years into one of the worst wars we have ever seen.

Explore more of Clarence’s life and work

  • A complete chapter of the 2018 biography MARVELS – The Life of Clarence Bicknell by Valerie Lester is dedicated to Clarence’s interest in Esperanto.
  • A dedicated website; we would love a volunteer to help translate the pages.
  • The 18-minute film directed by French mountain film director Rémy Masséglia The Marvels of Clarence Bicknell was released in an Esperanto version voiced by Wera Blanke, Bill Chapman and Angela Tellier (free to view).
  • The 1998 book on Clarence Bicknell, A High Way To Heaven by Christopher Chippindale, was translated and printed in Esperanto as Pado al Paradizo – Clarence Bicknell kaj la Valo de la Mirindaĵojthanks to the efforts of the Italian Esperanto Federation, Michela Lipari and Humphrey Tonkin.
  • Bicknell’s poems and hymns in Esperanto; many are also published on the Internet.

Marcus Bicknell works in music, television and communication technologies. He has led the Clarence Bicknell Association since 2013. He won the 2017 Parmurelu d’Oru prize for services to culture in Italy. Clarence was his grandfather’s uncle.

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