Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Curate's Imprudent Kiss

Curates were ever a figure of great fun in Victorian England. In 1876, Belgravia, a society magazine, published a rather lengthy discussion of the woebegone species, concluding that "decidedly the most marked trait about the full-blooded curate variety is that they are not ladies' men." 

In 1883, one such curate, a High Churchman with deeply held views on celibacy, was entrapped in an embarrassing blackmail plot. The Times of London withheld the unfortunate cleric's name but reported that he held a curacy in a "prosperous London suburb." A pretty female parishioner had made her interest in the handsome curate quite plain but seeing that he would not bend, she asked, before they parted forever, could she have one kiss? He complied. Days later, in a neat parcel, tied up in a blue ribbon, there arrived an “instantaneous photograph, cabinet size” of him kissing the "pretty penitent." An enclosed note claimed that there were eleven more copies of the photograph and they would cost the curate £20 apiece. The Times reported that “negotiations are said to be progressing.” 

The story, for the Victorian media, "went viral." The Times account was picked up by papers across Britain and over the Atlantic. Admittedly, it may very well have been a hoax; the secular press rarely missed an opportunity to poke the High Church set (and celibacy, of course, was so "Romish"). The curate was never identified. How the matter was resolved must be left to surmise. But the moral was clear, as one leader-writer put it, let it be "a warning to susceptible youths in general, and young curates with comely parishioners in particular, to take good care when similarly committing themselves."

Now, this may have been a rather amusing "escalandre." But clergymen were among the most frequent victims of vicious blackmailers. For a "man bites dog" reversal of roles, please see the story of the Rev. Richard Marsh Watson, whose truly shocking blackmail scheme was denounced as a "case of heartless villainy." Watson's story can be found in Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Vol 2, available now in both paperback and Kindle exclusively through and 

Thursday, October 5, 2017

"In a State of Helpless Intoxication"

"That many of the clergy of the day were hard drinkers at a time when all men drank, there can be no question," one Victorian observer wrote. But by the late 19th Century, the number of alcoholic churchmen had become a serious issue. 

Courtesy of Roger Williams (
The Rev Henry Limpus, the vicar of St. Mary's, Twickenham, was a man of "considerable attainments." He composed secular and sacred music for the organ that enjoyed contemporary popularity. In Twickenham, he was a leading figure in public life. At 53, Limpus was recently widowed and left with eight children, ranging from late teens to infancy. In January 1884, however, the Bishop of London authorised a five member commission of clergy and laymen to investigate "certain grave charges" that Limpus had been seen publicly intoxicated on a Sunday evening the previous November. 

The commission met in the Chapter House at St. Paul's. Evidence was presented that Limpus had failed to appear at both services on 11 November and "was that day seen three times, in three different places, by four different sets of persons, in a state of helpless intoxication." One witness said the clergyman reeled along the Richmond Road from pavement to gutter, finally clinging to some fence railings. Mrs. Litchfield, a parishioner, thanks to "a particularly moonlit night," was sorry to say her vicar's "eyes were half shut and his face was ashen pale." 

Rev. Limpus admitted being unwell that day, forcing him to miss his duties. But that evening, he insisted, he was nowhere near the Richmond Road, but was having tea with the "Misses Jessop," respectable ladies who ran a small school in East Molesey, six miles away. "I was sitting in the drawing room taking my tea and chatting. I remained there the whole time from 4 till 9."

The commissioners met on 30 January to consider their verdict. But there was considerable excitement when Rev. Limpus' counsel opened the day by stating that his client wished to recant his alibi. He had misremembered the dates; he had actually been with the Jessop women on the following Sunday, the 18th. In fact, Limpus was now prepared to virtually admit the charges. 

The commissioners were unanimous in their findings and the Bishop of London announced that the Rev. Limpus would be suspended from his clerical duties for three years. The formal notice was nailed to the door of St. Mary's on 17 February 1884. He served his suspension, returning to Twickenham briefly before resigning in 1888. He was buried in the churchyard after his death in 1893, the same year a new Clergy Discipline Act took effect, declaring that "habitual" drunkenness (amongst other offenses) would be a bar to holding clerical office. 

It was hoped that the new act would end the need for lengthy, expensive procedures to remove heavy drinkers. Such was clearly not the result in the case of the Rev. Charles Gordon Young of Chipstead. In the words of the Daily Mail, "never has a little village been so divided." The fascinating tale of the Rev. Mr. Young is told in Clerical Errors, A Victorian Series - Vol 2. The book is available in paperback and Kindle exclusively through and

Sunday, September 24, 2017

An Unfortunate Clerical First - in Divorce Court

On the morning of 10 October 1858, the newly established court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes sat for the first time in London's ancient Westminster Hall. Previously, divorces required a prohibitively expensive process through the House of Lords. The first case called that morning was Norris v Norris and Gyles. William Norris, a prominent Worcestershire solicitor, petitioned for the divorce on the grounds of his wife's elopement with the Rev. George Gyles, the 30-year old curate of St. Mary's, Tenbury Wells. 

Gyles, with a Cambridge degree, had been an "edifying" clergyman in Tenbury for several years, working closely with Norris at the workhouse and other civic chores. The curate had been welcomed into the Norris home on Teme Street and the company of the young Mrs. Louisa Norris, "a woman of great personal attractions and accomplishments." When Gyles was stricken with rheumatic fever, he was tenderly cared for by the Norrises. Louisa's people were from the Isle of Wight and in 1857, for a change of air, she went to stay with her aunt, Lady Holmes. In March, "in consequence of a letter she had received," Louisa asked for the carriage stating that her husband had summoned her home. But she never returned to Tenbury. In fact, at the same time, the Rev. Mr. Gyles also "disappeared from the scene of his clerical labours."

William Norris now came to court with evidence showing that his wife and the clergyman had sailed for America, returning to England some months later, residing at a hotel in Paternoster Row (in the shadow of St. Paul's!) and, finally, living as "Mr. and Mrs. Grant" off the Vauxhall Road. No effort was made to challenge the petition and Norris' divorce was granted. The papers expressed their sympathy with the cuckolded husband whose wife "had listened to the insidious poison instilled into her ears by a 'reverend gentleman' whom Norris had befriended in sickness."

The sequel to the Tenbury scandal was a sad one. Rev. Gyles and Louisa were married three months after the divorce was heard. She died in childbirth only five months later. Their son survived. Gyles remarried the following year and had two more children. 

The new Divorce Court (1858)
The often salacious proceedings of the new divorce court were closely covered in the press causing much distress in thoughtful circles. Clearly, it was an embarrassment for the church that the very first case involved a clergyman. However, prior to the Clergy Discipline Act of 1893, being found at fault in a divorce was no bar to church employment. The Rev. George Gyles B.A. remained on the clerical rolls but "without cure," i.e. without a church. He was allowed to preside at one or two "private chapels" and did the occasional wedding up to his death in 1887.

The undefended Norris case was a rather perfunctory one in the courts, unlike the sensational story of the Rev. Seton Karr, vicar of Berkeley, who was also accused of seducing a solicitor's wife. The fascinating details of that case are told in Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Volume 2, now available in paperback at and

Thursday, September 14, 2017

An Exhumation in Bedfordshire

The graveyard at Clapham church.
Nothing quite brings out a crowd like an exhumation. On a dark, mild night in September 1876, in the graveyard of the church of St. Thomas a Beckett in Clapham, Bedfordshire, the body of the late Rev. John Frederic Dawson was disturbed from its eternal rest. With hushed villagers looking on, a long-running family mystery would be solved at last.

For many years a rector in Lincolnshire, the Rev. Dawson had retired owing to poor health, and moved to the Woodlands, his family seat in Clapham. Dawson had inherited the fine mansion and surrounding forest of oaks from his father, a former mayor of Bedford. The reader will want to know that the Rev. Dawson had been married twice. After the death of his first wife, he married his housekeeper, with some thought unseemly haste. Each wife produced a son. When the clergyman died in 1870, his eldest son, William, 37, naturally assumed he would inherit the Woodlands. His disappointment was therefore keen when the Rev. Dawson instead left the estate to his half-brother, John Frederic, a mere youth. 

William brooded upon this rebuff for some time; he insisted that his grandfather had, in fact, written a will, requiring that the Woodlands be passed on according to the principle of primogeniture, to the eldest son. But William's legal challenges all failed - he could produce no will, therefore there was no case. It does seem that the locals rather favoured William's side. Thus, there was a sensation when the carpenter who had screwed down the lid on the Rev. Dawson's coffin came forward (after seven years) to claim that a family nurse had - at the very last moment - slipped some papers into the fabric lining. 

With this new twist, William once more approached the Home Office and finally prevailed. An exhumation was authorised. The disputed property was just over the road from the church. As can be imagined, Clapham was in a "great state of excitement." At two a-m, watched by a crowd exhibiting the "greatest decorum," the somber process began. A one-ton slab had to be pulled back before the coffin could be raised. The coffin lid was unscrewed revealing that the Rev. Dawson's body was in a “wonderful state of preservation.” Apparently, there was not the slightest smell. Alas, for William, there was no will to be found. A diligent search produced only a packet of letters tied in a ribbon. Ironically, they were letters between the clergyman and his first wife (i.e. William's mother). By noon, the graveyard was quiet again. 
Woodland Manor today

The familial struggle had been long and costly; the property soon passed out of the Dawson family. Today, Woodland Manor survives as a restaurant, hotel and wedding venue. 

I am happy to report that sales of Clerical Errors: A Victorian Series, Volume 2 have been increasing. The second volume is available in both paperback and Kindle editions at and Thank you very much. If you do see your way to purchase a copy, please write a review on the Amazon website.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

A Tale of Two Clergymen

"Holy Trinity," Shanghai (courtesy TimeOutShanghai.)
By all accounts, the Rev. Charles Henry Butcher (1833-1908) was a very exceptional man. Highly educated, a fellow of Durham University, Butcher had been a curate at the church of St Clement Danes in the Strand. In 1864, he was chosen to go to Shanghai to help establish the first Anglican diocese in China. Before leaving, the 31 year old Butcher married Margaret Gardner in Notting Hill. 

In China, Butcher's duties were extensive, including overseeing the construction of the first Anglican Cathedral. He and Margaret, we are assured, lived on "most affectionate terms" until 1871 when she returned to England for "her health." She went to South Yorkshire where her brother was the vicar of Tickhill, near Doncaster. Sadly, however, the Rev. Mr. Gardner died in his vicarage in 1872, leaving Mrs. Butcher behind with the new curate, the Rev. Frank Chorley. 

It took a long time for a letter from Yorkshire to reach Shanghai in 1873 but Margaret wrote to her husband to admit she no longer loved him and was living with the Rev. Mr. Chorley in London. The usual servants were found (employed?) to testify to the sleeping arrangements in Tickhill and, since, in Gordon Square. The decree nisi was issued without any defense being offered.

The new cathedral in Shanghai, built to the "ambitious Gothic designs" of George Gilbert Scott was dedicated in 1876. "With its stout pews, stained-glass windows and 2,500-pipe organ, the red-brick Anglican church provided a cloistered haven in an exotic, untamed place." [LA Times 27 Feb 2011] The Rev Butcher was the first Dean. But he left Shanghai soon thereafter for Cairo where he spent the rest of his life as Archdeacon of the Anglican church in the Egyptian capital. In 1896, he remarried a Lincolnshire clergyman's daughter, Edith Floyer. Even in Egypt, the remarriage did not escape the attention of "Father Black," the clerical gadfly, who wrote to the Church Times to announce:  “Allow me to draw the attention to the fact that the wife whom Archdeacon Butcher divorced is still living!”

And indeed she was. Margaret Butcher had married the Rev. Mr. Chorley very soon after her divorce. Chorley remained listed in the clerical guides but, given the scandal, found no church employment for several years. In the 1890’s – he was a curate at St. Mary’s in Bury St Edmunds, where, after his death in 1900, he was remembered "for his kindly disposition, gentle manners, and generous readiness to spend and be spent in the service of his high calling, making him beloved by all who knew him.”   

Butcher died in Cairo in 1908. The cathedral in Shanghai was damaged during the Cultural Revolution and converted for various public uses but has been restored and since 2006 has served as the "main church and headquarters of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement" in Shanghai. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

"A Commotion Raised Throughout Yorkshire"

St. Mary the Virgin, Boston Spa
The proper role of a clergyman’s wife was a familiar subject for discussion among churchmen in Victorian England. It was, of course, an all-male profession and most were married. A good wife was expected to strive to lighten her clerical husband’s temporal worries by managing his home and family. Too often, however, she developed “false notions." A Church journal warned: "Let us recognize and proclaim the truth that the clergyman’s wife shares nothing of her husband’s office – possesses no right or authority, or power beyond the wives of the laity." One vicar's wife wrote, "Whatever she does, the clergyman’s wife is sure to be criticised, and I fancy that it is best for her to be criticised for doing too little than for doing too much. "

In 1871, the Rev. William Villiers and his wife Emily came to Boston Spa; he was vicar of the parish church of St. Mary the Virgin. Husband and wife were from prominent families and accustomed to some deference. In her spare time, Mrs. Villiers devotedly tended her vicarage garden while also raising chickens. When an animal killed one or more of her poultry, Mrs. Villiers was understandably disturbed.  A reward was offered. When a cat was captured in the garden, res ipsa, and the animal was summarily put down.

"The Curtsey" by Bougereau
The owner of this accused cat was a local dissenter named Bellwood, who lived very near the vicarage. His niece, Annie, whose cat it was, took it very hard and Bellwood protested but to no avail. He would have his revenge. Soon thereafter, Mrs. Villiers was walking in the High Street and came upon Annie. It was traditional for a child – church-goer or not - to curtsey when encountering a personage as grand as the wife of the parish vicar. When Annie offered no such "bow," Mrs. Villiers barked, “Where are your manners, child?”  The girl replied that her uncle had instructed her that she had no duty to curtsey to the vicar’s wife any longer.

Mrs. Villiers stormed off to her husband. As vicar, Villiers played an ex-officio role in the local "national school." He called in Collison, the schoolmaster, and ordered the girl to be either caned or expelled. After dithering some time, Collison resigned rather than do either.   

The sidewalk sensation came at a time (1877) when the role of the Church in these new "public" schools was a flashpoint. The Boston Spa incident went "viral," in the Victorian press. The Leeds' papers led the chorus. A story headed "How Good Manners are Taught at Boston Spa,” described how a “motherless girl of seven” refused to “bob down” to the vicar’s wife in the High Street. Punch mocked the “silly fop of a clergyman” who slavishly carried his wife’s water. Are dissenting scholars to be caned it they "refuse to clean the Vicar’s boots or prostrate themselves in some Eastern fashion?” Poor Collison, jobless with ten children, became a celebrity. 

Questions were asked in the House of Commons and Lord Sandon, whose portfolio included the schools, tried to dismiss it all. But the public uproar continued. Given a second chance, Sandon "convulsed the House” with a  ludicrous account of “the destruction of a parson’s prize poultry by a predatory pussy.” He concluded by saying expulsion was for the rarest use and "we must express our regret at the course taken in this case." 

The Rev. Mr. Villiers [and Mrs. Villiers] remained in Boston Spa only a short while longer. The curtsey, fortunately, was going out of style. The essayist W.H. Hudson reflected: "Tis impossible not to regret the dying out of the ancient quaintly-pretty custom of curtseying in rural England ... when we see that there is no longer a corresponding self-abasement and worshipping attitude in the village mind." 

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Rev. Sneyd-Kinnersley, played by Robert Hardy

We mourn the passing of the great English actor, Robert Hardy, at the age of 91. The obituaries written today most frequently mention his role as Cornelius Fudge, the professor of magic, in the Harry Potter films. But, for the purposes of this blog, we shall recall his portrayal of a real-life clergyman-professor, the Rev. Herbert W Sneyd Kinnersley.

After Cambridge, Sneyd Kinnersley was ordained by the Bishop of Oxford. He was a renowned classical scholar and his Latin schoolbooks are still in print. In 1880, he founded St. George's School in Ascot where his infamy was established. 

"Accounts of this horrible headmaster’s pitiless beatings are staggering.*" Every Monday morning, the student body - no more than fifty boys - was assembled to hear the reports of the previous week's scholarship. The names of those who had disappointed the headmaster were called out. The unfortunates came forward and were made to drop their trousers and bend over a large box to be birched. It was a "good sound flogging," survivors recalled. As many as 20 strokes were customary. or whatever it took to draw blood. 

The main source for the tales of Sneyd-Kinnersley's disciplinary mania was the Bloomsbury artist Roger Fry whose memoirs of his time at St. George's were reportedly censored by his biographers. 

Robert Hardy played Sneyd-Kinnersley in the 1972 film version of My Early Life, based on the memoirs of Winston Churchill who was sent to St. George's in the 1880's. Winston later recalled, "Flogging with the birch in accordance with the Eton fashion was a great feature of the curriculum." He, too, never forgot what Fry described as the "solemn ritual" of Mondays. Churchill, no shrinking schoolboy, felt the sting of the headmaster's birch more than once. He wrote how, in front of the whole school, he and other mates were "flogged until they bled freely." It was when Winston's nanny, Mrs. Everest, saw the scars from one such birching that she spoke up and Winston's parents removed him from the school.

The Rev. Sneyd-Kinnersley died at a young age, just 38.

It is ironic that an actor who, I believe, was the best ever to embody the role of Winston Churchill on screen, also played such a formative figure in Churchill's young life.