Monday, July 8, 2019

"The Love Trials of a London Curate"

On 30 May 1878, an announcement appeared in the Births column of the London Standard

DUCHESNE— May 24, at the house of the Rev. G. Vasey, 47, Highbury Park, Mrs. Robert Duchesne, of Highbury-hill, of twins, baptised George and Robert.
The clergyman mentioned was the Rev. George Vasey, curate of St. Saviour’s, Highbury. He had had enough. This had to stop.

The 32-year old curate had been in the North London parish since 1873. In addition to his church work, assisting Canon Moore, Vasey had started a private prep school for boys which had achieved some excellent results. He had been assisted financially by Robert Duchesne, a merchant grocer in the City. Mrs. Mary Duchesne and her daughter, Florence, had been helpful in other ways, fitting out the school with linens, crockery and the like. The previous December, the Rev. Mr. Vasey and 20-year old Florence Duchesne were married at Christ Church, Highbury.

It was a well-known fact that a young bachelor curate would always be “a considerable attraction to the young ladies of the neighbourhood.” Upon word of his engagement, the Rev. Vasey received a visit from Miss Maud Cooper. Maud insisted that the curate had previously pledged himself to her sister, Lucy, who was understandably heartsick. Vasey denied any such courtship and, certainly, Lucy's feelings were not reciprocated. Ananymous letters began arriving around Highbury a short time later. 

These “abominable libels,” not only targeted the clergyman but also his new mother-in-law, Mrs. Mary Duchesne. “Your wife is still going on in her old habits,” read a note sent to Mr. Duchesne. The sender threatened Duchesne, put a stop to it or “you will be hissed in the streets.” One of the teachers at the school received a letter asking why she would work at an institution where such “shameful conduct” was allowed. The writer accused Mrs. Duchesne of “walking out” with Mr. Vasey whenever her husband was away. Canon Moore, the patron of the parish, of course, would get a letter. Why had he not put a stop to this “grievous scandal?” No man was safe with Mrs. Duchesne whose house was known as “the bad house on Highbury Hill.” After services one Sunday, Lucy Cooper actually confronted Mrs. Duchesne and asked, "Aren't these scandals terrible?" Then came the "twins" announcement in The Standard.

The merged cases of Duchesne v. Cooper and Vasey v. Cooper took place at the Law Courts in May 1879. The plaintiffs asserted that the sisters Cooper, spinsters in their 30’s, were behind all of it. Vasey testified that he only met the Cooper ladies through his church work. He had no relationship of any kind with Lucy Cooper. Both Mr. Vasey and Mrs. Duchesne testified before Judge Sir Henry Hawkins, denying any improprieties had occurred between them. The evidence presented one signed letter Vasey kept in which Lucy berated him and declared that she never wanted to see him again. Charles Chabot, London’s go-to man for handwriting analysis, was the key witness, Comparing the anonymous letters with Lucy's letter and other items written by the sisters, he concluded that the offending letters were mainly in the hand of Miss Lucy, but some had been written by Miss Maud Cooper.

The attorney for the Coopers assured the court his clients did not write the letters, moreover, they wished to make clear for the record that they absolutely repudiated the improper and immoral imputations contained therein. Lucy and Maud each took the stand to deny sending any of these offensive notes. In fact, each sister claimed to have receive similar offensive letters.  

Two days into the trial, Judge Hawkins met with lawyers for each side. He clearly felt the Cooper ladies were guilty. He was sure the jury would agree with him. To allow the case to go to the jury for a verdict would expose the sisters to perjury charges and no one wanted that. The evidence heard had fully contradicted the abominable imputations against Rev. Vasey and Mrs. Duchesne, which was why they came to court in the first place. Let's leave it at that, Hawkins suggested. The case was allowed to end without a verdict. A kindly outcome managed by the judge they called "Hangin' Hawkins."

The Rev. and Mrs. Vasey, with their growing family, remained in Highbury for several more years. Their in-laws (eventually) moved to Essex.

St. Saviour's is now an art studio. It is a listed building, remembered as being once the subject of a Betjeman poem, the "great red church of my parents."

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Revolting Cruelty to Children

Ruyton of the XI Towns is one of the more curious names in an English gazetteer. It is a cluster of Shropshire villages that a young doctor named Arthur Conan Doyle once described as "not big enough to make one town, far less eleven." In 1893, the Rev. William Backhouse Gowan became the new vicar of the ancient red stone church of St. John the Baptist. With his wife, Isabella, and their four children, he settled in to the large vicarage over the road. 

Almost immediately, owing to the sequential death of the vicar's sister and her husband, Rev. Gowan agreed to take in their two daughters, Charlotte and Beatrice Harris. Their father left the vicar £650 to house and school the Harris girls. According to all reports, the arrangement began well; the cousins all got on nicely. 

It should be said that Mr. Gowan's tenure in Ruyton had not been trouble-free. He clashed with a local grandee. On another memorable Sunday, police had to be called to Ruyton church when Gowan tried to fire the incumbent organist and replace him with his son. It did not go well. But few could have anticipated the sensation when Mr. and Mrs. Gowan were charged by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) with cruelly treating their two adopted nieces. 

In the fall of 1898, the Gowans were tried in Shrewsbury at the Quarter Sessions. The NSPCC's Inspector George Luff testified that when he showed up at the vicarage, Mr. Gowan tried to block his entry. But Luff insisted and made his way inside, only to find Mrs. Gowan furiously scrubbing two naked girls. The girl's clothing, piled up nearby, was taken away. Shown in court - "dirty, black, and ragged" - this created a great sensation. Charlotte May, 12, and 8 year old Beatrice had been examined by doctors. They found Beatrice's hair was thick with lice and other vermin. Her uncut toenails resembled claws. Charlotte was in slightly better condition, but her hands were red and swollen, "extraordinary hands for a child." 

According to Inspector Luff, it was the systematic habit of Mrs. Gowan to beat these children "with practically any instrument that came to hand." Charlotte told the court that Mrs. Gowan hit her with a frying pan, a cane, a bread-board, a whip, a broom-handle and more. The two girls were questioned closely. Charlotte, the elder, said that she and Beatrice were given all the drudgery chores. They had to be up at 5:30 to make breakfast for the Gowans. If anything was amiss, the Harris girls would get no breakfast. Food was regularly used to discipline the girls; Charlotte once went hungry for 29 hours. When Beatrice was caught eating a potato meant for the pigs, she was beaten and kicked by Mr. Gowan. Several former Gowan servants: a housemaid, groom and governess, supported the girls' horrific stories.

The Gowans needed a daily police escort to get through the hissing and hooting crowds drawn for the three day session. Inside, the vicar assured the court that discipline was only used when required. Alas, he stated, these two recalcitrant girls had not been properly raised. They were habitual liars, had filthy habits, especially at the dinner table (thus they ate with servants) and they were thieves who would eat every "dainty" in the larder they got their hands on. Mrs. Gowan admitted she sometimes kept the children without food as a punishment but never for 29 hours, a "pure invention." She never hit the girls with a pan, but admitted to using a wooden cane when required. She blamed this overblown story on their village enemies, and vengeful discharged servants.

In the closing arguments, the NSPCC described the Harris girls' existence as a "hell on earth." The Gowans' counsel conceded that Mrs. Gowan may have been "stronger than necessary" in her discipline, but consider her provocation. As for Mr. Gowan, the jurors were told that the evidence against the vicar was very slender. However, the Shropshire jury took only twenty minutes to return with two guilty verdicts. The Sessions Chairman denounced the Gowans; their position and education made the offence more heinous than otherwise. He sentenced each to four months' imprisonment, "with such hard labour as they could do." The outcome was cheered "by the many thousands of people congregated outside the court."

Benjamin Waugh
The Harris girls were handed over to Benjamin Waugh, founder of the NSPCC, who was hopeful that other relatives might come forward to take charge of them. [Thanks to Phil Poole with the Shropshire Family History Society for the following: After their ordeal with the Gowans and the trial, the Harris girls were placed with St. Scholastica's, a small "Anglo-Catholic" school for girls in Oxford. Phil believes Charlotte lived to be more than 100 years old; Beatrice would later be a nurse in London but has been harder to trace.]

As for the Rev. Gowan, the Bishop of Shrewsbury quickly stripped him of the Ruyton vicarage. Gowan certainly couldn't go back to a village where people were calling him "an incarnate devil." After serving his sentence, Gowan found clerical employment rather quickly in the Diocese of London. He was a curate in Bromley-by-Bow and then later in Bethnal Green, living well in to the 20th Century. Isabella Gowan died in 1903.

Full length accounts of such Victorian scandals can be found in Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Volume 2.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Now 48% off - Clerical Errors, A Victorian Series, Vol 2

During the month of June, is running a sale on many Kindle titles.

A reminder that there is a Kindle edition of Clerical Errors, A Victorian Series, Volume 2. Details are here.

Volume 2 contains five delightful full-length accounts of clerical scandals that fascinated Victorian Britain.

Parson Young's Night Out
            The Rev. Charles Gordon Young of Chipstead

The Irreproachable Rev. Mr. Karr
            The Rev. Henry Seton Karr of Berkeley

A Clerical Lothario
            The Rev. Turberville Cory-Thomas of Acton Green

A Case of Heartless Villainy
            The Rev. Richard Marsh Watson

I'll Do for Dicky Rodgers
            The Rev. Edward Rodgers of Lowestoft

Again, the Kindle sale is for a limited time and will end at Amazon's discretion. 

If you find that this sale has ended, please comment below and I'll take this down. 

Thank you very much.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Notorious All Over Exeter

Holy Trinity Church, Gidleigh
“If there be any man to whose happiness marriage is more necessary than to that of another, it is a country clergyman.” A line from Trollope's novel, The Bertrams. Trollope was spot on. This, however, is the story of the Rev. and Mrs. Arthur Whipham of Gidleigh, Devon.

On the edge of Dartmoor, Gidleigh has long been one of the most inaccessible but celebrated beauty spots in the realm. The Whipham family had owned the park property for many years. In 1835, fresh from Oxford, the Rev. Arthur Peregrine Whipham arrived to be the new rector at Holy Trinity.  He resided at Gidleigh Park and spent a considerable sum restoring the church. In 1843, he married Frances Huxham, a solicitor's daughter from Bishopsteignton. Within a decade, they had eight children; alas, the Whiphams were not happy and there were "frequent differences.” 

Amid mutual accusations of infidelity, the Whiphams separated in 1858. He would provide her with a guinea a week. By 1859, however, financial worries arose. A defaulted bond put Mr. Whipham in jail; he had to rent out Gidleigh Park and lived in a shabby cottage on Holles Street in Chagford. Those guineas a week stopped coming and Mrs. Whipham and their youngest child showed up in Chagford. They moved in; he moved out. Frances found the cottage completely unsuitable and instead took rooms at Southernhay in Exeter. The rector, believing that he had left his wife in a perfectly good home, refused to pay the upcharge for Mrs. Sparshatt's hospitality. The landlady sued him for £47, his wife’s room and board for the previous six months.

Mrs. Whipham told the court that she had suffered for years from her husband's "cruel and unmanly conduct." The Chagford rooms were deplorable; he left his wife and their youngest child with neither food nor farthing. None of the local shops let them have any food “on trust,” the Whipham's credit was no good. She was forced to seek better lodgings. She denied any accusations of her immorality, calling them “rumors spread by wicked men.”  

In court, the rector of Gidleigh explained that he had formerly been a man of some means but an unfortunate speculation and ensuing legal problems had forced him to live with the greatest frugality. He was fully prepared to escort his wife back to Chagford that very day. He simply could not live there with her.  

Judge Tyrrell thought that the rector’s decision to abandon his wife and child in such a cottage, without provision or protection, fully justified Mrs. Whipham’s decision to lodge elsewhere. Whether she could have found a place more affordable than Mrs. Sparshatt’s was not the question. The bill was fair and the rector must pay it. 

The landlady was followed into court by drapers and milliners - with more bills. This time, Mrs. Whipham was not successful. “What does a woman living in a farmhouse,” the judge inquired, “need with silk scarves and pearl buttons?” The tradesmen should have known to be cautious, after all, the Whiphams were "notorious over all of Exeter.”

This public rockfight between a clergyman and his wife was an embarrassment to the Church. Trewman’s Flying Post headlined their columns, Scenes of Clerical Life, a wry reference to the new stories from George Eliot. It got worse. In the summer of 1862, Mrs. Whipham was lodging with John Rowe, a Dartmoor farmer, with five sons including 26 year old Philip. The Rev. Whipham had placed "watchers" on the case, and soon, “the local police constable surprised the paramours in bed together,” in the rectory!

The proceedings in Divorce Court were brief. Mrs. Whipham chose not to deny her "unlawful intimacy" with young Rowe. Several of the Gidleigh “observers” came to London to delight the court with the required salacious details and the decree nisi was issued. Soon after the divorce the Rev. Whipham left Gidleigh church. Attendance at his services had been very poor for some time. According to one of the clerical guidebooks of the day, Holiness in the Priest’s Household is Essential to Holiness in the Parish, Whipham had signally failed. "The Clergyman and his house is as it were a light placed in the parish."

The Whipham story is excerpted from my book, Blame it on the Devon Vicar, a collection of stories of Victorian clerical scandals published in 2008. The book is available here.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

A Woman Who Has Done Me Grievous Wrong

Queen St, Derby (St. Michael's) [PicClick UK]
On Sunday, March 27, 1881, the Rev Thomas Howard Twist MA, vicar of St. Michael's church in Derby, did not preside. His curate relayed the vicar's thanks for the great support throughout the parish during his recent "affliction." As everyone knew, the Rev. Mr. Twist had just been arrested in connection with one of the strangest clerical scandals of the period.

Just 36, out of Cambridge, Twist has been vicar in Derby for five years. He was an excellent preacher and published devotional books and music. Alas, his personal life had not been a happy one. His first wife had died within a year of their wedding. He then married Emily Harding, a surgeon's daughter. After a difficult pregnancy and childbirth, Emily was diagnosed with puerperal mania and placed in an asylum by order of the Lunacy Commissioners. The decision had occasioned a great deal of bitterness between Rev. Twist and Mrs. Harding, his widowed mother-in-law.

The child had survived and, for some time, Mrs. Harding lived at the vicarage with Mr Twist and her granddaughter. But in 1880, the woman found some letters the vicar had exchanged with a "young lady" in his  congregation. The letters - according to Mrs. Harding - suggested that the vicar considered himself engaged to this new lady - though his poor wife, of course, was still alive. There was a last dispute and Mrs. Harding took the child and returned to her home in Buxton. Word of all this got out, of course, and Twist traced the gossip back to Mrs. Harding. In February 1881, she received a telegram from Col. Delacombe, Derbyshire's Chief Constable, advising her to hold her tongue. He threatened her: "You have been making trouble and my evidence is strong against you. My advice is be quiet or I must arrest you." Mrs. Harding consulted her nephew, a London solicitor, who wired Delacombe for an explanation but received only a curt reply: "Mrs. Harding has done too much in Derby and her course and yours is to be quiet." 

When Col. Delacombe was finally made aware of the telegrams (and others) sent in his name, he denied writing any of them. The Rev. Mr. Twist was arrested at the seaside in Cromer, where he had gone "for his health." He wrote to Delacombe, pleading, "For God's sake, stop the case." He admitted all. "I was persuaded to frighten a woman who for years has done me grievous wrong. The cause lies in a very sad trouble and the sooner the case is over the better for all of us."

This naturally caused a great sensation in Derby. Mr. Twist was only charged with a misdemeanour: fraudulently intercepting a telegram. His defense was funded by supportive parishioners; his counsel argued that the clergyman was guilty of nothing more than "a stupid practical joke" on his bothersome mother-in-law. At the Derby Quarter-Sessions, clerks and messenger boys were subjected to an excruciating discussion of postal regulations and procedures. In the end, the vicar was acquitted but the finding was not universally accepted. The Derby Mercury thought that Twist had "committed indiscretions which have not only brought great humiliation upon himself but have inflicted injury upon the Church." Plainly, Twist would have to resign his vicarage and he did, a decision which reportedly "afforded intense relief to the minds of Churchmen." He also was sacked as the chaplain at a local training school for governesses. 

As for public opinion, Twist seems to have retained a good deal of support. Notwithstanding, he left Derby and was unable to find regular church employment for some time. Eventually, he wound up in the Blytheswood section of Glasgow as a minister with the Episcopal Church in Scotland. He outlived his mother-in-law but not his poor wife, who lived another forty years. 

St. Michael's church in Derby has been redundant since 1977. The building (circa 1858) has survived several "permissions" to tear it down and has been recently remodeled for office space.

Should you enjoy such stories, please consider Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Vol 2, available exclusively here. Thank you.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The "Reverend Scamp" Elopes

Holy Cross Church, Uckfield, East Sussex
The Rev. William John Thomas Hill Brooks-Hill brought that magnificent name to the Sussex town of Uckfield in 1877. Newly ordained from the University of Durham, he had come south to be a curate at the Holy Cross church. The rector was the aging Rev Mr Cardale, who'd been there for over thirty years. Uckfield was a considerable and growing place but - according to an 1877 guidebook - "there is not much to see." Even the old church was built of plain stone which the rector had recently touched up "in what was intended to be Gothic style." Thus, it was probably no surprise the young curate didn't stay long, leaving Uckfield in 1879. What was surprising, however, was that he left in the company of "a rich widow lady," abandoning his young wife. 

“For some days the village has been in a mild state of commotion,” reported the Times of London. The woman was never publicly named but in the National Archives divorce records, she was identified as “Emily ----- Duncan, a widow.” The couple was last seen October 13 at Isfield station, the nearest stop on one of the branch lines of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway. Earlier that day, on some pretense, Rev. Brooks Hill borrowed £50 from Bannister, the grocer. Days later, Bannister received a wire from the curate announcing that he would not be returning to Uckfield and to cover his debt, he authorized the grocer to sell all his property and effects.

The wire had come from Clapham Rise in London. With that information, Inspector Peerless of the Sussex Constabulary went to the capital and eventually traced Brooks Hill to a two-room flat on Warwick Road in Pimlico. The woman in the case was released but the curate was returned to Uckfield to be charged with "deserting his wife, whereby she became chargeable to the common fund of the Union." On October 30, Rev Brooks Hill was sentenced to the maximum penalty: three months at hard labour in Lewes prison.

from the Old Police Cells Museum
Apparently, the "reverend scamp," as one of the papers had called him, had soon repented of his action and wished to return to his wife, Mary, and leave the country. Mrs. Brooks Hill, in fact, dropped her divorce petition and became the leader in a letter writing campaign to the Home Secretary seeking her husband's release. She insisted that he had not left her destitute and was therefore not guilty of the charge brought against him. Her petition, at first, was unavailing. She was supported by many parishioners; more letters followed . The advocates made clear that "although the moral impropriety of his conduct cannot be defended," Mr. Brooks-Hill should not be in jail for it. The Home Secretary was assured that the curate's wife was “thoroughly satisfied that her husband’s repentance was not only sincere but deep and heartfelt, and that she was quite prepared to leave the country with him as soon as he was free.” On December 16, a month early, Brooks Hill was released and met at the jail gates in Lewes by his forgiving wife. 

Despite the somewhat romantic ending (except, perhaps for the widow Duncan), Brooks Hill's conduct was widely condemned as “a great scandal to the Church and to society.” In Uckfield, the community rallied round their old rector who had been greatly distressed by the whole affair. Rev. Cardale remained there until his death in 1893.

As expected, Mr and Mrs Brooks Hill left England for Canada, settling in London, Ontario, where he found employment as a teacher of classics at Helmuth College. It seems as if the scandal of his Sussex escapade had not followed him. By 1881, he was once again a practicing clergyman. From 1888 to 1911, he was the rector of St. John the Evangelist, the Anglican church in London (Ont.) The present rector, the Rev. Lyndon Hutchison-Hounsell, kindly sent me the details of Rev. Hill's tenure.

Another Victorian clergyman sent to jail, the Rev Richard Marsh Watson, was not released early from his prison sentence. His story can be found in Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Vol II, available only thru and 

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Pre-quel: Slander the Midwife

As a young clergyman, the Rev Gordon James Henry Llewellyn served the Free Church of England, a strict and evangelical offshoot of the state church. In 1888, he was ordained in the Church of England and spent the next decade ministering amongst the "necessitous poor" in London's East End. He'd been chaplain at several schools, workhouses and infirmaries and, since 1894, he was vicar of St. Matthew's on the Commercial Road in Stepney. 

Among his duties was to serve as director of the Tower Hamlets Dispensary and Infirmary in White Horse Street. Founded in 1792, and supported entirely by charitable donations, the facility served roughly 4000 patients per year, with admission by recommendation only. Depending upon the size of their donation, supporters received a certain number of passes to allow the needy to use the infirmary. The services available included beds for maternity; there were attending physicians and a team of certificated midwives headed by Dorothy Coulton.

In 1896, the vicar and Coulton fell out over her willingness to receive young unmarried women. Llewellyn believed such cases, many of which were of the very poorest classes, were best sent to the local Union. Further, he suggested that her open door policy was "lending itself to the encouragement of sin."

Returning from a holiday, Coulton was stunned to learn from one of the other nurses that the vicar had been talking about her in her absence. He had joked that she was "off on her honeymoon with Dr. Huddlestone," the local medical officer. MRS Dorothy Coulton went to the directors for an explanation. In a stormy session, Llewellyn explained that he'd merely repeated gossip. He never believed it. Then why hadn't he stopped it, she demanded to know, adding. "I have a great mind to resign." To which, the vicar replied, "I think you'd better." The directors were agreed but she left with a small testimonial and a solid reference. 

Mrs Coulton began to attend some private patients but when they were referred to the infirmary, they were turned away. Word got back to her that the Rev. Llewellyn had discouraged at least one woman, telling her that Mrs. Coulton had been dismissed from the Infirmary because she was not a fit and proper person. The Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand are a long way from Stepney but in March 1898, before Mr. Justice Grantham, Mrs. Coulton sued the Rev. Mr. Llewellyn for slander. 

In his defense, the vicar of Stepney denied ever making any slanderous remarks. He had always had the highest opinion of Mrs. Coulton's abilities. As for her soul, well, he admitted falling out with the chief midwife primarily because she didn't go to church regularly and gave him only the vaguest excuses. As for the unmarried women, he did not object as long as the women were members of the parish. All the decisions regarding the treatment of enceinte women were as directed by the policies of the St. Matthew's Maternity Society, he insisted.

The jury found for Mrs. Coulton but probably for a much smaller sum than she had been seeking. She was awarded just 20 pounds.

The Rev. Mr. Llewellyn remained in Stepney, both at St. Matthew's and the Dispensary, until 1905. The church and dispensary are both gone today. Mrs. Coulton was soon employed as chief nurse at the Croydon Infirmary.

Map courtesy of the National Library of Scotland (

Volume 2 of Clerical Errors, A Victorian Series is available here.