Sunday, December 1, 2019

Ruin of a Clergyman: Christmas Shoplifting

Especially in December, London's shopkeepers were on their guard for thieves; 'tis the season for "Christmas depredations." On the 18th of December 1890, Thomas Howell was working in the book department at the Army and Navy Stores on Victoria Street. He began to particularly watch a certain browsing shopper. Howell observed the man slip several books into a large pocket of his overcoat. Following this gentleman into the tobacco area, the argus-eyed employee watched two pipes disappear into another pocket. Store security joined the investigation trailing the suspect into a basement lavatory whence he emerged with a large satchel. As was the practice, security waited for the gentleman to leave the store before confronting him on the busy pavement outside. 

The following day in the Westminster Police Court, the Rev. Wiliam Luther Leeman M.A. was formally charged with the theft of the two pipes and a large number of books (including the best-seller, In Darkest England, the now classic expose of Victorian poverty.) While "shopping," Leeman was not dressed in clerical attire and gave a false name. But in his rooms in Willesden, police discovered his identity and - by the way - many more books, several 1891 calendars, and 52 Christmas cards, all bearing the mark of the Army & Navy stores.

The Rev. Leeman was 40; his late father had been an MP in Yorkshire. Leeman's appointed counsel apologised for his client's conduct. "It was a terrible thing for a man in his position." He could only state that the accused was in a period of "great mental worry." Given time, Rev. Leeman's family and friends would come forward to speak on his behalf. 

Rosedale Church today
No bail was granted and Leeman remained in jail for nearly two months before a magistrate's trial in mid-February. The court was told that Leeman's troubles with drink began as early as the age of 12. He was sent to India but returned after a sunstroke. His father sent him to Oxford and Durham and he was ordained in 1872. As a curate, he served in several north country parishes. In 1875, his father's friend, Mr. Gladstone, arranged for Leeman to be Vicar of St. Mary & St. Laurence in Rosedale. By 1880, Leeman was married with three young children, and rector of St. John, Seaforth, in Lancashire. A decade later he stood in court alone; his wife and children were gone, and his career was in ruins. His drinking cost him one living after another. His last appointment had been in Willesden, where he was living, but not working, at the time of his arrest. Family members hoped to spare him from jail and offered to finance his care for 12 months in an asylum for inebriates. The offer was accepted. 

The efficacy of that year's treatment cannot be determined. It is sad to report that in February 1905, the Rev Mr. Leeman died at the Bracebridge Asylum, Lincolnshire. He was 55.

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Sunday, November 10, 2019

The War of the Bells

If the newly-married Duke of Marlborough expected a merry peal of church bells to herald his arrival at Blenheim Palace with his bride, His Grace was to be greatly disappointed. The bells of St. Mary Magdalene, Woodstock were silent per the instructions of the rector, the Rev. Arthur Majendie. All Britain was soon to read about “The Rector Who Wouldn’t Flatter a Duke.”

In June 1888, in New York City, George Spencer-Churchill, 8th Duke of Marlborough, married Lily Hammersley, widow of a wealthy real estate investor. A Cunard liner brought the couple back to England and there was a happy turnout of locals and estate workers to greet their carriage as it entered the splendid seat of the Marlboroughs. Why no bells? 

Rev. Majendie told the press that he meant no disrespect to the new duchess who seemed to be a charming lady. The Duke, however, was an altogether different story. He inherited his title in 1883 on the death of his father. A critical newspaper wrote that one of Britain's most famous titles was being held by “one of the worst specimens of manhood in England.” As a young man, then titled Marquess of Blandford, he had featured in three divorce trials in just eight years. His first wife was a daughter of the Duke of Abercorn and they had four children. In 1875, however, Blandford began a brazen affair with the Countess of Aylesford while her husband, "Sporting Joe" Aylesford was off tiger shooting in India with the Prince of Wales. The Aylesfords got their divorce and the trial provided all the needed evidence for Lady Blandford to seek one of her own. The details of her treatment at the hands of Blandford were so vile that the Queen waived her usual ban against divorcees at court in favour of the innocent Lady Blandford. Then, in 1886, Blandford (now the Duke), was one of four (but the most active and notable) of the lovers of Lady Colin Campbell whose long-running, salacious, society divorce trial shocked the country. 

During this period, the remarriage of divorced persons, especially those found to be at fault, was not permitted in the Church of England. Thus, the Duke's trans-Atlantic strategy, which found him returning to Britain with a legally married wife and her Yankee dollars to bolster his parlous fortunes. Majendie's decision not to ring the church bells to celebrate this happy event was generally supported by his fellow churchmen. The Rurideaconal Council in Oxford, for instance, declared "there is an extreme danger to public morals from the relaxation of sanctions of marriage" and expressed its sympathy with the rector of Woodstock.

The Duke minimised the snub, which he called "childish and petty." Majendie, he sneered, was “one of those high church parsons who wants to advertise himself.” But there would be retribution. The Duke banned the rector and his family from Blenheim Park forcing Majendie to go the long way around between his two churches in Woodstock and St. Martin's, Bladon. All the estate contributions to the churches were cut off. No great loss, there. Majendie said the Duke's most recent annual gift had been £13. The publicity given to the "War of the Bells" brought in more than enough to cover the loss.

The war between the rectory and the palace was short-lived. The 8th Duke died in 1892, he was just 48. The Rev. Majendie outlived him, he died in January 1895 and was mourned as a man of great ability and wide popularity. "The church has lost one of her best and bravest parish priests."

Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Vol. 2 is available here. Think of it for a Christmas gift to the "church crawler" in the family. Thank you.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

A Thousand and One Rumours

St. Swithun's, Hempstead
All was in readiness for the wedding feast at Hempstead Court, the country home of the Rev. Samuel Lysons of St. Luke's, Gloucester. Tuesday, October 9, 1855, was his daughter Alice's wedding day. The groom was a popular local clergyman, the Rev. Hugh Hovell Baskerville Farmar. From a prominent Irish family, Farmar was curate at St. Nicholas in the nearby village of Hardwicke. The little Hempstead church of St. Swithun was decorated with flowers and filled with the local gentry and friends of the young couple. But the appointed hour of 11:00 passed and neither party to the nuptials appeared. By noon, guests were told that owing to the bride's indisposition the wedding would be the following day. Within hours, the truth was known - the Rev. Farmar had disappeared. He had visited his betrothed the night before and had not been seen since. The trains were checked, canals were dragged, and several tramps at a local "mop fair" were questioned by police. But days passed with no sign of the missing curate. "The affair is altogether wrapped in mystery."

Detectives were employed. "A Thousand and One Rumours" were circulated. Reported sightings in London and Ireland were busts. It wasn't until December that Farmar was traced to America. The Gloucester Chronicle reported, "Some expression fell from the lips of the intended bride during the last interview which was misconstrued by the gentleman into something like regret at the step she was about to take." Farmar despaired; his only plan was to flee, an act he will ever regret. He wanted all the friends of Miss Lysons to know that the blame for this unhappiness was all his.

The sequels to the wedding mystery are equally interesting. The Lysons name was well-known in Gloucestershire, a family of clergymen, physicians, and antiquarians. Jilted Alice Lysons did eventually marry; in 1861, she wed a young man named George Hacker. George was the son of a local railway porter and he was being educated in Cheltenham at the Rev. Lysons' expense. Alice, apparently, couldn't wait for the schooling to be finished. That May, the papers reported, "This week, she left home secretly to be married to him."

Farmar's farm was in Green County, Missouri.
As for the Rev. Farmar, he joined the Episcopal church in the midwestern state of Illinois. He invested well, mostly in agricultural land, and became quite wealthy. He left the clergy and settled near Springfield, Missouri on a 300-acre farm. In January 1890, he was found dead in his burned-out log home. One of the local papers speculated the fire was set by some of his "negro tenants" angry over recent evictions. If he was murdered, it was never solved. Farmar kept to himself, he was an eccentric. All the locals knew about him was he came from England about forty years earlier. "Great excitement prevails," readers were told. Farmar never married. 

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Monday, September 9, 2019

Charles Darwin & the Curate

The Rev John Warburton Robinson was an Irishman, educated at Trinity, and ordained at Oxford in 1864. In August 1868, he arrived in the village of Downe, Kent. Robinson was the new curate at St. Mary's church. The Rev J.B. Innes, the absentee vicar of Downe, wrote to his most famous parishioner, the great Charles Darwin, to say, "I hope you and the other parishioners like him." Robinson set about his clerical duties, including a fund drive for a new village school. But in late November, the curate abruptly announced he was returning to Ireland for three months to attend to family affairs.  

Charles Darwin and Rev Innes were old friends and regular correspondents. Thus, Darwin wrote Innes to share some gossip, "Rumours are very common in our village about Mr. Robinson walking with girls at night." The naturalist had heard this second hand from his wife. A neighbour, Mrs. Allen was said to be "very indignant about Mr R's conduct with one of her maids." Darwin said one of his own servants at Down House said, "They do not believe that hardly anyone will go to Church now." 

Innes was shaken by this news; Robinson had presented testimonials that "painted him to be little less than a saint." The old vicar clearly did not have the greatest trust in the residents of Downe, "I know too much of reports in general and Downe reports in particular to credit anything which people say behind a man’s back & are afraid to say to his face." Would Darwin dig into this and report back to him? Innes needed to know more. "I can only say that, though I do not know Mr. Robinson, I would try to protect him from malicious accusations but if he is immoral I will do all in my power to get him out forthwith."  

The 60-year-old Darwin agreed to find "The Origin of the Rumours." About a week later, the impromptu sleuth reported back that "Rumours certainly are rife against Mr R." The hottest gossip linked the curate with a young lady named Esther West, formerly a servant with the Allens. They were seen talking quietly in the road and elsewhere 'round the village at odd hours. The Allens gave Esther the sack and she'd left Downe. But Darwin did question Mrs. Allen. "Judging by her manner, [she] knew a good deal, but said she was nervous & wd not commit herself— accordingly she said she cd not remember who had told her any one single thing; or the name of the girl in the village; & further that her cook did not want to commit herself & declined to say whether it was in the daylight or after dark that Mr R. talked with the girl." Hardly conclusive. The Robinson case fell to the ground. Detective Darwin didn't care for his new role, "I feel in an awkward predicament. I do not feel sure, owing to my ignorance of law, whether I may not be exposing myself to an action for defamation of character." He closed the case, if you will, "I am most sincerely sorry for all this vexation & trouble." 

Rev. Innes still considered his curate unsuitable and would bring the matter to the Bishop. But, in the end, Rev. Robinson never returned to Downe, resigning in February 1869. 

The Rev John Warburton Robinson obtained more work as a curate in the 1870's. His career ended in 1876 when he was arrested for an indecent assault with a guardsman in an alley near London's Knightsbridge Barracks. That charge was reduced but Robinson was involved subsequently in two similar cases. According to one report, he emigrated to Melbourne, Australia.   

Darwin died in Downe in 1882, having spent the last 40 years of his life in the village. There was a family vault at St. Mary's but - not without controversy - Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The letters quoted here can be found in full in the Darwin Correspondence Project at the University of Cambridge. (

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Monday, August 19, 2019

“A Vicar and His Housemaid”

One April day in 1891, the vicar of Wilmington, the Rev. William Augustus St. John Dearsley, known as Sinjin, was in his study with his wife. Also present was their pregnant housemaid and her stepmother. Jenny Levett accused the vicar of being the father of her child. Mrs. Dearsley blurted out, “We had to go through this all before with poor Sarah. Am I never going to be able to have a servant?”

Dearsley was 52 and had been vicar there for 16 years. The parish patron was His Grace the Duke of Devonshire. The old Norman church of St. Mary & St. Peter was overshadowed – literally – by a famous ancient yew, variously estimated to be more than a millennium old. The vicar was active in restoring the famous turf-carving - the “Wilmington Giant,” on the Downs. Many believed it to be some sort of fertility totem. The Rev and Rose Dearsley had no children. Hers, anyway.

Jenny was 20, a wheelwright’s daughter, who'd been with the Dearsleys for five years. She was a special favourite of the vicar who often tried to steal kisses in the pantry. “Please, Vicar, I have my work to do,” Jenny pleaded. In September, 1890, according to Jenny’s recollection, the Rev. Dearsley came uninvited into her bedroom. The result of this "improper intimacy" was the talk of the village the next April.

Rev. Dearsley flatly denied that he was the father of the unborn child. Despite Mrs. Dearsley’s quoted outburst, she stood by her husband. They let Jenny go, of course, but gave her 30s for her confinement. Mrs. Dearsley supposedly said, if it was up to her, she would have rather shot her! Jenny gave birth to a healthy boy on 20 June 1891.

The village gossip continued. Jenny wrote directly to the vicar: "You know how I used to tell you of going in the pantry & chattering and kissing me, but it was no good, you would do it.  I did not think you were so hard-hearted as what you must be not to have wrote or done anything for me after bringing me to ruin and disgrace." In August, the scandal had become so open that Dearsley was ordered to attend the Sussex magistrate’s court. The case of “A Vicar and His Housemaid” filled columns of newspapers across Britain. "It is wonderful the interest that is taken in the peccadilloes and sins of “the cloth."

Mr. Gill, a London criminal barrister, painted a picture of seduction. Little kisses followed by “letters of the most extraordinary familiarity.” As a witness, Jenny detailed it all. She resisted her employer at first, but, in the end, she surrendered to him willingly. There was no force. She didn't cry out. She didn't tell Mrs Dearsley. When she eventually confronted the clergyman, he replied strangely, “I am not prepared to confess to such a charge.” 

Henry Dickens, son of the great novelist, represented the Rev. Dearsley. The vicar was a largish man, heavy-set. He swore that he was not the father of Jenny’s son; in fact, he had never been intimate with her. In the box, he admitted a previous servant (Sarah Mepham) had left Wilmington in a family way but she “freely" signed a letter stating that the vicar was not the father of her child. As for Jenny, Dearsley admitted his fondness for her. He did playfully beg her for kisses. He wrote some silly letters - not love letters. Dearsley listened while the prosecutor read from those letters; they certainly sounded like love letters. He admitted he gave Jenny 30s but only to help her family. He'd also given Jenny’s father 20s. The vicar denied telling Jenny's father to "go to London" where such matters can be “taken care of.”

As a witness, Mrs. Dearsley said she knew all about the kisses and the silly letters. Foolishness but there was just too much gossip in Wilmington. She broke down while being questioned, crying, "This is too much. I cannot stand it. I will do anything for my husband."

In cases like this, the defense will always try to find another possible father and Robert Butcher, the son of a Hailsham publican, was brought into the frame. Dearsley had no use for the lad and told him to stay away from the vicarage but he knew that Jenny and Robert frequently went "romping on the Downs together." Robert was called as a hostile witness. He had known Jenny for many years. He'd walked out with her, etc, even proposed to her. They were seen about Hailsham during the time frame in which he could have been the father. But he denied everything. 

The Dearsleys claimed the entire prosecution was plotted and paid for by Robert Lambe, a wealthy parishioner. Generations of Lambes had been powerful landowners on the Downs. Relations between the vicarage and the Lambes were obviously not cordial. Lambe did not deny it. The prosecutor admitted that Lambe was paying the bills, because “He wants to get this man (pausing – for dramatic purposes - to point to the vicar) out of the parish.” 

The magistrates needed only a few minutes before unanimously deciding the Rev. Dearsley was the father of Jenny Levett’s son.  The vicar was ordered to pay all her court costs, confinement expenses and pay child support of 5s per week until the lad turns 16. (The vicar dropped a planned appeal and settled with Jenny for a lump sum.) There were cheers in court and jeers in the streets following the verdict. Rev. Dearsley resigned as vicar and left Wilmington. He lived in Bosham for some time as “a clergyman without cure of souls.” In 1900, he resurfaced as chaplain at a church in the tiny Cambridgeshire village of Reach where he remained until his death in 1913.

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Sunday, July 28, 2019

A "Midnight Spree" at the Vicarage

For centuries, the crocketed pinnacles of the tower of St. Goran's church, though a mile in from the sea, have been one of the landmarks to mariners sailing the often stormy waters of south Cornwall. In 1862, the Rev. David Jenkins had been vicar in the remote parish for nearly forty years. His vicarage was at Polgorran House, a fine home built of slatestone rubble and a short distance from the church. The main rooms overlooked a large garden. In the rear of the house, connected by a hallway, was the servants' cottage. On a Cornish night in early May 1862, the Rev. Mr. Jenkins said the evening prayers for the household, that is, his daughter and their two female servants. At ten o'clock, he locked up for the night. 

The vicar had been recently troubled by noises. Before midnight, he heard them again. Grabbing his (unloaded) gun, the vicar sent his daughter to the village. She soon returned with five stout men. Meanwhile, Jenkins had traced the noises to the bedroom shared by the servants. From the lawn outside, the vicar demanded the door be opened, threatening to shoot anyone who came out the window. There were the sounds of a mad scramble within. When the door was finally opened and all the occupants accounted for, there were six people in the room: the two servants, including Caroline Solomon, the cook, the village schoolmistress and three local men: James Huxtable, Mr. Gully's butler, Sam Kerkin, the grocer and George Colenso, a local constable, no less. Quite a party had been going on, apparently. The vicar was furious to find what were called "the fragments of an entertainment," including the remains of two pasties (made of pork and eggs), a piece of pork, bread and butter, part of a rhubarb tart, cups and saucers, a tea canister, cream and milk and a teapot warming on the fire. 

The Rev Mr Jenkins sacked his servants on the spot but opted to press charges against the three men under the Vagrant Act. At the petty sessions in St. Austell, the men were tried for entering the vicarage for an unlawful purpose, i.e., feloniously converting the vicar's property (the food, cutlery and crockery) to their use. They were all found guilty and given a month's hard labour at Bodmin gaol. 

The little tale of the "Midnight Spree at the Vicarage" aroused considerable interest, far beyond Cornwall. Many felt the punishment was overly harsh. The verdict was stayed while the case was appealed. It took most of a year before Kerkin et al v Jenkins was heard in London before the Lord Chief Justice and a panel of High Court judges.

This minor fracas in a distant village presented an interesting and important domestic issue. Not for nothing were servants warned that "no followers" were allowed below stairs. The vicar's cook certainly had no right to sanction this private supper party from her master's larder. While that was plainly true, the court was reminded that the cook had been fired. The men were going to prison. The counsel for the threesome argued that their intent on going to the vicarage that night had simply been a romantic one: they went a-wooing their lady friends. Surely it was improper for them to be there but they had not gone to the vicarage with any felonious intent - the snack board that had been put out for them by their hostesses was only "incidental to their lovemaking." 

The Lord Chief Justice, Sir Alexander Cockburn, himself a "notorious ladies man," seemed to enjoy the argument. He said if it was a crime for a lady to invite a policeman in for a piece of cold meat and a cuppa, English magistrates would be kept quite busy. In the end, the Lord Chief convinced his colleagues, amid some grumbling, to quash the convictions. [Constable Colenso was actually promoted to Sergeant in the Cornish Constabulary.]

The Rev. Mr. Jenkins remained vicar of St. Goran's until his lamented death in 1869.

Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series Vol. 2 is available here.

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."