|Gower's Bridge, Trefriw (History Point)|
So two Welsh clergymen were having supper one early summer night in 1878. The setting was Trefriw on the River Conwy in Carnarvonshire. The Rev. David Edwards was leaving after four years as curate at St. Mary's, assisting the rector, the Rev. John Gower. Edwards' dinner companion was the Rev. Hugh Williams, a curate from Dolwyddelan, a Snowdonian village not so very far away. During their conversation, the subject got around to church discipline. Williams believed that the hierarchy cared too much about rituals and churchyards over the personal conduct and morality of their clergy. Edwards agreed and, in words to this affect, added, "Take my rector. Rev. Gower behaved quite immorally with a local servant girl to the point she lost her job and was sent away." Williams asked the curate why that hadn't been reported. Edwards said it happened a couple of years earlier and, as he was leaving Trefriw, he had no wish to have the matter "sifted." Edwards might have been leaving but Williams wasn't and he reported the matter to the Bishop of Bangor.
The Bishop summoned Mr. Gower who denied the matter completely, and demanded a full church enquiry to clear his name. Under the then rules of clerical discipline, there was a two year statute of limitations. Anything further back than that raised issues of lost witnesses, faded memories, and made the work of proving the charges quite difficult and costly. It turned out that the misconduct Rev. Edwards had mentioned had taken place outside that two-year timeframe, if by only a matter of weeks. The only route left for Rev. Gower was a civil action against his former curate.
"A clerical slander case is always attractive to many people." Certainly to other clergymen who filled the available seats at the Chester Assizes in June 1879. On the stand, the Rev. Gower was an imposing figure. A man of "exceedingly burly build," he was 45 and had never married. He had been in Trefriw for ten years. He came not seeking financial damages but to preserve his good name. The statement made by the defendant was totally false. The Rev. Edwards had been his curate for most of four years; he had been invited to the curate's wedding and he had baptized the curate's first child. So, why would Edwards make such a claim? The rector suggested it was revenge. Gower said he could not afford to employ a curate but for a subsidy that had run out. Edwards would have to go and Gower had declined to provide him with a full reference because the man remained "defective in his Greek Testament."
The erstwhile curate of Trefriw, of course, told a very different story. He recalled how Annie Williams came to him one day begging him to tell his rector to leave her alone. She told him how Mr. Gower had "assaulted" her several times, in the rectory and the rectory garden, and while walking back from Llanwrst. Edwards said he did confront the rector who denied it. Annie was then sent away. Yet, Edwards admitted he said nothing and remained working side by side with Rev. Gower for two years. The rector had, in fact, baptized his son. Only after his time had ended in Trefriw did Edwards hurl such a vile accusation.
But the star witness was 20-year old Annie Williams. In 1876, she had only been in Trefriw a short while and employed at Hafod, a large farmhouse that took lodgers. The Rev. Edwards was staying there. She did speak to him in May 1876. She told him that Rev. Gower got her to come into the rectory with the pretense he needed help lighting a fire. He "took liberties with her against her will." He did it again in the rectory garden, in a cow-house and he overtook her one evening on the path from Llanwrst and assaulted her in a hedge. The counsel for Mr. Gower spent more than an hour in "rigid" questioning but she held to her story. She denied that she was dismissed at Hafod because of her propensity for "loitering" in the gentlemen's rooms, including Mr. Edwards', who was then single.
At the end of the long day, Justice Manisty told the jurymen, it was a "most painful case." One or the other clergyman, a man of God, had been guilty of "falsehood to an alarming extent." After but thirty minutes, the jury returned with a verdict for the rector, Mr. Gower, but for damages of a single farthing. From the bench, the verdict was called "insulting" and "most unsatisfactory." The Rev. Gower sought a second trial. It took more than a year for that request to reach a London court. After a consult between the lawyers for the two parties, Rev. Gower agreed to accept the first verdict. "Take it and be satisfied," was the recommendation and he did.
The Rev. John Gower remained the rector of Trefriw until his death. He built "Gower's Bridge," a trestle over the Conwy that saved villagers untold time going to and from Llanwrst, "the tolls of which yielded him a lucrative return." He died in 1913, still in Trefriw, "where, with all his eccentricities, he was very popular."
Rev. Gower's story is just one from in the recently published collection, HOW THE VICAR CAME AND WENT, now available exclusively from Amazon.