Saturday, July 15, 2023

"A clerical slander case is always attractive to many people."

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.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

"The Curate's Woman"

 In 1869, the Rev Stewart George Holland was curate of the church of St James in the Suffolk market town of Bury St Edmunds. Only 30, he was an enthusiastic “whirlwind” of a clergyman, maybe too High Church for some, but generally quite popular. He was married with five children.

About ten o'clock one evening, a woman knocked at his door in Churchgate Street with a letter. What is it about, he enquired. "Read it for yourself and see," she told him. He declined and closed the door. The next morning, the same woman was waiting outside the church door. Again, he ignored her. That evening, the sexton brought him the letter which had been left in the vestry. 

According to press reports, the 500-word letter was written by Sarah Steele, described as a “woman of the town.” She claimed to know Mr. Holland’s secret – that he had been with another young woman – Annie Farrow - who bore his child. He paid for her confinement and continued to support the infant. Sarah Steele lived in the same notorious “yard” where Annie did, in fact. in the next room. In the letter, she claimed everyone there knew Annie was “the curate’s woman.” To keep her secret, Sarah, a poor and hungry woman, demanded, "Unless I have some recompense, I will not suffer such things to go unknown." One of those she vowed to inform was the vicar, Rev Frank Chapman. Holland took the letter to Chapman and insisted, “I deny the whole of it.”

At the Petty Sessions in Bury, Sarah Steele - described as a "dirty looking woman," was arraigned on a charge of extortion. Rev. Mr. Holland insisted he knew no woman named Annie Farrow until this letter. He had never been in the "yard," in Finsbury Place, nor had he ever been upstairs in Annie’s room. He never gave a little girl 3 sovereigns to go out for some beer and not to tell another soul. Sarah claimed Annie told her she went to the curate's house in Northgate Street when his wife was out. "I have never lived at that address," Rev. Holland swore. 

Annie Farrow, a "single woman," was also in court, telling the magistrates, "I do not know Mr. Holland." He never came to her room. She never had relations with him. She had recently given birth to a child. Declining to name the father, she called him "a gentleman who pays her steadily." She never told anyone Mr. Holland was the infant's father. 

Under cross-examination, Annie admitted Sarah was her neighbour and they knew each other's business. It was close quarters in the yard. Was it true when Sarah recently asked her "who were you with last night," Annie answered, "that was my curate." Absolutely not, Annie responded. She never described her curate as a married man with children. She never said he was the curate at St. James.' "I am positive I did not." A magistrate intervened. "Have you ever foolishly or improperly joked about a curate coming to you. You had better admit it." Annie admitted that many strange men visited the "yard" and the women used to joke about their curates. 

At this point, Rev. Holland asked that the case be withdrawn as his point had been proven. The mayor (George Thompson, esq) was not inclined to agree: "Gentleman ought not be subjected to such disgraceful charges from such an infamous woman." He ordered her sent to the assizes where extortionists faced transportation for life. However, after writing a letter of apology explaining she wrote the letter from her "imperfect conviction and belief," Sarah Steele was given eight months in jail.

Rev. Holland's name had been cleared. He was praised for his bravery. "Many men facing such charges, though innocent, shrink from coming before the public, and make small payments and regret it." At St. James', Mr. Holland received a large testimonial from his congregation. Within the year, he was appointed to the Bury Vicarage of St. John’s. 

How the Vicar Came and Went, a delightful collection of Victorian stories, is available NOW at Amazon.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Trinity Barnes Dancing "The Perfect Cure"


According to modern guidebooks, the Barbican is now the tourist hub of Plymouth. In the Victorian period, it was an area of working docks and their commercial trades. The local church, Holy Trinity, down a lane off Southside Street, was the poorest parish in the city. The church was new, built only in 1842. Since 1851, the Rev. Frances Barnes was pastor. "Trinity Barnes" had the reputation of being one of the most active and respected clergyman in Plymouth. 

That reputation was called into question in 1872 by a brief mention in a new (and short-lived) "humour" journal, The West Country Lantern. Appearing in Plymouth at the time was a celebrated female mesmerist, Madame Card, described as an "enchantress, humourist and clairvoyant.” Madame's performances featured men from the audience willing to come up on stage and stare into a whirling metal disc, made of copper and zinc. They were placed into a trance during which they were willing to do her bidding in the most curious ways. According to the Lantern, one of her "victims" was the Rev. Mr. Barnes, who, under the spell of Madame Card, had "danced the Perfect Cure." 

A wildly popular music hall song, The Perfect Cure had "raged through the land like an influenza." J.H. Stead created the song and during his exhausting performances he was known "to leap up and down over 400 times with both feet at once." After the article appeared, Rev. Barnes complained that everywhere he went in Plymouth, as soon as people saw him, they began to jump up and down. He became a figure of ridicule. It was intolerable and Rev. Barnes brought a libel suit against Henry Barnecutt, publisher of the damaging item.

At the Exeter Assizes, the Rev. Barnes admitted he had attended one of Madame Card's evenings several years earlier: in 1866 at the Mechanic's Institute in Plymouth. He said he went out of curiosity; he had a friend with terrible neuralgia and perhaps mesmerism could be helpful. His visit wasn't a secret; a newspaper at the time reported he was there and had willingly placed himself under Madame's influence. He was put “into the third stage of electrobiology,” i.e. a trance. There was no mention of what he did while in that state. Nonetheless, at the time, he received a good deal of criticism; his bishop and many fellow clergymen did not think it was proper for him to attend an occult performance, let along get up on stage and be stupified. Attendance at Trinity Church suffered as well. 

Six years had passed and this one-off event had been forgotten by most everyone. Rev. Barnes studiously avoided any repetition of the experiment. Until, using the excuse that Madame Card was reappearing in Plymouth, the publisher chose to revisit the affair, calling it "atrociously absurd." In addition, placards were put up with "Trinity Barnes dancing The Perfect Cure." This personal attack was without provocation or justification. Failing to receive an apology, he was now seeking substantial damages. The attorney for the defense called the article a "poor, harmless joke" in an unknown journal and Rev. Barnes would have been better served to simply ignore it. 

From the bench, Baron Martin instructed the jury on the question of libel. Was this a publication "calculated to injure the reputation of a man by placing him in a position of contempt or ridicule?" The Exeter jury thought it was but apparently didn't believe the damage was all that serious. They awarded the Rev. Mr. Barnes a mere £5. 

Rev. Barnes survived the jumping jokes; he remained at Holy Trinity until his death in 1905. A memorial window was installed in his honour and he was buried in the vaults below the church. Alas, the church was destroyed in a bombing raid in World War II. 

Illustrations: The British Museum and "Lost Plymouth Churches."

Thursday, January 19, 2023

A Clergyman at 80 - and his "Bastard" infant.

Llanpumpsaint Church today

In 1876, the Rev Henry William Powell was 80 years old. Citing health reasons, he resigned after more than 40 years in the Carmarthenshire village of Llanpumpsaint. The village name - in Welsh - means, in effect, the "Parish of the Five Saints," recalling the five brothers who established the first Christian church there in the fifth century: by name, Sts Celynin, Ceitho, Gwyn, Gwyno and Gwynoro. 

Rev. Powell had arrived as the Perpetual Curate in the delightful Gwyli valley in 1833. He was well-liked and rated a “truly pious” young clergyman. He married and raised a family in Llanpumpsaint, building for them a large stone home on the other side of the river. He called it Pantycelyn.

In January 1877, only days before the new clergyman was named to replace Mr. Powell at Llanpumpsaint church, a scandal arose. 25 year old Margaret Evans went to the police court in Carmarthen accusing the venerable Rev. Powell of being the father of her little girl, not three months old. She sought an affiliation order, requiring the putative father pay support for the care of his illegitimate offspring. Margaret, who spoke only Welsh, told the magistrates she  had worked in the widowed clergyman's home at Pantycelyn for seven years. For how long she and Rev Powell were been lovers, she would not say but she insisted the infant was her first child. Normally in such cases, some corroboration would be required. But Margaret boldly stated, no one but God Almighty and Rev. Powell knew what happened at Pantycelyn. 

Pantycelyn House today

A summons was issued for Rev. Powell to appear before the magistrates and answer the woman's claim. At the next session, however, his physician showed up to report the aged clergyman was too feeble. Mr. Powell also had a serious case of bronchitis and could not make the demanding journey to Carmarthen in a Welsh winter. After all, there were six rough miles between Llanpumpsaint and the police court. A week passed, allowing perhaps for some better health, but Rev. Powell still ignored the summons. Captain Phillips, who chaired this inquiry, said the accused's conduct was unfair to Miss Evans and disrespectful to the court. It was also futile. If need be, they would interrogate the churchman at his bedside. Thus, the doughty Inspector Scurry was sent forth with instructions: “We want to know whether the man has ever taken liberties with this woman. If he says he has, there is an end of it.” The inspector returned with Powell's signed "cognovit," admitting Margaret's claim and permitting judgment to be entered without trial.

The confession was read in court in February and the magistrates ordered Rev. Powell to pay Margaret Evans the sum of 3s. per week. For Margaret, her support was welcome but, as might have been predicted, it could not be long-lasting. The Rev. Mr. Powell died, still at Pantycelyn, not three years later. The support also stopped. British courts long held that the liability of the putative father is purely personal and ceases with his life.

Photographs from

HOW THE VICAR CAME AND WENT, a collection of Victorian clerical scandals, is now available from Amazon.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

"She never more will return."

“If there be any man to whose happiness marriage is more necessary than to that of another, it is a country clergyman.” Trollope wrote that in The Bertrams, one of his many novels that chronicled the Victorian clerical world. Certainly, it was always for the best when marital harmony reigned in the village rectory, if only as an example. In the course of human events, however, it is not always possible. 

One Sunday morning in August 1871, the Rev Richard Hull, longtime rector of All Saints, in the Bedfordshire village of Stondon, stood in the pulpit to announce that his wife of 25 years had gone to London. "She never more will return." In such a small place as Stondon (Upper and Lower), the news would not have been totally unexpected. The rector invited anyone who wished for an explanation to meet him in the vestry on an appointed night that coming week. 

James Long came out that evening. A man of considerable wealth & position, Long farmed more than a thousand acres in Henlow, a village some distance away. Though not a parishioner, his late brother had been a churchwarden in Stondon. The Longs, as a family, were clearly partisans for the absent Mrs. Hull. Before the vestry audience, Long asked the rector, "Are you aware" of the various bits of gossip in the village? Was it true that Mrs. Hull could no longer tolerate her husband's drinking and physical abuse? What of the rumours linking Mr. Hull with two village women, including a former servant. So rife was that talk, Long predicted the rector would likely be the victim of "rough music," the typical rustic way of taunting suspected adulterers. 

According to his Bishop, the rector's domestic unhappiness was no one's business and the vestry meeting had been a terrible mistake. However, with such serious accusations made public, Rev. Hull would have to answer them or resign. A slander action was filed against James Long. 

At the 1872 spring assizes at the County Hall in Aylesbury, the Rev. Mr. Hull stood in the witness box. He couldn't deny the latter years of his married life had been miserable. His wife neglected the proper running of their household, whilst her extravagance and love of fancy company far usurped his income. They quarreled frequently; she was “one of the worst tempered of her sex.” They had agreed a separation was for the best; he would continue to support her and the children. Hull believed Long's real intention was to have the rector removed and replaced by his own son "who plans to go into the church." Under cross-examination, Hull admitted he had struck his wife, once or twice. As he put it, "I boxed her ears." He denied being drunk several nights a week. In fact, he hadn't been drunk since 1839. He and Lucy Cooper, the former housemaid, now a married woman, were just old friends, she helped cleaning the church, etc. He did not know that some believed he was was the father of Lucy's first child. He most assuredly wasn't. As for being seen kissing a local woman named Ashby, Hull scoffed, "We're like brother and sister." 

The defendant, James Long, told the jury his entire role in Stondon was driven solely "out of pure friendship" for Rev. Hull. Personally, he didn't believe any of the gossip but the rector needed to know the rumours generated by his indiscreet conduct. It had gotten to the point that some of the locals were planning for "rough music," which in Stondon's version, would have involved pelting the rector with "dinosaur dung," from a local coprolite mine!  

After several hours of testimony, the jury foreman rose to say they had already formed their verdict. Apparently, Chief Baron Kelly had too. "If you think, as I do not hesitate to say that I think, that the object of the defendant was to induce the plaintiff to pursue a course which should not lead to the increase and exacerbation of these unpleasant rumours, then nothing that was said is actionable." The verdict for Long quickly followed. The courtroom was filled by locals who made the journey and cheered the result.

Despite Rev. Hull's courtroom defeat, the general takeaway was that all the rumours and gossip about his private life had been debunked. He returned to Stondon rectory. His first wife died rather suddenly. Waiting the proper interval, the rector remarried a solicitor's daughter. They soon had two young children capering about Stondon rectory where the Rev Mr. Hull remained until his death in 1890.

No dung was flung at Mr. Hull but other clergymen were treated to some "rough music." The Rev. Mr. Howes of Bracknell, for instance. For more, see my earlier published collection Clerical Errors, Volume 1. Only Kindle editions are available. Thank you.

Friday, November 11, 2022

"Dreadful Death of a Clergyman's Wife."

A furious 14th Century storm destroyed the coastal village of          Skinburness, on the Solway - the firth that separates Scotland and  Cumbria. The survivors relocated inland, to higher ground, in the straggling village of Newton Arlosh. Their new church was dedicated to St John the Evangelist. Ann Lingard, the Solway historian, has described it as a "tough-looking little church." Well it might have been. Besides the fickle weather, the marauding Scots were so close the church was built with walls seven feet thick. The main entry door was not but two feet wide. The area was not wealthy and the church fell into ruins until the 1840's when a local woman from Carlisle repaired and restored it.

Thus, in 1850, the Rev Robert Wightman arrived as the new Perpetual Curate. A brewer's son from Appleby, he had graduated from Cambridge. His elder brother - who spelled his name Weightman - was also a clergyman and had been a curate at the Bronte's vicarage in Yorkshire where he died, quite young.

Newton Arlosh was a remote and lonely place. In 1856, Rev. Wightman, then 38, married Harriet Glaister, a farmer's daughter from the local village of Botcherby. Mary Blair was their servant at the small parsonage. She thought they were a happy and loving couple although they drank altogether too much. Mary was the sole witness to the events of 5-6 May 1857. 

Tuesday had been another day of drinking and by three in the afternoon, husband and wife were well into their cups. At about ten that night, Mary brought in some bread and cheese. She found the Rev Mr. Wightman asleep on the couch. His wife was on her knees on the floor with her head face down in a chair. Mary tried to rouse her but the clergyman told her to go away. He did, however, plead with his wife, "Dear Harriett, will you not go to bed?" Mary Blairleft them alone but checked on the Wightmans again about three in the morning. They hadn't moved. At some point, she heard Mr. Wightman go to his room. Then, at about dawn, near to 7, the clergyman came in to the kitchen to tell her, "Mary, the mistress is dead." He sent no word to anyone but went back to his bed and bottle. 

At the inquest in Kirkbride, Dr. Hendrie from Carlisle spoke of some bruises he found on Harriet's throat but he believed they were not unlike those caused by natural suffocation. Mary Blair assured the inquiry she'd never seen any signs of quarrels or violence in the parsonage. Rev. Wightman was permitted to make a statement but it was described  as "unintelligible owing to his state of drunkenness." Some more kindly folk ascribed his condition to his obvious grief at the loss of his wife of just thirteen months. The coroner was left to rule the cause of death was suffocation caused by intoxication but he could not avoid commenting how painful it was to see a clergyman of the established church in such a condition. The Carlisle Journal's account was read across the country and few disputed the paper's summation: "What a melancholy spectacle. What a revelation of depravity and disgrace." 

In the Victorian period, there were many more clerical disciplinary actions resulting from alcohol abuse than from moral failings of any kind. Nonetheless, the scandal at such a remote place quickly faded. The Rev Mr. Wightman remained at Newton Arlosh while his drinking continued. By 1863, the Bishop of Carlisle ordered an inquiry into reports of his habitual drunkenness. The locals didn't seem unduly concerned; they thought he was a nice man albeit commonly "tipsy," "chatty" and often "smelling like a cask." Wightman did not attend the inquiry. In fact, when summoned, he could not be found. He seems to have simply left, disappearing from the clerical directories, and never to be heard from again. Any new information would be of great interest.

Please consider my newest collection of Victorian clerical stories now available at Amazon.



Friday, September 30, 2022

The Hampstead Prima Donna

The Rev Sherrard Beaumont Burnaby of Hampstead Parish Church was proud of his choir. He'd arrived at St. John's in 1873 and - under the leadership of James Shaw, a young man from Leeds, the choir, "commencing with a few rough boys only" had become celebrated for its "very high state of efficiency." 

All was harmonious in Hampstead until 1879 when the vicar clashed with Elizabeth Tocock, a parishioner of long-standing. (Mrs?) Tocock was in her mid-50's and had been a resident nurse/companion for a wealthy family in Holly Mount. She attended services regularly, morning and evenings. At first, her "incessant and tuneless singing" merely annoyed Rev. Burnaby. The clergyman's discreet emissaries got nowhere and Mrs. Tocock sang even louder and more off-key than heretofore. 

After meetings with his churchwardens, and consulting with the Bishop, Mr. Burnaby took a most unusual step. By ancient law, it was a crime to disrupt a church service; the official term was "brawling." Mrs. Elizabeth Tocock was given a summons to appear in Hampstead Police Court on 3 December 1879 to answer a charge that she had “unlawfully disturbed, vexed, troubled and disquieted” the vicar of St. John’s Parish Church. The Rev. Mr. Burnaby told the magistrates that he, along with the members of his choir, and indeed the greater part of his congregation, had exhausted their patience. “She makes the most shocking noise, which I suppose she would call singing, at the topmost pitch of her voice.” Her antics clearly unsettled the organist and choir as she sang at her own tardy pace. The vicar also pointed out that the nettlesome woman customarily took a seat no more than fifteen feet in front of the pulpit so as to be directly in his vision. The exasperated Mr. Burnaby said no one could conduct themselves in such a manner without intentionally wishing to annoy. 

Mr. Woodd Smith of Hampstead Heath, the local JP, was not an ardent churchgoer but fully sympathized with Mr. Burnaby’s plight. Whether Mrs. Tocock meant to do it or not, the law was plain: any conduct which hinders divine service is unlawful. If it was up to him, he would order her to pay a fine of £5 or spend two months in jail. The vicar had no wish to have "the diva" incarcerated. It was agreed to suspend matters for one month to see if Mrs. Tocock could control herself. As she left court, however, she told reporters, “I cannot worship if I cannot sing.”

The story of “the Hampstead Prima Donna” made all the papers. Mrs. Tocock, described as a “respectably dressed and apparently well-educated woman,” was not without supporters, especially among those who were dubious of elaborate rituals and music during services. A COUNTRY CLERGYMEN, cheered her on, "Dear Madam, I fear at the present time there are many who wish to convert our churches into mere places for hearing singing."

When her case was called again, there was general agreement that Mrs. Tocock was doing her best not to annoy. That must have been the end of it as the cacophonous woman vanishes from the annals of Hampstead lore. Only a few weeks later, 200 members of the London Church Choir Association gathered for a concert at the parish church. Mr. Shaw was at the organ; the programme included Gadesby’s “Not unto us, O Lord.” Mr. Burnaby’s silent prayer, no doubt.

For more tales of "vexed, troubled and disquieted" Victorian clergymen, How the Vicar Came and Went is now available from Amazon.