Friday, May 1, 2020


PUBLICATION DAY: 1 MAY 2020The vast majority of Victorian vicars, rectors and curates - not to mention the loftier prebendaries, deans and canons - led blameless lives of devoted service to their congregations whether in crowded cities or the most remote corners of the island. They were kind and true to their wives. In their quiet hours, they busied themselves with their bees, books and bells. At their passing, they were much lamented; a few were even worthy of a memorial window. On the other hand, there were men like the Rev. Thomas Hughes (no relation - apparently - to the author) who was denounced as "the blackest criminal." This little volume recounts the stories of 30 clergymen, accused - and sometimes falsely accused - of crimes and failings large and small. As one Archbishop of Canterbury deplored, stories such as these "echoed round and round the sky until it seems the air is full of them."Included in this book of thirty stories are:CHARLES DARWIN AND THE CURATE.“I MET A VICAR SPRUCE AND GAY.”AN EXTREMELY HEART-RENDING CASE OF SEDUCTION.A CLERGYMAN’S WAYWARD FOOT.And, ASTOUNDING CHARGES AGAINST A DEAN.
If you do purchase and read the book, please review it on and share with friends. Thank you.Please note: COVID19 priorities will mean understandable shipping delays. On the bright side, this is a good read for a lockdown Sunday afternoon.


Monday, April 13, 2020

Cuckoo, Curate, Cuckoo.

Sand Pit Ponies, Sir Alfred Munnings
Stuck at home? Listening for the sound of the spring's first cuckoo?

In April 1876, local newspapers across England would be sure to alert readers when the first call of a cuckoo was heard in their area. The sound of the cuckoo was a welcome first sign of spring. But for the Rev. William Gilmour Minor, the constant cries of "Cuckoo, Cuckoo" had unhinged him.

Ordained at St. Aidan's in Birkenhead in 1868, Minor was one of those itinerant curates of Victorian England. In 1876, he was in his 30's, unmarried and living in South London. He held the position of "Sub-Clergyman" at Lambeth Cemetery in Tooting, presiding at funerals and burials. In his spare time, he worked for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA.) 

Minor's walk to the cemetery each day brought him past a large sandpit on Smallwood Road. One day, he complained to Joseph Martin, the owner of the pit, that one of the pit ponies was lame and plainly unfit for duty. He was told to mind his own business. Minor became quite upset and there was a brief scuffle. Martin demanded the clergyman leave the property and Minor took his exit to the cry of the pit workmen, "Cuckoo. Cuckoo." After that, every day the Rev. Mr. Minor appeared in Smallwood Road, the workmen, soon aided by their families who resided nearby, serenaded the gentleman with cries of "Cuckoo, Cuckoo." Minor went into Wandsworth Police Court seeking "protection from the annoyance of being called cuckoo.” He was advised to walk some other way to the cemetery.

Mr. Minor declined to take that counsel; he was a litigious man, he had been sued and brought suit on more than one occasion. He won £200 from Pickford's, the movers. The situation in Tooting got no better. One day, a small child taunted him with the cuckoo cry. Seeing the child's mother laughing nearby, Minor grabbed the woman by the arm. The next day in Wandsworth, Mrs. Livermore of Smallwood Rd charged the Rev. Minor with assault. He answered that he had been provoked by a woman so wicked that she would encourage her child to use "abusive & insulting language" to a clergyman. Mr. Bridges, the magistrate, dismissed both charges but pleaded with Minor to ignore them, don't make too much out of this. The more you do, the longer the harassment will go on. Bridges said, "It was convenient at times to be a little deaf."

The case of the cuckoo clergyman had now become the talk of London and large crowds of new hecklers waited for their opportunity. At his rooms, dozens of postcards arrived for Minor with a single word message: of course, Cuckoo. Minor was beside himself, "my mind has become affected." He claimed that the respectable residents of Tooting were with him. It's interesting that he does not seem to have gotten any public support from the SPCA. Magistrate Bridges finally announced that if Minor could get the names of any of his tormentors, they would be fined or jailed. Three young men were identified by Minor but the magistrate simply lectured them to knock it off. The pit-owner eventually sued Minor for charges related to that first scuffle and won a mere shilling for his pain and suffering.

Even the jollity of shouting cuckoo at a passing clergyman will wane in London's summer heat and the story soon faded. The police and the courts were well tired of it. Couldn't the Bishop of London find employment for Mr. Minor elsewhere? A new job was found, in fact, this time with a living congregation. Rev. Minor became curate at St. Michael's in Withyham, Sussex. Hopefully, he found peace there. On the bright side, in Sussex dialect, apparently, cuckoos are called gowks.

Monday, March 23, 2020

No Shaking Hands

The church of St. John the Evangelist in Caterham Valley, Surrey, was dedicated in 1882. Work continued into the 1890's on what Pevsner called a "big Somerset tower." The longtime vicar at St. John's, the Rev. J.B. Heard, was quite ill and parish affairs were in the hands of his curate, his son-in-law, the Rev William Benjamin Greer. 

In June 1893, the parish Building Committee met in the vicarage dining room. There had been some friction between Mr. Greer and Arthur Best, a prominent parishioner who'd given nearly £1000 to the building fund. Best had paid for some reredos which he thought the curate had hidden behind a side altar. When Best arrived at the meeting, Greer approached him and, in a loud voice, declared, "Let us shake hands." Best declined. "I will not shake hands with you. I have no respect for you." Matters quickly got physical. "Out you go," Greer proclaimed, grabbing Best by the jacket, dragging him to the door. Other committee members broke up the melee. Greer apologized but claimed provocation. Best refused to accept it. Almost a year later, Best sued the Rev. Mr. Greer for assault and the cost of a new jacket - in all, £300.

Dozens of Caterham residents trained to London to fill the galleries in Justice Hawkins' court when the case was heard in May 1894. Mr. Best was 53, co-owner of a provisions firm in Smithfield Market. He said the reredos had nothing to do with his feelings for the Rev. Greer. Rather, he disapproved of the curate's “general manner and conduct towards ladies." The Caterham crowd began buzzing. Asked to elaborate, Best told the court that the curate was "frivolous & flippant" with the ladies and it was the talk of the parish. Moreover, Best claimed that Mr. Greer spent his Saturday nights at the music halls in London, including the notorious Empire. Is this anyway for a responsible clergyman to prepare for his Sunday responsibilities? As for the dust-up, Best was supported by three committee members who said Greer was the clear aggressor, boasting how - as an undergrad, he'd boxed with professional pugilists.

The defendant, Mr. Greer, was 46 years old, an Irishman educated at U. Dublin. He'd been married 15 years and was his father-in-law's curate. Some in Caterham had used the nepotism word but he'd won their acceptance, especially with the local poor. At the meeting, as he was acting for the vicar, he felt empowered to eject anyone intending to disrupt parish business. The claim that he annoyed the parish ladies was a "foul slander." Looking to the gallery, he demanded to know of any complaints from the ladies of Caterham, young or old. He made no secret that he enjoyed the theatre and he'd recently been to the Palace in Shaftesbury Avenue with his wife. He did not go to the Empire or any of the racy music halls. At the theatre, they never stayed late; in fact, his first Sunday service was not until 11 and was never a problem. He accused Best of trumping up this "ladies" allegation in revenge for their dispute over the reredos. He denied ever calling Mr. Best "the parish bully" but others did.

The case was going over to a second day but Justice Hawkins, a notoriously querulous jurist, denounced both sides for persisting in such "miserable litigation." He ordered the parties to go away and work out a settlement which they did, each agreeing to pay its costs. Still, the Standard wrote, "A more squalid dispute has seldom wasted the time of a Court of Law."

Calm returned to Caterham. Soon, the Rev. Heard left the vicarage and the Bishop would appoint a successor. Mr. Greer also left but he did not have to go far. He served first as curate at St. Agatha's in nearby Woldingham, and was eventually rector there for many years.  

Handshakes are presently taboo. Looking for light reading? There are dozens more such stories on this blog and more coming. Also consider, Clerical Errors, A Victorian Series, Vol. 2.

Friday, March 6, 2020

The Rector of Nunney

St. Peter's, Nunney. (Now All Saints Church) 
The Theobalds were lords of the manor in Nunney for much of the Victorian period. The Rev. John Theobald had been rector at St. Peter's in the Somerset village from 1830. In the summer of 1842, the rector was charged with two counts of "assaulting with intent" one of his servants, 21-year-old Caroline Cornish. 

The accuser was described as a "fine handsome girl" but even the prosecutor admitted she was not a woman of "unspotted chastity." Before a crowded court at the Assizes in Wells, Miss Cornish said her brother had been a sometime footman at the rectory in Nunney's High Street. She was taken on as a maid. The Theobalds had three children and a fourth on the way. Caroline testified that in February, while the rest of his family was out walking, the rector asked her to bring some warm water up to his dressing room. She found him undressed. He threw her to the bed, “his person was all exposed.” She was able to struggle free and ran to the cook who begged her not to tell Mrs. Theobald who was so very near her confinement. The rector then offered her £10 for her silence. A night or two later, Caroline was told to sleep in a rarely used attic room without a lock. When Mr. Theobald appeared at the door with a candle and asked her why she wasn't in bed, she said, "I have no intention of sleeping here." The rector threw himself on her and began groping her but again she successfully resisted him. The next day, Mrs. Theobald let her go because her husband had decided "you are not enough servant for him." 
Nunney Rectory (

The rector was defended by a young John Duke Coleridge, the future Lord Chief Justice. He relentlessly cross-examined the accuser, interrupted by a hysterical fit and fainting spell (on her part). No, Caroline insisted, Mrs. Theobald hadn't criticised her for slovenly dress. She didn't tell the other servants she liked beer and gin. She denied kissing Hillier, the page. She never told him she would rather sleep with him than the rector. The rectory was described as very small. Why she didn't cry out? Caroline said she did. On that first day, she "hallooed" the cook but she mustn't have heard her. As for that second night, that attic room was over the Theobald bedrooms and Mrs. Theobald slept with her door open. No one heard anything. Again, Caroline didn't cry out. Coleridge then read out the names of three or four men. She admitted sharing a room with one of them but she pointed out that he wasn't a married man. 

The prosecutor argued there are no witnesses to these kinds of crimes; the woman is believable. In his defense argument, Coleridge described the Rev. Theobald as a married clergyman, from a respected family, who enjoyed an unblemished reputation. The jury foreman interrupted to say they were all agreed, they did not believe Miss Cornish. They found the Rev. Mr. Theobald not guilty. 

The church bells rang in Nunney for the rector's return. Rev. Theobald remained at St. Peter's until his death in 1877. For some years, he served as domestic chaplain to the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston.

Many Victorian clergymen were accused of misconduct with female servants in their household. Similar arguments were often employed against the women with like results. But, not always. See:

For full length accounts of Victorian clerical scandals, go here.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Queen's Proctor Intervening

The motorway roars past today but the Oxfordshire village of Waterperry was once a silent place. Ancient Waterperry Church, dedicated to St. Mary, stands in the grounds of Waterperry Park. In the Victorian years, the Henleys owned the estate and its magnificent Queen Anne mansion. In 1867, John J. Henley M.P. presented the vicarage to the Rev. Frank Shewell. A graduate of Oxford's Worcester College, Shewell was 39 and married with a small family. A new vicarage was being planned but, in the meantime, Shewell would have to room at a nearby farmhouse and his wife remained in London.

Alas, word soon reached the quiet lanes of Waterperry that Mrs. Shewell had taken a lover, one Capt. John Fox, of the 56th (Essex) Pompadours. It was easily proven that Fox had moved into the Shewell's home in South Kensington. Mrs. Shewell had given him a latchkey and there was no doubt they shared a bed. Thus, adultery having been proven, on 17 June 1868, the Rev. Mr. Shewell was granted a decree nisi.

But, wait, there's more. Six months would have to pass between that decree nisi and the final, decree absolute. In the interval, the Queen's Proctor might intervene if any irregularities arose, such as, though not limited to, connivance or condonation on the part of the petitioner, in this case, the Vicar of Waterperry. Upon new evidence, in April 1869, the case was reopened, "the Queen's Proctor intervening."

The second trial revealed that the Rev. and Mrs. Shewell had known Capt. Fox and his unmarried sister, Caroline, for several years. They had socialised and traveled together quite a bit. But the foursome fractured in 1866. In fact, Capt Fox accused the clergyman of seducing Miss Fox, which Shewell denied, counterclaiming that Fox had been taking liberties with Mrs. Shewell. The world already knew about the captain and Mrs. Shewell. The Queen's Proctor now presented evidence tying Rev. Shewell to Miss Fox. She was often seen sitting on the clergyman's knee. A shoemaker recalled Mr. Shewell and Caroline came in often. She advised him on what shoes to buy. From the looks they shared, the shopkeeper assumed they were husband and wife. Of more serious moment was the Queen's Proctor's suggestion that - given Shewell's previous suspicions about his wife and Capt Fox - it was unwise for him to go off to Waterperry and leave her alone in London. It seemed to demonstrate “a degree of indifference and neglect."

The Rev. Shewell's counsel dismissed the new evidence as servant's gossip. It was the "levity of conduct" among a group of (then) friends. The only opposition to the divorce had been raised by his (ex) wife, a “jealous & violent woman,” especially once Capt. Fox abandoned her. Lord Penzance, chief of the Divorce Court, overruled the Queen's Proctor. While there had been naivete and neglect upon the part of the Rev. Shewell, it was not sufficient to prevent him from ending his marriage. 

Still, it was one divorce trial too many for the vicar of Waterperry. He resigned and went into hiding, of sorts, for a few years. Shewell had been adjudged the innocent party in his first marriage and he was able to find new church employment. In 1875, he married again; a clergyman's daughter, in fact. He died in 1886 while vicar of Loddiswell in Devon.

Available, in hard copy and for Kindle, exclusively, on Amazon.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

A Clergyman in Hyde Park

London's Savoy Chapel was built in the 16th century where John of Gaunt's palace once stood until it was ransacked during the Peasant's Revolt of 1381. The Rev. William J. Loftie was the longtime assistant chaplain there and published a diverting history of the chapel in 1878. "People pass along the crowded and busy Strand, some of them for years, without any acquaintance with the quiet little church, surrounded by green grass and trees, which hides itself behind the rows of dingy houses." 

The chapel is still there, minus the grass. It belonged to the Crown (the Duchy of Lancaster) and was not regularly used, allowing the Rev. Mr. Loftie ample time for his prolific antiquarian writings. He contributed to numerous journals, wrote several books about the history of London, and was one of the world's foremost experts on Egyptian scarabs. He was a prominent member of the Savile Club, the gathering place for many of the day's leading journalists, writers, and artists.

In December 1894, a brief note appeared in some of the London papers: “The connexion of the Rev W.J. Loftie with the Savoy Chapel has ceased. He was a familiar figure there.” Loftie was married, in his 50's, and few would have suspected the news revealed anything but a deserved retirement. And nothing was ever made public until, years later, Max Beerbohm explained what happened. "One day, the Savile Club reverberated with scandal." Apparently, the Reverend Loftie had been diverted from his studies "long enough to seduce a parlour-maid, and he had found it expedient to give up the Church.*"

Whether Loftie gave up the church or not, five years later in December 1899, he was identified as the Rev. W.J. Loftie, a clerk in holy orders, when he was arrested in Hyde Park for "committing an act in violation of public decency." According to PC Taylor, Loftie was seen at 5:30 in the morning in a secluded path near Albert Gate with a 21-year old woman, employed as a servant in Notting Hill. In police court, the constable testified that Mr. Loftie begged him, "Can we settle it here? I don't want to go to court." The plea was unavailing. In Marlborough Street Police Court, Loftie insisted he had merely taken pity on the poor girl and was attempting to get her to promise to give up frequenting the park at night. Denman, the magistrate, gruffly interrupted: “There is no offense in talking with a woman. You know what you’re charged with.” Loftie denied anything beyond being imprudent. The young lady was fined 20s and told to go home to Colchester. Loftie was fined £5.

Once again, Loftie's numerous connections in the "media" of late Victorian London were helpful; the brief report from the police court, minus any prurient detail, was all the attention the case received. 

The Rev. Mr. Loftie continued to use his clerical title in Who's Who and elsewhere, living until 1911. He remained a member of the Savile Club and authored several more books including Rambles in and near London (which gave scant attention to Hyde Park.) Loftie is quite a forgotten figure today: one Edwardian critic said Loftie "serves up hackneyed material in an agreeable manner."

* S.N. Behrman, A Portrait of Max, p. 214-215.

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Moral Guardian of Thorpe-le-Soken

The Rev Abraham Rumboll had been vicar of St. Michael's, Thorpe-le-Soken for thirty years. Of course, he was invited to the introductory tea for Major George Duberly and Mrs. Duberly who had "taken" the Grange for the summer in 1895. The vicar, his wife, and their daughter Clara joined the get-acquainted session. It was probably a disappointment among the villagers that the major was not a be-medalled hero of any of Victoria's "little wars," but rather just the paymaster of the Royal Sussex Regiment. Still, everyone was quite friendly and the Duberlys were made to feel most welcome. At first.

Maj. Duberly detected a growing chill by the time of the Harvest Festival and not just in the air. He traced the problem to the vicarage; the Rev. Rumboll, he was told, had discouraged the locals from calling at The Grange, owing to "scandalous" information about Mrs. Duberly. 

The major wrote to Rumboll demanding an explanation and apology for this lying slander or he would refer the matter to his solicitor. The vicar declined to see the officer. Duberly tried repeatedly to confront the clergyman without success. The, in September, he was called to the vicarage to hear Rumboll's daughter admit, "I regret repeating the report I had heard that Major and Mrs. Duberly were not married." Duberly demanded an apology be published in every Essex newspaper received in Thorpe. The Rumbolls refused but Clara did write her apology on a card and gave it to the major. But the "scandalous" report had gotten around, even reaching Duberly's regiment. His commanding officer declared Clara's apology insufficient. Was "the report" true or false? The major had to clear his name as an officer and a gentleman. In November 1896, Clara Rumboll, with her father and mother in the gallery, was the defendant in a slander action heard in London. 

Major Duberly, now 37, swore that he and his wife were married 16 years previous on the isle of Guernsey. He had the paperwork. He related his sense that the village was cutting him, a feeling which he traced to the vicarage. The Rev. Rumboll, though not on trial, spread the slander but refused to apologise. Instead, he coaxed his hysterical daughter to hand over a mere scrap of paper.

The QC for the Rumbolls suggested there were other reasons Duberly was out of favour in Thorpe-le-Soken. Was it proper for a married man to be seen kissing young Edith Watson in the open day? Duberly fenced for a while but finally confessed, "I am bound to admit that I did kiss the young lady mentioned once at a stile." Wouldn't the vicar be within his rights to discourage his unmarried daughter and others in the village from visiting the major's home? Duberly allowed that he had behaved "stupidly" but it was a harmless kiss and hardly scandalous. 
A Kissing Stile

Clara Rumboll told the court that she'd seen that kiss. Her first reaction was that maybe the major wasn't really married. The story was soon "common talk" in the village. Under cross-examination, she was asked if she understood that her gossip accused Mrs. Duberly of being a courtesan. She began to cry. She was very sorry for spreading the rumor, but "I never believed it and I never said it was true."

The jury was told that Clara's words were none the less vicious and hurtful because they came from the mouth of the young daughter of a country vicar. The Rev. Rumboll could have stopped this with a prompt recantation and apology. Instead, he set himself up as the moral guardian of Thorpe-le-Soken. For the Rumbolls, their case was that Major Duberly's conduct in Thorpe left him open to unfortunate speculation. Now he meant to get his revenge on the vicar by crushing an innocent 22-year old woman. 

It was a one day trial and the jury was quick at its work. The verdict came in for the Duberlys but for damages of just £5! The Duberlys left the courtroom with their matrimonial and military honor intact. The Grange was once again for let.

For new readers in 2020, welcome. Full-length stories can be found in Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, available here.