Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Parable of the Mustard and Cress

Sydling St. Nicholas
Sydling St. Nicholas, in the remote folds of Dorset, seems an unlikely venue for one of the more curious clerical spats in the Victorian Church. During the local vicar's last illness, the Rev. George Whitehead, curate, had filled in. He proved popular enough to where he had hopes to succeed when the time came. But the appointment was up to the Warden and Fellows of Winchester College, an arrangement dating back to good old King Athelstan! Alas, Mr. Whitehead's CV was rather unimpressive. An ex-policeman, he'd taken his degree at St. Bees College – a Cumbrian institution that had the reputation of accepting those who didn’t quite have “the A levels” for Oxford or Cambridge. Thus word came from Winchester that the vicarage was to be presented to the Rev. William James Vernon BA, of St. John’s College, Cambridge.

Rev. Vernon was from distant Lancashire; Sydling was his first parish and things did not go well. Within the year, he began banging on about a conspiracy against him. Mr. Whitehead had only gone as far as Atherington, still a curate, but everywhere Mr. Vernon turned in Sydling, he saw Whitehead partisans. He produced a pamphlet charging the erstwhile curate with stealing from the tithes and taking more drink than was seemly. Finally, in his vicarage garden, where all the churchgoers would see it on their way into St. Nicholas, Mr. Vernon planted mustard and cress in such a way that, when it sprouted, the vegetation spelled out “WHITEHEAD IS A SCAMP.” Truth – the London based weekly that delighted in all clerical scandals, was delighted: “The last new thing in libel is decidedly quaint and beats chalking on the walls hollow."

It was, well, food for the press but Mr. Whitehead could not allow these attacks to stand. In 1877, at the Assizes in Dorchester, the Rev. Mr. Vernon was charged with “publishing defamatory libels.” The Lord Chief Justice of England – Lord Coleridge, presided. The law states that any injurious writing is libelous and is not limited to the printed word. Writing includes “every means of symbolizing language by alphabetic characters with every kind of implement, with any kind of pigment, on any kind of substance.” That would encompass the vicar’s scurrilous Sydling seedlings. 
Mr. Vernon - on advice of counsel - plead guilty. Lord Coleridge agreed, for “a more malignant libel he had never read.” He sentenced the Rev. Vernon to two months in the Dorset gaol. Vernon served his time and remained in Sydling for many more years but was so unpopular he usually employed a curate-in-charge. The so-called vegetable libel would be his legacy. The Gardener’s Chronicle, beloved by all tillers of the English soil, declared: 
This man may have been a clergyman, but he was no Christian; he may have had a garden, but he was no gardener. Mustard and Cress may be slightly pungent, but it is neither sour nor bitter, and in being made the instrument of libel has itself been grievously libeled.

A longer version of this story appeared in Dorset Life in 2010.
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Clergyman, Scholar, Murderer: The Rev. John Selby Watson

The Rev. John Selby Watson - a respected scholar and former longtime headmaster at the Stockwell School in South London - had a long and difficult married life. Even friends of Anne Selby-Watson described her as "always fretful." In October 1871, in his library at home, Rev. Watson beat her to death with the butt of a pistol. He dragged her body into a small closet, later telling a curious servant that the stains on the carpet were spilled port. 

The 67-year old cleric spent the next two days getting his affairs in order, leaving instructions for the disposal of his books and papers, including a translation of Valerius Flaccus "which I think deserves to be published." Then, he took to his bed with prussic acid, leaving a note: "In a fit of fury I have killed my wife. Often and often she has provoked me and I have had to restrain myself, but my rage overcame me and I struck her down." Selby-Watson was well-trained in the classics but not so much in chemistry; he survived the suicide try to be charged with murder. 

The brutal, calculated slaying cast "a distressing gloom over all thoughtful minds." The clergyman plead insanity, claiming a melancholia brought on by the loss of his job after 25 years. But a jury of Londoners proved unsympathetic and sentenced Selby-Watson to hang. The Home Secretary was besieged with appeals for mercy, many citing the murderer's age and scholarly accomplishments. The Times groused, "There are other murderers besides clergymen ... if extremity of temptation be once admitted as a bar to execution, a dangerous hope might be opened to criminals," while The Spectator decried "sickly sympathy... not creditable to English moral feeling." In plainer language, The Globe inquired, "Would the same sympathy have been felt if a Mr. Mick Connor had knocked his wife's brains out with a pick-axe?" Nonetheless, Selby-Watson's sentence was soon commuted to life. 

He died in his hammock in prison on the Isle of Wight in 1884. The Rev. John Selby Watson makes The Dictionary of National Biography with the unique listing of "author and murderer." I highly recommend Beryl Bainbridge's fictional study of this case, Watson's Apology. Murders by clergyman were (thankfully) rare. In 1887, an insane curate murdered his vicar in Suffolk. 

Illustration: The Penny Illustrated Paper

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Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Cawston Rectory Scandal

The Norfolk crowd gathered early on the morning of 15 July 1890, filling all the available space in the Town Hall in Aylsham. The Rev. Theodore Henry Marsh, since 1855, the rector of St. Agnes, Cawston, was to answer a "shocking" charge brought by the National Vigilance Association, a late-Victorian group dedicated to "the repression of criminal vice and public immorality." 

Sophia Barrett - in the parlance of the day - was deaf and dumb. She claimed that Marsh had fathered her child born in May. In the witness box, through a sign-reader, Sophia "with great force" pointed to the rector when asked to indicate the father of her son. The lawyer for the NVA stated that Sophia had been seduced both in the rectory greenhouse and parlour. She could not cry out nor tell anyone what happened. The rector had been giving her sixpence a week but when he heard that a charge was to be brought, he cut her off. 

The Rev. Mr. Marsh was questioned for two hours. He admitted living apart from his wife. He had known his accuser for some time and had tried to help her in many ways. He arranged for her to attend the Brighton Institution for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Children. But she led a much troubled young life and had been in and out of the workhouse. He stopped giving her the sixpence because he disapproved of her general conduct. "Before God," he denied paternity of her son. A series of rectory servants and gardeners testified they never saw or suspected anything. His lawyer wondered whether anyone could believe that a blameless village clergyman of 35 years service would risk all to misconduct himself in an open greenhouse or his own parlour. There were the usual attacks on the accuser's character: a young man named Bloomfield, another workhouse regular, was squarely in the frame as the likely father. After six hours, the local magistrates retired to discuss, returning to dismiss the charges. 

The Rev. Marsh remained in Cawston rectory until his death in 1905, to be succeeded by his son until 1933. 
Illustration: www.cawstonparish.info

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Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Vicar of Cowley and "a Most Unpleasant Enquiry"

Cowley St. James
The Rev. George Moore arrived as vicar of Cowley St. James in east Oxford in the late 1870's and remained for more than a half-century. A character he was. While still a young man and new to Cowley, he ran for a seat on the board of Poor Law Guardians. He later accused his opponent - a schoolmaster named Barling - of spreading a story that Moore's wife was keen to divorce him for fathering a child with a household servant. The slander trial was heard in 1881. Moore admitted that he and his wife lived apart - she preferring the seaside "for her health." His own health was not strong - he suffered from rheumatism to the point that he acknowledged that a female servant regularly helped him to dress (and undress?) and brushed his hair. But there were no improper intimacies and it was certainly not true that he had a child with any domestic. A three-day trial in Oxford - a "most unpleasant enquiry" - ended with a verdict for Rev. Moore but with an insulting award of a lone farthing for his damaged reputation. Moore fought on to the Appeal Court in London to win a new trial on the grounds of his "unreasonably small" damages. Forestalling a second trial, Barling issued an apology and agreed to pay an unstated but certainly larger amount. Moore was a celebrated figure in greater Oxford for a long time. After his wife died (see, she was poorly), Moore was rather openly seen in the company of his longtime housekeeper, Emily Durrant*. When the vicar died in 1928, he received an "amazing" funeral and is buried in the churchyard.
* Information courtesy of the Cowley Team Ministry.
Photo: geograph.org.

The vicar of Bracknell faced similar accusations. His story and more can be found in Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Volume 1, now available at amazon.com and amazon.co.uk