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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