Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Curate's Imprudent Kiss

Curates were ever a figure of great fun in Victorian England. In 1876, Belgravia, a society magazine, published a rather lengthy discussion of the woebegone species, concluding that "decidedly the most marked trait about the full-blooded curate variety is that they are not ladies' men." 

In 1883, one such curate, a High Churchman with deeply held views on celibacy, was entrapped in an embarrassing blackmail plot. The Times of London withheld the unfortunate cleric's name but reported that he held a curacy in a "prosperous London suburb." A pretty female parishioner had made her interest in the handsome curate quite plain but seeing that he would not bend, she asked, before they parted forever, could she have one kiss? He complied. Days later, in a neat parcel, tied up in a blue ribbon, there arrived an “instantaneous photograph, cabinet size” of him kissing the "pretty penitent." An enclosed note claimed that there were eleven more copies of the photograph and they would cost the curate £20 apiece. The Times reported that “negotiations are said to be progressing.” 

The story, for the Victorian media, "went viral." The Times account was picked up by papers across Britain and over the Atlantic. Admittedly, it may very well have been a hoax; the secular press rarely missed an opportunity to poke the High Church set (and celibacy, of course, was so "Romish"). The curate was never identified. How the matter was resolved must be left to surmise. But the moral was clear, as one leader-writer put it, let it be "a warning to susceptible youths in general, and young curates with comely parishioners in particular, to take good care when similarly committing themselves."

Now, this may have been a rather amusing "escalandre." But clergymen were among the most frequent victims of vicious blackmailers. For a "man bites dog" reversal of roles, please see the story of the Rev. Richard Marsh Watson, whose truly shocking blackmail scheme was denounced as a "case of heartless villainy." Watson's story can be found in Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Vol 2, available now in both paperback and Kindle exclusively through and 

Thursday, October 5, 2017

"In a State of Helpless Intoxication"

"That many of the clergy of the day were hard drinkers at a time when all men drank, there can be no question," one Victorian observer wrote. But by the late 19th Century, the number of alcoholic churchmen had become a serious issue. 

Courtesy of Roger Williams (
The Rev Henry Limpus, the vicar of St. Mary's, Twickenham, was a man of "considerable attainments." He composed secular and sacred music for the organ that enjoyed contemporary popularity. In Twickenham, he was a leading figure in public life. At 53, Limpus was recently widowed and left with eight children, ranging from late teens to infancy. In January 1884, however, the Bishop of London authorised a five member commission of clergy and laymen to investigate "certain grave charges" that Limpus had been seen publicly intoxicated on a Sunday evening the previous November. 

The commission met in the Chapter House at St. Paul's. Evidence was presented that Limpus had failed to appear at both services on 11 November and "was that day seen three times, in three different places, by four different sets of persons, in a state of helpless intoxication." One witness said the clergyman reeled along the Richmond Road from pavement to gutter, finally clinging to some fence railings. Mrs. Litchfield, a parishioner, thanks to "a particularly moonlit night," was sorry to say her vicar's "eyes were half shut and his face was ashen pale." 

Rev. Limpus admitted being unwell that day, forcing him to miss his duties. But that evening, he insisted, he was nowhere near the Richmond Road, but was having tea with the "Misses Jessop," respectable ladies who ran a small school in East Molesey, six miles away. "I was sitting in the drawing room taking my tea and chatting. I remained there the whole time from 4 till 9."

The commissioners met on 30 January to consider their verdict. But there was considerable excitement when Rev. Limpus' counsel opened the day by stating that his client wished to recant his alibi. He had misremembered the dates; he had actually been with the Jessop women on the following Sunday, the 18th. In fact, Limpus was now prepared to virtually admit the charges. 

The commissioners were unanimous in their findings and the Bishop of London announced that the Rev. Limpus would be suspended from his clerical duties for three years. The formal notice was nailed to the door of St. Mary's on 17 February 1884. He served his suspension, returning to Twickenham briefly before resigning in 1888. He was buried in the churchyard after his death in 1893, the same year a new Clergy Discipline Act took effect, declaring that "habitual" drunkenness (amongst other offenses) would be a bar to holding clerical office. 

It was hoped that the new act would end the need for lengthy, expensive procedures to remove heavy drinkers. Such was clearly not the result in the case of the Rev. Charles Gordon Young of Chipstead. In the words of the Daily Mail, "never has a little village been so divided." The fascinating tale of the Rev. Mr. Young is told in Clerical Errors, A Victorian Series - Vol 2. The book is available in paperback and Kindle exclusively through and

Sunday, September 24, 2017

An Unfortunate Clerical First - in Divorce Court

On the morning of 10 October 1858, the newly established court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes sat for the first time in London's ancient Westminster Hall. Previously, divorces required a prohibitively expensive process through the House of Lords. The first case called that morning was Norris v Norris and Gyles. William Norris, a prominent Worcestershire solicitor, petitioned for the divorce on the grounds of his wife's elopement with the Rev. George Gyles, the 30-year old curate of St. Mary's, Tenbury Wells. 

Gyles, with a Cambridge degree, had been an "edifying" clergyman in Tenbury for several years, working closely with Norris at the workhouse and other civic chores. The curate had been welcomed into the Norris home on Teme Street and the company of the young Mrs. Louisa Norris, "a woman of great personal attractions and accomplishments." When Gyles was stricken with rheumatic fever, he was tenderly cared for by the Norrises. Louisa's people were from the Isle of Wight and in 1857, for a change of air, she went to stay with her aunt, Lady Holmes. In March, "in consequence of a letter she had received," Louisa asked for the carriage stating that her husband had summoned her home. But she never returned to Tenbury. In fact, at the same time, the Rev. Mr. Gyles also "disappeared from the scene of his clerical labours."

William Norris now came to court with evidence showing that his wife and the clergyman had sailed for America, returning to England some months later, residing at a hotel in Paternoster Row (in the shadow of St. Paul's!) and, finally, living as "Mr. and Mrs. Grant" off the Vauxhall Road. No effort was made to challenge the petition and Norris' divorce was granted. The papers expressed their sympathy with the cuckolded husband whose wife "had listened to the insidious poison instilled into her ears by a 'reverend gentleman' whom Norris had befriended in sickness."

The sequel to the Tenbury scandal was a sad one. Rev. Gyles and Louisa were married three months after the divorce was heard. She died in childbirth only five months later. Their son survived. Gyles remarried the following year and had two more children. 

The new Divorce Court (1858)
The often salacious proceedings of the new divorce court were closely covered in the press causing much distress in thoughtful circles. Clearly, it was an embarrassment for the church that the very first case involved a clergyman. However, prior to the Clergy Discipline Act of 1893, being found at fault in a divorce was no bar to church employment. The Rev. George Gyles B.A. remained on the clerical rolls but "without cure," i.e. without a church. He was allowed to preside at one or two "private chapels" and did the occasional wedding up to his death in 1887.

The undefended Norris case was a rather perfunctory one in the courts, unlike the sensational story of the Rev. Seton Karr, vicar of Berkeley, who was also accused of seducing a solicitor's wife. The fascinating details of that case are told in Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Volume 2, now available in paperback at and

Thursday, September 14, 2017

An Exhumation in Bedfordshire

The graveyard at Clapham church.
Nothing quite brings out a crowd like an exhumation. On a dark, mild night in September 1876, in the graveyard of the church of St. Thomas a Beckett in Clapham, Bedfordshire, the body of the late Rev. John Frederic Dawson was disturbed from its eternal rest. With hushed villagers looking on, a long-running family mystery would be solved at last.

For many years a rector in Lincolnshire, the Rev. Dawson had retired owing to poor health, and moved to the Woodlands, his family seat in Clapham. Dawson had inherited the fine mansion and surrounding forest of oaks from his father, a former mayor of Bedford. The reader will want to know that the Rev. Dawson had been married twice. After the death of his first wife, he married his housekeeper, with some thought unseemly haste. Each wife produced a son. When the clergyman died in 1870, his eldest son, William, 37, naturally assumed he would inherit the Woodlands. His disappointment was therefore keen when the Rev. Dawson instead left the estate to his half-brother, John Frederic, a mere youth. 

William brooded upon this rebuff for some time; he insisted that his grandfather had, in fact, written a will, requiring that the Woodlands be passed on according to the principle of primogeniture, to the eldest son. But William's legal challenges all failed - he could produce no will, therefore there was no case. It does seem that the locals rather favoured William's side. Thus, there was a sensation when the carpenter who had screwed down the lid on the Rev. Dawson's coffin came forward (after seven years) to claim that a family nurse had - at the very last moment - slipped some papers into the fabric lining. 

With this new twist, William once more approached the Home Office and finally prevailed. An exhumation was authorised. The disputed property was just over the road from the church. As can be imagined, Clapham was in a "great state of excitement." At two a-m, watched by a crowd exhibiting the "greatest decorum," the somber process began. A one-ton slab had to be pulled back before the coffin could be raised. The coffin lid was unscrewed revealing that the Rev. Dawson's body was in a “wonderful state of preservation.” Apparently, there was not the slightest smell. Alas, for William, there was no will to be found. A diligent search produced only a packet of letters tied in a ribbon. Ironically, they were letters between the clergyman and his first wife (i.e. William's mother). By noon, the graveyard was quiet again. 
Woodland Manor today

The familial struggle had been long and costly; the property soon passed out of the Dawson family. Today, Woodland Manor survives as a restaurant, hotel and wedding venue. 

I am happy to report that sales of Clerical Errors: A Victorian Series, Volume 2 have been increasing. The second volume is available in both paperback and Kindle editions at and Thank you very much. If you do see your way to purchase a copy, please write a review on the Amazon website.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

A Tale of Two Clergymen

"Holy Trinity," Shanghai (courtesy TimeOutShanghai.)
By all accounts, the Rev. Charles Henry Butcher (1833-1908) was a very exceptional man. Highly educated, a fellow of Durham University, Butcher had been a curate at the church of St Clement Danes in the Strand. In 1864, he was chosen to go to Shanghai to help establish the first Anglican diocese in China. Before leaving, the 31 year old Butcher married Margaret Gardner in Notting Hill. 

In China, Butcher's duties were extensive, including overseeing the construction of the first Anglican Cathedral. He and Margaret, we are assured, lived on "most affectionate terms" until 1871 when she returned to England for "her health." She went to South Yorkshire where her brother was the vicar of Tickhill, near Doncaster. Sadly, however, the Rev. Mr. Gardner died in his vicarage in 1872, leaving Mrs. Butcher behind with the new curate, the Rev. Frank Chorley. 

It took a long time for a letter from Yorkshire to reach Shanghai in 1873 but Margaret wrote to her husband to admit she no longer loved him and was living with the Rev. Mr. Chorley in London. The usual servants were found (employed?) to testify to the sleeping arrangements in Tickhill and, since, in Gordon Square. The decree nisi was issued without any defense being offered.

The new cathedral in Shanghai, built to the "ambitious Gothic designs" of George Gilbert Scott was dedicated in 1876. "With its stout pews, stained-glass windows and 2,500-pipe organ, the red-brick Anglican church provided a cloistered haven in an exotic, untamed place." [LA Times 27 Feb 2011] The Rev Butcher was the first Dean. But he left Shanghai soon thereafter for Cairo where he spent the rest of his life as Archdeacon of the Anglican church in the Egyptian capital. In 1896, he remarried a Lincolnshire clergyman's daughter, Edith Floyer. Even in Egypt, the remarriage did not escape the attention of "Father Black," the clerical gadfly, who wrote to the Church Times to announce:  “Allow me to draw the attention to the fact that the wife whom Archdeacon Butcher divorced is still living!”

And indeed she was. Margaret Butcher had married the Rev. Mr. Chorley very soon after her divorce. Chorley remained listed in the clerical guides but, given the scandal, found no church employment for several years. In the 1890’s – he was a curate at St. Mary’s in Bury St Edmunds, where, after his death in 1900, he was remembered "for his kindly disposition, gentle manners, and generous readiness to spend and be spent in the service of his high calling, making him beloved by all who knew him.”   

Butcher died in Cairo in 1908. The cathedral in Shanghai was damaged during the Cultural Revolution and converted for various public uses but has been restored and since 2006 has served as the "main church and headquarters of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement" in Shanghai. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

"A Commotion Raised Throughout Yorkshire"

St. Mary the Virgin, Boston Spa
The proper role of a clergyman’s wife was a familiar subject for discussion among churchmen in Victorian England. It was, of course, an all-male profession and most were married. A good wife was expected to strive to lighten her clerical husband’s temporal worries by managing his home and family. Too often, however, she developed “false notions." A Church journal warned: "Let us recognize and proclaim the truth that the clergyman’s wife shares nothing of her husband’s office – possesses no right or authority, or power beyond the wives of the laity." One vicar's wife wrote, "Whatever she does, the clergyman’s wife is sure to be criticised, and I fancy that it is best for her to be criticised for doing too little than for doing too much. "

In 1871, the Rev. William Villiers and his wife Emily came to Boston Spa; he was vicar of the parish church of St. Mary the Virgin. Husband and wife were from prominent families and accustomed to some deference. In her spare time, Mrs. Villiers devotedly tended her vicarage garden while also raising chickens. When an animal killed one or more of her poultry, Mrs. Villiers was understandably disturbed.  A reward was offered. When a cat was captured in the garden, res ipsa, and the animal was summarily put down.

"The Curtsey" by Bougereau
The owner of this accused cat was a local dissenter named Bellwood, who lived very near the vicarage. His niece, Annie, whose cat it was, took it very hard and Bellwood protested but to no avail. He would have his revenge. Soon thereafter, Mrs. Villiers was walking in the High Street and came upon Annie. It was traditional for a child – church-goer or not - to curtsey when encountering a personage as grand as the wife of the parish vicar. When Annie offered no such "bow," Mrs. Villiers barked, “Where are your manners, child?”  The girl replied that her uncle had instructed her that she had no duty to curtsey to the vicar’s wife any longer.

Mrs. Villiers stormed off to her husband. As vicar, Villiers played an ex-officio role in the local "national school." He called in Collison, the schoolmaster, and ordered the girl to be either caned or expelled. After dithering some time, Collison resigned rather than do either.   

The sidewalk sensation came at a time (1877) when the role of the Church in these new "public" schools was a flashpoint. The Boston Spa incident went "viral," in the Victorian press. The Leeds' papers led the chorus. A story headed "How Good Manners are Taught at Boston Spa,” described how a “motherless girl of seven” refused to “bob down” to the vicar’s wife in the High Street. Punch mocked the “silly fop of a clergyman” who slavishly carried his wife’s water. Are dissenting scholars to be caned it they "refuse to clean the Vicar’s boots or prostrate themselves in some Eastern fashion?” Poor Collison, jobless with ten children, became a celebrity. 

Questions were asked in the House of Commons and Lord Sandon, whose portfolio included the schools, tried to dismiss it all. But the public uproar continued. Given a second chance, Sandon "convulsed the House” with a  ludicrous account of “the destruction of a parson’s prize poultry by a predatory pussy.” He concluded by saying expulsion was for the rarest use and "we must express our regret at the course taken in this case." 

The Rev. Mr. Villiers [and Mrs. Villiers] remained in Boston Spa only a short while longer. The curtsey, fortunately, was going out of style. The essayist W.H. Hudson reflected: "Tis impossible not to regret the dying out of the ancient quaintly-pretty custom of curtseying in rural England ... when we see that there is no longer a corresponding self-abasement and worshipping attitude in the village mind." 

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Rev. Sneyd-Kinnersley, played by Robert Hardy

We mourn the passing of the great English actor, Robert Hardy, at the age of 91. The obituaries written today most frequently mention his role as Cornelius Fudge, the professor of magic, in the Harry Potter films. But, for the purposes of this blog, we shall recall his portrayal of a real-life clergyman-professor, the Rev. Herbert W Sneyd Kinnersley.

After Cambridge, Sneyd Kinnersley was ordained by the Bishop of Oxford. He was a renowned classical scholar and his Latin schoolbooks are still in print. In 1880, he founded St. George's School in Ascot where his infamy was established. 

"Accounts of this horrible headmaster’s pitiless beatings are staggering.*" Every Monday morning, the student body - no more than fifty boys - was assembled to hear the reports of the previous week's scholarship. The names of those who had disappointed the headmaster were called out. The unfortunates came forward and were made to drop their trousers and bend over a large box to be birched. It was a "good sound flogging," survivors recalled. As many as 20 strokes were customary. or whatever it took to draw blood. 

The main source for the tales of Sneyd-Kinnersley's disciplinary mania was the Bloomsbury artist Roger Fry whose memoirs of his time at St. George's were reportedly censored by his biographers. 

Robert Hardy played Sneyd-Kinnersley in the 1972 film version of My Early Life, based on the memoirs of Winston Churchill who was sent to St. George's in the 1880's. Winston later recalled, "Flogging with the birch in accordance with the Eton fashion was a great feature of the curriculum." He, too, never forgot what Fry described as the "solemn ritual" of Mondays. Churchill, no shrinking schoolboy, felt the sting of the headmaster's birch more than once. He wrote how, in front of the whole school, he and other mates were "flogged until they bled freely." It was when Winston's nanny, Mrs. Everest, saw the scars from one such birching that she spoke up and Winston's parents removed him from the school.

The Rev. Sneyd-Kinnersley died at a young age, just 38.

It is ironic that an actor who, I believe, was the best ever to embody the role of Winston Churchill on screen, also played such a formative figure in Churchill's young life.


Sunday, July 30, 2017


An ebullient Yorkshireman, the Rev. Charles Gordon Young attended one of the lesser divinity schools and began his clerical career as a curate at St. Jude's in London. Working with lads from the local housing estates, Young is credited with having been one of the founders of the Queens Park Rangers*.

A few years later, in 1889, Young became the unlikely rector of St. Margaret's, Chipstead, a posh village in Surrey where cricket was the reigning passion. But the Rev. Young fit right in, even serving several years as captain of the village XI. A boisterous cricketer, he was known for lots of shouting and waving. On one occasion, however, serving as keeper, he found himself on the wrong side of the wickets, eventually stumbling over them. Was he drunk? There had been several other incidents in Chipstead: for instance, the time at the wedding reception when he bellowed, "Am I to have no blooming drink?" But when three parishioners found him in a notorious London nightclub with a "demi-mondaine" upon his knee, the rector's "continued insobriety" had become intolerable. 

The story of the Rev. Young is one of five clerical sensations detailed in my newly published book, Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Vol. 2. A retired journalist, I have been passionately collecting the stories of Victorian clergymen who found themselves sideways in their personal lives. Alcoholism was a major problem within the Victorian clergy. The Rev. Young, living among the "swells" of Chipstead, with their shooting parties and dinner parties, insisted he had no drinking "problem." With his loyal wife by his side, Young fought to save his clerical career in a sensational trial that drew most of Chipstead to London, where "the yokels gaped with astonishment," mocked the Daily Mail.

Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Volume 2 is available - both in PAPERBACK and for Kindle - exclusively through and Amazon.Co.Uk.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Suffolk Curate's Bad Hair Day

In 1663, Robert Hooke, the great English polymath, published his "Observations on the Louse," accompanied by a four-page fold out drawing of a pediculus humanus clinging to a strand of hair. Peering through his microscope, Hooke could not but wonder at such a tiny creature, "so saucy, so busy, so impudent it will be intruding itself into everyone's company and will never be quiet till it has drawn blood." Lice were an obsession in many Victorian homes. "Nit-nurses" stalked the new schools. Long hair was a luxury and women were urged to give it 100 brush-strokes a night. 

More than two centuries after Hooke's research, the Rev. Gabriel Young was curate at St. Mary's, Coddenham, Suffolk, living in a small house in the nearby village of Crowfield, with his wife and their seven children. Emily Palmer, a local girl, had been a family servant for about five months. One day in late 1887, she was called into Rev. Young's study. Emily recalled that there were several adults in the room. She said her cap was "beaten off my head." She was restrained while Rev Young pulled at her hair and looked for insects. Finally, Mrs. Young scissored off more than a foot of hair from Emily's head. One of the women present, cried, "'Tis a pity to cut such beautiful hair." Emily was summarily sacked and ordered to pack and leave immediately. 

The Rev Young was sued by Emily's parents - respectable people - for wrongful dismissal and assault. The trial in Ipswich filled the county court. Emily arrived carrying her shorn locks "but which nobody, when it was produced in court, would examine." She insisted that the lice had to have come from another servant and swore that Mrs. Young once warned her never to wear the cook's bonnet. There was a good deal of conflicting evidence as to the cleanliness of the house and the other servants. The Youngs said they did not injure the girl in any way. Lice could not be tolerated in their home with so many children and the source of the insects had to be determined and driven out.  

The presiding magistrate found against the Rev Young: there was no excuse for the ad hoc hair cut and awarded Emily £5 for the assault, and £1 for her wrongful dismissal. About a month later, Rev. Young resigned "owing to certain perhaps not altogether pleasant circumstances." He found a new church in Norfolk where he remained for many years, leaving Coddenham with a testimonial "wishing him every happiness, and that God’s blessing might rest upon him wherever he went." It was probably best they did not add the Scriptural consolation that "Indeed, even the hairs of your head are all numbered."

A gentle reminder that Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Volume 2 has just been published. Owing to numerous requests, Volume Two is available in PAPERBACK and features five all-new stories of clerical sensations. A Kindle edition is also available. Volume Two is sold exclusively through and Thank you very much indeed.  

Illustrations: and

Saturday, July 22, 2017


The Rev. Turberville Cory Thomas, singular in name and in appearance, was a popular curate at St. Alban's, Acton Green, in West London. A Welshman by birth, he'd come to Acton in 1898 after several years as a clergyman in Canada and America. Very quickly, he became invaluable to the vicar, the Rev. Bernard Spink, who praised him as conscientious and declared him to be a personal friend. Until the day he fired him. 

Two spinster sisters had stopped the vicar on his way to evensong to claim that Cory Thomas had relentlessly tried to seduce them. Spink was staggered by what he called "a plot hatched in hell." The curate insisted it was all "malicious tittle-tattle" but he was immediately given the sack and Spink vowed that "the monster" would never find church work again. Cory Thomas filed a libel action which came to court in London amidst the great mourning that followed the death of Queen Victoria. In a city draped in crepe, the New York Times declared that the only other story that mattered was "the great clerical libel suit."

The story of the Rev. Cory Thomas - he of the handsome "dagger moustache" - is one of five sensational church scandals retold in my newly published book, Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Vol. 2. It's easy to see why the public particularly delighted in this story with all the mysterious veiled witnesses (Miss O and Miss Y) and their evidence of "canoodling" over secret lunches and at dubious hotels in the Euston Road. 

Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Volume 2 is available exclusively through and The book is available in both paperback and in Kindle editions.

Sunday, July 16, 2017


St. Mary's, Batcombe, Somerset
On a splendid September day in 1855, the bells in the massive tower of Batcombe church rang a merry peal to celebrate the wedding of the rector's daughter. Charlotte, the elder daughter of the Rev. John Brown, married Richard March Watson, Esq, son of a prominent Canterbury family. His two brothers were clergymen and he was studying for the church in Chichester. Ordained in Salisbury Cathedral, the Rev. Watson moved from curacy to curacy in the West Country, until health issues forced him to give up an active career in the early 1860's. 

The Watsons settled near London where he supported himself by selling sermons. He came up with a plan to start a school and Charlotte's sister Susan joined them in Blackheath. The school idea foundered and Susan returned to Batcombe, as many younger daughters did, to be the caretaker for her widowed father. It wasn't until 1877 that the whole nation was stunned by the revelation that Watson had seduced his wife's sister who had borne his child and then, for most of a decade, he had been blackmailing her to preserve his silence. 

The story of the Rev. Marsh Watson and the Brown sisters of Batcombe is included in my newly published book, Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Vol. 2. For two decades I have been passionately collecting the stories of Victorian clergymen who found themselves sideways in their personal lives. The Watson case truly ranks near the top. It's difficult to disagree with the judge at Watson's trial who declared it was "hardly possible to conceive of anything worse."

Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Volume 2 is now available both in paperback and for Kindle readers, exclusively through and

Thank you very much indeed for your interest.

Thursday, July 13, 2017


is now available from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle.
UK readers click here.

When Victoria took the throne in 1837, there were about 14,000 clergymen employed in the Church of England. By her death, that number more than doubled. From the grandest episcopal palace to the remotest rectory, almost without exception, these men lived and died in service to their Church and congregation. Temporally, they avoided notoriety. They broke no laws. They married happily and raised their young. Misconducting clerics were few. Still, for those who delight in a good vicarage scandal, the Victorian church offered an “unpleasantly abundant crop.” 

The anti-clerical Reynolds’ Newspaper declared in 1870, “Clerical scandals have of late grown as rife as those peculiar scandals which pre-eminently affect high society.”  But profligacy amongst the peerage was almost to be expected. "Sinners that we are, we instinctively expect something better from the gentlemen who undertake to teach us the way.” 

The five full-length accounts herein were selected from the author’s unique database, numbering hundreds of Victorian clergymen.

Parson Young’s Night Out - a boisterous Yorkshireman finds himself rector of a posh parish in a quiet Surrey village. The Rev. Charles Gordon Young was initially popular in the pulpit and on the cricket ground. His critics, however, suspected the rector drank too much. What were the local “swells” of Chipstead to think when their clergyman was found in a notorious London club with a lady of the evening upon his knee?

A Case of Heartless Villainy - His prospects blighted, his health ruined, the Rev. Richard Marsh Watson made a living in a clerical agency and selling sermons. And a bit of blackmail. Having seduced his wife’s sister, Watson required her to purchase his silence. When she, at last, refused to pay, the ensuing trial shocked all Britain. Still, as one newspaper wondered, “What are we to think of the young women who yielded to the advances of a scrofulous parson with one leg?” 

A Clerical Lothario - The Rev. Turberville Cory- Thomas, complimented frequently on his “dagger moustache,” was quite popular with the church ladies in the rapidly growing parish of Acton Green in West London. His vicar praised him regularly. Until, that is, Mr. Cory-Thomas was accused of attempting to seduce two sisters - one over lunch at Gatti’s, the other in a grim bedsit near Euston Station. The ensuing slander trial shared the front pages with news of Queen Victoria’s death.

I’ll Do for Dicky Rodgers - A summer outing on the Broads was under the charge of the Rev. Edward Rodgers, curate of Lowestoft. Too much sun, too much smoke and drink at the “after-party” in the pub, and Rodgers was poorly. A local youth offered to help him home. What happened in the darkened lane between the hedgerows? George Rix began telling everyone, “He must have thought I was his wife.”

The Irreproachable Mr. Karr - Handsome, sporting and the darling of the raffish set at Berkeley Castle was the Rev. John Seton Karr. In the town, however, the vicar’s suavity may have gone too far. Was Mr. Karr’s gift of satin dancing shoes to a local solicitor’s wife in any way appropriate? But when Mrs. Gaisford, known for her extraordinary teeth, called upon Mr. Karr at his London hotel, sensational rumours were aroused leading to a series of legal battles that, literally, worried a Bishop to death.

These vignettes will surely delight all Anglophiles (worldwide), Victorianists, church-crawlers, fans of true-crime & courtroom tales, local historians and more.   

Monday, July 10, 2017

Burn This Letter

St. Marys, Hook-with-Warsash (
On Sunday morning, 12 October 1890, the Rev. Henry W. Bull left his vicarage at St. Mary's, Hook (with Warsash) to walk to the mission church on nearby Titchfield Common. On a pleasant day, the views over the fields to the Solent and the Isle of Wight beyond were splendid, but Mr. Bull was a deeply-troubled man. He was under orders from the Bishop of Winchester not to preach from his own pulpit while certain grave charges against him were investigated. 

The mission congregation was not large so the movements of one gentleman caught attention. He moved his seat on several occasions until he was directly in front of the Rev. Bull. In his sermon, the vicar could not but address the rumours so much talked about in the sprawling parish. Without details, he acknowledged that he had sinned and he would be very soon leaving the area. The man in front rose, demanding to speak. He was told to wait outside after the service. When Bull emerged a short while later, the man was waiting with a stick with which he "belaboured" the clergyman for some time until others intervened. The Rev. Bull said nothing but skulked home to his vicarage; within days, he sold up and was gone. 

Only a few weeks earlier, Walter Parrington, a coachman, had married Sarah Dimmick, who'd been a servant for the Rev. and Mrs. Bull and their family. They had moved to London. But when Parrington discovered that his new wife was pregnant, he threw her out of the house. A few days later, a letter came addressed for Sarah and Parrington opened it. It was from the Rev. Mr. Bull, and it contained £5 and instructions for them to meet. The vicar also insisted that Sarah must "burn this letter." Parrington had shown the letter around Hook and, all agreed, the clergyman's moral reputation had been ruined. 

With such a public confession, the Church moved quickly. The Bishop sent his own domestic chaplain to replace Mr. Bull. Even in such an out of the way parish, the scandal would make news. The relentless anti-clericalists at Reynolds' Newspaper charged that the departed Bull exemplified "the corrupt and immoral lives led by so many of the State Church clergy."

The Rev. Mr. Bull, just 43, left for America and his wife went with him. He would eventually resurface as an Anglican clergyman in Michigan. His full capacity was restored in 1907, when the Bishop of Winchester declared him "free from evil report, for error in religion or for viciousness of life, for the last three years." He served as rector of several churches in and around Detroit until his death in 1922, when "Father Bull" was remembered as "gentle, patient and faithful unto the end, a shepherd of souls."

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Teesdale Rector with a "Ton of Daughters."

The "clean and healthy" village of Romaldkirk is set amidst what one Victorian visitor called, “the softer scenery of Teesdale.” The ancient Saxon church of St. Romald was particularly striking. Near the church were the walled grounds of the rubbled sandstone rectory. From 1850 until his death in 1889, the rector was the Rev. Henry Cleveland. In 1871, he found himself briefly a national celebrity when he flatly refused to pay the bills for his daughter’s wedding.

The Rev. and Mrs. Cleveland were blessed with a large family. There were ten surviving children, six of them daughters. Mary Louisa was 27 on her wedding day, Michaelmas Day, the 29th of September 1870. The groom was Capt. Henry Grant Young, an officer of the Royal Artillery. Mary Louisa stood a full 5 foot 10 in her splendid gown and veil. The large and extended Cleveland family, a few of the groom’s brother officers and all the villagers were treated to a sumptuous wedding breakfast at the rectory. Capt. and Mrs. Young soon set off for their wedding trip before he was to join his unit in India.
This jolly proceeding was followed days later by what the Rev. Mr. Cleveland called a “thunderbolt.” In the post, he received a bill from London: Whiteley’s, the famous “Universal Provider’s” of Bayswater, had submitted their account for £155 5s for “a variety of silk & other dresses, petticoats, jackets, mantles, veils, head-dresses, embroideries, trimmings, laces, etc.”  The rector wrote back immediately, “Sir, I am perfectly astonished at the amount of the bill which you have sent in to my daughter. She chose to forget, and you are not aware, that she is one of ten children of a country parson. On her return from her wedding tour, she will examine the items of your account.” Mary Louisa’s homecoming was undoubtedly not a pleasant one. In fact, there was a great quarrel. In February 1871, the Rev. Henry Cleveland and William Whiteley found themselves on opposite sides before Lord Justice Willes in Durham Crown Court.

Mr. Whiteley, “with engaging candour,” told the jury that his bill was quite a reasonable one.  In fact, it would not have been thought extravagant at three times that much for the bride of an officer in Her Majesty’s army. Whiteley presented a fistful of letters from Mary Louisa with her specific purchase requests and detailed instructions for the dress-makers. The “particularly long wedding veil” was the subject of a painfully extensive discussion. The great merchant stated that it would have been a grave insult for a Whiteley’s clerk to write to a gentleman to ask if his daughter’s purchases were sanctioned. The Rev. Mr. Cleveland, a gentleman of rank and ample income, who moved in the finest society, had simply refused to pay for his daughter’s trousseau, though she lived with him and was married from his house. No retailer in England would be safe if this defiance was allowed to stand.

In the box, the Rev. Cleveland denied any intention to cause any calamity on the High Streets of Britain. Had the bill been smaller, he would have paid it just to preserve his family honour. But what extravagance in his name! He said he was aghast when he caught his first glimpse of Mary Louisa’s wedding gown, “a ridiculous production more suited for a Duke’s daughter." He had already paid almost £300 for flowers, lodging, the wedding breakfast and other flummeries of such a happy day. He was no paternal miser, the rector insisted. Each daughter received £40 per annum for their dresses and bonnets, as well as a family legacy out of which he had presumed his daughter would have financed her trousseau. His last remaining unmarried daughter, 22-year old Miss Isabella, took the stand to say she had sensibly made her bridesmaid dress for only £2 7s. As for the gallant Capt. Young, he had no great fortune of his own nor could he be held legally responsible for any of the debts which his wife had contracted before their marriage. 

Mr. Justice Willes instructed the jury that their only issue was whether or not Whiteley’s could reasonably have assumed that Miss Cleveland's trousseau had been ordered with the expressed or implied authority of her father. The jurymen ruled that the Bayswater bill must be paid in full; the Newcastle Courant thought the jury must have been composed of a “set of heartless bachelors.” 

The case of the Teesdale parson “with a ton of daughters” delighted the national papers. John Bull barked that the rector of Romaldkirk “seems to us to be an ill-advised and rather crusty gentleman.” Over so small a sum, “we cannot comprehend a gentleman allowing the affairs of his family to be canvassed.” 

For the Clevelands, however, this public kerfuffle was followed soon by private grief.  The new bride Mary Louisa Young died in India just over a year later. Capt. Young would re-marry Mary Louisa’s older sister, Charlotte. This time, there would be no trousseau issues. In fact, the marriage could not be celebrated in England as it was still illegal to marry your “deceased wife’s sister.” As for humble Isabella, it must be unhappily reported that she never had her own trousseau. She never married and was living alone with her aged father when he died at Romaldkirk rectory in 1889.

Photo: Memorial in St. Romald's Church, author's photo 2009.

The all new PAPERBACK volume two of Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, with five full-length stories - will be published very shortly. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

"A Reverend Rascal"

St. Lawrence, Rawmarsh (now dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin)*
As another Yorkshire winter approached in 1847, the Rev Sir William Vesey Ross Mahon, rector of Rawmarsh, had other plans. An Irish baronet, the clergyman would spend several months at his family seat near Galway. He placed an advert in the Ecclesiastical Gazette for a temporary curate. From all the responses, it was only natural that the Rev. Sir William should choose the Hon & Rev. B.C.D.F. Fairfax. He bore the highest praise from Earl Fitzwilliam, well known in the West Riding, and was the only surviving son of Lord Fairfax of Leeds Castle. The rector left without ever meeting the new man but he felt that the proper arrangements were in place. Rev. Fairfax was 25 and made an excellent impression in the pulpit at St. Lawrence's. Tall, slender, with large expressive eyes and dark hair, he was thought to be quite handsome by the ladies. He was also heir to a fortune of £20,000 and quickly established almost unlimited credit in the village and as far away as Sheffield. 

Church attendance in Rawmarsh was desultory and Rev. Fairfax was troubled to learn that many of the poorer inhabitants stayed away as they had no proper Sunday clothes. He sent them to the village tailor and bonnet-maker with instructions to put it on his account. At Christmas, his generosity with food and gifts for his Rawmarsh faithful was much appreciated. For the holiday, Rev. Fairfax had been joined at the rectory by a cousin, Johnnie Fairfax. But "Dear Johnnie" stayed on into the new year. The mystery deepened. Johnnie's complexion, features and carriage led some to suspect that he was a she. In church, Johnnie seemed uninterested in the sacred liturgy, thumbing through the prayer book at random. Naturally, there was talk in the village. Nervous tradesmen began to fear for their unpaid bills. Fairfax made smallish payments, blaming a delay on the recent defalcation by one of his father's most trusted agents. 

The Rev. Mahon's return was set for the last Friday in March 1848. Simultaneously, the Rev. Mr. Fairfax and "Johnnie" left Rawmarsh in a carriage carrying an "immense amount of luggage." Worse news came when it was learned that he had also gone off with the collection proceeds for both the Propagation of the Gospel and Rev. Sir William's especial fund for the "distressed Irish." Inquiries were made: Fitzwilliam disavowed the fellow; at Leeds Castle in Kent, there were no Fairfaxes in residence and hadn't been for over a century. The Rev. Sir William was shaken and helped as much as he could with the tradesmen who had been so "shamefully duped." The Genuki records* for the parish apparently show that "Rev." Fairfax had done baptisms and burials but, happily, no marriages. The Archbishop in York was outraged over the “Extraordinary Clerical Delinquency.” But the rector insisted that all the references had been in order. His defenders said that no one could have suspected someone "so young, so handsome, so aristocratic." A man matching the description of the "Rev." Fairfax - traveling with a young "valet" - defrauded an innkeeper in Glasgow. It was the last sighting of the "reverend rascal." 

The Rev. Mahon remained rector in Rawmarsh for another 40 years, splitting much of his time in Ireland or on the continent. He generally left the parish in the hands of a "curate-in-charge" (presumably, more closely vetted).

The research continues; the Victorian Clerical Errors data-base lengthens. Any followers with suggestions, corrections, additions - comment below or at

On sale now: Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Vol 1
Vol 2 is now in print preparation.


Monday, May 29, 2017

"How the Vicar Came and Went"

All Saints Church, West Haddon
The ancient church of All Saints, West Haddon, in Northants, boasts a "massive embattled tower." On Sunday morning, 6 March 1892, the vicar failed to appear. Days later, a notice of his resignation, as required, was nailed to the church door. Everyone knew the reason; for some time West Haddon had been in a "state of ferment." 

The Rev Edwin Arthur Barraclough had been vicar at All Saints for five years. The 34 year old clergyman had been married less than a year to Lucy Eagland, a doctor's daughter from Yorkshire. Alas, as someone once famously said, "there were three people in this marriage." At the village flower show, Mrs. Barraclough was innocently introduced by the vicar to Mrs. Amy Underwood. This woman of some charm was known locally as a "grass widow," an unflattering term for a woman living apart from her husband. The absent Mr. Underwood, a farmer, had gone out to South Africa. The vicar's apparently pre-existing and longstanding attentions to this woman drew his new wife's ire and there were furious rows. She finally left him. In her divorce petition, Lucy Barracough claimed her husband drunkenly threatened her with a gun, beat her and even tried to burn down the vicarage.  

In the Divorce Court, Mrs. Barraclough presented evidence of her husband's adultery in West Haddon, Putney and Stockbridge in Hampshire. There were allegations of a child born in Putney. Mrs. Underwood actually appeared during the trial to deny any adultery with Rev. Barraclough. Justice Barnes called the whole case "extremely distressing," especially in "a marriage so recently celebrated." The decree was granted.

Within a few weeks, the forgotten husband (Mr. Underwood) popped back to Blighty to file his own petition. He enlivened the second round of proceedings with a spicy claim that, whilst in West Haddon, the Rev. Mr. Barraclough used to carry a ladder from the churchyard to climb up into Mrs. Underwood's first floor boudoir. On one evening, "his visits being watched, some person removed the ladder." The clergyman was forced to skulk out via the scullery door. "How the Vicar came and went" made the usual headlines, of course. Mrs. Underwood counter-claimed her AWOL husband's abandonment and condonation, but the divorce was granted. 

The sum of these shocking allegations left Rev. Barraclough with little chance of church employment in England but few men went so far as he - to Napoleon's old haunt, St. Helena, in the South Atlantic. He rose to be a canon of the island's cathedral until his past caught up with him and he was sacked for "having represented himself as a single man (i.e. not divorced)." The local Bishop rankled at the island being a dumping ground for clergymen seeking a new start in "some remote corner of the earth." Barraclough returned to England, remained a clergymen, and died in Clevedon in 1934. 

For those who have inquired, Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Volume 2 will be published within weeks. In addition to e-Book, it will also be published in an Amazon paperback. Watch here for further details. Thank you.

Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Volume 1 is still available, of course. For U.K. readers, click here.

Photo at 

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Tormarton Rectory Menagerie

Tormarton Rectory 
The old stone church of St. Mary Magdalene, Tormarton, boasts one of the tallest Norman towers in the area, giving the Gloucestershire village its name. A line of yew trees leads to the old limestone rectory (now a Grade II listed home in private hands). In 1875, the recently widowed Rev. Edward John Everard was in poor health and in need of some continental sunshine. He had arranged for the church to be left under the spiritual care of a locum tenens, a rather curious clergyman with the magnificent name of the Rev. Holled Darrell Cave Smith Horlock DD. Horlock was nearly 70 and just retired after long years as the vicar of Box, in Wiltshire. Dr. Horlock’s only proviso was that he be allowed to live in the rectory and to bring his animals along with him. Rev. Everard expressed no objection, telling his clerical friend, “Go ahead and bring them, monkey and all.” In fact, Dr. Horlock kept an assortment of creatures, including a monkey.* Horlock promised, “Any damage I do, I will settle for.”  

Rev. Everard returned to Tormarton after six months. He discovered that his rectory had become a “perfect pest-house” and was now uninhabitable. This led to understandable ill-feelings and a dispute arose over the damages. In August of 1876, the “extraordinary action of Everard v. Horlock” was heard by Baron Amphlett and a special jury in Bristol.

Dr. Everard's counsel delighted the courtroom by giving a detailed census of the Horlock menagerie: 
Five large dogs – Don, Grouse, Lady, Mongo and Monk.
Three pugs – Blubber, Buzz and Tootie.
A Skye terrier named Bibi.
Three cats – Baby Mama, Snowdrop and Tail.
27 white mice – unnamed, of course, and wary of the cats, to be sure.
One squirrel.
Nine small birds of undeclared type.
Three pigeons.
One Dove.
A Hawk.
Five horses.
And, of course, the (unnamed) monkey. 

It was another of Dr. Horlock’s cranks that he would have no servants near him. The rectory was left untended and from the "droppings" evidence, the birds had been allowed to fly everywhere. The squirrel and the wretched monkey had raced up and down the drapes and other furnishings. All the carpets had to be pulled up and the bedrooms and other living areas almost completely redone. Rev. Everard admitted to allowing Horlock to bring his animals but he would have reasonably expected the wilder creatures to be housed in the barn, stables or other outbuildings. Instead, they roamed and swooped amok in the rectory. The cost of this zoological vandalism was estimated at £75.

Dr. Horlock was a man “possessed of considerable property,” but he offered a scant £10 in compensation. He claimed that Rev. Everard had been previously ordered by his Bishop to repair "certain rectory dilapidations.” Thus, Horlock argued, the rector was hoping to have those needed repairs done at the expense of his former friend. 

From the bench, Baron Amphlett intervened. Rector Everard was clearly deserving of more for the damage to his home. Two such respectable gentlemen should settle this between themselves. A surveyor was employed to determine the damages but the final settlement never revealed. Mr. Everard remained at the refurbished rectory until his death in 1880.

The "Tormarton Menagerie" story made amusing reading in papers across Britain. The Birmingham Daily Post commented, “The love of dumb animals is a graceful and amiable trait of character, especially becoming in a clergyman; but, like other excellent things, it may be carried to excess.”

Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Volume 2 is nearing publication, both in paperback and E-book. Volume 1, a delightful collection, is available for Ebook readers at and

*Remember, no less a clergyman than Sir Thomas More kept a monkey. According to The Handbook of Our Domestic Pets (1862), keeping monkeys in the home was out of fashion. But the great Victorian naturalist Frank Buckland kept several, “Although my monkeys do considerable mischief, yet I let them do it. I am amply rewarded by their funny and affectionate ways.”

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

"A Miserable Business"

West Huntspill Church (1870)*
The Rev William Arundell was 25 and fresh from Oxford when he arrived to be a curate in the "picturesque and widely scattered village” of Huntspill in Somerset. The rector, the Rev. Mr. Lake, thought the locals were "tolerably moral people." 

 Young Mr. Arundell lived in a room at Plymor Hill farm. In the summer of 1868, Arundell told the farmer, William Hawkings, that he had heard "rumours unfavourable to their character" about two of the girls who worked for him. Supposedly, Jane Meaker, a 19-year old dairymaid, and the housemaid, 15 year old Elizabeth Cridge, had been seen cavorting with local men. Mrs. Cridge, Elizabeth's mother, blamed the older girl for her daughter's fall. Hawkings, who learned of these claims on a Saturday, told the girls they couldn't go to church the following day and, if he found these stories to be true, he would sack them both. 

The girls insisted on their innocence but on Sunday, they disappeared. Their absence was first noted when they were no-shows at Mr. Arundell's evening prayers. Midday Tuesday, Elizabeth and Jane were found drowned in a remote cattle pond, near the sea wall at Bridgwater Bay. They were "found tightly in each other's arms." Certainly this was “one of the more shocking tragedies that has ever taken place in this neighbourhood.” 

The Western Times, called it a "miserable business" and reported that the two wretched girls had been frightened into death. However, at the inquest held at Crossways Inn, the local magistrate declared that the Rev. Arundell and the farmer had done “quite right.” The death of these "fine, good-looking country girls" became a national scandal. An inquest, held with "indecent hurry," had resulted in a cruel verdict (double suicide) that prevented the girls from having a Christian burial. 400 people, many sobbing, some angry, stood in the darkness when the bodies were interred in the St. Peter's graveyard before midnight. The rector defended his curate, urging everyone to “take the most merciful view of the case, which I had always believed to be the true one.” But, the London Standard denounced the "barbarity of the vengeance wreaked in the name of the law." 

Mr. Arundell remained in Huntspill for another year or so. In 1873, he left to be the rector in Cheriton Fitzpaine.

Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Vol. 1 is a collection of full-length accounts of similar "national scandals." For American readers, click here. Kindle or other Ebook apps are FREE and easy to use on your phone or tablet. Volume 2 is now in preparation. 

Illustration: British History Online (

Monday, April 17, 2017

Two Bastards under his Roof

The Rev. James Stewart Gordon Cranmer D.D. never tired of mentioning his direct descent from Henry VIII's formidable Archbishop. But Dr. Cranmer's clerical career fell far short of his ancestor. 

A widower, nearly 70, Cranmer was a curate in Wroxham, Norfolk, when he married 28-year old Sarah Honey, a pretty widow with two children (at least.) Within a year of the wedding, however, Rev. Cranmer found himself in a Southwark police court sued by a "nurse" in South London claiming she had not been paid for the care and feeding of two infants (sadly, one had died) believed to be the illegitimate children of the new Mrs. Cranmer. The clergyman's wife denied they were her children. She admitted visiting the toddlers and sending Mrs. Donne money for their care but only out of "benevolence." Mrs. Cranmer testified that she'd been assisting the real mother - a former servant named "Miss Hammond." When the Rev. Cranmer learned of the arrangement, there was a row and he instructed her to stop making the payments. But a witness swore that she had known "Miss Hammond" and she very much resembled Mrs. Cranmer. Worse was to come. "Does the Rev. Dr. Cranmer know that you have brought two bastards under his roof?" She was ashamed to admit that there had been no legal first marriage; she had been duped and found herself, some years later, abandoned (not widowed) with a girl of six and a boy five. The magistrate declared himself shocked at Mrs. Cranmer's "gross and willful perjury." 

The Rev. Dr. Cranmer was ordered to pay the "nurse" £4 7s 6d. For such a paltry sum, it would have certainly been wiser if he had just paid the wretched woman rather than have such squalid "family secrets" gifted to the newspapers avid for such clerical dirty laundry. Of course, it was more than likely that the Cranmers had paid and paid again already. 

For several years, Dr. Cranmer was without church employment. In 1875, he was given a curacy in Brewham, Somerset where he died in 1881, leaving his wife and two "adopted" children. 

Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Vol. 1 is a book length collection of five of the leading "sensations" of the day. It is an Ebook and apps are free for your phone or tablet. Thank you. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A "Fiddling Clergyman" in the New Forest

Illustration at
The death of a clergyman who held a pleasant benefice (church) would give rise to the "usual flutter of excitement" in clerical circles. All eyes would look to the patron of the parish, usually a local grandee, who held the right to present to the Bishop his choice to fill the living. Patrons were often criticised for caring more about their new pastor's social standing than his spiritual strengths. 

In 1874, the Rev. John Falls, the vicar of Brockenhurst, passed away. The Morants of Brockenhurst Park (and Park Lane, London), enriched by a Jamaican sugar estate, had been squires in the New Forest for more than a century. Early in 1875, an advertisement appeared in The Guardian: "Wanted for a small living in South Hants, an Incumbent in Priest's Orders; must be young and musical, violoncello preferred." The offering was placed through a clerical agency and did not name the parish but John Morant was well known for his devotion to fine music. He had founded a Philharmonic Society in Lymington. Perhaps there was also a vacant chair in the orchestra? The work of some clubland poetaster made the rounds: 

Hey, diddle-diddle, a priest who can fiddle,
Is wanted at Brockenhurt, Hants.
You clerical Fellows,
with good violoncellos,
Please call in at Johnny Morant's.”

The “Fiddling Clergyman” sensation produced more serious objections. It conjured the image of a clergyman who had to play for his supper and "what he can earn by his violin-playing for strolling dramatic companies and other wandering bodies, circuses probably, and menageries." In the event, howver, Morant presented the living to Rev. George Octavious Wray, a man with apparently no musical talents. He had entered the clerical life after a career as a lawyer out in India. In Brockenhurst, where he kept bees, Rev. Wray was better known for his aviary than his violoncello.

Volume Two of Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series is nearing publication. Have you read Volume One? The quite affordable Ebook version is still available.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Vicar's "One Unhappy Mistake."

The charity, kindness, and benevolence of the Rev. Mr. John Henry Timmins, vicar of West Malling in Kent, had been well-established in his forty plus years in the village. Visiting the sick was one of his passions, having attended a series of lectures at St. Thomas' Hospital in London - albeit in his youth. 

In late 1882, the 70-year old vicar called upon Sarah Wright, a laborer's daughter who'd been unwell. Timmins had a small vial with him, medicine for his son who had a case of nettle-rash. He poured out a teaspoon for Sarah. She swallowed it and "at once got up from the sofa on which she was lying and screamed, "Oh, Mr. Timmins, Mr. Timmins!" The girl was soon vomiting and foaming from the mouth. Dr. Pope was called - and there were many physicians in West Malling - but Sarah died in less than two hours. The bottle had contained "the essential oil of almonds" and the chemist had clearly marked it as poison. 

The Maidstone magistrates charged the vicar with manslaughter and he was tried at the summer assizes. Stedman, the local chemist had never spoken directly with Rev. Timmins but the instructions were clear - for external use only. Dr. Pope said the vicar told him that he thought a teaspoon was "an innocuous amount." 

Sir Edward Clarke defended the vicar. Rev. Timmins had definitely sent for the innocuous "expressed oil of bitter almonds" but the chemist had sent "essential oil of almonds," which was a deadly poison - prussic acid. By this "one unhappy mistake," a beloved cleric stood in this painful position. The prosecution acknowledged the kindly motives at work but the defendant's sheer rashness and worse, lack of remorse, made it manslaughter. Justice Day told the jury that the case showed a "clear want of care." Nevertheless, the jurymen of Kent took less than ten minutes to bring their verdict of not guilty "which was received with some applause." 

The medical press called the West Malling case "a solemn warning to all amateur 'physickers,'" many of them clergy. While there was little humor in the tragedy, Punch cautioned churchmen to stick to their "noble errand in the world ... and not meddle with the Pharmacopoeia." The Rev. Mr. Timmins remained vicar in West Malling another decade, and he died there in 1897.

Volume Two of Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series is nearing publication. Have you read Volume One? The quite affordable Ebook version is still available.


Monday, March 6, 2017

A Discordant Sunday at St. Winifred's, Branscombe

St. Winifred's in Branscombe is one of the oldest churches in Devon. Although the village is on a beautiful stretch of coast, St. Winifred's was "hidden inland from marauding Danes.*" There are few more lovely settings in all England.

The Victorian period was much more peaceful, in some ways. Rev. Henry Tomkins arrived there as vicar in 1868. As ever, the new clergyman came in with his own ideas that were not necessarily going to win universal support within the congregation. There had been "considerable ill-feeling," in fact, between Mr. Tomkins and the Fords. Both well into their 60's, Miss Mary was the organist, and her brother, William, the choir-master. Miss Mary was never shy about reminding the vicar that it was her organ (!). It had gotten to the point that the warring parties did not speak and the vicar passed the music sheet to the sexton who saw that the Fords got it before Sunday morning. 

On 15 September 1870, Harvest Sunday, the vicar was especially pleased to welcome the Archdeacon all the way from the Cathedral in Exeter. Whilst the vicar was reading the prayer for the Queen, Miss Ford began playing. The vicar continued in an ever louder voice. When a hymn was to be played, Miss Ford refused to play it, leaving the vicar to lead an a cappella version. It was a scandal and the whole village talked of nothing else that evening. The next day, Mr. Tomkins dismissed both Fords and, soon, he had them formally charged with "riotous behaviour in a church." 

It was all a mess. The sexton had given the music list to his son to deliver and the lad had - as children will - forgotten to fulfill his task. More than half the parishioners signed a letter in support of the venerable Fords. When Lord Sidmouth dismissed the charges, the Fords left to a cheering escort back to their homes. The unpopular Tomkins was denounced for his "trumpery" charge. "He is a ritualist and not a very wise one," the Western Times concluded.

The vicar could not recover from his public rebuke and left Branscombe after only three years. Tomkins became the chaplain at a large health sanitarium in Weston-super-Mare where he delighted in writing hymns. Several were published including "A Hymn to Branscombe." Would Miss Ford have even played it?

In 2008, I published Blame it on the Devon Vicar, a collection of Victorian stories. The cover art was unfortunate but the book is still available from

Very soon, look for publication of Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Vol. 2. 

(* Jenkins, England's 1000 Best Churches)