Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Anonymous Letters in Sidmouth

St. Giles & St. Nicholas, Sidmouth
The summer of 1865 would have seen the boarding houses and villas of Sidmouth crowded with visitors.  On Sunday, 13 August, the pews of the church of St. Giles & St. Nicholas were filled. The local newspaper reported: "Very rarely, we suppose, has such a thorough, universal and painful feeling been excited in a parish as by the announcements of that Sabbath morning." The Rev. Frederick Luttrel Moysey, was resigning. Moysey was 49, married to a peer's daughter and with nine children. He had only been in Sidmouth four years. His troubles began in 1864 with the first of a series of anonymous letters. It was an occupational hazard - "Clergymen are very frequently in receipt of anonymous letters.  Some of these are agreeable enough.  Some are very much the other way." These letters were of the latter genre, accusing Moysey of the vilest offenses.  

Victorian clergymen did more than marriages and fetes. The church was involved in often bitter debates over ritual and church affairs. Moysey believed the author of the letters was very likely a member of his congregation. Probably, he or she was one of a “a small band known to him very well, persons of superior education, whom he had to meet and shake by the hand about once a week, [and who] had continually annoyed him for one cause or another.” Still, he could not prove it.

Moysey's supporters denounced the "low, mean, and cowardly" attacks and a reward of £50 was offered; the culprit would quickly learn that "Sidmouth was too hot to hold them." But the police made no discoveries. The reward was unavailing. Moysey held with his decision to leave: "the attacks on his character had been unendurably painful and, the state of his health and that of his family, was such that it was desirable that they should move to a drier and more bracing locality." When the new vicar arrived, hopes were expressed in Sidmouth that he would “steer clear of the dissensions and heartburnings" that had afflicted his predecessor. 

The Rev. Mr. Moysey and his family relocated to London, hardly the bracing and dry climate he had been seeking.  He remained there until 1894 when he inherited Bathealton Court in Somerset. He died there in 1906. His obituary in The Times made no mention of the Sidmouth scandal, merely noting that the Rev. Moysey had “retired in 1865.” He never held another church living. The letter writer was never identified.

Rev. Moysey's ordeal can be read in full in my book, Blame it on the Devon Vicar. (Apologies for the silly cover which was the publisher's decision.)

Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Volume 1 is available now, Volume 2 is in preparation. 

Photo: geograph.org

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A Cornish Clerical Scandal

The delightful village of Gunwalloe features in the recent Poldark series; the smuggling scenes were filmed in the dramatic cove. Not quite a full century after Poldark's times, the Rev. Alfred James Hayman Cummings was the vicar in Gunwalloe, and he wrote: "On the eastern side of Mount's Bay, nestled behind a cliff, by which it is protected from the raging waves, stands Gunwalloe Church, one of the oldest in Cornwall." The church of St. Winwalloe (!) was supposedly built on that spot by grateful 13th century shipwreck survivors. The bell tower is entirely separate, the base cut into the solid rock. Cummings loved exploring the geography, churches and learning the traditions and legends of the Lizard. But in 1875, just 34, he left Gunwalloe to be vicar of St. Paul's in Truro. 

There were great plans afoot in Truro to expand that church and Cummings immediately set to work closely with Arthur Nix, a local banker and churchwarden. In early September 1875, Helen Nix, the banker's young wife was reported missing. And, so too was the Rev. Mr. Cummings. They had apparently left on the same train. They were traced to Oxford where they'd stayed three nights in the Raglan Hotel, "in the same sleeping compartment," prior to renting a boat to sail the Thames. When they reached Richmond, Mrs. Nix' brother was waiting and he convinced her to return home. A divorce followed. Miss Tandy of the hotel remembered "Mr. and Mrs. Courtenay," and easily identified the vicar owing to his "either cork or wooden leg." 

Cummings returned to his wife and children, for at least some time. He was, however, without any church employment until 1886 when he was a curate in Hackney. He ended his days as chaplain of the Oxford County Asylum. He was still writing: his "Bright Thoughts for Every Day" came out in 1904.

Illustration from The Churches & Antiquities of Cury & Gunwalloe, etc by A.J.H. Cummings (Google Books)

My goal in 2017 is to post every two weeks. Meantime, 
Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Volume 1 is available now as an e-book; Kindle apps are free and easy to install on your tablet or phone. Make 2017 the year of the e-book. Thank you.