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

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