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.

Image: polyvore.com

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 amazon.co.uk.

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

(* Jenkins, England's 1000 Best Churches)