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)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are always welcome. I am keen to learn more, make corrections, or discuss. Thanks for visiting.