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 (http://www.british-history.ac.uk)

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