Monday, June 26, 2017

A Teesdale Rector with a "Ton of Daughters."

The "clean and healthy" village of Romaldkirk is set amidst what one Victorian visitor called, “the softer scenery of Teesdale.” The ancient Saxon church of St. Romald was particularly striking. Near the church were the walled grounds of the rubbled sandstone rectory. From 1850 until his death in 1889, the rector was the Rev. Henry Cleveland. In 1871, he found himself briefly a national celebrity when he flatly refused to pay the bills for his daughter’s wedding.

The Rev. and Mrs. Cleveland were blessed with a large family. There were ten surviving children, six of them daughters. Mary Louisa was 27 on her wedding day, Michaelmas Day, the 29th of September 1870. The groom was Capt. Henry Grant Young, an officer of the Royal Artillery. Mary Louisa stood a full 5 foot 10 in her splendid gown and veil. The large and extended Cleveland family, a few of the groom’s brother officers and all the villagers were treated to a sumptuous wedding breakfast at the rectory. Capt. and Mrs. Young soon set off for their wedding trip before he was to join his unit in India.
This jolly proceeding was followed days later by what the Rev. Mr. Cleveland called a “thunderbolt.” In the post, he received a bill from London: Whiteley’s, the famous “Universal Provider’s” of Bayswater, had submitted their account for £155 5s for “a variety of silk & other dresses, petticoats, jackets, mantles, veils, head-dresses, embroideries, trimmings, laces, etc.”  The rector wrote back immediately, “Sir, I am perfectly astonished at the amount of the bill which you have sent in to my daughter. She chose to forget, and you are not aware, that she is one of ten children of a country parson. On her return from her wedding tour, she will examine the items of your account.” Mary Louisa’s homecoming was undoubtedly not a pleasant one. In fact, there was a great quarrel. In February 1871, the Rev. Henry Cleveland and William Whiteley found themselves on opposite sides before Lord Justice Willes in Durham Crown Court.

Mr. Whiteley, “with engaging candour,” told the jury that his bill was quite a reasonable one.  In fact, it would not have been thought extravagant at three times that much for the bride of an officer in Her Majesty’s army. Whiteley presented a fistful of letters from Mary Louisa with her specific purchase requests and detailed instructions for the dress-makers. The “particularly long wedding veil” was the subject of a painfully extensive discussion. The great merchant stated that it would have been a grave insult for a Whiteley’s clerk to write to a gentleman to ask if his daughter’s purchases were sanctioned. The Rev. Mr. Cleveland, a gentleman of rank and ample income, who moved in the finest society, had simply refused to pay for his daughter’s trousseau, though she lived with him and was married from his house. No retailer in England would be safe if this defiance was allowed to stand.

In the box, the Rev. Cleveland denied any intention to cause any calamity on the High Streets of Britain. Had the bill been smaller, he would have paid it just to preserve his family honour. But what extravagance in his name! He said he was aghast when he caught his first glimpse of Mary Louisa’s wedding gown, “a ridiculous production more suited for a Duke’s daughter." He had already paid almost £300 for flowers, lodging, the wedding breakfast and other flummeries of such a happy day. He was no paternal miser, the rector insisted. Each daughter received £40 per annum for their dresses and bonnets, as well as a family legacy out of which he had presumed his daughter would have financed her trousseau. His last remaining unmarried daughter, 22-year old Miss Isabella, took the stand to say she had sensibly made her bridesmaid dress for only £2 7s. As for the gallant Capt. Young, he had no great fortune of his own nor could he be held legally responsible for any of the debts which his wife had contracted before their marriage. 

Mr. Justice Willes instructed the jury that their only issue was whether or not Whiteley’s could reasonably have assumed that Miss Cleveland's trousseau had been ordered with the expressed or implied authority of her father. The jurymen ruled that the Bayswater bill must be paid in full; the Newcastle Courant thought the jury must have been composed of a “set of heartless bachelors.” 

The case of the Teesdale parson “with a ton of daughters” delighted the national papers. John Bull barked that the rector of Romaldkirk “seems to us to be an ill-advised and rather crusty gentleman.” Over so small a sum, “we cannot comprehend a gentleman allowing the affairs of his family to be canvassed.” 

For the Clevelands, however, this public kerfuffle was followed soon by private grief.  The new bride Mary Louisa Young died in India just over a year later. Capt. Young would re-marry Mary Louisa’s older sister, Charlotte. This time, there would be no trousseau issues. In fact, the marriage could not be celebrated in England as it was still illegal to marry your “deceased wife’s sister.” As for humble Isabella, it must be unhappily reported that she never had her own trousseau. She never married and was living alone with her aged father when he died at Romaldkirk rectory in 1889.

Photo: Memorial in St. Romald's Church, author's photo 2009.

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Monday, June 12, 2017

"A Reverend Rascal"

St. Lawrence, Rawmarsh (now dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin)*
As another Yorkshire winter approached in 1847, the Rev Sir William Vesey Ross Mahon, rector of Rawmarsh, had other plans. An Irish baronet, the clergyman would spend several months at his family seat near Galway. He placed an advert in the Ecclesiastical Gazette for a temporary curate. From all the responses, it was only natural that the Rev. Sir William should choose the Hon & Rev. B.C.D.F. Fairfax. He bore the highest praise from Earl Fitzwilliam, well known in the West Riding, and was the only surviving son of Lord Fairfax of Leeds Castle. The rector left without ever meeting the new man but he felt that the proper arrangements were in place. Rev. Fairfax was 25 and made an excellent impression in the pulpit at St. Lawrence's. Tall, slender, with large expressive eyes and dark hair, he was thought to be quite handsome by the ladies. He was also heir to a fortune of £20,000 and quickly established almost unlimited credit in the village and as far away as Sheffield. 

Church attendance in Rawmarsh was desultory and Rev. Fairfax was troubled to learn that many of the poorer inhabitants stayed away as they had no proper Sunday clothes. He sent them to the village tailor and bonnet-maker with instructions to put it on his account. At Christmas, his generosity with food and gifts for his Rawmarsh faithful was much appreciated. For the holiday, Rev. Fairfax had been joined at the rectory by a cousin, Johnnie Fairfax. But "Dear Johnnie" stayed on into the new year. The mystery deepened. Johnnie's complexion, features and carriage led some to suspect that he was a she. In church, Johnnie seemed uninterested in the sacred liturgy, thumbing through the prayer book at random. Naturally, there was talk in the village. Nervous tradesmen began to fear for their unpaid bills. Fairfax made smallish payments, blaming a delay on the recent defalcation by one of his father's most trusted agents. 

The Rev. Mahon's return was set for the last Friday in March 1848. Simultaneously, the Rev. Mr. Fairfax and "Johnnie" left Rawmarsh in a carriage carrying an "immense amount of luggage." Worse news came when it was learned that he had also gone off with the collection proceeds for both the Propagation of the Gospel and Rev. Sir William's especial fund for the "distressed Irish." Inquiries were made: Fitzwilliam disavowed the fellow; at Leeds Castle in Kent, there were no Fairfaxes in residence and hadn't been for over a century. The Rev. Sir William was shaken and helped as much as he could with the tradesmen who had been so "shamefully duped." The Genuki records* for the parish apparently show that "Rev." Fairfax had done baptisms and burials but, happily, no marriages. The Archbishop in York was outraged over the “Extraordinary Clerical Delinquency.” But the rector insisted that all the references had been in order. His defenders said that no one could have suspected someone "so young, so handsome, so aristocratic." A man matching the description of the "Rev." Fairfax - traveling with a young "valet" - defrauded an innkeeper in Glasgow. It was the last sighting of the "reverend rascal." 

The Rev. Mahon remained rector in Rawmarsh for another 40 years, splitting much of his time in Ireland or on the continent. He generally left the parish in the hands of a "curate-in-charge" (presumably, more closely vetted).

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