Monday, August 14, 2017

"A Commotion Raised Throughout Yorkshire"

St. Mary the Virgin, Boston Spa
The proper role of a clergyman’s wife was a familiar subject for discussion among churchmen in Victorian England. It was, of course, an all-male profession and most were married. A good wife was expected to strive to lighten her clerical husband’s temporal worries by managing his home and family. Too often, however, she developed “false notions." A Church journal warned: "Let us recognize and proclaim the truth that the clergyman’s wife shares nothing of her husband’s office – possesses no right or authority, or power beyond the wives of the laity." One vicar's wife wrote, "Whatever she does, the clergyman’s wife is sure to be criticised, and I fancy that it is best for her to be criticised for doing too little than for doing too much. "

In 1871, the Rev. William Villiers and his wife Emily came to Boston Spa; he was vicar of the parish church of St. Mary the Virgin. Husband and wife were from prominent families and accustomed to some deference. In her spare time, Mrs. Villiers devotedly tended her vicarage garden while also raising chickens. When an animal killed one or more of her poultry, Mrs. Villiers was understandably disturbed.  A reward was offered. When a cat was captured in the garden, res ipsa, and the animal was summarily put down.


"The Curtsey" by Bougereau
The owner of this accused cat was a local dissenter named Bellwood, who lived very near the vicarage. His niece, Annie, whose cat it was, took it very hard and Bellwood protested but to no avail. He would have his revenge. Soon thereafter, Mrs. Villiers was walking in the High Street and came upon Annie. It was traditional for a child – church-goer or not - to curtsey when encountering a personage as grand as the wife of the parish vicar. When Annie offered no such "bow," Mrs. Villiers barked, “Where are your manners, child?”  The girl replied that her uncle had instructed her that she had no duty to curtsey to the vicar’s wife any longer.

Mrs. Villiers stormed off to her husband. As vicar, Villiers played an ex-officio role in the local "national school." He called in Collison, the schoolmaster, and ordered the girl to be either caned or expelled. After dithering some time, Collison resigned rather than do either.   

The sidewalk sensation came at a time (1877) when the role of the Church in these new "public" schools was a flashpoint. The Boston Spa incident went "viral," in the Victorian press. The Leeds' papers led the chorus. A story headed "How Good Manners are Taught at Boston Spa,” described how a “motherless girl of seven” refused to “bob down” to the vicar’s wife in the High Street. Punch mocked the “silly fop of a clergyman” who slavishly carried his wife’s water. Are dissenting scholars to be caned it they "refuse to clean the Vicar’s boots or prostrate themselves in some Eastern fashion?” Poor Collison, jobless with ten children, became a celebrity. 

Questions were asked in the House of Commons and Lord Sandon, whose portfolio included the schools, tried to dismiss it all. But the public uproar continued. Given a second chance, Sandon "convulsed the House” with a  ludicrous account of “the destruction of a parson’s prize poultry by a predatory pussy.” He concluded by saying expulsion was for the rarest use and "we must express our regret at the course taken in this case." 

The Rev. Mr. Villiers [and Mrs. Villiers] remained in Boston Spa only a short while longer. The curtsey, fortunately, was going out of style. The essayist W.H. Hudson reflected: "Tis impossible not to regret the dying out of the ancient quaintly-pretty custom of curtseying in rural England ... when we see that there is no longer a corresponding self-abasement and worshipping attitude in the village mind." 

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Rev. Sneyd-Kinnersley, played by Robert Hardy

We mourn the passing of the great English actor, Robert Hardy, at the age of 91. The obituaries written today most frequently mention his role as Cornelius Fudge, the professor of magic, in the Harry Potter films. But, for the purposes of this blog, we shall recall his portrayal of a real-life clergyman-professor, the Rev. Herbert W Sneyd Kinnersley.

After Cambridge, Sneyd Kinnersley was ordained by the Bishop of Oxford. He was a renowned classical scholar and his Latin schoolbooks are still in print. In 1880, he founded St. George's School in Ascot where his infamy was established. 

"Accounts of this horrible headmaster’s pitiless beatings are staggering.*" Every Monday morning, the student body - no more than fifty boys - was assembled to hear the reports of the previous week's scholarship. The names of those who had disappointed the headmaster were called out. The unfortunates came forward and were made to drop their trousers and bend over a large box to be birched. It was a "good sound flogging," survivors recalled. As many as 20 strokes were customary. or whatever it took to draw blood. 

The main source for the tales of Sneyd-Kinnersley's disciplinary mania was the Bloomsbury artist Roger Fry whose memoirs of his time at St. George's were reportedly censored by his biographers. 

Robert Hardy played Sneyd-Kinnersley in the 1972 film version of My Early Life, based on the memoirs of Winston Churchill who was sent to St. George's in the 1880's. Winston later recalled, "Flogging with the birch in accordance with the Eton fashion was a great feature of the curriculum." He, too, never forgot what Fry described as the "solemn ritual" of Mondays. Churchill, no shrinking schoolboy, felt the sting of the headmaster's birch more than once. He wrote how, in front of the whole school, he and other mates were "flogged until they bled freely." It was when Winston's nanny, Mrs. Everest, saw the scars from one such birching that she spoke up and Winston's parents removed him from the school.

The Rev. Sneyd-Kinnersley died at a young age, just 38.

It is ironic that an actor who, I believe, was the best ever to embody the role of Winston Churchill on screen, also played such a formative figure in Churchill's young life.

* www.lifedeathprizes.com/real-life.../dark-reality-of-living-in-the-victorian-times-