Sunday, September 24, 2017

An Unfortunate Clerical First - in Divorce Court

On the morning of 10 October 1858, the newly established court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes sat for the first time in London's ancient Westminster Hall. Previously, divorces required a prohibitively expensive process through the House of Lords. The first case called that morning was Norris v Norris and Gyles. William Norris, a prominent Worcestershire solicitor, petitioned for the divorce on the grounds of his wife's elopement with the Rev. George Gyles, the 30-year old curate of St. Mary's, Tenbury Wells. 

Gyles, with a Cambridge degree, had been an "edifying" clergyman in Tenbury for several years, working closely with Norris at the workhouse and other civic chores. The curate had been welcomed into the Norris home on Teme Street and the company of the young Mrs. Louisa Norris, "a woman of great personal attractions and accomplishments." When Gyles was stricken with rheumatic fever, he was tenderly cared for by the Norrises. Louisa's people were from the Isle of Wight and in 1857, for a change of air, she went to stay with her aunt, Lady Holmes. In March, "in consequence of a letter she had received," Louisa asked for the carriage stating that her husband had summoned her home. But she never returned to Tenbury. In fact, at the same time, the Rev. Mr. Gyles also "disappeared from the scene of his clerical labours."

William Norris now came to court with evidence showing that his wife and the clergyman had sailed for America, returning to England some months later, residing at a hotel in Paternoster Row (in the shadow of St. Paul's!) and, finally, living as "Mr. and Mrs. Grant" off the Vauxhall Road. No effort was made to challenge the petition and Norris' divorce was granted. The papers expressed their sympathy with the cuckolded husband whose wife "had listened to the insidious poison instilled into her ears by a 'reverend gentleman' whom Norris had befriended in sickness."

The sequel to the Tenbury scandal was a sad one. Rev. Gyles and Louisa were married three months after the divorce was heard. She died in childbirth only five months later. Their son survived. Gyles remarried the following year and had two more children. 

The new Divorce Court (1858)
The often salacious proceedings of the new divorce court were closely covered in the press causing much distress in thoughtful circles. Clearly, it was an embarrassment for the church that the very first case involved a clergyman. However, prior to the Clergy Discipline Act of 1893, being found at fault in a divorce was no bar to church employment. The Rev. George Gyles B.A. remained on the clerical rolls but "without cure," i.e. without a church. He was allowed to preside at one or two "private chapels" and did the occasional wedding up to his death in 1887.

The undefended Norris case was a rather perfunctory one in the courts, unlike the sensational story of the Rev. Seton Karr, vicar of Berkeley, who was also accused of seducing a solicitor's wife. The fascinating details of that case are told in Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Volume 2, now available in paperback at and

Thursday, September 14, 2017

An Exhumation in Bedfordshire

The graveyard at Clapham church.
Nothing quite brings out a crowd like an exhumation. On a dark, mild night in September 1876, in the graveyard of the church of St. Thomas a Beckett in Clapham, Bedfordshire, the body of the late Rev. John Frederic Dawson was disturbed from its eternal rest. With hushed villagers looking on, a long-running family mystery would be solved at last.

For many years a rector in Lincolnshire, the Rev. Dawson had retired owing to poor health, and moved to the Woodlands, his family seat in Clapham. Dawson had inherited the fine mansion and surrounding forest of oaks from his father, a former mayor of Bedford. The reader will want to know that the Rev. Dawson had been married twice. After the death of his first wife, he married his housekeeper, with some thought unseemly haste. Each wife produced a son. When the clergyman died in 1870, his eldest son, William, 37, naturally assumed he would inherit the Woodlands. His disappointment was therefore keen when the Rev. Dawson instead left the estate to his half-brother, John Frederic, a mere youth. 

William brooded upon this rebuff for some time; he insisted that his grandfather had, in fact, written a will, requiring that the Woodlands be passed on according to the principle of primogeniture, to the eldest son. But William's legal challenges all failed - he could produce no will, therefore there was no case. It does seem that the locals rather favoured William's side. Thus, there was a sensation when the carpenter who had screwed down the lid on the Rev. Dawson's coffin came forward (after seven years) to claim that a family nurse had - at the very last moment - slipped some papers into the fabric lining. 

With this new twist, William once more approached the Home Office and finally prevailed. An exhumation was authorised. The disputed property was just over the road from the church. As can be imagined, Clapham was in a "great state of excitement." At two a-m, watched by a crowd exhibiting the "greatest decorum," the somber process began. A one-ton slab had to be pulled back before the coffin could be raised. The coffin lid was unscrewed revealing that the Rev. Dawson's body was in a “wonderful state of preservation.” Apparently, there was not the slightest smell. Alas, for William, there was no will to be found. A diligent search produced only a packet of letters tied in a ribbon. Ironically, they were letters between the clergyman and his first wife (i.e. William's mother). By noon, the graveyard was quiet again. 
Woodland Manor today

The familial struggle had been long and costly; the property soon passed out of the Dawson family. Today, Woodland Manor survives as a restaurant, hotel and wedding venue. 

I am happy to report that sales of Clerical Errors: A Victorian Series, Volume 2 have been increasing. The second volume is available in both paperback and Kindle editions at and Thank you very much. If you do see your way to purchase a copy, please write a review on the Amazon website.