Thursday, October 5, 2017

"In a State of Helpless Intoxication"

"That many of the clergy of the day were hard drinkers at a time when all men drank, there can be no question," one Victorian observer wrote. But by the late 19th Century, the number of alcoholic churchmen had become a serious issue. 

Courtesy of Roger Williams (
The Rev Henry Limpus, the vicar of St. Mary's, Twickenham, was a man of "considerable attainments." He composed secular and sacred music for the organ that enjoyed contemporary popularity. In Twickenham, he was a leading figure in public life. At 53, Limpus was recently widowed and left with eight children, ranging from late teens to infancy. In January 1884, however, the Bishop of London authorised a five member commission of clergy and laymen to investigate "certain grave charges" that Limpus had been seen publicly intoxicated on a Sunday evening the previous November. 

The commission met in the Chapter House at St. Paul's. Evidence was presented that Limpus had failed to appear at both services on 11 November and "was that day seen three times, in three different places, by four different sets of persons, in a state of helpless intoxication." One witness said the clergyman reeled along the Richmond Road from pavement to gutter, finally clinging to some fence railings. Mrs. Litchfield, a parishioner, thanks to "a particularly moonlit night," was sorry to say her vicar's "eyes were half shut and his face was ashen pale." 

Rev. Limpus admitted being unwell that day, forcing him to miss his duties. But that evening, he insisted, he was nowhere near the Richmond Road, but was having tea with the "Misses Jessop," respectable ladies who ran a small school in East Molesey, six miles away. "I was sitting in the drawing room taking my tea and chatting. I remained there the whole time from 4 till 9."

The commissioners met on 30 January to consider their verdict. But there was considerable excitement when Rev. Limpus' counsel opened the day by stating that his client wished to recant his alibi. He had misremembered the dates; he had actually been with the Jessop women on the following Sunday, the 18th. In fact, Limpus was now prepared to virtually admit the charges. 

The commissioners were unanimous in their findings and the Bishop of London announced that the Rev. Limpus would be suspended from his clerical duties for three years. The formal notice was nailed to the door of St. Mary's on 17 February 1884. He served his suspension, returning to Twickenham briefly before resigning in 1888. He was buried in the churchyard after his death in 1893, the same year a new Clergy Discipline Act took effect, declaring that "habitual" drunkenness (amongst other offenses) would be a bar to holding clerical office. 

It was hoped that the new act would end the need for lengthy, expensive procedures to remove heavy drinkers. Such was clearly not the result in the case of the Rev. Charles Gordon Young of Chipstead. In the words of the Daily Mail, "never has a little village been so divided." The fascinating tale of the Rev. Mr. Young is told in Clerical Errors, A Victorian Series - Vol 2. The book is available in paperback and Kindle exclusively through and

1 comment:

  1. Diana Wells, the parish archivist, has kindly told me that the Limpus story was not generally known. She adds, "It is notable that the previous and subsequent vicars had a memorial plaque erected on the walls of the church – but not Limpus! The list of vicars has him from 1874 to 1888 as if there was no problem!" Thank you, Diana


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