Friday, November 24, 2017

A Clergyman’s Wife Elopes with the Butler

St. Mary Magdalen, West Tisted (2016)
The Rev. Herbert Ogden Cruickshank, (M.A., Magdalen, Oxford) came to the West Tisted in 1883. The remote village in the South Downs was one of the poorest parishes under the patronage of Magdalen College. The village was reachable by a steep, rough, narrow lane. The church of St. Mary Magdalen was quite literally a "hidden gem," embosomed in trees and surrounded by a crumbling moat. A centuries old yew leaned wearily in the churchyard. 

In 1888, Cruickshank brought his new bride to the old vicarage. Mary was the much-petted only daughter of Capt. G. E. Graham-Foster-Pigott, a "gallant sportsman" of nearby Cheriton House. In the village of just 300 souls, Mary taught Sunday School, and she was "beloved by all the children." She was also the organist, leading the small choir on the harmonium, purchased by her husband during his self-financed renovation of the church. 

By 1894, the Cruickshanks had two children, a son and daughter. On August 28, 1894, an advertisement appeared in The Morning Post

BUTLER and COOK REQUIRED for entire work of small house; small family; foreigners may apply; Protestants. Wages and full particulars Mrs. Cruickshank, West Tisted Vicarage, Alresford, Hants.

A newlywed couple from Kent, James Wood, a former soldier, and his wife, Alice, who'd cooked at a military hospital near Canterbury, were employed by the Cruickshanks in 1895. 

In February 1898, Alice Wood came to the vicar to say she could no longer live with her husband; he had been abusive verbally and physically, knocking her to the ground and kicking her about the scullery. While attempting to console the woman, Rev. Cruickshank was aghast when she went on to claim that James and Mrs. Cruickshank were lovers and planning to run off together. The vicar presumed the distraught woman was a raving hysteric but when he called the others in, expecting them to deny it, “to my horror & dismay” they admitted it. In fact, this affair had been going on for almost six months. 

Cruickshank ordered them both to leave the vicarage at once. The lovers were later traced to a hotel in London's Euston Road and eventually to Toronto. With this evidence, Alice Wood received her divorce on grounds of adultery and cruelty. The Rev. Cruickshank, however, citing "conscientious objections which he could not overcome" declined to seek a divorce. Instead, he asked for a separation, custody and a declaration that his wife was unfit to have custody. The decree was granted in October 1898.

"A Clergyman’s Wife Elopes with the Butler," made for publisher-pleasing headlines. The Rev. Cruickshank had quietly submitted his resignation to the Bishop of Winchester: he "resigned in disgrace," according to the papers, though what exactly he had done wrong was not stated. Certainly, he could not remain in the village; a clergyman's marital home was expected to be "the model of the Parish." Cruickshank took his two children to live in Portsmouth, without clerical employment.

By the 1901 census, would anyone believe that Mary Cruickshank had come home from Ontario? In the end, the despicable Wood had abandoned her in Canada. Through her family, communication was re-established with Herbert, and "at his instigation," she returned to England and rejoined her family in Portsmouth. By 1905, Rev. Cruickshank was in service to his church again, the rector of Tubney, Berks. He died two years later, just 52, survived by his wife.

Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Volume 2 has just been published. Details on this delightful new collection of five full length stories of clerical mis-behaviour can be found at either or Paperback and Kindle editions are available. Thank you very much indeed. Order early for Christmas.

Monday, November 13, 2017

A Scandal in Victorian Slough

Herschel House (
There was a surfeit of young divines pouring out of academia to serve the Victorian Church of England. Those without money or connections were often ticketed for a humble rural curacy, others sought employment as a tutor. In 1862, the Oxford educated Rev. Thomas Richardson Birch MA, was just such a man. Through Johnson’s Clerical Agency in the Strand, Birch was employed by Mr. Felix Taylor, a retired London businessman now living in Slough with his wife Frederica and their two young sons. The Taylors, the young clergyman was informed, were quiet people and socialized very little. Mr. Birch, accompanied by his wife, would be well paid - £100 annually - with a furnished cottage in nearby Alpha Road.  

Slough, in the early 1860’s, was “celebrated for its salubrity" and home to many "families of the higher branches of the mercantile and professional world of London.” The Taylors lived in one of the community’s most famous homes, Herschel House on the Windsor Road. The astronomer Sir William Herschel had lived and died there, near his patron, King George III.  

Mr. Birch began well with the young Taylors, who made satisfactory progress. He and Mrs. Birch were frequently invited to dine at Herschel House. But within a year. disagreements and "some unpleasantness" led to the tutor's dismissal. 

Mr. Taylor, using the same clerical agency, offered the position to the Rev. Thomas Sharpe. But before the new tutor could take up his employment, he received an anonymous letter: "You have entered into a sink of the grossest crimes and infamy," the writer began. Sharpe was advised to contact the Rev. T.R. Birch for details. Sharpe wrote to Birch who replied, detailing the rumours in Slough that the Taylors were not married and their children were illegitimate. "That is why no respectable persons visit Herschel House," Birch alleged. Sharpe promptly declined Taylor's job offer and the clerical agency refused to serve the man any longer. 

Taylor may well have suspected that Birch was the source of these allegations. A letter to his former tutor drew an immediate and singular reply of some 800 words, beginning: 
You loathsome and most contemptible animal. You induced me to become the tutor of your bastards – bastards of the most loathsome circumstances of all bastards – they being the offspring of a low paltry tradesman at best.

In February 1864, in the Old Bailey, the Rev. Mr. Birch stood to answer a charge of criminal libel. In the witness box, Felix Taylor admitted that his wife had previously been married to a fellow wine merchant in the City. It was true that he and Mrs. Barlow had formed an intimacy producing two sons. But after her divorce, “as soon as he could do so by law,” he had married her. Taylor denied ever telling Rev. Birch that he was “a fellow Oxford man” or that Mrs. Taylor was “a colonel’s daughter.” They now lived quietly and "there was not a single circumstance" he wished to conceal from the jury. However, under cross-examination, Taylor admitted to eloping with Mrs. Barlow and living under assumed names at several addresses until the distraught husband ran his unfaithful wife to ground. 

Through his counsel, Birch denied writing that first anonymous letter. Anyone in Slough could have written it, so widespread was the gossip. It was conceded that Birch had written the second letter: it was a "privileged communication" as he was within his rights to warn another clergyman not to repeat his mistake and accept employment in such a home as the Taylors had made at Herschel House.

It came down, then, to the anonymous letter. The director of the Clerical Agency and a handwriting expert each testified that it was in Birch's hand. The London jury found that Birch had written both letters but they urged the court to be merciful. From the bench, the Recorder, Russell Gurney, made plain that he had no respect for Felix Taylor, a man "undoubtedly guilty of gross immorality." Had Mr. Birch discovered the situation and promptly left Herschel House, who would have objected? But only after Birch had been sacked for being “remiss in his duties” did the tutor conceive his plan to wreak revenge. The first letter was a malicious and unprotected libel. Gurney would therefore sentence the Rev. Thomas Richardson Birch MA to six months in Newgate prison.  

Having served his prison time, the Rev. Mr. Birch slunk away into obscurity. In the census for 1881, he living with his wife in Fulham, employed in the “hopeless and thankless task” of chaplain at the local workhouse.

Need a gift idea for the Anglophiles on your list this season? Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series, Volume 2 has just been published. Details on this delightful new collection of five stories of clerical mis-behaviour can be found at either or Paperback and Kindle editions are available. Thank you very much indeed. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

An Undiscussable Offence

Sailing from Southampton for Capetown in early 1868, Bishop Edward Twells still faced another 700 mile journey by cart to return to his diocese. Five years earlier, while vicar of St. John, Hammersmith, the unmarried Twells had been chosen to be the first Missionary Bishop of the Orange Free State. Five years later, he returned to Britain for a Pan-Anglican synod-cum-fund-raising tour. In his speeches, he conceded that his work had been hampered by the extreme difficulty of recruiting clergymen for so isolated a place. In a region populated by native tribes and Boer farmers, the Church of England required "men of great physical powers and energy." And money. Twells returned modestly enriched for his work. 

A little over a year later, "You can scarcely imagine the sensation," when the Cape Mail arrived with news that a warrant had been issued for Bishop Twells charging him with "an undiscussable offense." The English community in the region was shattered: "All society has been stirred to its depths, and our faith shaken in human nature and mankind generally." The Bishop could not be located. He was said to be in the Transvaal where he had taken refuge with friends, refusing to turn himself in as he feared he could not get a fair trial.

With no cable link, the news of the manhunt was weeks old by the time it reached London. Defenders of the bishop insisted the charges were false, a plot hatched by Twells' doctrinal enemies. He was suspected of being a closet Tractarian. The source of the painful allegations was said to be a "known thief and bad character in every respect." But other reports reached Britain that the charges were very likely true. Many were distraught at the effect this "shameless" scandal would have on the Church's work "in heathen lands." 

There must be a public trial, the press demanded. Bishop Gray, in Cape Town, ordered Twells to surrender and face a church inquiry on the "grave charges" made against him. In October, Twells submitted his resignation which was not accepted. By November, Twells, in disguise and using a false name, had boarded a ship for London. His old enemy, Bishop Colenso in Natal wrote, "He came through this colony in disguise, passing Maritzburg in the night, and hid himself somewhere at Durban until he could get away, which he found it very difficult to do." 

Meanwhile investigators had reached the Free State to discover the charges involved the Bloemfontein choir: "The boys of five or six families at least have been examined and have sworn to certain things and they have also been privately examined by their parents who could not bring themselves to believe the truth of the charges. But they do believe now that their sons have been most vilely and shamefully used - assaulted with depraved habits by one who was their chief pastor and should have been an example as well as a teacher of purity." 

There never was a public trial; "people wished to bury the scandal out of sight as soon as possible." In London, The Church Digest reported that Twells had been judged, by three medical men of high standing, to be "not of sound mind." Twells was just 40; he lived until 1898 in Clifton, Bristol, where he held the status of a "retired" bishop and only "occasionally officiated."

Not a bishop, the Rev. Rodgers was but a curate when he faced similar charges in Lowestoft. "I'll Do For Dicky Rodgers" is one of the stories in Clerical Errors, A Victorian Series, Volume 2 now available exclusively from and

For more about Twells, see:
Sachs, Homosexuality and the Crisis of Anglicanism (2009)
Southey, "Uncovering Homosexuality in Colonial South Africa: The Case of Bishop Twells." South African Historical Journal (1997)