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. 

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