Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Christmas Story

"The Old Vicarage, Edgton"*
Christmas 1892 was snowless but very cold in Shropshire. In the remote village of Edgton St. Michael, it was the first Christmas for the new vicar, the Rev. Morgan Jones, a 32-year old Welshman. On St. Stephen's Day (26 December), in his "delightfully situated" vicarage, he dined with Miss Helen Scholding, the newly hired schoolmistress. The unmarried vicar had seen to her every need in the village schoolhouse and helped her settle in the small but charming schoolmistress' cottage. Since her arrival, Helen (and he had dared to call her Helen) had dined every Sunday at the vicarage and he had drunk many cups of tea in her cottage. 

Surprisingly, early in the New Year, Miss Scholding abruptly left Edgton, saying she wished to be nearer her home (Essex). Edgton was a wee place and there were few secrets. Among the villagers unfriendly to the vicar, the word was that Miss Scholding had fled to avoid the vicar's efforts to seduce her. They whispered that all through Christmas, he had relentlessly begged the 33 year old spinster to sleep with him at the vicarage and remain as his mistress. He coyly pleaded, "I feel like I am in the Garden of Eden, but what is the point of being Adam if the fruit is denied to me?"

After Helen's departure, a new schoolmistress came to Edgton. Time passed. Only 200 people lived in the village but the Rev. Jones, alas, had not pleased them all. A common flash point in rural life was shooting rights - who had the right to go where to hunt. The vicar raised pheasants but not for game and he'd brought the law in on "trespassing" hunters. But when he opted to buy his butter from a different local farm, he made an enemy.

In 1896, two parishioners (including William Broome, the bitter butter-maker) went to the Bishop of Hereford to seek an inquiry, charging (three years after the fact) that Mr. Jones at Christmas 1892 had taken improper and indecent liberties with Miss Helen Scholding, he had asked her repeatedly to spend the night at the vicarage for an immoral purpose and he had offered her the position of being his mistress. 

A Consistory Court sat for four days in Hereford Cathedral. The first two days were spent hearing from Miss Scholding, who seemed unwilling to be there at all and made a rather poor witness. She did swear that the vicar had wooed her from the first. He walked her to her cottage and insisted coming in for tea. He even brought brandy with him. He begged her to move in with him; her little cottage was so damp and his roomy vicarage so warm. He touched her improperly. He put his arm around her and spoke to her intimately. This went on through Christmas and into 1893. But when she continued to spurn his advances, he turned upon her. He became very cold and critical of her teaching. He made her cry. He told her, "You might have been as happy as a Queen if you had done what I wanted." On cross-examination, Miss Scholding admitted her diary for that holiday period had gone missing. She had lost earlier positions because she was so easily troubled; she had once talked of suicide. In Edgton, Rev. Jones had cautioned her about some of the novels she read. And why did she not cry out when Mr. Jones touched her, there were servants around? When she left Edgton, why did she write the vicar a pleasant note thanking him for his kindness. Would a woman write such a note to a man who had tried to debauch her?

But there were supporting witnesses. Margaret Evans had been Miss Scholding's cottage servant (Margaret's father was one of the dissident parishioners). The girl swore that, while looking through a keyhole, she saw the vicar pulling up Miss Scholding's dress. The schoolmistress said, "If you don't leave me alone, Mr. Jones, I shall write home and tell my father," to which the vicar replied, "Oh, no, no, suffer the little children to play together." Miss Scholding's father said his daughter had complained to him and he had gone to Edgton but the vicar refused to see him. But, once his daughter left, he let the matter drop.

Given his turn, the Rev. Jones insisted the story of his amorous Christmas seduction was a "heinous lie." Of course, he had befriended her; Miss Scholding was an educated woman and without friends in a rustic village. He never made any propositions to her; it was all a tissue of falsehoods crafted by unhappy parishioners. He never compared himself to Adam in the Garden, etc. He never called her a "delightful child" or told her she was like a "sunbeam" in his lonely vicarage. He saw nothing unusual in a clergyman spending an hour and a half in a schoolmistress' cottage. In fact, it was a damp little place. They had tea but never brandy. 

The vicar's counsel urged the Consistory Court to agree that the entire case was a fabrication, a "cruel, unkind and un-Christian" cabal inspired by petty quarrels. All this because the vicar changed dairymen? Tittle-tattle three years forgotten had been resurrected. Poor Miss Scholding, a "nervous, hysterical" woman, had been used to attack a blameless clergyman. The woman read too many romantic novels. The great "keyhole evidence" was incredible; it was a physical impossibility for that servant girl to have seen any such thing. In the end, the wretched schoolmistress left Edgton to go home to her family, no other reason.  
St. Michael's Edgton.*

The Hereford court (a panel of laymen and clergy) took a fortnight before announcing their unanimous verdict that the Rev. Mr. Jones was not guilty on all counts. In Edgton, the vicar set about to entirely restore his tiny church. He was still in the village well into the new century (so were his accusers, Messrs. Broome & Evans.) The Rev. Jones never married; he lived alone with his younger housekeeper, Miss Boyer, who'd been with him throughout. 

For Anglophiles at Christmas 2017, please consider Clerical Errors - A Victorian Series (Vol. 2.) It is a collection of full length stories of similar personal predicaments besetting clergymen of the C of E. The book is sold exclusively through and 

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