Friday, March 30, 2018

"You Should be Found Out": The Rev. Oswald Reichel of Sparsholt

The Rev. Oswald Reichel arrived in the Berkshire village of Sparsholt in 1869. He was the new vicar of the Church of the Holy Cross. A Yorkshireman by birth, Reichel had achieved high honours at Oxford. He envisioned Sparsholt, a village “slumbering in the Vale of the White Horse,” as a place where his clerical duties would not interfere with his studies and writing. Reichel began work on what was to be his magnum opus, “A Complete Manual of Canon Law.” Ironically, canon law could not help him in 1886.

Mr. Reichel’s scholarly idyll began unraveling in 1885 when he received the first of a pair of letters from Mrs. Elizabeth Niblett, who kept a temperance hotel at 8 Ashton Place, Clifton, Bristol. 
I mean to take proceedings against you. You came here and called yourself Mr. Rice, a commercial traveler, well knowing you are a minister of the Church of England, and gave my house a nice name. Remember it is my living which I have always got respectably until your companion Miss King came to it. I think you should be found out
[A second letter followed]: 
You came to my house and stayed with the common thing you called Mrs. Rice who is none other than your old housemaid who has had two children by you. I will expose you if I have to do it whilst you are in the pulpit.
Reichel tried to scare the bothersome woman, writing to remind her that by her threats to extort money, "she has rendered herself liable to proceedings which may result in fine and imprisonment."

But on an August Sunday in 1885, Mrs. Niblett showed up in Sparsholt where she waylaid the vicar after services. The excitement in the village was understandable and word soon reached the Bishop of Oxford who presented Reichel with a choice: if true, he must resign; if false, he must take an action for libel.

Reichel v. Niblett was heard at the Reading Assizes in May 1886 before Justice Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, a “most acute and unbending” judge. While Mrs. Niblett was the party accused of libel and extortion, everyone knew the real defendant was the vicar of Sparsholt. 

It did not go well for the Rev. Mr. Reichel who faced a “searching cross-examination” by Mr. Jelf QC, the lady's counsel. He admitted registering as “Mr. Rice,” but said he stayed the night only because it became too late to go home. "Mrs. Rice,” he admitted, was Caroline King, his former Sparsholt housekeeper. He denied ever seducing her. He took her once to Stratford but they did nothing more romantic than visit the Bard's grave. Reichel was forced to admit that he continued to see her “from time to time” and paid for her lodgings in Westbourne Park, London. None of this, of course, reflected well on Mr. Reichel. The best his QC could do was remind the court that the clergyman was a single man who held the highest affection for Miss King. In fact, he had proposed marriage but had been spurned more than once.  

As ever, the legal cliche has been “truth is a defense for libel.” However, “Lord Campbell’s Act of 1840,” required that the information be revealed only "with good motives and for justifiable ends.” Mrs. Niblett - the Reichel forces argued - was guilty of extortion. Why else did she write "I have no doubt that I shall be paid well for what I can tell." The landlady - in the witness box - insisted she contacted Reichel simply to warn him not to return to her establishment - and to settle the unpaid bill of 27s for that memorable night in Bristol. 

Obviously, the truth of Mrs. Niblett's charges had been admitted. The Berkshire jury had only to consider the question of extortion and they took very little time to acquit her on both counts. The Rev. Reichel left with his reputation ruined. He pleaded with Bishop Mackarness to be allowed to leave Sparsholt for another living “where the Bristol scandal is not notorious.” That was a non-starter. A lengthy, expensive and embarrassing legal wrangle followed. Reichel refused to leave his vicarage; rejecting his replacement as an "usurper." Eventually, the case reached the House of Lords where the Chancellor, Lord Halsbury called Reichel’s repeated appeals “a scandal to the administration of justice.”

Reichel’s fall had a surprisingly soft landing. He had come into ownership of A la Ronde, a famous sixteen-sided Gothic folly with spectacular views along the Devon coast at Lympstone. In 1887, he married Julia Ashenden, a milliner’s daughter from Chelsea. The groom was 47; the bride was 23. He died in 1923, survived by his wife. A La Ronde was deeded to The National Trust in 1991.

In his later years, Reichel revised his Manual of Canon Law. Therein, on page 276, he wrote: "To avoid scandal, women are not allowed to dwell under the roof of the unmarried clergy, except a mother, a sister, an aunt, or some other person above suspicion." Teacher, teach thyself.

Volume Two of Clerical Errors, A Victorian Series is a collection of five full-length accounts of clergyman enmeshed in personal scandals and sensations. It's a book any Anglophile will enjoy. Volume two is available in Kindle and paper exclusively through &

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