Wednesday, June 13, 2018

An Intolerable Fear of Exposure

The Rev. Peter William Browne was the vicar of St. Katharine's Church in the small Lancashire coal-mining village of Blackrod. He came there in 1846, unmarried. In 1855, he went home to his native Dublin and returned with a bride, Jane Alicia, daughter of the Irish baronet Sir Ross Mahon. 

Within a year, however, the clergyman was summoned to a Liverpool police court to answer an "affiliation" action filed by 19 year old Deborah Stanley claiming Browne was the father of her 3 year old child. Miss Stanley was a coachman's daughter in Dublin. In 1852, she happened to meet the Rev. Browne while listening to some street music near Mountjoy Square. On that evening, he took her to "a house of an improper description" on Sackville Street. The result of that encounter was a child - the sex never revealed. She told the court that Browne had recently stopped giving her money for the child. He had been sending her 7s a week. In 1853, he paid her fare (£35) to America aboard the Annie Jane. But the ship was battered in a storm and turned back. She got off; when the ship put out again, it was lost off the Hebrides with 348 passengers and crew.

The Annie Jane (ArtUK)
It was an amazing tale but the sallow young woman was described by the papers as bearing an "appearance that is by no means good." She admitted to have subsequently had another child with another father. Opposite her in the court was the Rev. Browne, "a person of gentlemanly appearance, quiet and self-possessed in his manner." The vicar's counsel did not deny that there had been a "connexion." But given the profligacy of this young woman, there was no way to prove that he was the father of that child. What happened that night, the defense argued, was a one time incident that Mr. Browne had grievously regretted ever since. For that reason alone, he had given the woman money and attempted to assist her to go to America and make a new life but instead she had made "demand after demand upon his purse." In all, she had extorted £130. She began lurking about Blackrod. "The fear of exposure had been held over him until it had become perfectly intolerable.” 

Miss Stanley's complaint was dismissed. An appeal for the press to ignore the complaint and spare "further torture on this gentleman and his family" was to no avail. The Rev. Browne returned to Blackrod where he remained until his death five years later. A memorial plaque to the vicar can be found on the south wall of St. Katharine's Church.

For interesting full length stories of clerical scandals, please see Clerical Errors, A Victorian Series at or

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