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Career in the cloth

10 July 2015

Hugh Roberts reads a vignette of clerical life

Corner of old Winchester: on the way to St Cross and Compton, a view of St Michael’s Church from Culver Close, 1826, by George Shepherd. From the book reviewed below

Corner of old Winchester: on the way to St Cross and Compton, a view of St Michael’s Church from Culver Close, 1826, by George Shepherd. From the book...

The Speaker’s Chaplain and the Master’s Daughter: A Georgian family and friends
Barry Shurlock
Scholarly Sources £25*


THIS account of episodes in the life of a Georgian clergyman is based principally on the exchange of letters between Philip Williams (1742-1830) and his wife, Sarah, daughter of the Second Master of Winchester College, now preserved in the college archives.

Their intimate and frank correspondence, comprising some 130 letters, exists only because Williams was absent from his home in Winchester for significant periods over the five years from 1783 to 1787, while serving as Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons. This absence, which was strongly regretted (and from time to time deeply resented) by his long-suffering wife, allowed him to do a job with minimal obligations that left him ample time for letter-writing, amusements, and keeping an eye open for a step up the ecclesiastical ladder by courting the great and good.

She, meanwhile, laboured to look after their house, keep up a position in Winchester, and bring up their four children on the very constrained budget that Williams imposed. For the reader in the 21st century, the letters cast a revealing light on metropolitan life experienced by Williams as Speaker’s Chaplain, and the minutiae and intrigues of provincial society in Georgian Winchester, recounted by his wife.

The extraordinary world of the unreformed Church of England, where clergymen competed energetically for preferment, and pluralism prevailed, and the equally surprising world of the unreformed and venal public schools come vividly into focus. In Williams’s case, while acting as Speaker’s Chaplain, he held not only the benefice of Compton, near Winchester (where others officiated during his absence), but a reasonably well-remunerated Fellowship of Winchester College (where he had been educated), a position requiring little effort from him. For intellectual stimulation, he worked intermittently on a never-to-be-published study of the Greek historian Polybius, an undertaking started when he had been a Fellow of New College, Oxford.

Around this correspondence, Barry Shurlock has woven the stories of the Williams and Collins families in a dense mesh — with perhaps too many digressions and repetitions and the unlovable insertion of bracketed references throughout the text; but his book will serve as a richly detailed record of a vanished world.


Sir Hugh Roberts is an art historian and a former Director of the Royal Collection.

*Available from scholarlysources@gmail.com; or 21 Marston Gate, Winchester SO23 7DS, postage free.

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