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Coal clubs and butterfly nets

17 April 2015

Malcolm Johnson enjoys a gathering of Victorian clerics

The shack: Robert Hawker's cliffside hut. A photo from the book

The shack: Robert Hawker's cliffside hut. A photo from the book

The Victorian Parson

Barry Turner

Amberley Publishing £25


CT Bookshop special price £20 

THE author's research for this book is impressive because he has trawled through clerical diaries, biographies, sermons, and tracts.

A procession of eccentrics and oddities pass before us, such as Bishop Bathurst, that picturesque survival of the 18th century; Bishops Pelham and Phillpotts; Robert Hawker of Morenstow, James Woodforde, and Sydney Smith. The priest/squire Sabine Baring-Gould's two books add a host of others. Barry Turner, a well-known writer and editor, states that stories of louche, lazy, or plain loony vicars are easy to come by.

The Victorian parson was a prodigious polymath, however. Besides tending the souls of his parishioners and presiding over rites of passage, he was the local doctor, chemist, JP (one in six sat on the Bench), and teacher. He supervised the repair and extension of the church building and attempted to raise money for it. He organised savings banks, coal clubs, mothers' meetings, and youth clubs. He was assisted by parochial visitors, mainly women, who visited families.

As the century wore on and people moved to the towns, this became more difficult, and clergy lost touch with their parishioners. Anyway, there was only so much the parson could do until a system of state enforcement and administration was in place. This was particularly true in education. At the start of the century, there were more than 1000 Sunday schools, and the incumbents had a huge influence in them; numbers attending rose to 2.5 million by 1850. The National Society did much good work in opening day schools, but it soon became obvious that the state must provide education.

As today, many clergy never stopped working, and some never started. A tiny parish of 100 souls meant that the incumbent could become a leading expert in bees, butterflies, spiders, or plants.

Chapters are written on the tricky relationship between squire and parson; family values; church building and the challenge of biblical criticism (Macaulay told Samuel Wilberforce that "not two hundred men in London believed in the Bible in its entirety"). Sadly, the hard-pressed clergy wives receive little attention, although Mary Sumner, wife of the Rector of Old Alresford, is given credit for founding the Mothers' Union, which was all about empowerment: "Those who rock the cradle, rule the world."

Sadly, the clerical voice cannot be considered, although it was often weird or sing-song. In the 1940s and 1950s in Norfolk, we were addressed as "brethren", and the Deity as "All Matey Gard".

Two niggles. The author forgets that "Reverend" is an adjective so we have the Reverend Smith or the Reverend Jones. No Mr and no Christian name. Also, there is no index, which is unfortunate.

Nevertheless, the book is great fun, and a mine of information. My favourite story is of a parson who always preached for an hour. As every word containing an "s" produced a shower, the worshippers in the front pews were drenched.

The Revd Dr Malcolm Johnson was formerly Master of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, London.

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