The Victorian Parson
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
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
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
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
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
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.