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JANE AUSTEN’S ideal parsonage was “tidy looking” (Mansfield Park), “compact” and “tight” with a neat garden (Persuasion), and fenced with “green pales and a laurel hedge” (Pride and Prejudice). The building harmonised with its residents: above and different from farmers and cottagers; akin yet inferior to the gentry of the manor house.
Parsonages — a portmanteau term to describe the dwellings of rectors, vicars, and curates — originated in late Saxon times. Like parishes, they grew up locally instead of being imposed from above. The patron of the living originally provided them, but much thereafter was done by incumbents themselves. Just as the income of parochial benefices varied greatly, so did parsonages, which ranged from scarcely more than a hall, chamber, and kitchen, to something the size of a manor house.
Their history reflects that of the buildings of England. They were upgraded like other houses, particularly in the 18th century, as the neat rectangular boxes imagined by Austen. But they were never uniform. Parson Woodforde’s was part old and thatched, part new and tiled. His roofs disturbed him: a woodpecker pulled out the thatch, and he lay awake in storms for fear of the tiles.
The 19th century brought a huge building of parsonages to serve cities, suburbs, and villages. Gradually centralisation began to develop. After 1777, loans were available from Queen Anne’s Bounty to build or repair, and after 1836 the Ecclesiastical Commissioners could give money for the purpose. By 1923, diocesan boards claimed oversight. Centralisation duly led to disposal. More than 1000 houses were sold up to the Second World War, and another 8000 during the rest of the century.
Dr Tiller’s book is an admirable brief survey of these important buildings and their occupants, from early times until the present day. Concise in format, it does not contain references, but it provides a short bibliography, and directions for finding archival material. There are more than 70 attractive illustrations. The only aspect lacking is an account of when and how the church authorities assumed the management of parsonages, which largely put an end to the fights over dilapidations which once took place between arriving and departing clergy. One is left regretting the need to go to an Old Rectory or Vicarage to see an attractive building. Granted that a new parsonage has to be suitable for resale as a house, and that its occupants wish to live normal lives, must such buildings be as nondescript as they usually now are?
Nicholas Orme is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University.