Hertfordshire has had its fair share of clergymen who have made their mark in the
history books for acts of eccentricity.
Posterity fails to record how many clergymen were removed from their posts following
a 1654 Act of Parliament that penalised them for ignorance, insufficiency, scandal
in their lives and congregations, or negligence in their respective callings and
places of worship.
We can only surmise what Parliament would have made of things when the Reverend William
Jones was appointed to Broxbourne Church in 1801 and failed to find any church records
beyond 1688. After some detective work in 1804 he finally solved the mystery. A previous
vicar had given all the records to his clerk. The latter was by profession a tailor
and had cut up all the church records for use as patterns.
Fortunately this was not a universal practice and most church records have been preserved
Ecclesiastical records are also maintained by bishops when visiting outlying parishes
although Archdeacon Timothy Neave was not prepared for what he found on a visit to
Walkern parish in the middle of the eighteenth century; for these were his comments
on Edward Sturgess, the vicar:
‘He never goes to church or elsewhere, lies in bed ye greater part of his time and
drinks and smokes away ye rest, not quite in his senses nor yet quite mad. ‘
He refused to enter the church but spent his time wearing a floral dressing gown
and smoking a hookah. Once the service was ended he could then talk to the parishioners
at his leisure - outside of the church building.
Not all clergymen were so laid back or dismissive of their duties. One of the most
celebrated preachers at Christ Church Chapel in Cheshunt at the end of the last century
was James Gilmour of Mongolia. He began Sunday evenings standing at the entrance
to the chapel watching the local people taking a gentle stroll. After a moment or
two reflection with hat removed, he would approach every passer-by and harangue them
with words and gestures. An enquiry here, a warning there; a message for every person
that had strayed from the true path. His was a very personal and energetic form of
Unfortunately the enthusiasm of another local vicar was his downfall. The Reverend
Ralph Freeman of St. Marys Aspenden was spending time doing what he loved best -ringing
the church bells. A message came that his house was on fire. As it was a warm day
he stripped off his wig and coat and rushed to extinguish the blaze. In doing so
he caught a cold and died on 8th July 1772; and was buried at Braughing Church.
History doesn't record whether or not the house was saved.
The ringing of bells is an integral part of church life and was the occupation of
Isaac Morrell at St. Lawrence, Wormley. It is said that he never actually attended
church himself. He spat on the floor to drive out evil spirits after ringing the
Worse and worse - like the parson of Bushey
This local saying is a memorial to an anonymous clergyman at the church in St. James,
Bushey. At one time there was a single bell at the church. When the church bells
rang they gave out a peal that sounded like tom-tom-tom. The clergyman decided that
something more musical was needed and added a second bell. However when both church
bells were rung they appeared to say tomfool - tomfool.
This, the villagers said, was shaming him so undaunted he added a third bell. Unfortunately
the bells when rung, made matters worse by declaring him - tom fool still - and there
the matter rested.