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 for inspection.
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 evangelism.
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 bells.
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.
Reverend John Alington
But by far the most eccentric, dissolute and outrageous clergyman was the Reverend John Alington. He was born in Baldock of wealthy parents on 4th May 1795 and destined to inherit the Letchworth estates from his maternal grandfather John Wilkinson.
At first his education was not dissimilar to that of any other son of well-to-do parents; a BA at Baliol College, Oxford, in 1817 and a MA and a priesthood in 1822.
Things then started to fall apart. On acceding to the estate Alington made an early enemy of the rector of Letchworth Church, Samuel Hartopp Knapp.
Knapp made a pleasant overture to Alington, as Lord of the Manor, and asked if he wished to conduct the occasional service. Alington took Knapp too literally and took all services, including marriages and christenings, leaving the incumbent the unpleasant task of overseeing all the funerals.
Even at this stage, Alington was already exhibiting signs of unorthodoxy by quoting freely from love poems rather than readings from the Bible. This final affront caused Knapp to complain to the Bishop and Alington was suspended. This did not deter the latter who quickly assumed the mantle of ‘a parson gone out of business’ as he was dubbed by local gypsy. He conducted services at Letchworth Hall and in summertime, in the open air.
He was fond of strong drink which he took liberally before a service; playing the organ and assorted musical boxes, inviting strolling players from amongst the many travellers and groups of gypsies, to accompany him. Quite often he rode a hobby horse (a very clumsy ancestor of a bicycle) up and down the aisles, frequently falling off to raucous laughter, until one of his servants helped him back into the saddle.
Alington was taken ill in December 1863. For three days he refused all medicine, forcing the many obnoxious potions down the throat of his servants. Finally he requested a brandy, drained the glass and died.
Perhaps his epitaph, and that of the many other clergymen that have lightened the days of their flock, should be that written by the same Reverend William Jones, responsible for tracking down the bespoke tailoring cut from the Broxbourne church records. Jones wrote in his diary in 1806, 15 years before his own death in 1821.
‘I have eaten and drunk enough; alas I have played the fool while waking as well as witnessed the fooleries of others. I am satiated – l am tired. Heaven forbid that I should ever be tempted to quit or desert my post.’
©John Barber – originally published in Hertfordshire Countryside June 1999.
More articles on Hertford:
Hertford the county town, Folly Island, Hidden Hertford, Old Barge Pub, Brewing in Hertford, Easter, Fore Street, Eccentric Clergy, Hertford Library, Hertford 1861, Tunnels of Hertford, Sarah Stout, Closed pubs
This page and more in a similar vein comes from a collection in my eBook An echo from the Green Fields .