As the wordy title of this book and the name of its author suggest, this is a faux-archaic, fogeyish journey around England’s oddest vicars. The Reverend Fergus Butler-Gallie is, though, the real thing: a young curate in the Church of England. Yes, he’s given to sometimes tiresome jocularity: he describes himself as ‘a Bon Viveur first and foremost, with a soupçon of Roguishness and Prodigality’. But, still, his essential thesis is right: the Church of England has produced some real oddballs in its time, and this is an entertaining gallop through several centuries’ worth of them.
For 400 years after the Reformation, the Church of England was the ideal Petri dish for nurturing eccentricity. Take plenty of money, lots of free time, a good education, power and class confidence, and vicars were bound to overindulge their whims. Well, at least until the second half of the 20th century — when the collapse of religious feeling, the decline of the Church’s wealth and power, and the selling-off of the finest vicarages and rectories brought a sad end to clever, rich, eccentric, educated vicars.
Some of the priests here are just plain bonkers — such as the Revd Robert Hawker (1803–75), Vicar of Morwenstow, Cornwall. Deciding that he had a joint calling as priest and mermaid, he fashioned a wig out of seaweed and, naked apart from an oilskin round his legs, rowed out to a rock in Bude harbour, sat on it and began to sing.
Or there’s the Earl of Bristol (1730–1803), Bishop of Derry, who was inordinately fond of leapfrog and routinely arranged his chaplains on his palace lawn to indulge his passion. While engaged in some vigorous leapfrogging in 1768, he heard he’d been elevated from Bishop of Cloyne to Bishop of Derry. He abruptly stopped the game, crying: ‘Gentlemen, I have outjumped you all! I have leapt from Cloyne to Derry!’
At the sane end of the spectrum, vicars have done much to advance the history of English thought, thanks to all that money, education and free time. Just for starters, there’s Jane Austen’s father; Gilbert White, the parson-naturalist; and the Revd W. Awdry, author of the Thomas the Tank Engine books. The Revd Sabine Baring-Gould (1834–924), Rector of Lew Trenchard, Devon, was so accomplished that he dashed off ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ in ten minutes.
For every productive, intellectually successful vicar, there are a dozen devoted to pointless, if magnificent, tasks; such as Lord William Cecil (1863–1936), Bishop of Exeter, who recreated a decent stretch of the Great Western Railway, between Newton Abbot and Totnes, in his garden shed in 1935.
Others were immensely dismissive of their religious duties. The Revd Frederick Densham (1870–1953), Vicar of Warleggan on Bodmin Moor, wrote in his parish attendance register: ‘Sunday — no wind, no rain, no fog, no congregation.’ Not surprising, really, given that he devoted his time to devising increasingly elaborate locks for the church door to keep the congregation out.
Much of the comedy in this book comes from playing the austere, altruistic ideal of the Church against the flaws of real-life vicars. Enter Canon Brian Brindley (1931–2001), Vicar of Holy Trinity, Reading, who liked to wear hand-painted, red high heels under his cassock in the supermarket; and died at his seven-course 70th birthday dinner at the Athenaeum, between the dressed crab and the boeuf en croûte. Or there’s the Revd Dr Edward Drax Free (1764–1843), Rector of All Saints, Sutton, who spent most of his time wandering round his rectory in a dressing gown, cataloguing his enormous collection of French pornography.
Butler-Gallie has done his homework, digging out some rare gems. And, with the famous vicars, he doesn’t just state the obvious. We all know about the Revd Dr William Spooner (1844–1930), Warden of New College, Oxford, and inventor of the Spoonerism. But I didn’t know he was the first boy not to have previously gone to Winchester to attend New College. Given that Oxford and Cambridge colleges were largely founded to train clergy, dons figure prominently in these pages.
This is the story not just of eccentrics, but also of a leisured age that is no more. How I envy the Revd Francis Hugh Maycock (1903–80), Principal of Pusey House in Oxford, who slept for 18 hours a day and said: ‘When I wake up in my pyjamas, I know it’s time for Mass; when I wake up in my trousers, I know it’s time for tea.’a