Part 3 out of 6
the Christenings. And also the number of all those who have died of the
plague in every parish particularly. Blessed are the Dead." There is
also preserved a number of the weekly bills of mortality. Referring to
the year of the Great Plague, 1665, these documents show that at the
beginning of the pestilence in April, during one week only fifty-seven
persons died; whereas in September the death-roll had reached the
enormous number of 6544.
The company seems to have been a useful agency for carrying out all
kinds of duties connected with gathering the statistics of mortality,
nor do they seem to have been overpaid for their trouble. In the early
years of the seventeenth century L 3. 6 s. 8 d. was all that they
received. In 1607 the sum was increased to L8, inasmuch as they were
ordered to furnish a bill to the Queen and the Lord Chancellor as well
as to the King. Some clerks endeavoured to make illicit gains by
supplying the public with "false and untrue bills," or distributing some
bills for each week before they had been sent to the Lord Mayor; and any
brother who "by any cunning device gave away, dispersed, uttered, or
declared, or by sinister device cast forth at any window, hole, or
crevice of a wall any bills or notes" before the due returns had been
sent to the Lord Mayor, was ordered to pay a fine of 10 s. and other
The methods of making out these returns are very curious, and did not
conduce to infallible accuracy. In each parish there were persons called
searchers, ancient women who were informed by the sexton of a death, and
whose duty it was to visit the deceased and state the cause of death.
They had no medical knowledge, and therefore their diagnosis could only
have been very conjectural. This they reported to the parish clerk. The
clerk made out his bill for the week, took it to the Hall of the
company, and deposited it in a box on the staircase. All the returns
were then tabulated, arranged, and printed, and when copies had been
sent to the authorities, others were placed in the hands of the
clerks for sale.
The system was all very excellent and satisfactory, but its carrying out
was defective. Negligent clerks did not send their returns in spite of
admonition, caution, fine, or brotherly persuasion. The searchers'
information was usually unreliable. Complications arose on account of
the Act of the Commonwealth Parliament requiring the registration of
births instead of baptisms, of civil marriages, and banns published in
the market place; also on account of the vast mortality caused by the
Great Plague, the burials in the large common pits and public burial
grounds, and the opposition of the Quakers to inspection and
registration. All these causes contributed to the issuing of unreliable
returns. The company did their best to grapple with all these
difficulties. They did not escape censure, and were blamed on account of
the faults of individual clerks. The contest went on for years, and was
only finally settled in 1859, when the last bills of mortality were
issued, and the Public Registration Act rendered the work of the clerks,
which they had carried on for three centuries to the best of their skill
and ability, unnecessary. In the Guildhall Library are preserved a large
number of the volumes of these bills which the industry of the clerks of
London had issued with so much perseverance and energy under difficult
circumstances, and they form a valuable and interesting collection of
documents illustrative of the old life of the City.
One happy result of the duty laid upon the clerks of issuing bills of
mortality in the City of London was that they were allowed to set up a
printing press in the Hall of their company. The licence for this press
was obtained in 1625, and in the following year it was duly established
with the consent of the authorities. It was no easy task in the early
Stuart times to obtain leave to have a printing press, and severe were
the restrictions laid down, and the penalties for any violation of any
of them. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London had
mighty powers over the Press, and the clerks could not choose their
printer save with the approval of these ecclesiastical dignitaries.
Very strict regulations were laid down by the company in order to
prevent any improper use being made of the productions of their press.
The door of the chamber containing their printing machine was provided
with three locks; the key of the upper lock was placed in the charge of
the upper master, that of the middle lock was in the custody of the
upper warden, while the key of the lower lock was kept by the under
warden. They appointed one Richard Hodgkinson as their printer in 1630,
with whom they had much disputing. Six years later one of their own
company, Thomas Cotes, parish clerk of Cripplegate Without, was chosen
to succeed him. Richard Cotes followed in 1641, and then a female
printer carried on the work, Mrs. Ellinor Cotes, probably the widow
The Great Fire caused the destruction of the clerks' press; but a few
years later a prominent member of the company, whose portrait we see in
the Hall, Mr. John Clarke, procured for them another press with type,
and Andrew Clarke was appointed printer. He was succeeded by Benjamin
Motte, whose widow carried on the work after his death. An intruding
printer, appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of
London without the consent of the company, one Humphreys, made his
appearance, much to the displeasure of the clerks, who objected to be
dictated to with regard to the choice of their own official. Litigation
ensued, but in the end Humphreys was appointed. He was not a
satisfactory printer, and was careless and neglectful. The clerks
reprimanded him and he promised amendment, but his errors continued,
and after a petition was presented to the Archbishop and the Bishop of
London by the company, he was compelled to resign.
[Illustration: INTERIOR OF THE HALL OF THE PARISH CLERKS COMPANY]
The increase of newspapers and the publication of the bills of mortality
in their sheets taken from the records of the clerks materially affected
the sale of the company's issue of the same, and efforts were made in
Parliament to obtain a monopoly for the company. This action was costly,
and no benefit was derived. After the removal of the unsatisfactory
Humphreys the printing of the company passed into the hands of the
Rivingtons, a name honoured amongst printers and publishers for many
generations. Mr. Charles Rivington was printer for the clerks in 1787,
his brother being a bookseller in St. Paul's Churchyard, to whose son's
widow, Mrs. Anne Rivington, the office passed in 1790. The printing of
the bills of mortality was carried on by the company until 1850, having
been conducted by the Rivington family for over sixty years.
[Footnote 56: I am indebted for this list of printers to Mr. James
Christie's _Some Account of Parish Clerks_.]
In addition to their statistical returns, the Company of Parish Clerks
are responsible for some other and more important works which reflect
great credit upon them. Foremost among them is a book entitled:
"_New Remarks of London_; or, a Survey of the Cities of London and
Westminster, of Southwark and part of Middlesex and Surrey within the
circumference of the Bills of Mortality." It contains "an account of the
situation, antiquity, and rebuilding of each church, the value of the
Rectory or Vicarage, in whose gifts they are, and the names of the
present incumbents or lecturers. Of the several vestries, Hours of
Prayer, Parish and Ward Officers, Charity and other schools, the number
of Charity Children, how maintained, educated and placed out
apprentices, or put to service. Of the Almshouses, Workhouses and
Hospitals. The remarkable Places and Things in each Parish, with the
limits or Bounds, Streets, Lanes, Courts, and numbers of Houses. An
alphabetical table of all the Streets, Courts, Lanes, Alleys, Yards,
Rows, Rents, Squares, etc. within the Bills of Mortality, shewing in
which Liberty or Freedom they are, and an easy method of finding them.
Of the several Inns of Court, and Inns of Chancery, with their several
Buildings, Courts, Lanes, etc.
"Collected by the Company of Parish-Clerks to which is added the Places
to which Penny Post Letters are sent, with proper Directions therein.
The Wharfs, Keys, Docks, etc. near the River Thames, of water-carriage
to several Cities, Towns, etc. The Rates of Watermen, Porters of all
kinds and Carmen. To what Inns Stage Coaches, Flying Coaches, Waggons
and Carriers come, and the days they go out. The whole being very useful
for Ladies, Gentlemen, Clergymen, Merchants, Tradesmen, Coachmen,
Chair-men, Car-men, Porters, Bailiffs and others.
"London, Printed for E. Midwinter at _the_
_Looking Glass and three Crowns_ in St Paul's
[Illustration: PORTRAIT OF JOHN CLARKE, PARISH CLERK OF THE CHURCH OF
ST. MICHAEL. CORNHILL]
This is a wonderfully interesting little book. Each clerk compiled the
information for his own parish and appended his name. Most carefully is
the information contained in the book arranged, and the volume is a most
creditable production of the worshipful company.
Amongst the books preserved in the Hall is another volume, entitled
"_London Parishes_; containing an account of the Rise, Corruption, and
Reformation of the Church of England." This was published by the parish
clerks in 1824.
CLERKENWELL AND CLERKS' PLAYS
Parish clerks are immortalised by having given their name to an
important part of London. Clerkenwell is the _fons clericorum_ of the
old chronicler, Fitz-Stephen. It is the Clerks' Well, the syllable _en_
being the form of the old Saxon plural. Fitz-Stephen wrote in the time
of King Stephen: "There are also round London on the northern side, in
the suburbs, excellent springs, the water of which is sweet, clear,
salubrious, 'mid glistening pebbles gliding playfully; amongst which
Holywell, Clerkenwell, (_fons clericorum_), and St. Clement's Well are
of most note, and most frequently visited, as well by the scholars from
the schools as by the youth of the City when they go out to take air in
the summer evenings."
It was then, and for centuries later, a rural spot, not far from the
City, just beyond Smithfield, a place of green sward and gently sloping
ground, watered by a pleasant stream, far different from the crowded
streets of the modern Clerkenwell. It was a spot famous for athletic
contests, for wrestling bouts and archery, and hither came the Lord
Mayor, sheriffs, and aldermen at Bartholomew Fair time to witness the
sports, and especially the wrestling.
[Illustration: OLD MAP OF CLERKENWELL]
But that which gave to the place its name and chief glory was the
fact that once a year at least the parish clerks of London came here to
perform their mystery plays and moralities. "Their profession," wrote
Warton, "employment and character, naturally dictated to this
spiritual brotherhood the representation of plays, especially those of
the scriptural kind, and their constant practice in shows, processions,
and vocal music easily accounts for their address in detaining the best
company which England afforded in the fourteenth century at a religious
farce for more than a week." These plays were no ordinary performances,
no afternoon or evening entertainment, but a protracted drama lasting
from three to eight days. In the reign of Richard II, A.D. 1391, the
clerks were acting before the King, his Queen, and many nobles. The
performances continued for three days, and the representations were the
"Passion of Our Lord and the Creation of the World," which so well
pleased the King that he commanded L10, a very considerable sum of money
in those days, to be paid to the clerks of the parish churches and to
divers other clerks of the City of London. Here is the record of
"_Issue Roll_, Easter, 14 Ric. II.
"11 July. To the clerks of the parish churches and to divers
other clerks of the city of London. In money paid to them in
discharge of L10 which the Lord the King commanded to be paid
to them of his gift on account of the play of the 'Passion of
Our Lord and the Creation of the World' by them performed at
Skynnerwell after the feast of St. Bartholomew last past. By
writ of Privy Seal amongst the mandates of this term--L10."
[Footnote 57: _English Poetry_, vol. ii. p. 397.]
Skinners' Well was close to the Clerks' Well, and it was so called, so
Stow informs us, "for that the Skinners of London held there certain
plays yearly of Holy Scripture,"
A few years later, in the succeeding reign, 10 Henry IV, A.D. 1409, the
fraternity of clerks were again performing at the same place. Stow says:
"In the year 1409 was a great play at Skynners' Welle, neere unto
Clarkenwell, besides London, which lasted eight daies, and was of matter
from the creation of the world; there were to see the same the most part
of the nobles and gentles in England"--a mighty audience truly, which
not even Sir Henry Irving could command in his farewell performances at
[Illustration: A MYSTERY PLAY AT CHESTER (FROM A PRINT AFTER A PAINTING
BY T. UWINS)]
These religious plays or mysteries were a powerful means for instructing
the people; and if we had lived in mediaeval times, we should not have
needed to fly to Ober-Ammergau in order to witness a Passion Play. In
the streets of Coventry or Chester, York, or Tewkesbury, Witney, or
Reading, or on the Green at Clerkenwell, we could have seen the
appealing spectacle; and though sometimes the actors lapsed into
buffoonery, and the red demons carrying souls to hell's mouth created
merriment rather than terror, and though realism was carried to such a
pitch that Adam and Eve appeared in a state of nature, yet many of the
spectators would carry away with them pious thoughts and some grasp of
the facts of Scripture history, and of the mysteries of the faith.
Originally the plays were performed in churches, but owing to the
gradually increased size of the stage and the more elaborate stage
effects, the sacred buildings were abandoned as the scenes of mediaeval
drama. Then the churchyard was utilised for the purpose. The clergy no
longer took part in the pageants, and in the fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries the people liked to act their plays in the highways and
public places as at Clerkenwell. The guilds and fraternities in many
places provided the chief actors, and in towns where there were many
guilds and companies, each company performed part of the great drama,
the movable stage being drawn about from street to street. Thus at York
the story of the Creation and the Redemption was divided into
forty-eight parts, each part being acted by a guild, or group of
companies. The Tanners represented God the Father creating the heavens,
angels and archangels, and the fall of Lucifer and the disobedient
angels. Then the Plasterers showed the Creation of the Earth, and the
work of the first five days. The Card-makers exhibited the Creation of
Adam of the clay of the earth, and the making of Eve of Adam's rib, thus
inspiring them with the breath of life. The Fall, the story of Cain and
Abel, of Noah and the Flood, of Moses, the Annunciation and all Gospel
history, ending with the Coronation of the Virgin and the
The stage upon which the clerks performed their plays, according to
Strutt, consisted of three platforms, one above another. On the
uppermost sat God the Father surrounded by His angels. He was
represented in a white robe, and until it was discovered how injurious
the process was, the actor who played the part used to have his face
gilded. On the second platform were the glorified saints, and on the
lowest men who had not yet passed from life. On one side of the lowest
platform was hell's mouth, a dark pitchy cavern, whence issued the
appearance of fire and flames, and sometimes hideous yellings and noises
in imitation of the howlings and cries of wretched souls tormented by
relentless demons. From this yawning cave the devils constantly ascended
to delight the spectators and afford comic relief to the more serious
drama. The three stages were not always used. Archdeacon Rogers, who
died in 1595, left an account of the Chester play which he himself saw,
and he wrote that the stage was a high scaffold with two rooms, a higher
and a lower, upon four wheels. In the lower the actors apparelled
themselves, and in the higher they played. But this was a movable stage
on wheels. The clerks' stage would, doubtless, be a fixed structure, and
of a more elaborate construction.
The dresses used by the actors were very gorgeous and splendid, though
little care was bestowed upon the appropriateness of the costumes. The
words of the play of the Creation differ in the various versions which
have come down to us. Strutt thinks that the clerks' play, acted before
"the most part of the nobles and gentles in England," was very similar
to the Coventry play, which cannot compare in grandeur and vigour with
the York play discovered in the library of Lord Ashburnham, and edited
by Miss Toulmin Smith. But as the north-country dialect of the York
version would have been difficult for the learned clerks of London to
pronounce, their version would doubtless resemble more that of Coventry
than that of York. The first act represents the Deity seated upon His
throne and speaking as follows:
_Ego sum Alpha et Omega, principium et finis_.
My name is knowyn, God and Kynge;
My work to make now wyl I wende;
In myselfe resteth my reynenge,
It hath no gynnyng, ne no ende,
And all that evyr shall have beynge
Is closed in my mende;
When it is made at my lykynge
I may it save, I may it shende
After my plesawns."
[Footnote 58: Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1885. A portion of this is
published in Mr. A.W. Pollard's _English Miracle Plays_.]
[Footnote 59: Mind.]
[Footnote 60: Destroy.]
[Footnote 61: Pleasure.]
At the close of this oration, which consists of forty lines, the angels
enter upon the upper stage, surround the throne of the Deity, and sing
from the _Te Deum_:
_Te Deum laudamus, te dominum confitemur_.
The Father bestows much honour and brightness on Lucifer, who is full of
pride. He demands of the good angels in whose honour they are singing
their songs of praise. Are they worshipping God or reverencing him? They
reply that they are worshipping God, the mighty and most strong, who
made them and Lucifer. Then Lucifer daringly usurps the seat of the
Almighty, and receives the homage of the rebellious angels. Then the
Father orders them and their leader to fall from heaven to hell, and in
His bliss never more to dwell. Then does Lucifer reply:
"At thy byddyng y wyl I werke,
And pass from joy to peyne and smerte.
Now I am a devyl full derke,
That was an angel bryght.
Now to Helle the way I take,
In endless peyn'y to be put;
For fere of fyr apart I quake
In Helle dongeon my dene is dyth."
Then the Devil and his angels sink into the cavern of hell's mouth.
We cannot follow all the scenes in this strange drama. The final
representation included the Descent into Hell, or the Harrowing of Hell,
as it was called, when the soul of Christ goes down into the infernal
regions and rescues Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, and the saints of old.
The _Anima Christi_ says:
"Come forth, Adam and Eve, with the,
And all my fryends that herein be;
In Paradyse come forth with me,
In blysse for to dwell.
The fende of hell that is your foe,
He shall be wrappyd and woundyn in woo;
Fro wo to welth now shall ye go,
With myrth ever mo to melle."
"I thank the Lord of thy grete grace,
That now is forgiven my great trespase;
No shall we dwell in blyssful place."
The accompanying print of the Descent into Hell was engraved by Michael
Burghers from an ancient drawing for our Berkshire antiquary,
Modern buildings have obliterated the scene of this ancient drama acted
by the clerks of London, but some traces of the association of the
fraternity with the neighbourhood can still be found. The two famous
conventual houses, for which Clerkenwell was famous, the nunnery of St.
Mary and the priory of St. John of Jerusalem, founded in 1100, have long
since disappeared. Clerks' Close is mentioned in numerous documents, and
formed part of the estate belonging to the Skinners' Company, where
Skinner Street now runs. Clerks' Well was close to the modern church of
St. James's, Clerkenwell, which occupies the site of the church and
nunnery of St. Mary _de fonte clericorum_, which once possessed one of
the six water-pots in which Jesus turned the water into wine. Vine
Street formerly delighted in the name Mutton Lane, which is said to be a
corruption of meeting or moteing lane, referring to the clerks' mote or
meeting place by the well. When Mr. Pink wrote his history of
Clerkenwell forty years ago, there was at the east side of Ray Street a
broken iron pump let into the front wall of a dilapidated house which
showed the site of Clerks' Well. In 1673 the spring and plot of ground
were given by the Earl of Northampton to the poor of the parish, but the
vestry leased the spring to a brewer. Strype, writing in 1720, states
that "the old well at Clerkenwell, whence the parish had its name, is
still known among the inhabitants. It is on the right hand of a lane
that leads from Clerkenwell to Hockley-in-the-Hole, in a bottom. One Mr.
Crosse, a brewer, hath this well enclosed; but the water runs from him,
by means of a watercourse above-mentioned, into the said place. It is
enclosed with a high wall, which was formerly built to bound in
Clerkenwell Close; the present well (the conduit head) being also
enclosed by another lower wall from the street. The way to it is through
a little house, which was the watch-house. You go down a good many steps
to it. The well had formerly ironwork and brass cocks, which are now cut
off; the water spins through the old wall. I was there and tasted the
water, and found it excellently clear, sweet, and well tasted."
In 1800 a pump was erected on the east side of Ray Street to celebrate
the parish clerks' ancient performances, which were immortalised in
raised letters of iron with this inscription:
A.D. 1800. William Bound, Joseph Bird, Churchwardens. For the
better accommodation of the neighbourhood, this pump was
removed to the spot where it now stands. The spring by which
it is supplied is situated four feet eastward, and round it,
as history informs us, the Parish Clerks of London in remote
ages commonly performed sacred plays. That custom caused it
to be denominated Clerks'-Well, and from which this parish
derived its name. The water was greatly esteemed by the Prior
and Brethren of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem and the
Benedictine Nuns in the neighbourhood.
Hone, in his _Ancient Mysteries_, describes this pump, which in his day,
A.D. 1832, stood between an earthenware shop and the abode of a
bird-seller, and states that the monument denoting the histrionic fame
of the place, and alluding to the miraculous powers of the water for
healing incurable diseases, remains unobserved beneath its living
attractions. "The present simplicity of the scene powerfully contrasts
with the recollection of its former splendour. The choral chant of the
Benedictine Nuns, accompanying the peal of the deep-toned organ through
their cloisters, and the frankincense curling its perfume from priestly
censers at the altar, are succeeded by the stunning sounds of numerous
quickly plied hammers, and the smith's bellows flashing the fires of Mr.
Bound's ironfoundry, erected upon the unrecognised site of the convent.
The religious house stood about half-way down the declivity of the hill,
which commencing near the church on Clerkenwell Green, terminates at the
River Fleet. The prospect then was uninterrupted by houses, and the
people upon the rising ground could have had an uninterrupted view of
the performances at the well."
In the parish there is a vineyard walk, which marks the site of the old
vineyard attached to the priory of St. John. The cultivation of the vine
was carried on in many monasteries. In 1859, in front of the old
Vineyard Inn, a signboard was set up which stated that "This house is
celebrated from old associations connected with the City of London.
After the City clerks partook of the water of Clerks' Well, from which
the parish derives its name, they repaired hither to partake of the
fruit of the finest English grapes." This was an ingenious contrivance
on the part of the landlord to solicit custom. It need hardly be stated
that the information given on this signboard was incorrect. Before the
Reformation there were few inns, and the old Vineyard Inn can scarcely
claim such a remote ancestry.
When miracle plays ceased to be performed the clerks did not desert
their old quarters. It is, indeed, stated that the ancient society of
parish clerks became divided; some turned their attention to wrestling
and mimicry at Bartholomew Fair, whilst others, for their better
administration, formed themselves into the Society of the Mayor,
Aldermen, and Recorder of Stroud Green, assembling in the Old Crown at
Islington; but still "saving their right to exhibit at the Old London
Spaw, formerly Clerks' Well, when they might happen to have learned
sheriffs and other officers to get up their sacred pieces as usual."
Even so late as 1774 the members of this ancient society were accustomed
to meet annually in the summer time at Stroud Green, and to regale
themselves in the open air, the number of persons assembling on some
occasions producing a scene similar to that of a country wake or fair.
These assemblies had no connection with the Worshipful Company of
THE CLERKS AND THE PARISH REGISTERS
A study of an old parish register reveals a remarkable variation in the
style and character of the handwriting. We see in the old parchment
pages numerous entries recorded in a careless scribble, and others
evidently written by the hand of a learned and careful scholar. The
rector or vicar ever since the days of Henry VIII, when in 1536
Vicar-General Thomas Cromwell ordered the keeping of registers, was
usually supposed to have recorded the entries in the register. Cromwell
derived the notion of ordering the keeping of the registers from his
observation of the records kept by the Spanish priests in the Low
Countries where he resided in his youth. Archbishop Ximenes of Toledo
instituted a system of registration in Spain in 1497, and this was
carried on by the Spanish priests in the Netherlands, and thus laid the
foundation of that system which Thomas Cromwell introduced to this
country and which has continued ever since.
But not all these entries were made by the incumbents. There is good
evidence that the parish clerks not infrequently kept the registers,
especially in later times, and from the beginning they were responsible
for the facts recorded. The entries do not seem to have been made when
the baptism, marriage, or burial took place. Cromwell's edict required
that the records of each week should be entered in the register on the
following Sunday, in the presence of the churchwardens. It seems to have
been the custom for the clerk or vicar to write down particulars of the
baptism, marriage, or burial in a private memorandum book or on loose
sheets of paper at the time of the ceremony. Afterwards these rough
notes were copied into the register book. Sometimes this was done each
week; but human nature is fallible; the clerk or his master forgot
sometimes to make the required entries in the book. Days and weeks
slipped by; note-books and scraps of paper were mislaid and lost; the
spelling of the clerk was not always his strongest point; hence
mistakes, omissions, inaccuracies were not infrequent. Sometimes the
vicar did not make up his books until a whole year had elapsed. This was
the case with the poor parson of Carshalton, who was terribly distressed
because his clerk would not furnish him with the necessary notes, and
mightily afraid lest he should incur the censure of his parishioners.
Hence we find the following note in his register, dated 10 March, 1651:
"Good reader, tread gently:
"For though these vacant years may seem to make me guilty of
thy censure, neither will I excuse myself from all blemishe;
yet if thou doe but cast thine eye upon the former pages and
see with what care I have kept the Annalls of mine owne time,
and rectifyed sundry errors of former times, thou wilt begin
to think ther is some reason why he that began to build so
well should not be able to make an ende.
"The truth is that besyde the miserys and distractions of
these ptermitted years which it may be God in his owne
wisdom would not suffer to be kept uppon record, the special
ground of that permission ought to be imputed to Richard
Finch, the p'rishe Clarke, whose office it was by long
pscrition to gather the ephemeris or dyary by the dayly
passages, and to exhibit them once a year to be transcribed
into this registry; and though I have often called upon him
agayne and agayne to remember his chadge, and he always told
me that he had the accompts lying by him, yet at last
p'ceaving his excuses, and revolving upon suspicion of his
words to put him home to a full tryall I found to my great
griefe that all his accompts were written in sand, and his
words committed to the empty winds. God is witness to the
truth of this apologie, and that I made it knowne at some
parish meetings before his own face, who could not deny it,
neither do I write it to blemishe him, but to cleere my own
integritie as far as I may, and to give accompt of this
miscarryage to after ages by the subscription of my
[Footnote 62: _Social Life as told by Parish Registers_, by T.F.
Thiselton-Dyer, p. 57.]
We may hope that all clerks were not so neglectful as poor Richard
Finch, whose name is thus handed down as an "awful example" to all
careless clerks. The same practice of the parish clerks recording the
particulars of weddings, christenings, and burials seems to have
prevailed at St. Stephen's, Coleman Street, London, in 1542, as the
following order shows:
"They shall every week certify to the curate and the
churchwardens all the names and sir-names of them that be
wedded, christened, and buried in the same parish that week
_sub pena_ of a 1 d. to be paid to the churche."
In this case the curate doubtless entered the items in the register as
they were delivered to him.
At St. Margaret's, Lothbury, the clerk seems to have kept the register
himself. Amongst the ordinances made by "the hole consent of the
parrishiners" in 1571, appears the following:
"Item the Clarcke shall kepe the register of cristeninge
weddinge and burynge perfectlye, and shall present the same
everie Sondaie to the churche wardens to be perused by them,
and shall have for his paines in this behaufe yearelye 0. 03.
It is evident that in some cases in the sixteenth century the clerk kept
the register. But in far the larger number of parishes the records were
inserted by the vicar or rector, and in many books the records are made
in Latin. The "clerk's notes" from which the entries were made are still
preserved in some parishes.
In times of laxity and confusion wrought by the Civil War and Puritan
persecution, the clerk would doubtless be the only person capable of
keeping the registers. In my own parish the earliest book begins in the
year 1538, and is kept with great accuracy, the entries being written in
a neat scholarly hand. As time goes on the writing is still very good,
but it does not seem to be that of the rector, who signs his name at the
foot of the page. If it be that of the clerk, he is a very clerkly
clerk. The writing gradually gets worse, especially during the
Commonwealth period; but it is no careless scribble. The clerk evidently
took pains and fashioned his letters after the model of the old
court-hand. An entry appears which tells of the appointment of a Parish
Registrar, or "Register" as he was called. This is the announcement:
"Whereas Robt. Williams of the p ish of Barkham in the County
of Berks was elected and chosen by the Inhabitants of the
same P ish to be their p ish Register, he therefore ye sd Ro:
Wms was approved and sworne this sixteenth day of
Snd R. Bigg."
Judging from the similarity of the writing immediately above and below
this entry, I imagine that Robert Williams must have been the old clerk
who was so beloved by the inhabitants that in an era of change, when the
rector was banished from his parish, they elected him "Parish Register,"
and thus preserved in some measure the traditions of the place. The
children are now entered as "borne" and not baptised as formerly.
The writing gradually gets more illiterate and careless, until the
Restoration takes place. A little space is left, and then the entries
are recorded in a scholarly handwriting, evidently the work of the new
rector. Subsequently the register appears to have been usually kept by
the rector, though occasionally there are lapses and indifferent writing
appears. Sometimes the clerk has evidently supplied the deficiencies of
his master, recording a burial or a wedding which the rector had
omitted. In later times, when pluralism was general, and this living was
held in conjunction with three or four other parishes, the rector must
have been very dependent upon the clerk for information concerning the
functions to be recorded. Moreover, when a former rector who was a noted
sportsman and one of the best riders and keenest hunters in the county,
sometimes took a wedding on his way to the meet, he would doubtless be
so eager for the chase that he had little leisure to record the exact
details of the names of the "happy pair," and must have trusted much to
Some of the private registers kept by clerks are still preserved. There
is one at Pattishall which contains entries of births, marriages, and
burials, and was probably commenced in 1774, that date being on the
front page together with the inscription: "John Clark's Register Book."
The writing is of a good round-hand character, and far superior to the
caligraphy of many present-day clerks. The book is bound in vellum.
The following entry, taken from the end of the volume, is worth
"London, March 31th
"Yesterday the Rev'd Mr Hetherington ... transferred. 20,000
L. South-Sea Annuities into the Names of S'r Henry Banks
Kn't. Thos Burfoot, Joseph Eyre, Thos Coventry, and Samuel
Salt. Esqu'rs in Trust to pay always to 50 Blind people,
Objects of, Charity, not being Beggars, nor receiving, Alms
from the Parish, 10 L. each for their lives, it may be said
with great propriety of this truly benevolent Gentleman that
'he hath displeased abroad, and given to the poor and is
Righteousness remaineth for ever; his Horn shall exalted with
[Footnote 63: By the information of the Rev. B.W. Blyn-Stoyle, who has
most kindly assisted me in many ways in discovering quaint records of
Amongst the register books of Wednesbury there is a volume bound in
parchment bearing this inscription:
"This Book seems to be the private register of Alexander
Bunn, Parish Clerk, because it corresponds with another
bearing the same dates; the private accounts written in this
book by the said A. Bunn seem to corroborate my opinion.
"Vicar of Wednesbury
"August 7th 1782."
These accounts appear to be of items incurred by the parish clerk in his
official capacity, and which were due to him in repayment from the
churchwardens. The accompanying remarks of this old Wednesbury parish
clerk are often quaint and interesting.
The following extracts will show the nature of the book and of the
systematic record the good clerk kept of his expenditure. The only item
about which there is some uncertainty is the amount "spent at Freeman's
Coming from Visitation." Is it possible that he was so much excited or
intoxicated that he could not remember?
"1737. Land tax to hon. Adenbrook 0. 0. 11 Acount
What Mary Tunks as ad. Redy money 4/-, for a
hapern 2/-, for caps 1/6 and for shoes 2/6, and for
ye werk 6 d. Stokins and sues mendering 6 d, and
for string 2 d, and for a Gound 3/-, and for ale for
Hur father 2 d, for mending Gound 8 d, for stokens
10 d, for more Shuse strong 2/6, Shift mending
and maken 5 d, for Hur mother 1/6, for a Shift
To this day old Wednesbury natives say "hapern" for apron, and "sues"
"Sep. the 10th, 1745, then recd of Alex. Bunn the sum of
six pounds for one year's rent due at Midsmar.
Last past Ellin Moris. Wm. Selvester and his
man the first wick 14/-. Mr. Butler and Gilbut
Wrigh, church wardens for the year 1741, due to
Alex Bunn as under. Ringing for the Visitation
2/-, spent at Roshall, going to the visitation 1/6-,
spent at Henery Rutoll 1/-, paid at Litchfield to
the Horsbox (?) 6 d, Wm. Aston Had Ale at my
House 6 d, for Micklmas Supeles washing and
lining 1/8, for Ringing for the 11th of October
5/-, for Ringing for the 30th of October 5/-, for
half year's wages Due June ye 24 L 1 12 s. 6.
Ringing for the 5th November, for washing the
Supelis and Lining and Bread at Chrsmus 1/3,
for Easter Supelis washing and Lining and Bread
1/8, for Joyle for the Clock and Bells 2/6, for
Leader for the 4th Bell Clapper 5 d, Ringing for
the 23rd of April 5/-, for making the Levy 2/-,
for a hors to Lichfield 11/6, pd John Stack
going to Dudley 2 times for the Clockman 1/-.
For a monthly (?) meeting to Ralph Momford
Sep. the 15th 2/-, Spent at freeman's Coming from
[Footnote 64: _Olden Wednesbury_, by F.W. Hackwood, who kindly sent me
But we have grievous things to record with regard to the clerks and the
registers, not that they were to blame so much as the proper custodians,
who neglected their duties and left these precious books in the hands of
ignorant clerks to be preserved in poor overcrowded cottages. But the
parish clerks sinned grievously. One Phillips, clerk of Lambeth parish,
ran away with the register book, so Francis Sadler tells us in his
curious book, _The Exaction and Imposition of Parish Fees Discovered_,
published in 1738, "whereby the parish became great sufferers; and in
such a case no person that is fifty years old, and born in the parish,
can have a transcript of the Register to prove themselves heir to an
estate." Moreover, Master Sadler, who was very severe on parish clerks,
tells of the iniquities of the Battersea clerk who used to register boys
for girls and girls for boys, and not one-half of the register book, in
his time, was correct and authentic, as it ought to be.
What shall be said of the carelessness of an incumbent who allowed the
register to be kept by the clerk in his poor cottage? When a gentleman
called to obtain an extract from the book, the clerk produced the
valuable tome from a drawer in an old table, where it was reposing with
a mass of rubbish. Another old parchment register was discovered in a
cottage in a Northamptonshire parish, some of the pages of which were
tacked together as a covering for the tester of a bedstead. The clerk in
another parish followed the calling of a tailor, and found the old
register book useful for the purpose of providing himself with measures.
With this object he cut out sixteen leaves of the old book, which he
regarded in the light of waste paper.
A gentleman on one occasion visited a church in order to examine the
registers of an Essex parish. He found the record for which he was
searching, and asked the clerk to make the extract for him.
Unfortunately this official had no ink or paper at hand with which to
copy out the entry, and casually observed:
"Oh, you may as well have the leaf as it is," and without any hesitation
took out his pocket-knife, cut out the leaf and gave the gentleman the
two entire pages.
[Footnote 65: _History of Parish Registers_, by Burn; _Social Life as
told by Parish Registers_, by T.F. Thiselton-Dyer, p. 2.]
Another scandalous case was that of the clerk who combined his
ecclesiastical duties with those of the village grocer. The pages of the
parish register he found most useful for wrapping up his goods for his
customers. He was, however, no worse than the curate's wife, who ought
to have known better, and who used the leaves of the registers for
making her husband's kettle-holders.
What shall be said for the guardians of the church documents of
Blythburgh, Suffolk? The parish chest preserved in the church was at one
time full of valuable documents in addition to very complete registers.
So Suckling, the historian of Suffolk, reported. Alas! these have
nearly all disappeared. Scarcely anything remains of the earliest volume
of the register which concludes with the end of the seventeenth century,
and the old deeds have gone also. How could this terrible loss have
occurred? It appears that a parish clerk, "in showing this fine old
church to visitors, presented those curious in old papers and autographs
with a leaf from the register, or some other document, as a memento of
[Footnote 66: _Social Life as told by Parish Registers_; also
_Standard_, 8 Jan., 1880.]
Another clerk was extremely popular with the old ladies of the village,
and used to cut out the parchment leaves of the registers and present
them to his old lady friends for wrapping their knitting pins. He was
also the village schoolmaster, as many of his predecessors had been, but
this wretch used to cover the backs of his pupil's lesson-books with
leaves of parchment taken from the parish chest. Another clerk found the
leaves of the registers very useful for "singeing a goose."
The value of old registers for proving titles to estates and other
property is of course inestimable. Sometimes incomes of thousands of
pounds depend upon a little entry in one of these old books, and it is
terrible to think of the jeopardy in which they stand when they rest in
the custody of a careless clerk or apathetic vicar.
The present writer owes much to the faithful care of a good clerk, who
guarded well the registers of a defunct City church of London. My father
was endeavouring to prove his title to an estate in the north country,
and had to obtain the certificates of the births, deaths, and marriages
of the family during about a century. One wedding could not be proved.
Report stated that it had been a runaway marriage, and that the bride
and bridegroom had fled to London to be married in a City church. My
father casually heard of the name of some church where it was thought
that the wedding might have taken place. He wrote to the authorities of
that church. It had, however, ceased to exist. The church had
disappeared, but the old clerk was alive and knew where the books were.
He searched, and found the missing register, and the chain of evidence
was complete and the title to the property fully established, which was
confirmed after much troublesome litigation by the Court of Chancery.
Sometimes litigants have sought to remove troublesome entries in those
invaluable books which record with equal impartiality the entrance into
the world and the departure from it of peer or peasant. And in such
dramas the clerk frequently appears. The old man has to be bribed or
cajoled to allow the books to be tampered with. A stranger arrives one
evening at Rochester, and demands of the clerk to be shown the
registers. The stranger finds the entry upon which much depends. In its
present form it does not support his case. It must be altered in order
to meet his requirements. The clerk hovers about the vestry, alert,
vigilant. He must be got rid of. The stranger proposes various
inducements; the temptation of a comfortable seat in a cosy corner of
the nearest inn, a stimulating glass, but all in vain. There is
something suspicious about the stranger's looks and manners; so the
clerk thinks. He sticks to his elbow like a leech, and nothing can shake
him off. At length the stranger offers the poor clerk a goodly bribe if
only he will help him to alter a few words in that all-important
register. I am not sure whether the clerk yielded to the temptation.
There was a still more dramatic scene in the old vestry of Lainston
Church, where a few years previously a Miss Chudleigh had been married
to Lieutenant Hervey. This young lady, who was not remarkable for her
virtue, arrived one day at the church accompanied by a fascinating
friend who, while Mrs. Hervey examined the register, exercised her
blandishments on the clerk. She expressed much interest in the church,
and asked him endless questions about its architecture, the state of his
health, his family, his duties; and while this little by-play was
proceeding Mrs. Hervey was carefully and noiselessly cutting out the
page in the register which contained the entry of her marriage. Having
removed the tell-tale page she hastily closed the book, summoned her
fascinating friend, and hastened back to London. The clerk, still
thinking of the beautiful lady who had been so friendly and given him
such a handsome present, locked the safe, and never discovered the
theft. But time brought its revenge. Lieutenant Hervey succeeded
unexpectedly to the title of the earldom of Bristol. His wife was
overcome with remorse. By her foolish scheme she had sacrificed a
coronet. That missing paper must be restored; and so the lady pays
another visit to Lainston Church, on this occasion in the company of a
lawyer. The old clerk unlocks again the parish chest. The books are
again produced; confession is made of the former theft; the lawyer looks
threateningly at the clerk, and tells him that if it should ever be
discovered he will suffer as an accomplice; and then, with the promise
of a substantial bribe, the clerk consents to give his aid. The missing
paper is produced and deftly inserted in its former place in the book,
and Miss Chudleigh becomes the Countess of Bristol. It is a curious
story, but it has the merit of being true. Many strange romances are
bound up within the stained and battered parchment covers of an
Sometimes the clerk seems to have recorded in the register book some
entries which scarcely relate to ecclesiastical usages or spiritual
concerns. Agreements or bargains were inserted occasionally, and the
fact that it was recorded in the church books testified to the binding
nature of the transaction. Thus in the book of St. Mary Magdalene,
Cambridge, in the year 1692, it is announced that Thomas Smith promises
to supply John Wingate "with hatts for twenty shillings the yeare during
life." Mr. Thiselton-Dyer, who records this transaction in his book on
_Social Life as told by Parish Registers_, conjectures with evident
truth that the aforenamed men made this bargain at an ale-house, and the
parish clerk, being present, undertook to register the agreement.
A most remarkable clerk lived at Grafton Underwood in the eighteenth
century, one Thomas Carley, who was born in that village in 1755, having
no hands and one deformed leg. Notwithstanding that nature seemed to
have deprived him of all means of manual labour, he rose to the position
of parish schoolmaster and parish clerk. He contrived a pair of leather
rings, into which he thrust the stumps of his arms, which ended at the
elbow, and with the aid of these he held a pen, ruler, knife and fork,
etc. The register books of the parish show admirable specimens of his
wonderful writing, and I have in my possession a tracing made by Mr.
Wise, of Weekley, from the label fixed inside the cover of one of the
large folio Prayer Books which used to be in the Duke of Buccleuch's
pew before the church was restored, and were then removed to Boughton
House. These books contain many beautifully written papers, chiefly
supplying lost ones from the Psalms. The writing is simply like
copper-plate engraving. In the British Museum, amongst the "additional
MSS." is an interleaved edition of Bridge's _History of
Northamptonshire_, bound in five volumes. In the fourth volume, under
the account of Grafton Underwood, some particulars have been inserted of
the life of this extraordinary man, with a water-colour portrait of him
taken by one of his pupils, E. Bradley. There is also a specimen of his
writing, the Lord's Prayer inscribed within a circle about the size of a
shilling. There is also in existence "a mariner's compass," most
accurately drawn by him. He died in 1823.
THE CLERK AS A POET
The parish clerk, skilled in psalmody, has sometimes shown evidences of
true poetic feeling. The divine afflatus has occasionally inspired in
him some fine thoughts and graceful fancies. His race has produced many
writers of terrible doggerel of the monumental class of poetry; but far
removed from these there have been some who have composed fine hymns and
An obscure hymn-writer, whose verses have been sung in all parts of the
world, was Thomas Bilby, parish clerk of St. Mary's Church, Islington,
between the years 1842 and 1872. He was the parish schoolmaster also,
and thus maintained the traditions of his office handed down from
mediaeval times. Before the days of School Boards it was not unusual for
the clerk to teach the children of the working classes the three R's and
religious knowledge, charging a fee of twopence per week for each child.
Mrs. Mary Strathern has kindly sent me the following account of the
church wherein Thomas Bilby served as clerk, and of the famous hymn
which he wrote.
The church of St. Mary's, Islington, was not internally a thing of
beauty. It was square; it had no chancel; the walls were covered with
monuments and tablets to the praise and glory of departed parishioners.
On three sides it had a wide gallery, the west end of which contained
the organ, with the Royal Arms as large as life in front. On either side
below the galleries were double rows of high pews, and down the centre
passage a row of open benches for the poor. Between these benches and
the altar, completely hiding the altar from the congregation, stood a
huge "three-decker." The pulpit, on a level with the galleries, was
reached by a staircase at the back; below that was "the reading desk,"
from which the curate said the prayers; and below that again, a smaller
desk, where, Sunday after Sunday, for thirty years, T. Bilby, parish
clerk and schoolmaster, gave out the hymns, read the notices, and
published the banns of marriage. He was short and stout; his hair was
white; he wore a black gown with deep velvet collar, ornamented with
many tassels and fringes; and he carried a staff of office.
It was a great missionary parish. The vicar, Daniel Wilson, was a son of
that well-known Daniel Wilson, sometime vicar of Islington, and
afterwards Bishop of Calcutta. The Church Missionary College, where many
young missionaries sent out by the Church Missionary Society are
trained, stood in our midst; and it was within St. Mary's Church the
writer saw the venerable Bishop Crowther, of the Niger, ordain his own
son deacon. Mr. Bilby had at one time been a catechist and schoolmaster
in Sierra Leone, and was full of interesting stories of the mission work
amongst the freed slaves in that settlement. He had a magic lantern,
with many views of Africa, and of the churches and schools in the
mission fields, and often gave missionary lectures to the school
children. It was on one of these occasions, when he had been telling us
about his work abroad, and how he soon got to know when a black boy had
a dirty face, that he said: "While I was in Africa, I composed a hymn,
and taught the black children to sing it; and now there is not a
Christian school in any part of the world where my hymn is not known and
sung. I will begin it now, and you will all sing it with me." Then the
old man began:
"Here we suffer grief and pain."
Immediately every child in the room took it up, and sang with might and
"Here we meet to part again;
In heaven we part no more."
We had always thought the familiar words were as old as the Bible
itself, and could scarcely believe they had been written by our own
Soon after that memorable night, the old man began to get feeble; his
place in the church and schools was frequently filled by "Young Bilby,"
as he was familiarly called; and in 1872, aged seventy-eight, the old
parish clerk was gathered to his fathers, and his son reigned in
The other day a copy of a Presbyterian hymn-book found its way into my
house, and there I found "Here we suffer grief and pain." I turned up
the index which gives the names of authors, wondering if the compilers
knew anything of the source from whence it came, and found the name
"Bilby"; but who "Bilby" was, and where he lived, is known to very few
outside the parish, where the name is a household word, for Mr. Bilby's
son is still the parish clerk of St. Mary, Islington, and through him we
learn that his father composed the _tune_ as well as the words of "Here
we suffer grief and pain."
As the hymn is not included in _Hymns Ancient and Modern_ or some other
well-known collection, perhaps it will be well to print the first two
verses. It is published in John Curwen's _The Child's Own Hymn Book_:
"Here we suffer grief and pain;
Here we meet to part again:
In heaven we part no more.
O! that will be joyful,
Joyful, joyful, joyful,
O! that will be joyful!
When we meet to part no more!
"All who love the Lord below,
When they die to heaven will go,
And sing with saints above.
O! that," etc.
A poet of a different school was Robert Story, schoolmaster and parish
clerk of Gargrave, Yorkshire. He was born at Wark, Northumberland, in
1795, but migrated to Gargrave in 1820, where he remained twenty years.
Then he obtained the situation of a clerk in the Audit Office, Somerset
House, at a salary of L90 a year, which he held till his death in 1860.
His volume of poems, entitled _Songs and Lyrical Poems_, contains some
charming verse. He wrote a pathetic poem on the death of the son of a
gentleman at Malham, killed while bird-nesting on the rocks of Cam Scar.
Another poem, _The Danish Camp_, tells of the visit of King Alfred to
the stronghold of his foes, and has some pretty lines. "O, love has a
favourite scene for roaming," is a tender little poem. The following
example of his verse is of a humorous and festive type. It is taken from
a volume of his productions, entitled _The Magic Fountain, and Other
Poems_, published in 1829:
"Learn next that I am parish clerk:
A noble office, by St. Mark!
It brings me in six guineas clear,
Besides _et caeteras_ every year.
I waive my Sunday duty, when
I give the solemn deep Amen;
Exalted then to breathe aloud
The heart-devotion of the crowd.
But oh, the fun! when Christmas chimes
Have ushered in the festal times,
And sent the clerk and sexton round
To pledge their friends in draughts profound,
And keep on foot the good old plan,
As only clerk and sexton can!
Nor less the sport, when Easter sees
The daisy spring to deck her leas;
Then, claim'd as dues by Mother Church,
I pluck the cackler from the perch;
Or, in its place, the shilling clasp
From grumbling dame's slow opening grasp.
But, Visitation Day! 'tis thine
Best to deserve my native line.
Great day! the purest, brightest gem
That decks the fair year's diadem.
Grand day! that sees me costless dine
And costless quaff the rosy wine,
Till seven churchwardens doubled seem,
And doubled every taper's gleam;
And I triumphant over time,
And over tune, and over rhyme,
Call'd by the gay convivial throng,
Lead, in full glee, the choral song!"
The writers of doggerel verses have been numerous. The following is a
somewhat famous composition which has been kindly sent to me by various
correspondents. My father used to tell us the rhymes when we were
children, and they have evidently become notorious. The clerk who
composed them lived in Somersetshire, and when the Lord Bishop of
the Diocese came to visit his church, he thought that such an occasion
ought not to be passed over without a fitting tribute to the
distinguished prelate. He therefore composed a new and revised version
of Tate and Brady's metrical rendering of Psalm lxvii., and announced
his production after this manner:
"Let us zing to the Praze an' Glory of God part of the zixty-zeventh
Zalm; zspeshul varshun zspesh'ly 'dapted vur t'cazshun.
"W'y 'op ye zo ye little 'ills?
And what var du 'ee zskip?
Is it a'cause ter prach too we
Is cum'd me Lord Biship?
"W'y zskip ye zo ye little 'ills?
An' whot var du 'ee 'op?
Is it a'cause to prach too we
Is cum'd me Lord Bishop?
"Then let us awl arize an' zing,
An' let us awl stric up,
An' zing a glawrious zong uv praze;
An' bless me Lord Bishup."
[Footnote 67: Another correspondent states that the incident occurred at
Bradford-on-Avon in 1806. Mr. Francis Bevan remembers hearing a similar
version at Dover about sixty years ago. Can it be that these various
clerks were plagiarists?]
A somewhat similar effusion was composed by Eldad Holland, parish clerk
of Christ Church, Kilbrogan parish, Bandon, County Cork, in Ireland.
This church was built in 1610, and has the reputation of being the first
edifice erected in Ireland for the use of the Church of Ireland after
the Reformation. Bandon was originally colonised by English settlers in
the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and for a long time was a noted stronghold
of Protestantism. This fact may throw light upon the opinions and
sentiments of Master Holland, an original character, whose tombstone
records that "he departed this life ye 29th day of 7ber 1722." When the
news of the victory of William III reached Bandon there were great
rejoicings, and Eldad paraphrased a portion of the morning service in
honour of the occasion. After the first lesson he gave out the
"Let us sing to the praise and glory of William, a psalm of my own
"William is come home, come home,
William home is come,
And now let us in his praise
Sing a _Te Deum_."
He then continued: "We praise thee, O William! we acknowledge thee to be
our king!" adding with an impressive shake of the head, "And faith, a
good right we have, for it was he who saved us from brass money, wooden
shoes and Popery." He then resumed the old version, and reverently
continued it to the end.
[Footnote 68: This information was kindly sent to me by Mr. Robert
Clarke, of Castle Eden, Durham, who states that he derived the
information from _The History of Bandon_, by George Bennett (1869). My
father used to repeat the following version:
"King William is come home,
Come home King William is come;
So let us then together sing
A hymn that's called _Te D'um_."
I am not sure which version is the better poetry! The latter corresponds
with the version composed by Wesley's clerk at Epworth, old John; so
Clarke in his memoirs of the Wesley family records.]
In a parish in North Devon there was a poetical clerk who had great
reverence for Bishop Henry Phillpotts, and on giving out the hymn he
proclaimed his regard in this form: "Let us sing to the glory of God,
and of the Lord Bishop of Exeter." On one occasion his lordship held a
confirmation in the church on 5 November, when it is said the clerk
gave out the Psalm in the usual way, adding, "in a stave of my own
"This is the day that was the night
When the Papists did conspire
To blow up the King and Parliament House
[Footnote 69: My kind correspondent, the Rev. J.B. Hughes, abstains from
mentioning the name of the parish.]
My informant cannot vouch for the truth of this story, but he can for
the fact that when Bishop Phillpotts on another occasion visited the
church his lordship was surprised to hear the clerk give out at the end
of the service, "Let us sing in honour of his lordship, 'God save the
King.'" The bishop rose somewhat hastily, saying to his chaplain, "Come
along, Barnes; we shall have 'Rule, Britannia!' next."
Cuthbert Bede tells the story of a poetical clerk who was much aggrieved
because some disagreeable and naughty folk had maliciously damaged his
garden fence. On the next Sunday he gave out "a stave of his own
"Oh, Lord, how doth the wicked man;
They increases more and more;
They break the posts, likewise the rails
Around this poor clerk's door."
He almost deserved his fate for barbarously mutilating a metrical Psalm,
and was evidently a proper victim of poetical justice.
A Devonshire clerk wrote the following noble effort:--
"Mount Edgcumbe is a pleasant place
Right o'er agenst the Ham-o-aze,
Where ships do ride at anchor,
To guard us agin our foes. Amen."
Besides writing "hymns of his own composing," the parish clerk often
used to give vent to his poetical talents in the production of epitaphs.
The occupation of writing epitaphs must have been a lucrative one, and
the effusions recording the numerous virtues of the deceased are quaint
and curious. Well might a modern English child ask her mother after
hearing these records read to her, "Where were all the bad people
buried?" Learned scholars and abbots applied their talents to the
production of the Latin verses inscribed on old brass memorials of the
dead, and clever ladies like Dame Elizabeth Hobby sometimes wrote them
and appended their names to their compositions. In later times this task
seems to have been often undertaken by the parish clerk with not
altogether satisfactory results, though incumbents and great poets,
among whom may be enumerated Pope and Byron, sometimes wrote memorials
of their friends. But the clerk was usually responsible for these
inscriptions. Master John Hopkins, clerk at one of the churches at
Salisbury at the end of the eighteenth century, issued an advertisement
of his various accomplishments which ran thus:
"John Hopkins, parish clerk and undertaker, sells epitaphs of
all sorts and prices. Shaves neat, and plays the bassoon.
Teeth drawn, and the Salisbury Journal read gratis every
Sunday morning at eight. A school for psalmody every Thursday
evening, when my son, born blind, will play the fiddle.
Specimen epitaph on my wife:
My wife ten years, not much to my ease,
But now she is dead, in caelo quies.
Great variety to be seen within. Your humble servant, John
Poor David Diggs, the hero of Hewett's story of _The Parish Clerk_, used
to write epitaphs in strange and curious English. Just before his death
he put a small piece of paper into the hands of the clergyman of the
parish, and whispered a request that its contents might be attended to.
When the clergyman afterwards read the paper he found the following
epitaph, which was duly inscribed on the clerk's grave:
"Reader Don't stop nor shed no tears
For I was parish clerk For 60 years;
If I lived on I could not now as Then
Say to the Parson's Prases A loud Amen."
A very worthy poetical clerk was John Bennet, shoemaker, of Woodstock. A
long account of him appears in the _Lives of Illustrious Shoemakers_,
written by W.E. Winks. He inherited the office of parish clerk from his
father, and with it some degree of musical taste. In the preface to his
poems he wrote: "Witness my early acquaintance with the pious strains of
Sternhold and Hopkins, under that melodious psalmodist my honoured
Father, and your approved Parish Clerk." This is addressed to the Rev.
Thomas Warton, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and sometime curate of
Woodstock, to whose patronage and ready aid John Bennet was greatly
indebted. Southey, who succeeded Warton in the Professorship, wrote that
"This Woodstock shoemaker was chiefly indebted for the patronage which
he received to Thomas Warton's good nature; for my predecessor was the
best-hearted man that ever wore a great wig." Certainly the list of
subscribers printed at the beginning of his early work is amazingly
long. Noblemen, squires, parsons, great ladies, all rushed to secure the
cobbler-clerk's poems, which were published in 1774. The poems consist
mainly of simple rhymes or rustic themes, and are not without merit or
humour. He is very modest and humble about his poetical powers, and
tells that his reason for publishing his verses was "to enable the
author to rear an infant offspring and to drive away all anxious
solicitude from the breast of a most amiable wife." His humour is shown
in the conclusion of his Dedication, where he wrote:
"I had proceeded thus far when I was called to measure a gentleman of a
certain college for a pair of fashionable boots, and the gentleman
having insisted on a perusal of what I was writing, told me that a
dedication should be as laconic as the boots he had employed me to make;
and then, taking up my pen, added this scrap of Latin for a Heel-piece,
as he called it, to my Dedication:
"_Jam satis est; ne me Crispini scrinia lippi
Compilasse putes, vertum non amplius_."
The cobbler poet concludes his verses with the humorous lines:
"So may our cobler rise by friendly aid,
Be happy and successful in his trade;
His awl and pen with readiness be found,
To make or keep our understandings sound."
Later in life John Bennet published another volume, entitled
_Redemption_. It was dedicated to Dr. Mavor, rector of Woodstock. It is
a noble poem, far exceeding in merit his first essay, and it is a
remarkable and wonderful composition for a self-taught village
shoemaker. The author-clerk died and was buried at Woodstock in 1803.
A fine character and graceful poet was Richard Furness, parish clerk
of Dore, five miles from Shalfield, a secluded hamlet. He was then
styled "The Poet of the Peak," of sonorous voice and clear of speech,
the author of many poems, and factotum supreme of the village and
neighbourhood. Two volumes of his poems have been published. He
combined, like many of his order, the office of parish clerk with that
of schoolmaster, his schoolroom being under the same roof as his house.
Thither crowds flocked. He was an immense favourite. The teacher of
children, healer of all the lame and sick folk, the consoler and adviser
of the troubled, he played an important part in the village life. His
accomplishments were numerous. He could make a will, survey or convey an
estate, reduce a dislocation, perform the functions of a parish clerk,
lead a choir, and write an ode. This remarkable man was born at Eyam in
1791, the village so famous for the story of its plague, in an old house
long held by his family. Over the door is carved:
R. 1615. F
[Footnote 70: _Biographical Sketches of Remarkable People_, by Spencer
When a boy he was very fond of reading, and studied mathematics and
poetry. _Don Quixote_ was his favourite romance. His father would not
allow him to read at night, but the student could not be prevented from
studying his beloved books. In order to prevent the light in his bedroom
from being seen in other parts of the house, he placed a candle in a
large box, knelt by its side, and with the lid half closed few rays of
the glimmering taper could reach the window or door. When he grew to be
a man he migrated to Dore, and there set up a school, and began that
active life of which an admirable account is given by Dr. G. Calvert
Holland in the introduction of _The Poetical Works of Richard Furness_,
published in 1858. In addition to other duties he sometimes discharged
clerical functions. The vicar of the parish of Dore, Mr. Parker, was
somewhat old and infirm, and sometimes found it difficult to tramp over
the high moors in winter to privately baptize a sick child. So he often
sent his clerk to perform the duty. On dark and stormy nights Richard
Furness used to tramp over moor and fell, through snow and rain to some
lonely farm or moorland cottage in order to baptize some suffering
infant. On one occasion he omitted to ascertain before commencing the
service whether the child was a boy or a girl. Turning to the father in
the midst of a prayer, when the question whether he ought to use _his_
or _her_ had to be decided, he inquired, "What sex?" The father, an
ignorant labourer, did not understand the meaning of the question. "Male
or female?" asked the clerk. Still the father did not comprehend. At
last the meaning of the query dawned upon his rustic intelligence, and
he whispered, "It's a mon childt."
Thus does Richard Furness in his poems describe his many duties:
"I Richard Furness, schoolmaster, Dore,
Keep parish books and pay the poor;
Draw plans for buildings and indite
Letters for those who cannot write;
Make wills and recommend a proctor;
Cure wounds, let blood with any doctor;
Draw teeth, sing psalms, the hautboy play
At chapel on each holy day;
Paint sign-boards, cast names at command,
Survey and plot estates of land:
Collect at Easter, one in ten,
And on the Sunday say Amen."
He wrote a poem entitled _Medicus Magus, or the Astrologer_, a droll
story brimming over with quiet humour, folk-lore, philology and archaic
lore. Also _The Ragbag_, which is dedicated to "John Bull, Esq." The
style of his poetry was Johnsonian, or after the manner of Erasmus
Darwin, a bard whom the present generation has forgotten, but whose
_Botanic Garden_, published in 1825, is full of quaint plant-lore and
classical allusions, if it does not reach the highest form of poetic
talent. Here is a poem by our clerkly poet on the Old Year's funeral:
"The clock in oblivion's mouldering tower
By the raven's nest struck the midnight hour,
And the ghosts of the seasons wept over the bier
Of Old Time's last son--the departing year.
"Spring showered her daisies and dews on his bed,
Summer covered with roses his shelterless head,
And as Autumn embalmed his bodiless form,
Winter wove his snow shroud in his Jacquard of storm;
For his coffin-plate, charged with a common device,
Frost figured his arms on a tablet of ice,
While a ray from the sun in the interim came,
And daguerreotyped neatly his age, death, and name.
Then the shadowing months at call
Stood up to bear the pall,
And three hundred and sixty-five days in gloom
Formed a vista that reached from his birth to his tomb.
And oh, what a progeny followed in tears--
Hours, minutes, and moments--the children of years!
Death marshall'd th' array,
Slowly leading the way,
With his darts newly fashioned for New Year's Day."
Richard Furness died in 1857, and was buried with his ancestors at Eyam.
He thus sang his own requiem shortly before he passed away:
"To joys and griefs, to hopes and fears,
To all pride would, and power could do,
To sorrow's cup, to pity's tears,
To mortal life, to death adieu."
I will conclude this chapter on poetical clerks with a sweet carol for
Advent, written by Mr. Daniel Robinson, ex-parish clerk of Flore,
Weedon, which is worthy of preservation:
A CAROL FOR ADVENT
"Behold, thy King cometh unto thee."--MATTHEW xxi. 5.
Behold, thy King is coming
Upon this earth to reign,
To take away oppression
And break the captive's chain;
Then trim your lamps, ye virgins,
Your oil of love prepare,
To meet the coming Bridegroom
Triumphant in the air.
Behold, thy King is coming,
Hark! 'tis the midnight cry,
The herald's voice proclaimeth
The hour is drawing nigh;
Then go ye forth to meet Him,
With lamps all burning bright,
Let sweet hosannahs greet Him,
And welcome Him aright.
Go decorate your churches
With evergreens and flowers,
And let the bells' sweet music
Resound from all your towers;
And sing your sweetest anthems,
For lo, your King is nigh,
While songs of praise are soaring
O'er vale and mountain high.
Let sounds of heavenly music
From sweet-voiced organs peal,
While old and young assembling
Before God's "Altar" kneel;
In humble adoration
Let each one praise and pray,
And give the King a welcome
This coming Christmas Day.
THE CLERK GIVING OUT NOTICES
After the Nicene Creed in the Book of Common Prayer occurs a rubric with
regard to the giving out of notices, the observance of Holy-days or
Feasting-days, the publication of Briefs, Citations and
Ex-communications, which ends with the following words:
"And nothing shall be proclaimed or published in the Church, during the
time of Divine Service, but by the Minister; nor by him any thing but
what is prescribed in the Rules of this Book, or enjoined by the King or
by the Ordinary of the place."
This rubric was added to the Prayer Book in the revision of 1662, and
doubtless was intended to correct the undesirable practice of publishing
all kinds of secular notices during the time of divine service. Dr.
Wickham Legg has unearthed an inquiry made in an archidiaconal
visitation in 1630, relating to the proclamation of lay businesses made
in church, when the following question was asked:
"Whether hath your Parish Clerk, or any other in Prayers time, or before
Prayers or Sermon ended, before the people departed, made proclamation
in your church touching any goods strayed away or wanting, or of any
Leet court to be held, or of common-dayes-works to be made, or touching
any other thing which is not merely ecclesiasticall, or a
In times of Puritan laxity it was natural that notices sacred and
profane should be indiscriminately mingled, and the rubric mentioned
above would be sorely needed when church order and a reverent service
were revived. But in spite of this direction the practice survived of
not very strictly confining the notices to the concerns of the Church.
An aged lady, Mrs. Gill, who is now eighty-four years of age, remembers
that between the years 1825 and 1835, in a parish church near Welbeck
Abbey, the clerk used to announce the date of the Duke of Rutland's
rent-day. Another correspondent states that after service the clerk used
to take his stand on one of the high flat tombstones and announce sales
by auction, the straying of cattle, etc., and Sir Walter Scott wrote
that at Hexham cattle-dealers used to carry their business letters to
the church, "when after service the clerk was accustomed to read them
aloud and answer them according to circumstances."
Mr. Beresford Hope recollected that in a Surrey town church the notices
given out by the clerk included the announcement of the meetings at the
principal inn of the town of the executors of a deceased duke.
In the days of that extraordinary free-and-easy go-as-you-please style
of service which prevailed at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of
the nineteenth century, the most extraordinary announcements were
frequently made by the clerk, and very numerous stories are told of the
laxity of the times and the quaintness of the remarks of the clerk.
An old Shropshire clerk gave out on Easter Day the following
"Last Friday was Good Friday, but we've forgotten un; so next Friday
Another clerk gave out a strange notice on Quinquagesima Sunday with
regard to the due observance of Ash Wednesday. He said: "There will be
no service on Wednesday--'coss why? Mester be going hunting, and so
beeze I!" with triumphant emphasis. He is not the only sporting clerk of
whom history speaks, and in the biographies of some worthies of the
profession we hope to mention the achievements of a clerkly tailor who
denied himself every luxury of life in order to save enough money to buy
and keep a horse in order that he might follow the hounds "like a
Sporting parsons have furnished quite a crop of stories with regard to
strange notices given out by their clerks. Some of them are well known
and have often been repeated; but perhaps it is well that they should
not be omitted here.
About the year 1850 a clerk gave out in his rector's hearing this
notice: "There'll be no service next Sunday, as the rector's going out
A Devonshire hunting parson went to help a neighbouring clergyman in the
old days when all kinds of music made up the village choir.
Unfortunately some difficulty arose in the tuning of the instruments.
The fiddles and bass-viol would not accord, and the parson grew
impatient. At last, leaning over the reading-desk and throwing up his
arms, he shouted out, "Hark away, Jack! Hark away, Jack! Tally-ho!
[Footnote 71: _Mumpits and Crumpits_, by Sarah Hewitt, p. 175.]
Another clerk caused amusement and consternation in a south-country
parish and roused the rector's wrath. The young rector, who was of a
sporting turn of mind, told him that he wanted to get to Worthing on a
Sunday afternoon in time for the races which began on the following day,
and that therefore there would be no service. This was explained to the
clerk in confidence. The rector's horror may be imagined when he heard
him give out in loud sonorous tones: "This is to give notice, no suvviss
here this arternoon, becos measter meyans to get to Worthing to-night to
be in good toime for reayces to-morrow mornin'."
Old Moody, of Redbourn, Herts, was a typical parish clerk, and his
vicar, Lord Frederick Beauclerk, and the curate, the Rev. W.S. Wade,
were both hunting parsons of the old school. One Sunday morning Moody
announced, just before giving out the hymn, that "the vicar was going on
Friday to the throwing off of the Leicestershire hounds, and could not
return home until Monday next week; therefore next Sunday there would
not be any service in the church on that day." Moody was quite one of
the leading characters of the place, whose words and opinions were law.
No one in those days thought of disputing the right or questioning the
conduct of a rector closing the church, and abandoning the accustomed
services on a Sunday, in order to keep a sporting engagement.
That other notice about the fishing parson is well known. The clerk
announced: "This is to gi notus, there won't be no surviss here this
arternoon becos parson's going fishing in the next parish." When he was
remonstrated with after service for giving out such a strange notice,
"Parson told I so 'fore church."
"Surely he said officiating--not fishing?" said his monitor. "The bishop
would not be pleased to hear of one of his clergy going fishing on a
The clerk was not convinced, and made a clever defence, grounded on the
employment of some of the Apostles. The reader's imagination will supply
the gist of the argument.
Another rector, who had lost his favourite setter, told his clerk to
make inquiries about it, but was much astonished to hear him give it out
as a notice in church, coupled with the offer of a reward of three
pounds if the dog should be restored to his owner.
The clerk of the sporting parson was often quite as keen as his master
in following the chase. It was not unusual for rectors to take
"occasional services," weddings or funerals, on the way to a meet,
wearing "pink" under their surplices. A wedding was proceeding in a
Devonshire church, and when the happy pair were united and the Psalm was
just about to be said, the clerk called out, "Please to make 'aste, sir,
or he'll be gone afore you have done." The parson nodded and looked
inquiringly at the clerk, who said, "He's turned into the vuzz bushes
down in ten acres. Do look sharp, sir."
[Footnote 72: This story is told by Mrs. Hewett in her _Peasant Speech
of Devon_, but I have ventured to anglicise the broad Devonshire a
little, and to suggest that the scene could scarcely have taken place on
a Sunday morning, as Mrs. Hewett suggests in her admirable book.]
The story is told of a rector who, when walking to church across the
squire's park during a severe winter, found a partridge apparently
frozen to death. He placed the poor bird in the voluminous pocket of his
coat. During the service the warmth of the rector's pocket revived the
bird and thawed it back to life; and when during the sermon the rector
pulled out his handkerchief, the revived bird flew vigorously away
towards the west end of the church. The clerk, who sat in his seat
below, was not unaccustomed to the task of beating for the squire's
shooting parties, called out lustily:
"It be all right, sir; I've marked him down in the belfry."
The fame of the Rev. John Russell, the sporting parson of Swymbridge, is
widespread, and his parish clerk, William Chapple, is also entitled to a
small niche beneath the statue of the great man. The curate had left,
and Mr. Russell inserted the following advertisement:
"Wanted, a curate for Swymbridge; must be a gentleman of moderate and
The word _orthodox_ rather puzzled the inhabitants of Swymbridge, who
asked Chapple what it meant. The clerk did not know, but was unwilling
to confess such ignorance, and knowing his master's predilections,
replied, "I 'spects it be a chap as can ride well to hounds."
The strangest notice ever given out in church that I ever have heard of,
related to a set of false teeth. The story has been told by many.
Perhaps Cuthbert Bede's version is the best. An old rector of a small
country parish had been compelled to send to a dentist his set of false
teeth, in order that some repairs might be made. The dentist had
faithfully promised to send them back "by Saturday," but the Saturday's
post did not bring the box containing the rector's teeth. There was no
Sunday post, and the village was nine miles from the post town. The
dentist, it afterwards appeared, had posted the teeth on the Saturday
afternoon with the full conviction that their owner would receive them
on Sunday morning in time for service. The old rector bravely tried to
do that duty which England expects every man to do, more especially if
he is a parson and if it be Sunday morning; but after he had mumbled
through the prayers with equal difficulty and incoherency, he decided
that it would be advisable to abandon any further attempts to address
his congregation on that day. While the hymn was being sung he summoned
his clerk to the vestry, and then said to him, "It is quite useless for
me to attempt to go on. The fact is, that my dentist has not sent me
back my artificial teeth; and as it is impossible for me to make myself
understood, you must tell the congregation that the service is ended for
this morning, and that there will be no service this afternoon." The old
clerk went back to his desk; the singing of the hymn was brought to an
end; and the rector, from his retreat in the vestry, heard the clerk
address the congregation as follows:
"This is to give notice! as there won't be no sarmon, nor no more
service this mornin', so you'd better all go whum (home); and there
won't be no sarvice this afternoon, as the rector ain't got his artful
teeth back from the dentist!"
This story so amused George Cruikshank that he wanted to make an
illustration of it. But the journal in which it ought to have appeared
was very short-lived. Hence Cruikshank's drawing was lost to the world.
The clerk is a firm upholder of established custom. "We will now sing
the evening hymn," said the rector of an East Anglian church in the
sixties. "No, sir, it's doxology to-night." The preacher again said,
"We'll sing the evening hymn." The clerk, however, persisted, "It's
doxology to-night"; and doxology it was, in spite of the
In the days when parish notices with reference to the lost, stolen, or
strayed animals were read out in church at the commencement of the
service, the clerk of a church [my informant has forgotten the name of
the parish] rose in his place and said:
"This is to give notice that my Lady ---- has lost her little dog; he
comes to the name of Shock; he is all white except two patches of black
on his sides and he has got--eh?--what?--yes--no--upon my soul he has
got four eyes!" It should have been sore eyes, but the long _s_ had
misled the clerk.
The clerk does not always shine as an orator, but a correspondent who
writes from the Charterhouse can vouch for the following effort of one
who lived in a village not a hundred miles from Harrow about thirty
There was a tea for the school children, at which the clerk, a farm
labourer, spoke thus: "You know, my friends, that if we wants to get a
good crop of anything we dungs the ground. Now what I say is, if we
wants our youngsters to crop properly, we must see that they are
properly dunged--- put the larning into them like dung, and they'll do
The subject of the Disestablishment of the Church was scarcely
contemplated by a clerk in the diocese of Peterborough, who, after the
amalgamation of two parishes, stated that he was desired by the vicar to
announce that the services in each parish would be morning and evening
to _all eternity_. It is thought that he meant to say _alternately_.
I have often referred to the ancient clerkly method of giving out the
hymns. It was a terrible blow to the clerk when the parsons began to
interfere with his prerogative and give out the hymns themselves. All
clerks did not revenge themselves on the usurpers of their ancient right
as did one of their number, who was very indignant when a strange
clergyman insisted on giving out the hymns himself. In due course he
gave out "the fifty-third hymn," when out popped the old clerk's head
from under the red curtains which hung round the gallery, and which gave
him the appearance of wearing a nightcap, and he shouted, "That a baint!
A be the varty-zeventh."
The following account of a notice, which was scarcely authorised, shows
the homely manners of former days. It was at Sapiston Church, a small
village on the Duke of Grafton's estate. The grandfather of the present
Duke was returning from a shooting expedition, and was passing the
church on Sunday afternoon while service was going on. The Duke quietly
entered the vestry, and signed to the clerk to come to him. The Duke
gave the man a hare, and told him to put it into the parson's trap, and
give a complimentary message about it at the end of the service. But the
clerk, knowing his master would be pleased at the little attention,
could not refrain from delivering both hare and message at once before
the whole congregation. At the close of the hymn before the sermon he
marched into a prominent position holding up the gift, and shouted out,
"His Grace's compliments, and, please sir, he's sent ye a hare."
In giving out the hymns or Psalms many difficulties of pronunciation
would often arise. One clerk had many struggles over the line, "Awed by
Thy gracious word." He could not manage that tiresome first word, and
always called it "a wed." The old metrical version of the Psalm, "Like
as the hart desireth the water-brooks," etc. is still with us, and a
beautiful hymn it is:
"As pants the hart for cooling streams
When heated in the chase."
A Northumbrian clerk used to give out the words thus:
"As pants the 'art for coolin' streams
When 'eated in the chaise,"
which seems to foreshadow the triumph of modern civilisation, the carted
deer, a mode of stag-hunting that was scarcely contemplated by Tate
SLEEPY CHURCH AND SLEEPY CLERKS
There was a time when the Church of England seemed to be asleep. Perhaps
it may have been that "tired nature's sweet restorer, balmy sleep," was
only preparing her exhausted energies for the unwonted activities of the
last half-century; or was it the sleep that presaged death? Her enemies
told her so in plain and unvarnished language. Her friends, too, said
that she was folding her robes to die with what dignity she could.
Lethargy, sloth, sleep--a dead, dull, dreary sleep--fell like a leaden
pall upon her spiritual life, darkening the light that shone but vaguely
through the storied panes of her mediaeval windows, while a paralysing
numbness crippled her limbs and quenched her activity.
Such scenes as Archbishop Benson describes as his early recollection of
Upton, near Droitwich, were not uncommon. The church was aisleless, and
the middle passage, with high pews on each side, led up to the
chancel-arch, in which was a "three-decker," fifteen feet high. The
clerk wore a wig and immense horn spectacles. He was a shoemaker,
dressed in black, with a white tie. In the gallery sat "the music"--a
clarionet, flute, violin, and 'cello. The clerk gave out the "Twentieth
Psalm of David," and the fiddlers tuned for a moment and then played at
once. Then they struck up, and the clerk, absolutely alone, in a
majestic voice which swayed up and down without regard to time or tune,
sang it through like the braying of an ass; not a soul else joined in;
the farmers amused and smiling at each other. Such scenes were
In Cornwall affairs were worse. In one church the curate-in-charge had
to be chained to the altar rails while he read the service, as he had a
harmless mania, which made him suddenly flee from the church if his own
activities were for an instant suspended, as, for example, by a
response. The churchwarden, a farmer, kept the padlock-key in his pocket
till the service was safely over, and then released the imprisoned
cleric. At another Cornish church the vicar's sister used to read the
lessons in a deep bass voice.
Congregations were often very sparse. Few people attended, and perhaps
none on weekdays, unless the clerk was in his place. On such occasions
the parson was tempted to emulate the humour of Dean Swift, who at the
first weekday service that he held after his appointment to the living
of Laracor, in the diocese of Meath, after waiting for some time in vain
for a congregation, began the service, addressing his clerk, "Dearly
beloved Roger, the scripture moveth you and me in sundry places," etc.
When the Psalms were read, you heard the first verse read in a
mellifluous and cultured voice. Perhaps it was the evening of the
twenty-eighth day of the month, and you listened to the sacred words of
Psalm cxxxvii., "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we
remembered thee, O Sion." Then followed a bellow from a raucous throat:
"Has fur ur 'arp, we 'anged 'em hup hupon the trees that hare thurin."
And then at the end of the Lord's Prayer, after every one had finished,
the same voice came drowsily cantering in: "For hever and hever,
Haymen." Sometimes we heard, "Let us sing to the praise and glory of God
the 'undred and sixtieth Psalm--_'Ymn 'ooever."_ The numbers of the
hymns or Psalms were scored on the two sides of a slate. Sometimes the
functionary in the gallery forgot to turn the slate after the first
hymn. "Let us sing," began the clerk--(pause)--"Turn the slate, will
you, if you please, Master Scroomes?" he continued, addressing the
The singing was no mechanical affair of official routine--it was a
drama. "As the moment of psalmody approached a slate appeared in front
of the gallery, advertising in bold characters the Psalm about to be
sung. The clerk gave out the Psalm, and then migrated to the gallery,
where in company with a bassoon and two key-bugles, a carpenter
understood to have an amazing power of singing 'counter,' and two lesser
musical stars, formed the choir. Hymns were not known. The New Version
was regarded with melancholy tolerance. 'Sternhold and Hopkins' formed
the main source of musical tastes. On great occasions the choir sang an
anthem, in which the key-bugles always ran away at a great pace, while
the bassoon every now and then boomed a flying shot after them." It was
all very curious, very quaint, very primitive. The Church was asleep,
and cared not to disturb the relics of old crumbling inefficiency. The
Church was asleep, the congregation slept, and the clerk often
Hogarth's engraving of _The Sleeping Congregation_ is a parable of the
state of the Church of England in his day. It is a striking picture
truly. The parson is delivering a long and drowsy discourse on the text:
"Come unto Me, all ye that labour, and I will give you rest." The
congregation is certainly resting, and the pulpit bears the appropriate
verse: "I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in
vain." The clerk is attired in his cassock and bands, contrives to keep
one eye awake during the sermon, and this wakeful eye rests upon a
comely fat matron, who is fast asleep, and has evidently been meditating
"on matrimony," as her open book declares. A sleepy church, sleepy
congregation, sleepy times!
Many stories are told of dull and sleepy clerks.
A canon of a northern cathedral tells me of one such clerk, whose duty
it was, when the rector finished his sermon, to say "Amen." On a summer
afternoon, this aged official was overtaken with drowsiness, and as soon
as the clergyman had given out his text, slept the sleep of the just.
Sermons in former years were remarkable for their length and many
After the "firstly" was concluded, the preacher paused. The clerk,
suddenly awaking, thought that the discourse was concluded, and
pronounced his usual "Arummen." The congregation rose, and the service
came to a close. As the gathering dispersed, the squire slipped half a
crown into the clerk's hand, and whispered: "Thomas, you managed that
very well, and deserve a little present. I will give you the same
[Illustration: THE SLEEPING CONGREGATION BY HOGARTH]
At Eccleshall, near Sheffield, the clerk, named Thompson, had been, in
the days of his youth, a good cricketer, and always acted as umpire for
the village team. One hot Sunday morning, the sermon being very long,
old Thompson fell asleep. His dream was of his favourite game; for when
the parson finished his discourse and waited for the clerk's "Amen," old
Thompson awoke, and, to the amazement of the congregation, shouted out
"Over!" After all, he was no worse than the cricketing curate who, after
reading the first lesson, announced: "Here endeth the first innings."
Every one has heard of that Irish clerk who used to snore so loudly
during the sermon that he drowned the parson's voice. The old vicar,
being of a good-natured as well as a somewhat humorous turn of mind,
devised a plan for arousing his lethargic clerk. He provided himself
with a box of hard peas, and when the well-known snore echoed through
the church, he quietly dropped one of the peas on the head of the
offender, who was at once aroused to the sense of his duties, and
uttered a loud "Amen."
This plan acted admirably for a time, but unfortunately the parson was
one day carried away by his eloquence, gesticulated wildly, and dropped
the whole box of peas on the head of the unfortunate clerk. The result
was such a strenuous chorus of "Amens," that the laughter of the
congregation could not be restrained, and the peas were abolished and
consigned to the limbo of impractical inventions. Possibly the story may
be an invention too.
One of the causes which tended to the unpopularity of the Church was the
accession of George IV to the throne of England. "Church and King" were
so closely connected in the mind of the people that the sins of the
monarch were visited on the former, and deemed to have brought some
discredit on it. Moreover, the King by his first act placed the loyal
members of the Church in some difficulty, and that was the order to
expunge the name of the ill-used, if erring, Queen Caroline from the
Prayers for the Royal Family in the Book of Common Prayer.
One good clergyman, Dr. Parr, vicar of Hatton, placed an interesting
record in his Prayer Book after the required erasure: "It is my duty as
a subject and as an ecclesiastic to read what is prescribed by my
Sovereign as head of the Church, but it is not my duty to express my
approbation." The sympathy of the people was with the injured Queen, and
they knew not how much the clergy agreed with them. During the trial
popular excitement ran high. In a Berkshire village the parish clerk
"improved the occasion" by giving out in church "the first, fourth,
eleventh, and twelfth verses of the thirty-fifth Psalm" in Tate and
Brady's New Version:
"False witnesses with forged complaints
Against my truth combined,
And to my charge such things they laid
As I had ne'er designed."
These words he sang most lustily.
Cowper mentions a similar application of psalmody to political affairs
in his _Task_:
"So in the chapel of old Ely House
When wandering Charles who meant to be the third,
Had fled from William, and the news was fresh,
The simple clerk, but loyal, did announce,
And eke did rear right merrily, two staves
Sung to the praise and glory of King George."
It was not an unusual thing for a parish clerk to select a psalm suited
to the occasion when any special excitement gave him an opportunity.
Branston, the satirist, in his _Art of Politicks_ published in 1729,
alluded to this misapplication of psalmody occasionally made by parish
clerks in the lines:
"Not long since parish clerks with saucy airs
Apply'd King David's psalms to State affairs."
In order to avoid this unfortunate habit, a country rector in Devonshire
compiled in 1725 "Twenty-six Psalms of Thanksgiving, Praise, Love, and
Glory, for the use of a parish church, with the omission of all the
imprecatory psalms, lest a parish clerk or any other should be whetting
his spleen, or obliging his spite, when he should be entertaining his
Sometimes the clerks ventured to apply the verses of the Psalms to their
own private needs and requirements, so as to convey gentle hints and
suggestions to the ears of those who could supply their needs. Canon
Ridgeway tells of the old clerk of the Church of King Charles the Martyr
at Tunbridge Wells. His name was Jenner. He was a well-known character;
he used to have a pipe and pitch the tune, and also select the hymns. It
was commonly said that the congregation always knew when the lodgings in
his house on Mount Sion were unlet; for when this was the case he was
wont to give out the Psalm:
"Mount Sion is a pleasant place to dwell."
At Great Yarmouth, until about the year 1850, the parish clerk was
always invited to the banquets or "feasts" given by the corporation of
the borough; and he was honoured annually with a card of invitation to
the "mayor's feast" on Michaelmas Day. On one occasion the mayor-elect
had omitted to send a card to the clerk, Mr. David Absolon, who was
clerk from 1811 to 1831, and had been a member of the corporation and
common councillor previous to his appointment to his ecclesiastical
office. On the following Sunday, Master David Absolon reminded his
worship of his remissness by giving out the following verse, directing
his voice at the same time to the mayor-elect:
Let David his accustomed place
In thy remembrance find."
The words in Tate and Brady's metrical version of Psalm cxxxii. run
"Let David, Lord, a constant place
In Thy remembrance find."
[Footnote 73: _History of St. Nicholas' Church, Great Yarmouth_, by the
present Clerk, Mr. Edward J. Lupson, p. 24.]
In the same town great excitement used to attend the election of the
mayor on 29 August in each year. Before the election the corporation
attended service in the parish church, and the clerk on these occasions
gave out for singing "the first two staves of the fifteenth Psalm:
"Lord, who's the happy man," etc.
The passing of the Municipal Act changed the manner and time of the
election, but it did not take away the interest felt in the event. As
long as Tate and Brady's version of the Psalms was used in the church,
that is until the year 1840, these "two staves" were annually sung on
the Sunday preceding the election.
[Footnote 74: _Ibid._, p. 23.]
In these days of reverent worship it seems hardly possible that the
beautiful expressions in the psalms of praise to Almighty God should
ever have been prostituted to the baser purposes of private gain or
Sleepy times and sleepy clerks--and yet these were not always sleepy; in
fact, far too lively, riotous, and unruly. At least, so the poor rector
of Hayes found them in the middle of the eighteenth century. Such
conduct in church is scarcely credible as that which was witnessed in
this not very remote parish church in not very remote times. The
registers of the parish of Hayes tell the story in plain language. On 18
March, 1749, "the clerk gave out the 100th Psalm, and the singers
immediately opposed him, and sung the 15th, and bred a disturbance. _The
clerk then ceased_." Poor man, what else could he have done, with a
company of brawling, bawling singers shouting at him from the gallery!
On another occasion affairs were worse, the ringers and others
disturbing the service, from the beginning of the service to the end of
the sermon, by ringing the bells and going into the gallery to spit
below. On another occasion a fellow came into church with a pot of beer
and a pipe, and remained smoking in his pew until the end of the
sermon. _O tempora! O mores!_ as some disconsolate clergymen wrote
in their registers when the depravity of the times was worse than usual.
The slumbering congregation of Hogarth's picture would have been a
comfort to the distracted parson.
[Footnote 75: _Antiquary_, vol. xviii, p. 65. Quoted in _Social Life as
told by Parish Registers_, p. 54.]
To prevent people from sleeping during the long sermons a special
officer was appointed, in order to banish slumber when the parson was
long in preaching. This official was called a sluggard-waker, and was
usually our old friend the parish clerk with a new title. Several
persons, perhaps reflecting in their last moments on all the good advice
which they had missed through slumbering during sermon time, have
bequeathed money for the support of an officer who should perambulate
the church, and call to attention any one who, through sleep, was
missing the preacher's timely admonition. Richard Dovey, of Farmcote, in
1659 left property at Claverley, Shropshire, with the condition that
eight shillings should be paid to, and a room provided for, a poor man,
who should undertake to awaken sleepers, and to whip out dogs from the
church of Claverley during divine service.
[Footnote 76: _Old English Customs and Curious Bequests_, S.H. Edwards
(1842), p. 220.]
John Rudge, of Trysull, Staffordshire, left a like bequest to a poor man
to go about the parish church of Trysull during sermon to keep people
awake, and to keep dogs out of church. Ten shillings a year is paid
by a tenant of Sir John Bridges, at Chislett, Kent, as a charge on lands
called Dog-whipper's Marsh, to a person for keeping order in the church
during service, and from time immemorial an acre of land at
Peterchurch, Herefordshire, was appropriated to the use of a person for
keeping dogs out of church, such person being appointed by the minister
[Footnote 77: _Ibid._, p. 221.]
[Footnote 78: _Ibid._, p. 222.]
Mr. W. Andrews, Librarian of the Hull Institute, has collected in his
_Curiosities of the Church_ much information concerning sluggard-wakers
and dog-whippers. The clerk in one church used a long staff, at one end
of which was a fox's brush for gently arousing a somnolent female, while
at the other end was a knob for a more forcible awakening of a male
sleeper. The Dunchurch sluggard-waker used a stout wand with a fork at
the end of it. During the sermon he stepped stealthily up and down the
nave and aisles and into the gallery marking down his prey. And no one
resented his forcible awakenings.
The sluggard-waker and dog-whipper appear in many old churchwardens'