Part 4 out of 6
account-books. Thus in the accounts of Barton-on-Humber there is an
entry for the year 1740: "Paid Brocklebank for waking sleepers 2 s. 0."
At Castleton the officer in 1722 received 10 s. 0. The clerk in his
capacity of dog-whipper had often arduous duties to perform in the old
dale churches of Yorkshire when farmers and shepherds frequently brought
their dogs to church. The animals usually lay very quietly beneath their
masters' seat, but occasionally there would be a scrimmage and fight,
and the clerk's staff was called into play to beat the dogs and
[Footnote 79: The reader will find numerous entries relating to this
subject in the work of Mr. W. Andrews to which I have referred.]
Why dogs should have been ruthlessly and relentlessly whipped out of
churches I can scarcely tell. The Highland shepherd's dog usually lies
contentedly under his master's seat during a long service, and even an
archbishop's collie, named Watch, used to be very still and well-behaved
during the daily service, only once being roused to attention and a
stately progress to the lectern by the sound of his master's voice
reading the verse "I say unto all, Watch." But our ancestors made war
against dogs entering churches. In mediaeval and Elizabethan times such
does not seem to have been the case, as one of the duties of the clerks
in those days was to make the church clean from the "shomeryng of dogs."
The nave of the church was often used for secular purposes, and dogs
followed their masters. Mastiffs were sometimes let loose in the church
to guard the treasures, and I believe that I am right in stating that
chancel rails owe their origin to the presence of dogs in churches, and
were erected to prevent them from entering the sanctuary. Old Scarlett
bears a dog-whip as a badge of his office, and the numerous bequests to
dog-whippers show the importance of the office.
Nor were dogs the only creatures who were accustomed to receive
chastisement in church. The clerk was usually armed with a cane or rod,
and woe betide the luckless child who talked or misbehaved himself
during service. Frequently during the course of a long sermon the sound
of a cane (the Tottenham clerk had a split cane which made no little
noise when used vigorously) striking a boy's back was heard and startled
a sleepy congregation. It was all quite usual. No one objected, or
thought anything about it, and the sermon proceeded as if nothing had
happened. Paul Wootton, clerk at Bromham, Wilts, seventy years ago
performed various duties during the service, taking his part in the
gallery among the performers as bass, flute serpent, an instrument
unknown now, etc., pronouncing his Amen _ore rotundo_ and during the
sermon armed with a long stick sitting among the children to preserve
order. If any one of the small creatures felt that _opere in longo fas
est obrepere somnum_, the long stick fell with unerring whack upon the
urchin's head. When Mr. Stracey Clitherow went to his first curacy at
Skeyton, Norfolk, in 1845, he found the clerk sweeping the whole chancel
clear of snow which had fallen through the roof. The font was of wood
painted orange and red. The singers sat within the altar rails with a
desk for their books inside the rails. There was a famous old clerk,
named Bird, who died only a year or two ago, aged ninety, and, as Mr.
Clitherow informed Bishop Stanley, was the best man in the parish, and
was well worthy of that character.
Even in London churches unfortunate events happened, and somnolent
clerks were not confined to the country. A correspondent remembers that
in 1860, when St. Martin's-in-the-Fields was closed for the purpose of
redecorating, his family migrated to St. Matthew's Chapel, Spring
Gardens (recently demolished), where one hot Sunday evening one of the
curates of St. Martin's was preaching, and in the course of his sermon
said that it was the duty of the laity to pray that God would "endue His
ministers with righteousness." The clerk was at the moment sound asleep,
but suddenly aroused by the familiar words, which acted like a bugle
call to a slumbering soldier, he at once slid down on the hassock at his
feet and uttered the response "And make Thy chosen people joyful." My
informant remarks that the "chosen people" who were present became
"joyful" to an unseemly degree, in spite of strenuous efforts to
restrain their feelings.
Sometimes the clerk was not the only sleeper. A tenor soloist of
Wednesbury Old Church eighty years ago used to tell the story of the
vicar of Wednesbury, who one very sultry afternoon retired into the
vestry, which was under the western tower, to don his black gown while a
hymn was being sung by the expectant congregation. The hymn having been
sung through, and the preacher not having returned to ascend the pulpit,
the clerk gave out the last verse again. Still no parson. Then he
started the hymn, directing it to be sung all through again; but still
the vicar returned not. At last in desperation he gave out that they
"would now sing," etc. etc., the 119th Psalm. Mercifully before they had
all sunk back into their seats exhausted the long-lost parson made his
hurried reappearance. The poor old gentleman had dropped into an
arm-chair in the vestry, and overcome by the heat had fallen soundly
asleep. As to the clerk, he could not leave his seat to go in search of
him; there was no precedent for both vicar and clerk to be away from the
three-decker before the service was brought to a close.
The old clerk is usually intensely loyal to the Church and to his
clergyman, but there have been some exceptions. An example of a disloyal
clerk comes from the neighbourhood of Barnstaple.
A parish clerk, apparently religious and venerable, held his position in
a village church in that district for thirty years. He carried out his
duties with regularity and thoroughness equalled only by the parish
priest. This old clerk would frequently make remarks--not altogether
pleasing--about Nonconformists, whom he summed up as a lot of "mithudy
nuezenses" (methodist nuisances).
A new rector came and brought with him new ideas. The parish clerk would
not be required for the future. As soon as the old clerk heard this he
attached himself to a local dissenting body and joined with them to
worship in their small chapel. This, after thirty years' service in the
Church and a bitter feeling against Nonconformists, is rather
In the forties there was a sleepy clerk at Hampstead, a very portly man,
who did ample justice to his bright red waistcoat and brass buttons. The
church had a model old-time three-decker. The lower deck was occupied by
the clerk, the upper deck by the reader, and the quarter-deck by the
preacher. The clerk, during the sermon, would often fall asleep and make
known his state by a snore. Then the reader would tap his bald head with
a hymn-book, whereupon he would wake up and startle the congregation by
a loud and prolonged "Ah-men."
We are accustomed now to have our churches beautifully decorated with
flowers and fruits and holly and evergreens at the great festivals and
harvest thanksgiving services. Sometimes on the latter occasions our
decorations are perhaps a little too elaborate, and remind one of a
horticultural show. No such charge could be brought against the
old-fashioned method of church decoration. Christmas was the only season
when it was attempted, and sprigs of holly stuck at the corners of the
old square pews in little holes made for the purpose were always deemed
sufficient. This was always the duty of the clerk. Later on, when a
country church was found to be elaborately decorated for Christmas and
the clerk was questioned on the subject, he replied, shaking his head,
"Ah! we're getting a little High Church now." At Langport, Somerset, the
pews were similarly adorned on Palm Sunday with sprigs of the catkins
from willow trees to represent palms.
I have already mentioned some instances of clerks who were sometimes
elated by the dignity of the office and full of conceit. Wesley enjoyed
the experience of having a conceited clerk at Epworth, who not only was
proud of his singing and other accomplishments, but also of his personal
appearance. He delighted to wear Wesley's old clerical clothes and
especially his wig, which was much too big for the insignificant clerk's
head. John Wesley must have had a sense of humour, though perhaps it
might have been exhibited in a more appropriate place. However, he was
determined to humble his conceited clerk, and said to him one Sunday
morning, "John, I shall preach on a particular subject this morning, and
shall choose my own psalm, of which I will give out the first line, and
you will proceed and repeat the next as usual." When the time for
psalmody arrived Wesley gave out, "Like to an owl in ivy bush," and the
clerk immediately responded, "That rueful thing am I." The members of
the congregation looked up and saw his small head half-buried in his
large wig, and could not restrain their smiles. The clerk was mortified
and the rector gratified that he should have been taught a lesson and
learned to be less vain.
Old-fashioned ways die hard. Only seven years ago the incumbent of a
small Somerset parish found when in the pulpit that he had left his
spectacles at home. Casting a shrewd glance around, he perceived just
below him, well within reach, one of his parishioners who was wearing a
large pair of what in rustic circles are termed "barnacles" tied behind
his head. Stretching down, the parson plucked them from the astonished
owner's brow, and, fitting them on his clerical nose, proceeded to
deliver his discourse. Thenceforward the clerk, doubtless fearing for
his own glasses, never failed to carry to church a second pair wherewith
to supply, if need be, his coadjutor's shortcomings.
Another and final story of sleepy manners comes to us from the north
country. A short-sighted clergyman of what is known as the "old school"
was preaching one winter afternoon to a slumberous congregation. Dusk
was falling, the church was badly lighted, and his manuscript difficult
to decipher. He managed to stumble along until he reached a passage
which he rendered as follows: "Enthusiasm, my brethren, enthusiasm in a
good cause is an excellent--excellent quality, but unless it is tempered
with judgment, it is apt to lead us--apt to lead us--Here, Thomas,"
handing the sermon to the clerk, "go to the window and see what it is
apt to lead us into."
THE CLERK IN ART
The finest portrait ever painted of a parish clerk is that of Orpin,
clerk of Bradford-on-Avon, Wilts, whose interesting old house still
stands near the grand parish church and the beautiful little Saxon
ecclesiastical structure. This picture is the work of Thomas
Gainsborough, R.A., and is now happily preserved in the National
Gallery. Orpin has a fine and noble face upon which the sunlight is
shining through a window as he turns from the Divine Book to see the
glories of the blue sky.
"Some word of life e'en now has met
His calm benignant eye;
Some ancient promise breathing yet
Some heart's deep language which the glow
Of faith unwavering gives;
And every feature says 'I know
That my Redeemer lives.'"
The size of this canvas is four feet by three feet two inches. Orpin is
wearing a blue coat, black vest, white neck-cloth, and dark breeches.
His hair is grey and curly, and falls upon his shoulders. He sits on a
gilt-nailed chair at a round wooden table, on which is a reading-easel,
supporting a large volume bound in dark green, and labelled "Bible, Vol.
I." The background is warm brown.
Of this picture a critic states: "The very noble character of the
worthy old clerk's head was probably an additional inducement to
Gainsborough to paint the picture, Seldom does so fine a subject present
itself to the portrait painter, and Gainsborough evidently sought to do
justice to his venerable model by unusual and striking effect of
lighting, and by more than ordinary care in execution. It might almost
seem like impertinence to eulogise such painting, as this canvas
contains painting which, unlike the works of Reynolds, seems fresh and
pure as the day it left the easel; and it would be still more futile to
attempt to define the master's method."
The history of the portrait is interesting. It was painted at
Shockerwick, near Bradford, where Wiltshire, the Bath carrier, lived,
who loved art so much that he conveyed to London Gainsborough's pictures
from the year 1761 to 1774 entirely free of charge. The artist rewarded
him by presenting him with some of his paintings, _The Return from
Harvest, The Gipsies' Repast_, and probably this portrait of Orpin was
one of his gifts. It was sold at Christie's in 1868 by a descendant of
the art-loving carrier, and purchased for the nation by Mr. Boxall for
the low sum of L325.
The mediaeval clerk appears in many ancient manuscripts and
illuminations, which show us, better than words can describe, the actual
duties which he was called upon to perform. The British Museum possesses
a number of pontificals and other illustrated manuscripts containing
artistic representations of clerks. We see him accompanying the priest
who is taking the last sacrament to the sick. He is carrying a taper and
a bell, which he is evidently ringing as he goes, its tones asking for
the prayers of the faithful for the sick man's soul. This picture
occurs in a fourteenth-century MS. [6 E. VI, f. 427], and in the same
MS. we see another illustration of the priest administering the last
sacrament attended by the clerk [6 E. VII, f. 70].
[Illustration: THE CLERK ATTENDING THE PRIEST AT HOLY BAPTISM]
[Illustration 2: THE CLERK ATTENDING THE PRIEST AT HOLY BAPTISM]
Another illustration shows the priest baptizing an infant which the male
sponsor holds over the font, while the priest pours water over its head
from a shallow vessel. The faithful parish clerk stands by the priest.
This appears in the fifteenth-century MS. Egerton, 2019, f. 135.
In the MS. of Froissart's Chronicle there is an illustration of the
coronation procession of Charles V of France. The clerk goes before the
cross-bearer and the bishop bearing his holy-water vessel and his
sprinkler for the purpose of aspersing the spectators. We have already
given two illustrations taken from a fourteenth-century MS. in the
British Museum, which depict the clerk, as the _aquaebajalus_, entering
the lord's house and going first into the kitchen to sprinkle the cook
with holy water, and then into the hall to perform a like duty to the
lord and lady as they sit at dinner.
There is a fine picture in a French pontifical of the fifteenth century,
which is in the British Museum (Tiberius, B. VIII, f. 43), of the
anointing and coronation of a king of France. An ecclesiastical
procession is represented meeting the king and his courtiers at the door
of the cathedral of Rheims, and amongst the dignitaries we see the clerk
bearing the holy-water vessel, the cross-bearer, and the thurifer
swinging his censer. The clerk wears a surplice over a red tunic.
One other of these mediaeval representations of the clerk's duties may be
mentioned. It is a fifteenth-century French MS. in the British Museum
(Egerton, 2019, f. 142), and represents the last scenes of this mortal
life. The absolution of the penitent, the administration of the last
sacrament, the woman mourning for her husband and arranging the
grave-clothes, the singing of the dirige, the burial, and the reception
of the soul of the departed by our Lord in glory. The clerk appears in
several of these scenes. He is kneeling behind the priest in the
administration of the last sacrament. Robed in surplice and cope he is
chanting the Psalms for the departed, and at the burial he is holding
the holy-water vessel for the asperging of the corpse.
There are several paintings by English artists which represent the
old-fashioned clerk in all his glory in his throne in the lowest seat of
the "three-decker." Perhaps the most striking is the satirical sketch of
the pompous eighteenth-century clerk as shown in Hogarth's engraving of
_The Sleeping Congregation_, to which I have already referred. As a
contrast to Hogarth's _Sleeping Congregation_ we may place Webster's
famous painting of a village choir, which is thoroughly life-like and
inspiring. The old clerk with enrapt countenance is singing lustily. The
musicians are performing on the 'cello, clarionet, and hautboy, and the
singers are chanting very earnestly and very vigorously the strains of
some familiar melody. The picture is a very exact presentment of an old
village choir of the better sort.
[Illustration: THE DUTIES OF A CLERK AT A DEATH AND FUNERAL]
[Illustration: THE VICAR OF WAKEFIELD BY W.P. FRITH]
It was perhaps such a choir as this that an aged friend remembers in a
remote Cornish village. It was a mixed choir, led by a 'cello, flute,
and clarionet. Tate and Brady's version of the Psalms was used
alternately with a favourite anthem arranged by some of the members.
"We'll wash our hands," the basses led off in stentorian tones. Then the
tenors followed. Then the trebles in shrill voices--"washed hands."
Finally, after a pause, the whole choir shouted triumphantly, "in
innocenc_ee_"; and the congregation bore it, my friend naively remarks.
The orchestra on one occasion struck work. Only the clerk, who played
his 'cello, remained faithful. To prove his loyalty he appeared as
usual, gave out a hymn of many verses, and sang it through in his clear
bass voice, to the accompaniment of his instrument.
It was not an unusual thing for the clerk to be the only chorister in a
village church, and then sometimes strange things happened. There was a
favourite tune which required the first half of one of the lines to be
repeated thrice. This led to such curious utterances as "My own sal,"
called out lustily three times, and then finished with "My own
salvation's rock to praise." The thrice-repeated "My poor poll" was no
less striking, but it was only a prelude to "My poor polluted heart." A
chorus of women and girls in the west gallery sang lustily, "Oh for a
man," _bis, bis_--a pause--"A mansion in the skies." Another clerk sang
"And in the pie" three times, supplementing it with "And in the pious He
delights." Another bade his hearers "Stir up this stew," but he was only
referring to "This stupid heart of mine." Yet another sang lustily "Take
Thy pill," but when the line was completed it was heard to be "Take Thy
Returning to the artistic presentment of clerks, there is a fine sketch
of one in Frith's famous painting of the Vicar of Wakefield, whose
gentle manners and loving character as conceived by Goldsmith are
admirably depicted by the artist. Near the vicar stands the faithful
clerk, a dear old man, who is scarcely less reverend than his vicar.
There is an old print of a portion of the church of St. Margaret,
Westminster, which shows the Carolian "three-decker," a very elaborate
structure, crowned by a huge sounding-board. The clergyman is
officiating in the reading desk, and a very nice-looking old clerk, clad
in his black gown with bands, sits below. There is a pompous beadle with
his flowing wig and a mace in an adjoining pew, and some members of the
congregation appear at the foot of the "three-decker," and in the
gallery. It is a very correct representation of the better sort of
The hall of the Parish Clerks' Company possesses several portraits of
distinguished members of the profession, which have already been
mentioned in the chapter relating to the history of the fraternity. By
the courtesy of the company we are enabled to reproduce some of the
paintings, and to record some of the treasures of art which the
[Illustration (upside down, by the way): PORTRAIT OF RICHARD HUNT THE
RESTORER OF THE CLERKS' ALMSHOUSES]
WOMEN AS PARISH CLERKS
A woman cannot legally be elected to the office of parish clerk, though
she may be a sexton. There was the famous case of _Olive_ v. _Ingram_
(12 George I) which determined this. One Sarah Bly was elected sexton of
the parish of St. Botolph without Aldersgate by 169 indisputable votes
and 40 which were given by women who were householders and paid to the
church and poor, against 174 indisputable votes and 20 given by women
for her male rival. Sarah Bly was declared elected, and the Court upheld
the appointment and decreed that women could vote on such elections.
Cuthbert Bede states that in 1857 there were at least three female
sextons, or "sextonesses," in the City of London, viz.: Mrs. Crook at
St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury; Mrs. E. Worley at St. Laurence,
Jewry, King Street; and Mrs. Stapleton at St. Michael's, Wood Street. In
1867 Mrs. Noble was sextoness of St. John the Baptist, Peterborough. The
_Annual Register_ for 1759 mentions an extraordinary centenarian
Died, April 30th, Mary Hall, sexton of Bishop Hill, York
City, aged one hundred and five; she walked about and
retained her senses till within three days of her death.
Evidently the duties of her office had not worn out the stalwart old
Although legally a woman may not perform the duties of a parish clerk,
there have been numerous instances of female holders of the office. In
the census returns it is not quite unusual to see the names of women
returned as parish clerks, and we have many who discharge the duties of
churchwarden, overseer, rate-collector, and other parochial offices.
One Ann Hopps was parish clerk of Linton about the year 1770, but
nothing is known of her by her descendants except her name. Madame
D'Arblay speaks in her diary of that "poor, wretched, ragged woman, a
female clerk" who showed her the church of Collumpton, Devon. This good
woman inherited her office from her deceased husband and received the
salary, but she did not take the clerk's place in the services on
Sunday, but paid a man to perform that part of her functions.
The parish register of Totteridge tells of the fame of Elizabeth King,
who was clerk of that place for forty-six years. The following extract
tells its own story:
March 2nd, 1802, buried Elizabeth King, widow, for 46 years
clerk of this parish, in the 91st year of her age, who died
at Whetstone in the Parish of Finchley, Feb. 24th.
N.B.--This old woman, as long as she was able to attend, did
constantly, and read on the prayer-days, with great strength
and pleasure to the hearers, though not in the clerk's place;
the desk being filled on the Sunday by her son-in-law,
Benjamin Withall, who did his best.
[Footnote 80: Burn's _History of Parish Registers_, p. 129.]
Under the shade of the episcopal palace at Cuddesdon, at Wheatley, near
Oxford, about sixty-five years ago, a female clerk, Mrs. Sheddon,
performed the duties of the office which had been previously discharged
by her husband. At Avington, near Hungerford, Berks, Mrs. Poffley was
parish clerk for a period of twenty-five years at the beginning of the
last century. About the same time Mary Mountford was parish clerk of
Misterton, near Crewkerne, Somersetshire, for upwards of thirty years. A
female clerk was acting at Igburgh, Norfolk, in 1853; and at Sudbrook,
near Lincoln, in 1830, a woman also officiated and died in the service
of the Church. Nor was the office confined to rural women of the working
class. Mr. Ellacombe remembered to have seen "a gentle-woman acting as
parish clerk of some church in London."
There are doubtless many other instances of women serving as parish
clerks, and one of my correspondents remembers a very remarkable
In the village of Willoughton, Lincolnshire, more than seventy years
ago, there lived an old dame named Betty Wells, who officiated as parish
clerk. For many years Betty sat in the lowest compartment of the
three-decker pulpit, reading the lessons and leading the responses, and,
with the exception of ringing the church bell, fulfilling all the
duties of clerk.
But Betty was also looked upon as a witch, and several stories are told
of how she made things very unpleasant for those who offended her.
One day there had been a christening at which Betty had done her share;
but by some unfortunate oversight she was not invited to the feast which
took place afterwards. No sooner had the guests seated themselves at the
table than a great cloud of soot fell down the chimney smothering all
the good things, so that nothing could be eaten. Then, too late, they
remembered that Betty Wells had not been invited, and perfectly
confident were they that she had had her revenge by spoiling the feast.
One of the farmers let Betty have straw for bedding her pig in return
for manure. When one of his men came to fetch the manure away, she
thought he had taken too much. So she warned him that he would not go
far--neither did he, for the cart tipped right over. And that was
We know Betty had a husband, for we hear that one evening when he came
home from his work his wife had ever so many tailors sitting on the
table all busily stitching. When John came in they vanished.
A few people still remember Betty Wells, and they shake their heads as
they say, "Well, you see, the old woman had a very queer-looking eye,"
giving you to understand that it was with that particular eye she worked
all these wonders.
The story of Betty Wells has been gleaned from scraps supplied by
various old people and collected by Miss Frances A. Hill, of
Willoughton. The unfortunate christening feast took place after the
baptism of her father, and the story was told to her by an old aunt, now
dead, who was grown up at the time (1830) and could remember it all
distinctly. The people who told Miss Hill about Betty and her weird
witch-like ways fully believed in her supernatural powers.
Another Betty, whose surname was Finch, was employed at the beginning of
the last century at Holy Trinity Church, Warrington, as a "bobber," or
sluggard-waker. She was the wife of the clerk, and was well fitted
on account of her masculine form to perform this duty which usually fell
to the lot of the parish clerk. She used to perambulate the church armed
with a long rod, like a fishing-rod, which had a "bob" fastened to the
end of it. With this instrument she effectually disturbed the peaceful
slumbers of any one who was overcome with drowsiness. The whole family
of Betty was ecclesiastically employed, as her son used to sing:
"My father's a clerk,
My sister's a singer,
My mother's a bobber,
And I am a ringer."
[Footnote 81: W. Andrews, _Curiosities of the Church_, p. 176.]
One of my correspondents tells of another female clerk who officiated in
a dilapidated old church with a defective roof, and who held an umbrella
over the unfortunate clergyman when he was reading the service, in order
to protect him from the drops of rain that poured down upon him.
Doubtless in country places there are many other churches where female
clerks have discharged the duties of the office, but history has not, as
far as I am aware, recorded their names or their services. Perhaps in an
age in which women have taken upon themselves to perform all kinds of
work and professional duties formerly confined to men alone, we may
expect an increase in the number of female parish clerks, in spite of
legal enactments and other absurd restrictions. Since women can be
churchwardens, and have been so long ago as 1672, sextons, overseers and
registrars of births, and much else, and even at one time were parish
constables, it seems that the pleasant duties of a parish clerk might
not be uncongenial to them, though they be debarred by law from
receiving the title and rank of the office.
SOME YORKSHIRE CLERKS
During many years of the time that the Rev. John Torre occupied the
rectory of Catwick, Thomas Dixon was associated with him as parish
clerk. He is described as a little man, old-looking for his age, and in
the later years of his life able to walk only with difficulty. These
peculiarities, however, did not prevent his winning a young woman for
his wife. Possibly she saw the sterling character of the man, and
admired and loved him for it.
[Footnote 82: This account of the clerks Dixon and Fewson was sent by
the Rev. J. Gaskell Exton, and is published by the permission of the
editor of the _Yorkshire Weekly Post_.]
Dixon was strongly attached to the rector, so much so, that to him
neither the rector nor the things belonging to the rector, whether
animate or inanimate, could do wrong. He had a watch, and even though it
might not be one of the best, a watch was no small acquisition to a
working man of his time. He did not live in the days of the
three-and-sixpenny marvel, or of the half-crown wonder, now to be found
in the pocket of almost every schoolboy. Dixon's watch was of the kind
worn by the well-known Captain Cuttle, which Dickens describes as being
"a silver watch, which was so big and so tight in the pocket that it
came out like a bung" when its owner drew it from the depths to see the
time. It must, consequently, have cost many half-crowns, but yet as
timekeeper it was somewhat of a failure. In this, too, it resembled that
of the famous captain of which its proud possessor, as everybody knows,
used to say, "Put you back half-an-hour every morning, and about another
quarter towards the afternoon, and you've a watch that can be equalled
by a few and excelled by none." Dixon, therefore, when asked the time of
day, was usually obliged to go through an arithmetical calculation
before he could reply.
On Sunday, however, all was different; he then had no hesitation
whatever in at once declaring the correct time. For every Sunday morning
he put his watch by the rector's clock, and it mattered not how far the
rector's clock might be fast or slow, what that clock said was the true
time for Dixon. And though the remonstrances of the parishioners might
be loud and long, they were all in vain, for according to the rector's
clock he rang the church bells, and so the services commenced. He loved
the rector, therefore the rector's clock could not be wrong. Evidently
Dixon was capable of strong affection, a quality of no mean moral order.
Before the enclosure of parishes was common, and their various fields
separated by hedges or other fences; before, too, the ordnance survey
with its many calculations was an accomplished fact, much more measuring
of land in connection with work done each year was required than at
present. It was a necessity, therefore, that each village should have in
or near it a man skilled in the science of calculation. Consequently,
the acquirement of figures was fostered, and so in the earlier part of
the nineteenth century almost every parish could produce a man supposed
to be, and who probably was, great in arithmetic. Catwick's calculator
was Dixon, and he was generally thought by his co-villagers to be as
learned a one as any other, if not more so.
He had, however, a great rival at Long Riston. This was one Richard
Fewson, who, like Dixon, was clerk of his parish; but while Dixon was a
shopkeeper Fewson kept the village school.
Fewson's modes of punishing refractory scholars were somewhat peculiar.
Either a culprit was hoisted on the back of another scholar, or made to
stoop till his nose entered a hole in the desk, and when in one or other
of these positions was made to feel the singular sensation caused by a
sound caning on that particular part of his anatomy which it is said
"nature intends for correction." Sometimes, too, an offender was made to
sit in a small basket, to the cross handle of which a rope had been
tied, and by this means he was hoisted to a beam near the roof of the
school. Here he was compelled to stay for a longer or shorter period,
according to the offence, knowing that, if he moved to ease his crippled
position, the basket would tilt and he would fall to the floor.
On one occasion, with an exceptionally refractory pupil, his mode of
punishment was even more peculiar still. Having told all the girls to
turn their faces to the wall--and not one of them, so my informant, one
of the boys, said, would dare to disobey the order--he chalked the shape
of a grave on the floor of the schoolroom. He then made the boy, an
incorrigible truant, strip off all his clothes, and when he stood
covered only in nature's dress, told him in solemn tones that he was
going to bury him alive and under the floor. One scholar was then sent
for a pick, and when this was fetched, another was sent for a shovel. By
the time they were both brought, the truant was in a panic of fear, the
end hoped for. The master then sternly asked the boy if he would play
truant again, to which the boy quickly answered no. On this, he was
allowed to dress, being assured as he did so that if ever again he
stopped from school without leave he should certainly be buried alive,
and so great was the dread produced, the boy from that time was
regularly found at school.
If parents objected to these punishments, they were simply told to take
their children from school, which, as Fewson was the only master for
miles around, he knew they would be loath to do. Fewson taught nearly
all the children of the district whose parents felt it necessary that
they should have any education. He is said to have turned out good
scholars in the three R's, his curriculum being limited to these
subjects, with, for an extra fee, mensuration added.
But Fewson, if he did not teach it, felt himself to be well up in
astronomy. One summer, an old boy of his told me, he got the
children--my informant amongst the number--to collect from their parents
and others for a trip to Hornsea. When the money was all in he
complained that the amount was insufficient for a trip, and suggested
that a telescope he had seen advertised should be bought with the money.
If this were done, he promised that those who had subscribed should have
the telescope in turn to look through from Saturday to Monday. The
telescope was purchased, and each subscriber had it once, and then it
was no more seen. From that time it became the entire property of the
master. The children never again collected for a trip, and small wonder.
Fewson was a good singer and musician generally, so in addition to his
office as clerk he held the position of choirmaster. At church on
Sunday he sat at the west end, the boys of the village sitting behind
him, and it was part of his duty to see that they behaved themselves
decorously. Should a boy make any disturbance Fewson's hand fell heavily
on the offender's ears, and so sharply that the sound of the blows could
be heard throughout the church. Such incidents as this were by no means
uncommon in churches in the days when Fewson and Dixon flourished, and
they were looked upon as nothing extraordinary, for small compunction
was felt in the punishment of unruly urchins.
I have been told of another clerk, for instance, who dealt such severe
blows on the heads of boys, who behaved in the least badly, with a by no
means small stick, that, like Fewson's, they, too, resounded all over
the church. This clerk was known as "Old Crack Skull," and there were
many others who might as appropriately have borne the name.
As parish clerk, Fewson attended the Archdeacon's visitation with the
churchwardens, whose custom it was on each such occasion to spend about
L3 in eating and drinking. On the appointment of a new and reforming
churchwarden this expenditure was stopped, and for the first time Fewson
returned to Riston sober. Here he looked at the churchwarden and
sorrowfully said, "For thirty years I have been to the visitation and
always got home drunk; Sally will think I haven't been." He then turned
into the public-house, and afterwards reached home in the condition
Sally, his wife, would expect.
[Illustration: THE CHURCH OF ST. MARGARET, WESTMINSTER]
Insobriety was the normal condition of Fewson after school hours. It was
his invariable custom to visit the public-house each evening, where he
always found a clean pipe and an ounce of tobacco ready for him. Here
he acted as president of those who forgathered, being by virtue of his
wisdom readily conceded this position. His favourite drink was gin, and
of this he imbibed freely; leaving for home about ten o'clock, which he
found usually only after many a stumble and sometimes a fall. He,
however, managed to save money, with which he built himself a house at
Arnold, adorning it, as still to be seen, with the carved heads of
saints and others, begged from the owners of the various ancient
ecclesiastical piles of the neighbourhood. He died about seventy years
ago, and was buried at Riston.
Between Dixon and Fewson there was much friendly strife with regard to
the solving of hard arithmetical problems. This contest was no mere
private matter. It was entered into with great zest by the men of both
the villages concerned; the Catwickians and the Ristonians each backing
their man to win. "A straw shows which way the wind blows," we say, and
herein we may feel a breathing of the Holderness man's love of his clan,
an affection which has done much to develop and to strengthen his
Dixon was employed by the harvesters and others to measure the land
which they had reaped, or on which they had otherwise worked. When the
different measurements had been taken, he, of course, had to find the
result. For this, he needed no pen, ink, or paper, nor yet a slate and
pencil. He made his calculations by a much more economic method than
these would supply. He sat down in the field he had measured, took off
his beaver hat, and, using it as a kind of blackboard, with a piece of
chalk worked out the result of his measurements on its crown.
Dixon must have been a man of resources, as are most Holderness men
where the saving of money is concerned. I have heard it said that the
spirit of economy has so permeated their character that it has
influenced even their speech. "So saving are they," say some, "that the
definite article, _the_, is never used by them in their talk." But this
is a libel; another and a truer reason may be found for the omission in
their Scandinavian origin.
Another parish clerk who held office at a church about five miles from
Catwick, by trade a tailor, was a noted character and remarkable for his
parsimonious habits. He is described as having been a very little man
and of an extremely attenuated appearance. The story of his economy
during his honeymoon, when the happy pair stayed in some cheap town
lodgings, is not pleasing.
His great effort in saving, however, resulted from his sporting
proclivities. Tailor though he was, he conceived a great desire to be a
mighty hunter. So strong did this passion burn within him that he made
up his mind, sooner or later, to hunt, and with the best, in a red coat,
too. He therefore began to save with this object in view. Denying
himself every luxury and most other things which are usually counted
necessaries, for long he lived, it is said, on half a salt herring a day
with a little bread or a few vegetables in addition. By doing so, he was
able to put almost all he earned to the furtherance of the purpose of
his heart. This went on till he had saved L200. Then he felt his day was
come. He bought a horse, made himself the scarlet coat, and went to the
hunt as he thought a gentleman should. His hunting lasted for two
seasons, when, the money he had saved being spent, he went back to his
trade, at which he worked as energetically as ever.
At the west end of the nave of Catwick Church formerly was erected a
gallery. In this loft, as it was commonly called, the musicians of the
parish sang or played. Various instruments, bassoon, trombone,
violoncello, cornet, cornopean, and clarionet, flute, fiddle, and
flageolet, or some of their number, were employed, calling to mind the
band of Nebuchadnezzar of old. The noise made in the tuning of the
instruments to the proper pitch may be readily imagined. Now, the church
possesses an organ, and the choirmen and boys have their places in the
chancel, while the musicians of the parish occupy the front seats of the
nave. This arrangement is eminently suitable for effectually leading the
praises of the people, but not perhaps more so, its noise
notwithstanding, than the former style; indeed, I am somewhat doubtful
if the new equals the old. The old certainly had the merit of engaging
most, if not all, the musicians of the village in the worship of
At the east end of the nave, in the days of the loft, stood a kind of
triple pulpit, commonly called a three-decker. It was composed of three
compartments, the second above and behind the first, and the third
similarly placed with regard to the second. The lowest, resting on the
floor, was the place for the clerk, the middle was for the parson when
reading the prayers and Scriptures, and the highest for the parson when
preaching. Such pulpits are now almost as completely things of the past
as the old warships from which, in derision, they got their name. Once
only have I read the service and preached from a three-decker, and then
the clerk did not occupy the position assigned to him. Dixon, however,
always used the little desk at the foot of the Catwick pulpit, and from
it took his share of the service.
It was part of his duty, as clerk, to choose and to give out the number
of the hymns. Now Dixon, like Fewson, was a singer, and felt that the
choir could not get on without the help of his voice in the gallery when
the hymns were sung. Consequently, he then left his box and went to the
singing loft; but, to save time, as he marched down the aisle from east
to west, and as he mounted the steps of the gallery, he slowly and
solemnly announced the number of the hymn and read the lines of the
first verse. When the hymn was sung, our bird-like clerk came down again
from the heights of the loft and returned to his perch at the base of
Nowadays, we should consider such proceedings very unseemly, but it
would have been thought nothing of in the days of Dixon. Scenes,
according to our ideas, much more grotesque were then of frequent
occurrence. We have already looked on at least one; here is another
which took place in the neighbouring church of Skipsea one Sunday
afternoon some sixty years ago, and in connection with singing. The
account was given to me by a parishioner of about eighty years of age,
who was one of the choirmen on the occasion.
The leading singer, he said, there being no instrument, started a tune
for the hymn. It would not fit the words, and he soon came to a full
stop, and choir and congregation with him. At this, one of the
congregation, in a voice that could be heard the whole church over,
called out, "Give it up, George! Give it up!" "No, no," said the vicar
in answer, leaning over his desk, "No, no, George, try again! try
again!" George tried again, and again failed. But the vicar still
encouraged him with "Have another try, George! Have another try! You may
get it yet!" George tried the third time, and now hit upon a right tune;
and to the general delight the hymn was sung through.
Without doubt, in the days of our forefathers the services of the Church
were conducted with the greatest freedom. But we may not judge those who
preceded us by our own standard, nor yet apart from the time in which
When two young people of Catwick or its neighbourhood feel they can live
no longer without each other, they in local phrase "put in the banns."
They then, of course, expect to have them published, or again in local
idiom "thrown over the pulpit." On all such occasions, according to a
very old custom, after the rector had read out the names, with the usual
injunction following, from the middle compartment of the three-decker,
Dixon would rise from his seat below, and slowly and clearly cry out,
"God speed 'em weel" (God speed them well). By this pious wish he prayed
for a blessing on those about to be wed, and in this the congregation
joined, for they responded with Amen.
Dixon was the last of the Catwick clerks to keep this custom. Much more
recently, however, than the time he held office, members of the
congregation, usually those seated in the loft, on the publication of
the banns of some well-known people, have called out the time-honoured
phrase. But it is now heard no more. The custom has gone into a like
oblivion to that of the parish clerk himself, once so important a
person, in his own estimation if in that of no other, both in church and
parish. "The old order changeth."
Thomas Dixon died at Catwick when sixty-seven years of age. He was
buried in the churchyard on January 2, 1833, and by the Rev. John Torre,
the rector he served so faithfully.
When Sydney Smith went to see the out-of-the-way Yorkshire village of
Foston-le-Clay, to which benefice he had been presented, his arrival
occasioned great excitement. The parish clerk came forward to welcome
him, a man eighty years of age, with long grey hair, thread-bare coat,
deep wrinkles, stooping gait, and a crutch stick. He looked at the new
parson for some time from under his grey shaggy eyebrows, and talked,
and showed that age had not quenched the natural shrewdness of the
At last, after a pause, he said, striking his crutch stick on the
"Master Smith, it often stroikes moy moind that folks as come frae
London be such fools. But you," he added, giving Sydney Smith a nudge
with his stick, "I see you be no fool." The new vicar was gratified.
Yorkshiremen are keen songsters, and _fortissimo_ is their favourite
note of expression. "Straack up a bit, Jock! straack up a bit," a
Yorkshire parson used to shout to his clerk, when he wanted the Old
Hundredth to be sung. Well do I remember a delightful old clerk in the
Craven district, who used to give out the hymn in the accustomed form
with charming manner. He liked not itinerant choirs, which were not
uncommon forty or fifty years ago, and used to migrate from church to
church, and sometimes to chapel, in the district where the members
lived. One of these choirs visited the church where the Rev. ----
Morris was rector, and he was directed to give out the anthem which the
itinerant strangers were prepared to sing. He neither knew nor cared
what an anthem was; and he gave the following somewhat confused notice:
"Let us sing to the praise and glory of God the fiftieth Psalm, _while
you folks sing th' anthem_," casting a scornful glance at the wandering
musicians in the opposite gallery.
Missionary meetings and sermons were somewhat rare in those days, but
the special preacher for missions, commonly called the deputation, who
performs for lazy clerics the task of instructing the people about work
in the mission field--a duty which could well be performed by the vicar
himself--had already begun his itinerant course. The congregation were
waiting in the churchyard for his arrival, when the old Yorkshire vicar,
mentioned above, said to his clerk, "Jock, ye maunt let 'em into th'
church; the dippitation a'n't coom." Presently two clergymen arrived,
when the clerk called out, "Ye maunt gang hoame; t' deppitation's coom."
The old vicar made an excellent chairman, his introductory remarks being
models of brevity: "T' furst deppitation will speak!" "T' second
deppitation will speak!" after which the clerk lighted some candles in
the singing gallery, and gave out for an appropriate hymn, "Vital spark
of heavenly flame."
A writer in _Chambers's Journal_ tells of a curious class of clergymen
who existed forty years ago, and were known as "Northern Lights," the
light from a spiritual point of view being somewhat dim and flickering.
The writer, who was the vicar for twenty-five years of a moorland
parish, tells of several clerks who were associated with these clerics,
and who were as quaint and curious in their ways as their masters.
The village was a hamlet on the edge of the Yorkshire moors, near the
confines of Derbyshire. Beside the church was a public-house kept by the
parish clerk, Jerry, a dapper little man, who on Sundays and funeral
days always wore a wig, an old-fashioned tailed coat, black stockings,
and shoes with buckles. His house was known as "Heaven's Gate," where
the farmers from the neighbouring farms used to drink and stay a week at
a time. Jerry used to direct the funerals, make the clerkly responses,
and then provide the funeral party with good cheer at his inn. His
invitation was always given at the graveside in a high-pitched falsetto
voice, and the formula ran in these words, and was never varied:
"Friends of the corpse is respectfully requested to call at my house,
and partake then and there of such refreshments as is provided
[Footnote 83: By the kindness of the editor of _Chambers's Journal_ I am
permitted to retell some of the stories of the manners of these clerks
Much intemperance and disorder often followed these funeral feastings.
An old song long preserved in the district depicts one of these
funerals, which was by no means a one-day affair, but sometimes lasted
several days, during which the drinking went on. The inn was perhaps a
necessity in this out-of-the-world place, but it was unfortunately a
great temptation to the inhabitants, and to the old Northern Light
parson who preceded the vicar whose reminiscences we are recording. Here
in the inn the old parson sat between morning and afternoon service with
a long clay pipe in his mouth and a glass of whisky by his side. When
the bells began to settle and the time of service approached, he would
send Jerry to the church to see if many people had arrived. When
"There's not many comed yet, Mr. Nowton," the parson would say:
"Then tell them to ring another peal, Jerry, and just fill up my glass
The communion plate was kept at the inn under Jerry's charge. Three
times a year it was used, and the circumstances were disgraceful. Four
bottles of port wine were deemed the proper allowance on communion days,
and after a fractional quantity had been consumed in the church, the
rest was finished by the churchwardens at the inn. One of these
churchwardens drank himself to death after the communion service. He was
a big man with a red face, and was always present when a bear was baited
at the top of the hill above the village. One day the bear escaped and
ran on to the moor; everybody scattered in all directions, and several
dogs were killed before the bear was caught.
The successor of Jerry as clerk, but not as publican, was a rough,
honest individual who was called Dick. When excited he had two oaths,
"By'r Lady!" and "By the mass!" but as he always pronounced this last
word _mess_, it was evident he did not understand the nature of the oath
he used. He had a rough-and-ready way of doing things, and when handing
out hymn-books during service he used to throw a book up to an applicant
in the gallery to save the trouble of walking up the stairs in proper
fashion. He talked the broadest Yorkshire dialect, and it was not always
easy to understand him. This was particularly the case when, in his
capacity as clerk, he repeated the responses at the funeral service.
A tremendous snowfall happened one winter, and the roads were all
blocked. It was impossible for any one to go to church on the Sunday
morning following the fall, as the snow had not been cleared away. It
was necessary for the vicar, however, to get there, as he had to read
out the banns of marriage which were being published; so, putting on
fishing-waders to protect himself from the wet snow, he succeeded with
some difficulty in getting through the drifts. In the churchyard,
standing before the church clock, he found Dick intently gazing at it,
so he asked him if it was going. His reply was laconic: "Noa; shoo's
froz." He and the vicar then went into the church, and the necessary
publication of banns was read in the presence of the clerk alone.
In those days it was necessary that the wedding service should be all
over by twelve o'clock, and it was most important that due notice should
be given of the date of the wedding, a matter about which Dick was
sometimes rather careless.
The vicar had gone into Derbyshire for a few days to fish the River
Derwent. He was fishing a long distance up the stream when he heard his
name called, and saw his servant running towards him, who said that a
wedding was waiting for him at the church. Dick had forgotten to give
due notice of this event. The vicarage trap was in readiness, but the
road over the Derbyshire Peak was rough and steep, the pony small, the
distance ten miles, and the vicar encumbered with wet clothes. The
chance of getting to the church before twelve o'clock seemed remote. But
the vicar and pony did their best; it was, however, half an hour after
the appointed time when they reached the church. Glancing at the clock
in the tower, the vicar, to his astonishment, found the hands pointing
to half-past eleven. The situation was saved, and the service was
concluded within the prescribed time. The vicar turned to the clerk for
an explanation. "I seed yer coming over the hill," he said, "and I just
stopped the clock a bit." Dick was an ingenious man.
There was another character in the parish quite as peculiar as Dick, and
he was one of the principal singers, who sat in the west gallery. He had
formerly played the clarionet, before an organ was put into the church.
During service he always kept a red cotton handkerchief over his bald
head, which gave him a decidedly comic appearance.
On one occasion the clergyman gave out a hymn in the old-fashioned way:
"Let us sing to the praise and glory of God the twenty-first hymn,
second version." Up jumped the old singer and shouted, "You're wrang,
maister; it's first version." The clergyman corrected himself, when the
singer again rose: "You're wrang agearn; it's twenty-second hymn."
Without any remark the clergyman corrected the number, and the man again
jumped up: "That's reet, mon, that's reet." When the old singer died his
widow was very anxious there should be some record on his tombstone of
his having played the clarionet in church; so above his name a
trumpet-shaped instrument was carved on the stone, and some doggerel
lines were to be added below. The vicar had great difficulty in
persuading the family to abandon the lines for the text, "The trumpet
shall sound, and the dead shall be raised."
A neighbouring vicar was on one occasion taking the duty of an old man
with failing eyesight, and Dick reminded him before the afternoon
service that there was a funeral at four o'clock. "You must come into
the church and tell me when it arrives," he told the clerk, "and I will
stop my sermon." It was the habit of the old clergyman to relapse into a
strong Yorkshire dialect when speaking familiarly, and this will account
for the brief dialogue which passed between him and Dick as he stood at
the lectern. In due course the funeral arrived at the church gates, and
the first intimation the congregation inside the church had of this fact
was the appearance of Dick, who noisily threw open the big doors of the
south porch. He then stood and beckoned to the clergyman, but his poor
blind eyes could not see so far. Dick then came nearer and waved his hat
before him. This again met with no response. Then he got near enough to
pluck him by the arm, which he did rather vigorously, shouting at the
same time, "Shoo's coomed." "Wha's coomed?" replied the clergyman,
relapsing into his Yorkshire speech. "Funeral's coomed," retorted Dick.
"Then tell her to wait a bit while I finish my sermon"; and the old man
went quietly on with his discourse.
Another instance of Dick's failing to give proper notice of a service
was as follows; but on this occasion it was not really his fault. Some
large reservoirs were being made in the parish, and nearly a thousand
navvies were employed on the works. These men were constantly coming and
going, and very often they brought some infectious disorder which spread
among the huts where they lived. One day a navvy arrived who broke out
in smallpox of a very severe kind, and in a couple of days the man died,
and the doctor ordered the body to be buried the moment a coffin could
be got. It was winter-time, and the vicar had ridden over to see some
friends about ten miles away. As the afternoon advanced it began to rain
very heavily, and he decided not to ride back home, but to sleep at his
friend's house. About five o'clock a messenger arrived to say a funeral
was waiting in the church, and he was to come at once. He started in
drenching rain, which turned to sleet and snow as he approached the moor
edges. It was pitch-dark when he got off his horse at the church gates,
and with some difficulty he found his way into the vestry and put a
surplice over his wet garments. He could see nothing in the church, but
he asked when he got into the reading-desk if any one was there. A deep
voice answered, "Yes, sir; we are here"; and he began the service, which
long practice had taught him to repeat by heart. When about half-way
through the lesson he saw a glimmer of light, and Dick entered the
church with a lantern, which he placed on the top of the coffin. It was
a gruesome scene which the lantern brought into view. There was the
coffin, and before it, in a seat, four figures of the navvy-bearers, and
Dick himself covered with snow and as white as if he wore a surplice.
They filed out into the churchyard, but the wind had blown the snow into
the grave, and this had to be got out before they could lower the body
into it. The navvies, who were kind-hearted fellows, explained that they
could give no notice of the funeral beforehand, and they quite
understood the delay was no fault of the vicar's or Dick's.
Dick was, in spite of his faults, an honest and kind-hearted man, and
his death, caused by a fall from a ladder, was much regretted by his
good vicar. On his death-bed the old clerk sent for his favourite
grandson, who succeeded him in his office, and made this pathetic
request: "Thou'lt dig my grave, Jont, lad."
With Dick the last of the "Northern Lights" flickered out. Nothing now
remains in the village recalling those old times. The village inn has
been suppressed, and the drinking bouts are over. The old church has
been entirely restored, and there is order and decency in the services.
The strange thing is that it should have been possible that only forty
years ago matters were in such a state of chaos and disorder, and in
such need of drastic reformation.
Another Yorkshire clerk flourished in the thirties at Bolton-on-Dearne
named Thomas Rollin, commonly called Tommy. He used to render Psalm cii.
6: "I am become a _pee-li-can_ in the wilderness, and an owl in the
_dee-sert_." Tommy was a tailor by trade, and made use of a
ready-reckoner to assist him in making up his accounts, and his
familiarity with that useful book was shown when reading the second
verse of the forty-fifth Psalm, which Tommy invariably read: "My tongue
is the pen of a _ready-reckoner_," to the immense delight of the
youthful members of the congregation.
AN OLD CHESHIRE CLERK AND SOME OTHER WORTHIES
It is nearly fifty years since I used to attend the quaint old parish
church at Lawton, Cheshire, situate half-way between Congleton and
Crewe. It is a lonely spot, "miles from anywhere," having not the
vestige of a village, and the congregation was formed of well-to-do
farmers, who came from the scattered farmsteads. How well I remember the
old parish clerk and the numerous duties which fell to his lot! He
united in his person the offices of clerk, sexton, beadle,
church-keeper, organist, and ringer. The organ was of the barrel kind,
and no one knew how to manipulate the instrument or to change the
barrels, except the clerk. He had also to place ten decent loaves in a
row on the communion table every Sunday morning, which were provided by
a charitable bequest for the benefit of the poor widows of the parish.
If the widows did not attend service to curtsy for them, the loaves were
given to any one who liked to take them. Old Clerk Briscall baked them
himself. He kept a small village shop about two miles from the church.
He was also the village shoemaker. A curious system prevailed. As you
entered the church, near the large stove you would see a long bench, and
under this bench a row of boots and shoes. If any one wanted his boots
to be mended, he would take them to church with him and put them under
the bench. These were collected by the cobbler-clerk, carried home in a
sack, and brought back on the following Sunday neatly and carefully
soled and heeled. It would seem strange now if on entering a church our
eyes should light upon a row of farmers' dirty old boots and the
freshly-mended evidences of the clerk's skill. All this took place in
the fifties. In the sixties a new vicar came. The old organ wheezed its
last phlegmatic tune; it was replaced by a modern instrument with six
stops, and a player who did his best, but occasioned not a little
laughter on account of his numerous breakdowns. The old high pews have
disappeared, nice open benches erected, the floor relaid, a good choir
enlisted, and everything changed for the better.
The poor old clerk must have been almost overwhelmed by his numerous
duties, and was often much embarrassed and exasperated by the old
squire, Mr. C.B. Lawton, who was somewhat whimsical in his ways. This
gentleman used to enter the church by his own private door, and go to
his large, square, high-panelled family pew, and when the vicar gave out
the hymn, he used often to shout out, "Here, hold on! I don't like that
one; let's have hymn Number 25," or some such effort of psalmody. This
request, or command, used to upset the organ arrangement, and the poor
old clerk had to rummage among his barrels to get a suitable tune, and
the operation, even if successful, took at least ten minutes, during
which time a large amount of squeaking and the sounds of the writhing of
woodwork and snapping of sundry catches were heard in the church. But
the congregation was accustomed to the performance and thought little
of it. (John Smallwood, 2 Mount Pleasant, Strangeways, Manchester.)
Caistor Church, Lincolnshire, famous for the curious old ceremony of the
gad-whip, was also celebrated for its clerk, old Joshua Foster, who was
officiating there in 1884 at the time of the advent of a new vicar.
Trinity Sunday was the first Sunday of the new clergyman, who sorely
puzzled the clerk by reading the Athanasian Creed. The old man peered
down into the vicar's family pew from his desk, casting a despairing
glance at the wife of the vicar, who handed him a Prayer Book with the
place found, so that he could make the responses. He was very economical
in the use of handkerchiefs, and used the small pieces of paper on which
the numbers of the metrical psalm were written. In vain did the wife of
the vicar present him with red-and-white-spotted handkerchiefs, which
were used as comforters. The church was lighted with tallow
candles--"dips" they were called--and at intervals during the service
Joshua would go round and snuff them. The snuffers soon became full, and
it was a matter of deep interest to the congregation to see on whose
head the snuff would fall, and to dodge it if it came their way.
The Psalms of Tate and Brady's version were sung and were given out with
the usual preface, "Let us sing to the praise and glory of God the 1st,
2nd, 5th, 8th, and 20th verses of the ---- Psalm with the Doxology."
How that Doxology bothered the congregation! The Doxologies were all at
the end of the Prayer Book, and it was not always easy to hit the right
metre; but that was of little consequence. A word added if the line was
too short, or omitted if too long, required skill, and made all feel
that they had done their best when it was successfully over. After the
old clerk's death, he was succeeded by his son Joshua, or Jos-a-way, as
the name was pronounced, whose son, also named Joshua the third, became
clerk, and still holds the office.
The predecessor of the vicar was a pluralist, who held Caistor with its
two chapelries of Holton and Clixby and the living of Rothwell. He was
non-resident, and the numerous churches were served by a curate. This
man was a great smoker, and used to retire to the vestry to don the
black gown and smoke a pipe before the sermon, the congregation singing
a Psalm meanwhile. One Sunday he had an extra pipe, and Joshua told him
that the people were getting impatient.
"Let them sing another Psalm," said the curate.
"They have, sir," replied the clerk.
"Then let them sing the 119th," replied the curate.
At last he finished his pipe, and began to put on the black gown, but
its folds were troublesome, and he could not get it on.
"I think the devil's in the gown," muttered the curate.
"I think he be," dryly replied old Joshua.
That the clerk was often a person of dignity and importance is shown by
the recollections of an old parishioner of the rector of Fornham All
Saints, near Bury St. Edmunds. "Mr. Baker, the clerk," of Westley, who
flourished seventy years ago, used to hear the children their catechism
in church on Sunday afternoons. "Ah, sir, I often think of what he told
us, that the world would not come to an end till people were killed
_wholesale_, and now think how often that happens!" She was probably not
alluding to the South African or the Japanese war, but to railway
accidents, as she at once told her favourite story of her solitary
journey to Newmarket, when on her return she remarked, "If I live to set
foot on firm ground, never no more for me."
The old clerk used to escort the boys and girls to their confirmation at
Bury, and superintended their meal of bread, beer, and cheese after the
rite. There was no music at Westley, except when Mr. Humm, the clerk of
Fornham, "brought up his fiddle and some of the Fornham girls."
Nowadays, adds the rector, the Rev. C.L. Feltoe, the clerks are much
more illiterate than their predecessors, and, unlike them,
Another East Anglian clerk was a quaint character, who had a great
respect for all the old familiar residents in his town of S----, and a
corresponding contempt for all new-comers. The family of my informant
had resided there for nearly a century, and had, therefore, the approval
of the clerk. On one occasion some of the family found their seat
occupied by some new people who had recently settled in the town. The
clerk rushed up, and in a loud voice, audible all over the church,
"Never you mind that air muck in your pew. I'll soon turn 'em out. The
imperent muck, takin' your seats!"
The family insisted upon "the muck" being left in peace, and forbade the
The old clerk used vigorously a long stick to keep the school children
in order. He was much respected, and his death universally regretted.
Fifty years ago there was a dear, good old clerk, named Bamford, at
Mangotsfield Church, who used to give out the hymns, verse by verse. The
vicar always impressed upon him to read out the words in a loud voice,
and at the last word in each verse to pitch his voice. The hymn, "This
world's a dream," was rendered in this fashion:
"This world's a _drame_, an empty shoe,
But this bright world to which I goo
Hath jaays substantial an' sincere,
When shall I wack and find me THEER?"
William Smart, the parish clerk of Windermere in the sixties, was a rare
specimen. By trade an auctioneer and purveyor of Westmorland hams, he
was known all round the countryside. He was very patronising to the
assistant curates, and a favourite expression of his was "me and my
curate." When one of his curates first took a wedding he was commanded
by the clerk, "When you get to 'hold his peace,' do you stop, for I have
something to say." The curate was obedient, and stopped at the end of
his prescribed words, when William shouted out, "God speed them well!"
This unauthorised but excellent clerkly custom was not confined to
Windermere, but was common in several Norfolk churches, and at Hope
Church, Derbyshire, the clerk used to express the good wish after the
publication of the banns.
The old-fashioned clerk was usually much impressed by the importance of
his office. Crowhurst, the old clerk at Allington, Kent, in 1852, just
before a wedding took place, marched up to the rector, the Rev. E.B.
Heawood, and said:
"If you please, sir, the ceremony can't proceed."
"Why not? What do you mean?" asked the surprised rector.
"The marriage can't take place, sir," he answered solemnly, "'cos I've
lost my specs."
Fortunately a pupil of the rector's came forward and confessed that he
had hidden the old man's spectacles in a hole in the wall, and the
ceremony was no longer delayed.
At Bromley College the same clergyman had a curious experience, when the
clerk was called to assist at a service for the Churching of Women. As
it was very unusually performed there, he was totally at a loss what
service to find, and asked in great perturbation:
"Please, sir, be I to read the responses in the services for the Queen's
The same service sadly puzzled the clerk at Haddington, who was in the
employment of the then Earl of W----. One Sunday Lady W---- came to be
churched, when in response to the clergyman's prayer, "O Lord, save this
woman, Thy servant," the clerk said, "Who putteth her ladyship's
trust in Thee."
The Rev. W.H. Langhorne tells me some amusing anecdotes of old clerks.
Once he was preaching in a village church for home missions, and just as
he was reaching the pulpit he observed that the clerk was preparing to
take round the plate. He whispered to him to wait till he had finished
his sermon. "It won't make a ha'porth o' difference," was the
encouraging reply. But at the close of the sermon there was another
invitation to give additional offerings, which were not withheld.
In the old days when _Bell's Life_ was the chief sporting paper, a
hunting parson was taking the service one Sunday morning and gave out
the day of the month and the Psalm. The clerk corrected him, but the
rector again gave out the same day and was again corrected. The rector,
in order to decide the controversy, produced a copy of _Bell's Life_ and
handed it to the clerk, who then submitted. It is not often, I imagine,
that a sporting paper has been appealed to for the purpose of deciding
what Psalms should be read in church.
One very wet Sunday Mr. Langhorne was summoned to take an afternoon
service several miles distant from his residence. The congregation
consisted of only half a dozen people. After service he said to the
clerk that it was hardly worth while coming so far. "We might have done
with a worse 'un," was his reply.
That reminds me of another clerk who apologised to a church dignitary
who had been summoned to take a service at a small country church. The
form of the apology was not quite happily expressed. He said, "I am
sorry, sir, to have brought such a gentleman as you to this poor place.
A worse would have done, if we had only known where to find him!"
The new vicar of D---- was calling upon an old parishioner, who said to
him: "Ah! I've seen mony changes. I've seen four vicars of D----. First
there was Canon G----, then there was Mr. T----, who's now a bishop, and
then Mr. F---- came, and now you've coom, and we've wossened (worsened)
A clerk named Turner, who officiated at Alnwick, was a great character,
and in spite of his odd ways was esteemed for his genuine worth and
fidelity to the three vicars under whom he served. He looked upon the
church and parish as his own, and used to say that he had trained many
"kewrats" in their duties. His responses in the Psalms were often
startling. Instead of "The Lord setteth up the meek," he would say,
"The Lord sitteth upon the meek." "The great leviathan" he rendered "the
great live thing." "Caterpillars innumerable" he pronounced
"caterpilliars innumerabble." When a funeral was late he scolded the
bearers at the churchyard gate.
At Wimborne Minster, Dorset, there used to be three priest vicars, and
each of them had a clerk. It was the custom for each of the priest
vicars to take the services for a week in rotation, and the first lesson
was always read by "the clerk of the week," as he was called. On
Sundays, when there was a celebration of the Holy Communion, the "clerk
of the week" advanced to the lectern after the sermon was finished, and
said, "All who wish to receive the Holy Communion, draw near." These
words, in the case of one worthy, named David Butler, were always spoken
in a high-pitched, drawling voice, and finished off with a kick to the
rearwards of the right leg.
The old clerk at Woodmancote, near Henfield, Sussex, was a very
important person. There was never any committee meeting but he attended.
So much so, that one day in church leading the singing and music with
voice and flute, when it came to the "Gloria" he sang loudly, "As it was
in the committee meeting, is now, and ever shall be ..."
An acquaintance remarked to him afterwards that the last meeting he
attended must have been a rather long one!
A story is told of the clerk at West Dean, near Alfriston, Sussex.
Starting the first line of the Psalm or hymn, he found that he could not
see owing to the failing light on a dark wintry afternoon. So he said,
"My eyes are dim, I canna see," at which the congregation, composed of
ignorant labourers, sang after him the _same_ words. The clerk was
wroth, and cried out, "Tarnation fools you all must be." Here again the
congregation sang the same words after the clerk.
Strange times, strange manners!
A writer in the _Spectator_ tells of a clerk who, like many of his
fellows, used to convert "leviathan" into "that girt livin' thing," thus
letting loose before his hearers' imagination a whole travelling
menagerie, from which each could select the beast which most struck his
fancy. This clerk was a picturesque personality, although, unlike his
predecessor, he had discarded top-boots and cords for Sunday wear in
favour of black broadcloth. When not engaged in marrying or burying one
of his flock, he fetched and carried for the neighbours from the
adjacent country town, or sold herrings and oranges (what mysterious
affinity is there between these two dissimilar edibles that they are
invariably hawked in company?) from door to door. During harvest he rang
the morning "leazing bell" to start the gleaners to the fields, and
every night he tolled the curfew, by which the villagers set their
clocks. He it was who, when the sermon was ended, strode with dignity
from his box on the "lower deck" down the aisle to the belfry, and
pulled the "dishing-up bell" to let home-keeping mothers know that
hungry husbands and sons were set free. Folks in those days were less
easily fatigued than they are now. Services were longer, the preacher's
"leanings to mercy" were less marked, and congregations counted
themselves ill-used if they broke up under the two hours. The boys stood
in wholesome awe of the clerk, as well they might, for his eye was keen
and his stick far-reaching. Moreover, no fear of man prevented him from
applying the latter with effect to the heads of slumberers during divine
service. By way of retaliation the youths, when opportunity occurred,
would tie the cord of the "tinkler" to the weathercock, and the parish
on a stormy night would be startled by the sound of ghostly, fitful
ting-tangs. To Sunday blows the clerk, who was afflicted with
rheumatism, added weekday anathemas as he climbed the steep ascent to
the bell-chamber and the yet steeper ladder that gave access to the
leads of the tower. The perpetual hostility that reigned between
discipliner and disciplined bred no ill will on either side. "Boys must
be boys" and "He's paid for lookin' arter things" were the arguments
whereby the antagonists testified their mutual respect, in both of which
the parents concurred; and his severity did not cost the old man a penny
when he made his Easter rounds to collect the "sweepings." It may,
perhaps, be well to explain that the "sweepings" consisted of an annual
sum of threepence which every householder contributed towards the
cleaning of the church, and which represented a large part of the
[Footnote 84: _Spectator_, 14 October, 1905.]
The Rev. C.C. Prichard recollects a curious old character at Churchdown,
near Gloucester, commonly pronounced "Chosen" in those days.
This old clerk was only absent one Sunday from "Chosen" Church, and then
he was lent to the neighbouring church of Leckhampton. Instead of the
response "And make Thy chosen people joyful," mindful of his change of
locality he gave out with a strong nasal twang, "And make Thy
Leck'ampton people joyful." The Psalms were somewhat a trouble to him,
and to the congregation too. One verse he rendered "Like a paycock in a
wild-dook's nest, and a howl in the dessert, even so be I." He was a
thoroughly good old man, and brought up a large family very respectably.
I remember the old clerk, James Ingham, of Whalley Church, Lancashire.
It is a grand old church, full of old dark oak square pews, and the
clerk was in keeping with his surroundings. He was a humorous character,
and had a splendid deep bass voice. He used to show people over the
ruined abbey, and his imagination supplied the place of accurate
historical information. Some American visitors asked him what a certain
path was used for. "Well, marm," said James, "it's onsartin: but they do
say the monks and nuns used to walk up and down this 'ere path,
arm-in-arm, of a summer arternoon."
It is recorded of one Thomas Atkins, clerk of Chillenden Church, Kent,
that he used to leave his reading-desk at the commencement of the
General Thanksgiving and proceed to the west gallery, where he gave out
the hymn and sang a duet with the village cobbler, in which the
congregation joined as best they could. He walked very slowly down the
church, and said the Amen at the end of the Thanksgiving wherever he
happened to be, and that was generally half-way up the gallery stairs,
whence his feeble voice, with a good _tremolo_, used to sound like the
distant baaing of a sheep. It was a strange and curious performance.
Miss Rawnsley, of Raithby Hall, Spilsby, gives some delightful
reminiscences of a most original specimen of the race of clerks, old
Haw, who officiated at Halton Holgate, Lincolnshire. He was a curious
mixture of worldly wisdom and strong religious feeling. The former was
exemplified by his greeting to a cousin of my correspondent, just
returned from his ordination.
He said, "Now, Mr. Hardwick, remember thou must creep an' crawl along
the 'edge bottoms, and then tha'ill make thee a bishop."
He was a strong advocate of Fasting Communion. No one ever knew whence
he derived his strong views on the subject. The rector never taught it.
Probably his ideas were derived from some long lingering tradition. When
over seventy years of age he set out fasting to walk six miles to attend
a late celebration at a distant church on the occasion of its
consecration. Nothing would ever induce him to break his fast before
communicating; and on this occasion he was picked up in a dead faint,
his journey being only half completed.
On Wednesdays and Fridays he always went into the church at eleven
o'clock and said the Litany aloud. When asked his reason, he said, "I've
gotten an ungodly wife and two ungodly bairns to pray for, sir." He once
asked one of the rector's daughters to help him in the _Parody_ of the
Psalms he was making; and on another occasion requested to have the old
altar-cloth, which had just been replaced by a new one, "to make a slop
to dig the graves in, and no sacrilege neither."
At Sutton Maddock, Shropshire, there was a clerk who used to read
"_Pe_-li-_can_ in the wilderness," and the usual "_Howl_ in the
_De_sart," and "Teach the _Se_nators wisdom," and when the Litany was
said on Wednesdays and Fridays declared that it was not in his Prayer
Book though he took part in it every Sunday. When a kind lady, Miss
Barnfield, expressed a wish that his wife would get better, he replied,
"I hope her will or _summat_."
At Claverley, in the same county, on one Sunday, the rector told the
clerk to give notice that there would be no service that afternoon,
adding _sotto voce_, "I am going to dine at the Paper Mill." He was
rather disgusted when the clerk announced, "There will be no Diving
Service this arternoon, the Parson is going to dine at the Peaper Mill."
The clerk was no respecter of persons, and once marched up to the
rector's wife in church and told her to keep her eyes from
The Rev. F.A. Davis tells me of a story of an illiterate clerk who
served in a Wiltshire church, where a cousin of my informant was vicar.
A London clergyman, who had never preached or been in a country church
before, came to take the duty. He was anxious to find out if the people
listened or understood sermons. His Sunday morning discourse was based
on the text St. Mark v. 1-17, containing the account of the healing of
the demoniacally possessed persons at Gadara, and the destruction of the
herd of swine. On the Monday he asked the clerk if he understood the
sermon. The clerk replied somewhat doubtfully, "Yes." "But is there
anything you do not quite understand?" said the clergyman; "I shall be
only too glad to explain anything I can, so as to help you." After a
good deal of scratching the back of his head and much hesitating, the
clerk replied, "Who paid for them pigs?"
[Illustration: WILLIAM HINTON, A WILTSHIRE WORTHY DRAWN BY THE REV.
JULIAN CHARLES YOUNG]
Many examples I have given of the dry humour of old clerks, which is
sometimes rather disconcerting. A stranger was taking the duty in a
church, and after service made a few remarks about the weather,
asserting that it promised to be a fine day for the haymaking to-morrow.
"Ah, sir," replied the clerk, "they do say that the hypocrites can
discern the face of the sky."
The Rev. Julian Charles Young, rector of Ilmington, in his _Memoir of
Charles Mayne Young, Tragedian_, published in 1871, speaks of the race
of parish clerks who flourished in Wiltshire in the first half of the
last century. Instead of a nice discrimination being exercised in the
choice of a clerk, it seems to have been the rule to select the sorriest
driveller that could be found--some "lean and slippered pantaloon, with
spectacles on nose and pouch at side,"
"triumphant over time,
And over tune, and over rhyme"--
who by his snivelling enunciation of the responses and his nasal
drawlings of the A--mens, was sure to provoke the risibility of his
hearers. Mr. Young's own clerk was, however, a very worthy man, of such
lofty aspirations and of such blameless purity of life, that in making
him Nature made the very ideal of a village clerk and schoolmaster, and
then "broke the mould." His grave yet kindly countenance, his
well-proportioned limbs encased in breeches and gaiters of corded
kerseymere, and the natural dignity of his carriage, combined "to give
the world assurance of" a bishop rather than a clerk. It needed
familiarity with his inner life to know how much simpleness of purpose
and simplicity of mind and contentment and piety lay hid under a pompous
exterior and a phraseology somewhat stilted.
His name was William Hinton, and he dwelt in a small whitewashed cottage
which, by virtue of his situation as schoolmaster, he enjoyed rent free.
It stood in the heart of a small but well-stocked kitchen garden. His
salary was L40 per annum, and on this, with perhaps L5 a year more
derived from church fees, he brought up five children in the greatest
respectability, all of whom did well in life. They regarded their
father with absolute veneration. By the side of the labourer who only
knew what he had taught him, or of the farmer who knew less, he was a
giant among pygmies--a Triton among minnows.
When Mr. Young went to the village, with the exception of a Bible, a
Prayer Book, a random tract or two, and a _Moore's Almanac_, there was
scarcely a book to be found in it. The rector kindly allowed his clerk
the run of his well-stocked library. Hinton devoured the books greedily.
So receptive and imitative was his intellect that his conversation, his
deportment, even his spirit, became imbued with the individuality of the
author whose writings he had been studying. After reading Dr. Johnson's
works his conversation became sententious and dogmatic. _Lord
Chesterfield's Letters_ produced an airiness and jauntiness that were
quite foreign to his nature. His favourite authors were Jeremy Taylor,
Bacon, and Milton. After many months reverential communion with these
Goliaths of literature he became pensive and contemplative, and his
manner more chastened and severe. The secluded village in which he dwelt
had been his birthplace, and there he remained to the day of his death.
He knew nothing of the outer world, and the rector found his intercourse
with a man so original, fresh, and untainted a real pleasure. He was
physically timid, and the account of a voyage across the Channel or a
journey by coach filled him with dread. One day he said to Mr. Young,
"Am I, reverend sir, to understand that you voluntarily trust your
perishable body to the outside of a vehicle, of the soundness of which
you know nothing, and suffer yourself to be drawn to and fro by four
strange animals, of whose temper you are ignorant, and are willing to
be driven by a coachman of whose capacity and sobriety you are
uninformed?" On being assured that such was the case, he concluded that
"the love of risk and adventure must be a very widely-spread instinct,
seeing that so many people are ready to expose themselves to such
fearful casualties." He was grateful to think that he had never been
exposed to such terrific hazards. What the worthy clerk would have said
concerning the risks of motoring somewhat baffles imagination.
When just before the opening of the Great Western Railway line the
Company ran a coach through the village from Bath to Swindon, the clerk
witnessed with his own eyes the dangers of travelling. The school
children were marshalled in line to welcome the coach, bouquets of
laurestina and chrysanthema were ready to be bestowed on the passengers,
the church bells rang gaily, when after long waiting the cheery notes of
the key-bugle sounded the familiar strains of "Sodger Laddie," and the
steaming steeds hove in sight, an accident occurred. At a sharp turn
just opposite the clerk's house the swaying coach overturned, and the
outside passengers were thrown into the midst of his much-prized
ash-leaf kidneys. The clerk fled precipitately to the extreme borders of
his domain, and afterwards said to the rector, "Ah, sir, was I right in
saying I would never enter such a dangerous carriage as a four-horse
coach? I assure you I was not the least surprised. It was just what I
When the first railway train passed through the village he was
overwhelmed with emotion at the sight. He fell prostrate on the bank as
if struck by a thunder-bolt. When he stood up his brain reeled, he was
speechless, and stood aghast, unutterable amazement stamped upon his
face. In the tone of a Jeremiah he at length gasped out, "Well, sir,
what a sight to have seen: but one I never care to see again! How awful!
I tremble to think of it! I don't know what to compare it to, unless it
be to a messenger despatched from the infernal regions with a commission
to spread desolation and destruction over the fair land. How much longer
shall knowledge be allowed to go on increasing?"
The rector taught the clerk how to play chess, to which game he took
eagerly, and taught it to the village youths. They played it on
half-holidays in winter and became engrossed in it, manufacturing
chess-boards out of old book-covers and carving very creditable chessmen
out of bits of wood. When he was playing with his rector one evening he
lost his queen and at once resigned, saying, "I consider, reverend sir,
that chess without a queen is like life without a female."
Hinton knew not a word of Latin, but he had a pedantic pleasure in
introducing it whenever he could. Genders were ever a mystery to him,
though with the help of a dictionary he would often substitute a Latin
for an English word. Thus he used the signatures "Gulielmus
Hintoniensis, Rusticus Sacrista," and when writing to Mrs. Young he
always addressed her as "Charus Domina." On this lady's return after a
long absence, the clerk wrote in large letters, "Gratus, gratus,
optatus," and dated his greeting, "Martius quinta, 1842." A funeral
notice was usually sent in doggerel.
The following letter was sent to the rector's unmarried sister:
"_Januarius Prima_, 1840.
"That the humble Sacrista should be still retained on the tablets of
your memory is an unexpected pleasure. Your gift, as a criterion of your
esteem, will be often looked at with delight, and be carefully
preserved, as a memorial of your friendship; and for which I beg to
return my sincere thanks. May the meridian sunshine of happiness
brighten your days through the voyage of life; and may your soul be
borne on the wings of seraphic angels to the realms of bliss eternal in
the world to come is the sincere wish and fervent prayer of Charus
Domina, your most obedient, most respectful, most obliged servant,
"A gift from the virtuous, the fair, and the good,
From the affluent to the humble and low,
Is a favour so great, so obliging and kind,
To acknowledge I scarcely know how.
I fain would express the sensations I feel,
By imploring the blessing of Heaven
May be showered on the lovely, the amiable maid,
Who this gift to Sacrista has given.
May the choicest of husbands, the best of his kind,
Be hers by the appointment of Heaven!
And may sweet smiling infants as pledges of love
To crown her connubium be given."
The following is a characteristic note of this worthy clerk, which
differs somewhat from the notices usually sent to vicars as reminders of
"I hope it has not escaped your memory that the young couple at Clack
are hoping to offer incense at the shrine of Venus this morning at the
hour of ten. I anticipate the bridegrooms's anxiety.
He was somewhat curious on the subject of fashionable ladies' dresses,
and once asked the rector "in what guise feminine respectability usually
appeared at an evening party?" When a low dress was described to him, he
blushed and shivered and exclaimed, "Then methinks, sir, there must be
revelations of much which modesty would gladly veil." He was terribly
overcome on one occasion when he met in the rector's drawing-room one
evening some ladies who were attired, as any other gentlewomen would be,
in low gowns.
William Hinton was, in spite of his air of importance and his inflated
phraseology, a simple, single-minded, humble soul. When the rector
visited him on his death-bed, he greeted Mr. Young with as much serenity
of manner as if he had been only going on a journey to a far country for
which he had long been preparing. "Well, reverend and dear sir. Here we
are, you see! come to the nightcap scene at last! Doubtless you can
discern that I am dying. I am not afraid to die. I wish your prayers....
I say I am not afraid to die, and you know why. Because I know in whom I
have believed; and I am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I
have committed unto Him against that day." A little later he said,
"Thanks, reverend sir! Thanks for much goodwill! Thanks for much happy
intercourse! For nearly seven years we have been friends here. I trust
we shall be still better friends hereafter. I shall not see you again on
this side Jordan. I fear not to cross over. Good-bye. My Joshua beckons
me. The Promised Land is in sight."
This worthy and much-mourned clerk was buried on 5 July, 1843.
THE CLERK AND THE LAW
The parish clerk is so important a person that divers laws have been
framed relating to his office. His appointment, his rights, his
dismissal are so closely regulated by law that incumbents and
churchwardens have to be very careful lest they in any way transgress
the legal enactments and judgments of the courts. It is not an easy
matter to dismiss an undesirable clerk: it is almost as difficult as to
disturb the parson's freehold; and unless the clerk be found guilty of
grievous faults, he may laugh to scorn the malice of his enemies and
retain his office while life lasts.
It may be useful, therefore, to devote a chapter to the laws relating to
parish clerks--a chapter which some of my readers who have no liking for
legal technicalities can well afford to skip.
As regards his qualifications the clerk must be at least twenty years of
age, and known to the parson as a man of honest conversation, and
sufficient for his reading, writing, and for his competent skill in
singing, "if it may be." The visitation articles of the seventeenth
century frequently inquire whether the clerk be of the age of twenty
years at least.
[Footnote 85: Canon 91 (1603).]
The method of his appointment has caused much disputing. With whom does
the appointment rest? In former times the parish clerk was always
nominated by the incumbent both by common law and the custom of the
realm. This is borne out by the constitution of Archbishop Boniface and
the 91st Canon, which states that "No parish clerk upon any vacation
shall be chosen within the city of London or elsewhere, but by the
parson or vicar: or where there is no parson or vicar, by the minister
of that place for the time being; which choice shall be signified by the
said minister, vicar or parson, to the parishioners the next Sunday
following, in the time of Divine Service."
But this arrangement has often been the subject of dispute between the
parson and his flock as to the right of the former to appoint the clerk.
In pre-Reformation times there was a diversity of practice, some
parishioners claiming the right to elect the clerk, as they provided the
offerings by which he lived. A terrible scene occurred in the fourteenth
century at one church. The parishioners appointed a clerk, and the
rector selected another. The rector was celebrating Mass, assisted by
his clerk, when the people's candidate approached the altar and nearly
murdered his rival, so that blood was shed in the sanctuary.
Custom in many churches sanctioned the right of the parishioners, who
sometimes neglected to exercise it, and the choice of clerk was left to
the vicar. The visitations in the time of Elizabeth show that the people
were expected to appoint to the office, but the episcopal inquiries also
demonstrate that the parson or vicar could exercise a veto, and that no
one could be chosen without his goodwill and consent.
The canon of 1603 was an attempt to change this variety of usage, but
such is the force of custom that many decisions of the spiritual courts
have been against the canon and in favour of accustomed usage when such
could be proved. It was so in the case of _Cundict_ v. _Plomer_ (8 Jac.
I), and in _Jermyn's Case_ (21 Jac. I).
[Footnote 86: _Ecclesiastical Law_, Sir R. Phillimore, p. 1901.]
At the present time such disputes with regard to the appointment of
clerks are unlikely to arise. They are usually elected to their office
by the vestry, and the person recommended by the vicar is generally
appointed. Indeed, by the Act 7 & 8 Victoria, c. 49, "for better
regulating the office of Lecturers and Parish Clerks," it is provided
that when the appointment is by others than the parson, it is to be
subject to the approval of the parson. Owing to the difficulty of
dismissing a clerk, to which I shall presently refer, it is not unusual
to appoint a gentleman or farmer to the office, and to nominate a deputy
to discharge the actual duties. If we may look forward to a revival of
the office and to a restoration of its ancient dignity and importance,
it might be possible for the more highly educated man to perform the
chief functions, the reading the lessons and epistle, serving at the
altar, and other like duties, while his deputy could perform the more
menial functions, opening the church, ringing the bell, digging graves,
if there be no sexton, and the like.
It is not absolutely necessary that the clerk, after having been chosen
and appointed, should be licensed by the ordinary, but this is not
unusual; and when licensed he is sworn to obey the incumbent of the
[Footnote 87: _Ibid._, 1902.]
We have recorded some of the perquisites, fees and wages, which the
clerk of ancient times was accustomed to receive when he had been duly
appointed. No longer does he receive accustomed alms by reason of his
office of _aquaebajalus_. No longer does he derive profit from bearing
the holy loaf; and the cakes and eggs at Easter, and certain sheaves at
harvest-tide, are perquisites of the past.
The following were the accustomed wages of the clerk at Rempstone in the
[Footnote 88: _The Clerks' Book_, Dr. Wickham Legg, lv.]
"22nd November, 1629.
"The wages of the Clarke of the Parish Church of Rempstone.
At Easter yearely he is to have of every Husbandman one
pennie for every yard land he hath in occupation. And of
every Cottager two pence.
"Furthermore he is to have for every yard land one peche of
Barley of the Husbandman yearely.
"Egges at Easter by Courtesie.
"For every marriage two pence. And at the churching of a
woman his dinner.
"The said Barley is to be payed between Christmasse and the
Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary."
Clerk's Ales have vanished, too, together with the cakes and eggs, but
his fees remain, and marriage bells and funeral knells, christenings and
churchings bring to him the accustomed dues and offerings. Tables of
Fees hang in most churches. It is important to have them in order that
no dispute may arise. The following table appears in the parish books of
Salehurst, Sussex, and is curious and interesting:
"April 18, 1597.
"Memorandum that the duties for Churchinge of women in the
parishe of Salehurst is unto the minister ix d. b. and unto
the Clarke ij d.
"Item the due unto the minister for a marriadge is xxj d.
And unto the Clarke ij d. the Banes, and iiij d. the
"Item due for burialls as followeth
To the Minister in the Chancell . . xiii s. iiij d.
To the Clarke in the Chancell . . vi s. viiij d.
To the Parish in the Church . . . vi s. viii d.
To the Clarke in the Church . . . v s. o d.
To the Clarke in the churchyard for great
coffins . . . . . . . ii s. vi d.
For great Corses uncoffined . . . ii s. o d.
For Chrisomers and such like coffined . i s. iiii d.
And uncoffined . . . . . xij d.
For tolling the passing bell and houre . i s.
For ringing the sermon bell an houre . i s. 0 d.
To the Clarke for carrying the beere . iiij d.
If it be fetched . . . . . ij d.
"Item for funerals the Minister is to have the mourning
pullpit Cloth and the Clarke the herst Cloth.
"Item the Minister hathe ever chosen the parishe Clarke and
one of the Churchwardens and bothe the Sydemen.
"Item if they bring a beere or poles with the corps the
Clarke is to have them.
"If any Corps goe out of the parish they are to pay double
dutyes and to have leave.
"If any Corps come out of another parish to be buryed here,
they are to pay double dutyes besides breakinge the ground;
which is xiij s. 4 d. in the church, and vi s. viii d. in the
"For marryage by licence double fees both to the Minister and
[Footnote 89: _Sussex Archaeological Collections_, 1873, vol. xxv. p.
In addition to the fees to which the clerk is entitled by
long-established custom, he receives wages, which he can recover by law
if he be unjustly deprived of them. Churchwardens who in the old days
neglected to levy a church rate in order to pay the expenses of the
parish and the salary of the clerk, have been compelled by law to do so,
in order to satisfy the clerk's claims.
The wages which he received varied considerably. The churchwardens'
accounts reveal the amounts paid the holders of the office at different
periods. At St. Mary's, Reading, there are the items in 1557:
"Imprimis the Rent of the Clerke's
howse . . . . . . vi s. viii d."
"Paid to Marshall (the clerk) for parcell of
his wages that he was unpaide . . v s."
In 1561 the clerk's wages were 40 s., in 1586 only 20 s. At St. Giles's,
Reading, in 1520, he received 26 s. 8 d., as the following entry shows:
"Paid to Harry Water Clerk for his
wage for a yere ended at thannacon
(the Annunciation) of Our Lady. xxvi s. viii."
The clerk at St. Lawrence, Reading, received 20 s. for his services in
1547. Owing to the decrease in the value of money the wages gradually
rose in town churches, but in the eighteenth century in many country
places 10 s. was deemed sufficient. The sum of L10 is not an unusual
wage at the present time for a village clerk.
The dismissal of a parish clerk was a somewhat difficult and dangerous
task. In the eyes of the law he is no menial servant--no labourer who
can be discharged if he fail to please his master. The law regards him
as an officer for life, and one who has a freehold in his place. Sixty
years ago no ecclesiastical court could deprive him of his office, but
he could be censured for his faults and misdemeanours, though not
discharged. Several cases have appeared in the law courts which have
decided that as long as a clerk behaves himself well, he has a good
right and title to continue in his office. Thus in _Rex_ v. _Erasmus
Warren_ (16 Geo. III) it was shown that the clerk became bankrupt, had
been guilty of many omissions in his office, was actually in prison at
the time of his amoval, and had appointed a deputy who was totally unfit
for the office. Against which it was insisted that the office of parish
clerk was a temporal office during life, that the parson could not
remove him, and that he had a right to appoint a deputy. One of the
judges stated that though the minister might have power of removing the
clerk on a good and sufficient cause, he could never be the sole judge
and remove him at pleasure, without being subject to the control of the
court. No misbehaviour of consequence was proved against him, and the
clerk was restored to his office.
In a more recent case the clerk had conducted himself on several
occasions by designedly irreverent and ridiculous behaviour in his
performance of his duty. He had appeared in church drunk, and had
indecently disturbed the congregation during the administration of Holy
Communion. He had been repeatedly reproved by the vicar, and finally
removed from his office. But the court decided that because the clerk
had not been summoned to answer for his conduct before his removal, a
mandamus should be issued for his restoration to his office.
[Footnote 90: _Ecclesiastical Law_, Sir R. Phillimore, p. 1907.]
No deputy clerk when removed can claim to be restored. It will be
gathered, therefore, that an incumbent is compelled by law to restore a
clerk removed by him without just cause, that the justice of the cause
is not determined in the law courts by an _ex-parte_ statement of the
incumbent, and that an accused clerk must have an opportunity of
answering the charges made against him. If a man performs the duties of
the office for one year he gains a settlement, and cannot afterwards be
removed without just cause.
An important Act was passed in 1844, to which I have already referred,
for the better regulating the office of lecturers and parish clerks.
Sections 5 and 6 of this Act bear directly on the method of removal of a
clerk who may be guilty of neglect or misbehaviour. I will endeavour to
divest the wording of the Act from legal technicalities, and write it in
If a complaint is made to the archdeacon, or other ordinary, with regard
to the misconduct of a clerk, stating that he is an unfit and improper
person to hold that office, the archdeacon may summon the clerk and call
witnesses who shall be able to give evidence or information with regard
to the charges made. He can examine these witnesses upon oath, and hear
and determine the truth of the accusations which have been made against
the clerk. If he should find these charges proved he may suspend or
remove the offender from his office, and give a certificate under his
hand and seal to the incumbent, declaring the office vacant, which
certificate should be affixed to the door of the church. Then another
person may be elected or appointed to the vacant office: "Provided
always, that the exercise of such office by a sufficient deputy who
shall duly and faithfully perform the duties thereof, and in all
respects well and properly demean himself, shall not be deemed a wilful
neglect of his office on the part of such church clerk, chapel clerk, or
parish clerk, so as to render him liable, for such cause alone, to be
suspended or removed therefrom."
A special section of the Act deals with such possessions as clerks'
houses, buildings, lands or premises, held by a clerk by virtue of his
office. If, when deprived of his office, he should refuse to give up
such buildings or possessions, the matter must be brought before the
bishop of the diocese, who shall summon the clerk to appear before him.
If he fail to appear, or if the bishop should decide against him, the
bishop shall grant a certificate of the facts to the person or persons
entitled to the possession of the land or premises, who may thereupon go
before a justice of the peace. The magistrate shall then issue his
warrant to the constables to expel the clerk from the premises, and to
hand them over to the rightful owners, the cost of executing the warrant
being levied upon the goods and chattels of the expelled clerk. If this
cost should be disputed, it shall be determined by the magistrate.
Happily few cases arise, but perhaps it is well to know the procedure
which the law lays down for the carrying out of such troublesome
The law also takes cognizance of the humbler office of sexton, the
duties of which are usually combined in country places with those of the
parish clerk. The sexton is, of course, the sacristan, the keeper of the
holy things relating to divine worship, and seems to correspond with the
_ostarius_ in the Roman Church. His duties consist in the care of the
church, the vestments and vessels, in keeping the church clean, in
ringing the bells, in opening and closing the doors for divine service,
and to these the task of digging graves and the care of the churchyard
are also added. He is appointed by the churchwardens if his duties be
confined to the church, but if he is employed in the churchyard the
appointment is vested in the rector. If his duties embrace the care of
both church and churchyard, he should be appointed by the churchwardens
and incumbent jointly.
[Footnote 91: _Ecclesiastical Law_, p. 1914.]
Many cases have come before the law courts relating to sextons and their
election and appointment. He does not usually hold the same fixity of
tenure as the parish clerk, he being a servant of the parish rather than
an officer or one that has a freehold in his place; but in some cases a
sexton has determined his right to hold the office for life, and gained
a mandamus from the court to be restored to his position after having
been removed by the churchwardens.
The law has also decided that women may be appointed sextons.
RECOLLECTIONS OF OLD CLERKS AND THEIR WAYS
Personal recollections of the manners and curious ways of old village
clerks are valuable, and several writers have kindly favoured me with
the descriptions of these quaint personages, who were well known to them
in the days of their youth.
The clerk of a Midland village was an old man who combined with his
sacred functions the secular calling of the keeper of the village inn.
He was very deaf, and consequently spoke in a loud, harsh voice, and
scraps of conversation which were heard in the squire's high square box
pew occasioned much amusement among the squire's sons. The Rev. W.V.
Vickers records the following incidents:
It was "Sacrament Sunday," and part of the clerk's duty was to prepare
the Elements in the vestry, which was under the western tower.
Apparently the wine was not forthcoming when wanted, and we heard the
following stage-aside in broad Staffordshire: "Weir's the bottle? Oh!
'ere it is, under the teeble (table) all the whoile."
Another part of his duty was to sing in the choir, for which purpose he
used to leave the lower deck of the three-decker and hobble with his
heavy oak stick to the chancel for the canticles and hymns, and having
swelled the volume of praise, hobble back again, a pause being made for
his journey both to and fro. Not only did he sing in the choir but he
gave out the hymns. This he did in a peculiar sing-song voice with
up-and-down cadences: "Let us sing (low) to the praise (high) and glory
(low) of God (high) the hundredth (low) psalm (high)." Very much the
same intonation accompanied his reading of the alternate verses of
On one occasion a locum tenens, who officiated for a few weeks, was
_stone_ deaf. Hence a difficulty arose in his knowing when our worthy,
and the congregation, had finished each response or verse. This the
clerk got over by keeping one hand well forward upon his book and
raising the fingers as he came to the close. This was the signal to the
deaf man above him that it was _his_ turn! The old man, by half sitting
upon a table in the belfry, could chime the four bells. It was his
habit, instead of going by his watch, to look out for the first
appearance of my father's carriage (an old-fashioned "britska," I
believe it was called, with yellow body and wheels and large black hood,
and so very conspicuous) at a certain part of the road, and then, and
not till then, commence chiming. It was a compliment to my father's
punctuality; but what happened when, by chance, he failed to attend
church I know not--but such occasions were rare.
[Footnote 92: In olden days it seems to have been the usual practice in
many churches to delay service until the advent of the squire. Every one
knows the old story of how, through some inadvertence, the minister had
not looked out to see that the great man was in his accustomed pew. He
began, "When the wicked man--" The parish clerk tugged him by his coat,
saying, "Please, sir, he hasn't come yet!" As to whether the clergyman
took the hint and waited for "the wicked man" history sayeth not.
Another clerk told a young deacon, who was impatient to begin the
service, "You must wait a bit, sir, we ain't ready." He then clambered
on the Communion table, and peered through the east window, which
commanded a view of the door in the wall of the squire's garden. "Come
down!" shouted the curate. "I can see best where I be," replied the
imperturbable clerk; "I'm watching the garden door. Here she be, and the