Uncle William

E.S. Turner

  • The Passing of Barchester: A Real-Life Version of Trollop by Clive Dewey
    Hambledon, 199 pp, £14.95, April 1991, ISBN 1 85285 039 6

The Duke of Wellington, defending the Lord Chancellor of Ireland for distributing lucrative posts among his family, complained of the ‘senseless outcry against public men for not having overlooked the ties of blood and Nature in dispensing the patronage of office’. Nepotism might offend radicals and the authors of denunciatory Black Books, but it was a fact of public life, and nowhere was the practice more honoured than in the Church of England. Was it really a bad thing? The Passing of Barchester examines in fine focus the case of a 19th-century Dean of Canterbury, William Rowe Lyall, himself childless, who found Church appointments for his younger brother, four nephews and three nephews-in-law. If there was any ‘senseless outcry’ against Dean Lyall on grounds of favouritism the author does not mention it: though there must surely have been occasional mutterings in the ‘Canterbury triangle’ which was the forcing-ground for Lyall’s nominees. In this illuminating and well-written book Clive Dewey’s concern is to explore not merely the workings of nepotism but the operations of Church patronage in general, and to assess its social and political implications. Did the system, as he suggests, preserve the Church of England from disestablishment and disendowment?

When Lyall, the son of a Scots shipowner, went to Canterbury as Dean in 1845, the Church had recovered from the torpor and disgrace in which it had wallowed for much of the preceding century. Its absentee incumbents, like the resentful Sydney Smith, had been called back to parish duty; the worst excesses of pluralism had been abated and simony was no longer profitable. The Army had at last found men who were prepared to perform the duties of chaplains instead of farming out the office to substitutes at a profit. London was no longer infested by unbeneficed young preachers living on their grubby wits. The Morning Post had ceased to be edited by a gang of ‘parsonical banditti’ ever ready to fight duels in Hyde Park. Hunting parsons, shooting parsons and wrestling parsons were becoming figures of the past. To be fervour-free was no longer the prime requirement in an ordinand: what was needed, in the belief of traditionalists, was a sceptical approach to some of the more dangerous ideas in the air, not just those liberated by the French Revolution. Fewer and fewer parsons, even in the depths of the country, believed that the world had begun, in Archbishop Ussher’s calculation, on 23 October, 4004 BC (with Adam and Eve expelled from Eden on 10 November, a Monday morning). Even that reverend professor William Buckland, the Oxford geologist, had ceased to find evidence of Noah’s Flood in the caves of England, and Peel had made him Dean of Westminster. No sooner had Uniformitarianism replaced Diluvianism than Darwinism loomed on the horizon. It was an exciting time to be awarded a cure of souls. For some, the New Learning was an unwelcome distraction from the perennial fight against Roman Catholics and Dissenters.

Dean Lyall believed that at no time since the Reformation had the clergy of the Church of England been so zealous. He was determined that their position and privileges should not be weakened. Without their tithes and glebes the social order would collapse. The rich could ‘do well enough without religion, as far as this world is concerned’, but if the labouring poor ever got the idea that their lot was the work of man and not the will of God, all would be over. That was why every parish in the land had need of a reliable incumbent, a man with his social roots in the establishment.

The Church of England, as Dewey points out, was the country’s biggest employer of university graduates and required ten thousand of them – more than were employed by all the other professions combined. A clerical career, with its reflective opportunities, was still virtually the only one for a scholar and a gentleman; for all its low remuneration – in Lyall’s day ‘the average benefice was only worth £181 a year’ – the clergyman socially outranked the lawyer and the doctor (who might be expected to treat him free). The way into a decent living was closed to all but the most gifted and persistent of the bourgeoisie, or to those with wit and address enough to marry the niece of a childless dean or bishop. There was still a sub-stratum of vilely exploited curates, in the tradition of Crabbe’s no-hoper who toiled over Euripides while ‘four fair daughters and five sorrowing sons’ chased the duns from the door (nobody wanted to marry a curate’s daughter). Lyall, as an examining chaplain to the Bishop of London, had tried to improve the intake of ordinands, setting written papers, conducting interviews and taking up references. These excellent precautions were unnecessary, presumably, when recruiting from his own kith and kin. The patron’s personal knowledge of an applicant was claimed as one of the advantages of a nepotistical system.

The author is a little puzzled, as the reader may well be, to know why so many Lyall dependents looked to ‘Uncle William’ for a career. As a dispenser of life’s prizes William hardly compared with his elder brother George, who was chairman of the East India Company and a Member of Parliament for the City of London, and who could steer a man towards a governorship of a province worth as much as many a bishopric. Lyall’s clients seem not to have entered holy orders from any overwhelming desire to save souls, or to keep the labouring poor from discovering the truth: rather were they interested in social position and tenure. There are some odd figures among them. The Dean’s younger brother, Alfred, who as a young man had teased the flirtatious nuns of Madeira, became a ‘conscientious but uninspiring’ parson, a scholar who wrote un-readable metaphysical works like A Review of the Principles of Necessary and Contingent Truth and edited the Annual Register. William Hearle Lyall dabbled in ritualism, then, when the Bishop of London decided to pull down his fine Baroque church with a view to selling off the site, defected in dudgeon to Rome. Francis Holland, preacher at a fashionable proprietary chapel off Mayfair, succeeded admirably in capturing the rich for religion and was put on the list of royal chaplains. Thomas Darling struggled manfully as a curate in the evil rookery of St Giles-in-the-Fields, London but ended up running a tiny, undemanding parish in the City, overshadowed by St Paul’s. Robert Peter, a brilliant Classics scholar at Cambridge, ‘achieved so little because he was a fool’; moreover, he was cruel to choirboys and horses. Henry Carrington, a dilettante, failed to take on the Dissenters, resorted to wintering in Italy, leaving curates chosen for their cheapness (‘One was a pederast, another was a lunatic, a third was an alcoholic’), and became the oldest beneficed clergyman in Essex, useless, hen-pecked and lachrymose. George Pearson, famous for his inertia, had a stipend of £59 a year, ‘and £59 a year was about what he was worth’. Reminded, as he stood by the fire in his dressing-gown, that the congregation was waiting for him in church, he said: ‘Bless me, is it Sunday?’

‘At first sight,’ says Dewey, ‘a failure rate of two – possibly three – out of eight seems a poor return on an investment of almost a quarter of a million pounds; the Lyall connection’s income from all their preferments.’ Some may feel that the author has underestimated the failure rate. However, as he explains, the worst failure, George Pearson, who gave up his living in his forties, had a gross income which came to less than a hundredth of the Lyall connection’s aggregate income from the Church. Carrington was the really bad financial bargain, occupying Church premises for sixty years but with a right to tenure which prevented his being moved to a more suitable post; and Carrington’s was a doubly nepotic appointment, since he was not only Lyall’s nephew-in-law but the Archbishop of Canterbury’s nephew. It is strange, but rather refreshing, to see a group of clerics costed out in this manner. Was it invidious, perhaps, to pick on the Lyall connection? How would non-clerical ‘kinship groups’ survive a similar actuarial grilling? One thinks of a time when the dukes of Atholl exerted their extensive clerical patronage below the Border in favour of relatives called Murray, rousing more than a little turbulence in the process. Will military historians now take to working out the profitability of Army families, totting up the sums paid to purchase commissions and subsequent ‘steps’ for valorous younger sons? (What a pity, it may be thought, that the Church did not operate a system of purchase, so that the occasional moneyed curate could buy his way to a bishopric.)

The Lyall connection may or may not have played its part towards saving the Established Church. Unanimously, the sons of Lyall’s clients refused to enter holy orders and the daughters married into any profession but the clerical. Trouble loomed for the Church. In the 1870s began the great agricultural depression, which reduced the income from tithes and glebes. Gradually the Church yielded to penetration from the lower bourgeoisie, with a consequent loss in gentility. ‘The constant assertion that clergymen were “not as other men” raised the dread possibility that they might not be as other gentlemen.’ In many parishes the new need to cope with a mass of social work deprived the incumbent of the muchenvied leisure. What should it profit a man if he was so busy running fetes that he had no time to work up pamphlets on the wickedness of marrying a deceased wife’s sister? For generations, clergymen had been able to study natural philosophy, to botanise, to experiment with echoes, to write guidebooks and edit pot-boilers (the Reverend William Dodd’s Beauties of Shakespeare was still being published a hundred years after the author was hanged for forgery at Tyburn). Was all this to end?

Clive Dewey cordially thanks his publisher for his tolerance in allowing tables and diagrams. One genealogical tree is entitled ‘Marriages to Clergymen as a Means of Extending Connection: The Five Daughters of James Tschudi Broadwood’. The Broadwoods were wealthy piano-makers who intermarried with the Lyalls; all five daughters in question did their bit to remove the stigma of trade by surrendering themselves to the clergy (or did they just happen to come across five reasonably personable clerics and marry them with no thought of social engineering?). Another table is entitled ‘The Hackney Phalanx as a Meritocratic Melting-Pot: The Social Origins and Education of Thirty of its Members and Allies’. The Hackney Phalanx is not a name on every scholar’s tongue. We are told that it was a combination of High Church ginger group, theological think-tank and clerical employment agency, always on the watch for promising young clergymen to put into strategic vacancies. A potent body indeed. It also ran organisations like the compendiously named National Society for the Promotion of the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church: this, of course, was the body which took over the monitorial schools of the Reverend Andrew Bell, who showed how one man, in theory anyway, could teach a thousand pupils. Dewey finds it odd that the Phalangists of Hackney have never received so much as a monograph of their own. Thesis-writers should take note.

It is desirable, the author says, that more work should be done to determine how exactly patronage operated in the mass of day-to-day Church appointments. ‘The real problem is finding out why an ordinary incumbent was presented,’ we are told. ‘The relevant letters have almost always been destroyed, because presentations were so commonplace.’ Without a doubt it is a field in which much curious information, not necessarily edifying, has been lost, and most of us know no more of what went on than is to be found in the pages of P.G. Wodehouse. Meanwhile, Dewey’s conclusion is: ‘The most powerful motive that the 19th century knew worked in the Church of England’s favour. Not sex, not money, not even religious enthusiasm, but the desire for social acceptance. Snobbery was on the side of the Anglicans and patronage kept it there.’ Historians may dissent from this judgment, but they will find The Passing of Barchester (which, incidentally, does not strain after Trollopean parallels) an unusually stimulating source.