The Curate of Wednesbury and His Vicar – Part 1

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Quote THE following sheets would long ere this have appeared had it not been from a spirit of forbearance on one hand, and a strong desire on the other, not to expose to public censure the imprudent, not to say malevolent, conduct of any individual on earth, much more that of a brother clergyman. And that the sum of my wishes might be accomplished, overtures have been made … [but] these overtures were rejected in a magisterial manner; and the reason may, perhaps, be discovered through the medium of the following correspondence; and which is the only means I have now left to shew to the world how innocent I am of the charges brought against me by wicked men Unquote — John Atcherley, 1806.

When the Rev John Atcherley [] returned to the parish of Wednesbury, Staffordshire (as its Curate) at the end of 1804, he hoped to reside quietly amongst its inhabitants for many years. Instead, he became embroiled in a dispute with the all-powerful church wardens of the parish, and found to his dismay that support was forthcoming neither from his absentee Vicar, nor from his Bishop. After trying – and failing – to have his grievances resolved within the Church, John decided to go public. An extraordinary pamphlet entitled The Curate of Wednesbury and His Vicar was the result.

Places - Staffordshire, Wednesbury St Bartholomew

Before looking in more detail at John Atcherley’s tale of woe, let’s examine the other characters in this sorry story – starting with the Vicar of Wednesbury, Alexander Bunn Haden. Alexander Haden was a pluralist, that is, he held a number of livings at the same time. Naturally he could not serve all of the parishes where he was the incumbent, so he employed Curates to undertake his duties in some of the parishes concerned (for a proportion of the income which he received from those parishes).

The extent of Alexander Haden’s pluralism is revealed in a letter by Norman Tildesley in 1971, who referred to pluralities amongst the clergy as an “objectionable practice”. “Rev. Alexander Bunn Haden”, wrote Tildesley, “applied for the vacant incumbency at Willenhall on the death of Neve in 1788. At the time he was Vicar of Wednesbury, Rector of Saddington in Leicestershire, Curate of Brewood and Brindley Lecturer at Wolverhampton.”

The consequences of Alexander Haden’s non-residency of (and laissez-faire attitude towards) Wednesbury was described by Frederick Hackwood in Peter Ditchfield’s 1907 publication, The Parish Clerk. I have broken the text into paragraphs for easier reading (and added an illustration of the interior of Wednesbury St Bartholomew):

Quote The office of parish clerk in Wednesbury has been held by at least two remarkable characters. ‘Old George Court,’ as he was called—and by some who are still alive—held the post in succession to his grandfather for a great number of years. His grandfather was George Watkins, in his time one of the principal tradesmen in the town. His hospitable house was the place of entertainment for a long succession of curates-in-charge and other officiating ministers for all the long years that the vicar (Rev. A. Bunn Haden) was a non-resident pluralist.

But the position created by this state of things was remarkable. Watkins and the small coterie who acted with him became the absolute and dominant authority in all parochial matters. One curate complained of him and his nominee wardens (in 1806) that ‘these men had been so long in office, and had become so cruel and oppressive,’ that some of the parishioners resolved at last to dismiss them. The little oligarchy, however, was too strong to be ousted at any vestry that ever was called.

As to the elected officials, the same curate records in a pamphlet which he published in his indignation, that ‘on Christmas Day, during divine service, the churchwardens entered the workhouse with constables and bailiffs, and a multitude of men equally pious with themselves, and turned the governor and his wife into the snow-covered streets.’ Another measure of iniquity laid to their charge was their ‘cruelty to Mr. Foster,’ the master of the charity school held in the old Market Cross, ‘a man of amiable disposition, and a teacher of considerable merit.’

Places - Wednesbury St Bartholomew interior 1

These aggressive wardens grazed the churchyard for profit, looked coldly upon a proposal to put up Tables of Benefactions in the church, and altogether acted in a manner so high-handed as to call forth this historic protest. Although the fabric of the church was in so ruinous a condition that the rain streamed through the roof upon the head of our clerical pamphleteer as he was preaching, all these complaints were to no purpose.

When the absentee vicar was appealed to he declared his helplessness, and one sentence in his reply is significant; it was thus: ‘It is as much as my life is worth to come among them!’ Allowance must be made for party rancour. It is probable that Watkins was but the official figure-head of this dominant party, and he is said to have been a man of real piety; and after holding the office of parish clerk for sixty years, he at last died in the vestry of the church he loved so much. Unquote

The curate and clerical pamphleteer referred to in the above passage was of course the Rev John Atcherley. George Watkins, the parish clerk, signed as a witness to seven of the nine marriages conducted by John from February to September 1805. John Atcherley was, by his own account, not the only person who wished to see the clerk and church wardens of Wednesbury relieved of their positions. However, it appears that John was singled out for retribution by the men who “disgraced the authority they possessed in the church” to which John belonged. Here is a part of John’s account of the events that followed:

Quote I was civil to them, but that would not do, I must be their obedient servant, as my predecessors had also been. But I had an independent mind, which rebuked them when I was their minister before, and I found it more necessary now to shew that independence. They perceived it unshaken, and kindly promised to reward me for it. They promised to ‘do me a kindness.’ I have not received a purse of money, nor any thing valuable; nor indeed, do I expect any thing of value; I am not a worldly-minded man, I would gladly have released them from their promise, and accepted, instead of any pecuniary reward for my integrity, their exertions to stop the mouth of one of their obedient servants, whose mouth is the trumpet of calumny. This man is the parish beadle.—A very few days after the masters of this man had discovered that I could not be subdued, he very kindly undertook ‘to reward me;’ which he accomplished in the following manner:

On Easter-Thursday, which will be found to be the subject of some of the following letters; as I was walking with my intended wife, I was followed in my walks by the eye of premeditated mischief; for soon afterwards, the beadle asserted, and supported his assertion, by tendering the wager of a guinea, that I was seen not only in company, but improperly connected with a woman of the name of Dickinson, a person whom I had never seen, as clearly appeared upon investigation. Unquote

The accusation made against the Rev John Atcherley may appear rather trivial, until the character of Ms Dickinson, with whom John was alleged to have been “improperly connected”, is made clear. Later in his pamphlet, John referred to a note provided as evidence by his intended wife, Miss Baylay:

Quote OF this Miss Baylay, I shall say as little as I can help. The note she sent me, was intended to convince the Bishop, that I was walking with her at the time I was accused of being in company with a woman of ill-fame. I was walking with Miss Baylay, and by her own appointment. Unquote

For a clergyman to be falsely accused of being in the company of a “woman of ill-fame” was clearly a serious matter, and John’s desire to clear his good name and see his tormentors dealt with appropriately is understandable. On Tuesday 11 June 1805, the Revs Atcherley and Haden met at Lichfield and discussed John’s situation. “The result was,” John later wrote, that Alexander Haden “would undertake to have the beadle punished, or would himself put the churchwardens in the court.” However the satisfaction John felt at this undertaking was short-lived. Two days letter he received the following letter from his Vicar:

DEAR SIR,

VERY soon after I saw you, the Bishop sent Mott for me respecting your very unfortunate business, and after weighing all the circumstances of the case, recommended that you should take to your new preferment, and reside upon it, which would completely remove you from that neighbourhood, where too many persons take sides against you. Mott thought the plan a good one, because you will get rid of the accusation and your enemies without an investigation, which would have proved extremely expensive, and have fallen upon you. I have then to request that you will write to your Curate, and I will endeavour to procure an assistant between this time and Michaelmas; you might make it convenient to remove sooner, provided I get one to take care of Wednesbury. I assured the Bishop that I did not believe the report, and spoke as to the credibility of the witnesses against you. I go on Tuesday next to Leicester; as soon as I return, I will come over to Wednesbury, and give you two sermons.

Your’s sincerely,

A. B. HADEN.

John Atcherley was astonished by the content of this letter. On 15 June he walked the seven miles from Wednesbury to Alexander Haden’s home in Tettenhall to discuss the matter. There, he was told something which he found even more unbelievable: that the Bishop, on the basis of an anonymous letter, gave credit to the report about John and Ms Dickinson. It was during this conversation that Haden, following John’s suggestion that he should “come over to Wednesbury and investigate the business himself”, gave the above-mentioned response “Me! It is as much as my life is worth to come among them.” Haden was of course referring to the men who I now think of as ‘the Wednesbury Mafia’: the parish clerk (George Watkins), the church wardens (Messrs Hawe and Addison) and their beadle (Joseph Harrison).

Arms, Diocese of Lichfield

Arms of the Diocese of Lichfield

During his meeting with John, and in subsequent letters, Alexander Haden gave John advice on the course of action he should take to secure his position as Curate. This included gathering the signatures of “as many of the inhabitants of Wednesbury as can possibly be procured” on a petition, which might persuade the Bishop “to withdraw his directions as to [John’s] dismissal.” However John, becoming distrustful of his Vicar, wrote directly to the Bishop to ask what his fate was to be following the complaint made about his behaviour.  The reply which he received (dated 24 June 1805) served only to lessen his trust in Alexander Haden still further:

REV. SIR,

I HAVE received no complaint concerning you, nor any intimation of the matter alluded to in your letter, but from yourself. Unless therefore something be represented to me upon the subject, of course I shall not immediately require an alteration in the Cure of Wednesbury.

I am, Rev. Sir, your obedient servant,

J. LICH. & COV.

> On to The Curate of Wednesbury and His Vicar – Part 2.


Picture credits. Wednesbury St Bartholomew, and Wednesbury St Bartholomew – interior: Adapted from illustrations in A History of Wednesbury, in the County of Stafford by John Nock Bagnall, printed in 1854 and therefore out of copyright. Coat of Arms of the Diocese of Lichfield: Image taken from Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons licence.


References

[1] John Atcherley (1806), The Curate of Wednesbury and His Vicar.
[2] D B Robinson (1984), Staffordshire Clergy in 1830. In: South Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society Transactions, vol. XXIV, pp 84-98.
[3] Letter from Norman Tildesley to his niece dated 26 Sep 1971. Copy viewed at ShareHistory.org.
[4] Frederick William Hackwood (1899), Olden Wednesbury: Its Whims and Ways. Being Some Odd Chapters in the History of the Old Town. Page 50.
[5] Peter Hampson Ditchfield (1907), The Parish Clerk. Pages 289-291. Copy viewed at Internet Archive.
[6] Wednesbury St Bartholomew, Staffordshire, marriage register covering 1775 to 1812, entries for marriages from late 1804 to 1807. Copies viewed at Findmypast – Staffordshire Parish Registers Browse.

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