Updated date:

The Eccentric Vicars of England

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A small subset of the British clergy seems to have cornered the market on odd behaviour that includes dressing up as a mermaid and wearing a leopard-skin surplice while being carried around in a coffin. God does indeed move “in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.”

the-eccentric-vicars-of-england

Reverend Hawker

Robert Stephen Hawker (1803 – 1875) was an Anglican priest who practiced his trade in Cornwall. Let’s lead gently into Reverend Hawker’s life. At the age of 19 he married Charlotte Eliza I’ans who was 41 on her wedding day.

Charlotte brought with her a decent legacy that allowed young Robert to study at university and, eventually, take holy orders. In 1834, Hawker took the living in the parish of Morwenstow on Corwall’s north coast. It was not a highly sought after posting, as the village had been without a spiritual guide for more than a century. But, it suited Robert Hawker well for he remained ministering to his Morwenstow flock until his death in 1875.

Rev. Hawker aged 61

Rev. Hawker aged 61

“Parson Hawker” as the locals called him loved writing poetry. To contact his muse he built a clifftop hut out of driftwood in which he spent many a happy hour turning out rhyming couplets. Okay, none of this seems particularly quixotic, so let’s get to the dotty stuff; it is, after all, what were are here for:

  • Once, he swam out to a rock and sat on it wearing a wig of plaited seaweed and howling as he supposed a mermaid might;
  • He excommunicated his cat because he caught the animal mousing on a Sunday;
  • Damian Thompson writes that the poetic parson “believed that the air was thick with invisible angels and demons - but then he also had a fondness for opium.”
  • He dressed in vividly coloured clothes and the only black garment, the regular uniform of his calling, he wore was socks;
  • He held conversations with Saint Morwenna and birds but he never revealed what either said.

Alan Bennett's sermon of non-sequiturs

The Reverend Frederick William Densham

Is there something in the communion wine in Cornwall? The same county that gave us Rev. Hawker also serves up Frederick Densham. He presided over the parish of Warleggan and its 200 or so souls from 1931 until his death in 1953.

He seems to have been an irascible and unsociable character who drove his parishioners away, so that he frequently preached his sermons to an empty church. He kept a careful record of attendance, or lack of it, once noting “No fog, no wind, no rain, no congregation.” To give the illusion of a vibrant gathering he put cardboard cut-outs of people in the pews and wrote the names of previous vicars on them.

He refused to teach Sunday school classes and hated organ music. He also banned the hallowed village tradition of whist drives and dancing on the grounds that they were an affront to his austere view of Christianity. He was also hell on wheels when he came across anybody smoking.

It’s not a friendly gesture to surround your vicarage with an eight-foot high barbed-wire fence, but that’s what the Vicar of Warleggan did. He later extended it to 12 feet.

There was a large gasoline drum at the gate that visitors had to hammer on before announcing their name and the nature of their business. Then, he would decide whether or not to receive them. He also painted the inside of St. Bartholomew’s Church in vivid blue, yellow, and red stripes.

In his later years, his diet was almost exclusively porridge and nettles, but this did not seem to bring about an early death; he lived to be 83

Warleggan Church

Warleggan Church

The Prostitute’s Padre

Harold Francis Davidson came from a long line of clergymen. In 1906, he became rector to the joint parishes of Stiffkey St. John and Stiffkey St. Mary & Morston, on the east coast of England.

After World War I, he took to making frequent visits to London where he extended his Christian charity to what were euphemistically known as “fallen women.” He would take them for a meal and, apparently, tap dance in the street to amuse his companions.

He became known as the Prostitute’s Padre, a title he wore proudly but that did not sit well with the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Rumours started to spread that his ministrations to the street walkers had strayed from the spiritual to the carnal.

A trumped-up case was manufactured against Rev. Davidson and he was defrocked in 1932. There was no actual evidence that he strayed from his marriage vows in his work with prostitutes. One woman was plied with liquor until she stated that she had had a romp with the vicar; she withdrew her accusation immediately after she sobered up.

Rev. Davidson with teenage would-be actress Estelle Douglas in a set-up photo that was used to discredit him

Rev. Davidson with teenage would-be actress Estelle Douglas in a set-up photo that was used to discredit him

With no job and no income, Davidson turned himself into a carnival act and took to preaching from inside a cage of lions. In July 1937, he was regaling the crowds at the seaside resort of Skegness. In mid-rhetorical flourish he accidentally stepped on the tail of one of the big cats. Freddie the lion took exception to this, picked up the preacher by the neck and shook him violently. Harold Francis Davidson succumbed to his injuries a few days later.

Rowan Atkinson Has Played Many Eccentric Clergyman Roles

A Miscellany of Ecclesiastical Oddness

  • Victorian vicar John Allington, known as “Mad Jack” wore a leopard skin instead of his austere, black surplice. He liked to be carried around in a coffin and, from time to time, he would pop up and greet his surprised parishioners.
  • Rev. Ray Trudgian is a minister in the east of England and a renowned poultry breeder. He has been known to give his Sunday sermon from the pulpit accompanied by a chicken.
  • Sydney Smith was a 19th century cleric who went about in a suit of armour as a protection against disease.
  • In Genesis, God declared that humans shall “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” The Dean of Westminster, the Reverend William Buckland (1784 – 1856) took this to the next level by attempting to eat every animal known to man. He was particularly fond of mouse-on-toast but disliked bluebottle flies.
  • Canon Wilfred Pemberton in Derbyshire had a novel way of making time for his chores. He would start his congregation off singing Psalm 119, all 176 verses of it. His presence not immediately needed in the church he would nip off to feed his chickens and do a bit of dusting in the rectory and return in time to conduct the next part of the service.
  • In 1870, Rev. Thomas Hackett Massey began building a large house in the village of Upper Farringdon and northern Hampshire. Forty years later the structure sported 17 rooms and two towers, almost entirely constructed by Reverend Massey himself. He occasionally called on the services of a bricklayer and a carpenter.

Nobody knows why he built what has come to be called Massey’s Folly. A reporter once asked the vicar about the building’s purpose and he got a cryptic reply: “It will be a tea room with a red globe on the tower that will turn green when the tea is brewed.”

Massey's Folly

Massey's Folly

Bonus Factoids

  • Reverend Ian Graham-Orlebar was the vicar of the delightfully named parishes Barton-le-Clay with Higham Gobion, and Hexton from 1970 to 1992. He kept a horse that he named Ministry. If his bishop called and he was not available the rector’s superior could be truthfully told he was “exercising his Ministry.”
  • Reverend Fergus Butler-Gallie’s 2018 book, A Field Guide to the English Clergy, is a delightful trip through the strange world of eccentric vicars. He reports that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey (1904 – 1988), began his day by smacking his head into his desk three times before saying “I hate the Church of England.”
  • Hawker’s Hut, where Reverend Hawker wrote his poetry, (below) is the smallest property owned by Britain’s National Trust.

Sources

  • “A Harvest for the World.” Damian Thompson, The Telegraph, January 1, 2001.
  • “Robert Stephen Hawker.”
  • “The Story of Reverend Densham.” Laura Farnworth, undated.
  • “The Sad Story of the Vicar of Stiffkey.” James Parry, The Express, November 5, 2012.
  • “Ben Le Vay’s Eccentric Britain.” Benedict Le Vay, Bradt Travel Guides, 2000.
  • “Britain’s Biggest Folly!” Amie Gordon, Mail Online, January 17, 2016.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor

Related Articles