The Smuggling Vicar of Seasalter
Seasalter is a village on the east coast of England that was not well-favoured by nature; marshes, shingle and mud “beach,” and howling, cold winds of the North Sea. As such, it had trouble attracting clergymen interested in ministering to its flock until the arrival of Reverend Thomas Patten in 1711. His ministry lasted until death intervened in 1764, but his motives for staying so long in the parish were not always of a pious and spiritual nature.
The Church of St. Alphege
The old church in Seasalter was named after Saint Alphege, also known as Ælfheah of Canterbury. He was an ascetic monk who spent all his time in prayer. In 1011, he was captured by Danish invaders and killed by them in 1012.
The original church in the village of Seasalter had been washed into the sea, along with a large part of the village, by a massive storm in 1099. The replacement was built in the 12th century and dedicated to St. Alphege.
The Reverend Thomas Patten
The tempest of 1099, although particularly ferocious, was simply part of the ongoing lashing this part of the Kent coast receives from nature. It was a climate that few clergymen endured for very long.
It must have been a great relief to the Archbishop of Canterbury when Thomas Patten accepted the appointment to look after the spiritual needs of the people of Seasalter.
History does not record whether or not the parishioners were happy to receive a parson described as “a man with little charm or manners” in their midst. But, he does seem to have fit right in, because Seasalter at the time was a community that thrived on smuggling.
Patten was a man of lusty appetites. He lived openly in a relationship that was not blessed by the sanctity of marriage. He ate vast quantities of food and drank massively; all of this on the puny salary of a country parson. How did he do it?
The Seasalter Company of Smugglers
Rev. Patten found a simple way of quenching his thirst for wine, brandy, and good tobacco; he became the eyes and ears of what was known as the Seasalter Company of Smugglers.
From his respected perch as a man of the cloth he gathered information about what the revenue agents were up to. He also offered his church’s crypt as an ideal place to hide contraband. The smugglers were happy to reward their informant with liquor.
The good vicar was protective of his partners in crime and their territory. A rival gang of smugglers declined to pay Patten’s tithe. This was a poor decision. When the group landed an illicit cargo near Seasalter in 1714 the parson reported them to the authorities. In eighteenth century England, smuggling was a hanging offence.
The Seasalter Company of Smugglers stayed out of the clutches of the law for more than a century. They achieved this immunity from prosecution by building an intelligence network of which Thomas Patten was a part. They also worked to place friends and family within the authorities charged with shutting down smuggling.
Reverend Patten’s Other Eccentricities
The vicar of Seasalter had another way of stretching his meagre stipend to accommodate his thirst. During his sermons he would drone on and on, driving his congregation towards tears of boredom until one of them reached breaking point and held up a lemon. This was an understood signal that the parishioner was agreeing to stand the parson drinks at the Blue Anchor Inn.
Patten would then wrap up his homily lickety-split, head off to the pub, and get soused at someone else’s expense.
Coincidentally, the Blue Anchor pub was where the Seasalter smugglers used to land their cargoes.
Another of Patten’s habits was to put acerbic entries into the parish register. Normally, these documents are dry and of interest only to dedicated genealogists ferreting out births, marriages, and deaths. However, in the hands of Parson Patten the register took on a unique character.
In 1734, he described a wedding between “Old Tom Taylor, the great smoaker of Whitstable, and a deaf old woman called Elizabeth Church.” Ten years later, another couple were victims of Patten’s sharp pen. The groom he described in the register as a “gape-mouthed lazy fellow.” The bride came off no better: “an old toothless hag.” Such unflattering portraits were probably the result of a convivial time in the Blue Anchor.
Patten’s death in October 1764 no doubt came as a relief to Archbishop Thomas Secker who described him as “half mad, impudent, [and] poor.” Of course, with the vicar’s passing, the archbishop now faced the task of finding another incumbent for the unwanted parish.
Put simply, to be a clergyman is eccentric enough, but to be English on top of that is almost overkill.”
The Reverend Fergus Butler-Gallie
- On one occasion, Patten ordered a new wig to replace the moth-eaten one he had worn for years. He had dinner with the wig maker and, over the meal, grew to like him. So, he cancelled his order for the wig. He explained that he never had any intention of paying for the hairpiece and did not wish to swindle a man for whom he had developed affection.
- One of the principal members of the Seasalter Company of Smugglers was a man called William Baldock. When he died in 1812, he left an estate or more than a million pounds, which translates into about £200 million in today’s money.
- “Thomas Patten. The Fiery-Tongued Vicar of Seasalter Who Could Be Bought at the Local Inn.” Philip Atherton, seasaltercross.com, December 3, 2014.
- “A Field Guide to the English Clergy.” The Reverend Fergus Butler-Gallie, Oneworld Publishers, 2018.
- “Seasalter.” Smugglers’ Britain, undated.
- “A Most Discreet Company.” Philip Atherton, seasaltercross.com, April 6, 2019.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor