15th February 1870. The Poor Man at his Gate…
The Victorian parson is either portrayed in novels and Punch cartoons as a buffoon and charlatan or as bearer of a thin veneer of piety as a cover for hypocrisy.
However whilst this might have been true of the ambitious Rev. Slopes as found in the Barchester Chronicles, hoping for preferment, when we get down to those serving their rural parishes we find many, ‘remembered for those little nameless unremembered acts of kindness and of love…’, the country parson going about his flock dispensing food, fuel and blankets as reported in the Diary of the Rev. Francis Kilvert for Today, a Tuesday in 1870.(1)
The Diaries of country parsons shows how they helped to supply the basic needs of the poor of the parish and how they were in effect the social services of the time, only relieved to some extent by the 1834 Poor Law Act.
Parson Woodforde in January 1783 reported giving small amounts of money to people and on the 26th, ‘sent Mary Adcock a hot roasted fowl, loaf and bottle of beer; on February 7th ‘to a poor man playing a dulcimer. 6d’.
At Christmas in 1800: ‘I had at my house 55 poor people’ and to each he gave money and to some an invitation to share Christmas dinner.
The Rev. Hawker of Morwenstow, Devon and ‘inventor’ of the Harvest Festival, epitomised the ideal in having social justice and concern for basic human dignity.
He was one of the first, in 1844, to introduce offerings at the end of services, alms to be used for charitable giving.
However this became a national issue which Hawker defended in a letter to The Churchman, but which brought the wrath of John Walter, owner of The Times newspaper, thinking it an imposition.
Hawker riposted by saying that Walter had permitted himself to: ‘invade the tranquillity of the parish and I advise you not again to assail our rural parishes with such publication’.
He wasn’t averse to standing up to a vicious landlord, fulminating to one that, ‘he had a God who would require requital’, but it was the language of impotence against tyrannical behaviour so familiar today.
The problem then as now was the frustration and inability to agree on effective support for the poor and it was often left to the benevolence of the local parson.
Hawker like many country parsons was well-off and like many incumbents often had wives having a cushion of inheritance, committed to alleviating distress. However by the time of Hawker’s second wife he was himself suffering financial difficulties and ‘ shorn of the power of charity’.
In the middle of the 19th century Rev.Charles Kingsley ‘s house was open for the eminent as well as for tramps and cottagers, all those in need, and like the 16thc George Herbert practised the teaching that a good priest, ‘must visit even the poorest cottage… though it smell never more loathsomely’.(2)
This contrasts with a case the Author heard recently of a vicar on opening the door to someone requiring help, his first thought was of sending him down the road to those more affluent, for assistance. To be fair he did relent and become the Good Samaritan.
(1) Wordsworth quote.
Barchester Chronicles by Trollope.
(2) Kingsley was Author of the Water Babies.
An Englishman’s Home. J.H.B. Peel. Cassell 1972.