Eccentrics, nutters, prodigals and rogues

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The roll call of eccentric clergy in the Church of England is a crowded one, with divines such as Revd Dr William Spooner (famous for announcing the hymn, ‘Kinkering Congs their Titles Take’), and Revd Harold Davidson, the lion taming Vicar of Stiffkey. But now Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie has succeeded in herding a sizeable number of them into his veritable zoo of a book, A Field Guide to the English Clergy. In three extracts from the book, we give you three colourful clerics who were one wafer short of a full communion.

Priest, mermaid, excommunicator

The Reverend Robert Hawker, Vicar of Morwenstow (1803–75)

Cornwall, as a county of strange seascapes and moorland myths, has a remarkably high tolerance for odd behaviour. However, even by the high bar of the West Country, the Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker was a profoundly weird individual.

As Curate at Bude, he decided that he had a joint calling; not only to be a Priest, but also a mermaid. In order to live out this vocation, he fashioned a wig out of seaweed and, naked apart from an oilskin wrapped around his legs, rowed out to a rock in Bude harbour one evening, sat on it and began to sing. This spectacle provoked great comment among superstitious locals and each evening a crowd gathered on the cliffs to see the ‘mermaid’ perform.

Quite why this bizarre habit of Hawker’s ended after a few months is debated; some say that, as the winter drew closer, even the blubbery form of Hawker was affected by the elements. Another story relates that a somewhat sceptical local farmer brought along his gun and threatened to pepper the aquatic damsel with shot if she stayed warbling any longer. Whatever the reason, one evening he substituted his haunting mermaid’s lament for a rousing rendition of ‘God Save the King’, plopped into the water and swam back home.

Although clearly a great lover of landscapes, Hawker’s relationship with the animate orders of creation was somewhat more complex. He kept a sizeable menagerie, including ten cats (who would follow him to church and routinely made up the majority of his congregation). However, he reacted with fury when he saw one catching a mouse on a Sunday and publicly excommunicated it in front of his other animals.

Sabbath day violations aside, Hawker was a great lover of animals, being regularly observed talking to the birds in the churchyard and making friends with a ‘highly intelligent’ pig called Gyp. Another ‘pet’ was a stag called Robin, which Hawker insisted was tame, although its habit of attacking and pinning down visitors to the vicarage would probably suggest otherwise.

Exercising his ministry

The Reverend Ian Graham-Orlebar, Rector of Barton-le-Clay (1926–2016)

The fantastically named Ian Henry Gaunt Graham-Orlebar discerned that it was his particular ministry to live a life that was self-consciously retro. As Vicar of Barton-le-Clay in rural Bedfordshire, he enthusiastically embraced the role of the throwback and, well into the twenty-first century, adopted a lifestyle and persona that a country parson in the age of Jane Austen would be proud of.

Graham-Orlebar settled into the role of a country parson. A keen equestrian since his boyhood, Barton-le-Clay’s new Priest decided that, in homage to the dignified clergy of old, he would conduct all visits on horseback. Stating his disdain for what he called ‘modern motorised parsons’ (although, in his later years, he made some concessions in this regard and was often observed travelling about on his ride-on lawnmower), he would merrily trot around his parish calling out to anyone he met, churchgoer or not.

His sense of mischief was evident in his nomenclature for these beasts of burden: his first horse was called ‘Ministry’ so that, when an Archdeacon or other senior figure telephoned the rectory to check up on him, they could be truthfully informed by his maid that he was ‘exercising his Ministry’.

After Ministry was dispatched to the big glue factory in the sky, Graham-Orlebar set about finding a suitable name for her replacement. Naturally he turned to that infallible oracle of Middle England for an answer – the letters page of the Daily Telegraph. Suggestions poured in and, when clergy callers pestered the rectory, from then on they would be told that the rector was out ‘on Sabbatical’.

Contraband clergyman

The Reverend Thomas Patten, Vicar of Seasalter (1683–1764)

Today, Seasalter is a residential suburb of artsy, fashionable Whitstable, but in the eighteenth century it was just about bottom of the list of potential jobs in the whole Church of England. Most of the village, including the original church, had been washed into the sea by a storm in the medieval period, and some might argue that was for the best.

Most clergymen would spend a year there (at the absolute maximum) before begging to be moved on. Thomas Patten, however, was not like most clergymen. Of humble beginnings, his path to ordination is unclear. However, we know he spent some time as a Chaplain to the Royal Navy and, in 1711, accepted the post of Vicar of Seasalter.

Patten was a man of gigantic appetites. He lived quite openly with his mistress, and his love of eating and drinking to excess was common knowledge. Patten would deliberately preach long and dull sermons that would continue until someone in the congregation held up a lemon – a sign that they would buy the Vicar his drinks for the evening. At this point, Patten would finish off the service with impressive alacrity and dash over the road to the Blue Anchor Inn, in order to lay waste to the unfortunate congregant’s tab.

Truculent boozehound he may have been, but Thomas Patten was certainly not an idiot. He found the perfect position to indulge his interests when he got involved with the smuggling operations in the village. The Seasalter Company was a group of smugglers who, in return for Patten informing them about the movements of the authorities, kept the vicarage well stocked with fine French wine, brandy and contraband tobacco. Patten was not above getting his own hands dirty – he tricked a rival group of smugglers into being caught by the Customs men when they failed to cut him in.

Buy your copy of A Field Guide to the English Clergy by Fergus Butler-Gallie

Illustration by Stephanie von Reiswitz

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