AN OLD CHESHIRE CLERK AND SOME OTHER WORTHIES
It is nearly fifty years since I used to attend the quaint old parish church at Lawton, Cheshire, situate half-way between Congleton and Crewe. It is a lonely spot, "miles from anywhere," having not the vestige of a village, and the congregation was formed of well-to-do farmers, who came from the scattered farmsteads. How well I remember the old parish clerk and the numerous duties which fell to his lot! He united in his person the offices of clerk, sexton, beadle, church-keeper, organist, and ringer. The organ was of the barrel kind, and no one knew how to manipulate the instrument or to change the barrels, except the clerk. He had also to place ten decent loaves in a row on the communion table every Sunday morning, which were provided by a charitable bequest for the benefit of the poor widows of the parish. If the widows did not attend service to curtsy for them, the loaves were given to any one who liked to take them. Old Clerk Briscall baked them himself. He kept a small village shop about two miles from the church. He was also the village shoemaker. A curious system prevailed. As you entered the church, near the large stove you would see a long bench, and under this bench a row of boots and shoes. If any one wanted his boots to be mended, he would take them to church with him and put them under the bench. These were collected by the cobbler-clerk, carried home in a sack, and brought back on the following Sunday neatly and carefully soled and heeled. It would seem strange now if on entering a church our eyes should light upon a row of farmers' dirty old boots and the freshly-mended evidences of the clerk's skill. All this took place in the fifties. In the sixties a new vicar came. The old organ wheezed its last phlegmatic tune; it was replaced by a modern instrument with six stops, and a player who did his best, but occasioned not a little laughter on account of his numerous breakdowns. The old high pews have disappeared, nice open benches erected, the floor relaid, a good choir enlisted, and everything changed for the better.
The poor old clerk must have been almost overwhelmed by his numerous duties, and was often much embarrassed and exasperated by the old squire, Mr. C.B. Lawton, who was somewhat whimsical in his ways. This gentleman used to enter the church by his own private door, and go to his large, square, high-panelled family pew, and when the vicar gave out the hymn, he used often to shout out, "Here, hold on! I don't like that one; let's have hymn Number 25," or some such effort of psalmody. This request, or command, used to upset the organ arrangement, and the poor old clerk had to rummage among his barrels to get a suitable tune, and the operation, even if successful, took at least ten minutes, during which time a large amount of squeaking and the sounds of the writhing of woodwork and snapping of sundry catches were heard in the church. But the congregation was accustomed to the performance and thought little of it. (John Smallwood, 2 Mount Pleasant, Strangeways, Manchester.)
Caistor Church, Lincolnshire, famous for the curious old ceremony of the gad-whip, was also celebrated for its clerk, old Joshua Foster, who was officiating there in 1884 at the time of the advent of a new vicar. Trinity Sunday was the first Sunday of the new clergyman, who sorely puzzled the clerk by reading the Athanasian Creed. The old man peered down into the vicar's family pew from his desk, casting a despairing glance at the wife of the vicar, who handed him a Prayer Book with the place found, so that he could make the responses. He was very economical in the use of handkerchiefs, and used the small pieces of paper on which the numbers of the metrical psalm were written. In vain did the wife of the vicar present him with red-and-white-spotted handkerchiefs, which were used as comforters. The church was lighted with tallow candles—"dips" they were called—and at intervals during the service Joshua would go round and snuff them. The snuffers soon became full, and it was a matter of deep interest to the congregation to see on whose head the snuff would fall, and to dodge it if it came their way.
The Psalms of Tate and Brady's version were sung and were given out with the usual preface, "Let us sing to the praise and glory of God the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 8th, and 20th verses of the —— Psalm with the Doxology." How that Doxology bothered the congregation! The Doxologies were all at the end of the Prayer Book, and it was not always easy to hit the right metre; but that was of little consequence. A word added if the line was too short, or omitted if too long, required skill, and made all feel that they had done their best when it was successfully over. After the old clerk's death, he was succeeded by his son Joshua, or Jos-a-way, as the name was pronounced, whose son, also named Joshua the third, became clerk, and still holds the office.
The predecessor of the vicar was a pluralist, who held Caistor with its two chapelries of Holton and Clixby and the living of Rothwell. He was non-resident, and the numerous churches were served by a curate. This man was a great smoker, and used to retire to the vestry to don the black gown and smoke a pipe before the sermon, the congregation singing a Psalm meanwhile. One Sunday he had an extra pipe, and Joshua told him that the people were getting impatient.
"Let them sing another Psalm," said the curate.
"They have, sir," replied the clerk.
"Then let them sing the 119th," replied the curate.
At last he finished his pipe, and began to put on the black gown, but its folds were troublesome, and he could not get it on.
"I think the devil's in the gown," muttered the curate.
"I think he be," dryly replied old Joshua.
That the clerk was often a person of dignity and importance is shown by the recollections of an old parishioner of the rector of Fornham All Saints, near Bury St. Edmunds. "Mr. Baker, the clerk," of Westley, who flourished seventy years ago, used to hear the children their catechism in church on Sunday afternoons. "Ah, sir, I often think of what he told us, that the world would not come to an end till people were killed wholesale, and now think how often that happens!" She was probably not alluding to the South African or the Japanese war, but to railway accidents, as she at once told her favourite story of her solitary journey to Newmarket, when on her return she remarked, "If I live to set foot on firm ground, never no more for me."
The old clerk used to escort the boys and girls to their confirmation at Bury, and superintended their meal of bread, beer, and cheese after the rite. There was no music at Westley, except when Mr. Humm, the clerk of Fornham, "brought up his fiddle and some of the Fornham girls." Nowadays, adds the rector, the Rev. C.L. Feltoe, the clerks are much more illiterate than their predecessors, and, unlike them, non-communicants.
Another East Anglian clerk was a quaint character, who had a great respect for all the old familiar residents in his town of S——, and a corresponding contempt for all new-comers. The family of my informant had resided there for nearly a century, and had, therefore, the approval of the clerk. On one occasion some of the family found their seat occupied by some new people who had recently settled in the town. The clerk rushed up, and in a loud voice, audible all over the church, exclaimed:
"Never you mind that air muck in your pew. I'll soon turn 'em out. The imperent muck, takin' your seats!"
The family insisted upon "the muck" being left in peace, and forbade the eviction.
The old clerk used vigorously a long stick to keep the school children in order. He was much respected, and his death universally regretted.
Fifty years ago there was a dear, good old clerk, named Bamford, at Mangotsfield Church, who used to give out the hymns, verse by verse. The vicar always impressed upon him to read out the words in a loud voice, and at the last word in each verse to pitch his voice. The hymn, "This world's a dream," was rendered in this fashion:
"This world's a drame, an empty shoe, But this bright world to which I goo Hath jaays substantial an' sincere, When shall I wack and find me THEER?"
William Smart, the parish clerk of Windermere in the sixties, was a rare specimen. By trade an auctioneer and purveyor of Westmorland hams, he was known all round the countryside. He was very patronising to the assistant curates, and a favourite expression of his was "me and my curate." When one of his curates first took a wedding he was commanded by the clerk, "When you get to 'hold his peace,' do you stop, for I have something to say." The curate was obedient, and stopped at the end of his prescribed words, when William shouted out, "God speed them well!"
This unauthorised but excellent clerkly custom was not confined to Windermere, but was common in several Norfolk churches, and at Hope Church, Derbyshire, the clerk used to express the good wish after the publication of the banns.
The old-fashioned clerk was usually much impressed by the importance of his office. Crowhurst, the old clerk at Allington, Kent, in 1852, just before a wedding took place, marched up to the rector, the Rev. E.B. Heawood, and said:
"If you please, sir, the ceremony can't proceed."
"Why not? What do you mean?" asked the surprised rector.
"The marriage can't take place, sir," he answered solemnly, "'cos I've lost my specs."
Fortunately a pupil of the rector's came forward and confessed that he had hidden the old man's spectacles in a hole in the wall, and the ceremony was no longer delayed.
At Bromley College the same clergyman had a curious experience, when the clerk was called to assist at a service for the Churching of Women. As it was very unusually performed there, he was totally at a loss what service to find, and asked in great perturbation:
"Please, sir, be I to read the responses in the services for the Queen's Accession?"
The same service sadly puzzled the clerk at Haddington, who was in the employment of the then Earl of W——. One Sunday Lady W—— came to be churched, when in response to the clergyman's prayer, "O Lord, save this woman, Thy servant," the clerk said, "Who putteth her ladyship's trust in Thee."
The Rev. W.H. Langhorne tells me some amusing anecdotes of old clerks. Once he was preaching in a village church for home missions, and just as he was reaching the pulpit he observed that the clerk was preparing to take round the plate. He whispered to him to wait till he had finished his sermon. "It won't make a ha'porth o' difference," was the encouraging reply. But at the close of the sermon there was another invitation to give additional offerings, which were not withheld.
In the old days when Bell's Life was the chief sporting paper, a hunting parson was taking the service one Sunday morning and gave out the day of the month and the Psalm. The clerk corrected him, but the rector again gave out the same day and was again corrected. The rector, in order to decide the controversy, produced a copy of Bell's Life and handed it to the clerk, who then submitted. It is not often, I imagine, that a sporting paper has been appealed to for the purpose of deciding what Psalms should be read in church.
One very wet Sunday Mr. Langhorne was summoned to take an afternoon service several miles distant from his residence. The congregation consisted of only half a dozen people. After service he said to the clerk that it was hardly worth while coming so far. "We might have done with a worse 'un," was his reply.
That reminds me of another clerk who apologised to a church dignitary who had been summoned to take a service at a small country church. The form of the apology was not quite happily expressed. He said, "I am sorry, sir, to have brought such a gentleman as you to this poor place. A worse would have done, if we had only known where to find him!"
The new vicar of D—— was calling upon an old parishioner, who said to him: "Ah! I've seen mony changes. I've seen four vicars of D——. First there was Canon G——, then there was Mr. T——, who's now a bishop, and then Mr. F—— came, and now you've coom, and we've wossened (worsened) every toime."
A clerk named Turner, who officiated at Alnwick, was a great character, and in spite of his odd ways was esteemed for his genuine worth and fidelity to the three vicars under whom he served. He looked upon the church and parish as his own, and used to say that he had trained many "kewrats" in their duties. His responses in the Psalms were often startling. Instead of "The Lord setteth up the meek," he would say, "The Lord sitteth upon the meek." "The great leviathan" he rendered "the great live thing." "Caterpillars innumerable" he pronounced "caterpilliars innumerabble." When a funeral was late he scolded the bearers at the churchyard gate.
At Wimborne Minster, Dorset, there used to be three priest vicars, and each of them had a clerk. It was the custom for each of the priest vicars to take the services for a week in rotation, and the first lesson was always read by "the clerk of the week," as he was called. On Sundays, when there was a celebration of the Holy Communion, the "clerk of the week" advanced to the lectern after the sermon was finished, and said, "All who wish to receive the Holy Communion, draw near." These words, in the case of one worthy, named David Butler, were always spoken in a high-pitched, drawling voice, and finished off with a kick to the rearwards of the right leg.
The old clerk at Woodmancote, near Henfield, Sussex, was a very important person. There was never any committee meeting but he attended. So much so, that one day in church leading the singing and music with voice and flute, when it came to the "Gloria" he sang loudly, "As it was in the committee meeting, is now, and ever shall be ..."
An acquaintance remarked to him afterwards that the last meeting he attended must have been a rather long one!
A story is told of the clerk at West Dean, near Alfriston, Sussex. Starting the first line of the Psalm or hymn, he found that he could not see owing to the failing light on a dark wintry afternoon. So he said, "My eyes are dim, I canna see," at which the congregation, composed of ignorant labourers, sang after him the same words. The clerk was wroth, and cried out, "Tarnation fools you all must be." Here again the congregation sang the same words after the clerk.
Strange times, strange manners!
A writer in the Spectator tells of a clerk who, like many of his fellows, used to convert "leviathan" into "that girt livin' thing," thus letting loose before his hearers' imagination a whole travelling menagerie, from which each could select the beast which most struck his fancy. This clerk was a picturesque personality, although, unlike his predecessor, he had discarded top-boots and cords for Sunday wear in favour of black broadcloth. When not engaged in marrying or burying one of his flock, he fetched and carried for the neighbours from the adjacent country town, or sold herrings and oranges (what mysterious affinity is there between these two dissimilar edibles that they are invariably hawked in company?) from door to door. During harvest he rang the morning "leazing bell" to start the gleaners to the fields, and every night he tolled the curfew, by which the villagers set their clocks. He it was who, when the sermon was ended, strode with dignity from his box on the "lower deck" down the aisle to the belfry, and pulled the "dishing-up bell" to let home-keeping mothers know that hungry husbands and sons were set free. Folks in those days were less easily fatigued than they are now. Services were longer, the preacher's "leanings to mercy" were less marked, and congregations counted themselves ill-used if they broke up under the two hours. The boys stood in wholesome awe of the clerk, as well they might, for his eye was keen and his stick far-reaching. Moreover, no fear of man prevented him from applying the latter with effect to the heads of slumberers during divine service. By way of retaliation the youths, when opportunity occurred, would tie the cord of the "tinkler" to the weathercock, and the parish on a stormy night would be startled by the sound of ghostly, fitful ting-tangs. To Sunday blows the clerk, who was afflicted with rheumatism, added weekday anathemas as he climbed the steep ascent to the bell-chamber and the yet steeper ladder that gave access to the leads of the tower. The perpetual hostility that reigned between discipliner and disciplined bred no ill will on either side. "Boys must be boys" and "He's paid for lookin' arter things" were the arguments whereby the antagonists testified their mutual respect, in both of which the parents concurred; and his severity did not cost the old man a penny when he made his Easter rounds to collect the "sweepings." It may, perhaps, be well to explain that the "sweepings" consisted of an annual sum of threepence which every householder contributed towards the cleaning of the church, and which represented a large part of the clerk's salary.
[Footnote 84: Spectator, 14 October, 1905.]
The Rev. C.C. Prichard recollects a curious old character at Churchdown, near Gloucester, commonly pronounced "Chosen" in those days.
This old clerk was only absent one Sunday from "Chosen" Church, and then he was lent to the neighbouring church of Leckhampton. Instead of the response "And make Thy chosen people joyful," mindful of his change of locality he gave out with a strong nasal twang, "And make Thy Leck'ampton people joyful." The Psalms were somewhat a trouble to him, and to the congregation too. One verse he rendered "Like a paycock in a wild-dook's nest, and a howl in the dessert, even so be I." He was a thoroughly good old man, and brought up a large family very respectably.
I remember the old clerk, James Ingham, of Whalley Church, Lancashire. It is a grand old church, full of old dark oak square pews, and the clerk was in keeping with his surroundings. He was a humorous character, and had a splendid deep bass voice. He used to show people over the ruined abbey, and his imagination supplied the place of accurate historical information. Some American visitors asked him what a certain path was used for. "Well, marm," said James, "it's onsartin: but they do say the monks and nuns used to walk up and down this 'ere path, arm-in-arm, of a summer arternoon."
It is recorded of one Thomas Atkins, clerk of Chillenden Church, Kent, that he used to leave his reading-desk at the commencement of the General Thanksgiving and proceed to the west gallery, where he gave out the hymn and sang a duet with the village cobbler, in which the congregation joined as best they could. He walked very slowly down the church, and said the Amen at the end of the Thanksgiving wherever he happened to be, and that was generally half-way up the gallery stairs, whence his feeble voice, with a good tremolo, used to sound like the distant baaing of a sheep. It was a strange and curious performance.
Miss Rawnsley, of Raithby Hall, Spilsby, gives some delightful reminiscences of a most original specimen of the race of clerks, old Haw, who officiated at Halton Holgate, Lincolnshire. He was a curious mixture of worldly wisdom and strong religious feeling. The former was exemplified by his greeting to a cousin of my correspondent, just returned from his ordination.
He said, "Now, Mr. Hardwick, remember thou must creep an' crawl along the 'edge bottoms, and then tha'ill make thee a bishop."
He was a strong advocate of Fasting Communion. No one ever knew whence he derived his strong views on the subject. The rector never taught it. Probably his ideas were derived from some long lingering tradition. When over seventy years of age he set out fasting to walk six miles to attend a late celebration at a distant church on the occasion of its consecration. Nothing would ever induce him to break his fast before communicating; and on this occasion he was picked up in a dead faint, his journey being only half completed.
On Wednesdays and Fridays he always went into the church at eleven o'clock and said the Litany aloud. When asked his reason, he said, "I've gotten an ungodly wife and two ungodly bairns to pray for, sir." He once asked one of the rector's daughters to help him in the Parody of the Psalms he was making; and on another occasion requested to have the old altar-cloth, which had just been replaced by a new one, "to make a slop to dig the graves in, and no sacrilege neither."
At Sutton Maddock, Shropshire, there was a clerk who used to read "Pe-li-can in the wilderness," and the usual "Howl in the Desart," and "Teach the Senators wisdom," and when the Litany was said on Wednesdays and Fridays declared that it was not in his Prayer Book though he took part in it every Sunday. When a kind lady, Miss Barnfield, expressed a wish that his wife would get better, he replied, "I hope her will or summat."
At Claverley, in the same county, on one Sunday, the rector told the clerk to give notice that there would be no service that afternoon, adding sotto voce, "I am going to dine at the Paper Mill." He was rather disgusted when the clerk announced, "There will be no Diving Service this arternoon, the Parson is going to dine at the Peaper Mill." The clerk was no respecter of persons, and once marched up to the rector's wife in church and told her to keep her eyes from beholding vanity.
The Rev. F.A. Davis tells me of a story of an illiterate clerk who served in a Wiltshire church, where a cousin of my informant was vicar. A London clergyman, who had never preached or been in a country church before, came to take the duty. He was anxious to find out if the people listened or understood sermons. His Sunday morning discourse was based on the text St. Mark v. 1-17, containing the account of the healing of the demoniacally possessed persons at Gadara, and the destruction of the herd of swine. On the Monday he asked the clerk if he understood the sermon. The clerk replied somewhat doubtfully, "Yes." "But is there anything you do not quite understand?" said the clergyman; "I shall be only too glad to explain anything I can, so as to help you." After a good deal of scratching the back of his head and much hesitating, the clerk replied, "Who paid for them pigs?"
Many examples I have given of the dry humour of old clerks, which is sometimes rather disconcerting. A stranger was taking the duty in a church, and after service made a few remarks about the weather, asserting that it promised to be a fine day for the haymaking to-morrow. "Ah, sir," replied the clerk, "they do say that the hypocrites can discern the face of the sky."
The Rev. Julian Charles Young, rector of Ilmington, in his Memoir of Charles Mayne Young, Tragedian, published in 1871, speaks of the race of parish clerks who flourished in Wiltshire in the first half of the last century. Instead of a nice discrimination being exercised in the choice of a clerk, it seems to have been the rule to select the sorriest driveller that could be found—some "lean and slippered pantaloon, with spectacles on nose and pouch at side,"
"triumphant over time, And over tune, and over rhyme"—
who by his snivelling enunciation of the responses and his nasal drawlings of the A—mens, was sure to provoke the risibility of his hearers. Mr. Young's own clerk was, however, a very worthy man, of such lofty aspirations and of such blameless purity of life, that in making him Nature made the very ideal of a village clerk and schoolmaster, and then "broke the mould." His grave yet kindly countenance, his well-proportioned limbs encased in breeches and gaiters of corded kerseymere, and the natural dignity of his carriage, combined "to give the world assurance of" a bishop rather than a clerk. It needed familiarity with his inner life to know how much simpleness of purpose and simplicity of mind and contentment and piety lay hid under a pompous exterior and a phraseology somewhat stilted.
His name was William Hinton, and he dwelt in a small whitewashed cottage which, by virtue of his situation as schoolmaster, he enjoyed rent free. It stood in the heart of a small but well-stocked kitchen garden. His salary was L40 per annum, and on this, with perhaps L5 a year more derived from church fees, he brought up five children in the greatest respectability, all of whom did well in life. They regarded their father with absolute veneration. By the side of the labourer who only knew what he had taught him, or of the farmer who knew less, he was a giant among pygmies—a Triton among minnows.
When Mr. Young went to the village, with the exception of a Bible, a Prayer Book, a random tract or two, and a Moore's Almanac, there was scarcely a book to be found in it. The rector kindly allowed his clerk the run of his well-stocked library. Hinton devoured the books greedily. So receptive and imitative was his intellect that his conversation, his deportment, even his spirit, became imbued with the individuality of the author whose writings he had been studying. After reading Dr. Johnson's works his conversation became sententious and dogmatic. Lord Chesterfield's Letters produced an airiness and jauntiness that were quite foreign to his nature. His favourite authors were Jeremy Taylor, Bacon, and Milton. After many months reverential communion with these Goliaths of literature he became pensive and contemplative, and his manner more chastened and severe. The secluded village in which he dwelt had been his birthplace, and there he remained to the day of his death. He knew nothing of the outer world, and the rector found his intercourse with a man so original, fresh, and untainted a real pleasure. He was physically timid, and the account of a voyage across the Channel or a journey by coach filled him with dread. One day he said to Mr. Young, "Am I, reverend sir, to understand that you voluntarily trust your perishable body to the outside of a vehicle, of the soundness of which you know nothing, and suffer yourself to be drawn to and fro by four strange animals, of whose temper you are ignorant, and are willing to be driven by a coachman of whose capacity and sobriety you are uninformed?" On being assured that such was the case, he concluded that "the love of risk and adventure must be a very widely-spread instinct, seeing that so many people are ready to expose themselves to such fearful casualties." He was grateful to think that he had never been exposed to such terrific hazards. What the worthy clerk would have said concerning the risks of motoring somewhat baffles imagination.
When just before the opening of the Great Western Railway line the Company ran a coach through the village from Bath to Swindon, the clerk witnessed with his own eyes the dangers of travelling. The school children were marshalled in line to welcome the coach, bouquets of laurestina and chrysanthema were ready to be bestowed on the passengers, the church bells rang gaily, when after long waiting the cheery notes of the key-bugle sounded the familiar strains of "Sodger Laddie," and the steaming steeds hove in sight, an accident occurred. At a sharp turn just opposite the clerk's house the swaying coach overturned, and the outside passengers were thrown into the midst of his much-prized ash-leaf kidneys. The clerk fled precipitately to the extreme borders of his domain, and afterwards said to the rector, "Ah, sir, was I right in saying I would never enter such a dangerous carriage as a four-horse coach? I assure you I was not the least surprised. It was just what I expected."
When the first railway train passed through the village he was overwhelmed with emotion at the sight. He fell prostrate on the bank as if struck by a thunder-bolt. When he stood up his brain reeled, he was speechless, and stood aghast, unutterable amazement stamped upon his face. In the tone of a Jeremiah he at length gasped out, "Well, sir, what a sight to have seen: but one I never care to see again! How awful! I tremble to think of it! I don't know what to compare it to, unless it be to a messenger despatched from the infernal regions with a commission to spread desolation and destruction over the fair land. How much longer shall knowledge be allowed to go on increasing?"
The rector taught the clerk how to play chess, to which game he took eagerly, and taught it to the village youths. They played it on half-holidays in winter and became engrossed in it, manufacturing chess-boards out of old book-covers and carving very creditable chessmen out of bits of wood. When he was playing with his rector one evening he lost his queen and at once resigned, saying, "I consider, reverend sir, that chess without a queen is like life without a female."
Hinton knew not a word of Latin, but he had a pedantic pleasure in introducing it whenever he could. Genders were ever a mystery to him, though with the help of a dictionary he would often substitute a Latin for an English word. Thus he used the signatures "Gulielmus Hintoniensis, Rusticus Sacrista," and when writing to Mrs. Young he always addressed her as "Charus Domina." On this lady's return after a long absence, the clerk wrote in large letters, "Gratus, gratus, optatus," and dated his greeting, "Martius quinta, 1842." A funeral notice was usually sent in doggerel.
The following letter was sent to the rector's unmarried sister:
"Januarius Prima, 1840.
"That the humble Sacrista should be still retained on the tablets of your memory is an unexpected pleasure. Your gift, as a criterion of your esteem, will be often looked at with delight, and be carefully preserved, as a memorial of your friendship; and for which I beg to return my sincere thanks. May the meridian sunshine of happiness brighten your days through the voyage of life; and may your soul be borne on the wings of seraphic angels to the realms of bliss eternal in the world to come is the sincere wish and fervent prayer of Charus Domina, your most obedient, most respectful, most obliged servant,
"A gift from the virtuous, the fair, and the good, From the affluent to the humble and low, Is a favour so great, so obliging and kind, To acknowledge I scarcely know how. I fain would express the sensations I feel, By imploring the blessing of Heaven May be showered on the lovely, the amiable maid, Who this gift to Sacrista has given. May the choicest of husbands, the best of his kind, Be hers by the appointment of Heaven! And may sweet smiling infants as pledges of love To crown her connubium be given."
The following is a characteristic note of this worthy clerk, which differs somewhat from the notices usually sent to vicars as reminders of approaching weddings:
"I hope it has not escaped your memory that the young couple at Clack are hoping to offer incense at the shrine of Venus this morning at the hour of ten. I anticipate the bridegrooms's anxiety.
He was somewhat curious on the subject of fashionable ladies' dresses, and once asked the rector "in what guise feminine respectability usually appeared at an evening party?" When a low dress was described to him, he blushed and shivered and exclaimed, "Then methinks, sir, there must be revelations of much which modesty would gladly veil." He was terribly overcome on one occasion when he met in the rector's drawing-room one evening some ladies who were attired, as any other gentlewomen would be, in low gowns.
William Hinton was, in spite of his air of importance and his inflated phraseology, a simple, single-minded, humble soul. When the rector visited him on his death-bed, he greeted Mr. Young with as much serenity of manner as if he had been only going on a journey to a far country for which he had long been preparing. "Well, reverend and dear sir. Here we are, you see! come to the nightcap scene at last! Doubtless you can discern that I am dying. I am not afraid to die. I wish your prayers.... I say I am not afraid to die, and you know why. Because I know in whom I have believed; and I am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day." A little later he said, "Thanks, reverend sir! Thanks for much goodwill! Thanks for much happy intercourse! For nearly seven years we have been friends here. I trust we shall be still better friends hereafter. I shall not see you again on this side Jordan. I fear not to cross over. Good-bye. My Joshua beckons me. The Promised Land is in sight."
This worthy and much-mourned clerk was buried on 5 July, 1843.
THE CLERK AND THE LAW
The parish clerk is so important a person that divers laws have been framed relating to his office. His appointment, his rights, his dismissal are so closely regulated by law that incumbents and churchwardens have to be very careful lest they in any way transgress the legal enactments and judgments of the courts. It is not an easy matter to dismiss an undesirable clerk: it is almost as difficult as to disturb the parson's freehold; and unless the clerk be found guilty of grievous faults, he may laugh to scorn the malice of his enemies and retain his office while life lasts.
It may be useful, therefore, to devote a chapter to the laws relating to parish clerks—a chapter which some of my readers who have no liking for legal technicalities can well afford to skip.
As regards his qualifications the clerk must be at least twenty years of age, and known to the parson as a man of honest conversation, and sufficient for his reading, writing, and for his competent skill in singing, "if it may be." The visitation articles of the seventeenth century frequently inquire whether the clerk be of the age of twenty years at least.
[Footnote 85: Canon 91 (1603).]
The method of his appointment has caused much disputing. With whom does the appointment rest? In former times the parish clerk was always nominated by the incumbent both by common law and the custom of the realm. This is borne out by the constitution of Archbishop Boniface and the 91st Canon, which states that "No parish clerk upon any vacation shall be chosen within the city of London or elsewhere, but by the parson or vicar: or where there is no parson or vicar, by the minister of that place for the time being; which choice shall be signified by the said minister, vicar or parson, to the parishioners the next Sunday following, in the time of Divine Service."
But this arrangement has often been the subject of dispute between the parson and his flock as to the right of the former to appoint the clerk. In pre-Reformation times there was a diversity of practice, some parishioners claiming the right to elect the clerk, as they provided the offerings by which he lived. A terrible scene occurred in the fourteenth century at one church. The parishioners appointed a clerk, and the rector selected another. The rector was celebrating Mass, assisted by his clerk, when the people's candidate approached the altar and nearly murdered his rival, so that blood was shed in the sanctuary.
Custom in many churches sanctioned the right of the parishioners, who sometimes neglected to exercise it, and the choice of clerk was left to the vicar. The visitations in the time of Elizabeth show that the people were expected to appoint to the office, but the episcopal inquiries also demonstrate that the parson or vicar could exercise a veto, and that no one could be chosen without his goodwill and consent.
The canon of 1603 was an attempt to change this variety of usage, but such is the force of custom that many decisions of the spiritual courts have been against the canon and in favour of accustomed usage when such could be proved. It was so in the case of Cundict v. Plomer (8 Jac. I), and in Jermyn's Case (21 Jac. I).
[Footnote 86: Ecclesiastical Law, Sir R. Phillimore, p. 1901.]
At the present time such disputes with regard to the appointment of clerks are unlikely to arise. They are usually elected to their office by the vestry, and the person recommended by the vicar is generally appointed. Indeed, by the Act 7 & 8 Victoria, c. 49, "for better regulating the office of Lecturers and Parish Clerks," it is provided that when the appointment is by others than the parson, it is to be subject to the approval of the parson. Owing to the difficulty of dismissing a clerk, to which I shall presently refer, it is not unusual to appoint a gentleman or farmer to the office, and to nominate a deputy to discharge the actual duties. If we may look forward to a revival of the office and to a restoration of its ancient dignity and importance, it might be possible for the more highly educated man to perform the chief functions, the reading the lessons and epistle, serving at the altar, and other like duties, while his deputy could perform the more menial functions, opening the church, ringing the bell, digging graves, if there be no sexton, and the like.
It is not absolutely necessary that the clerk, after having been chosen and appointed, should be licensed by the ordinary, but this is not unusual; and when licensed he is sworn to obey the incumbent of the parish.
[Footnote 87: Ibid., 1902.]
We have recorded some of the perquisites, fees and wages, which the clerk of ancient times was accustomed to receive when he had been duly appointed. No longer does he receive accustomed alms by reason of his office of aquaebajalus. No longer does he derive profit from bearing the holy loaf; and the cakes and eggs at Easter, and certain sheaves at harvest-tide, are perquisites of the past.
The following were the accustomed wages of the clerk at Rempstone in the year 1629:
[Footnote 88: The Clerks' Book, Dr. Wickham Legg, lv.]
"22nd November, 1629.
"The wages of the Clarke of the Parish Church of Rempstone. At Easter yearely he is to have of every Husbandman one pennie for every yard land he hath in occupation. And of every Cottager two pence.
"Furthermore he is to have for every yard land one peche of Barley of the Husbandman yearely.
"Egges at Easter by Courtesie.
"For every marriage two pence. And at the churching of a woman his dinner.
"The said Barley is to be payed between Christmasse and the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary."
Clerk's Ales have vanished, too, together with the cakes and eggs, but his fees remain, and marriage bells and funeral knells, christenings and churchings bring to him the accustomed dues and offerings. Tables of Fees hang in most churches. It is important to have them in order that no dispute may arise. The following table appears in the parish books of Salehurst, Sussex, and is curious and interesting:
"April 18, 1597.
"Memorandum that the duties for Churchinge of women in the parishe of Salehurst is unto the minister ix d. b. and unto the Clarke ij d.
"Item the due unto the minister for a marriadge is xxj d. And unto the Clarke ij d. the Banes, and iiij d. the marriadge.
"Item due for burialls as followeth To the Minister in the Chancell . . xiii s. iiij d. To the Clarke in the Chancell . . vi s. viiij d. To the Parish in the Church . . . vi s. viii d. To the Clarke in the Church . . . v s. o d. To the Clarke in the churchyard for great coffins . . . . . . . ii s. vi d. For great Corses uncoffined . . . ii s. o d. For Chrisomers and such like coffined . i s. iiii d. And uncoffined . . . . . xij d. For tolling the passing bell and houre . i s. For ringing the sermon bell an houre . i s. 0 d. To the Clarke for carrying the beere . iiij d. If it be fetched . . . . . ij d.
"Item for funerals the Minister is to have the mourning pullpit Cloth and the Clarke the herst Cloth.
"Item the Minister hathe ever chosen the parishe Clarke and one of the Churchwardens and bothe the Sydemen.
"Item if they bring a beere or poles with the corps the Clarke is to have them.
"If any Corps goe out of the parish they are to pay double dutyes and to have leave.
"If any Corps come out of another parish to be buryed here, they are to pay double dutyes besides breakinge the ground; which is xiij s. 4 d. in the church, and vi s. viii d. in the churchyard.
"For marryage by licence double fees both to the Minister and Clarke."
[Footnote 89: Sussex Archaeological Collections, 1873, vol. xxv. p. 154.]
In addition to the fees to which the clerk is entitled by long-established custom, he receives wages, which he can recover by law if he be unjustly deprived of them. Churchwardens who in the old days neglected to levy a church rate in order to pay the expenses of the parish and the salary of the clerk, have been compelled by law to do so, in order to satisfy the clerk's claims.
The wages which he received varied considerably. The churchwardens' accounts reveal the amounts paid the holders of the office at different periods. At St. Mary's, Reading, there are the items in 1557:
"Imprimis the Rent of the Clerke's howse . . . . . . vi s. viii d."
"Paid to Marshall (the clerk) for parcell of his wages that he was unpaide . . v s."
In 1561 the clerk's wages were 40 s., in 1586 only 20 s. At St. Giles's, Reading, in 1520, he received 26 s. 8 d., as the following entry shows:
"Paid to Harry Water Clerk for his wage for a yere ended at thannacon (the Annunciation) of Our Lady. xxvi s. viii."
The clerk at St. Lawrence, Reading, received 20 s. for his services in 1547. Owing to the decrease in the value of money the wages gradually rose in town churches, but in the eighteenth century in many country places 10 s. was deemed sufficient. The sum of L10 is not an unusual wage at the present time for a village clerk.
The dismissal of a parish clerk was a somewhat difficult and dangerous task. In the eyes of the law he is no menial servant—no labourer who can be discharged if he fail to please his master. The law regards him as an officer for life, and one who has a freehold in his place. Sixty years ago no ecclesiastical court could deprive him of his office, but he could be censured for his faults and misdemeanours, though not discharged. Several cases have appeared in the law courts which have decided that as long as a clerk behaves himself well, he has a good right and title to continue in his office. Thus in Rex v. Erasmus Warren (16 Geo. III) it was shown that the clerk became bankrupt, had been guilty of many omissions in his office, was actually in prison at the time of his amoval, and had appointed a deputy who was totally unfit for the office. Against which it was insisted that the office of parish clerk was a temporal office during life, that the parson could not remove him, and that he had a right to appoint a deputy. One of the judges stated that though the minister might have power of removing the clerk on a good and sufficient cause, he could never be the sole judge and remove him at pleasure, without being subject to the control of the court. No misbehaviour of consequence was proved against him, and the clerk was restored to his office.
In a more recent case the clerk had conducted himself on several occasions by designedly irreverent and ridiculous behaviour in his performance of his duty. He had appeared in church drunk, and had indecently disturbed the congregation during the administration of Holy Communion. He had been repeatedly reproved by the vicar, and finally removed from his office. But the court decided that because the clerk had not been summoned to answer for his conduct before his removal, a mandamus should be issued for his restoration to his office.
[Footnote 90: Ecclesiastical Law, Sir R. Phillimore, p. 1907.]
No deputy clerk when removed can claim to be restored. It will be gathered, therefore, that an incumbent is compelled by law to restore a clerk removed by him without just cause, that the justice of the cause is not determined in the law courts by an ex-parte statement of the incumbent, and that an accused clerk must have an opportunity of answering the charges made against him. If a man performs the duties of the office for one year he gains a settlement, and cannot afterwards be removed without just cause.
An important Act was passed in 1844, to which I have already referred, for the better regulating the office of lecturers and parish clerks. Sections 5 and 6 of this Act bear directly on the method of removal of a clerk who may be guilty of neglect or misbehaviour. I will endeavour to divest the wording of the Act from legal technicalities, and write it in "plain English."
If a complaint is made to the archdeacon, or other ordinary, with regard to the misconduct of a clerk, stating that he is an unfit and improper person to hold that office, the archdeacon may summon the clerk and call witnesses who shall be able to give evidence or information with regard to the charges made. He can examine these witnesses upon oath, and hear and determine the truth of the accusations which have been made against the clerk. If he should find these charges proved he may suspend or remove the offender from his office, and give a certificate under his hand and seal to the incumbent, declaring the office vacant, which certificate should be affixed to the door of the church. Then another person may be elected or appointed to the vacant office: "Provided always, that the exercise of such office by a sufficient deputy who shall duly and faithfully perform the duties thereof, and in all respects well and properly demean himself, shall not be deemed a wilful neglect of his office on the part of such church clerk, chapel clerk, or parish clerk, so as to render him liable, for such cause alone, to be suspended or removed therefrom."
A special section of the Act deals with such possessions as clerks' houses, buildings, lands or premises, held by a clerk by virtue of his office. If, when deprived of his office, he should refuse to give up such buildings or possessions, the matter must be brought before the bishop of the diocese, who shall summon the clerk to appear before him. If he fail to appear, or if the bishop should decide against him, the bishop shall grant a certificate of the facts to the person or persons entitled to the possession of the land or premises, who may thereupon go before a justice of the peace. The magistrate shall then issue his warrant to the constables to expel the clerk from the premises, and to hand them over to the rightful owners, the cost of executing the warrant being levied upon the goods and chattels of the expelled clerk. If this cost should be disputed, it shall be determined by the magistrate. Happily few cases arise, but perhaps it is well to know the procedure which the law lays down for the carrying out of such troublesome matters.
The law also takes cognizance of the humbler office of sexton, the duties of which are usually combined in country places with those of the parish clerk. The sexton is, of course, the sacristan, the keeper of the holy things relating to divine worship, and seems to correspond with the ostarius in the Roman Church. His duties consist in the care of the church, the vestments and vessels, in keeping the church clean, in ringing the bells, in opening and closing the doors for divine service, and to these the task of digging graves and the care of the churchyard are also added. He is appointed by the churchwardens if his duties be confined to the church, but if he is employed in the churchyard the appointment is vested in the rector. If his duties embrace the care of both church and churchyard, he should be appointed by the churchwardens and incumbent jointly.
[Footnote 91: Ecclesiastical Law, p. 1914.]
Many cases have come before the law courts relating to sextons and their election and appointment. He does not usually hold the same fixity of tenure as the parish clerk, he being a servant of the parish rather than an officer or one that has a freehold in his place; but in some cases a sexton has determined his right to hold the office for life, and gained a mandamus from the court to be restored to his position after having been removed by the churchwardens.
The law has also decided that women may be appointed sextons.
RECOLLECTIONS OF OLD CLERKS AND THEIR WAYS
Personal recollections of the manners and curious ways of old village clerks are valuable, and several writers have kindly favoured me with the descriptions of these quaint personages, who were well known to them in the days of their youth.
The clerk of a Midland village was an old man who combined with his sacred functions the secular calling of the keeper of the village inn. He was very deaf, and consequently spoke in a loud, harsh voice, and scraps of conversation which were heard in the squire's high square box pew occasioned much amusement among the squire's sons. The Rev. W.V. Vickers records the following incidents:
It was "Sacrament Sunday," and part of the clerk's duty was to prepare the Elements in the vestry, which was under the western tower. Apparently the wine was not forthcoming when wanted, and we heard the following stage-aside in broad Staffordshire: "Weir's the bottle? Oh! 'ere it is, under the teeble (table) all the whoile."
Another part of his duty was to sing in the choir, for which purpose he used to leave the lower deck of the three-decker and hobble with his heavy oak stick to the chancel for the canticles and hymns, and having swelled the volume of praise, hobble back again, a pause being made for his journey both to and fro. Not only did he sing in the choir but he gave out the hymns. This he did in a peculiar sing-song voice with up-and-down cadences: "Let us sing (low) to the praise (high) and glory (low) of God (high) the hundredth (low) psalm (high)." Very much the same intonation accompanied his reading of the alternate verses of the Psalms.
On one occasion a locum tenens, who officiated for a few weeks, was stone deaf. Hence a difficulty arose in his knowing when our worthy, and the congregation, had finished each response or verse. This the clerk got over by keeping one hand well forward upon his book and raising the fingers as he came to the close. This was the signal to the deaf man above him that it was his turn! The old man, by half sitting upon a table in the belfry, could chime the four bells. It was his habit, instead of going by his watch, to look out for the first appearance of my father's carriage (an old-fashioned "britska," I believe it was called, with yellow body and wheels and large black hood, and so very conspicuous) at a certain part of the road, and then, and not till then, commence chiming. It was a compliment to my father's punctuality; but what happened when, by chance, he failed to attend church I know not—but such occasions were rare.
[Footnote 92: In olden days it seems to have been the usual practice in many churches to delay service until the advent of the squire. Every one knows the old story of how, through some inadvertence, the minister had not looked out to see that the great man was in his accustomed pew. He began, "When the wicked man—" The parish clerk tugged him by his coat, saying, "Please, sir, he hasn't come yet!" As to whether the clergyman took the hint and waited for "the wicked man" history sayeth not. Another clerk told a young deacon, who was impatient to begin the service, "You must wait a bit, sir, we ain't ready." He then clambered on the Communion table, and peered through the east window, which commanded a view of the door in the wall of the squire's garden. "Come down!" shouted the curate. "I can see best where I be," replied the imperturbable clerk; "I'm watching the garden door. Here she be, and the squire." Whereupon he clambered down again, and without much further delay the service proceeded.]
Our parish church we seldom attended, for the simple reason that the aged vicar was scarcely audible; but there the clerk, after robing the vicar, mounted to the gallery above the vestry, where, taking a front seat, he watched for the exit of the vicar (whose habit it was to wait for the young men, who also waited in the church porch for him to begin the service!), and then, taking his seat at the organ, commenced the voluntary. It was his duty also to give out the hymns. I have known him play an eight-line tune to a four-line verse (or psalm—we used Tate and Brady), repeating the words of each verse twice!
The organ produced the most curious sounds. In course of time the mice got into it, and the churchwardens, of whom the clerk was one, approached the vicar with the information, at the same time venturing a hint that the organ was quite worn out and that a harmonium would be more acceptable to the congregation than the present music. His reply was that a harmonium was not a sufficiently sacred instrument, and added, "Let a mouse-trap be set at once."
Robert Dicker, quondam cabinet-maker in the town of Crediton, Devon, reigned for many years as parish clerk to the, at one time, collegiate church of the same town. He appears to have fulfilled his office satisfactorily up to about 1870, when his mind became somewhat feeble. Nevertheless, no desire was apparent to shorten the days of his office, as he was regular in his attendance and musically inclined; but when he began to play pranks upon the vicar it became necessary to consider the advisability of finding a substitute who should do the work and receive half the pay. One of his escapades was to stand up in the middle of service and call the vicar a liar; at another time he announced that a wedding was to take place on a certain day. The vicar, therefore, attended and waited for an hour, when the clerk affirmed that he must have dreamed it! Dicker was given to the study of astronomy, and it is related that he once gave a lecture on this subject in the Public Rooms. There is close to the town a small park in memory of one of the Duller family. A man one night was much alarmed when walking therein to discover a bright light in one of the trees, and, later, to hear the voice of the worthy clerk, who addressed him in these words: "Fear not, my friend, and do not be affrighted. I am Robert Dicker, clerk of the parish. I am examining the stars." Another account alleges that he affirmed himself to be "counting the stars." Whichever account is the true one, it will be gathered that he was already "far gone."
Another of his achievements was the conversion of a barrel organ, purchased from a neighbouring church, into a manual, obtaining the wind therefor by a pedal arrangement which worked a large wheel attached to a crank working the bellows. On all great festivals and especially on Christmas Day he was wont to rouse the neighbourhood as early as three and four o'clock, remarking of the ungrateful, complaining neighbours that they had no heart for music or religion.
The wheel mentioned above was part of one of his tricycle schemes. His first attempt in cycle-making resulted in the construction of a bicycle the wheels of which resembled the top of a round deal table; this soon came to grief. His second endeavour was more successful and became a tricycle, the wheels of which were made of wrought iron and the base of a triangular shape. Upon the large end he placed an arm-chair, averring that it would be useful to rest in whenever he should grow weary! Then, making another attempt, he succeeded in turning out (being aided by another person) a very respectable and useful tricycle upon which he made many journeys to Barnstaple and elsewhere.
However, just as an end comes to everything that is mortal, so did an end come to our friend the clerk; for, as so many stories finish, he died in a good old age, and his substitute reigned in his stead.
The following reminiscences of a parish clerk were sent by the Rev. Augustus G. Legge, who has since died.
It is reported of an enthusiastic archaeologian that he blessed the day of the Commonwealth because, he said, if Cromwell and all his destructive followers had never lived, there would have been no ruins in the country to repay the antiquary's researches. And the converse of this is true of a race of men who before long will be "improved" off the face of the earth, if the restoration of our parish churches is to go on at the present rate. I allude to the old parish clerks of our boy-hood days. Who does not remember their quaint figures and quainter, though somewhat irreverent, manner of leading the responses of the congregation? It is well indeed that our churches, sadly given over to the laxity and carelessness of a bygone age, should be renovated and beautified, the tone of the services raised, and the "bray" of the old clerks, unsuited to the devotional feelings of a more enlightened day, silenced, but still a shade of regret will be mingled with their dismissal, if only for the sake of the large stock of amusing anecdotes which their names recall.
My earliest recollections are connected with old Russell, my father's clerk. He was a little man but possessed of a consequential manner sufficient for a giant. A shoemaker by trade, his real element was in the church. His conversation was embellished by high-flown grandiloquence, and he invariably walked upon the heels of his boots. This latter peculiarity, as may well be imagined, was the cause of a most comical effect whenever he had occasion to leave his seat and clatter down the aisle of the church. How often when a boy did I make my old nurse's sides shake with laughter by imitating old Russell's walk! His manner of reading the responses in the service can only be compared to a kind of bellow—as my father used to say, "he bellowed like a calf"—and his rendering of parts of it was calculated to raise a smile upon the lips of the most devout. The following are a few instances of his perversions of the text. "Leviathan" under his quaint manipulation became "leather thing," his trade of shoemaker helping him, no doubt, to his interpretation. Whether he had ever attended a fish-dinner at Greenwich and his mind had thus become impressed with the number and variety of the inhabitants of the deep, history does not record, but, be that as it may, "Bring hither the tabret" was invariably read as "Bring hither the turbot." "Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego" did service for "Ananias, Azarias, and Misael" in the "Benedicite," and "Destructions are come to a perpetual end" was transmogrified into "parental end" in the ninth Psalm. My father once took the trouble to point out and try to correct some of his inaccuracies, but he never attempted it again. Old Russell listened attentively and respectfully, but when the lecture was over he dismissed the subject with a superior shake of the head and the disdainful remark, "Well, sir, I have heerd tell of people who think with you." Never a bit though did he make any change in his own peculiar rendering of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer.
[Footnote 93: Old Russell, for many years clerk of the parish of East Lavant in the county of Sussex.]
There was one occasion on which he especially distinguished himself, and I shall never forget it. A farmyard of six outbuildings abutted upon the church burial ground, and it was but natural that all the fowls should stray into it to feed and enjoy themselves in the grass. Amongst these was a goodly flock of guinea-fowls, which oftentimes no little disturbed the congregation by their peculiar cry of "Come back! come back! come back!" One Sunday the climax of annoyance was reached when the whole flock gathered around the west door just as my father was beginning to read the first lesson. His voice, never at any time very strong, was completely drowned. Whereupon old Russell hastily left his seat, book in hand, and clattering as usual on his heels down the aisle disappeared through the door on vengeance bent. The discomfiture of the offending fowls was instantly apparent by the change in their cry to one more piercing still as they fled away in terror. Then all was still, and back comes old Russell, a gleam of triumph on his face and somewhat out of breath, but nevertheless able without much difficulty to take up the responses in the canticle which followed the lesson. Scarcely, however, had the congregation resumed their seats for the reading of the second lesson when the offending flock again gathered round the west door, and again, as if in defiant derision of Russell, raised their mocking cry of "Come back! come back! come back!" And back accordingly he went clatter, clatter down the aisle, a stern resolution flashing from his eye, and causing the little boys as he passed to quail before him. Now it so happened that the lesson was a short one, and, moreover, Russell took more time, making a farther excursion into the churchyard than before, in order if possible to be rid entirely of the noisy intruders. Just as he returned to the church door, this time completely breathless, the first verse of the canticle which followed was being read, but Russell was equal to the occasion. All breathless as he was, without a moment's hesitation, he opened his book at the place and bellowed forth the responses as he proceeded up the church to his seat. The scene may be imagined, but scarcely described: Russell's quaint little figure, the broad-rimmed spectacles on his nose, the ponderous book in his hands, the clatter of his heels, the choking gasps with which he bellowed out the words as he laboured for breath, and finally the sudden disappearance of the congregation beneath the shelter of their high pews with a view to giving vent to their feelings unobserved—all this requires to have been witnessed to be fully appreciated.
It chanced one Sunday that a parishioner coming into church after the service had begun omitted to close the door, causing thereby an unseemly draught. My father directed Russell to shut it. Accordingly, book in hand and with a thumb between the leaves to keep the place, he sallied forth. But, alas! in shutting the door the thumb fell out and the place was lost, and after floundering about awhile to find, if possible, the proper response, he at length made known to the congregation the misfortune which had befallen him by exclaiming aloud, "I've lost my place or summut."
A very amusing incident once took place at a baptism. The service proceeded with due decorum and regularity till my father demanded of the godfather the child's name. The answer was so indistinctly given that he had to repeat the question more than once, and even then the name remained a mystery. All he could make out was something which sounded like "Harmun," the godfather indignantly asserting the while that it was a "Scriptur" name. In his perplexity my father turned to Russell with the query: "Clerk, do you know what the name is?" "No, sir. I'm sure I don't know, unless it be he at the end of the prayer," meaning "Amen." The result was that the child was otherwise christened, and after the ceremony was over my father, placing a Bible in the godfather's hands, requested him to find the "Scriptur" name, as he called it, when, having turned over the leaves for some time, he drew his attention to wicked Haman. The child's escape, therefore, was most fortunate. Old Russell has now slept with his fathers for many years, and the few stories which I have related about him do not by any means exhaust the list of his oddities. Many of the parishioners to this day, no doubt, will call to mind the quaint way in which, if he thought any one was misbehaving himself in church, he would rise slowly from his seat with such majesty as his diminutive stature could command, and shading his spectacles with his hand, gaze sternly in the offending quarter; how on a certain Communion Sunday he forgot the wine to be used in the sacred office, and when my father directed his attention to the omission, after sundry dives under the altar-cloth he at last produced a common rush basket, and from it a black bottle; how on another Sunday, being desirous to free the church from smoke which had escaped from a refractory stove, he deliberately mounted upon the altar and remained standing there while he opened a small lattice in the east window. All these circumstances will, no doubt, be recalled by some one or other in the parish. But, gentle reader, be not overharsh in passing judgment upon him. I verily believe that he had no more desire to be irreverent than you or I have. The fault lay rather in the religious coldness and carelessness of those days than in him. He was liked and respected by every one as a harmless, inoffensive, good-hearted old fellow, and I cannot better close this brief account of some of his peculiarities than by saying—as I do with all my heart—Peace to his ashes!
* * * * *
Mr. Legge's baptismal story reminds me of a friend who was christening the child of a gipsy, when the name given was "Neptin." This puzzled him sorely, but suddenly recollecting that he had baptized another gipsy child "Britannia," without any hesitation he at once named the infant "Neptune." Mr. Eagles was once puzzled when the sponsor gave the name "Acts." "'Acts!' said I. 'What do you mean?' Thinks I to myself, I will ax the clerk to spell it. He did: A-C-T-S. So Acts was the babe, and will be while in this life, and will be doubly, trebly so registered if ever he marries or dies. Afterwards, in the vestry, I asked the good woman what made her choose such a name. Her answer verbatim: 'Why, sir, we be religious people; we've got your on 'em already, and they be caal'd Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and so my husband thought we'd compliment the apostles a bit.'"
Mr. Legge adds the following stories:
My first curacy was in Norfolk in the year 1858, a period when the old style of parish clerk had not disappeared. On one occasion I was asked by a friend in a neighbouring parish to take a funeral service for him. On arriving at the church I was received by a very eccentric clerk. It seemed as if his legs were hung upon wires, and before the service began he danced about the church in a most peculiar and laughable manner, and in addition to this he had a hideous squint, one eye looking north and the other south. The service proceeded with due decorum until we arrived at the grave, when those who were preparing to lower the coffin in it discovered that it had not been dug large enough to receive it. This of course created a very awkward pause while it was made larger, and the chief mourner utilised it by gently remonstrating with the clerk for his carelessness. In reply he gave a solemn shake of his head, cast one eye into the grave and the other at the chief mourner, and merely remarked, "Putty (pretty) nigh though," meaning that the offence after all was not so very great, as he had almost accomplished his task. Obliged to keep my countenance, I had, as may be imagined, some difficulty.
A very amusing incident once took place when I had a couple before me to be married. All went well until I asked the question, "Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?" when an individual stepped forward, and snatching the ring out of the bride-groom's hand, began placing it on a finger of the bride. As all was confusion I signed to the old clerk to put matters straight. Attired in a brown coat and leather gaiters, with spectacles on his nose, and a large Prayer Book in his hands, he came shuffling forward from the background, exclaiming out loud, "Bless me, bless me! never knew such a thing happen afore in all my life!" The service was completed without any further interruption, but again I had a sore difficulty in keeping my countenance.
Many years ago ecclesiastical matters in Norfolk were in a very slack state—rectors and vicars lived away from their parishes, subscribing amongst them to pay the salary of a curate to undertake the church services. As his duties were consequently manifold some parishes were without his presence on Sunday for a month and sometimes longer. The parish clerk would stand outside the church and watch for the coming parson, and if he saw him in the distance would immediately begin to toll the bell; if not, the parish was without a service on that day.
It happened on one of these monthly occasions that on the arrival of the parson at the church he was met by the clerk at the door, who, pulling his forelock, addressed him as follows: "Sir, do yew mind a prachin in the readin' desk to-day?" "Yes," was the reply; "the pulpit is the proper place." "Well, sir, you see we fare to have an old guse a-sittin' in the pulpit. She'll be arf her eggs to-morrow; 'twould be a shame to take her arf to-day."
The pulpit was considered as convenient a place as any for the "old guse" to hatch her young in.
Canon Venables contributes the following:
The first parish clerk I can in the least degree remember was certainly entitled to be regarded as a "character," albeit not in all moral respects what would be called a moral character. Shrewd, clever, and better informed than the inhabitants of his little village of some eighty folk, he was not "looked up to," but was regarded with suspicion, and, in short, was not popular, while treated with a certain amount of deference, being a man of some knowledge and ability. The clergyman was a man of excellent character, learned, a fluent ex-tempore preacher, and one who liked the services to be nicely conducted. He came over every Sunday and ministered two services. In those days the only organ was a good long pitch-pipe constructed principally of wood and, I imagine, about twelve inches in length. But upon the parish clerk devolved the onerous (and it may be added in this case sonorous) duty of starting the hymn and the singing. In those days few could read, and the method was adopted (and I know successfully adopted a few years later) of announcing two lines of the verse to be sung, and sometimes the whole verse. But Mr. W.M. was unpopular, and people did not always manifest a willingness to sing with him.
At last a crisis came. The hymn and psalm were announced. The pitch-pipe rightly adjusted gave the proper keynote, and the clerk essayed to sing. But from some cause matters were not harmonious and none attempted to help the clerk.
With a scowl not worthy of a saint, the offended official turned round upon the congregation and closed all further attempts at psalm-singing by stating clearly and distinctly, "I shan't sing if nobody don't foller." This man was deposed ere long, and deservedly, if village suspicions were truthful.
After which, I think, he usually came just inside the church once every Sunday, but never to get further than to take a seat close to the door. He died at a great age. Two or three of his successors were worthy men. One of them would carefully recite the Psalms for the coming Sunday within church or elsewhere during the week, and he read with proper feeling and good sense.
Another of the same little parish, well up in his Bible, once helped the very excellent clergyman at a baptism in a critical moment. "Name this child." "Zulphur." This was not a correct name. Another effort, "Sulphur." The clergyman was in difficulty. The clerk was equal to the occasion, for the parson was well up in his Bible too.
"Leah's handmaid," suggested the clerk. "Zilpah, I baptize thee," said the priest, and all was well.
In that church the few farmers who met to levy a poor-rate and do other parochial work insisted on doing so within the chancel rails, using the holy table as the writing-desk, and the assigned reason for so doing was that, being apt to quarrel and dispute over parish matters, there would be no danger at such a place as this of using profane language. All in the diocese of Oxford.
It was in the twenties that I must have seen old P.W. (the parish clerk) and two other men in the desk singing to "Hanover," with a certain apparent self-complacency in nice smock-frocks, "My soul, praise the Lord, speak good of His Name," etc. The little congregation listened with seeming contentment, and it is worth recording that the parson always preached in the surplice. I suppose Pusey was a boy at that time, but the custom in this church was not a novelty, whether right or wrong.
It was not the clerk's fault that the hour of service was hastened by some seventy minutes one afternoon, so that one or two invariably late worshippers were astounded to be driven backwards from the church by the congregation returning from service. But so it was. The really well-meaning kind-hearted parson was withal a keen sportsman and a worthy gentleman, and with his "long dogs" and man was on his horse and away for Illsley Downs race course to come off next day, and his dogs (they won) must not be fatigued. Old P.W., the clerk, reached a good age, an inoffensive man.
I was rather interested when residing in my parish in grand old Yorkshire to observe two steady-looking and rather elderly men, each aided by a strong walking-stick, coming to church with praiseworthy regularity and reverence. I found, on making their acquaintance, that they were brothers who had recently come into the parish, natives of "the Peak," or of the locality near the Peak, which was not many miles distant from my parish.
Since I heard from their lips the story which I am about to relate, I have heard it told, mutatis mutandis, as happening in sundry other parishes, until one rather doubts the genuineness of the record at all. But as they recounted it it ran as follows, and I am sure they believed what they told me.
Some malicious person or persons unknown entered the church, and having seized the rather large typed Prayer Book used by the clerk, who was somewhat advanced in years, they observed that the words "the righteous shall flourish like" were the last words at the bottom of the page, whereupon they altered the next words on the top of the following page, and which were "the palm tree," into "a green bay horse"; and, the change being carefully made, the result on the Sunday following was that the well-meaning clerk, studiously uttering each word of his Prayer Book, found himself declaring very erroneous doctrine. "Hulloa," cried he; "I must hearken back. This'll never do." Now I cannot call to mind the name of the parish. It was not Chapel-in-the-Frith. Was it Mottram-in-Longdendale? I really cannot remember. But these two old men asserted that thenceforward it became a saying, "I must hearken back, like the clerk of—."
I recollect preaching one weekday night (and people would crowd the churches on weekday evenings fifty years ago far more readily than they do now) at some wild place in Lancashire or Yorkshire, I think Lancashire. I was taken to see and stand upon a stepping stone outside the church, and close against the south wall of the sacred edifice, upon which almost every Sunday the clerk, as the people were leaving church, ascended and in a loud voice announced any matters concerning the parish which it appeared desirable to proclaim. In this way any intended sales were made known, the loss of sheep or cattle on the moors was announced, and almost anything appertaining to the secular welfare of the parishioners was made public. I do not state this to criticise it. It was in some degree a recognition of the charity which ought to realise the sympathy in each other's welfare which we ought all to display. It was in those primitive times and localities a specimen of the simplicity and well-meant interest in the welfare of the neighbour as well as of oneself, although perhaps the secular sometimes did much to extinguish the spiritual.
Few people now realise what a business it was to light up a church, say, eighty years ago. But the worthy old clerk, in a wig bestowed on him by the pious and aged patron, is hastening to illuminate his church with old-fashioned candles, in which he is aided not a little by his faithful wife, who, like Abraham's wife, regarded her husband as her lord and responded to the name of Sarah. The good old man—and he was a good old man—was perhaps a little bit "flustered and flurried," for the folk were gathering within the sacred temple, and W.L. was anxious to complete his task of lighting the loft, or gallery. "I say, Sally, hand us up a little taste of candle," cried her lord, and Sarah obeyed, and the illumination was soon complete.
But, really, few men "gave out" or announced a hymn with truer and more touching and devout feeling than did that old clerk. I am one of those who do not think that all the changes in the ministration of Church services are, after experience had, desirable. I think that in many instances the lay clerk ought to have been instructed in the performance of his duties, to the profit of all concerned. And I deem that this proceeding would have been a far wiser proceeding than any substitution of the man or his function. There is ancient authority for a clerk or clerks. It is wise to secure work to be attended to in the functions of divine service for as many laymen as possible, consistent with principle and propriety. W.L. was an old man when I saw him, but I can hear him now as with a pathos quite touching and teaching, because done so simply and naturally, he announced, singing:
"Salvation, what a glorious theme, How suited to our need. The grace that rescues fallen man Is wonderful indeed."
And though he pronounced the last word but one as if spelt "woonderful," I venture to say that the "giving out" of that verse by that aged clerk with his venerable wig and with a voice trembling a little by age, but more by natural emotion, was preferable to many modern modes of announcing a hymn.
It was common to say "Let us sing, to the praise and glory of God." It is common to be shocked, nowadays, by such an invitation. Are we as reverent now as then? Do we sing praises with understanding better? I think it is not so.
I knew a very respectable man, W.K., a tailor by trade, a well-conducted man, but who felt the importance of his office to an extent that made him nervous, or (what is as bad) made him fancy he was nervous. The church was capacious, and the population over two thousand.
A large three-decker, though the pulpit was at a right angle with the huge prayer-desk and the clerk's citadel below, well stained and varnished, formed an important portion of the furniture of the church, the whole structure, as we were reminded by large letters above the chancel arch, having been "Adorn'd and beautified 1814," the names of the churchwardens being also recorded. This clerk was observed frequently, during the service, to stoop down within his little "pew" as if to imbibe something. He was inquired of as to his strange proceeding, when he frankly stated that he felt the trials of his duties to be so great, that he always fortified himself with a little bottle containing some gin and some water, to which bottle he made frequent appeals during the often rather lengthy services. He had to proclaim the notices of vestry meetings of all kinds, as well as to give out the hymns; but what astonishes me is that he baptized many infants at their homes instead of the most excellent vicar, when circumstances made it difficult for the really good vicar to attend.
I saw him, one first Sunday in Lent, stand up on the edge of his square box or pew, and conduct a rather long consultation with the vicar, a very spiritually minded, excellent man, upon which we were put through the whole Commination Service which, though appointed for Ash Wednesday, was wholly neglected until it lengthened out the Sunday morning of the first in but not of Lent, and having nothing to do with the forty days of Lent.
The well-conducted man lived to a good age, and after his death a rather costly stained glass window was erected to his memory under the active influence of a new vicar. When privately engaged in church he wore his usual silk hat, though not approving of any one so behaving.
I recollect, in a large church in a large town, the clerk, arrayed (properly, I think) in a suitable black gown, giving out the hymn, in a tone to be regretted, but where the obvious remedy was not to dethrone the clerk, but rather to have just suggested the propriety of reading the entire verse, as well as of avoiding a tone lugubrious on the occasion.
It was Easter Day, and the hymn quite appropriate, but not so rendered as the clerk heavily and drearily announced:
"The Lord is risen indeed, And are the tidings true?"
as if there might exist a doubt about this glorious fact.
Pity that he did not enter into the spirit of the verse and add:
"Yes! we beheld the Saviour bleed, And saw Him rising too."
Within about ten miles nearer to Windsor Castle the clerk of a church in which not a few nobility usually worshipped, was altogether at fault in his "H's," as he exhorted the people to sing, "The Heaster Im with the Allelujer, het the hend of hevery line." Other clerks may have done the same. He did it, I know well.
Throughout the whole of my very imperfect ministry I have sought to practise catechising in church every Sunday afternoon, and very strongly desire to urge the practice of it in every church every Sunday.
It is one of the most difficult parts of the glorious ministry since the time of St. Luke that can engage the attention of the ordained ministers of Christ's Church. It needs to be done well. It ought not to be a very nice, simple sermonette. This, though very beautiful, is not catechising. Perhaps, if at once followed by questions upon the sermonette, it might thus become very useful. But a catechesis in which the catechist simply tells a simple story or gives an amusing anecdote, or when questioning, so puts his inquiries that "yes" and "no" are the listless replies that are drawn forth from the lads and girls, is not interesting or profitable. Whenever I have the opportunity I go to an afternoon catechetical service. Some failed by being made into the time of a small preachment; some because in a few minutes the catechist easily asked questions and then answered them himself. Others were really magnificent, securing the attention and drawing forth answers admirably. Was it the great bishop Samuel Wilberforce who said, "A boy may preach, but it takes a man to catechise"?
I cannot boast of being a good catechist; but I know that catechising costs me more mental exhaustion (alas! with sad depression under a sense of trial of temper and failure) than any sermon. But I will say to any clergyman, My dear brother, catechise; try, persevere, keep on. It will not be in vain. But secure an answer. If need be, become a cross-examining advocate for Christ, and don't give up until you have made the catechumens, by dint of a variety of ways of putting the question, give the answer you desired. You have made them think and call memory into play, and made them feel that they "knew it all the time," if only they had reflected. And you have given them a "power of good."
But what has all this to do with a clerk? Well, I want to tell what made me try to be a good catechist, and what makes me, over eighty-three years of age, still wish to become such, though the incident must have happened some seventy years ago, for I recollect that on the very Sunday we crossed the Greta my father whispered to me as we were on the bridge that it was the poet Southey who was close to us, as he as well as our little family and a goodly congregation were returning from Crosthwaite Church in the afternoon. For "oncers" were unknown in those times, neither by poets and historians like Southey, nor by travellers such as we were. We had attended morning service. A stranger officiated. His name was Bush, and this is important. A family "riddle" impressed the name upon me. "Why were we all like Moses to-day?" "We had heard the word out of a Bush," was the reply. But at the afternoon service I was deeply impressed. The Rev. M. Bush having read the lessons, came out of the prayer-desk, and to my amazement and great interest catechised the children and others.