By David Pugsley

Transcribed by Nick Savage, and provided here by kind permission of the author.

The Vicar of Cullompton in the nineteenth century had an income of some £400 per annum. That was the sum fixed at the tithe commutations of 1839 and 1841 as the equivalent of what he should previously have received by way of tithes.

By way of comparison we may note that when the weavers went on strike against their employer, William Upcott, in 1842, they were earning no more than six shillings a week, out of which many of them had to support themselves, a wife and three children. A typical household budget was as follows:[1]

House rent 1s - 6d
Shoes and clothing 1s - 0d
Soap and candles 6d
Coals 1s - 0d
Food for 5 persons for 7 days 2s - 0d

That gives some idea of the purchasing power at that time  of £400 per annum in Cullompton in terms of grooms and gardeners and maids and clothing. The vicar was a very wealthy man in his local community.

The vicar’s income was secure for life. The duties, as we shall see, were very flexible. The patronage, therefore, the right to present the new vicar whenever there was a vacancy, was an asset of considerable financial value. That value could not be realised directly by presenting the new man in exchange for payment or other quid pro quo. That was simony,[2] and in that case the presentation itself was void and the right of presentation passed to the Crown for that turn. That would be catastrophic for the patron if the Crown presented a young clergyman who might remain vicar for forty years. But the patronage could be used to advantage to present a relative or friend to the living, and the patronage itself could be bought and sold.

Prior to 1839 the vicar’s income was derived from tithes in kind. That was a frequent source of difficulty and dispute. During the interregnum in 1834, between the death of Vicar Hodge and the induction of Vicar Sykes, the tithes were, as usual, sequestrated; but before the sequestration was published, some farmers took up their potatoes so as to avoid tithes; and a tithe pig was exposed for sale from 8 am to 5 pm without meeting an offer and was ultimately sold for two shillings.[3]

The tithe income was a matter of direct interest to the vicar himself, but it was also a matter of indirect interest to the patron if he was concerned about the value of the patronage. During the eighteenth century the patrons showed little interest. They were the Sellick family, who lived at what is now the Manor House.[4] After the incumbency of Vicar Derby they failed to make any presentation within the statutory six months after the vacancy, so that the right of presentation lapsed, first to the bishop, and then to the king, who presented Vicar Willcocks on 27 May 1733. At the next vacancy they again failed to make any presentation within the statutory six months, so that the right of presentation lapsed to the bishop, who collated Vicar Manning on 6 September 1756. The next vicar, John Veryard Brutton, was presented by Alice Sellick on 19 December 1777.

The nineteenth century patrons paid much more attention to the business side of patronage. Vicar Brutton, who had acquired the patronage, sold it to Alderman Daniel, of Bristol, for £16,000, but refunded £2,000 when the tithe income was found to be lower than anticipated.  On 9 November 1814 Daniel presented to the living the Reverend Walker Gray, who had married his daughter, Emily, on 7 July 1814. The patronage was an investment to provide an income for a daughter and son-in-law. In addition he then gave them the patronage as well.

Walker Gray came to Cullompton in November 1814 and ran the parish, and took most of the services himself, until June 1815. It is said that his wife did not like the parish. At any rate he then appointed John Templer curate, which he remained until September 1819, when he became vicar himself. During that period Gray was not a totally absentee vicar, but he left Templer to do most of the work.[5] He moved back to Bristol with his wife, though he did continue to visit Cullompton fairly frequently.

John Templer had married, on 4 August 1812, Sarah, daughter of Henry Skinner, a former churchwarden. Walker Gray presented him to the living on 9 September 1819 and later sold him the patronage as well.[6] He was a resident and active vicar, but he died on 14 December 1829. On 12 June 1830 Sarah Templer, who was now patron, presented John Hodge to the living. A great deal of fiction has been written about John Hodge. “The new vicar was an old man aged 78. He only held this living for three years and died here at the great age of 81. There was no compulsory retirement of aged clergy in those days. Why such an old man should have been selected to take charge of a parish with a population at this time of over 4,000, and why the Bishop of Exeter should have agreed to institute him, must remain a matter of conjecture, unless it were to reward him for a curacy of exactly fifty years at the neighbouring small village of Honiton Clyst, among whose 300 people he laboured from 1780 to 1830, and where he had also been born. Rumour has suggested that Mrs Templer chose so old a man in order that she might remain at the vicarage with four children as his housekeeper! His vicariate, as might be supposed, was uninteresting, and the only event of any real importance therein was a severe cholera epidemic, which caused the death of a large number of parishioners in 1832.”[7]

The truth was rather different. Sarah Templer was in a difficult situation. She had to support herself and her young children now that both her parents and her husband were dead. If she simply presented a new vicar she could not require anything in exchange, for that would be simony, with its dire consequences for all concerned. The only way in which she could raise money was by sale of the patronage itself. But there were complications. First, sale of the patronage while the living is void, is simoniacal and void: therefore she had to present someone first. Secondly, sale without vacant possession would naturally be at a much lower price.: therefore she would want someone who would only be a vicar for a short time. Thirdly, a general bond or promise by the new vicar to resign in certain circumstances, is void, though the presentation itself remains valid: therefore she could not ensure that the new vicar would resign when the new patron asked him to do so. And finally, if the patron fails to present within six months of the vacancy, the right of presentation lapses and the Bishop is entitled to collate for that turn, with catastrophic results for the patron if the Bishop chooses a young man: therefore she had to present someone before 14 June 1830.

John Hodge was presented on 12 June 1830, just in time. His was a stop-gap presentation, designed solely to preserve the patron’s rights against lapse and to ensure, because of his age, that there would be vacant possession shortly afterwards. There was no question of Sarah Templer’s remaining in the vicarage as his housekeeper!

William Sykes took over as curate and resident minister on 29 August 1830 (baptism and banns), having been officiating minister on several occasions previously, and remained in that capacity until 14 December 1834. In 1831 Sarah Templer sold the patronage to Richard Benyon de Beauvoir, Sykes’ uncle by marriage. While he was curate he ran the parish; he moved into the vicarage; he appointed the Vicar’s Warden; he was Vicar in all but name. And after Hodge’s death on 10 October 1834, his uncle presented him to the living on 20 December 1834, to give him the official title as well.

John Hodge was simply a man of straw, who owes his involvement in Cullompton’s history to a series of legal technicalities. He was a totally absentee vicar, as had been intended by all concerned. After his presentation he came to Cullompton on 11 July 1830 and presumably read himself in: certainly he read the banns of marriage on that day. Apart from that visit, there is no evidence that he ever came to Cullompton during the more than four years between his presentation and his death. During that period there were 415 baptisms, 86 marriages preceded by an appropriate number of banns, and 284 funerals; but he did not officiate at any of those services. The Western Times, explaining in 1833 that “the parish has experienced no less than four changes in its spiritual guardianship within the last ten years,” made no mistake: it simply ignored him.

He was, however, an interesting man of straw.[8] He was baptised at Honiton Clyst in 1752 and became curate there in 1780. The Registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths from 1812 onwards show that he ran the parish entirely on his own, which was not a particularly arduous task. The Vicar, George Moore, was another total absentee. When Moore died in 1821 he was succeeded by William Webber Bagnell, who took over the parish in 1822 and ran it himself until his death in 1874, 52 years later, aged 83. Hodge, who was 70 in 1822, seems to have retired and there is no evidence that he did anything for the next three years. Then in 1825 he was presented by William Guppy, of Farway, near Honiton, as Rector of Bolnhurst, Bedfordshire. He was instituted there on 6 August 1825 and remained vicar until 1828, when Guppy presented him as Rector of the neighbouring parish of Colmworth. He was instituted there on 29 May 1828 and remained vicar until 1830, when he became Vicar of Cullompton. In both Bedfordshire parishes he was a totally absentee vicar and the parishes were run by the curate. At that time Guppy was making arrangements to sell the patronage. It appears, therefore, that Hodge was already being used, on account of his age, as a professional caretaker incumbent before he was presented to the living at Cullompton.

While Hodge was nominally Vicar of Cullompton the 1832 cholera epidemic swept through the county. It struck at Bradninch and Tiverton, but Cullompton apparently emerged unscathed.[9]

When he died the obituaries were kind: “He was a man of the most benevolent disposition and a highly cultivated mind.”[10] After his death a different picture emerged: “Old age had brought no honours to him; and his name has been recorded in the courts of law as the perpetrator of a foul falsification of a parish register for a filthy bribe. He was an habitual drunkard – such at least is the reputation that follows his memory.”[11] The forgery came to light after his death in the case of Ansdell v Gompertz at Exeter Assizes in March 1837. The case concerned the legitimacy of two brothers who claimed to be entitled to an estate worth £60,000. The Honiton Clyst Register of Baptisms is now in the Devon County Record Office. The forgery is very obvious. William Ansdell paid Hodge £50 for it in 1829.[12]

William Sykes was a resident minister, both as curate and as vicar. He moved into the vicarage and brought up his large family there. He was heavily involved in the life of the parish: the protracted tithe dispute, the great fire of 1839, and the church restorations of 1844 and 1849. The tithe dispute was complicated by a charge of simony. It was alleged that Hodge had leased the tithes to Sykes for £170 per annum, though they were worth £400, and that he had agreed to do so in exchange for the presentation to the living. Hodge’s connection with Cullompton therefore continued for some years after his death. At the tithe hearings in 1839 a lot of unsavoury details about his private life and drinking habits were aired in public, much to the delight of the Western Times, though the Bedfordshire episode, surprisingly, escaped notice. The Tithe Commissioner held that the allegation of simony had not been proved.

By 1855 Sykes had grown tired of Cullompton. That year he appointed a curate, John James Scott, and left him to do nearly all the work. And in 1857 he finally left the parish.  He appointed William Hooper curate from March to October 1857, though he himself officiated once in May and June. His last service seems to have been on 21 June 1857.

His successor was Robert Pinckney, vicar from 1857 to 1861. Here something must be said both about the patron and about the vicar. According to Watkins Grubb,[13] “in 1857 Mr Sykes sod the advowson to the Earl of Devon,” and the Earl presented Vicars Pinckney, Chave (1861-64) and Grant (1864-72), before selling the patronage to Binford Sellwood in 1876. In fact the Clergy List shows that Sykes did not sell the patronage until 1861 and then not to the Earl of Devon but to Mrs Chave, who presented her husband to the living and then transferred the patronage to him as well. Chave presented Vicar Grant in 1864 and sold the patronage to the Rev J Oldham, of  Clay Cross, Chesterfield, in 1865. From him it passed to Binford Sellwood in 1876 and so to the Church Pastoral Aid Society, the present patrons.

Watkins Grubb appears to have relied on a letter dated 10 June 1857 from Sykes’ London solicitors to the Courtenay agent at Powderham asking him to value the patronage.[14] There is no evidence that the Earl of Devon ever considered buying it himself. Sykes was therefore still patron when Pinckney was presented to the living in November 1857. Pinckney was thirty at the time and might have remained vicar for thirty or forty years. Yet we know that Sykes was trying to sell the patronage and did in fact sell it four years later. We know that Sykes was aware of the importance of vacant possession. He could not have forgotten the events of 1830, involving Sarah Templer, John Hodge and himself, or the tithe dispute, or the charge of simony. And his solicitors’ letter, on 10 June 1857, is quite explicit: “Mr Sykes, who dislikes the place, has made an arrangement to give immediate possession.” His presentation of a young man, which ought normally to have meant an enormous reduction in the market value of the patronage, therefore requires some explanation.

The explanation lies in the circumstances of Pinckney’s departure less than four years later. In 1859 Charles Biddlecombe Ewens bought a site next to the vicarage and turned it into a fellmonger’s yard. The smells from the yard were highly offensive, similar, according to Pinckney, to those he had experienced at funerals. Pinckney sued Ewens for nuisance at Exeter assizes on 29 July 1861, with very expensive counsel on both sides. He claimed damages of £1,000. The court sat all day until 10 pm., and the jury finally found a verdict for Pinckney – damages forty shillings, with no order as to costs. As a result Ewens closed the yard and moved to new premises at Court House on the north side of town (now a retirement home).

Less than two weeks later, on Sunday 11 August 1861, Pinckney preached his farewell sermon and left the parish. That also requires some explanation. The Western Times asked the right questions. “Why our vicar leaves us in this way, the general public cannot make out. A man will generally require weighty reasons – even a modern successor of the Apostles will – for leaving a living with a good residence, some forty acres of glebe, a yearly rent-charge of over £400, besides those agreeable and not infrequent droppings, the surplice fees. This is a combination of agreeables not to be despised: why then does he leave them?”[15]

His departure was so sudden that apparently he had no time to make plans for it. “On Monday he was removing his furniture from the Vicarage to make way for the coming man, and placing it in a house down in the town for temporary shelter until he shall find elsewhere a place of rest.” And all that happened within two weeks of a successful action for nuisance which must have made the vicarage a pleasanter place to live in than it had been for two years.

The Western Times gave the wrong answer. “He quits, some understand, after having sold the living to some other stronger or less particular brother of the cloth.” But a vicar cannot sell the living: the next presentation belongs to the patron, and he cannot sell it either – that would be simony.

Pinckney’s youthful presentation and sudden departure both require explanation. One possibility, which would explain both points at the same time, is that Pinckney signed an undated letter of resignation before he was presented to the living. The same technique was used for Lord Chief Justice Lawrence in 1921. He would not have been appointed without such a letter, and he only knew about his resignation when he read about it in the Times.[16] One has the impression that Pinckney only knew about his resignation when he was told that he had ten days to move out. One may imagine Sykes sold the patronage plus the undated resignation to Mrs Chave, who only agreed to buy when the nuisance action was successful. That at least makes financial sense of the whole Pinckney episode.

The new vicar was the Rev Edward William Tanner Chave. He was the eldest son of the Rev Edward Chave and his wife, Mary, eldest daughter of the Rev William Tanner, Rector of Meshaw, 1779-1830, and Priest-Vicar, Exeter Cathedral, 1808-1830. There is another connection with John Hodge here. William Tanner was presented by William Guppy, of  Farway, to the livings of Bolnhurst and Colmworth on 15 April 1825. He resigned the living of Bolnhurst almost immediately afterwards, and John Hodge was inducted on 6 August 1825. He resigned the living of Colmworth in 1828, and John Hodge was inducted there on 29 May 1828. He was an absentee rector. The curate at Bolnhurst and Colmworth at the time was the Rev Timothy Matthews, and his experience in those two parishes of the system of buying and selling patronage and presenting senile, absentee incumbents may have influenced his views and subsequent career.[17]

Chave arrived in Cullompton in 1861 as vicar and patron. Three years later he left and sold the patronage in 1865 to the Rev J Oldham. This too requires explanation. When a vicar arrives in a new parish at the age of 43 and acquires the patronage, it looks as if he intends to settle in permanently. He had previously been Rector of St Pancras, Exeter, for 16 years. He went on to be Vicar of St Anne’s, Wandsworth, for 24 years. His short incumbency and sudden departure from Cullompton are surprising.

The answer is perhaps to be found in Lewis Upcott’s Our Vicars.[18] “It was while he was Vicar that the great Battle of the Hymnbooks was fought. When he came we still sang Tate and Brady’s New Version. He introduced the then new Hymns Ancient and Modern. But the Evangelical section of our community, which was the most united, the most resolute, and the most bellicose party, discovered Papistical tendencies in the book. They desired to substitute the Hymnal Companion, which, among other merits, had brought Newman’s dubious Lead, kindly light into correct form by an additional verse of unimpeachable orthodoxy, though not quite impeccable poetry. They declared war, and war there was: the little town was rent asunder by faction. The Low Church circle held the power of the purse, and the poor old Vicar, sore beset and battered, had to yield.”

As it stands in Our Vicars this passage refers, not to Vicar Chave (1861-64), but to Vicar Grant (1864-72). I doubt whether that is right. Lewis Upcott was born in 1851. Our Vicars covers the period of about 1857 to 1875 when he was a schoolboy and undergraduate. The manuscript is undated, written after the death of Lewis Potter in 1887 and perhaps much later. And it was written to entertain rather than as a contribution to history: there are no dates, and none of the vicars is identified by name. It would not be surprising if some inaccuracies had crept in.

There seems no reason to doubt that the Battle of the Hymnbooks took place. There had been similar controversies in Teignmouth and Crediton in 1861, and an attempt to introduce Hymns Ancient and Modern in Bradninch in about 1863 was equally unsuccessful. Hymns A & M first appeared in 1861 and could have been introduced by either Chave or Grant. The words then new perhaps suggest an early date. At any rate Chave organised the first festival of parochial choirs in connection with the Tiverton and Cullompton Choral Association at St Andrew’s on 28 September 1864. Hymns A & M were used on that occasion, which was a great success. The passage in Our Vicars could therefore plausibly have referred to him.

Vicar Grant, on the other hand, was an old man, 68 when he arrived in Cullompton. Upcott describes him as a “tall , rather bent, white-haired old gentleman, whose youth lay beyond the Battle of Waterloo. His oddities were part of his humanity: he had an old-fashioned, ceremonial courtesy of manner, which touched the imagination while it amused. It seemed to be an echo of a past age of leisured culture.” He had memories of 1814. He was a little deaf. He was absent-minded. He preached old sermons from the days of the Corn Law League. He shot rabbits with a long flint-lock gun: he never learnt to use the percussion cap. None of this sounds like the hardy innovator who would try to introduce a new hymnbook.

We may conclude, therefore, that it was Chave who tried to introduce       Hymns A & M in 1864, made himself thoroughly unpopular, and decided to leave the parish in a hurry. He then found himself in the familiar difficulty over the sale of the patronage: he could not sell while the living was vacant, but without vacant possession the price would be greatly reduced. The solution was equally familiar: present an old man with a short expectation of life. Hence the arrival of Vicar Grant in Cullompton at the age of 68.

In 1865 Chave sold the patronage to the Rev J Oldham. Since that time the vicars and patrons have probably been better evangelists, but they have certainly been less interesting for the local historian.


[1] Western Times, 26 February 1842.

[2] See the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 8, verses 18-20.

[3] Western Times, 8 November and 6 December 1834.

[4] The name, the Manor House, was first used by J S Upcott in 1850 but it was appropriate for a house that had once belonged to the patrons of the parish church.

[5] Baptisms: Gray, 63; Templer, 343.  Marriages: Gray, 17; Templer, 82. Burials: Gray, 46; Templer, 227. Sunday services with banns: Gray, 74; Templer, 95.

[6] See Lysons’ unpublished correspondence, Brit Mus Add MS 9430, p. 198: “Cullompton, July 3rd 1820. Since I succeeded to this living I have thrown down the old Vicarage House and having altogether changed the site am now building a much more commodious one: in truth it will be a most agreeable house. The advowson now rests with me as patron.”

[7]  Geoffrey Watkins Grubb, The People, the Parish and the Parson: Collumpton in Devonshire (unpublished typescript, 1946), p. 470.

[8]  What follows is new. T C Hughes said simply: “He was curate of Honiton Clyst from 1780 until he came to Cullompton.” Transactions of the Devonshire Association, vol. 42 (1910), p. 211.

[9] See the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, 6 October 1849 (5e); Report to the General Board of Health on Cullompton (HMSO, 1854), pp. 16-17, evidence of William Gabriel, surgeon and apothecary. In Exeter 402 people died during the epidemic.

[10] Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, 18 October 1834.

[11] Western Times, 20 April 1839,  leading article.

[12]  The Times, 25 June 1838,  p. 6.

[13]  See note 7.

[14]  Devon County Record Office, 2404A/PB1.

[15]  Western Times, 17 August 1861.

[16]  See Heuston, Lives of the Lord Chancellors (Oxford, 1964) pp. 343-4; Walker, Oxford Companion to Law (1980)  pp. 565 and 733.

[17]  See Thomas Wright, The Life of the Rev Timothy Richard Matthews (1934); and Joan Varley, A Bedfordshire Clergyman of the Reform Era and his Bishop, in Bedfordshire Historical Record society Publications, vol. 57, p. 113.

[18]  Manuscript found among the Upcott family papers in 1983.