Sunday, 10 August 2014

Clerical magistrates in the 19th century

Nowadays, we are used to regarding local clerics as fairly benign figures who are more community social workers than guardians of "Victorian values".  They are usually tolerant, run 'messy churches' and produce relatively saccharine pastoral newsletters for their parishioners. Occasionally, more senior clerics may intervene in moral and political matters as in Bury St Edmunds recently, but on the whole, village clerics avoid the limelight and try to be as even-handed as possible in relation to local issues.

This was not necessarily the case in Victorian times when clerics combined their church duties with the responsibility of being local magistrates.  Sometimes these two roles were in conflict: how could you act as pastoral "shepherd of your flock" but at the same time administer the law which was often severely punitive?

The clerical magistrate

John Glyde was adamant that "a clergyman's connection with the civil power, as magistrate or guardian of the poor, is detrimental to his spiritual influence".
(Glyde, John, Suffolk in the Nineteenth Century, Simpkin Marshall & Co., 1856, page 284)

Some clerical magistrates became very unpopular.  The Reverend Robert Davers (1772-1853) seems to have been loathed by his working class parishioners.
A prominent magistrate and Rector of Bradfield St George with Rushbrooke and Rougham, the Rev Davers possessed a large land holding in his own villages as well as Felsham’s 63-acre Davers Farm (Capel Farm) with farmhouse and 3 cottages.  He worked closely with the Felsham Rector and was a trustee of the village bread charity.  He was probably the most aristocratic of all our landowners being the son of Sir Charles Davers of Rushbrooke Park and first cousin to the Marquis of Bristol.
He does not appear to have been particularly popular with his parishioners partly because like many clergy he was the target of resentment over the payment of tithes before they were reformed in the 1830s.  Payment of tithe had never been popular with farmers.  It was regarded as a tax on improvement, since the more efficiently one farmed the more one paid.  In 1822, he promised his tenants that he would be making a reduction in his tithes and rents to compensate for “the distressed situation in agriculture.”  This led to an angry response in the Bury & Norwich Post where a correspondent writing under the pseudonym ‘Rusticus’, declared:
“… now, Sir, I have paid the above Rev. Gentleman a large sum of Tithes ‘to the uttermost farthing’ positively out of my Capital, but can assure you that I have not nor can find any one that has received the slightest abatement or return.”
His unpopularity among agricultural labourers was reflected in the fact that his property was frequently targeted by incendiarists particularly during the early 1840s when rural unrest was at its height.
In 1843 he appeared in court to answer a charge of riding his horse on a foot-path on one of his regular visits as magistrate to Bury Gaol.  A local man was reported as telling him off saying, “What business have you to ride on the foot-path any more than a poor man?”  To which the Rev Davers replied, “A Commissioner may ride where he thinks proper.”  This high-handed response led him to being fined 10s with 10s 6d costs, no doubt to the satisfaction of many disgruntled locals who must have rubbed their hands with glee at seeing him brought so low. 
His wife was equally unpopular, particularly among the dissenters of Bradfield, against whom she actively campaigned when they founded a Baptist congregation in the village.  Many non-conformists lost their homes and jobs because of her intolerance.  It was reported that she came into the meeting-house and
 “… carefully noticed every individual present as the number by which this time was much reduced by the persecution to which the poor people were exposed who came to hear the gospel.  The poor man who occupied the house in which the services were now held had regular notice to quit his occupation.” 
Resentment against Robert Davers was not confined to non-conformists.  The congregation of the Church of England in Rougham frequently complained that they were served by a mere curate during the 50 years he was Rector.
Sport was an all-embracing enthusiasm for many landowners who frequently rode to hounds and joined shooting parties.  The Reverend Davers was no exception.  He owned some of the best wooded land in the locality for hunting and his library contained books like “Strutt’s Sports & Pastimes”.  Furthermore, between 1797 and 1812 he was master of a pack of fox-hounds.  He also took a lively interest in horticulture and horse breeding.  On his death in 1853 the sale of his property included a “Thorough-bred entire horse, “YOUNG PREMIUM”, a beautiful Bay, with splendid action…”
Shooting, like fox-hunting was a fairly exclusive activity since it was restricted by law to landowners, though after 1831 tenants could shoot game on their farms with the landlord’s permission.  Local newspapers published lists of those people licensed to shoot game.  In 1832, Robert Davers’ gamekeeper brought a prosecution against a young gentleman named Thomas Cocksedge for shooting game without having obtained a certificate.  The magistrates decided that this was a genuine oversight and “convicted Mr Cocksedge in the penalty of one farthing.”  The reporter present sarcastically commented:
“It is lamentable to find the servant of a clergyman employed in such a task as that of proceeding against a school-boy for so trifling an irregularity, because it chanced to be committed near the ‘sacred groves’ of his master.” (Bury & Norwich Post, 5 Sept. 1832)
Poaching was rife during Robert Davers's lifetime.  The deliberate preservation of game birds in enclosed woods like ‘Felsham Hall Wood’ encouraged poaching by both organised gangs and by the opportunist local labourer looking for something to supplement his family’s meagre diet.  Landlords sought to protect their property by employing armed gamekeepers.  In Bradfield and Felsham woods a running war broke out between poachers and gamekeepers with casualties on both sides. 
Bury & Norwich Post, 1 December 1841
This extract was first published in Signposts to local history, May 2014, available from the Felsham PO Stores price, £3.50