Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Vicarage

One of the things I have noticed during our travels around England are the number of vicarages.  Until today I thought the word vicarage meant the building where the vicar lived.  However I now understand it means the entire area under the control of the vicar.  I’m only interested in the homes so where I refer to the vicarage I mean the house.  What particularly interested me about the vicarages is their size.  Those we have seen are rather subtantial, which leads me to believe vicars were generally not poor.   

Of course I’d already known about the expression “Eldest son gets the title, second son goes to the army/navy, and third son to the church.  However I hadn’t linked this to the matter of vicarages.  Nor had I realised the consequences of all these vicarages.

By the mid 17th century England contained some 17,500 Anglican clergy, with many of them being the sons of the gentry.  Apparently the pre-qualification was a university degree and it didn’t have to be theology.  Many of the rural vicars and rectors might only have 250 parishioners.  A clergyman’s pay came not from the Church but from rents and tithes and the average annual income was £500.  A very significant figure for the time.

So we have wealthy, educated rural clergy with plenty of spare time.  Most of them don’t have a degree in theology.  It is therefore not surprising that within this group of intelligent and educated men a number made significant contribtions to society and science.

  • Edmund Cartwright, rector of a rural parish in Leicestershire, invented the power loom effectively accerating the industrial revolution.
  • In Oxford the Reverend William Buckland wrote the first scientific description of dinosaurs.
  • The Reverend William Greenwell of Durham was a founding father of modern archaeology.
  • Octavius Pickard-Cambridge became the world’s leading authority on spiders.
  • Vicar Adam Buddle in Essex became a notable botanist.
  • The Reverend John Mackenzie Bacon of Berkshire was a pioneering hot-air balloonist and the father of aerial photography.
  • Gilbert White in Hampshire became a famous naturalist.
  • John Michell, a rector in Derbyshire, taught William Herschel how to build a telescope, which Herschel then used to discover Uranus.  Mitchell went on to work out how to weigh the earth.
  • In Devon, the Reverend Jack Russell bred the terrier that shares his name.

Then there were the children of these rectors and vicars. John Dryden, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Thomas Hobbes, Oliver Goldsmith, Jane Austen, Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Horatio Nelson, the Brontë sisters, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Cecil Rhodes and Lewis Carroll.

So what happened to make so many of these vicarages subsequently pass into private hands?  It started with the industrial revolution and the movement of the population from the land to the cities.  Then in the 1870’s there was a major agricultural depression.  In six years, one hundred thousand farmers and farm workers left the land.  The vicarage income was based on the value of the land which had collapsed.  By the end of the 19th century the average English clergyman’s income was less than half what it had been fifty years before.  A career in the church no longed looked as attractive as other options.  In his book on the subject Professor David Cannadine wrote ‘By the turn of the century the best minds of a generation were outside the Church rather than within’.   Finally, the church needed to move its clergy to where the majority of its parishioners were based and as a result many of the rural vicarages were either no longer required or the incumbent didn’t have the income to maintain them.


Mike Todd said...

Not quite: the area for which a vicar or rector is responsible is a parish or, today more often, a benefice which may comprise several parishes. The parish system is the heart of the Church of England. Once sold as redundant as a vicarage or Rectory (the general term is parsonage) then normally it gas a name change. The closest should've the Old Vicarage/Rectory. The stipend, a clergyman's income, may well have come from other sources such as Glebe and patrons. You are right that there are far fewer stipendiary clergy now than even 100 years ago. Houses used as personages continue to be bought and sold as needs change. Several per diocese per year.

Tom and Jan said...

I'm learning more all the time! :-)