Vicars who betray a hint of scandal

PUBLISHED: 17:01 14 April 2009 | UPDATED: 08:57 18 June 2010

VICARS can be an eccentric bunch, particularly from Victorian times, and while many did a lot of good, the West Country has a number of spicy stories surrounding its clergy.

VICARS can be an eccentric bunch, particularly from Victorian times, and while many did a lot of good, the West Country has a number of spicy stories surrounding its clergy.

In Sidmouth, one particular vicar became the target of obscene and scandalously disgusting anonymous letters.

We can read about the Reverend Frederick Moysey, who became vicar at Sidmouth in 1861 when 49, in Blame it on the Devon Vicar by Tom Hughes.

In 1863 it was said: "A really good clerical scandal, well-spiced and judiciously prolonged in the months of September and October is worth fifty pounds a week to The Times."

Now a juicy story of a cleric misbehaving would fetch far more, but we can enjoy a few Victorian scandals in this glossy paperback published by Halsgrove at £8.99.

It was a Sunday in August, 1865 that the congregation at Sidmouth Parish Church heard the startling news their vicar, Rev Frederick Luttrel Moysey, was resigning after just four years in post, having moved from Combe St Nicholas, Somerset.

Son of a clergyman, his wife was Arabella Ward; niece to Viscount Bangor, and they had nine children.

At first, things went smoothly in the larger parish, until he began getting anonymous letters accusing him of the vilest offences.

We read how Moysey believed they came from a member of the congregation and, although not common knowledge, others had heard rumours of the poison pen letters.

When he resigned, Lethaby's Sidmouth Journal called the news 'startling' and stated: "Very rarely, we suppose, has such a thorough, universal and painful feeling been excited in a parish as by the announcements of that Sabbath morning."

A statement of support for the vicar was signed by 200 people, led by His Grace, the Duke of Buckinghamshire.

And so the unusual story unfolds, along with a dozen other stories relating to clergy from the South West, including the 'infamous' conduct of the curate of Dalwood, the Reverend Alfred Baker Winnifrith in 1894, who went to jail for perjury having lied to protect his lover.

This is a fascinating and well-researched book by Tom Hughes, who, after 40 years as a broadcast journalist in the USA, obviously enjoyed delving into the lives of Victorian clergy, their scandalous behaviour and the effects it had on those around them.

Blame it on the Devon Vicar is available in Sidmouth bookshops or Halsgrove Direct: (01823) 653777.


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