facing change with the Abbey

Neal Wood takes a look at the circumstances of country clergy in the Edwardian period

Aside from a scene, outside the church, following a memorial service for a cousin in episode

one of the first series, I was beginning to wonder how long it would be before the Crawley family had a direct encounter and dialogue with the local rector. Was the award-winning ITV drama series Downton Abbey really going to miss an opportunity to make a statement about the relationship between local clergy and the landed nobility?

I had thought, at the end of the first series, that there ought to have at least been a brief encounter between the rector of Downton and Countess ‘Maggie’ with the latter delivering her unique brand of instructional wisdom over tea at the Dower House. It was not until episode five of the second series that, lo and behold, it actually happened! Granted, it transpired that the grey-haired Mr Travis was not the rector but vicar of Downton and, though apparently over tea, the expected wisdom was rather more a volley of one-sided argument.

The final utterance to counter any remaining doubts that the Revd Mr Travis might have had about the marriage of Daisy (the kitchen maid) to William (the dying footman) were delivered by the Dowager in a line worthy of Oscar Wilde: ‘I hope it is not vulgar in me to suggest that you find some way to overcome your scruples.’ So in the end, I was not disappointed. Hand Julian Fellowes another award.

The typical incumbent

Countless country clergy must have faced similar ‘difficult’ situations with their patron down the years, though obviously in varying degrees and circumstances. Although advowsons had ceased to be of real value by the end of Victoria’s reign, they still enabled patrons to present younger sons or those of a preferred style of religion to the bishop for induction. Despite some decline in status, a rural incumbent during the Edwardian period would typically be married, hold an Oxbridge degree and live in a large tied house with between twelve and twenty rooms (excluding bathrooms, naturally). He would certainlyhave employed servants – 2.4 was the average in 1911 – and these would have been predominantly women: by comparison, this number was similar to those employed by the larger farmers.

A good example might be my great-grandmother’s younger brother, who was rector of a rural parish in Norfolk, presented by his eldest brother ‘the squire’ to the living in 1902, educated at Oxford and described as a ‘determined’ Anglo-Catholic. He had married the daughter of a Welsh clergyman (the fifth son of a baron) and they had three children and lived in a Georgian rectory (of 22 rooms) along with stables and other outbuildings. The living was worth £492 in 1905 (equivalent to £28,300 in 2005). The parish covered 2,760 acres and had a population of just 214 souls in 1911. They had four un-married female servants: a cook, a housemaid, a nurse and a 16-year-old nursery maid: the latter two were only employed while they had three young children.

There were some instances where clergy actually increased their number of servants. One prime example is the Revd Algernon Parker of Cheshire, who in 1901 had six female servants that served him and five members of his family. By 1911 this had increased to eight servants (four male and four female) serving him and three family members: though, in mitigation, he had moved to a larger house. Bishops, of course, were a different matter. The average number of indoor servants employed by diocesan bishops in 1911 was 7: though the Bishop of Durham had 13 – that’s two more than the Earl of Grantham had at Downton. The Archbishop of York had 11 indoor servants in 1911 and Canterbury at Lambeth Palace had a staggering 26!

A golden age

Many believe that the beginning of World War I in 1914 brought sudden social change: in reality it was a more gradual process, the tide of history had already turned by the late nineteenth century. Society had in the broadest sense, however, been turned on its head in 1914, resulting in many things coming to an end. We cannot forget the hundreds of thousands of British men who were killed during World War I: so many of our village and church war memorials testify to the impact this had on almost every community – from heirs to estates and clergy to valets and footmen. An earlier generation might well reflect that the ‘pre-1914 world’ was a golden age – quite possibly if you were fortunate enough to have been wealthy – a ‘pre-Raphaelite’ vision of an ordered structure to life with appropriate deference and mutual dependency. Although it has its critics, so far the drama of Downton has both evocatively and entertainingly portrayed the strands and interaction of several people’s lives as they might have been played out during this difficult time. ND