Don’t diss Frinton’s church!

A painting of Frinton's old parish church. It is tiny.

I’m transcribing records for Frinton at the moment. It once had a tiny population and an equally tiny church. In trying to find out more about life in a tiny village, I found an argument raging in the pages of the Cambridge Chronicle and Journal. It allows us to peek inside the church and visit it back in 1857.

It started off with a letter from Philo Eccles, published on 19 September 1857:

SIR – In the English Churchman of Thursday, the 10th inst., under the head of “Miscellaneous – Ecclesiastical,” I read a description of the parish church of Frinton, in Essex, which loudly claims the attention of the Ordinary. It appears that this church is only opened once on a Sunday, when there is a service in the evening – that the clerk places his hat and pocket handkerchief on the Communion Table, at which he sits in a chair, resting his elbows upon it as he would do in his own cottage – that the cover of the Table is coarse, dirty, and shabby, and the whole interior of the church is in fact in such a condition as to be disgraceful. It appears that the whole parish consists of two farm houses and a cottage;[1]Looking at Frinton on the 1851 census, there’s Frinton Hall and Frinton Wick, which are presumably the two farm houses – Frinton Hall was Richard Stone’s home at the time, and Wick … Continue reading but as the value is £162 per annum, surely something better as to the service of the church furniture ought to be insisted upon.

Perhaps a hint from the Cambridge Chronicle might secure this object.

I am, Sir,

Your very obedient Servant,

PHILO ECCLES.

At this time, as cities and towns grew, there were parishes catering to much larger populations where the livings were little more than that of Frinton. Over the years, there had been many rectors who enjoyed the income of the living, but rarely set foot in the parish, leaving the cure of souls to their poorly-paid curates.

But it was Frinton’s curate who responded. Over to you, Thomas James Bewsher.

Great Holland Rectory, Colchester, Sept. 26th, 1857.

Sir-

The Rural Dean of the district in which I have officiated for nearly 14 years has forwarded to me a copy of a letter which has lately appeared in the Cambridge Chronicle, headed “Frinton Church, Essex,” and signed “Philo Eccles.”

Now, as I have been the licensed curate of Frinton parish since January, 1850, I feel myself called upon to answer the several statements in your correspondent’s letter.

1st statement. “This church is only opened once on a Sunday, when there is a service in the evneing.” The impression from this would be that there is but one service in Frinton Church, and that in the evening, through the year. Now, this is not the case. It is true there is but one service, but it is only in the evening during the summer months; all the rest of the year in the morning. And the reason that there is but one service is, that the three families of which the parish is composed have always been in the habit of attending some neighbouring parish church, of which there are three within two miles of Frinton,[2]Presumably Great Holland, Walton and Kirby once on a Sunday, and therefore the opening of their own parish church more than once would be a mere matter of form, as no congregation would assemble.

2nd statement. “The clerk places his hat and pocket-handkerchief on the Communion table, at which he sits in a chair, resting his elbows upon it, as he would do in his own cottage.” The impression from this would be, upon any stranger to Frinton Church, that the clerk took a chair within the Communion rails, seated himself at ease at the Communion table, and that such a proceeding was santioned by the officiating minister. Now, I can positively assert that that, during the whole time in which I have done duty in Frinton Church, the clerk, who is a very respectable farmer in the parish, has never sat anywhere but in his own pew, and that a chair has never, upon any occasion, been used in the church at all.

3rd statement. “The cover of the Table is coarse, dirty, and shabby, and the whole interior of the church is in fact in such a condition as to be disgraceful.” The statement I deny in toto: and, in confirmation of my denial, I can appeal to the Bishop, Archdeacon, Rural Dean, and Churchwarden. Frinton church, like every other church, is visited periodically by the proper authorities: a presentment is made every year at the visitation, signed by the Rural Dean and Churchwardens, in which there are specific questions as to every particular connected with the service of the church, the condition of the church furniture, and of the church itself both inside and out. To this I may add that Frinton church is visited by hundreds every season from Walton-on-the-Naze, and that not a single season has passed without my having had numerous expressions of delight and satisfaction, from both clergy and laity, at the manner in which the service has been performed. And, let me ask, would this be the case were things generally in the disgraceful state represented by your correspondent?

On the whole, then, I cannot but characterise your Correspondent’s letter as an unpardonable scandal upon the Bishop, the Archdeacon, the Rural Dean, the Churchwarden, and, in particular, upon myself, as the officiating Minister.

I am sir, your obedient servant,

THOMAS JAMES BEWSHER.

Licensed Curate of Great Holland and Frinton.

(Published in the Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, 10th October 1857).

A week later, another letter followed, from the anonymous JDR, who seems to be the person who wrote about the church in the English Churchman:

Sir – I have read the letter of the Incumbent of Great Holland, and I beg to say that he does not meet the complaint.

1st. It was asserted that the Church is opened only for one half and a-half in 168 hours. This is not denied: the only denial is that the one service is in the evening, whereas it is in the morning in the winter, and in the evening in the summer.

2ndly. It was asserted that the Clerk sat at the Communion table. It appears that he sits in a pew. But I distinctly state that I saw a person sitting at the table, the only one in the Church, and he placed his hat and pocket-handkerchief upon it. Whether he was the Clerk or not is nothing ad rem. I took him to be the Clerk, as it appears others did. I saw no altar rails – are they, as well as the table, marble? And are there two tables?

3rdly. The original communication, which appeared in the English Churchman and which the Essex Gazette copied from, pointed out the shabby and dirty state of the pulpit cushions and the altar cloth (supposing the table to be the Communion table), which I can vouch for, as well as the rough and uncouth state of the whole interior.

I am, Sir, your very obedient servant,
J.D.R

Bewsher replied, in a letter printed in the Cambridge Chronicle on 7 November:

Sir – In my former letter, I gave my full name and address, as the curate of Great Holland and Frinton, and am therefore greatly surprised that your correspondent, who seems determined to carry out the character which Solomon described (Proverbs xx.3), should still skulk under the unmanly disguise of initials.

The assertions about the clerk I now make out to have reference to a poor aged parishioner, very short-sighted and otherwise afflicted both in body and mind by paralysis. This poor man has been permitted in the evening to take his seat upon a fixed bench, which runs up close to the Communion table and the east window, in order that he might have the benefit of the light, and be enabled to read out the responses in an audible voice, as has always been his custom. Now, if this poor man placed his hat, with his pocket handkerchief in it, upon the table, he did it quite inadvertantly, and certainly without the least notion of irreverence, because, ever since I have done duty in the Church, he has been a most devout and constant worshipper and communicant: I say, if he placed his hat upon the Communion table, for I did not see it there myself, and I cannot take your correspondent’s word for it, because if he could be labouring under such an optical delusion as to see this poor man seated upon a rush-bottomed chair, when there was no chair at all in the church, there is no accounting for the objects that may have floated before his disordered vision, nor is there any further wonder at the extraordinary mystification of colours which he delineates. As to the church service, church furniture, and general appearance of the interior, I shall merely repeat that they are all under the sanction and supervision of the constituted authorities of the diocese, and this entire stranger (J.D.R.), by interfering with them, displays an amount of ignorance and insolence rarely to be met with.

In taking leave of this calumniator of Frinton church, let me add this admonition: whensoever he again enters Frinton church, or any other church, let him follow the example of my poor old parishioner; let him use his best efforts to take his proper part in the service, and not dishonour God nor disgrace himself by employing the time, devoted to God’s service, in scrutinizing the colours and materials of the church walls and the church furniture.

I remain, sir, your obedient servant,
Thos. J. Bewsher.

And that was that. On 14th November 1857, the editor of the Cambridge Chronicle drew a veil over the ping-pong of letters, saying:

We must really put a stop to the Frinton Church controversy. The crowded state of our columns to day strengthens our own inclination; and, therefore, we respectfully decline the letter of “Pro Ecclesia Dei.”

Whatever Pro Ecclesia Dei had to say, and whatever Bewsher would’ve made of another letter from an anonymous correspondent, we shall never know.

Footnotes

Looking at Frinton on the 1851 census, there’s Frinton Hall and Frinton Wick, which are presumably the two farm houses – Frinton Hall was Richard Stone’s home at the time, and Wick was where Charles Theedam and his family lived. There’s a cottage on Kirby Road where the Snares lived – William Snare, aged 78, was Frinton’s oldest inhabitant on the 1851 census, and might be the person referred to later. Samuel Harvey, a farm labourer, lived at Parsonage House with his wife and family, and a property called Battery House is mentioned on the schedule but was uninhabited. That makes more properties than Philo Eccles counted. In all 30 people were in Frinton on the night of the 1851 census. In 1841 there had been 44, and apparently more properties as well although none are named.
Presumably Great Holland, Walton and Kirby