A Parish Dispute


One of the pitfalls that beset those of us who are interested in local history but are not trained in historical studies is the tendency to rely on secondary sources.  Even the most authoritative of them occasionally make errors.  And quoting them without checking simply propagates any mistake.  One such popular misconception concerns a row that occurred between the Rector of Wrington and the parishioners of Burrington following the death of their Perpetual Curate, the Reverend Sydenham Teast Wylde, in 1826.

Burrington is very unusual in that traditionally the parishioners have had the right to choose their own incumbent.  If suitable, he was presented to the Bishop of Bath and Wells by the Rector of Wrington.  In The Heart of Mendip (first published in 1915 and reprinted in 1971), Francis Knight sets out the story that is normally told:-

In 1831 the Rev. John Vane, Rector of Wrington, refused to nominate and present to the Bishop the candidate whom the parish had chosen.  The case having been brought before the Court of Common Pleas, that Body decided that the Rector had no power of rejection.  The candidate in question, however, declined the living.   Whereupon Mr. Vane assured the Burrington parishioners that if they would leave the matter in his hands they might rely on his choosing a man who would be equally acceptable to him and to them.  They gladly agreed.  The Rector nominated himself, thus becoming Vicar of Burrington as well as Rector of Wrington; and with kindly, if somewhat autocratic sway, he managed, for no fewer than forty years, the ecclesiastical affairs of the parish.

The truth is rather more complicated but more readily understood.  It is revealed in the diocesan and parish records held at the Somerset Heritage Centre (SHC) and in the detailed account of the proceedings in the Court of Common Pleas.  This can be found in a contemporary issue of The Law Journal that has recently become accessible via the Internet (Google Books).  The case was heard on the 3rd February, 1829.

The Rev. Wylde had been instituted as Perpetual Curate of Burrington (the formal title for the incumbent) in July 1795.  In addition, he became curate at Rowberrow in March 1799 and Rector of Ubley in March 1805.  He died on May 12th, 1826, aged 71.  Two months earlier, perhaps because the Rev. Wylde’s health was failing, the Reverend James William Arnold had been licensed as curate at both Ubley and Burrington.  These were salaried posts in the gift of the incumbent, not permanent appointments funded by tithes. The Rev. Arnold was a man of some social standing.  His father had been a gentleman of the Privy Chamber to George III and he had married the daughter of an earl.

A parish meeting was called on June 19th, 1826, at which Burrington parishioners were asked to choose between two candidates to succeed the Rev. Wylde.  One was the Rev. Arnold, who was already doing the work. The other was the Reverend
Richard Davies, who appears to have been resident in Wrington and to have been the preferred choice of the Rector of Wrington, the Reverend William Leeves. The Rev. Davies was Perpetual Curate at both Churchill and Puxton.  He first officiated in Puxton in 1804, had been curate there since 1814 and Perpetual Curate in both parishes since 1819.  The Rev. Arnold received 34 votes to 32 for the Rev. Davies.  Next day, Benjamin Somers, as churchwarden, together with the Rev. Arnold, took the result to the Rector. However, William Leeves refused to present the Rev. Arnold to the Bishop. Instead, on November 8th, 1826, he nominated the Rev. Davies.

The Rev. Arnold, Benjamin Somers and 73 Burrington parishioners sought redress in the courts.  Writs were issued immediately.   A writ of Quare Impedit demanding that Arnold be presented to the Bishop was issued on November 9th, 1826, and the defendants (Leeves, Davies and the Bishop) were summoned to appear before the justices at Westminster on the 8th day of the following Hilary Term.  Next day, November 10th, a writ of no admittance was served on the Bishop to stop him from licensing Davies.

When the case was heard, the jury found the election of Arnold to have been valid and binding on the Rector.  However, Leeves, Davies and the Bishop appealed.  That was why the matter went to the High Court.  There it was decided that there had to be a re-trial.  This was because the jury had not been properly directed on a subtle matter concerning the nature of the tradition by which the parishioners elected their vicar.  Was it a common-law custom, or an ecclesiastical custom?  This affected the time over which the custom had to become established for it to be held valid.  There were also questions over parishioners’ eligibility to vote.  The Court of Common Pleas came to their view with ‘much regret as the preferment is of so trifling a nature’.

It would seem that the decision of the appeal court was too much for James Arnold.  He had officiated at nearly all the recorded Burrington services from January 1826 until the end of March 1829.  But he conducted no further services in
Burrington and may be presumed to have left the area.  By this time, the Reverend William Hutcheson had been appointed Rector of Ubley to succeed the Rev. Wylde and it was he who took most of the services recorded in Burrington over the next two years.  William Leeves had died in May 1828 and had been succeeded as Rector of Wrington by the Reverend John Vane.   Richard Davies had ceased to take services at both Puxton and Churchill in September, 1827 (except for an adult baptism at Puxton on 22nd September, 1829).

At the retrial, the jury again found for the parishioners and, on January 31st 1831, a writ was served on the Bishop and the Rector of Wrington, requiring James Arnold to be presented to the Bishop.  This was followed on April 16th by a formal memorandum, signed by Mary Addington, Benjamin Somers and 44 parishioners of Burrington, sent to John Vane, making the same demand.  This he duly carried out and, on May 2nd, the Rev. Arnold was licensed to the curacy of Burrington.

He declined to take up the post!

A parish meeting was convened in Burrington for 11:00 am on Wednesday, 13th July, 1831. Its outcome was that John Vane was unanimously elected to fill the vacant curacy.   A letter from the churchwardens was immediately sent to him asking him to present himself to the Bishop!  No doubt some quiet diplomacy had been undertaken in the days beforehand, to try to heal the wounds.  Finally, after a five-year interregnum, John Vane was licensed by the Bishop of Bath and Wells as Chaplain or Curate of Burrington on October 6th, 1831.  He performed his first baptism in Holy Trinity Church the same day.  And, as Francis Knight says, he continued to hold both incumbencies for the rest of his life.

What became of the adversaries?  Richard Davies died soon afterwards, sometime before December 1832.  James Arnold took a curacy on the Isle of Wight in 1833, was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree in 1843, and held several other clerical positions in Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire before he died in June 1865, aged 69.