A Victorian Cleric

The Reverend G D Wheeler, MA

The Rev George Domville Wheeler was born in Walcot Parish, Bath on 1st May 1815, the only son of the Reverend George Wheeler. His mother was Margaret Domville, the sister of the late Sir Compton Domville. He was educated at Redlands School, Bristol and afterwards matriculated at Oriel College, Oxford in 1832, aged 17. He then moved to Wadham College, passed his B.A. in 1836, gaining fourth class in Classics, became an M.A. in 1841 and a Fellow in the same year. His arms are in the windows of the Antechapel at Wadham He was ordained Deacon in 1839, became Curate of Blockley in the same year and directly afterwards was ordained Priest. On marriage in 1843 he resigned his Fellowship and was instituted Vicar of Wolford. He was also Rector of Barcheston from 1846. He was appointed Honorary Canon of Worcester Cathedral in 1875 and Rural Dean of South Kineton in 1888.

He married Charlotte Emily, third daughter of Admiral Bateman in 1843. The only surviving daughter of his first marriage was Margaret Lucy Jane, baptised in Wolford in 1846. Charlotte died in 1851. He married Sarah Ann Chetwynd, daughter of Captain Chetwynd six years later and had a further five children: Emilie Annie, G.D.Chetwynd, Walter Compton and William Charles Edmund all survived him, but Agnes Eva died in infancy in 1865.

He died on 19th April 1890, was buried at Wolford and is commemorated by a tablet in the Chancel. The East Window in the Chancel of Barcheston Church is also dedicated to him. In Wolford Churchyard he shares a memorial stone with his first wife and one of her brothers. All were buried after Charlotte's death, suggesting a continuing close relationship. His second wife, Sarah, and their two daughters are also buried there. Also buried in the Wolford Churchyard is Betty Winslow, aged 86, having been a faithful servant to both George Domville and his father for nearly sixty years. Betty is commemorated on a stone erected to her memory by Wheeler's children.

The Census of 1861 lists the Wheeler household: besides his wife Sarah, ten years younger than he, there was Margaret, the child of his first marriage and the three sons of the second. Also resident were a governess, housekeeper Betty Winslow, a footman, a cook, a housemaid and upper and lower nurses. Thirteen people, therefore, were living in what is now Beaton House. The footman and cook were man and wife, Mr & Mrs Richards. Both had been with Wheeler in 1851 but were then unmarried. The length of service of this couple, together with that of Betty Winslow, suggests that he looked after his servants rather well.

The Vicarage had been built in 1825, its forerunner having been quite dilapidated. The new one had cost 540 and, when built, contained a parlour, sitting room, kitchen, pantry with an adjacent brew house and coalhouse on the ground floor, with two bedrooms, a closet and two servants rooms on the first floor. There was also an outside privy. As early as 1844, Wheeler was seeking 200 from Merton College to finance "alterations and improvements" and a note dated July 1848 informs us that "the building of a new nursery, etc at the Great Wolford Vicarage is now completed". Unfortunately there is no further information I know of to indicate more precisely the accommodation in which the household lived. The reader can only begin to guess at the lifestyle.

Such then was his background, family and clerical life. There is much other information available covering his other many and varied activities. First appointed in 1846, he served for over 40 years as a JP for Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire. For many years he was a member of the Board of Guardians of the Shipston Poor Law Union. He was also an ex-officio member of the Moreton Highways Board.

He dominated The Wolfords for almost fifty years. "When it became known that the Vicar was no more, there were universal expressions of sorrow amongst the parishioners, and in all parts of the village signs of mourning were to be observed. Not only was this so at Great Wolford, but in the parishes where the late Canon was almost as well known and as much respected as he was at home". So pronounced his obituary, covering sixteen column inches in the Evesham Journal in April, 1890. His activities in many fields are well documented. What now follows are more detailed accounts of some of them.

Doctrinal Interests

The 19C was a turbulent time for the Anglican Church as it strove to cope with provision for an expanding, ever more urban, population. All aspects of the Church from organisation to doctrine and ritual were debated, sometimes quite venomously. Wheeler certainly entered into the fray on at least two documented occasions, both on issues of little reverence today. Nevertheless such participation does throw light on one aspect of his many activities and for this reason are worth noting. Both debates had taken place before 1852. Wheeler was still comparatively young and had been incumbent at Wolford for a mere nine years.

Firstly, in 1849, aged 34, he published a letter addressed by permission to the Rev E.S. Foulkes: "Three Letters on Marriage with a Deceased Wife's Sister". At this time divorce was not recognised in Canon Law but, in Civil Law, divorce could be obtained by Act of Parliament. This was an expensive procedure and limited divorce to those able to afford the legal costs. This was pointed out in sardonic fashion by Mr Justice Maule at Warwick Assizes in 1845: sending an impecunious bigamist to prison, he declared that want of 1,000 to procure a divorce by Act of Parliament was no excuse for breaking the law! Revision of the law facilitating easier and cheaper divorce finally occurred with the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. Thus was the background to the dispute in which GDW participated. He would have allowed such marriage to one's deceased wife's sister: this was finally allowed in 1907. The texts debated are Leviticus XVIII. Anyone wanting to get a taste of these discussions is advised to refer to the Bible.

More interesting to the local historian is the preface to his letter in which he writes that "the subject has been taken up very much as a party question; and that I bring to this discussion a mind in so far at least unbiased that I happen to differ on this point from those with whom I am generally classed; for, however, I may in general agree with those who, for want of a better name, are termed "High Churchmen", yet I am no blind partisan to advocate this or that opinion, because it is supported by one party or run down by the opposite party in the Church". As far as I am aware this is the only written and explicit admission of his High Church proclivity but nevertheless tempered with a pleasing independence.

Secondly, in 1852, he published the text of a sermon given in Oxford in April: "Some Objections to the Revival of Ecclesiastical Synods answered by reference to the Circumstances under which the Apostolic Council at Jerusalem was assembled." Again, the historical background was that in the 1840s and 50s there was pressure to revive Convocation so that the Bishops and clergy might have a proper forum in which to debate and formulate policy. The idea was resisted by the Archbishops, many of the clergy and most of the laity, fearing that it would prove a focus for partisan feeling and potential schism. Evangelicals and Liberals feared that Tractarians and High Churchmen would seek to use revived convocations to narrow the range of opinion in the Anglican Church. He rejected revival. His side lost out and, in 1854, the Convocation of Canterbury met for the first time to discuss meaningful business since 1719; the Convocation of York followed in 1861. Thus was church government democratised!

The sermon confirms his High Church sympathies in the obsequious dedication to Lord Redesdale, reading "To the Right Honorable John Freeman, Baron Redesdale, Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords, as a mark of Esteem and Gratitude for his strenuous advocacy of the Church's Rights, and with Earnest Prayer for the Divine Blessing on his Exertions, this Humble Effort in the same cause is respectively inscribed by his Obliged and faithful Servant".

As far as I am aware, these are the only occasions on which he went formally into print on doctrinal matters.

His income and the Gist Estate.

His major source of income was from commuted rent charges. He received the Vicarial Tithe Rent charges from both Great and Little Wolford amounting to 80 and 58 respectively. He also was in receipt of the Rectorial Tithe Rent Charges of Barcheston of approximately 240 pa. These receipts were indexed to the price of wheat, barley and oats so varied from year to year but are worth around 32,000 today! In addition he enjoyed some tithe income from Burmington.

Detailed correspondence from 1850-1878 concerning his relationship with the trustees of the Gist Barcheston Estate survives . The actual Gist owner was in 1850 a minor and mentally defective. The payment was 23 per annum. He frequently complained that the payments were late and that the executors, rather than he himself, should collect from the tenant. At one point he declares hardship thus: "I have been a heavy loser by the fraudulent bankrupcy of my late solicitors, Messrs Smith and Co of Craven Street, Strand, and have been in consequence a good deal pressed for ready money. Under these circumstances I feel sure you will excuse my making this request".

Other issues discussed were an appeal, in 1851, to the Trustees for a rebate for tenants who had been hit by severe storms. Other tenants had been treated liberally by their landlords! In 1853 he claimed bitterly about his poor law rate claiming he was over-rated compared with others in the village and threatened legal action. In 1857 he asked help "for procuring, at a considerable reduction in price, a seraphine which has been lent by my curate, Mr Holt to lead the singing in Barcheston Church". In 1869, he appealed unsuccessfully for money towards the 1,500 needed for the restoration of the Church as the Estate was the largest property and it was natural that it should donate the largest subscription. In 1879 the correspondence fades, but it does give an insight into the financial concerns of the Victorian clergy.

At the Moreton-in-Marsh Cottage Hospital

At the Annual General Meeting of the Moreton-in-Marsh Cottage Hospital, held in January 1886, a letter from him to the President, Lord Redesdale, was read alleging mismanagement at the Hospital. He could not himself attend the Meeting having been forbidden by his doctor on the grounds of ill health. He had previously refused to discuss the matter with the Committee, stating it to be dominated by a Moreton clique. Complaints fell under two heads - faulty rules and faulty practice.

Two rules were unacceptable. The first required the permission of the Secretary and two Committee members prior to the admission of urgent cases. He argued that this was more appropriately a decision for the Medical Officers: much time could be needlessly lost, often because of "the frequent absences from home" of the Secretary. The second rule required a subscriber to be responsible for the collection of a required weekly payment, determined by the Committee, from nominated patients. GDW advocated no payment for preference but, should the financial circumstances be such as to make some payment essential, then it should be fixed and not variable.

As regards practice, the diet of the patients was extravagant, probably because - shades of the workhouse - there was no dietary. It was "bad for the patients themselves to have to change suddenly when discharged from the high diet of the hospital to their own meagre fare". There was also a deficiency of trained attendants. He had "heard of ladies going to visit patients whom they had recommended and finding them left to the care of an ignorant charwoman". Lastly the Committee was too restricted, given the catchment area of the hospital: it was dominated by Moreton residents, of whom there were eight, whereas five would have been adequate.

Needless to say, his arguments were refuted: why be on the Committee if one had no say in emergency cases? The Committee were always reasonable in their assessment of patient contributions. Diet was not extravagant. The presence of the Matron, a trained nurse, was adequate. Dominance of the Moreton clique was inevitable as members from outlying villages could not easily attend as frequently was they ought. And so on.

The major row about the management of the hospital at this time covered topics other than those raised by him. He was simply one participant, albeit an important one. It's worth remembering that, by 1886, GDW was seventy years old and in ill health. However, he was a powerful advocate for what he believed in, even at the risk of offence to others. After much debate and many meetings, the Rules were revised in 1886 and accommodated several of Wheeler's suggestions.

At the Shipston Poor Law Union

In 1845, he wrote to the Poor Law Commissioners in London thus: "Gentlemen, I take the liberty of troubling you for your advice under the following circumstances. I am a Member of the Board of Guardians of the Shipston on Stour Union at which Board two of the Medical Officers have reported that a fever now prevailing within the parishes of Moreton and Wolford, which form part of the said Union, is occasioned chiefly by the bad drainage in those two places. These reports were made some little time back, complaints on this head increase and the fever increases likewise, but still nothing is done to remedy the evil". There were 19 burials in the Wolford churchyard in 1845, the busiest year in the nineteenth century, so there was, apparently, something of a crisis in the Wolfords.

He continued to take an interest in public health provision. In 1847 he again wrote to the Commissioners, alleging that "the Medical Officer to whom this district is assigned does in many cases neglect the sick paupers", and campaigned for the reduction in the size of the district served by the incumbent Medic. In a second letter he attacked the opposition. He had "reason to think that .... I will have the support of the Chairman (Lord Redesdale), the Vice Chairman (William Dickens), all the officers and a few of the elected Guardians, yet there may be an adverse majority of the elected Guardians who will oppose my motion on the ground that it may involve an increase in expense to the amount of a few pounds." In July he ultimately accepted defeat, qualified medical practitioners being unavailable.

Yet again, in 1852, he was writing and getting into deep water with his fellow Guardians. In an letter he wrote that "The small-pox has broken out in the workhouse .... and on attending a Meeting of the Board .... I found that two deaths from that disease had occurred the previous day, and that one of the corpses was on the point of being sent for a burial at a distance of some six miles .... I objected to this procedure." He felt that such corpses should be bured in the nearest churchyard and asked whether this was required by law: if not, it ought to be! The Commissioners wrote to the Shipston Union implying that Wheeler was critical of the fact of the deaths whereas it was the disposal of the corpses that alarmed him! The Guardians were not pleased! He asked the Commissioners to correct their statement which they did. He lost this battle, too!

Conclusion

I hope these random notes give some insight into a vicar who was a major influence for the good in the Victorian Wolfords and very active in promoting a better life for his flock. Contemporary clergy, time limited, are quite unlikely to be so active and influential.

He lived here:

 

 

Lawrie Thompson

 

EMAIL FROM JANE ALDHOUSE (FEB 2009): "My great-grandfather, Walter (GDW's youngest son) committed suicide in 1914 by throwing himself off Westminster Bridge. The family story goes that he was sent round the bend by his wife! My grandfather, Walter Jr was their only child and never lived with them and was bought up by his aunts Margaret and Lucy, so obviously something was not quite right, although Walter Snr was alive and working as a vicar in Edmonton on the 1911 census".