Victorian lives in North Mymms
by Peter Kingsford
Early in 1864 three hundred and fifty parishioners combined to present a silver teakettle to their departing vicar. They were half of all the people in the parish over fourteen years of age, a point at which nearly all had started work. In fact many of that number were man and wife so that the individual contributions were only about two thirds of the people listed in the elaborately illuminated address which accompanied the gift, but still it was a goodly expression of thanks. The vicar, Horace Meyer, had been the incumbent for only seven and a half years. When he began at North Mymms he was twenty-eight and it was his first living.
The Rev Meyer was unusual among Church of England parsons. Few of them could have had his arduous experience of work in quite a different occupation. Born in 1828, the tenth child of a well to do family, he spent his early years with them in one of the little German states. When the family lost money he had to leave school and was found a job with the East India Company in the Bengal Marine Service. At the age of fourteen he sailed for India to work in the Pilot Service at £78 per annum. On the long voyage he read his Bible and Wilberforce’s Practical View of Christianity and was harassed on account of his piety by his irreverent companions.
The work in Bengal was to pilot vessels up the Hoogly River to Calcutta. Starting as the leadsman who cried out the depth of water as he crouched for many hours a day, in the chains of the piloted sailing vessel, baked in the sun or wet to the skin, he won promotion to second officer and next to first officer. At twenty one he was offered command of a pilot boat with £800 a year if he passed the necessary examinations in navigation, marine surveying, chart drawing, trigonometry and the use of instruments. This he did but the climate, the living conditions and the stress of the work had combined to give him chronic liver disorder. Deeply disappointed at losing such a good post, he had to return to England.
At home, still ill, he visited the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace but the effort exhausted him. He had been sustained in India by his strong religious belief and now he felt a call for the ministry. As it was necessary to take a degree he went up to Cambridge for three years at the then advanced age of twenty-two. He served as deacon in a busy Birmingham parish for a year on a stipend of £100 and then, before ordination as priest, he was offered the North Mymms living by R W Gaussen, "on the understanding", in his words, "that I would relinquish it in favour of his son (then ten years old) should he wish for it in fourteen years".
He wrote, "The responsibility of such a parish nearly daunted me. North Mymms parish in Rochester diocese was nearly sixteen miles in circumference; contained 1300 people, and was composed of four hamlets, five large places and four smaller ones, with twenty two farms. The schools were under Government; the church was nineteen miles from London; the income about £275."
He succeeded James Faithfull, son of the vicar of Hatfield, who had had a curate; Meyer had none. On his first Sunday he preached from 2Cor 20. Zech l v 6: "Not by might nor by power but by my spirit saith the Lord of Hosts." The vicarage did not suit the health of his mother with whom he and his sister were living; it was too damp and shut in by trees and there was doubt about the purity of the water supply. He had kind friends in the gentry - the Gaussens of Brookmans, the Kembles of Leggatts, the Wheens at Potterells, the Daniels at Moffats and the Parises at Abdale, but at first his task was not easy.
He wrote: "Most of the 1300 people in the parish were illiterate cottagers; some more intelligent farmers; but nine families represented considerable culture. This mixture added greatly to my difficulties. To preach intelligibly, instructively and interestingly twice every Sunday to such an audience every week, besides three week-day lectures, with schools, clubs, and visiting, was no easy task with my slender education and brief ministerial experience. It needed industry and courage." He inadvertently upset the women by pointing out that dress and ornaments belonged to a worldly society, displeasing to God, whereas in fact their dress was a sober one of red cloaks, black bonnets and smock frocks.
He was, however, inspired to restore the church of St Mary’s. The floor was rotten, the large box pews had to be done away with and the whitewashed ceiling deserved replacement. He set about raising the £1,300 required, a large sum then, writing to everyone having land in the parish. One hundred pounds came from the Gaussens and one hundred and sixty pounds from W J Lyseley MP of Mimwood (reluctantly according tote vicar). The whole sum was raised. During the work Meyer held services in the big schoolroom. When the church was reopened the new pews gave a hundred more seats for the poor.
Perhaps it was this display of energy and his unusual qualifications, which led to Meyer being appointed, at thirty-two, rural Dean of Barnet with supervisory duties in other parishes. It may have been for the same reasons that he was offered two other livings and two secretaryships all of which he refused, the latter because he preferred preaching and parochial work. However, he did not apparently intend to stay in North Mymms more than a few years, for he abandoned a project to build a new vicarage "on a beautiful site Mr Gaussen offered us commanding a fine view over St Albans", because it would have committed him to remain.
Life in the vicarage, now with a wife and baby, and three servants, perhaps gave an appearance of settlement but it may have been no surprise, for the reasons given above, when in 1864 he accepted the offer of a living in the small parish of East Tisted in Hampshire. He stayed there for five years and then moved again to Trowbridge where as he recorded, ‘The church, seating 1000 people had been restored by the late rector, there were good schools, and a comfortable house; the town of 10,000 people a formidable place, finally coming to a halt at Clifton, Bristol.
Although the long list of names on the vicar’s testimonial indicates an impressive effect on his parishioners, there are only traces of their perception of him. Among his fellow clergymen and the network of gentry connected with them, he clearly made many friends. As for the villagers, some religious folk are mentioned in his life story. There was the old labourer who greeted him on the roads side with the words, "Didn’t I cock my ear last Sunday!’, after hearing him preach on that day. The old Brinkley couple were faithful followers; the wife had been transported for receiving a watch stolen by her son, had served her time and returned to North Mymms. Young Mark Tarry, a bachelor living with his widowed mother, held a small farm at Roestock, a "devoted Christian, Sunday School teacher and CMS collector". John Gray was the schoolmaster "a truly godly man who proved the greatest help and comfort", but who was, after a few years, to be replaced by a properly certificated teacher when the Government’s New Code of Regulations appeared. Meyer recalled the parish clerk - "my clerk was a very civil, pleasant man, a bricklayer named Groom". William Groom was, in fact, a man of some substance, a master bricklayer who employed seven men and two boys.
The mid- Victorian age of Horace Meyer was a highly religious one. 7,261,915 people (nationwide) attended church, chapel or meetinghouse on 30 March 1851, about half of them at Anglican churches. Bible reading, by those who could read, and observing the Sabbath to keep it holy were general. This was truer of country parishes than of the big towns. The basis was organised prayer, preaching and self improvement rather tan sacraments and ritual, When the High Church Oxford Movement arose to challenge it with an emphasis on vestment and ritual, the Evangelical Alliance was formed within the Church in opposition to the Movement. On one occasion Meyer had to prevent the lighting of candles on the altar, or as he called it "the holy table". His evangelicalism was the most generally practised form of worship, stressing Biblical teaching and moral conduct. For him, it was present in his parish when he found his laundress Jane Flawn sitting by her fireside with Richard Plumber, a labourer who lodged with her, having a theological discussion. "Man can’t do anything", he said, to which she responded positively and warmly, "But he must try". Appropriately her name appears among the 350 on the vicar’s testimonial, but his does not. Another feature of evangelicalism was the missionary spirit and North Mymms had its collectors for the Church Missionary Society.
The contributors to the silver teakettle were from all classes in the parish, from agricultural labourer to landowner. As many labourers put in their pence as did not. Not surprisingly perhaps, more women than men did that, though they were in a minority in the parish. Included were all those families which had been in the parish for generations, the Nashes, Marlboroughs, Pratchetts and Pilgrims. One group was anotable absentee, the publicans, the licensees of the Sibthorpe, the Hope and Anchor, the Swan, the Maypole and the Woodman. Meyer’s relationship with them can only be inferred but certainly he was a strong supporter of the temperance movement.
When the time came to leave North Mymms his farewell sermons were from John xx.17, Isaiah xxvl.19. "He that will, let him take the water of life freely’, and ‘Awake and sing ye that dwell in the dust.’ Horace Meyer was succeeded by Arthur Latin. He reorganised the thrift clubs, launched the parish magazine, which continued until the present day, and established a flourishing branch of the United Kingdom Temperance Society. But he had seventeen years in which to do it and during his time illiteracy disappeared.
Peter Kingsford, 1989
Chapter 2 - The Rude Forefathers
Index - Victorian lives in North Mymms
Preface - Why Peter Kingsford wrote the book
Sources - Where Peter Kingsford researched the material for this book.
Photographs - The photographs reproduced by Peter Kingsford in his book