There were few people living in England in 1932 who did not know the name of the Rector of Stiffkey. His name, his face, his life and his family were plastered across every newspaper in the country from February, when his impending trial was announced, to October when he finally became one of the rare priests to be unfrocked. People followed him wherever he went. They descended on his parishes by train, car, coach, bicycle – any means of transport they could find to see him in person, to shake his hand or to hear him speak. They continued to follow him till his death.
It was the media trial to end all media trials as the prosecution peeled his life to pieces in their attempt to accuse him of Immorality. It was the last Consistory court trial to be held in England under the old Immorality Laws of the Church. The Laws were repealed in the wake of it.
The press had a field day. The Chancellor of the diocese of Norwich who was to sit in judgement on the case, allowed the prosecution’s request to have the trial transferred to London with reporting restrictions lifted. They could report whatever they wished. The actual proceedings were printed in every newspaper and avidly read by those who couldn’t attend.
Counsels sparred against each other day after day, over the way the trial was being conducted. The controversy between them was such that they refused to sit in the restaurant at the same time during meal breaks and they glared at each other in the corridors. Each side became fiercely determined to win.
People queued from early morning to get a seat in the public gallery to watch the action. Crowds lined the streets 4 deep around Church House and later the Law Courts. Nothing like it had been seen before. It ignited public opinion right across the divides.
As the trial progressed enormous public sympathy began to extend to this tiny 57-year-old cleric who was so valiantly defending what he believed in. People pressed money into his hands for his defence if they saw him walking in the street; taxis gave him rides in London without charge. He was described in the press as having “the look of an intellectual and the gait of a man of the world.” He came out of it to a world largely convinced of his innocence but with a guilty tag tied to his name.
For the remainder of his life he continued to fight for the repeal of the laws under which he had been tried and for the reform of Consistory courts bringing them in line with courts of law; to ensure what had been done to him could never happen again and so that in future an accused priest had the right to due process.
He died 5 years later after being mauled by a lion. He was buried in Stiffkey at the request of the villagers who called him the only real priest they ever knew. They’ve cared for his grave ever since.
Over the last 70 years, books and documentaries have attempted to relate the story of this extraordinary enigmatic clergyman. Now for the first time his family have come forward to write the real story of his life and to bring out the truth behind the sensation.
His granddaughter writes...
"Since his death there have always been calls to clear him through the court of Arches to put an end to the terrible publicity created after he died. The family tried for years till his sister died. We continue to make representations. The rector is now generally recognised as an innocent man falsely accused. Those involved in what happened are long dead and the Church has moved forward – we all have. It can afford to look into its darker corners to right the wrongs perpetrated in its name.
I am convinced from new evidence, that in my grandfather’s case, it was more the old Ecclesiastical Commissioners than the Church who were the instigators of his trial. The rector had been working for 40 years among the homeless and runaways backed by some of the more eminent churchmen of his day. Other rectors were similarly accused at the time, when the Commissioners were downsizing to recoup lands held in the gift of the aristocracy, under the old tithe system and glebes. The rector was sitting on one of the wealthiest. I believe he was used as an example because he refused to sign a blank confession paper. He called on the clergy to back him in his request for a Church investigation into what was happening.
I hope one day the Church will find the wisdom to clear him, as much for their own sake as for ours, to put an end to a scandal that will continue to haunt until they do."
About Zevrika Publications...
This short biography has the backing of those who knew the rector and begins to give the truest insight into his life and the events leading to his trial than has ever previously been told. Documents began to emerge in the 1990s shedding new light on those events. Some of the rector’s own writings, which had been missing since his death came to light as well as his defence papers found in an attic, which had been preserved by one of his counsels.
This is an important contribution to a story, which will always be a part of the history of the depression era.
For more information and to order a copy of the book priced at £6 + £2 p&p in the UK (please contact us for overseas postage) , please contact Zevrika publications:
Telephone: +44 (0) 207 2630928