The Vestry Versus the Vicar
An account of sensational events in 1845 Kings Langley
The received version.
For nearly 100 years the standard reference book for the history of the church, its incumbents and local noteworthy villagers, especially from the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century and much else, has been The Parish of King’s Langley by the Rev'd John Parker Haythornthwaite M.A. published in 1924. Rev'd Haythornthwaite refers to his predecessor Rev'd John William Butt M.A, who took up his post as Vicar in 1837, thus, ‘He is said to have been a man of stately presence and of scholarly habits.’ Rev'd Haythornthwaite also mentions the preparatory school that Rev'd Butt ran in the Vicarage House to supplement his income. There is, however, no suggestion whatsoever of any kind of impropriety on the part of Rev'd Butt. There is, moreover, no mention of anything untoward during his incumbency and certainly no mention of any spectacular event in the village.
Some important clues regarding the Rev'd John William Butt.
In 1847 a St Albans Baptist Minister, Rev'd William Upton, conducted an independent investigation (5 years before the 1851 National Census of Religious Worship) of worship, attendance and vicars and ministers in Hertfordshire. Rev'd Upton provided an important indication that so far as Rev'd Butt was concerned all was not as well as one might have supposed from Rev'd Haythornthwaite's history. For Rev'd Upton had commented in 7 damning words, that the Rev'd John Butt, Vicar of King’s Langley, was ‘Of bad character. Few will hear him.’ Even by Upton’s outspokenness this was exceptional, very personal and contrasted starkly with Rev'd Haythornthwaite's appraisal of Rev'd Butt as, 'a man of stately presence'. What could possibly have given rise to Upton's astounding accusation?
A vital clue to this mystery turned up in ‘The 19th Century Church and English Society’, by Frances Knight (page 134) which in turn led to the exposure of a long forgotten astounding sequence of events in Kings Langley. We read ‘J.W. Butt, vicar of Kings Langley, Hertfordshire (valued at £264) and Lakenheath in Suffolk (valued at £136) was perhaps the most deeply indebted clergyman in the country. He owed £7000, having lost a tithe suit at Lakenheath in about 1825.’ £7000 would be getting on for about £½ million in today’s money. That was a major discovery but by itself it did not explain why John Butt seems to have made himself, according Rev'd Upton, so extremely unpopular in this village.
Further research revealed two detailed newspaper reports from the Times and the Bury and Norwich Post, both from April 1825, of this tithe suit - the case that the Rev'd Butt had lost in Lakenheath in Suffolk. The Rev'd Butt had, on his appointment to Lakenheath, had taken up an already long running claim promoted by the Dean and Chapter of Ely. This was that tithes should be paid on previous uncultivated fen land that had only recently been made productive. In 1831 this dispute, although legally settled, was still rumbling on and two rival petitions were submitted to Parliament which it was decided 'should lie on the table'.
So when Rev'd Butt arrived in Kings Langley in 1837 he brought with him not only his family and the young boy scholars to continue the school that he had previously run at Bromley College but also this massive debt. By 1845 Rev'd Butt knew that the culmination of this dire financial crisis was looming and he was becoming increasingly openly fearful of the consequences. He had already surrendered some valuable paintings to a solicitor, Mr. Arden of No 5 Gray’s Inn Square London, acting on behalf of Butt’s backers in the lost tithe case. This was a token concession and would never be enough. His creditors had, after 20 years of legal procedure, quite simply, lost patience with John Butt and saw no hope of regaining the money they had invested in him. They were so angry that seeing no hope of redress, they sought revenge. The retribution that they decided on was to send the boys round.
The attack on the vicarage.
In the dead of a Spring night, just 2 days from a full moon, a sleepless villager would have been disturbed by several horse drawn carts rumbling in to Kings Langley. In the morning of 21st March 1845, the Rev'd John William Butt left to undertake his Easter Friday duties at the Parish Church. That was the cue for the assault on his home, the vicarage.
The reason that we know so much of the detail about these dramatic events is that at the time Bishop Kaye of Lincoln was earning a justifiable reputation for being an approachable and communicative man in whom many of the clergy in his diocese felt very easy about consulting and confiding. Most of many letters sent to Bishop Kaye and some indication of his replies were kept and have been preserved and catalogued. Lincolnshire County Archives department have been extremely helpful letting us have copies of correspondence sent to Bishop Kaye from Kings Langley that so we have a very good picture of how this amazing drama was played out.
On Monday 22nd March the Rev'd Butt wrote this to Bishop Kaye,
‘That most solemn day [Easter Friday] was desecrated by the packing up and taking away of every article that I possessed in the world - and the peace of the village was broken on a day which I had laboured to teach my people to consider as the most sacred of the whole year and which I had, at length, brought them to observe strictly and with becoming solemnity.’
The whole vicarage had been ransacked. Even the fire grates and the perimeter iron hurdle fence were removed and only the intervention of Farmer Betts, churchwarden, meant that the window shutters and a verandah were left. Some items, including an expensive kitchen range, were sold there and then at knock down prices to villagers.
No distinction was made between Rev'd Butt’s personal possessions and the property of the church glebe house. Every item of any worth was either sold on the spot or carted away. Tables, sideboards, piano forte, pictures were all removed. His library of 1000 books which he valued alone at £200 were all taken. It helps to put Butt’s opulence in some perspective when we consider that the average income for a labourer in full employment would have been about 10 shillings a week or roughly £25.00 a year. Also listed were 30 bedsteads of various sizes together with upwards of 50 each of feather beds, mattresses and counterpanes and nearly 200 blankets. These items were, of course, for the accommodation of the students attending his residential school within the vicarage.
Rev'd Butt claimed the support of the poor for, no doubt, he was already only too aware of his general unpopularity with the educated and influential parishioners. However, the Earl of Clarendon (to whom he was Chaplain) contributed £50.00 to a subscription fund for his support to which Lady Bridgewater was asked to contribute. Apart from the Rural Dean, David Jenks and the Church Warden, John Betts, whom the Rev'd. Butt could always call upon for support, there seems to have been very little sympathy for him elsewhere in his sad, if self inflicted, predicament. After repairs to the vicarage the Rev'd. Butt returned there and continued his duties but the strength of feeling against him both from the lay Vestry committee and beyond was now even stronger .
The Vestry versus the Vicar.
On May 1st 27 established members of the community all householders, tithe payers and ratepayers, signed a petition addressed to the Rev'd John Butt which politely but explicitly asked him to return to his other living (Lakenheath) from whence he came. These higher status villagers had little time for Rev'd Butt’s situation since his reputation was so tarnished that they clearly wanted to make a fresh start with a new vicar.
With these letters going from and to Kings Langley and Lincoln there was a stand off. To emphasize the strength of opposition to Rev'd Butt’s continued presence in Kings Langley, Thomas Toovey, Newman Hatley, and John A.Groome wrote once more to the Bishop on the 28th May enclosing a revealing list of ratepayers of King’s Langley whose assessments for their occupations exceeded £30.00, who wanted Butt to go. However, John Betts (farmer and churchwarden), Henry Wells (Dissenter) and William Holloway (publican) were the only ones listed who wanted him to stay.
In a personal note of his reply on the 31st of May Bishop Kaye jotted down, ‘I do not propose the favour of requiring Mr. Butt to quit Langley.’
However the Bishop did send a letter of reproof to Rev'd John Butt but he obviously did not want to take the ultimate step of removing him from the village. It seems that Bishop Kaye wanted Rev'd Butt himself to acknowledge the strength of the opposition and unpopularity that he was facing. He implied, that he should, as we would say, ‘consider his position’. The Rev'd Butt was, however, not inclined to make discretion the better part of valour. No matter what so many influential parishioners clearly wanted, providing the Bishop stayed his hand and took no action Rev'd Butt was safe in his post. Having fought and lost the tithe suit, having been put under great pressure for repayment by his creditors, having seen the vicarage vandalised and all his possessions taken, perhaps he felt the indignity of staying put was worth the security that, at least, that offered.
In the final letter we have from Messrs Toovey, Hatley and Groome to Bishop Kaye dated 17 December, 1845 we see that this ‘respectable body of ratepayers’ as they described themselves were effectively having to admit defeat in the face of Butt’s intransigence. We can, perhaps, imagine the gritting of teeth when they were composing this last letter and especially in the formal deferential, obsequious signing off , ‘We have the honour to be Your Lordships most obedient humble servants.’ Despite having to accept the Bishop's support for Rev'd Butt to stay, they had, once again, demonstrated the fact that Kings Langley had a significant body of comparatively wealthy and influential residents and Vestry members.
The Rev'd John William Butt remained in his post as Vicar of Kings Langley. During the following years we can only guess at how the inevitable legacy of deep ill feeling persisted, the fallout from the fateful furore of 1845. The plaque to his memory in the Parish Church records that he died, age 68, on the 12th January 1855.
Perhaps one clue to support the suggestion that Rev'd Haythornthwaite knew more of those turbulent events from the first half of the 19th century than, for the sake of propriety and the historical reputation of his predecessors, he was prepared to publish, may be found on page 129 of his History of the Parish book. For he states that, 'During the last half of the 19th century a period of new life began with the coming of the Rev'd H. W. Hodgson in 1855 and its progressive spirit was well sustained by subsequent Vicars'.
The missing papers!
Unfortunately there is still one vital source of information that would throw even more light on these extraordinary events that is missing. Namely the Vestry minutes from 1841 to 1861. That they seem to have mysteriously disappeared from the parish chest does, in the circumstances, seem more than a little suspicious. If you have any knowledge of their whereabouts do please let us know.....
Previously published in our Newsletter No 49, July 2011, this is an abridged version of a talk given by Mike Reveley to KLLH&MS on 21st October 2009.