Project Canterbury

Charles Latimer Marson

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.

THE father of the subject of this memoir was Charles Marson, born in 1822, who married Ann Jane Woolley in 1854.

He belonged to the pious, though narrow, Evangelical group known as 'the Clapham School.' Some time after ordination he accepted the living of St. John's, Woking, and it was in that town that Charles Latimer was born on May 16, 1859. There were eight children: two sisters, then Charles Latimer, followed by two younger brothers, and three more sisters, the youngest of whom, Grace, is still living.

Mr. Marson left Woking for Lewisham later, and then resigned to become travelling secretary for the C.M.S. His next move was to become Vicar of Christ Church, Birmingham. Here Charles somehow attracted the attention of Cardinal Newman, who was very kind to him, and took a friendly interest in his pet rabbits. Yet another move by his father came when he accepted the living of St. Andrew, Clevedon, where Hallam, the friend of Tennyson, and the occasion for the writing of In Memoriam, is buried.

Young Charles, after some private schooling, went to Clifton College, where Dr. Percival was then Head-master, but he was not happy, and his memories of Clifton were never enthusiastic. His wit, however, was at work, and he began at Clifton to write a book of Hymns Evil and Medieval, which was never finished!

Some of his early friends must be mentioned here. In the early days at Lewisham, when Charles was four, two sisters, Janie and Emily Guest, took a lively and devoted interest in him. They were cultured women and stimulated his love of learning. Then, in the Clevedon days, there was Miss Sophy Pedder, another instance of that type of cultured Christian woman so often found in the Victorian age. Miss Pedder was quite the greatest of Marson's friends, and one whose influence was lifelong.

Marson went to Oxford (University College) in the late 'seventies, his greatest friends being the brothers Ronald and Charles Bayne, Robert Chalmers, Norman Cholmeley, and Mr. Ashley, the economic historian. Friendship with the Bayne brothers fitted in with Charles's development at this point. He had revolted against the Evangelical theology in which he had been brought up, and was quite sceptical about the Faith. Ronald and Charles Bayne were both 'broad church,' and this helped to steady Marson for the time, as it allowed for the use of reason, and his acute mind could not stand anything irrational, though, of course, later on, he came to see that faith and reason can go together. Another link with the brothers was in time to be the marriage of their sister Clotilda to Marson.

In saying that he had reacted from his father's theology it must at once be added that this never spoilt the intense love between them. Mrs. Marson writes: 'Though he was grateful to a host of friends, his deepest love was always for his glorious father, from whom he inherited his unique sense of humour. His father's hard work and conscientious toil as a parish priest was always his best inspiration. Total divergence of opinion consisted in a rare way with tender, devoted, faithful affection and intercourse. Nothing showed the excellence of C.L.M.'s heart better than this.'

There do not seem to be any signs at Oxford of contact with the Tractarians, and it was not till later that Marson came to the fullness of the Faith, first through hard philosophic study, then upon meeting Stewart Headlam, and lastly upon seeing the vigorous life of the Catholic Revival in that stormy period with its persecution of 'slum' priests.

There is a hint of the part played by the study of philosophy in Marson's conversion in a striking and most witty article written later (1886). He had won through to the Faith, and gave vent to his criticism of non-Catholic thought in a short essay called 'The Mantalini Theory.' Readers of Dickens will remember that Mr. Mantalini was the quaint Italian whose weakness for bad language came out most when he was 'grinding the mangle and saying "dem." 'In the article named, Marson exposes various forms of negation in religion, whether Puritan, ordinary Protestantism, orthodox and liberal, and agnosticism and 'fancy faiths.' He supposes that these votaries regard God and the world as Mr. Mantalini and his mangle magnified. They then either affirm both, as in the case of Puritans, or water down, explain away, or deny them, as in the other cases. The efforts to get Mantalini 'reformed' or refined away or to let the mist of the steam keep him out of sight and to soften the 'demnition' are made wonderful ways of laughing at negation.

In this remarkable article Marson is obviously speaking from his own experience when he describes those seekers after truth who are tired of Mantalini: 'They would be led through Hume to Kant, through Kant to Hegel, and through Hegel to all that is sweet, wholesome and true in Catholic theology, and to the eternities of poetry, to a belief in a God "a quo omnia bona procedunt," whose presence is manifest in all good things.'

Though it is not much good quoting Hegel on behalf of the Faith nowadays, in those days there was reason in the appeal. In any case, it is clear that Marson had a very deep philosophy by means of which he came to see the divine Reason in the divine Faith.


Marson was ordained to the curacy of St. Jude's, Whitechapel, where the broad church reformer, Canon Barnett, a noble figure, was vicar. Marson's love for the poor became vigorously quickened here. There still exist copies of his tract Jesus Christ and the Charity Organization Society. In this he actually fills in a C.O.S. case sheet with Jesus Christ as the subject of enquiry by the officials. It may be imagined what satire the idea provides, and how it goaded to anger those who think that the sacred lives of the poor can be managed as so many 'cases,' without any attempt to cure the injustice which makes them poor. He was at St. Jude's from 1882 to 1884, and then went to a curacy at Petersham. Whilst here he preached to a body of Evangelical clergy at Hampstead on the subject of the Ascension. This sermon created a furore, being attacked as heretical, and he was inhibited by his Bishop. But there was really nothing heretical in the sermon; only such piercing insistence on the humanity of our Lord, and denunciation of social injustice to his members in society, that the authorities resented it. Bishop Westcott had always been very friendly to Marson, who appealed to him for his opinion on the sermon. Marson wrote to a priest friend after Dr. Westcott had replied, saying: 'Straight Westcott says I am not unorthodox on the Ascension, but wrong on several minor points on the Incarnation.'

However, the bad odour of the controversy stuck to him, and a humorous sequel happened some years later when Dr. Temple was Bishop of London. The Bishop did not like Marson's social teaching, nor his sacramentalism and Catholic devotion. Marson wanted to be licensed to St. Mary's, Charing Cross Road-- a famous centre of the Catholic Revival in those days. Dr. Temple refused to license him. Now he himself, a long time before, had written an essay in Essays and Reviews, which was furiously attacked by a large part of the religious world, though it was the other essays, not Dr. Temple's, which were doubtful. Still, in this case, as in Marson's, the mud had stuck. So when the Bishop had given, as he thought, the final 'no' to Marson's request for a licence he threw at him the supposed doubtful sermon on the Ascension. In a flash Marson's twinkling reply came: 'Ah, my lord, I too have had my salad days'; upon which Dr. Temple promptly gave way and licensed him.

After Petersham, Marson was curate at St. Agatha's, Shoreditch, in 1885-6, where he learnt still more in the school of love for God's poor. Then he accepted the living of Orlestone, Kent, which had a big rectory with a very small income. He was there, perhaps, until 1889, but there may have been another short curacy somewhere. Here his old friends, the Misses Janie and Emily Guest, used to come down and interest the people in the most delightful way with Greek and Italian culture. Marson had a firm belief in the power of simple people to see and appreciate beauty in life and art, and he was enthusiastic in getting help like this for his flock. The former Rector of Orle-stone had been George Sarson, whose interest brought Marson to see more of the Catholic position, and introduced him to Stewart Headlam, the founder of the Guild of St. Matthew. This completed Marson's conversion to the Faith, and he at length joined the Guild of St. Matthew. His love for Headlam was great, and he became a leading member of the Guild very quickly. But he could also be critical of his friends where he thought wisdom was involved, and there were in the future several differences between himself and Headlam on the latter's policy for the Movement. But he was always loyal, and his last book, God's Co-operative Society, was dedicated 'to the bravest of Captains, and most skilful of the swordsmen of the Holy Ghost, Stewart Duckworth Headlam.'

The Guild, formed in 1877 by Headlam, Arthur Stanton and others, stated its position as follows:


1. To get rid, by every possible means, of the existing prejudices especially on the part of 'Secularists' against the Church, her Sacraments and Doctrines; and to endeavour 'to justify God to the people.'

2. To promote frequent and reverent worship in the Holy Communion, and a better observance of the teaching of the Church of England as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.

3. To promote the study of social and political questions in the light of the Incarnation.

Stewart Headlam had, as in the case of Marson, revolted from the early Protestantism of his boyhood, and at Cambridge had studied under Frederick Denison Maurice, whose teaching he absorbed with eagerness. When later he came in touch with the Tractarian Catholics of that generation, instead of making the mistake common to so many of calling Maurice a 'broad' Churchman, he saw that the philosophy of the latter really involved the Catholic and Sacramental position.

It is true that there were sad differences in those days between Maurice and Pusey, but they were those of the philosophic approach to the Faith, rather than in its essentials. Nowadays, both 'schools' have very largely 'met together' under the leadership of Gore and Scott Holland, and it is well for Catholics of this generation to know the part which people like Headlam and Marson and the Guild as a whole had in this process of restoring the acceptance of the fullness of the Faith.

A monthly paper known as The Church Reformer, owned and edited by Stewart Headlam, ran for many years, and in its files may be read numbers of sermons, articles and notes by Marson, written in his vigorous, picturesque and humorous style. The Guild was always a very small one, for the appeal to apply the Faith to social and political life involved a severe test which even many Catholics could not easily accept. To take any strong line where questions of property and vested interests are involved means trouble in facing ' worldly' conditions, and especially the religious world. So the Guildsmen never preached to large congregations, nor became popular. Often their efforts seemed to produce puny results, measured by the usual standards. Yet the thought and writing, the personal influence and message of that little band of priests and layfolk made a real mark for good on the life of the Church. Besides which the sympathy and understanding shown to the poor and the working class movement of those days undoubtedly helped to prevent a sharp separation and antagonism between the masses and the Christian Religion.

It is only fair to say, however, that neither Marson nor Headlam went out of their way to make it easy for 'the weak brothers' to see the truth, if the occasion needed strong speaking. 'Dear old Headlam, he is splendid in putting in the thick end of the wedge' might have been true of Marson, who made the remark about his comrade.

Marson's preaching was quite a thing in itself. To begin with, he had a fine presence, his face having a very poetic and romantic suggestion about it, whilst he had a gift of helping quite simple people to feel the mystic and wonderful side of life. A curious slight catch in his voice helped rather than hindered the effect of his message. He spoke a fine nervous English, with short sentences, delivered as far as possible without long or foreign words where good English ones were available. Wit and humour came into his sermons as well as into his conversation; indeed, he seemed incapable of talking at any time without enlivening someone by what he said.

To some extent, he had the same gift here in preaching as that greatest of all the Catholic preachers of that time, Father Stanton. The latter was, of course, supreme and beyond comparison, yet there were moments in Marson's preaching, when at his best, which had much of the brilliant feeling which brought alternate tears or smiles to one's face, as in Arthur Stanton's sermons.

In 1889 Marson went to Australia with his brothers for the cure of asthma, to which they were all three subject.

He was curate at St. Peter's, Glenelg, Adelaide, at first, and this was followed by his marriage to Miss Clotilda Bayne in June, 1890. Their first child, Mary, was born in 1891. The second, John, was born in England later. He died in the war.

Australian Church life in those days was of a very moderate and respectable type, and the churches where the Faith was at all definitely presented were very few. But Marson never hesitated, and after a short time at St. Peter's he began to get a following.

So, when appointed as Priest-in-Charge of St. Oswald, Parkside, he went ahead with vigour. It was perhaps the very newness of the complete presentment of the Faith and all that its social meaning involved that so attracted the Australians, who are often thought of as moderate in their vision of the Church, yet are very insistent upon vigour when they understand its objective. In any case, St. Oswald's succeeded, and became famous both in Australia and in England. Charles was so attractive and lovable that he made friends with many whose religious position was very undeveloped. He did not mind this, for the human was to him already half religious and incipiently catholic.

An instance of this occurred at a religious census at Parkside. When the enquirer asked of an old lady who came to the door ' What religion is your husband?' she replied, 'Well, my 'usband usen't to 'ave no religion, but since Mr. Marson came, if 'e's anythink, 'e's very very 'igh church.'


The Australian climate proved bad for the brothers, so in 1892 Marson returned to England with his wife and child. His first work after his arrival was as a locum-tenens at Silksworth, a mining parish near Barnsley. This was in the Durham diocese, of which Dr. Westcott, who, it will be remembered, was a friend of Marson, was Bishop. Marson used to take miners out in the vicar's brougham, and when the latter returned to his parish, he complained to the Bishop that the miners had scratched the paint. But Westcott defended Charles, who was delighted to know that a Bishop was ready to put humanity above property for once.

The next curacy was at Christ Church, Clapham, of which Father Bradley Abbott was vicar. The old contacts with the Guild were renewed, and Marson became very active. He was very restless in moving from cure to cure, and this was partly due to the fact that his insistence on combining orthodoxy in faith and practice with strong social teaching as to the meaning of the Sacraments was not always congenial to some of the clery under whom he served. In collecting the data as to his moves it has not been possible to trace some of what may be called 'the lesser curacies' nor do his letters or the directories always help. But the next change was important and needs some explanation.

When Headlam fell under episcopal displeasure for defending the ballet and stage; for friendly conferences with atheists in order to get them to see the beauty of the Faith; for standing up for the poor; and for making himself a nuisance to religious respectability, his license was withdrawn. It was then that he found an altar and a pulpit where he had the opportunity to preach a free and human Catholicism at St. Mary's, Charing Cross Road. The Vicar was then an absentee, but the Priest-in-Charge, the Rev. W. E. Moll, an old G.S.M. member, had a free hand, and the Church became a centre for very vigorous life. The Guild of St. Matthew and the Church and Stage Guild found their home here, and Father Stanton often preached. When Father Moll left London for Newcastle, Marson applied to the Bishop, Dr. Temple, for a licence to take his place at St. Mary's. The story of his objections to Marson and the latter's repartee has been told already.

Marson was very happy at St. Mary's, where, in addition to the work of the parish and his other varied propaganda, he found time for research and writing. His books were all on out-of-the-way subjects, but very delightful ones. He was never a formal writer, and did not feel the call to add to the solid theology for which the Church of England is rightly famous. But there was so much wit, insight and understanding in his reference to the great truths of the Faith, that perhaps one or two of his books may have more actual value for the Church than some Bampton Lectures.

The dating of his books is as follows: Faery Stories (1892), The Psalms at Work (1894), The Following of Christ (1895), Turnpike Tales (1898), St. Hugh (1891), The Englishman's Jerusalem--i.e., Glastonbury (1909).

The dates of the following have not been verified: The Apology (an original and fine translation of Plato's immortal book), Village Silhouettes, God's Co-operative Society, and, lastly, the great effort of Folk Songs from Somerset.

The Psalms is a wonderful work filled with shrewd comments upon man and life, and proves Marson's wide reading and deep thinking. It illustrates what was said of him in his Oxford days and after: 'Charlie read two subjects, history and life, and he gained much from both.' He only received £10 for this work, which was quite original, and inspired another and more well-known book later on by another author.

Glastonbury is a charming study in his best vein. Village Silhouettes reveals his deep and discerning love for simple country people 'in the green of the world.' Folk Songs needs a note to make clear the fact that Marson was the real discoverer of those treasures of folklore, poetry and music. He found them out by patient friendship with his old people, and, when he saw what riches he had found, wrote to Mr. Cecil Sharp to come down to Hambridge and get the songs properly harmonized. Great thanks are due to the late Cecil Sharp for his work here, but it is often forgotten by some, and not known at all by others, that Marson was the real genius in recovering that world of beauty.

God's Co-operative Society was his last book. It includes several essays written earlier, especially those magnificent satires Huppim, Muppim and Ard. Perhaps those are the perfect examples of that particular style for which Marson stood almost alone--short, crisp, nervous English sentences phrased with wit and humour which prevent the satires from being bitter, yet leave them sharp and biting in their effect. One has to laugh so much at the persons or the things ridiculed that there is no room for unkindness. Later, in 1894, Marson left St. Mary's, Soho, to go to St. Mary's, Somers Town, of which Father Reade was Vicar and Father Fyfe the other colleague. We know what wonderful things have happened at Somers Town during the last few years, and how the slums are being rebuilt, and the life of the district redeemed. In the 'nineties it was dreadful, and there seemed no hope in the people, and no ways of rousing them. The Cabmen's Strike took place about this time, and in this Marson was a great figure with the men. The thanksgiving at the end of the strike was held at St. Mary's.

In 1895 Lord Rosebery offered Marson the living of Hambridge, near Langport, Somerset, and he accepted it. This proved to be his last post, and easily the longest cure he ever exercised. His curacies had not averaged more than one year each, and it was only as Rector of Orlestone that he had stayed in one place as long as three years. Great as the service was which Marson rendered to the Church and literature by recovering the folk-songs, his friends have often wished that his endeavour to get a living at Birmingham had succeeded instead. Had he been in the latter city during the days of Bishop Gore and after, what great things might have been done for the Church and for the country! But the efforts of his friends failed, as the gift was not in friendly hands, and, indeed, those hands went up in horror when it was known for whom the enquiries were being made. So Charles Marson's last years were spent in Hambridge, for he could never afford to get away, even if another offer had come, owing to the expenses of the dilapidations.

At Hambridge, Marson set out to know the whole of his flock as intimately as possible, and to develop in them the love for the Faith. The former incumbent, Father Grueber, was a Tractarian, so Marson could build on his foundations. But his great work was to get his people to see the essential connection between the Faith and their lives, and the world around them. It was here where he had such exquisite sympathy and insight in dealing with men. He could not stand that type of 'Catholic' who lives by the letter rather than the spirit. Once in those days he addressed a local branch of the E.C.U., who had made much of what were called in those days 'The Six Points.' The great test with certain people of a priest or a church was, 'How many points have they in worship?' So in his address, after insisting upon the deeper social and spiritual meaning of the Faith, he said: 'People who make so much of these "points" are inclined to forget the very definition of a point, which is that "it marks position, but has no magnitude."'

People who visited Hambridge. and saw the work which its parish priest did in those days, splendidly helped by Mrs. Marson, tell wonderful tales of the way in which simple country labourers could be persuaded to perform the Christmas Mystery at church, without any 'books of words' or much official prompting. Marson could also get youths, at the age which is so often the despair of the clergy, to listen with glee to the telling of the Story of the Holy Grail or the history of Glastonbury . . . ' that holiest spot on English ground' . . . and the part which the West Country played in the legend of St. Joseph. It was all full of meaning for the spread of the Faith, and this was, of course, Marson's great aim.

It may be asked what his position was in relating the Faith to social life, so far as the economic condition of the people was concerned. The answer is that Marson made no attempt to disguise his 'socialism,' which, indeed, he preached very strongly, though keeping clear of political entanglements. That was, broadly, also the position of the Guild of St. Matthew, though Headlam was much more insistent on the nationalization of the land by means of what was called the taxation of land values.

Marson was a great authority on the social teaching of the Fathers, and wrote several articles to show the strong strain of what can only be called 'communism' in their teaching. After certain of these articles had appeared, they were attacked by the Rev. Dr. Cobb, upon which Marson promptly replied in a tract headed, The Cob(b) Nut Cracked.

It would have been interesting to see how he might have reacted to the general position after the war, which has done so much, along with other changes in thought, to alter the position of Catholics to that side of life. Probably he would have chosen other ways and terms to express Catholic values, as, indeed, has generally happened with most Catholics. But, if so, this would not have meant any lessening of his holy zeal for justice. He used to say, 'The Mass is the Divine Drama of the Perfect State,' but, he added once to the writer, 'yet the word "State" is not the right one, for there is nothing static about Heaven.'

There is only space to touch upon his extraordinary breadth of sympathy with all kinds of human culture. From Plato to fishing, botany, and plant knowledge, birds, the drama, poetry and art, history, especially of the Elizabethan period, and general literature, he was a man of enormous interests, and infected everyone with desire to share in them.

And so he went on until 1914, when a return of asthma and lung trouble hastened his end, which came suddenly on March 3, 1914.

If, in conclusion, it be asked why this strange character, who had such a small share in the official life of the great Movement which we are celebrating in 1933, who was not recognized by the Tractarian leaders of those days, and was quite unknown to most Catholics, has a place of honour in these little booklets, the answer is something like the following: 'The Faith is Catholic; that is, it takes into account all the interests of a man's life, which our Lord came to redeem in all its wholeness. The social vision which is inherent in the Mass cannot be seen as a mighty inspiration unless it embraces the economic and cultural sides of man's life in a world which is to be regarded as the preparation for the New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of Heaven. Marson was one who was constantly "looking for the City which hath the foundations, whose builder and maker is God."'

Project Canterbury