Project Canterbury

The Starvelings: A Study in Clerical Poverty

By F. J. Hammond

London: The Society of SS Peter and Paul, 1921.

Chapter IV. The Parson's House

To be allowed to demolish the glebe house (rectory or vicarage) and live in a small house would be one of the greatest boons that could be conferred upon hundreds of rectors and vicars in this country. The majority of the present glebe houses are too large, and their upkeep is the cause of dire straits. Laymen should refuse absolutely ever to subscribe to build a big rectory or vicarage. It will never be known how many times patrons have had to enquire about the size of the bank balance of their possible nominee to a "living" rather than about his capacity--spiritually and physically--for the serious work he is being invited to undertake. This latter is perforce a secondary consideration. [Tithes, by Rev. G. Brocklehurst, pp. 92.]

I commence this chapter with the above extract from Mr. Brocklehurst's valuable little book because it expresses exactly the same view I advocated in a little work of my own published two years later, and which at the time was very cordially received. [The Country Parson, pp. 88, etc.] There seemed to be no difference of opinion among the reviewers that this was the best solution of a manifest difficulty.

I make the quotation because it touches the spot with Homocean exactness.

That the parson should have a house to live in is a necessity. It is not necessary that he should be condemned to live in one of such size as to be the main cause of all his poverty.

Yet so it is. "The majority of glebe houses are too [37/38] large and their upkeep is the cause of dire straits." Mr. Brocklehurst is absolutely right. It is not so much the increased cost of living in the present day which has created the "dire straits" among the clergy of which we hear and know so much as the perfectly awful official expenditure arising from the large house and its surrounding grounds.

It is useless to discuss how these large houses arose. The idea that the parson as a gentleman should be housed as a gentleman was perhaps at the bottom of it. But what has to be considered is this, that while apart from the house--in which I include the grounds--the income of the benefice in perhaps the majority of cases would be sufficient, or almost so, even to-day, so large a part of it is swallowed up in official expenses, rates, taxes, payments to Q. A. B. and repairs, that he has little left.

I am absolutely convinced that what is wrong is not that the parson has not enough money, but that he has too much unnecessary expense.

Obviously the larger your house the larger your rates and taxes and repair bill. With a large house repairs are constant. There is always something wants doing.

I may quote a case known to me--a country benefice where the gross income is rather over £300. Well, even in these days that is manageable. But the unfortunate incumbent is saddled with a fourteen-roomed house, large rooms too! a large garden, orchard, stabling, etc. The rates, taxes, and Q. A. B. bring the £300 down to a little over £200. To my certain knowledge he has never been, and never will be, free from care.

The Church Times recently noted the proposed sale of a vicarage of twenty-two rooms. It is by no means an uncommon size.

[39] Now there are several questions which arise in this connection, as well as several objections which shall be considered. The first is, is it in the least necessary that the parson should have a large house?

Emphatically I answer no. Let us go back to first principles and again say that he is there in the parish as parish priest, not to lead the life of a little country gentleman. If a man accepts a benefice with the latter idea in his mind he has mistaken his vocation. I repeat, the parish priest should be expected to live a simple life in a simple manner, and the provision for him in the way of a home should conform to that in its own simplicity.

Instead of that every possible encouragement to the contrary is given him. He finds a large showy mansion, garden, lawns, and goodness knows what--the whole being the very reverse of apostolic simplicity--of which perhaps he talks in the pulpit--and ostensibly suggesting ease and wealth. It gives the man, whether he admits it or not, a wrong view of his position.

And it gives his people a wrong view of his position too. I am told--and upon excellent authority--that our rural folk like to see their parson in a good house. Frankly I do not think they care very much either way--in any case they have not to pay for it. If I could persuade my parishioners to pay my official expenses they would soon suggest a smaller residence--of that I am perfectly certain.

For after all what is the minimum a parish priest really needs? Dining (or living) room, study, kitchen, and the usual offices and say three bedrooms.

Oh--is that all? But he might be a married man with a family! We will presume he is a married man--but we are talking of him as the parish priest. And, as [39/40] an assistant-curate, married and with a family if you like, he would probably have no greater accommodation in a London suburb, and less in a London flat. I fail entirely to understand why more should be provided for him as a country vicar.

The large glebe house presents terrible consequences. It means more furnishing, more lighting and heating--a great expense in the country. It ought to mean, but seldom gets, more servants. It means fearful work, incessant work, for the parson's wife.

An astute and observant layman called with me once on a country vicar. We approached the usual mansion through a garden which in appearance has already been described in the Book of Proverbs--though the vicar was by no means slothful or void of understanding. The mansion--it was no less--wanted painting, badly. We were warmly welcomed, as people generally are in the country, and given tea, prepared by Mrs. Vicar--clearly they kept no servant. On our return journey my friend remarked: "Did you notice the lady's hands? Poor soul. The hands of a charwoman. I expect she does everything."

It was only too true, as I got to know later. The whole thing eaten up by rates and taxes and so forth--entire inability to keep a servant or a man for the garden or even to have repairs done--two children to educate--two fending for themselves.

It is pitiful--and the pitifulness of it is that a small house would have saved the situation.

The anxiety it breeds, the constant wearing anxiety which keeps one awake o' nights, is beyond my pen to describe. We want a powerful novelist with first-hand information to write it up.

Do you wonder at the array of shabby hats so common [40/41] in the vicarage hall? Do you wonder that so many country parsons wear old clothes? They don't go shabbily because they like it. There's no "simple life" in that--but simply because their heavy official expenditure leaves nothing to buy new clothes with.

And it is all so unnecessary and could be remedied. My argument always has been that as a curate the incumbent with very likely his wife and children got along upon a salary considerably less than the gross income of his present benefice. He lived quite simply in his own hired house, like the Apostle, and managed. Yet as incumbent, with a much larger gross income, he is a worried poverty-stricken man--and all because of the wicked official expenses. [In taking a "living" the first thing the parson has to consider is not whether he can live on his income, but whether he can meet the expenses out of it. It is clearly wrong.]

Look at the things he could really do without which he is compelled to have. Take his garden now. Vicarage gardens are usually large and invariably expensive. A garden and orchard covering a couple of acres is by no means uncommon--and there is frequently a meadow as well--all subject to rates and taxes remember.

And as parish priest he doesn't want it. If he is foolish enough to do his own gardening it takes up_time he ought to be giving to the parish and the study; if he employs a man, there's more expense to be met and no end of trouble. If he thinks he can economise with only a lad, he pays a little lower wages and increases his troubles threefold! Besides, in the country you can buy garden produce for much less than it costs to grow it in the vicarage garden.

Or the stable. Well in these days very few vicars can afford to keep a horse--and if the incumbent does run [41/42] to a pony there is always the temptation to get out of the parish in the summer, and in the winter the beast eats its head off. In any case the parish priest should do his work on his own feet.

Or his orchard! Far more trouble than it is worth. If there is one place in the parish the boys feel they have a right to rob and go birds' nesting it is the parson's orchard. If he prosecutes he makes himself disliked for life. Experience has taught me--and many more--that an orchard is an unmitigated nuisance.

Then over all hangs the burden of dilapidations--a heavy, serious item which, as recent correspondence in the Church papers has shown, has absolutely ruined even men with large private means.

And the whole of this could be avoided by the provision of a smaller house in most parishes.

There is one other thing to be observed, and that is the enormous waste to the Church in actual cash caused by these large glebe residences. The annual output in rates, taxes, and payments on loans--from which few are exempt--to Q. A. B. must be very great. The value of the houses alone must be immense.

Now most of this could be realised, smaller houses built, and the balance used for augmenting income. The amount saved in "official expenses" would be a clear gain to the individual clergy and the Church at large, for rates, taxes, etc., would be very considerably less. I do not suggest that this could be done in every country parish, but it certainly could and should be done in most.

The objection is raised, however, that it is not desirable that the parson should live in a small house. Why? I ask, and I am told, you could not expect a gentleman to do so.

[43] Is a man less a gentleman because he lives in a cottage? Is he more a gentleman because--and only because--he lives in a mansion? I thought we had exploded that idea already.

But supposing a man with good private means accepted the living, would he be content with the small vicarage?

My answer to that is quite definite. If he has taken Orders only with the idea of living like a swell he has mistaken his vocation. We are considering the parish priest independently of any private possessions; and if he is worth his salt as a parish priest he will accept the accommodation provided for him and give glory to God.

Just now every inducement is being made to encourage men with little or no means to enter Holy Orders, even to assisting them in their education. These will become our future country parsons, and in view of that it is imperative that more simple accommodation be provided. The consideration of private means, as Mr. Brocklehurst says, has been an unfortunate necessity, frequently resulting in sending the wrong man to the wrong place and keeping the right man out.

The apostolic simplicity which I urge and claim for the parish priest has been obscured to the detriment of the Church's work. The Church will have to get back to it sooner or later if she is to regain any hold upon heathen England. Not until the Church abjures possessions and wealth will the people of England believe she means business.

And the people of England have less faith in the Church while her ministers are reported to be so poverty stricken. They cannot understand it. They see the parish priest in his opulent looking home and do not realise that though he has more money he is probably much worse off than themselves. Those who know the [43/44] facts are urgent that something should be done--for they themselves are powerless to help.

And something is being done--let that be admitted. The bishops, I am sure, are not only sympathetic but ready to do all in their power to alleviate the poverty of the parson. Efforts are being made to raise stipends to a minimum of £400 a year. Grants are given in necessitous cases for immediate relief; even, as one Society knows, gifts of cast-off clothing are welcomed.

It is really a very awful state of affairs--but pardon me if I say that none of the schemes of which I know touch the root of the evil. Even supposing the income of small benefices is raised to £400, the evil still remains in the big glebe house and its environment. My point is the man ought not to be there at all. The whole thing is wrong from top to bottom, the principle of it is wrong-There is no remedy that I can see possible except to cut it down and clear it out. Raise the endowment to £400 or any amount you like, there still remains the wicked waste of money in rates, taxes, and maintenance for a place that is not necessary. There still remains the absence of that apostolic simplicity which should be the hall-mark of the servants of Christ.

Poverty indeed is no crime, and the clergy as a class bear theirs with a courage which is beyond praise, but it is criminal to condemn men to such incredible hardships which after all could be avoided.

In the public Press many suggestions have been made of the way in which the clergy may increase their incomes. They are mostly too foolish to notice; they include such things as bee keeping, poultry and pig farming, market gardening and so forth--all perfectly harmless, innocent affairs certainly. But in making these suggestions--and they are frequently made by the [44/45] clergy--the correspondents all seem to miss the raison d'être of the parish priest. The man is not sent to the parish to be a poultry fancier, a pig keeper or a market gardener. I once in my boyhood was at the Crystal Palace and found a cat show. There was a venerable looking clergyman with small kittens crawling all over him. It appeared he bred some special kind of cat for income raising purposes. Boy as I was, it struck me as a horrible sight--though the kittens were charming enough--the man seemed to have forgotten his calling.

To conclude. Put the man in a small house where all his expenses would be considerably less, get rid of his land and convert it into money, get as much of his tithe redeemed as possible, and he is a free man at once. He can do his work with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, do the duty for which he was ordained, free from all those cares and anxieties which at present make that work less effective than it need be.

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