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The Starvelings: A Study in Clerical Poverty

By F. J. Hammond

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

Chapter VI. The Views of a Layman

The opinion of a layman on this subject is of real weight and importance. However disinterested a parson may seem, there is always the suspicion that he has an axe to grind. A layman who undertakes to write on clerical poverty has no such axe, he writes wholly in sympathy and with the desire to help towards reform. Therefore the article on "Poor Clergy" by "An Englishman" in the Daily Mail of October 18, 1919, arrested my attention. It was an important article. It was full of firsthand information. The writer clearly knew his subject, and he wrote full of sympathy for the unfortunate poor clerics.

With the courteous and generous permission of the Editor of the Daily Mail--who herewith has my most grateful thanks--I am able to reproduce this article in full, and equally we clergy must be grateful to the "Englishman" who wrote it. He has the characteristics of an Englishman in his readiness to champion the distressed.

There are two small points of criticism--poverty is never ridiculous. I think that is a misapprehension. Poverty is sad; only the fools and the thoughtless--and "An Englishman" is neither--ridicule the poor.

I am not quite certain what he means by "the Church" in the final paragraph, but suspect he has fallen into the common error of meaning the leaders of the Church--the bishops. The Church implies all the baptised, [50/51] laymen and clerics. It is well within the powers of the bishops to devise a scheme--they may as well adopt mine and done with it--and the whole "Church" would support them. That's all. And now I give the article.



Many years ago Anthony Trollope sketched with his artist's hand and in the grim colours of truth the miserable fate of a clergyman and a scholar, who was asked to bring up a family upon a pittance which would scarcely buy him bread.

That the book was written in the hope of bettering the lot of the poor clergy there is no doubt. The hope was vain. More than half a century has passed since Trollope published The Last Chronicle of Barset, and the poor clergy are far worse off now than they were then.

Canon Green, of Salford, the loyal champion of the half-starved clergy, tells us that there are 5860 parishes in England where the parson's income is under £250, and 3275 parishes where the income is below £200.

To the unhappy parson the war has added fresh burdens, while it has not increased his stipend by a penny. He sees the purchasing power of the sovereign decline lower and lower as the rates and taxes rise higher and higher. He has no means of earning money outside his calling, and since he does not belong to a trade union, since his sense of duty will not permit him to go on strike, the world looks with an indifferent eye upon his bitter sufferings.

"An old friend of mine," says Canon Green, "who is a fine classical scholar, complains that he has not been able to give his wife a penny more to meet household expenses than he did before the war. He is wearing clothes that are ragged, and he assures me that his [51/52] family could not afford more than one meat meal a week."

And the fact that the hardship falls upon a man of learning and refinement doubles its weight. The parson sees the ideals which inspired him to take Orders shattered one by one. What comfort can he bring to others when he has not enough to buy sufficient food for his own children? The memory of the Greek and Latin which he learned at Oxford or Cambridge is but a small solace to him in his poverty. He cannot read Sophocles with pleasure when he knows that his larder is empty.

Romance has drawn a veil over the harsh fortune which dogs the ill-paid clergyman. Sweet Auburn is a dream and no more. The village preacher, celebrated by Goldsmith, "passing rich with forty pounds a year," who was "more bent to raise the wretched than to rise," whose "house was known to all the vagrant train," is the hero of an illusory fairy story. Whatever a man's profession.may be, he is confronted by the weekly bills, and he cannot help others efficiently who stands in need of help himself.


Nor can the parson bend before the storm of privation. He must not sink in the scale of the world, as others sink, to whom the power of earning money is denied. He cannot live in a couple of untidy rooms, or, tramping the country, sleep under the stars. He must fit the dignity of his calling with the dignity of his life, and this supreme demand is made upon him that he should hide all signs of distress, even though distress is his constant companion.

And the unmerciful fate which denies him money gives him, by a wicked irony, a house often far larger than his needs, and always a cause of unnecessary expense. Canon Green tells us of a clergyman who was offered a living in the country with a stipend of £111 a year, and, had he accepted, it, it would have taken every copper of his first year's income to have a large old house, in which he was expected to live, put into a [52/53] proper state of repair. What can be crueller than this--to force a comfortable house upon a poor man, who cannot afford to live in it, and is obliged to paint and paper it and to keep its walls from tumbling down?

It may be said, and it is said, that a poor clergyman is supported in his misery by a sense of duty loftily discharged. The fact that he does his duty is not the best excuse for keeping him upon such a wage as purchases starvation.

The labourer is worthy of his hire, and no one can do the work allotted to him if he has to wonder where his next meal will come from, and whether he will ever again have a sound coat to put upon his back.

It was said at the Church Congress that one parson was known to be living in a cellar because he could not afford to warm his house; that another was forced to sell furniture to pay his rates and satisfy the rapacity of a thriftless Government.

That these things should be is a national disgrace. It is the duty of the Church to find a way out of the prevailing misery. It is not enough that the question should be discussed in Congresses and in newspapers. The Church owes something to the clergymen who have been ordained to its service. And since the Church is inseparable from the State, the whole country shares in the responsibility of ill-doing.

The working man, bound in the bonds of union to his fellows, knows what he wants and hitherto, by the aid of threats, has been able to get it. When he demands an extra couple of shillings a day he makes the demand, or his leader makes it for him, with a dithyrambic enthusiasm. You might imagine from his tone that he was fighting a holy war or leading the last hope of a crusade. He gets the money and the glory too.


The poor clergyman gets little money and less glory. Now and then a word of pity is thrown to him; his [53/54] attempt to keep up appearances may evoke a smile; but there is not much help for him beyond the doles of admirable institutions, which he is often too proud to approach, and the consciousness that he has performed his duty as well as he could in conditions of distress. Yet how can a man be a happy teacher of others when he lives in a cellar?

The worst of poverty, after its inevitable privations, is the ridicule in which its sad victims are involved. I do not know why poverty should be ridiculous, but ridiculous it is, and he who suffers from it is not only often laughed at, but is dismissed as though he were besmirched by a moral taint. There is no worse cant than the cant which sings the praises of poverty and deplores it when it is exemplified in this man or that. You must be a multi-millionaire before you can chant with a glad heart the sublime value of poverty, as Mr. Carnegie chanted it, the mother of courage, the nurse of all the virtues. "Oh, leave us poverty, honest poverty!" cried the steel king, when he had taken the greatest care to leave it behind him.

And as poverty is ridiculous, the parson, above all men, should be shielded from it. His power of service is instantly impaired by the mere suspicion of penury. He depends more than any other man upon the respect of his fellows, and for his sake it is the first duty of the Church to find a way out of the prevailing distress.

The Archbishop of York is wise to condemn a Royal Commission. That is not wanted, and would certainly be ineffectual. The Church knows, or should know, its own needs, and it should not be beyond its power to devise a scheme which would abolish the existing inequalities and ensure to every clergyman something more than the living (or dying) wage of perpetual poverty.

An Englishman.

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