Off the subject of crime I cannot resist pursuing my second favourite topic: religion.
I am not a fan of atheism for all the wrong reasons. Religion is funny. The Chinese Parliament (communist, atheist) passed a law forbidding the Delai Lama to be reborn outside Tibet.
Religion was important in early Blackpool. The Town Council had a minister who would lead prayers before Council Meetings. Local religious were celebrities. Unfortunate journalists were sent to report on church services or the Primitive Methodist Tea Party. And never a critical word. The letters pages were filled with incomprehensible and enormously long letters about sacradotalism which was tremendously controversial in those days. Whatever. Apropos of nothing in particular Blackpool is the world centre of a religious cult but another time…
This is about three vicars.
Where to start? Church of England Minister, pugilist, geologist, historian, author, philanthropist, alcoholic , lunatic… William Thornber’s problem was that he was too alive.
Look at the Ordnance Survey Map for Blackpool and the Fylde and you will find a Roman Road from Kirkham to… well… somewhere. It was William Thornber who created that road. Probably. William Thornber managed to convince the Ordnance Survey that there was and since then it has appeared on OS Maps.
I digress. William Thornber was raised at Breck Road in Poulton. His father was a well to do solicitor. He went to Baines Free School and then to Giggleswick Grammar School where he was influenced by the ideas of William Paley an evangical Christian within the Church of England. He went to Trinity College and took Holy Orders.
What was he like? Six feet tall, enormously strong, an unmatched fighter he later floored a professional pugilist, landlord of the Albion. He had a restless enquiring mind. You might think that the Navy , or the Army would be more suitable for his – character. But he was also a scholar. At the turn of the nineteenth century the life of a vicar had a lot to recommend it. Free time, money, a nice house. The century from 1750 to say 1850 was the golden age of the English Vicar: many of them were eccentric scholars who used their free time… and income… to study fields such as archaeology or history: the Red Lady of Paviland was discovered by a 19th Century vicar, at that time the earliest human remains found in Britain, she was promptly declared a prostitute of the Roman Era although we now know she was a man long before the Roman Era. Vicars, prostitutes… but I digress.
William became the third vicar of St John the Evangelist in 1829. As it happens his father had been part of the committee planned and built the church. Looking back it is easy to forget that he was the Vicar for fifteen years. Blackpool’s population was 800 and William would have known every one of them and he delighted in stories and and memories. He also made a collection. Being present at deathbeds would have helped. William met nearly all Blackpool residents at birth, marriage and death he had enormous knowledge of the area. In 1838 he married Alice Banks. He was 28 and she was the 36 year old of Henry Banks… the Father of Blackpool. His brother in law was John Cocker. William Thornber had married into a thrusting , wealthy, entrepreneurial family…
It was not a happy marriage. Apologists have said that Alice drove William to drink but I don’t think he took much driving… And as for Alice well it can’t have been much fun being married to William.
Any road up and be that as it may and so on…
In 1837 William published the History of Blackpool and Its Surroundings. Erudite, brilliant, frustrating… Full of fascinating nuggets of information. Missing out the things we really want to know.
The most annoying ommission is information about the Greatrex murder of 1807. One of the most prominent landowners was murdered and nobody was apprehended. The population might have been 400. Now my guess is everybody knew who did it… I think more than one… And in this wrecking smuggling town nobody spoke to the authorities. But Thornber would have known… But then he was part of an effort to sell Blackpool as a holiday resort.
Alice had a son and a daughter.
William took to drinking with his buddy the Reverend Thomas Myers of St Pauls.
1838 WILLIAM THORNBER AND THE WRECKERS
In 1838 William scandalised his congregation by preaching a sermon against wrecking. Wrecking meant using lights to simulate a port or harbour. If there was a storm ships would head for harbour. If they saw lights on a stormy night they would head for them assuming that they were Skippool which had once been a greater port than Liverpool. There was a slight bay at Warbreck. Now the people of Blackpool were used to regular shipwrecks and it was looked on as a perk of living by the seashore. The wreck belonged to the Lord of the Manor… in this case Layton. So this is what happened: shipwreck, looting by local folk who are then driven away by the Lord of the Manor’s men. Ships would have a strong box and that would be the target for an experienced looter. Shipwrecks would happen from time to time… hundreds in the 18th and 19th Century. Local people benefitted and the drowned who were buried unnamed in Blackpool or Bispham. There is an ethical line between benefiting from shipwrecks and causing them… but… money . So on a dark and stormy night there would be lights and stricken ships would head towards them. For Blackpool people smuggling and wrecking were parts of life… So when William Thornber denounced them he was on thin ice.
Three events might have influenced William. His friend had drowned, a ship the Enterprise had been looted and Blackpool men had been imprisoned and William had it in for William Boucher who built Raikes Hall in 1760. The money came from a wreck. Or people said it did and it is a bit strange for a Kirkham man to build a stately home in a Blackpool that scarcely existed. The story is that William robbed two sisters who had drowned but could it have been a wreck called “Two Sisters? ”
That was the story and William Thornber, seems quite cross at William Boucher and takes spiteful pleasure in saying that God has punishes William Boucher by making his son believe that he (the son) is made out of glass.
William Thornber was popular with his congregation generally speaking. He was drinking and there were as a local historian says “darker rumours.” This is surely a sexual rumour and you want to waterboard local historians for their damned discretion. Please God let it be prostitutes.
So the Bishop investigates and William is suspended in 1843 and resigns in 1845.
WILLIAM THORNBER DO GOODER
William launched into a career of do-goodery. He was one of a group of bright young things… witty, quick-witted, modern-minded who were out to develop and modernise Blackpool and this fitted in with the agenda of Henry Banks and John Cocker.
William had plans to set up a Market which was established near the present Town Hall. Restless and furiously energetic it didn’t go unnoted by Henry Banks and John Cocker that William Thornber didn’t have an actual job. He bought the Beach House Hotel near the Tower Site. He fooled about with Freemasonry. He campaigned to have a lifeboat. He showed an aptitude for land deals. He had bought land for the church which proved outstanding value and in 1845 with John Cocker and Richard Banks he bought the Yates Estate in South Shore near Cocker Square. The railway arrrived in 1846. His deal with John Cocker and Richard Banks ended in bitterness.
In 1851 he joined the Local Board of Health a precursor to the Town Council where he campaigned for better sewage and water arrangements. He could be aggressive and he made enemies. He was not re-elected. In his journal he goes on about corruption and says that Blackpool’s Coat of Arms should feature crocodiles, grasping hands and the motto: “I was a stranger and you took me in.” An idea worth exploring.
He was living in Derby Road, possibly he had been moved there with the help of his son because he was becoming loopier. He had given boxing lessons in a barn off what is now Warley Road.
He escaped, decked a policeman sent to apprehend him and his son arranged for him to stay in a very modern enlightened asylum. So drink and madness the fate of local historians but what a geezer. If he were at St John’s today I’d be there.
He is buried at the East End of the Church with his long suffering wife and father in law. Nearby is an erratic… that is a rock carried to the beach by a glacier. I like to think William Thornber was an erratic.
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. J S BALMER.
J S Balmer
A completely different kind of cleric was J S Balmer. He was a nonconformist and his base was in Adelaide Street. Temperance was his passion which put him in contrast with Thornber. He had been born in Westmorland and corresponded with Ruskin and knew Wordsworth by sight.
He he was a gifted self-publicist. When the licensed victuallers visited Blackpool and were welcomed by the Mayor the Corporation and prayers were said by Anglican Clergy… Balmer went nuclear.
He made full on attacks on the Mayor, the Corporation and the Anglican Clergy. There was probably a kind of professional courtesy where clergy did not attack one another but Balmer named the Vicars.
The Winter Gardens and later the Tower benefited from selling alcohol to tourists. Balmer points out that the magistrates who sentence people for drunkenness provide the means for that drunkeness.
In addition Balmer is a fearless advocate of Sunday Observance. Now the Corporation runs trams on Sunday. And the Tower is open on Sunday. Balmer is in opposition to the Corporation. These themes provide the themes for his work: “Blackpool, Paris and Sodom.” “I feel as if I am being driven to Hell myself. By comparison with Blackpool Paris is sweet and Sodom was a Paradise.” He goes on to describe the suicide of eminent people such as Castlereagh whose death he attributes to neglecting the Sabbath. The French Revolution was probably caused by neglecting the Sabbath and he notes that several of those who have criticised him have passed away.
For all his combatativeness he is sensitive himself when a correspondant questions his familiarity with Paris… with an implication that he hung around brothels.
Balmer is surprisingly circumspect in the most obvious point of his criticism of Blackpool. Paris was to English people synonomous with prostitution which was a major industry in Blackpool. The Tower was an obvious imitation of Paris … the decor of Victorian Music Hall and theatre was Patrisian. Balmer quotes from the Chief Constables report that prostitutes of both sexes roam the dancing rooms of public houses. It is as if Balmer hasn’t got the language to talk directly about his obvious meaning. Blackpool = intemperance + non sunday observance= prostitution= the wrath of God.
THE TEA CONTROVERSY
When Alerman Bickerstaffe asked clergy to draw up lists of deserving poor parishoners to whom he would make a christmas gift of tea and sugar … he little expected that his offer would cause a blistering attack. But it did.
Bickerstaffe was a brewer among other things so his gift was financed by the sale of alcohol. Balmer claims that one of his flock said he would rather drink poison. I can’t help wondering if anyone really did say that.
A LAST CONFLICT…
Having taken on publicans and brewers and the Corporation Balmer managed to have a memorable row with… the Methodist Conference. Members were discussing a non-Conformist daily paper… a long held goal. The issue was how should such a paper report political matters especially Ireland and Irish Home Rule. The row led to unique headline: “Exciting scenes at Methodist Conference.”
AND THEN HE DIED…
Balmer lived to a good age and died. He was a controversialist and self-publicist. He was a Liberal in politics and the Corporation was Conservative. The local press was antagonistic. He claimed that violence was used to break up temperance meetings and that he received threatening letters. He thrived on argument and the fact that he was often in the news was a source of pride to his growing congregation. Religion as theatre? A marxist might say that he was competing financially with publicans and prostitutes and that Sunday Observance promoted a religious monopoly of Sunday and increased his income. And he was competing for the “God Pound” with fellow clerics. If you say he was a shade aggressive you also say that he did command attention and that his congregation were enormously and reliably entertained. If he was touting for business like a prostitute or a publican he did it well.
What was he like? You can hear the shrill tone of neuroticism insecurity and anxiety. His unembarrassed self-glorification together with belittling his opponents, a coyness regarding prostitution which is one of the themes of Blackpool and Paris and Sodom but scarcely mentioned, a combination of hyper-sensitivity and aggressiveness towards others. Freud visited Blackpool twice whilst Balmer was there…
There is a comic element: he looks at a pin-show on the pier called Paris scenes no doubt expecting views of Notre Dame… imagine his surprise… etc. Balmer had spent time in Paris and one letter hints that something more was going on. Balmer explodes in print. In real life he seems to have been more genial than his writing suggests. Highly strung and highly controlled (Hitler was such a person) a career as a preacher provides a theatre for anxieties.
At one point he compares himself with Jesus. He is buried in the non-conformist part of Layton Cemetery.
AND FINALLY THE RECTOR OF STIFFKEY
The Rector of Stiffkey
Nominative determinism? It is statistically true that people called Dennis are more likely to be dentists. Or think of Amy Winehouse. Remember that Freud visited Blackpool twice and possibly his techniques might owe something to the fortune tellers that he would have seen. Rector of Stiffkey? Really?
But I digress.
Harold Francis Davidson was born in 1875. Unlike many Anglican Vicars he had a successful career as an actor before he took Holy Orders. He was an eccentric and dim student. He had an interest in the poor and saved a girl from suicide. During the war he served as chaplain in the navy where to his surprise his wife had a baby during his long absence. He treated the child as his own and she was loyal to what must have been one of the most embarrassing parents in the history of the world.
He was appointed Rector of Stiffkey in Norfolk.
He found it hard to make end meet and further problems arose because he met and was ripped off by a con-man in a shares scam. In his parish he was popular with the farm labourers who he supported when landholders wanted to cut wages. He was not popular with the landowners and he picked loopy and grossly insensitive argument with a colonel, over the colonel maintaining his wife’s grave. He was careless about his parochial duties and annoyed another of his congregation by being late on Armistice Day. He was good at making the wrong enemies.
He was often busy in London saving fallen women. There is no evidence that he had any physical relationship with any of his women although he did invite them to stay at his vicarage. I like the answer he gave when asked why he focused on attractive women: “Because they are most at risk.” He was regarded as a nuisance by managers of Lyons Coffee Houses. Remember that the prostitute was becoming a kind of emblem for the late 19th Century… Gladstone used to bring them back to No 10 for a chat, Dickens was a prostitute botherer… it was in the air.
Rural Norfolk was feudal. A vicar was there to uphold the hierarchy not start a prostitute sanctuary.
When the Bishop of Norwich decided to act on complaints by landowners he performed a textbook example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Let us assume the Bishop’s aim was to prevent scandal. What happened was that the Rector of Stiffkey became the best known Anglican Clergyman in the World.
The Bishop of Norwich was e focused on establishing the Rector’s guilt not establishing facts.
The investigation spent a lot of money, employed private detectives, who trawled through the rector’s acquaintances and managed to find one who would confirm that the rector’s interests were not entirely clerical. But she was paid and promised a job.
It should have been a walkover… no evidence. There was however a photograph.
The rector was defrocked. One interpretation is that he had never been a full shilling and now he became a full on nutjob. Another is that he was utterly desperate for money having paid for his defence and lost his living and that he returned to his career as a showman to pay for his appeal. Or both. Maybe he did identify with Jesus… who was prosecuted by highly placed clerics.
The rector reverted to his previous career as a showman. He appeared in Blackpool where he would be seen by thousands of holidaymakers on the Golden Mile. He would calmly smoke his pipe while cotten workers paid pennies to see him. He told reporters that he hated the job but that he did it to finance his appeal. He was working for Luke Gannon a legendary impressario. The established entertainment industries… the Tower and the Winter Gardens loathed the Golden Mile which they saw as deflecting would-be customers. The Police acting for the Council arrested the Rector in 1935 for attempting suicide and he spent a couple of nights in jail. The Council’s case was presented by Trevor Jones the Council Clerk who actually did commit suicide when councillor’s financial arrangements were being examined.
After seasons in Blackpool the Rector went to Skegness where he appeared in a cage with lions. In July 1937 he accidentally stood on a lion’s tail and was fatally mauled.
Holy Fool? Naive and a showman and a victim of injustice? He had a massive funeral and is buried in his former parish at Stiffkey.