St George’s in the East, London
Today’s case is of a complaint about the hearing of a complaint and, if that is not confusing enough, the complaint was levelled against a magistrate who then refused to listen to it!
Unpacking the story I think what happened was this:
In very early January 1847 the sister of a man named as Haggerty Jenson threw herself off the London Dock and drowned in the Thames. Suicides such as this were all too common in the 1800s and the reports from the Police Courts regularly cover attempted suicides, almost all of them by women.
Haggerty Jenson then approached Reverend Bryan King, the rector of St George’s in the East , to arrange a funeral. His request was refused and Haggerty went to the Thames Police Court to complain to the sitting justice. The case was written in up in the newspaper where the rector was also accused of taking a fee and refusing to reimburse the family.
However, either the press seem to have misinterpreted the story or the one presented in court was not accurate, or at least did not fit the Rev. King’s version of events, and so he too went to the Thames Court to set the record straight. However, he probably went about it the wrong way.
He must have bristled with indignation as he stood before the magistrate to condemn the behaviour of his brother JP, a Mr Yardley. He told the bench that he had not refused Haggerty’s request and had certainly not taken his money.
The report in the paper was also wrong in recording the coroner’s verdict as ‘found drowned’. In fact the inquest had concluded that poor Miss Haggerty had thrown ‘herself into the waters of the London Dock, but in what state of mind she was at the time there was not sufficient evidence before the jury’.
When he had heard that verdict he despatched the parish clerk to inform Haggerty that ‘I could not, consistently with my sacred calling and the Christian feelings I possess, perform the burial rights’.
The Victorian church did not always bury suicides, and certainly not in the churchyard. In the early century those who took their own life were interred outside of graveyards, at crossroads, and sometimes even with a stake through their heart, and even after rules were relaxed suicides were still buried at night until 1882. It wasn’t until the change in Canon law in 2015 that the Anglican church allowed for the full rites to be given to those that had taken their own lives, another example if one is needed, of how slowly religion adapts to changing attitudes in society.
The rector stood before the magistrate at Thames railing against the actions of his fellow justice, and tried to thrust a copy of the newspaper at him before the ‘beak’ silenced him and said:
‘I am Mr. Yardley, the person you complain of…I think any person of common sense, on reading the report you complain of, would come to a very different conclusion to the one you have arrived at’.
The rector was not not done however and tried to press his complaint arguing that the press report was false and that Yardley had allowed its publication. The magistrate denied that he had anything to do with its publication (‘I deny it sir! It’s false!’, he responded).
More than this Yardley added that ‘I saw nothing in the report that was incorrect or unfair, and I shall not listen to anymore you say’. The Rev. King ‘hastily withdrew’, well beaten in that particular engagement.
Perhaps Mr Yardley reflected a changing attitude towards suicides or maybe he simply saw far too many poor young and desperate women come through his courtroom who could have ended up like Haggerty’s sister. He may of course have merely been outraged that someone was challenging his authority, and a rival authority figure at that.
St George’s in the East was one of the churches built in the 18th century to bring Christianity (and the Anglican form of it particularly) to the ‘Godless’ people of the East End. Designed (like Christ’s Church, Spitalfields) by Nicholas Hawksmoor it dominates the skyline along Cannon Street between Cable Street to the north and what was the notorious Ratcliffe Highway below.
In 1850 (a few years after Rev. King;s appearance in court) the Church appointed a lay preacher as rector at St George’s. This didn’t go down very well with the congregation. According to the London Encyclopaedia (Weinreb & Hibbert, 1983):
‘As a protest, there were catcalls and horn blowing, and some male members of the congregation went into the church smoking their pipes, keeping their hats on, and leading barking dogs. Refuse was thrown onto the altar. The church was closed for a while in 1859, and the rector, owing to his poor health, was persuaded by the author Tom Hughes [the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays] to hand over his duties to a locum’.
[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, January 10, 1847]