Sad, Sinister & Strange (death, crime and mystery in Victorian Plaxtol): part three

This website is one year old today, and here to mark the occasion is a story from February 1869: the curious tale of ‘Reverend’ Richard Brown.

Richard ‘Dick’ Brown was a familiar figure in Plaxtol. His mother, an impoverished widow who scraped a living as a charwoman, sent him into service as soon as he was old enough, as a bootblack at Maidstone Grammar School.

'The Boot Black' by Charles Spencelayh
The Boot Black by Charles Spencelayh (1899)

When he was older, Brown went to work in the kitchens of St John’s Hall, Oxford, and from there he would sign his letters home ‘Richard Brown, BA’ (an abbreviation which may have stood for ‘Blacking Artist’ instead of the expected ‘Bachelor of Arts’ in his mischievous mind). On visits home Brown would go about the village and attend Sunday services in an undergraduate’s cap and gown, and paid frequent ministering visits to various labourers’ cottages in the parish, dressed in full surplice, hood and stole.

Surplice, hood and stole
A clergyman in surplice, hood and stole (from Directorium Anglicanum, 1858)

Brown must have served St John’s reasonably well (or perhaps they were simply keen to be rid of him), for it was on their recommendation that he was accepted as a lay brother of Canon Henry Frederick Beckett’s mission to the Orange Free State (properly named the Brotherhood of St Augustine of Hippo and consisting of the canon and seven brothers). He discussed his decision with the Reverend Watson King, incumbent curate of Plaxtol, who cautioned him against the vows implicit to such a ‘high church’ Anglican brotherhood. Brown was apparently unconcerned and on May 30th, 1867 he took ship with the rest of the party for South Africa.

Never one to merely accept the cards he had been dealt in life, Brown’s various letters, written on the last night before his voyage, were signed ‘The Very Rev. Richard Brown, Dean of Bloemfontein.’ Apparently Brown’s behaviour aboard ship was not what might have been expected: we can only guess as the nature of his indiscretions, which ‘gave occasion for severe reproof,’ but amongst his wilder claims was that he was engaged to be married to a wealthy young heiress – a revelation which surely cannot have sat well with the brothers.

The ship docked at Port Elizabeth on July 12th. Brown stayed with the mission for just one month before deserting them. Instead, he took up lodgings with a newly-arrived minister of the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Scotland named Girdwood, at King William’s Town in the Cape of Good Hope colony, and practised there as a Dissenting preacher. The mission’s arrival at Port Elizabeth had coincided with the departure, for an extended visit to England, of Henry Cotterill, Bishop of the Diocese of Grahamstown in Eastern Cape Province. So experienced a con man was Brown that he easily took advantage of the bishop’s absence and reinvented himself once more, this time as a Church of England deacon belonging to the Grahamstown diocese, in which guise he conducted church services and baptized infants.

Within two years South Africa had become too hot for Brown – probably in more ways than one. He boarded the sailing barque ‘Hero of the Nile’ in September 1868, bound for England.

Returning to the district of his birth and childhood, he found work as a footman – a domestic position traditionally filled by tall, good-looking young men – in the household of a local Justice of the Peace, to whom he applied with a ‘false character’ (faked references). It is not clear when he took this post, which he would leave shortly before Christmas, but in the short time that he was there he was sufficiently plausible and silver-tongued to persuade the lady’s maid to sew a clergyman’s hood for him, telling her that he meant to use it to have ‘some Christmas fun.’

At some point he began to pass himself off as an Oxford graduate and ordained clergyman once more, and to give out his address to new acquaintances as Stanley Grange, Plaxtol (the house now called simply The Grange). He could speak convincingly of the house, as his mother was a daily cleaner there and he had undoubtedly sneaked a look inside at some time. He even carried a photograph of a large house which he would readily show to anyone he met and describe as being his own.

The Grange in snow, February 2009
The Grange in snow, February 2009

Christmas 1868 saw the deacon ‘Reverend Brown’ standing in as a locum cleric at another nearby parish, conducting services on Christmas Day and for several Sundays afterwards and living at their rectory. He was credited with being a dignified and imposing figure, and was happily received to officiate, read prayers and preach sermons at services at a number of parishes around Sevenoaks. It was illegal for a clergyman or churchwarden to allow anyone to officiate without their first having presented proof of ordination (letters of orders), but Brown got around this by saying that although he had been ordained by Bishop Henry at Grahamstown, the papers had been lost during the voyage home.

When he realised that Brown was conducting services without the proper proof of ordination, Reverend King tried to intervene with his old parishioner. He wrote in his diary on January 25th:

I have warned Brown against taking any duty anywhere, and he has assured me he will not attempt to officiate until he is fortified by his letters and orders, and has Arch-Episcopal or Episcopal sanction, to officiate in any church.

Yet King was troubled. He reflected that it would have been almost impossible for Brown to have met Bishop Henry, and was even more convinced that the bishop (who had been a contemporary of his at Cambridge) would have even countenanced ordaining Brown.

The final straw seems to have been that, having given King his firm promise not to preach, Brown went immediately to another parish and held a service there the very next day. King felt that he had no choice but to warn his fellow churchmen of Brown’s deceit and duplicity. His open letter, published in the Maidstone & Kentish Journal and The Oxford Times, set out the facts as he knew them and commented that, ‘His present line of wickedness has its foundation in exorbitant vanity more than anything else.’

What followed was a verbose Victorian version of a Twitter spat. A correspondent signing himself ‘Layman’, who was apparently local and had some first hand knowledge of the affair, countered King’s allegations and was spirited in Brown’s defence. He criticised all of King’s assertions and wrote that King’s letter had been lacking in Christian charity.

Perhaps foolishly, King wrote again, defending his position and concluding, ‘And here, sir, I drop this correspondence, distressing on more accounts than one.’

But ‘Layman’ pressed on, defending and vindicating his own position by turns and observing:

I venture to state that, in this neighbourhood at least, the tone of the rev. gentleman’s letters has tended to excite a feeling of a different character to that which was intended to be produced.

But there was a sting in the tale for ‘Layman’: in the same February 20th edition of The Oxford Times there appeared a letter from James Galloway Cowan, vicar of St John’s Church, Hammersmith and Commissary to the Bishop of the Orange Free State (that is, Bishop Henry’s surrogate in London). He confirmed details of Brown’s time in South Africa, including the fact that at no time except on the Port Elizabeth pier had this coincided with Bishop Henry’s presence there. Indeed, during his time in England the bishop had learned of Brown’s defection from Canon Beckett’s party, from Bishop Twells of Cape Colony diocese, and had heard from other sources that Brown was passing himself of as a Grahamstown clergyman. But Cowan did not ask that anyone take his word for it: he had written to Bishop Henry, now back in South Africa, and undertook to publicise the bishop’s answer immediately upon the arrival of the South African mail.

At the end of May, Cowan had his answer: a signed, sworn and sealed statement from Bishop Henry, firmly declaring that Brown had never been ordained by him. This was duly published and there – apart from a ‘better late than never’ letter of caution in June to The Ecclesiastical Gazette from Reverend Hall of Knockholt, who had himself been duped by Brown – the matter rested.

By the end of in 1869, Watson King had been replaced at Plaxtol by Reverend James Tate, rector here until 1891. Of Brown himself, no more was heard.

Text and featured photo © New Moons For Old, 2016

Picture credits:

  1. Charles Spencelayh’s ‘The Boot Black’ was found on the Golden Age Paintings blog.
  2. The illustration of a clergyman’s robes came from the Directorium Anglicanum.


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