Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome Roger Green back to the Parish Room last night, where nearly 40 guests came along to the first event of our new season; just like last year, they were not to be disappointed.
The talk began with background information on “The Curate”, as Roger deemed to call our hero, owing to the fact that names were repeated through the Wilkinson generations, whilst most surviving boy children went into the Church, further complicating matters.
The curate was the son of a clergyman and was educated at Worcester College Oxford, becoming a non-resident fellow until his first marriage, after which under college rules he had to leave. He had 4 sons, 3 of whom became clergymen, and produced a total of 9 children from two wives (the first dying in childbirth), who then produced 14 grand children, 8 of whom also became clergymen! Clearly clerical blood ran through family veins.
Henry became “Perpetual Curate” of St Peter's and of St Gregory's, in Sudbury, for more than 40 years from 1807 until his death in 1851, and early on he was involved in many reforms and improvements; as Roger noted, this included the following for St Peter's:
- Creation of a new vestry area;
- Replacing the wooden pole of the spire;
- Repairing the church clock;
- Enhancing the chimes to strike quarters;
- Providing a new folio prayer book for the minister and a quarto prayer book for the clerk;
- Repairing the large bible; and
- Providing bibles for the poor.
The curate was offered a position at Sudbury Grammar School but declined, because it was “incompatible with his views”, perhaps something to do with the Sudbury Divide between the mainly Tory high church and mainly Whig low church. Clearly Henry was a man of principle and, as it later turned out, much loved by his parishioners.
He was given the Freedom of Sudbury in 1825, and in 1831 became much involved in politics and the elections of that year. Roger went on to describe a situation where electors votes were bought by various means, with some interesting features not unlike those described by Dickens in ‘Pickwick Papers' and the election at Eatanswill.
The year 1816 should have been a good year for the curate as his wife Hannah (Keningale) gave birth to their first daughter and he was given the top clerical job in the parish. Sadly Hannah died following childbirth, aged just 35, whilst daughter Hannah Keningale Wilkinson had probably been affected by the presumably difficult childbirth, though this did not immediately manifest itself.
The second part of Roger's talk was devoted to the curious and sad tale of daughter Hannah, who was deemed to be unable to conduct her own life and had a childlike attitude to all circumstances. From available documents, Roger obtained the following description of her situation:
- The said Hannah Keningale Wilkinson is a person of mental weakness or imbecility, approaching to if not actually constituting unsoundness of mind, and her mental weakness or imbecility was and is constant and incurable;
- That from her earliest years the utmost attention was paid to her education, but that she never did nor could profit to the extent of qualifying her to take a suitable part even in the most ordinary concerns of life.”
- That after she had become a woman in point of years, her whole conduct and demeanour, and even her appearance, continued to be those of a child;
- That she could answer simple questions correctly, if not hurried or alarmed, but was quite incapable of anything like conversation, unless upon the most childish topics;
- That she was taught just to read and write, by means of great pains bestowed upon her, but never could be taught to acquire, so as to retain, the commonest rules of arithmetic”;
- That she never could be trusted with money, unless in very small sums, as she was incapable of understanding, and never could be taught to understand, either its use or its value; and
- That in such and all other respects it was manifest, on her attaining her majority, that she was unequal to the conduct of herself and her affairs, and that there was every prospect, even at that time, of her permanent continuation in that state”.
An unhappy state of affairs which was further complicated by the considerable bequest of £4,500 from her grandmother when she was just 7 years old - a sum worth more than half a million pounds in 2016 value. As Roger noted, her mental state was perhaps not properly realised at the time her grandmother wrote the will.
Hannah was to inherit when she reached the age of 21, which she did in May 1837, and from that date she was hugely wealthy and hugely vulnerable. Following a petition to the Lord Chancellor, Hannah was placed under the protection of a group of guardians at a cost of £140 p.a. for her “suitable maintenance and support” - presumably coming out of the bequest.
Interestingly all her guardians were male, reflecting the attitudes and customs of the times when, for example, women couldn't vote. At some point an impecunious seafaring cousin (also a Watts Wilkinson) effectively kidnapped Hannah, bore her off to a City Church and “married” her. When asked to say ‘I do' she allegedly said ‘no', but the assistant curate either didn't hear this or had been instructed to proceed nonetheless. Eventually, after considerable legal wrangling, the sham marriage was annulled and her “husband”, being unable to get his hands on her money, went back to sea, ending up in the Americas.
In 1845 Henry acquired another living at Walton-cum-Felixstowe, by slightly dubious means, where he created a fine Rectory from a farmhouse. For the rest of his life he divided his time between the two livings, which from Church records it appears his winters were mainly spent in Sudbury whilst his summers were mainly in Felixstowe - very sensible I say.
The Reverend Henry Watts Wilkinson did much good work in Sudbury and was very popular. He died aged 69 in 1851 and was buried in St. Peter's where parishioners put up a fine memorial to him, sadly now partly obscured by the organ frame, as ‘a tribute of affection to the memory of their faithful pastor'.
This, and much more, was described in entertaining and fascinating detail, with our audience being encouraged to hiss every time the villain of the piece (Watts Wilkinson) was mentioned - great stuff.
Our next event will be on 12th October at 7.30 in The Parish Room, Little Waldingfield, when Ian McLachlan, aviation archaeologist, historian, author of many books about the USAAF in the Second World War and “Force Historian”, will tell the history of the USAAF in East Anglia during the war in his greatly anticipated talk “Overpaid, Oversexed and Overhere”.
We look forward to welcoming guests new and old to the Parish Room for what unquestionably will be a truly fascinating evenings entertainment; for those wishing to come along, please be sure to book and pay for tickets well in advance, because this talk is likely to be extremely popular.
Andy Sheppard 22nd September 2016